The name Attila the Hun is familiar even to those who have no idea who he was, inspiring a sense of ruthlessness, savagery and barbarism even today.
Called the “Scourge of God” by the Romans, Attila the Hun was the ruler of the Hun Empire from 433 to 453 AD. Surprisingly, there is less information on both Attila and the Hun Empire than there is of older, more isolated civilizations. Our chief source of knowledge about them stems from three individuals; Priscus, a 5th century historian and contemporary of Attila, Ammianus Marcellinus, a 4th century Roman historian who chronicled the history of Rome from 96 to 378 AD, and Jordanes, a 6th century Roman bureaucrat turned historian.
The First Huns Arrive in Europe
The Huns are believed to have originated in Eurasia. Migrating into Europe in 370 AD, appearing from beyond the Volga (the national river of Russia), the Hun Empire built an enormous kingdom centered in modern-day Hungary.
Herders of cattle, goats and sheep, the Huns wore protective goat skin leggings and in battle, they utilized the bow and spear with tips made of bone. The Huns were horsemen, sword men, and accomplished archers. Dwelling in tents placed on wagons, the Huns were accustomed to harsh elements, hunger and thirst. Their clothes were linen and skins of wood mice stitched together. They wore their clothing till reduced to rags before replacing it. On their heads, they wore round furry caps.
Enjoying and utilizing the terror their very countenance inspired, the Huns strapped their children’s noses at an early age to flatten them and widen their faces, increasing their appearance of ferocity. Several Hun skulls show evidence of deformation as a result of this head-binding at an early age. In addition, they engaged in self-mutilation, gashing their cheeks with their swords and daggers. This was also done as a tribute of grief to signify a woman’s tears inadequate in mourning. Blood was a more honorable gesture.
Living on their horses as others lived on the land, the Huns were ferocious in battle, using blood-curdling war-cries to enhance their fearsome presence. From a distance, they fought with missile weapons skillfully studded with sharp bones. At close range, they attacked with sword and a lasso intended to entangle the limbs of the soldier parrying the attack. Their swords were long, straight and double edged, hung vertically from their belts. Across their stomach they carried a dagger hung horizontally. Gilded bows and sword and dagger grips decorated with gold were status symbols.
Marcellinus states they were as ignorant and irrational as animals, obscure in speech, influenced by no religious or superstitious fear.
Attila the Hun and the Attack on Rome
Attila the Hun inherited the Hun Empire in 433 AD from his uncle, Rua, and co-ruled with his brother, Bleda, who died 12 years later intimated by many as murdered by Attila. Having inherited the disorganized, and internally strife-ridden Scythian hordes, Attila the Hun’s first agenda was to unite his subjects and whip them into one of the most formidable and feared armies Europe had ever seen. At the time of the brothers’ accession, the Hun tribes were bargaining with Theodosius II of Eastern Rome for the return of renegades seeking refuge within the Roman Empire. After a successful treaty in 434 AD, Theodosius II having doubled the tribute of gold in exchange for peace (a tribute implemented by Rua), the Huns withdrew to the Hungarian Great Plain. Theodosius II used the opportunity to strengthen Constantinople’s walls. But peace was not long-lived.
In 440 AD, the Huns reappeared on the borders of the Roman Empire, slaughtering the merchants of a market on the Danube. In Margus, they demanded the Romans turn over a bishop who had property Attila regarded as his. While the Romans discussed this, the bishop slipped away to the Huns and betrayed the city to them.
In a daring move, Theodosius II sent the majority of his troops to Roman Carthage in 441 AD to depose the Vandals who’d taken control, inadvertently leaving the Huns free to capture Roman towns. Theodosius no doubt felt this necessary as Carthage was Rome’s main food source. To quell the Hun attacks, the gold tribute was again doubled to 1400 pounds. But In 444 AD, having strengthened his cities, Theodosius refused to pay.
In 447 AD, Attila the Hun seized the Balkans and threatened an earthquake-ravaged Constantinople, upping the tribute to 6,000 pounds of gold in back-tribute and 2,100 pounds annually. Hun deserters were returned to Attila who had them impaled.
Forging an alliance with the Franks and Vandals in 451 AD, Attila unleashed his long-threatened attack on Western Europe. After pillaging a broad range of cities in his path, he was near obtaining the surrender of Orleans when the combined Roman and Visigoth armies arrived and, at the battle at Chalons, forced Attila’s retreat to the northeast. Attila then launched a devastating campaign in Italy.
Attila the Hun was described as short with a broad chest, large head, disproportionately small eyes and a flat nose. Of dark complexion, his beard was flecked with gray. Under his leadership the Huns marched a thousand miles across Europe. A brilliant commander, Attila was one of the most frightening enemies ever faced by the Romans. In lightning raids his army destroyed dozens of prosperous and wealthy cities that had remained secure for centuries and even threatened Rome, the Eternal City, itself.
Death of Attila the Hun
Attila’s death in 453 AD was surprising, dying not on the battlefield but in bed with his new wife on their wedding night, choking on the blood of a massive nosebleed while unconscious. Many suspect his new bride was involved.
Attila the Hun was reportedly buried in three separate coffins of gold, silver and iron bedecked with magnificent gifts from the Roman Emperors to buy off an enemy they’d repeatedly failed to defeat. The servants who prepared the burial were killed so they couldn’t reveal its location. This was part of the “strava” or funeral rite, and thanks to Priscus the only Hun word to have survived.