Wicked People in History: Attila the Hun

ATTILA THE HUN { 406 to 453 }
Attila, Hungary Museum

He was a man born into the world to shake the nations, the scourge of all lands, who in some way terrified all mankind by the dreadful rumors noised abroad concerning him. Jordanes, The Origin and Deeds of the Goths, 6thcentury Goth historian

The Huns were a group of nomadic people who originated east of the Volga River and migrated through Caucasus and into Europe establishing the Hunnic Empire.

Priscus of Panium, a 5thcentury Roman diplomat and Greek historian, who accompanied Maximinusof the Byzantine embassy, represented Emperor Theodosius the Younger, Emperor of Byzantine Empire on a diplomatic mission to the court of Attila. Priscus was the author of an eight-volume historical work, written in Greek, entitled History of Byzantium. His works survived in fragments and within those fragments we get much information about Attila the Hun.
Priscus mentions that the Huns had a language of their own, historians placing their language as branch of the Turkic language. Their main military strength was their mounted archers, who used a short composite bow that provided the power of an English Longbow, but shorter in order to use on horseback – able to penetrate armor of the enemy. They also used other techniques on horseback using ropes, sometimes a rope net to ensnare infantryman or a lasso to capture a warrior and drag them through their own ranks to their death. They used tactics that the Roman Empire’s troops could not understand or deal with in direct assault. The Huns were the contributing factor in the collapse of the western Roman Empire, losing its territory in the east to the marauding Huns.
Pope Leo and Attila
Attila called himself the Scourge of God [flagellum dei] who became a general and then a king unifying the nomadic Hun tribes into a mighty empire of looters and pillagers. In 433 Attila succeeded kingship of the Scythian hordes who had become disorganized by internal strife making them a united and formidable people to become the terror of Asia and Europe. Attila was not successful in a campaign in Persia in 441, but the invasion of the Eastern Roman Empire had become a success. Part of the reason was that the famous Roman army, the centurions and its cavalry were not as well equipped or trained as during the golden years of the Roman Empire.
Huns Invade Italy
In the spring of 452, Attila had destroyed Aquileiaand Lombard cities, and headed for the big price of Rome itself. Pope Leo Iand the Roman ambassadors were able to persuade Attila not to attack the capital of the Roman Empire. The appeal was sweetened with a large sum of gold to seal the deal.
Attila was feared in the Western and Eastern Roman Empire, where Huns crossed the Danube River two times and plundered the Balkans, but never took Constantinople. He also attempted to conquer Roman Gaul, now France, when he crossed the Rhine River in 451, defeated at the Battle of the Catalaunian Plains.
Priscus described Attila the Hun, as relayed by Jordanes, as an Asian who was:

Short of stature, with a broad chest and a large head; his eyes were small, his beard thin and sprinkled with grey; and he had a flat nose and tanned skin, showing evidence of his origin.

It is believed that Attila was a dwarf.
An account of the invasion of the Eastern Roman Empire was relayed by Callinicusin Life of Saint Hypatius

The barbarian nation of the Huns, which was in Thrace, became so great that more than a hundred cities were captured and Constantinople almost came into danger and most men fled from it. … And there were so many murders and blood-lettings that the dead could not be numbered. Ay, for they took captive the churches and monasteries and slew the monks and maidens in great numbers.

Battle of Chalons
The Romans became victorious when it gathered forces in alliance from the barbarian nations that had been ravaged by the Huns: Franks, Burgundians, Celts, and Visigoths were among the Roman allied armies. FlaviusAëtiusled the Visigoth-Roman army with mercenaries from the aforementioned tribes met at the Battle of Châlons and while Theodoric was killed in battle, Aëtius, had craftily gave the allusion to the Huns that his army was larger than it was. Whatever the details, Attila was defeated for the first time since he began to plunder and destroy cities in his wake.
Attila was forced to retreat from Italy because of a spread of plague and the Roman victory at Châlons. Hydatius wrote:

The Huns, who had been plundering Italy and who had also stormed a number of cities, were victims of divine punishment, being visited with heaven-sent disasters: famine and some kind of disaster. In addition, they were slaughtered by auxiliaries sent by the Emperor Marcianand led by Aetius, at the same time, they were crushed in their [home] settlements….Thus crushed, they made peace with the Romans and all retired to their homes.

After crossing back over the Danube River and returning to his palace, Attila planned to strike Constantinople again to regain the tribute that Marcian, successor of Theodosius, had stopped paying in 450. But while he plundered the Balkans, which had little left to offer, Attila died in the early months of 453 before his plan to attack Constantinople became a reality.
Priscus described the feast Attila was celebrating with the beautiful Ildico, [Gothic?] when after a night of heavy drinking, he suffered a nose bleed, choking to death in his own blood from an internal bleeding condition called esophageal varices. Other reports of his death, recorded 80 years later by the Roman, Count Marcellinusstated that:
Attila, King of the Huns and ravager of the provinces of Europe, was pierced by the hand and blade of his wife.
Hun horsemen galloped in circles around Attila’s tent singing a dirge, according to Cassiodorusand Jordanes. There was a great feast at his burial and legend states he was buried in a triple coffin made of gold, silver, and iron, as well as some of the treasures of his conquests. The coffin was buried under a river bed by diverting a section of the river, and then those who buried it were killed to keep the location secret. Attila’s sons fought over who would rule what, and the following year, in 454, the Huns were destroyed and scattered by the Ostrogothsat the Battle of Nedao.
Attila’s infamy was not from his victories as a conqueror, but by his methods of leadership – instilling fear by his enemies and a combined fear and loyalty from his Hunnic tribesmen.
He was short tempered and lived in an aggressive manner and even when he gained power and wealth, he remained living the simple life of a soldier while his lieutenants proffered the luxury they had obtained from their conquests. They ate off silver plates while Attila was content with eating off wooden plates as he had done all his life.
The first cities he plundered along the Danube River, Naissus [Serbia] being one of them, would remain uninhabitable years later, Roman ambassadors visiting to access and report the damage had to camp outside the city to keep away from the stench of rotting bodies left where they were slain. The death toll soon grew to an amount that was too numerous to count accurately as Attila and his horde plunged towards western Europe.
The Huns respected nothing as churches and monasteries of early Christianity were demolished and looted like any other building, slaying monks and virgins alike.
His ruthlessness fostered extreme fear by those few who survived and cities awaiting the arrival of the Huns could only hope to flee before Attila arrived.
Attila did not just reserve his insatiable thirst for human blood upon his enemies, but also against those who deserted or betrayed him in some way. Their fate would be impalement and other horrific torture – examples to those who might think they could betray Attila.
It is estimated that more than 100,000 died at the hands of Attila and his Huns and many more made either slaves or part of concubines of the victors. Only females would be spared, some killing themselves rather than being ravaged by the Huns.
Between Attila and the plague that ravaged Europe, the early Christians began to believe it was a punishment by God and it was the beginning of the superstitious age of the Medieval period called the “Dark Ages”, when enlightenment gave way to folk tales and superstition superseded reasoning.
See Also
Medieval Sourcebook: Attila the Hun 448.