Few men in the annals of history inspire such horrific infamy as Attila and the Huns.
Although the Huns had swept down from the Steppes of Asia onto the western edges of the
Roman Empire as early as the late fourth century, it was not until some time after 435, that Attila became leader of the Huns. This transition would prove to mark the beginning of what would be one of the greatest death blows to the already ailing Roman Empire. For under Attila, the Huns would ravage the European continent to such an extent never felt before and almost unparalleled since. As a precursor to the aggressive and fierce campaign Attila would one day let loose on Europe, the Huns had established themselves with the reputations of biblical monsters amongst the Europeans. Known for mastering the art of horseback riding and their bloodthirsty savagery in battle, the Huns were a force to be reckoned with. Stout in stature, bow-legged (from constantly being on their horses)in stance, and mantled with grotesquely scared faces (purposely done at birth to inspire fear into the hearts of their enemies), the Huns proved to be just as savage in appearance, as they were in action.
Since their arrival in the west, the Huns had from the outset, caused an unsettling of nerves as well as peoples. In 372 AD, the Huns destroyed the Ostrogothic Empire of Hermanic, and temporarily absorbed these eastern Goths, into their own population.
Next they let loose on the Visigoths, under Athanaric on the Dniester River, and forced them to flee into the Roman Empire. This event marked the first time a peoples had ever been forced into mass migration. It is also, more important to note, signified the beginning of a barbarian presence in the Roman Empire that would eventually not be so much assimilated, as it would dominate.
The Huns crossed the Carpathian Mountains, and setup their so-called 'headquarters' on the Great Hungarian Plain. It was from this vantage point that they would eventually raid southward into the Balkans, and westward into Italy and Gaul. Also, it was the place where, in just after the year 400 AD, a Hunnic ruler by the name of Munzak, bore a son, whom he named Attila (Attila being the hunnic word for 'iron'). Munzak, however, soon died after the birth of his son, which meant it was up to Munzak's brother Ruga to raise both Attila and his older brother Bleda. Attila's uncle taught him to ride a horse before he could even walk, and use both a bow and a saber, before the age of five. It was also in Attila's youth, around 410 AD, that he would befriend a prominent young Roman citizen, whom had been sent to the Hunnic court as a sign of peace between the Romans and Huns. The name of this boy was Flavius Aetius, a name not to be soon forgotten. Before long though, Attila was sent to the court of the Western Roman Empire, to live as a hostage himself. There, he learned the Roman's language, culture and military tactics, all of which would be of great importance later on in Attila's future campaigns against the Roman Empire. It was also while Attila lived here, amongst the Romans, that he learned to despise their decadent and excessive lifestyles. In 420 AD, Attila departed back for his homeland, with much knowledge of the Roman civilization.
During Attila's 20s and 30s, he fought as a respected warrior in his uncle Ruga's army, and by the time Attila had reached the age of 32, he had already invaded Italy twice. Both times however, it is important to note, were done in aid of his boyhood friend Aetius. Attila was of course handsomely paid for his services in fending off the Visigoths, but it was Aetius who gained the most, for he won the powerful position as the Master of Soldiers in Rome.
By the time of Attila's accession as the leader of his own people in 433 AD, however, his aggressive and ambitious barbarian nature, was personally restrained in action.
Due to this, he was rather quite impressive in council, and was not to be considered a savage by any means, except for his looks. Indeed, after his accession to the throne, "his head, rather than his hand, achieved the conquest of the North; and the fame of an adventurous soldier was usefully exchanged for that of a prudent and successful general." It is more likely then, that Attila gained such a vicious reputation as being the "Scourge of God" through several other contributing factors. For one, Attila epitomized the quintessential Hun. He as did all Huns, looked different, acted different and lived different than any known peoples of that time in Europe. The Huns were barbarian, even to the barbarians, and it is for this reason, a clash of cultures so to say, that they were viewed as being almost sub-human. Another reason for Attila's bad image was due to the anti-Hun propaganda, that the church had been spreading throughout the Roman Empire. This created horror stories of a demon-man, to which many people became horrified. A final, and notably substantial reason for Attila's besmirched image, was due to the way the Huns treated their enemies. They burned and looted towns, raped, killed and beat the inhabitants, and raised churches and monasteries without remorse. Although this was an indeed brutal and different way of waging battle, it was purposely done for the demoralizing psychological effect it gave. Hence, a menacing image made it easier to intimidate ones enemies.
Attila, himself was a rather humble man, who although was surrounded by wealth, never showed it. He lived in clean but very 'plain' quarters, and "in everything else he showed himself temperate; his cup was of wood, while to the guests were given goblets of gold and silver. His dress, too, was quite simple, affecting only to be clean. The sword he carried at his side, the latchets of his Scythian shoes, the bridle of his horse were not adorned . . .". This aversion towards decadencey, could probably be attributed to the disgust he felt of living in excess which he got while living in Rome as a young boy. He saw how it weakened the Roman Empire, and thus took personal precautions to avoid contaminating himself with such an exorbitant lifestyle. Attila may have also been displaying that he felt himself no better than any other man of whom he ruled over.
Attila's first decision as partial leader of the Huns, was to demand double the annual subsidy from the Eastern Emperor, Theodosius II, which had been normally collected up to that time. These subsidies were little more than subtle forms of extortion, yet as what would become usual, Attila got what he demanded. Peace between the Eastern Roman Empire and the Huns was extremely fragile, and it only took specific instances to shatter that peace. Such as what happened in 440 AD, when a Roman bishop was caught stealing artifacts from buried Hun dead. The Huns under Attila and Bleda, crossed the Danube in the Eastern Empire, and by 442 AD had made it as far as Thrace, until they were halted by the great Eastern Roman general, Aspar. Peace was finally agreed upon with the Eastern Roman Emperor, Theodosius II, but only at an initial cost of six thousand pounds of gold, and an annual cost of one thousand pounds of gold, all at the Romans expense. In 444 AD, Attila's brother Bleda died, which left him solely in charge of the Huns. In 447 AD, Attila again attacked the Eastern Empire, however this time he had managed to conquer the entirety of the Balkans (i.e. present day Greece, Bulgaria, and the former Yugoslavia). A peace treaty was again drawn up, this time however, as was to be expected, Attila demanded more gold, 2, 100 pounds worth, which he would receive annually.
With the east thus being subjugated, Attila turned towards the west in the 440's, for future conquest. Attila had amassed an army made up of numerous barbarian tribes and ethnic groups, including many Romans. The core of Attila's army was nonetheless, still made up solely of the infamous mounted calvary that was a staple of the Huns success up to that time. The Huns were masters of rapid and brutal warfare. They could strike anywhere at almost any given time, due to their mounted mobility. They would ride up on their enemies and from a safe distance let loose a volley of arrows that blackened the skies. Attached to these arrows were whistles that screamed through the darkened sky, creating a menacing psychological effect on their victims. The Huns would then retreat for a distance, and then suddenly turn back on their pursuers, who were caught off guard. From there, the Hunnic infantry would make short work of their prey, due, if not to their skill in combat, then simply to their sheer numbers. Estimates of Attila's army range from as low as 50, 000 to as high as half a million in number.
Attila set his expansionist sights next on the province of Gaul. Although still considered to be under Roman rule, Gaul had long been overrun by barbarian tribes. Nevertheless, many large Roman cities still existed throughout the province, ripe for the taking. Attila, who had become a shrewd negotiator and benevolent ruler, thought it somewhat necessary to find a substantial reason for invading the West. He got that reason from the Western Emperor, Valentinian III's sister, Honoria. Honoria had been caught in a love affair with her steward, who had been subsequently executed. Honoria was kept in seclusion, and it was from there that she managed to have her ring smuggled out to Attila, asking for his aid. Attila took this as a marriage proposal, and in return asked/demanded that he receive half of the Western Empire as a dowry. For Attila, this was the perfect opportunity to take Gaul. So, in 451 AD, Attila crossed the Rhine with his army of Huns, Ostrogoths, Burgundians, Alans, and other small tribal factions, using Honoria as a rouse for taking Gaul. Before long, the cities of Metz, Rhemis, Mainz, Strasbourg, Cologne, Worms, and Trier, were all sacked and burned. For unknown reasons, Attila spared Paris, although some believe it was because the city harboured St. Genvieve. Attila believed in karma and soothsayers, which probably lead him to believe attacking Paris, would be bad luck. Next, Attila turned towards the Champagne region of Gaul, which held the Roman city of Orleans. The city was put to siege, but to Attila's unexpected surprise, Aetius had shown up, with a force of upwards of 50, 000 men, which he had managed to put together, of Celts, Visigoths, Franks, Burgundians and Romans. All of these tribes which had been the traditional enemies of Rome, had now temporarily aligned into one massive force, in order to take out the marauding Attila. The siege on Orleans was halted, and Attila and his men retreated out onto the Catalonian Plains near Chalons, were one of the greatest battles of history took place. Aetius struck down hard against his former ally. The Roman leader along with the Visigothic King, Theodoric, managed to envelope the Hunnic forces on both sides, and in doing so, stole the Huns of their greatest weapon, which was the mobility of their calvary. Confounded by heavy losses, Attila prepared for his demise by having a funeral pyre set up to have himself burned alive, in the event of his conceivable defeat. Aetius however let him retreat, for his side too, had suffered great losses, and it was also his intention to maintain order by keeping the barbarians of Gaul united behind Rome.
The Huns continued their long retreat across the Rhine, and marched vengefully over the Julian Alps, through a harsh winter. The Huns by this point were down, but definitely not beaten, for "War has long been their industry, and defeat has not dampened their spirits or drive.". In 452 AD, Attila set out to re-make his claim on Honoria, and entered Italy with an unbridled fury. His first target was the great city of Aquileia, which he laid siege to for three long months. When he entered it, he and his warriors raised it to the ground and paid special attention to destroying the city's magnificent harbour. The city's inhabitants fled to the marshes, where the Huns dared not tread, for the soft ground was too unstable for their horses. The fugitives established a new city which they named Venne Atsium (trans.- "I made it this far."), or as it is presently known today - Venice. From that point, Attila and his men continued to ravage the Northern Italian country side, giving rise to the Roman belief that they were the 'horsemen of the Apocalypse'. Despite this initial momentum, three major events halted Attila's advances into Italy, before he could do any more damage. The first being that a bad case of malaria had broken out amongst his men, which weakened his power substantially. Secondly, food shortages due to an Italian famine which had occurred in the previous years of 450-451 AD, had weakened his forces even further. Finally, the Eastern Emperor Marcian, had sent out troops across the Danube, to attack the Huns territory in the Great Hungarian Plains. This caused Attila's attention to be diverted from his present course of action, to what was going on back at 'home'. Fate, however, would spare Attila once again.
In 452 AD, the Western Roman Emperor unwittingly sued for peace. Pope Leo I, was sent out along with an embassy from Rome, to meet with Attila. Roman legend claims that the heathen Hunnic King turned back due to the eloquence of the Pope, and the warnings that he gave Attila of a possible divine intervention by God, had Attila wished to pursue his present course of action. What is more likely to have occurred though, is that Attila agreed to peace due to his weakened position and also due to a large subsidy that he was more than likely paid by the Emperor. Thus, Attila and his men rode off in 453 AD, laden down with the bounty they had occurred both from the great cities they had sacked, as well as from the treasure they were paid off by. Attila's castle at Estagrom-gron, on the banks of the Danube in Hungary was to be the sight of a large party, held both in triumph of the Huns conquests, as well as in honour of Attila's recent marriage to Ildico, the daughter of a Germanic prince. This was to be Attila's last appearance though, for that night he died asleep in his drunkenness - drowned on his own nosebleed.
Attila was buried in a tomb lined with lead, which represented his conquests, as well as gold and silver, which represented the tribute he received from both Roman Empires. His tomb was laid to permanently rest at the bottom of the Theiss River in Hungry. Attila's saddle, clothes, and weapons, on the other hand were burned while a group of the Huns best horsemen circled around, and looking on "having cut their faces deep with knives, so that they may mourn the great warrior not with tears, but with the blood of men.".
Attila had had many sons, but as they all wrestled for power after their father's death, the Hunnic Empire fell to pieces around them. Even Attila's favorite son Ernoch, who had been chosen by a great Hun prophet, to raise the Hunnic Empire back up after his father's death, was to become of nothing. Thus, by the year 469 AD, the great Hunnic Confederation, had virtually "scattered to the winds". In conclusion, the Huns under their most formidable leader Attila, combined to sap one of the greatest civilizations ever, of both its wealth and pride. In war, Attila's fury was unparalleled, and even when calm, the peace agreements he made were corrosive. Punishing the Romans for becoming weak and living such decadent lifestyles, the best epitaph for Attila, may just be the one written on a 1500 year old fresco on a monastery wall in Pavia, Italy, which reads, Attila the Hun - 'Flagellum Dei' - the Scourge of God. a friend.