Attila the Hun Biography

Attila the Hun Biography
Attila the Hun (A.D. 406-453), king of the Huns and often referred to as the "Scourge of God", invaded Europe (441 - 452).


In Attila's boyhood, the Huns comprised a group of nomadic people living to the east of the Volga river in separate tribes. Rua united them under his sole kingship by 432. In 434, Attila, the nephew of Rua, gained control over all Hun tribes together with his brother Bleda, whom he murdered in 445.

The Hun forces invaded the Balkans in 441, while Vandal and Persian conflicts distracted the Roman armies. After a short period of peace, Attila invaded Gaul with an army reputed to be half a million strong, but Aetius ("last of the Romans") with Visigothic and Bugundian allies defeated him at the Battle of Chalons (20 September 451). Attila then turned back and began to invade Italy in 452. He withdrew from capturing Rome, possibly because of shortages of goods and a pestilence, though according to tradition because a meeting with Pope Leo I the Great awed him.

Attila the Hun died after a nasal hemorrhage and his sons divided his empire amongst themselves. After his death, he lived on as a legendary figure: the character of Etzel in the Nibelungenlied (or Atli in the Volsunga Saga) possibly represent Attila.
"Attila" and "Ildikó (Attila married Ildikó just before he died) still feature as popular names in Hungary.


The European Huns are often thought to have been a western extension of the Xiongnu (Xiōngnú), (匈奴) n., a group of nomad tribes from north-eastern China and Central Asia. These people achieved military superiority over their rivals (most of them highly cultured and civilized) by their state of readiness for combat, amazing mobility, and weapons like the Hun bow.

Attila the Hun Biography

Attila the Hun was born around 406. Nothing certain is known about his childhood; the supposition that at a young age he was already a capable leader and a capable warrior is reasonable but unknowable.

Following negotiation of peace terms in 418, the young Atilla, at the age of 12, was sent as a child hostage to the Roman court of Emperor Honorius. In return, the Huns received Flavius Aetius, in a child hostage exchange arranged by the Romans.

Most likely the empire schooled Attila in its courts, customs and traditions and in its luxurious lifestyle, in the hope that he would carry an appreciation of these things back to his own nation, thus serving to extend Roman influence. The Huns would probably have hoped that Attila would enhance espionage capabilities by the exchange.

Attila the Hun attempted escape during his stay in Rome but failed. He turned his attention to an intense study of the empire while outwardly ceasing to struggle against his hostage status. He studied the internal and foreign policies of the Romans. He often secretly observed them in diplomatic conference with foreign ministers. He learned about leadership, protocol and other essentials suited to future rulers and diplomats.

The Hunnish empire stretched from the steppes of Central Asia into modern Germany, and from the Danube river to the Baltic SeaBy 432, the Huns were united under Ruga. In 434 Ruga died, leaving his nephews Attila and Bleda, the sons of his brother Mundjuk, in control over all the united Hun tribes. At the time of their accession, the Huns were bargaining with Theodosius II's envoys over the return of several renegade tribes who had taken refuge within the Byzantine Empire. The following year, Attila and Bleda met with the imperial legation at Margus (present-day Požarevac) and, all seated on horseback in the Hunnic manner, negotiated a successful treaty: the Romans agreed not only to return the fugitive tribes (who had been a welcome aid against the Vandals), but also to double their previous tribute of 350 Roman pounds (ca. 114.5 kg) of gold, open their markets to Hunnish traders, and pay a ransom of eight solidi for each Roman taken prisoner by the Huns. The Huns, satisfied with the treaty, decamped from the empire and departed into the interior of the continent, perhaps to consolidate and strengthen their empire. Theodosius used this opportunity to strengthen the walls of Constantinople, building the city's first sea wall, and to build up his border defenses along the Danube.

The Huns remained out of Roman sight for the next five years. During this time, they were conducting an invasion of the Persian Empire. However, in Armenia, a Persian counterattack resulted in a defeat for Attila and Bleda, and they ceased their efforts to conquer Persia. In 440, they reappeared on the borders of the empire, attacking the merchants at the market on the north bank of the Danube that had been arranged for by the treaty. Attila and Bleda threatened further war, claiming that the Romans had failed to fulfil their treaty obligations and that the bishop of Margus (not far from modern Belgrade) had crossed the Danube to ransack and desecrate the royal Hun graves on the Danube's north bank. They crossed the Danube and laid waste to Illyrian cities and forts on the river, among them, according to Priscus, Viminacium, which was a city of the Moesians in Illyria. Their advance began at Margus, for when the Romans discussed handing over the offending bishop, he slipped away secretly to the barbarians and betrayed the city to them.

Theodosius had stripped the river's defenses in response to the Vandal Geiseric's capture of Carthage in 440 and the Sassanid Yazdegerd II's invasion of Armenia in 441. This left Attila and Bleda a clear path through Illyria into the Balkans, which they invaded in 441. The Hunnish army, having sacked Margus and Viminacium, took Sigindunum (modern Belgrade) and Sirmium before halting its operations. A lull followed during 442, when Theodosius recalled his troops from North Africa and ordered a large new issue of coins to finance operations against the Huns. Having made these preparations, he thought it safe to refuse the Hunnish kings' demands.

Attila the Hun and Bleda responded by renewing their campaign in 443. Striking along the Danube, they overran the military centers of Ratiara and successfully besieged Naissus (modern Niš) with battering rams and rolling towers—military sophistication that was new in the Hun repertory—then pushing along the Nisava they took Serdica (Sofia), Philippopolis (Plovdiv), and Arcadiopolis. They encountered and destroyed the Roman force outside Constantinople and were only halted by their lack of siege equipment capable of breaching the city's massive walls. Theodosius admitted defeat and sent the court official Anatolius to negotiate peace terms, which were harsher than the previous treaty: the Emperor agreed to hand over 6,000 Roman pounds (ca. 1,963 kg) of gold as punishment for having disobeyed the terms of the treaty during the invasion; the yearly tribute was tripled, rising to 2,100 Roman pounds (ca. 687 kg) in gold; and the ransom for each Roman prisoner rose to 12 solidi.

Their desires contented for a time, the Hun kings withdrew into the interior of their empire. According to Jordanes (following Priscus), sometime during the peace following the Huns' withdrawal from Byzantium (probably around 445), Bleda died (killed by his brother, according to the classical sources), and Attila took the throne for himself. Now undisputed lord of the Huns, he again turned towards the eastern Empire.

Constantinople suffered major natural (and man-made) disasters in the years following the Huns' departure: bloody riots between the racing factions of the Hippodrome; plagues in 445 and 446, the second following a famine; and a four-month series of earthquakes which levelled much of the city wall and killed thousands, causing another epidemic. This last struck in 447, just as Attila, having consolidated his power, again rode south into the empire through Moesia. The Roman army, under the Gothic magister militum Arnegisclus, met him on the river Vid and was defeated—though not without inflicting heavy losses. The Huns were left unopposed and rampaged through the Balkans as far as Thermopylae; Constantinople itself was saved by the intervention of the prefect Flavius Constantinus, who organized the citizenry to reconstruct the earthquake-damaged walls, and in some places to construct a new line of fortification in front of the old. An account of this invasion survives:

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.
— Callinicus, in his Life of Saint Hypatius

Mór Than's painting The Feast of Attila, based on a fragment of Priscus (depicted at right, dressed in white and holding his history):
"When evening began to draw in, torches were lighted, and two barbarians came forward in front of Attila and sang songs which they had composed, hymning his victories and his great deeds in war. And the banqueters gazed at them, and some were rejoiced at the songs, others became excited at heart when they remembered the wars, but others broke into tears—those whose bodies were weakened by time and whose spirit was compelled to be at rest."Attila demanded, as a condition of peace, that the Romans should continue paying tribute in gold—and evacuate a strip of land stretching three hundred miles east from Sigindunum (Belgrade) and up to a hundred miles south of the Danube. Negotiations continued between Roman and Hun for approximately three years. The historian Priscus was sent as emissary to Attila's encampment in 448, and the fragments of his reports preserved by Jordanes offer the best glimpse of Attila among his numerous wives, his Scythian fool, and his Moorish dwarf, impassive and unadorned amid the splendor of the courtiers:

A luxurious meal, served on silver plate, had been made ready for us and the barbarian guests, but Attila ate nothing but meat on a wooden trencher. In everything else, too, 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, like those of the other Scythians, with gold or gems or anything costly.
"The floor of the room was covered with woollen mats for walking on," Priscus noted.

During these three years, according to a legend recounted by Jordanes, Attila discovered the "Sword of Mars":

The historian Priscus says it was discovered under the following circumstances: "When a certain shepherd beheld one heifer of his flock limping and could find no cause for this wound, he anxiously followed the trail of blood and at length came to a sword it had unwittingly trampled while nibbling the grass. He dug it up and took it straight to Attila. He rejoiced at this gift and, being ambitious, thought he had been appointed ruler of the whole world, and that through the sword of Mars supremacy in all wars was assured to him.
— Jordanes, The Origin and Deeds of the Goths ch. XXXV (e-text)
Later scholarship would identify this legend as part of a pattern of sword worship common among the nomads of the Central Asian steppes.

An inaccurate sketch of Attila the Hun, probably from the 19th century, depicts him as European, though the only extant description of his appearance by a Roman court historian states that Atilla had "a flat nose, swarthy dark complexion, broad chest, short stature and small eyes, but full of confidence" among his features, suggesting physical features common among Mongolians.As late as 450, Attila had proclaimed his intent to attack the powerful Visigoth kingdom of Toulouse in alliance with Emperor Valentinian III. He had previously been on good terms with the western Empire and its de facto ruler Flavius Aëtius—Aetius had spent a brief exile among the Huns in 433, and the troops Attila provided against the Goths and Bagaudae had helped earn him the largely honorary title of magister militum in the west. The gifts and diplomatic efforts of Geiseric, who opposed and feared the Visigoths, may also have influenced Attila's plans.

However Valentinian's sister Honoria, in order to escape her forced betrothal to a senator, had sent the Hunnish king a plea for help—and her ring—in the spring of 450. Though Honoria may not have intended a proposal of marriage, Attila chose to interpret her message as such; he accepted, asking for half of the western Empire as dowry. When Valentinian discovered the plan, only the influence of his mother Galla Placidia convinced him to exile, rather than kill, Honoria; he also wrote to Attila strenuously denying the legitimacy of the supposed marriage proposal. Attila, not convinced, sent an embassy to Ravenna to proclaim that Honoria was innocent, that the proposal had been legitimate, and that he would come to claim what was rightfully his.

Meanwhile, Theodosius having died in a riding accident, his successor Marcian cut off the Huns' tribute in late 450; and multiple invasions, by the Huns and by others, had left the Balkans with little to plunder. The king of the Salian Franks had died, and the succession struggle between his two sons drove a rift between Attila and Aetius: Attila supported the elder son, while Aetius supported the younger. J.B. Bury believes that Attila's intent, by the time he marched west, was to extend his kingdom—already the strongest on the continent—across Gaul to the Atlantic shore. By the time Attila had gathered his vassals—Gepids, Ostrogoths, Rugians, Scirians, Heruls, Thuringians, Alans, Burgundians, et al.—and begun his march west, he had declared intent of alliance both with the Visigoths and with the Romans.

In 451, his arrival in Belgica with an army said by Jordanes to be half a million strong soon made his intent clear. On April 7 he captured Metz, and Aetius moved to oppose him, gathering troops from among the Franks, the Burgundians, and the Celts. A mission by Avitus, and Attila's continued westward advance, convinced the Visigoth king Theodoric I (Theodorid) to ally with the Romans. The combined armies reached Orleans ahead of Attila, thus checking and turning back the Hunnish advance. Aetius gave chase and caught the Huns at a place usually assumed to be near Châlons-en-Champagne. The two armies clashed in the Battle of Chalons, whose outcome commonly, though erroneously, is attributed to be a victory for the Gothic-Roman alliance. Theodoric was killed in the fighting. Aetius failed to press his advantage, and the alliance quickly disbanded. Attila withdrew to continue his campaign against Italy.

Attila the Hun returned in 452 to claim his marriage to Honoria anew, invading and ravaging Italy along the way; his army sacked numerous cities and razed Aquileia completely, leaving no trace of it behind. Valentinian fled from Ravenna to Rome; Aetius remained in the field but lacked the strength to offer battle. Attila finally halted at the Po, where he met an embassy including the prefect Trigetius, the consul Aviennus, and Pope Leo I. After the meeting he turned his army back, having claimed neither Honoria's hand nor the territories he desired.

Raphael's The Meeting between Leo the Great and Attila shows Leo I, with Saint Peter and Saint Paul above him, going to meet AttilaSeveral explanations for his actions have been proffered. The plague and famine which coincided with his invasion may have caused his army to weaken, or the troops that Marcian sent across the Danube may have given him reason to retreat, or perhaps both. Priscus reports that superstitious fear of the fate of Alaric—who died shortly after sacking Rome in 410—gave the Hun pause. Prosper of Aquitaine's pious "fable which has been represented by the pencil of Raphael and the chisel of Algardi" (as Gibbon called it) says that the Pope, aided by Saint Peter and Saint Paul, convinced him to turn away from the city. Various historians (e.g. Isaac Asimov) have supposed that the embassy brought a large amount of gold to the Hunnish leader and persuaded him to abandon his campaign.

Whatever his reasons, Attila left Italy and returned to his palace across the Danube. From there he planned to strike at Constantinople again and reclaim the tribute which Marcian had cut off. However, he died in the early months of 453; the conventional account, from Priscus, says that on the night after a feast celebrating his latest marriage (to a beautiful Goth named Ildico), he suffered a severe nosebleed and choked to death in a stupor. An alternative to the nosebleed theory is that he succummed to internal bleeding after heavy drinking. His warriors, upon discovering his death, mourned him by cutting off their hair and gashing themselves with their swords so that, says Jordanes, "the greatest of all warriors should be mourned with no feminine lamentations and with no tears, but with the blood of men." His horsemen galloped in circles around the silken tent when Attila lay in state, singing in his dirge, according to Cassiodorus and Jordanes, "Who can rate this as death, when none believes it calls for vengeance?" then celebrating a strava over his burial place with great feasting. He was buried in a triple coffin—of gold, silver, and iron—with the spoils of his conquest, and his funeral party was killed to keep his burial place secret. After his death, he lived on as a legendary figure: the characters of Etzel in the Nibelungenlied and Atli in both the Volsunga saga and the Poetic Edda were both loosely based on his life.

An alternate story of his death, first recorded eighty years after the fact by the Roman chronicler Count Marcellinus, reports: "Attila rex Hunnorum Europae orbator provinciae noctu mulieris manu cultroque confoditur." ("Attila, King of the Huns and ravager of the provinces of Europe, was pierced by the hand and blade of his wife.") The Volsunga saga and the Poetic Edda claim that King Atli died at the hands of his wife Gudrun. Most scholars reject these accounts as no more than romantic fables, preferring instead the version given by Attila's contemporary Priscus. The "official" account by Priscus, however, has recently come under renewed scrutiny by Michael A. Babcock (The Night Attila Died: Solving the Murder of Attila the Hun, Berkley Books, 2005 ISBN 0425202720). Based on detailed philological analysis, Babcock concludes that the account of natural death, given by Priscus, was an ecclesiastical "cover story" and that Emperor Marcian (who ruled the Eastern Roman Empire from 450-457) was the political force behind Attila's death.

His sons Ellak (his appointed successor), Dengizik, and Ernakh fought over the division of his legacy—"what warlike kings with their peoples should be apportioned to them by lot like a family estate" and, divided, were defeated and scattered the following year in the Battle of Nedao by the Gepids, under Ardaric, whose pride was stirred by being treated with his people like chattel, and the Ostrogoths. Attila's empire did not outlast him.

From an illustration to the Poetic Edda.The main source for information on Attila is Priscus, a historian who traveled with Maximin on an embassy from Theodosius II in 448. He describes the village the nomadic Huns had built and settled down in as the size of the great city with solid wooden walls. He described Attila himself as:

"short of stature, with a broad chest and a large head; his eyes were small, his beard thin and sprinkled with gray; and he had a flat nose and a swarthy complexion, showing the evidences of his origin."

Attila the Hun's physical appearance was probably most likely that of an Eastern Asian or more specifically a Mongol, or perhaps a mixture of this type and the Turkic peoples of Central Asia. Indeed, he probably exhibited the characteristic Eastern Asian facial features, which Europeans were not used to seeing, and so they often described him in harsh terms.

Attila the Hun is known in Western history and tradition as the grim "Scourge of God", and his name has become a byword for cruelty and barbarism. Some of this may arise from a conflation of his traits, in the popular imagination, with those perceived in later steppe warlords such as the Mongol Great Khan Genghis Khan and Tamerlane: all run together as cruel, clever, and sanguinary lovers of battle and pillage. The reality of his character may be more complex. The Huns of Attila's era had been mingling with Roman civilization for some time, largely through the Germanic foederati of the border—so that by the time of Theodosius's embassy in 448, Priscus could identify Hunnic, Gothic, and Latin as the three common languages of the horde. Priscus also recounts his meeting with an eastern Roman captive who had so fully assimilated into the Huns' way of life that he had no desire to return to his former country, and the Byzantine historian's description of Attila's humility and simplicity is unambiguous in its admiration.

The historical context of Attila's life played a large part in determining his later public image: in the waning years of the western Empire, his conflicts with Aetius (often called the "last of the Romans") and the strangeness of his culture both helped dress him in the mask of the ferocious barbarian and enemy of civilization, as he has been portrayed in any number of films and other works of art. The Germanic epics in which he appears offer more nuanced depictions: he is both a noble and generous ally, as Etzel in the Nibelungenlied, and a cruel miser, as Atli in the Volsunga Saga and the Poetic Edda. Some national histories, though, always portray him favorably; in Hungary and Turkey the names of Attila (sometimes as Atilla in Turkish) and his last wife Ildikó remain popular to this day. In a similar vein, the Hungarian author Géza Gárdonyi's novel A láthatatlan ember (published in English as Slave of the Huns, and largely based on Priscus) offered a sympathetic portrait of Attila as a wise and beloved leader.

The name Attila may mean "Little Father" in Gothic (atta "father" plus diminutive suffix -la) as many Goths were known to serve under Attila. It could also be of pre-Turkish (Altaic) origin (compare it with Atatürk and Alma-Ata, now called Almaty). It most probably originates from atta ("father") and il ("land"), meaning "Land-Father". Atil was also the Altaic name of the present-day Volga river which may have given its name to Attila.

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