By special guest writer Joseph Kaminski
Attila was the ruler of the Huns from 434 until his death in 453. Leading the Hunnic Empire, he became the most feared enemy of both Roman Empires and, for the most part, the entire civilized world.
But, don’t let me describe just how the classical world saw this barbaric man. Here’s how Jordanes, a Roman bureaucrat from the 6th century who dedicated his later life to history, cited Priscus, a 5th century Roman diplomat and Greek historian. This second-hand source is one of the best descriptions of Attila the Hun:
“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. He was haughty in his walk, rolling his eyes hither and thither, so that the power of his proud spirit appeared in the movement of his body. He was indeed a lover of war, yet restrained in action, mighty in counsel, gracious to suppliants and lenient to those who were once received into his protection. 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”.
All we know of Attila the Hun is sources – many of which are secondary – written in Greek and Latin by the enemies of the Huns. History leaves a rather biased record for Attila himself, which brings me back to the point of why we see the Huns as barbaric. History, recorded by the ‘victors’ of ‘civilized tongue’, has a rather barbaric viewpoint towards the man, the legend, of Attila the Hun.
Just for the record, though; Attila’s men did leave testimonials of his life. But history was not as kind to these sources, as only a few fragments of their words remain legible. The source provided here on Attila the Hun’s image is completely biased, written by political position and by the other side of the story. The original works written by Priscus is fragmented, and what we’ve managed to put together is the second-hand citations written by Jordanes within the 6th century.
Attila wasn’t always the sole ruler of the Huns, however. He ruled with his brother, Bleda, after their uncle Rugila died. In 435, the Hunnic brothers forced the Eastern Roman Empire to sign the Treaty of Margus. This treaty gave the Huns complete trading rights and an annual tribute from the Roman Empire. Within this treaty, the Romans also agreed to give up all the Hunnic refugees (the Huns that committed treason to Attila and Bleda by threatening their grip on power) for execution.
Materialistic gain wasn’t all the Huns got out of the Treaty of Margus, however. With their southern border completely protected because of it, the Huns were able to turn their full attention to the scattered tribes of the west, allowing them to conquer even more people and spread their influence further.
But, maybe the Huns were barbaric after all. The Huns managed to breach the treaty less than five years after its creation. In 440 Attila and Bleda attacked a Roman fortress on the banks of the Danube. The Eastern Romans immediately stopped the delivery of agreed tributes and ended the conditions of the treaty that had only recently been established. The Hunnic kings immediately turned their militaristic forces back upon the Eastern Romans, creating tension between the two kingdoms once more. War broke out, and the Huns were quick to overcome a weakened Roman military. The Cities of Margus, Singidunum and Viminacium were all quickly razed to the ground.
The Eastern Romans were quick to sign a truce in 441; but less than two years afterwards they found themselves in war again after Constantinople was unable to deliver the promised tribute. In the following campaign, the Hunnic armies came incredibly close to the capital, Constantinople.
They managed to loot and sack many mercantile cities along the way before the Eastern Roman Emperor Theodosius II broke down and signed the Peace of Anatolius in 443 CE.
The feast of Attila by Mor Than (1870) shows Attila overseeing his opulent court. He sits on his throne in an authoritative state, as sole ruler of the Hunnic empire, while at the same time lavishing responsibility on his son for the future? Curiously in the foreground on the right, sits Priscus, a Roman diplomat, scholar, writer and the only person to have met Attila and written a detail account of his life.
Attila’s brother Bleda died in 445 CE. Historians oftentimes speculate that he was murdered by Attila, who was aching for more power than he already had. With Bleda out of the picture, Attila established undisputed and authoritative control over the entire Hunnic Empire.
He managed to focus on his empire for around two years, working on internal issues and mandating himself as true authority, before returning to the Eastern Roman Empire once again in 447 CE.
The Eastern Romans were having internal problems – from famine to plague to riots to a series of earthquakes that struck Constantinople. Attila saw this and realized this was his chance to do as much damage as possible. His invasion of the Balkans and eventually Thrace were completely devastating.
The Huns were the victors. They went from being a thorn in the Roman side to an absolutely crippling force that could easily destroy them in a moment’s notice!
But, the Huns found themselves retreating due to disease. The war came to an end in 449 with the Romans agreeing to pay Attila an annual tribute of 2,100 pounds of gold. This is one of the more interesting aspects of the Hunnic history, as we actually have a first-hand account recorded. Priscus, an official within the actual peace embassy to Attila, wrote down the details of the truce.
The Romans completely understood that had there not been any disease roaming throughout the land, the Huns would have easily crushed them.
Attila set his site on Gaul, the ancient territory of France, in 451. He picked up strewn out tribes full of Franks, Goths, and Burgundians along the way. His armies continued westwards, passing both Paris and Troyes to lay siege on the wealthy Orleans.
The following year, Attila lead his horde across the Alps and into Italy, sacking and razing many of the important Italian cities to the north. Emperor Valentinian III, in fear of Attila reaching Rome, sent three envoys (including Pope Leo I) to meet Attila at Mincio.
After many days of proposition, the Romans managed to get Attila to promise he and his troops would withdraw from Italy to negotiate peace. According to historical records, Pope Leo I did most of the successful negotiation between the Romans and the Huns.
But, once again, we have to ask history if it was really the Romans that managed to send Attila away. Before Attila made it to Italy, many local farmers had suffered from a deadly famine. Attila’s sacking and razing did not improve the yearly harvest. Attila, hence, faced heavy human and natural pressures to leave Italy. He took Leo I’s negotiations into consideration, and most likely decided it would be best for him to leave before his men began starving from the lack of local crops.
Thus, in history, we have to ask if the barbarians were never defeated by ‘civilized’ men of Europe. Perhaps the barbarians were only defeated by mother nature, and perhaps fate itself.
What happened to Attila on the night of his wedding to IIdico? Does his young wife’s shocked state hint of foul play or just simply a case of some sort of disastrous collapse?
The new Eastern Roman Emperor Marcian then halted all tribute payments, figuring that the empire would manage to be safe with or without guaranteed protection from the Hunnic barbarians as he was too preoccupied with the West. Attila attempted to immediately mobilize an attack on the gates of Constantinople. However, in 453 he married a girl with the Germanic name Ildico, and he died on his wedding night.
History squabbles about Attila’s cause of death, too. Some sources claim he suffered a severe nosebleed and choked to death. Some claim he succumbed to internal bleeding after heavily drinking in celebration of his marriage. Some claim he died of a hemorrhage, which seems to be the most agreed upon end for the barbarian that shook the gates of Europe for decades.
After Attila’s death, while his three sons fought for the throne, his former clansmen united under Ardaric, the leader of the Gepids (a closely related subdivision of the Gothic people). An internal civil war between the Gepids and the Huns occurred at the Battle of Nedao in 454, putting an end to the European aspects of Hunnic supremacy. The Huns would soon disappear from all contemporary historical records afterwards.
The Great Barbarians were destroyed not by any civilized society.
The Great Barbarians weren’t destroyed by disease or famine, either.
The Great Barbarians weren’t destroyed by anything but themselves.
Joseph Kaminski is a writer, historian and a political activist. He is also an advocate for suicide prevention. Joseph keeps himself very busy and writes an amazing blog on history-related articles, politics and more. His website is josephkaminski.org . You can also discover the latest news from Joseph via his twitter account @publishingminds.