Attila (Pannonia, c. 400 – March 453), often referred to as Attila the Hun, was king of the Huns and head of a tribal confederation of Huns and Germanic and Iranian peoples, who ruled the largest European empire of his time, whose territory extended from southern present-day Germany in the west to the Ural River in the east; and from the Baltic Sea in the north to the Black Sea in the south. During his reign, he pursued an aggressive policy of tax collection and eventually military intervention in neighboring kingdoms, which made him one of the most feared enemies of the Western Roman and Byzantine empires.
After succeeding his uncle Ruga, and with the Hun Empire unified under his command, from 434 Attila and his brother Bleda extended their territory to the Alps, the Rhine and the Vistula, and sought to conquer part of the Sassanid Empire. In the early 440s they turned their attention to the Byzantine Empire, claiming that the Treaty of Margo was being broken. After crossing the Danube, they sacked the Balkans and Illyria and defeated the Romans in two great battles, but preferred to negotiate an advantageous settlement rather than attack Constantinople. After becoming sole king of the Huns, between late 444 and early 445, Attila began a new offensive against the Byzantine Empire, taking advantage of a series of calamities that weakened it and demanding compliance with the terms previously agreed upon. He advanced on Aurelian Dacia, defeated the Romans at the Battle of Uto, sacked the provinces of Mesia, Macedonia and Thrace, but again did not attack Constantinople, preferring to invade and plunder Greece, from where he withdrew carrying an immense booty.
Until the late 440s Attila and the Huns had enjoyed good relations with the Roman Empire in the West, but gradually tensions were building and their claims were changing. Finally, in 450 Justa Grata Honoria, elder sister of Valentinian III, appealed to Attila, asking for his help and possibly promising him marriage. This request offered him a good opportunity to legitimize his ambitions, and in 451 he invaded Roman Gaul, sacking numerous cities before being defeated at the Battle of the Catalan Fields. Seeking to maintain his authority and prestige, Attila organized another campaign the following year. He then entered Italy, devastated part of the Po plain, and forced Valentinian to flee from his capital, Ravenna. Forced to retreat because of supply issues and an epidemic that weakened his troops, he planned new campaigns against the Romans, but died in March 453 in the region of the Tisza River in the Great Hungarian Plain. After his death, dynastic disputes among his sons weakened his empire, and his close advisor, Ardaric, led a revolt of the Germanic peoples against Hun rule, leading to its disintegration.
The culture of the Huns and the personality of Attila fascinated his contemporaries, and divergent myths about him are found in numerous cultures and artistic representations from antiquity to the present day. His campaigns helped weaken the already weakened Western Roman Empire, and may have encouraged barbarian invasions, a definite contributing factor to its collapse. For this reason and because of its ethnic origin and religion, Christian historiography has built a negative image of it, associating it with cruelty and rapine and attributing to it the epithet Plague of God and Scourge of God. However, other traditions, mainly Scandinavian and Germanic, portrayed him as a positive figure. Three sagas include him among their main characters, and the Hungarians celebrate him as a founding hero.
Historiography on Attila and the Huns faces considerable limitations, resulting from the confluence of a number of factors. Sources of information on the period before Attila are particularly rare, for the Huns left no records in written form, and foreign chroniclers of the time wrote little about their arrival in Europe, perhaps because they were more concerned with recording more immediate threats. Moreover, the lifestyle of the Huns, coupled with the lack of precise information about them, makes the production of historical and archaeological knowledge difficult.
Although sources about the Huns and Attila became more common from the 420s and especially from the 440s, they were written, in Greek and Latin, by chroniclers belonging to peoples who were enemies of the Huns, and who sought to demonstrate their opposition to their military campaigns, religion and ethnicity. Among these testimonies, only fragments have survived to the present day, with Priscopus of Pannius, Prospero of Aquitaine and Idathius of Chaves as the authors, and also two documents of unknown authorship (the Chronica Gallica of the year 452 and the Chronica Gallica of the year 511).
Priscus of Pannius was a Greek-speaking diplomat and historian, and rather than a witness, he was an actor with an active participation in the history of Attila, as a member of an embassy of Theodosius II to the court of the Hun sovereign in 449. He is the author of eight history books covering the period from 434 to 452, of which only a few fragments remain. Although Priscus was evidently influenced by his duties, and thus his perceptions must be interpreted in light of his position with the Byzantine court, his testimony remains one of the main primary sources concerning Attila. Most of the surviving excerpts from Prisco”s writings have been preserved in quotations in the works of Jordanes, a sixth-century Latin-speaking Gothic or Allan historian who wrote the Gethic, a work containing information about the Hun Empire and its neighbors. His views reflect those of his people a century after Attila”s death.
Prospero of Aquitaine was a Christian chronicler and disciple of Augustine of Hippo, whose most historically important work is the Epitoma chronicorum, partly a compilation of writings of Jerome of Straits, of which five distinct versions have survived. The most extensive version of this chronicle covers the period from 412 to 455, and records some information about Attila, his campaigns and the fate of his empire after his death.
Idatius of Chaves, as his epithet indicates, was bishop of Aguas Flavias, the present Chaves, in Portugal. In his Continuatio Chronicorum Hyeronimianorum he covers the period when Attila reigned over the Huns, recording his impressions of the events of the time and accounts given to him first-hand by high military authorities of the Western Roman Empire.
Additionally, a number of secondary sources more or less close to the events were influential in Attila”s historiography, most notably Jordanes himself and a chancellor of the Byzantine emperor Justinian, Count Marcellinus, who is a source of information about the Huns” relations with the Eastern Roman Empire. Various ecclesiastical sources also contain information recorded at times relatively close to the time Attila lived, but they are scattered and difficult to authenticate, as their content was sometimes distorted by time and by copyist monks from the sixth to the seventeenth century. The Hungarian chroniclers of the 12th century, on the other hand, considering the Huns their ancestors and emphasizing their glorious character, mention Attila extensively, but mixing historical elements and legends that often cannot be distinguished from each other.
Among the Huns, knowledge was transmitted orally, through sung epics and poems that were passed from generation to generation. Very indirectly, part of this oral history was incorporated by the Nordic and Germanic cultures of the neighboring peoples, who recorded it in writing in the 9th and 13th centuries. Attila is the central character in several medieval sagas, such as the Nibelung Song and the poetic Edda, among others.
Although very little unequivocal material evidence has been found concerning the Huns until the early 21st century, archaeology has provided some details about the lifestyle, art, and warfare techniques of this people. Notably, gold is a rare archaeological find in Germanic settlements of the pre-Atila period, and the frequency with which gold objects relating to the period of Huna domination are found suggests that in addition to military subjugation, the Huns used the distribution of conquered wealth to ensure the loyalty of their subjects. Traces of battles and sieges have been found, but Attila”s tomb and the capital of his empire remain unknown.
The Huns were a nomadic group from Eurasia, most likely originating from its steppes. First mentioned east of the Volga River, they migrated toward Western Europe around 370 and established a large empire there, subduing the local peoples and causing great waves of emigration that added to the other great population movements of the period. Their ethnic origin and that of their language have been the subject of debate for centuries. At the time of their appearance in Western history, Ammianus Marcellinus claimed that they came from a land “beyond the Sea of Azov, near an icy ocean,” and described them pejoratively as “prodigiously ugly,” living their lives on horseback and feeding on roots and partially cooked meats between their thighs and the backs of their horses. Not long after, Jordanes claimed that the Hun people were descended from “unclean spirits” and “witches” of Gothic origin, and had originated in the Meotic Swamp, located around the Straits of Querche.
Only in the eighteenth century did the question come under scientific discussion by historians, philologists, ethnologists, and other scholars, due mainly to the contemporary implications of the Huns” origins, especially their participation in the ethnic composition of modern peoples settled in the areas controlled by the Huns in antiquity and the Early Middle Ages. Although the origin of the Huns is the subject of numerous hypotheses, there is some consensus that remnants of their language have been perpetuated in the language of the Volga Bulgarians and in the language of the contemporary population of the Tavas region in the Turkish province of Denizli.
Most of what is known about the Hun language could be identified from evidence contained in the names of Hun personalities recorded by foreign chroniclers of the time. By the time of Attila, the Gothic language had become a kind of lingua franca of the Hun Empire, and the name Attila, by which the Hun king was known, is known to have been transmitted from Germanic peoples – probably Goths – to the Romans, who in turn transcribed it into classical Greek. In the Huna language this name certainly approximated Attila phonetically, but presumably it was different and also had a different meaning. In other words, by means of the name Attila Germanic peoples possibly reproduced in their own language a similar sound that had a different meaning in the Hun language.
Many scholars have argued that the Germanic name Attila would be formed from the noun atta (in Gothic: 𐌰𐍄𐍄𐌰), “father,” and the diminutive suffix -ila. Among the Germanic peoples, who were neighbors and vassals of the Huns, Attila would therefore have been known as “Little Father”. The Gothic etymology of this name was first proposed by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm in the early 19th century, is consistent with what is known of the Gothic language, and “offers neither phonetic nor semantic difficulties.
The precise name of Attila in the Hun language is not known, and its roots, etymology, and meaning are subject to a number of hypotheses. Researchers suggest a relationship to the Yenisean languages, while others consider, based on onomastic analysis, that his language would have an origin intermediate between Turkic and Mongolian, close to the modern Chuvash language. Another theory, probably the most famous and certainly the most studied, supports a Turkic origin of the language of the Huns. For some scholars, Attila is a title-name composed of es (great, ancient) and tilde (sea, ocean), and the suffix a. This name, therefore, would mean “oceanic or universal ruler”. Others, have connected it to the Turkic terms āt (name, fame), and AtllÎtil (the name of the Volga River). In particular, it has been suggested that Attila”s name might have originated from the junction of the Turkic terms adyy or agta (gelding, war horse) and atli (knight), meaning “possessor of gelding, provider of war horses.”
However, none of these proposals has gained wide acceptance among experts, and while the es and tilde combination would be “ingenious but for many reasons unacceptable,” the other Turkic-related suggestions have been considered “too exaggerated to be taken seriously.” Criticizing proposals to find Turkic etymologies for Attila, philologist Gerhard Doerfer noted that the British monarch George VI had a name of Greek origin and that Solomon the Magnificent had a name of Arabic origin, but this did not make them Greek or Arabic. According to him, it is plausible that Attila had a name of non-Huna origin, without it denoting belonging to another culture.
No primary account of Attila”s appearance has survived to contemporary times. The earliest known source concerning his features is Priscopus of Pannius, in a fragment quoted by Jordanes:
Attila was lord of all the Huns, and almost the only earthly ruler of the tribes of Scythia; a man formidable for his glorious fame among all nations. The historian Priscus, who was sent on an embassy by the young Theodosius, says this among other things: “He was a man born into the world to shake the nations, the scourge of all lands, who somehow terrified all mankind by means of the terrible rumors spread about him abroad. He was haughty in his walk, rolling his eyes from side to side, so that the power of his proud spirit was demonstrated in the movement of his body. He was certainly a lover of war, yet restrained in action, powerful in counsel, gracious to supplicants and indulgent to those who were received into his protection. He had short stature, a broad chest, and a large head; his eyes were small, his beard thin and speckled with gray; and he had a flat nose and dark skin, showing evidence of his origin.”
In another surviving fragment of his accounts, Priscus, who thought the Huns were part of the Scythian people, is struck by Attila”s simple, impassive, and jewelless appearance amid the splendor of his courtiers and among his numerous wives. This simplicity was in stark contrast to the ceremonial Roman courts, where emperors lived in ostentatious luxury and were an object of veneration, and contemporary historians believe Attila”s austere appearance was purposeful and aimed to impress those who met the Hun king. According to Prisco:
A lavish meal, served on silver plates, had been prepared for us and the barbarian guests, but Attila ate nothing but meat on a wooden plate. In everything else he was also balanced; his cup was made of wood, while the guests were offered cups of gold and silver. His clothes were also very simple, yet very clean. The sword he carried at his side, the laces of his Scythian shoes and the bridle of his horse lacked adornment, unlike the other Scythians, who carried gold, rare gems or other precious possessions.
As for Attila”s physical features, scholars suggest that Prisco”s description is typical of East Asia and that Attila”s ancestors originated from this region, while others ponder that the same characteristics would be evident in the Scythian people. Additionally, Prisco”s description is consistent with a widely held and studied theory that the European Huns were a western branch of the Xiongnu, a proto-Mongolian or proto-Turkic group of nomadic tribes from northeastern China and Central Asia, famous for their mounted warriors, who centuries earlier had terrorized China and possibly led to the building of its Great Wall.
It is known that Attila was the son of Mundiucus, brother of the kings Octar and Ruga, who together ruled the Huns. Diarchy was recurrent among this people, but historians are not sure whether it was occasional, habitual, or institutional. His family was therefore of noble lineage, but it is not clear whether it constituted a royal dynasty. Mundiukus was probably a leader of the Huns in the Balkans, but his exact position is unknown. The Hungarian historian István Bóna considers it likely that Bleda and Attila”s father Mundiucus reigned before Ruga, but this information is not attested by sources of the time. Other research on the subject is inconclusive, indicating that he never reigned or reigned briefly over a portion of the Huns.
Attila had many wives and used marriages to form dynastic and diplomatic alliances. The most important was Êrekan, whom Jordanes called Creca, who was the mother of Elaco, his eldest son and immediate successor, as well as two other sons. As the chief wife, her position gave her a ceremonial role, and there are records that she received Byzantine ambassadors. Another known wife was Ildico, with whom Attila died on their wedding night. Since the transcription of these two names is uncertain, it is not known precisely whether they were Hun or Germanic women, but the name Ildico suggests a Gothic or Ostrogothic origin.
The wives were relatively free, had material independence, and had their own residences. Attila is said to have had many other sons, but only two others are known for certain, Dengizico and Hernaco, the latter being his favorite, according to Prisco. Additionally, Hormidacus, a Hun chieftain who attacked the Roman Empire between 466 and 467, is mentioned by Sidonius Apollinarius as his son.
Organization of power
Even though the Huns had been sedentary since before their arrival in Europe, herding was still part of their culture, and they fed primarily on meat and milk, products of their cattle and horse breeding. In the first half of the fifth century, this sedentarization was deepened by the construction of a capital city, which was located between the Tisza and Timiș rivers on the Great Hungarian Plain, but whose exact site remains unknown. This city was composed of many wooden houses, some of which had Roman baths. Also of wood, the vast royal palace was decorated with sumptuous porticoes and impressed the Roman ambassadors in 449; several dignitaries of the Huns lived comfortably in houses set up around its large courtyard. Attila owned several other residences, of more modest size, throughout his vast territory.
Unlike the Roman emperors, and therefore to the surprise of his ambassadors, Attila lived among his people and shared their customs. Under his reign the Hun Empire did not experience any significant or lasting territorial expansion. However, Attila inherited and held together the largest European empire of his time, whose flexible borders extended roughly from the south of present-day Germany in the west to the Ural River in the east, and from the Baltic Sea in the north to the Black Sea in the south. Under his reign, the power of the Huns reached its peak, and with an important novelty: the concentration of power in the hands of a single leader.
Contemporary historians ignore the exact title and function he held among his people. Attila himself is said to have claimed the titles of “descendant of the Great Nimrod” and “king of the Huns, Goths, Danes, and Medes,” the latter two peoples, settled on the peripheries of his domain, being mentioned in order to demonstrate the extent of his control. The Romans, as they did with some of their predecessors, referred to Attila simply as “king of the Huns”.
The borders and constitution of the Hun Empire were determined by the subjugation of a constellation of ethnically varied populations governed in more or less autonomous ways. The control of the Huns over their tributaries was maintained in a particularly dynamic manner and was based essentially on the military capabilities of the Huns, who had not only subjugated Germanic and Iranian tribal groups, but were also in contact with the Roman Empire in Constantinople and, successively, Milan and Ravenna. Some of these groups were assimilated, many retained their kings, and others depended on or recognized the theoretical sovereignty of the king of the Huns but remained independent.
To rule over a confederation of very different nomadic and sedentary peoples that lacked an organized administration, their power rested on elites, who dominated a flexible structure of varying loyalties. The first circle of this elite consisted mainly of Hun princes, but many important figures were from other ethnic groups. It was up to the Hun leader to balance a sense of cooperation between these ethnic groups – based on his own figure – and the rivalry between them, thus avoiding a union that could go against Hun interests. Thus, his right-hand man Onejesius was a Hun, his secretary Flavius Orestes was a Roman from Pannonia, and vassal kings and allies occupied prominent positions at his court, including Edekon of the Scythians, Ardaric of the Gepids, Candacus of the Allanes, and Valamiro of the Ostrogoths. The latter were involved in a personal power relationship with Attila, for they owed their thrones to him, but their loyalty could be weakened by the replacement of the sovereign.
This system based on loyalties, therefore, was fundamental to maintaining Hun power, and throughout his reign Attila was consistent in seeking to prevent Huns from defecting to his rivals, either to serve as mercenaries or to seek protection. When he forced other peoples to pay him tribute, or during peace negotiations, he invariably demanded that those whom he judged to be traitors and deserters be handed over to him. This policy proved to be very effective.
Prodigious warriors and described as “fiercer than ferocity itself,” the Huns” main military techniques involved the use of the bow and arrow and Javelins while mounted on horseback. Initially these people lived as “warlike shepherds,” but as they abandoned nomadism, they gradually became “masters of peasant populations.” Like some Germanic peoples and the Sarmatians, the Huns considered it simpler to subject other peoples to their power and make them work and pay tribute. For this reason, since antiquity historians have often described them as a “society of predators”.
In fact, due to a semi-nomadic and often precarious way of life, the Huns depended on the resources of sedentary societies to maintain their power, and this resulted in a situation of “endemic conflict. Thus, to maintain their standard of living and the loyalty of their allies, the increasingly powerful Huns began to demand tribute from their wealthier neighbors, the Romans and the Sassanid Persians. When the latter refused to pay, the Huns launched attacks that produced equal or greater amounts of plunder and destruction. Galvanized by their success, the Huns aristocrats became increasingly greedy: to legitimize their power, Attila had to increase the wealth of his peers, and this imperatively included keeping the neighboring states under pressure. Aware of this, he sought to enforce his demands at all costs, from diplomacy to intimidation and subjugation.
Early relations with the Roman Empire
Although the Huns were indirectly the source of the Romans” problems, since they were responsible for much of the migration that the Romans viewed as “barbarian invasions,” relations between the two empires were relatively cordial. The Romans often used the Huns as mercenaries in their conflicts with Germanic peoples and in their civil wars, and, for example, in 425 the Roman usurper John recruited thousands of Huns as mercenaries against Valentinian III. The Hun and Roman empires exchanged diplomatic missions and hostages, and this alliance lasted from 401 to 450, allowing the Romans to achieve many military successes.
However, these relations were not without disruptions. Even if limited in scope, repeatedly the Huns carried out military raids into Roman territory, usually seeking to collect payment or increase the amount of previously agreed upon tributes. Several Roman embassies sent to the Huns are documented in period sources, such as that of Olympiodorus of Thebes in 412 and that of Priscus in 449, and accounts of the time make it clear that tensions were not uncommon.
From the Roman point of view, it certainly made sense to pay off the Huns. In doing so, the Empire benefited greatly from the stability of the Hun government, which could control the warrior groups on the other side of the Danube. Although this arrangement assumed that the Romans would fulfill their payment obligations, as long as relations with the Hun government remained relatively good, the risk of hostile attacks on Roman territory was reduced.
Thus, the Huns considered that the Romans paid them tribute, while the latter preferred to consider that they were granted subsidies for services rendered. However, during the time that Attila was coming of age under the reign of his uncle Ruga, the Huns became such a power that the former patriarch of Constantinople Nestorius lamented the situation saying that “they have become masters, and the Romans slaves.
Beliefs had an important place in the world of the Huns, but Attila”s religion remains little known. Many of his Germanic subjects were Arian Christians, but it seems that the Huns and Attila practiced a traditional polytheistic and animistic religion, possibly Tengriism, with shamans enjoying great social importance. These shamans practiced divination by scapulomancy, a practice typical of nomadic Turkic-Mongolian shepherds, and played an important role in Attila”s family life, recommending which of his sons to trust and influencing his decisions in battle.
Regarding his beliefs and cult, current historians differ on several important points. Katalin Escher and Yaroslav Lebedynsky claim that he believed in his providential destiny and supernatural charisma, just “like so many other military leaders.” Likewise, Michel Rouche believes that Attila saw himself as a god and has deduced from large Hun bronze cauldrons found by archaeologists that Attila practiced a “sacred cannibalism,” making human sacrifices and drinking human blood. Edina Bozoky totally rejects Rouche”s claims, saying that there is no testimony or evidence to support these conclusions, which are based on anachronistic comparisons with other peoples. Regardless of this issue, it is certain that Attila used his religion for political purposes. Thus, during his reign he claimed to have received a sacred sword from the god of war, knowing that it was a supreme symbol of legitimacy that would allow him to justify a reign that would put his people in a permanent state of war.
The precise date and place of Attila”s birth remain unknown. While the region of Pannonia is the most likely location, and 406, but others judge these dates fanciful and prefer to estimate it between the last decade of the fourth century and the first of the fifth. Like other sons of his people, Attila was surely educated as a knight and archer, and as part of an aesthetic or spiritual practice, from an early age he had his head tied up with bandages so as to achieve a purposeful deformation of the skull. Reports suggest that he was most likely a man who received a good education for his time. His mother tongue was the Hun language, but since he was part of the ruling class, he also learned the language of the Goths. Prisco also reports that as an adult he also spoke and wrote in Latin and Greek, possibly acquired during a period he spent as a hostage in Constantinople from the year 418.
Attila grew up in a changing world. The Huns had recently settled in Europe, and after crossing the Volga in the 370s, partly because of climatic changes in the Eurasian steppes, had annexed the territory of the Alans and the area of the Gothic kingdom between the Carpathians and the Danube. A very mobile people, their mounted archers acquired a reputation for invincibility, and the Germanic peoples seemed powerless in the face of these new tactics.
Vast population movements disrupted the Roman world. Among other migratory waves, numerous populations fleeing the Huns emigrated to the Roman Empire to the west and south, and along the banks of the Rhine and Danube. Notably, in 376 the Goths crossed the Danube and initially submitted to the Romans, but then rebelled against Emperor Valiant, whom they killed during the battle of Adrianople in 378; in December 406 Vandals, Alans, Suevi and Burgundians crossed the frozen Rhine and entered Roman Gaul; in 418 the Visigoths obtained a territory in Second Aquitaine with a Roman federated status, but remained, in fact, hostile to the emperor, and in 429 the Vandals founded an independent kingdom in North Africa, also at the expense of the Romans. To better deal with these invasions, since 395 the Roman Empire had been administered by two separate administrative and military governments, one in Ravenna, responsible for the Western Empire, and the other in Constantinople, dealing with the Eastern Empire. Despite various internal power struggles, during Attila”s lifetime the Roman Empire remained united and led by the same family, the Theodosian dynasty.
In 434 Ruga died and was succeeded by his nephews Bleda and Attila, who became diarchs and thus took control of the unified Hun tribes. Succession among the Huns was probably not only based on an inherited position, but also on the military and diplomatic abilities of the suitor and his ability to produce material advantages for the elite. Typically, Ruga”s succession may not have been peaceful, as Hun nobles fled to Constantinople, including two members of the royal family, Mamas and Atakam, who may have been Ruga”s nephews or even sons. During his joint reign with Bleda, Attila sought to negotiate with the Romans for the surrender of these deserting nobles, who presumably could claim succession to the Hun throne.
First offensive against Constantinople
From 435 to 440 the reign of Bleda and Attila was marked by the triumph of the Huns against the Eastern Roman Empire by diplomatic means. In 436 the Huns met with a Roman embassy at Margo, near the Limes, and there they negotiated, on horseback and thus in the Hune way, an advantageous treaty that provided for a doubling of the annual tribute paid by Constantinople, i.e. seven hundred pounds of gold, as well as promises that the Romans would no longer welcome opponents of the Huns or ally themselves with enemy peoples, and would open their frontier markets to Huns merchants. During this period the Huns extended their empire to the Alps, the Rhine, and the Vistula, and also carried out an invasion of the Sassanid Empire, but a counter-offensive in Armenia ended with the defeat of Attila and Bleda, who renounced their plans of conquest.
In the early 440s, however, the Huns attacked the Byzantine Empire, maintaining that Theodosius had defaulted on his commitments and that the bishop of Margo had crossed the Danube to plunder and desecrate the royal Hun tombs north of its banks. The time was ripe for them, for external events had temporarily diverted Constantinople”s attention. Theodosius had stripped the defenses along the Danube as a consequence of the capture of Carthage by the Vandal Genseric in 440 and the invasion of Roman Armenia by the Sassanid Persians of Shah Isdigerdes II in 441, and this left Attila and Bleda the open road through Illyria and the Balkans. Their attack began with the plundering of merchants on the north bank of the Danube, then protected by the existing treaty. The Huns then crossed the river and razed Illyrian towns and forts along its banks, among them Viminacius (present-day Kostolac in Serbia), which was a city of the Mesians in Illyria, and Margo itself, since, when the Romans debated whether to hand over the bishop accused of desecration, he defected to the Huns and handed the city over to them.
Having sacked these cities, the Hun army took Singiduno (modern Belgrade) and Sirmio (present-day Sremska Mitrovica, in the Serbian province of Vojvodina), before halting its operations. A truce then continued throughout 442, at which time Theodosius took the opportunity to bring in his troops from abroad and make preparations that would allow him to push back the demands of the barbarian kings. Attila and Bleda”s response was to resume the campaign in the year 443. As far as the Romans knew, for the first time the Hausa forces were equipped with battering rams and siege towers, with which they successfully attacked the military centers of Racia and Naisso (present-day Niš) along the Danube, slaughtering their populations. Prisco, who visited Našso some time after the fighting, said he found the town “deserted, as if it had been sacked; only a few sick people were in the churches. We stopped a short distance from the river, in an open space, and the whole ground adjacent to the bank was covered with the bones of the men killed in the war.”
Later, pressing along the Nišava River, the Huns took Serdica, Philippopolis, and Arcadiopolis, and engaged and destroyed a Roman army, commanded by Aspar, in the vicinity of the city of Constantinople. The Huns were only stopped by the lack of material needed to breach the cyclopean double walls of the city. Despite this, the Huns still defeated a second Roman army near Callipolis. Theodosius, unable to offer effective armed resistance, admitted defeat and sent the courtier Anatolian to negotiate the terms of peace. Attila was willing to negotiate and indicated that he would withdraw from Roman territory. However, his terms were more stringent than in the previous treaty, and Theodosius” emissaries agreed to pay over six thousand Roman pounds (the annual tribute was tripled, reaching the amount of 2,100 Roman pounds (and the ransom for each Roman prisoner was also increased. The importance of these amounts has been debated for centuries, and while there is no doubt that this was a huge sum, it probably did not ruin Byzantine finances as claimed by Prisco. The Huns were dependent on the Roman Empire and its means to maintain their rule, and since it was in their interest to remain parasitic, ruining them would require undoing an advantageous arrangement. On the other hand, the payment allowed the Byzantine government to avoid the uncertainties and the probably much higher human and material cost of a military campaign against the Huns.
Sole King of the Huns
Between late 444 and early 445 the Hun diarch Bleda died, following the Huna withdrawal from the Byzantine Empire. There is abundant historical speculation as to whether Attila murdered his brother or whether Bleda died of other causes, and details of how this occurred are not known, for although the event was reported by his contemporaries, it has never been commented on in greater detail. In any case, Attila was now the undisputed lord of the Huns.
The king of the Scythians, Edekon, and the king of the Gepids, Ardaric, actively participated in the consolidation of power, supporting it with their military forces. Attila also had the support of court members favorable to the war against Rome, such as the brothers Onegése and Escotas, Hellenized barbarians from the Pontus region; Elsa, a military man who had played an important role in the reign of Ruga; and Eskam, a large landowner in the southern plains. Among Attila”s supporters were also Romans, such as the Pannonian Constancíolo and the governor of Mesia, Primo Rústico, who jointly served as Attila”s secretaries. Also in the high ranks were a certain Berico, of unknown origin; Attila”s uncle, Aibars; and Laudaricus, certainly a king of an allied Germanic people. Attila”s opponents fled or perished, and he became the sole king of the Huns.
Second Offensive against Constantinople
Attila”s embassies had been requesting the return of Huns prisoners, and the Byzantines, who were at relative peace with their other enemies and therefore had troops available, refused. However, by the mid 440s the Byzantine Empire faced a series of riots and natural disasters that weakened it. According to Count Marcellinus, epidemics broke out in 445 and 446 following a period of widespread famine, and on January 27, 447, an earthquake destroyed much of the Theodosian Wall of Constantinople, of which fifty-seven towers collapsed. This natural disaster devastated many cities and villages in the Thracian province, caused new epidemics, and, due to the destruction of silos, further aggravated the famine in the empire.
Attila probably saw these upheavals as an opportunity to mobilize all his troops and advance on Aurelian Dacia, thus enforcing the fulfillment of his conditions. Roman troops stationed at Marcianopolis attempted to cut off the Hun advance, but were defeated at the Battle of Uto and their master soldier, the Goth Arnegisclo, was killed in action. The Huns then sacked the provinces of Mesia, Macedonia and Thrace. The emperor of the East, Theodosius II, concentrated on defending his capital, organizing citizen brigades to rebuild the walls damaged by the earthquakes and, at some points, to build a new line of fortification in front of the old one. Perhaps for this reason, Attila did not attack Constantinople, preferring to invade and plunder Greece, from where he withdrew carrying an immense booty.
During the peace negotiations that followed, Attila found himself in a strengthened position and consequently set heavy demands: in addition to an increase in the tribute paid, he demanded the cession of a Roman territory three hundred miles long and five days” walk wide, located south of the Danube. Moving the border in this way, in addition to the symbolic value, would give the Huns a tactical advantage, serving as a buffer zone against Roman attacks. As part of these negotiations, Huns and Byzantines exchanged several diplomatic missions. The courtier Prisco was sent as ambassador to Attila”s capital, and in the spring of 449, Edekon was sent to Constantinople.
In the summer of that same year Theodosius sent another embassy to the Huna capital, apparently seeking to finalize the peace treaty but with the secret goal of organizing Attila”s assassination. Fifty pounds of gold was paid to Edecan, who was particularly close to Attila and served as one of his bodyguards, at the time a position of great prestige and power. However, Edekon revealed the plan to the Hun king, imposing an even greater humiliation on the Romans. Despite this failure, Theodosius managed to drag out the negotiations while strengthening his troops to rebalance the balance of power. In 450 the peace treaty provided for a return to the pre-447 territorial situation and the return of Roman prisoners in exchange for the payment of a tribute whose amount is not known.
This was a relative diplomatic success for Theodosius, but it angered his soldiers, who were exasperated by the arrogance of Attila, whose ambassadors now treated the Roman government as if it were their subject. However, on July 28, 450 Emperor Theodosius II died from a fall on horseback, and the “party of the Blues,” made up of Byzantine senators and aristocrats, triumphed with the ascension of Flavius Marcianus Augustus as emperor, a man of bellicose temperament and fiercely opposed to the idea of buying peace with the barbarians. Although Marcian strongly modified Byzantine tribute policy by refusing to pay the Huns, he pleased Attila by ordering the execution of Chrysaphius, Theodosius” minister, who had been the instigator of his assassination attempt in 449. Despite their initial victory and the Byzantine refusal to continue paying tribute, the Huns allowed Constantinople to get back on its feet because they were now busy with the Western Empire.
War in the West
Until the late 440s Attila and the Huns had enjoyed good relations with the empire in the West, mainly thanks to their good relations with their de facto ruler, Flavius Aetius. The Roman patrician had spent a brief exile among the Huns in 433, had cooperated on a few occasions with Ruga, and had personally benefited from troops that Attila had provided him with against the Goths and the Burgundians, which had contributed to getting him the title of master of soldiers in the West. Gradually, however, tensions were building and his claims to the Western Roman Empire were changing. In 448 Attila had agreed to welcome to his court the chief of a bagauda, Eudoxius, a fugitive from the Romans and who had urged him to attack Gaul; and in 449 he had opposed Ravenna in a succession dispute between the Frankish Salians – while Attila had supported one son of the dying Frankish king, Aetius had supported another. The gifts and diplomatic efforts of Genseric, who opposed and feared the Visigoths, probably also influenced Attila”s plans.
Finally, in 450 Justa Grata Honoria, older sister of the emperor Valentinian III, appealed to Attila. Officially “august”, she was therefore the bearer of part of the imperial power. As part of the political game, her brother emperor had decided to marry her off, against her will, to an old senator, and, seeking to avoid this union, Honoria sent her signet ring to Attila, asking for his help and possibly promising herself in marriage. This request offered Attila a good opportunity to legitimize his ambitions to intervene militarily in the Western Empire. Although historians are not sure whether this was a bluff or a real goal, Attila demanded, in addition to Honoria”s hand, that Gaul be given to him as a dowry.
In the spring of 451 Attila launched a campaign against Gaul at the head of an army that included the Huns and their Gepid vassals, the Ostrogoths, the Scythians, the Suevi, the Alemannians, the Heruls, the Thuringians, the Frankish Riparians (the Gallic Franks had allied themselves with the Romans), the Allans, and the Sarmatians. Figures are difficult to be precise, but it is certain that this army was very numerous by the standards of the time and moved slowly. At the time of its arrival in the province of Belgium, Jordanes estimates that it was composed of about half a million men, but modern historians consider a hundred thousand a more acceptable number.
Gaul was shaken by revolts, and Attila hoped that the society that united the Romans and Visigoths would not be respected, allowing him to face his enemies separately or convince one of them to join him. Attila besieged present-day Métis, which refused to surrender. Months later, on April 7, 451, the southern wall of the city fell, and the Huns, exasperated by a long siege, massacred the local population. Paris was spared, and a hagiographical anecdote states that Saint Genevieve, through her prayers, is said to have saved it.
Meanwhile, a delegation from the emperor in the West, which included Flavius Aetius, and Attila”s steady advance to the west, convinced Theodoric to ally himself with the Romans. Attila”s forces split into two groups, and while the first group concentrated on sacking northern present-day France, the second group, commanded personally by Attila, marched directly to Orleans, which resisted him and forced him to besiege it for several weeks.
This siege gave the Romans, commanded by Flavius Aetius, and the Visigoths, under King Theodoric, time to gather the forces necessary for a confrontation. Their combined armies then went to meet the Huns, arriving in Orleans when the city was about to surrender. Attila lifted the siege and, after skirmishes, he withdrew with his troops, seeking to reunite with the rest of his army. Once his forces were regrouped, Attila confronted Aetius and Theodoric, trying to choose the location of the battle in a way that was favorable to the use of his mounted troops.
The Battle of the Catalan Fields, which took place between Troyes and Châlons-en-Champagne and probably in the Méry-sur-Seine region, ended with a strategic victory for the Roman-Visigoth alliance. It left many dead, including Theodoric, and Attila narrowly escaped his enemies. The victory was Roman, but the Visigoths withdrew to Toulouse to settle the issue of Theodoric”s succession by his sons, and Attila was able to withdraw his troops unmolested. He then passed through Troyes, where, like St. Genevieve in Paris, Catholic hagiography credits St. Lupo, then the local bishop, with the intercession that would have caused Attila to spare the city.
Despite some minor successes, his campaign in Gaul was a failure; Attila was unable to find allies in the region, and his opponents, united, proved stronger. His losses were great, and in his retreat he was forced to abandon some of the loot he had captured. To maintain his internal authority and external prestige, Attila knew he had to act quickly, which is why he organized another campaign the following year.
In the spring of 452 Attila sought once again to exercise his claim of marriage to Honorius, this time devastating the Italian peninsula in his passage. After crossing the Alps, his troops conquered Aquileia after a long siege, sacking and razing it almost completely. With less difficulty, he then plundered Padua, Verona, Milan and Pavia, only to stop before crossing the Po River. Valentinian III was forced to flee from Ravenna to Rome. The situation seemed hopeless for him, who was followed by the Huns, and so the emperor hastened to negotiate with Attila. On June 11, 452 he sent to the Huns, who were in the region of the river Mincio near Mantua, a delegation that included Pope Leo I, the former consul Avieno, and a former prefect of the praetorium. For a long time Catholic tradition credited divine intercession, in the form of a miracle, for the Huna decision to treat with Rome. From a secular point of view, however, there is evidence that Attila agreed to negotiate because his army was the victim of an epidemic and for the sake of supplying his troops. Italy had suffered a terrible famine in 451 and its crops showed little improvement in 452, and Attila”s devastating invasion of the northern Italian plains that year certainly did not contribute to crop improvements. Thus, to advance on Rome would have required supplies that were not available in Italy, and taking the city would not have improved supplies for the Hun troops. In addition, the Hun Empire was being attacked in the east by the troops of Marcian, who had finally decided to come to the aid of Rome. The religious Idatius of Chaves, a contemporary of these events, relates them in his Chronica Minora, saying that:
The Huns, who had been plundering Italy and who had also invaded a number of cities, were victims of divine punishment, being visited with heaven-sent disasters: famine and some kind of disease. In addition, they were slaughtered by auxiliaries sent by the emperor Marcian and led by Aetius, and at the same time were crushed at home So, massacred, they made peace with the Romans and all returned to their homes.
For one reason or another, Attila surely thought it more profitable for his people to conclude peace and return to his homeland, and so he retired to his palace beyond the Danube, victorious and carrying an immense amount of booty. Although his army was weakened, he threatened to return the following year if Honoria and her dowry were not delivered to him. However, as in 451, Attila had to yield to his united opponents, in this case the two Roman governments.
Death and Succession
In his capital city, Attila went on to plan a new attack on Constantinople in order to demand the tribute that Emperor Marcian had failed to pay him. However, in early 453 the Hun king died unexpectedly. The earliest account of this event is attributed to Prisco, according to which Attila suffered a severe nosebleed and suffocated to death after a night of drinking following the celebration of his most recent nuptials, with Ildico. According to Prisco, his death occurred during the wedding night, and was only discovered in the morning, when guards entered his room to awaken him and were surprised to find his bride weeping over his body.
Byzantine chronicles, and in particular one authored by Count Marcellinus, written eighty years after the events, report that he was allegedly stabbed to death by his fiancée, and more recent historians find this hypothesis credible, supposing that Marcian might have organized a scheme similar to the one Theodosius II had attempted some years earlier. However, other historians reiterate that the assassination hypothesis cannot be ruled out or confirmed, not least because the most immediate accounts of the events do not report any wounds on the Hun king”s body.
According to Jordanes, Attila”s soldiers, upon learning of his death, reacted by cutting their hair and wounding their faces with their swords, for the greatest of all warriors was not to be mourned with the complaints or tears of women, but with the blood of men. Attila was secretly buried in a triple coffin of gold, silver and iron, and the slaves who dug his grave were killed so that it would never be discovered and desecrated. Its location remains unknown.
His succession degenerated into conflict among his sons, mainly Elaco, Dengizico, and Hernaco, who sought to divide among themselves the territory of the Hun Empire and the peoples included therein. Feeling treated as “slaves of the lowest condition” and emphasizing their cultural independence and economic interests, Germanic peoples united in an uprising, led by a former ally of Attila, King Ardaric. In 454 the Huns were bitterly defeated in the ensuing confrontation, the Battle of Nedao, and Elaco was killed during the fight.
The Hun tribes fragmented and took as chiefs members of their local aristocracies, while the other peoples federated by Attila dispersed. A group of Huns moved into Scythia, probably under the leadership of Ernaco, and Dengizicus attempted one last incursion south of the Danube in 469, but was defeated at the Battle of Bassianae and the following year was killed by the Goth-Roman general Anagastes. A Byzantine chronicle, the Chronicon Paschale, relates his end: “Dengizicus, son of Attila, was killed in Thrace. His head was taken to Constantinople, carried in procession and planted on a stake. His death ended the possibilities of restoring the Hun Empire.
Although Attila”s empire did not survive him, his campaigns against Rome and its other neighbors had a longer lasting impact. On the one hand, the destabilizing action of the Huns aggravated the economic weakness of the Roman Empire and its ability to reconquer territories of significant economic or strategic importance lost to invaders. In addition, the mass migrations that had been occurring since before Attila were probably intensified because of his empire”s relations with its neighbors, further aggravating the Roman situation. While the Byzantine Empire gradually ceased to be able to assist the government of Ravenna, Attila”s former allies continued to play a formidable role in fifth-century Eurasian geopolitics and played a leading role in the fall of the Western Roman Empire, whose final milestone in 476 was the deposition of Emperor Romulus Augustus by Herulean, Rucian, and Scythian forces commanded by Odoacer, Edekon”s son and successor.
The most common Western view: “God”s scourge
Historically the Huns were characterized by Western Christian tradition as a barbaric and extremely violent people, a representation that remains in the contemporary imagination. Easy prey for “Christian moralists” since antiquity, their characterization as “ugly, stubby and fearsome, lethal with a bow, and mainly interested in plundering and raping” was stressed, in comparison with other Christian barbarian peoples, mainly because of their religion and ethnic origin, alien to their enemies. Being devoid of their own voice in the historical record, the Huns “can always be persuasively imagined as the full threat to the (self-proclaimed) virtues of civilization.”
The image of Attila in this tradition, in particular, was initially influenced by the accounts of Priscus of Pannius, who described him as “a man born into the world to shake nations,” and, as late as the eighteenth century, historians such as Edward Gibbon expressed the idea that the Hun king was merely “a destructive savage” of whom it was said that “grass never grew again where his horse had trodden. For many analysts this is a partially mistaken portrayal, since accounts of the time reiterate the emphasis the Hun king placed on the loyalty of his subordinates and that, by the standards of his time, “the barbarian leader was for the most part a man of his word. Priscus himself asserted that Attila “fought through diplomacy” before seeking to secure his interests by military means and was willing to negotiate in order to avoid war. The Hun king certainly recognized the advantages of being paid to keep the peace and avoid bloody confrontations, and for years he collected tribute from the Roman Empire, a common practice at the time. As long as the tribute was paid, he invariably respected his agreement with Rome, whereas examples are common of barbarian leaders who received tribute and then attacked. In addition, Prisco himself reports that he met a Roman citizen among the Huns who was captured and, after his release, decided to remain among the Huns because of the heavy taxes, the corrupt government, and the unfairness and prohibitive cost of the Roman legal system.
Despite this and the fact that the barbarian peoples had numerous well-known leaders, Attila is “one of the few names in antiquity capable of being instantly recognized” in a similar way to Alexander, Caesar, Cleopatra and Nero, and became “the barbarian” par excellence. In this Western Christian tradition, the Hun king is often called the “Plague of God” or, more commonly, the “Scourge of God”. This expression was coined in 410 by the cleric Augustine of Hippo to designate Alaric, but gradually it was redirected to Attila: in the sixth century Gregory of Tours went on to assert that the Huns had been a divine instrument, and in the following century the religious Isidore of Seville elaborated on this notion, saying that the Huns had been “the rod of God”s fury,” sent to “strike” (Latin: flagellantur) the unbelievers and force them to distance themselves from the appetites and sins of the time. In the form of an epithet, the expression appeared only in the seventh century, in the hagiography of St. Loppa, according to which Attila would have presented himself as the “scourge of God” (Latin: flagellum Dei). In its original flagellum, the term designates a whip, a kind of whip used to punish the condemned.
Christian chroniclers and hagiographers continued this tradition and made Attila a true anti-hero, in the sense that his actions led to the creation of numerous new saints. The hagiographies accuse him of numerous crimes and of imaginary martyrdoms, such as those of Saint Nicholas in Reims, Saint Memoria in Saint-Mesmin, and others, and from these chronicles, new legends were created of bishops who would have protected their cities from Attila, in Ravenna, Modena, Châlons-en-Champagne, Métis, and other localities. The case of Ursula of Cologne and the eleven thousand virgins who are said to have died as martyrs in Cologne constitutes the most impressive hagiographic invention; established in writing in the 10th century, it remained popular throughout the Middle Ages. Some stories even identify the Jews with the Huns.
Literary character in Italy
In Italy, in general, the image of Attila followed that more widespread in the West, and, famously, Attila is mentioned in Dante Alighieri”s Divine Comedy, which had him burned in the seventh circle of hell, where tyrants are tormented by centaurs. Although his negative character continued to be reiterated, starting in the 14th century Attila became a literary character in Italy. Epics in verse or prose began to recount his chivalric adventures and attribute to him an extraordinary birth, as the son of a princess and a lebrideon. In these stories, because of his semi-bestial nature and his evil deeds, he is still represented as the enemy of Christianity. One of the most popular, La storia di Attila, was copied and then printed in Venice over the centuries; the last edition dates from 1862.
Medieval Germanic and Scandinavian hero
Attila did not leave such a negative image in non-Roman territories, and the Germanic epic poems that mention him offer a more complex portrait. The Song of Walther, a gestalt song in dactylic hexameters attributed to the monk Ekkehard I of St. Gallen around 930, describes Attila as a powerful and generous king. The Song of the Nibelungs, a medieval German epic composed in the 13th century, presents him, under the name Etzel, in a positive light, despite his paganism. In Icelandic sagas written in the 12th century Attila and the Huns are featured in epic wars against the Borghyns, the Goths, and the Damages, as in Saxon Grammar”s Brevis historia regum Dacie.
The historical Attila also corresponds to the character of King Atli from the poetic Edda, a collection of Scandinavian compositions whose roots go back to the 5th century. The poems that mention him are Atlamál (Atli”s Greenlandic sayings), Guðrúnarkviða II (Gudrún”s second song), Sigurðarkviða hin skamma (Sigurd”s short song), Guðrúnarhvöt (Gudrún”s exhortation), and Atlakviða (Atli”s song). These poems were taken up in prose in the 13th century by Snorri Sturluson, the greatest medieval Scandinavian writer, and Attila is portrayed as a great king, similar to his characterization in the Volsung Saga and the Chronicon Hungarico-Polonicum.
In these legends one of the main characters is Gudrún (for the Norse) or Kriemhild (for the Germanic), sister of the king of the Borghyns and representation of the historical Ildico. Attila”s tragic death, the suspicions of murder, and the involvement of his young wife would give rise to a literary tradition in which female revenge occupies a prominent place. In these myths Attila is represented in a very “understanding” way; he is tolerant, loyal, generous and chivalrous. His troubles and endings are due to his naivety and difficulty in understanding other peoples.
Hungarian mythical king and Turkish contemporary hero
When in the 10th century the Magyars, another nomadic people from Eurasia, settled in the Carpathians and began raiding Europe, the Christians immediately identified them with the Huns. When they converted and began to write their own history and that of Hungary, they adopted this identity, claiming descent from Attila and making him a hero. Thus he became the ancestor of the Arpade dynasty in the Gesta Hungarorum, written around 1210. In these founding myths Attila is glorified, and his moral and warlike virtues extolled. During the Renaissance the Chronica Hungarorum still used the figure of the king of the Huns to increase the prestige and legitimacy of the Hungarian monarchy, and at its height, Matthias I of Hungary was celebrated as a “second Attila”.
The Huna origin of the Hungarians and the figure of Attila were still a recurring theme in Hungarian literature from the 16th century to the present day. The development of Hungarian nationalism kept Attila as an important reference of national identity, and the disappearance of his great empire was compared to the fate of Hungarians under Austrian and Ottoman domination. In 1857 the composer and pianist Franz Liszt composed the symphonic poem Battle of the Huns (German: Hunnenschlacht), inspired by a painting by Wilhelm von Kaulbach about the Battle of the Catalan Fields.
According to historian Edina Bozoky, at least twenty Hungarian dramas, nine poems, and three novels dealing with Attila were published throughout the nineteenth century, including works by great authors such as Mór Jókai and János Arany. More than fifteen works on this subject were still written in the twentieth century, and the prename Attila remained popular during that century. Attila”s father, Mundiucus, known in Hungarian as Bendeguz, is mentioned in the Hungarian National Anthem as the ancestor of the nation.
The myth of Attila is also widely used in Hungarian politics, particularly by the extreme right, and is linked to the emergence of neo-pagan groups in the country. Groups of this kind have become popular with the Third Hungarian Republic: a “Holy Church of the Huns” was founded in 1997 and a “Huna Alliance” in 2002. In 2010 an equestrian statue of Attila was unveiled in Budapest by the country”s Minister of Defense. Apparently thousands of Huns” descendants live today between Hungary and its neighboring countries, and groups of potential descendants have sought their recognition as an ethnic minority.
Political symbol and comparisons with other figures
The figure of Attila and the Huns has been constantly used in political contexts and in comparisons with contemporary characters. In France, although earlier Voltaire and Montesquieu had portrayed Attila in a relatively positive light, in the 19th century Attila became a metaphor for tyrants, while the Huns came to represent barbaric and brutal enemies. For example, Benjamin Constant, in 1815, and Victor Hugo, in 1824, compare Napoleon Bonaparte to Attila.
The French, English, Canadians, and Americans have also compared the Germans to the Huns on a number of occasions, notably during World War I in reference to William II and his troops. In 1914 Rudyard Kipling, in his poem For All We Have And Are, indirectly referred to the Germans when he called on everyone to fight the “Huns,” and during the course of the war, British, Canadian, and American posters compared Germany”s destruction of Belgium to the devastation caused Attila, urging their peoples to “beat the Huns.”
The Germans themselves had already adopted this identity in a war context. During the Boxer Uprising William II galvanized his troops by encouraging them to follow Attila”s example, declaring, “No mercy! No prisoners! A thousand years ago, King Attila”s Huns made a name for themselves that still resonates tremendously today in memories and in stories; let the name of the Germans acquire the same reputation in China, so that a Chinese will never again dare to defy a German.” Similarly, during World War II the German government used this metaphor when christening as Operation Attila the occupation of Vichy France, and with the dawn of the Cold War, the German magazine Der Spiegel compared the Soviet Union to the Huns.
On the other hand, like the Hungarians, in the 20th century Turkish nationalists and Turanists appropriated a positive figure of Attila, identifying him as a liberator of nations oppressed by foreign kings and religions and as a precursor of modern, secular Turkey. When the Turkish military invaded Cyprus in 1974, its directives were dubbed “Operation Attila.” More recently, in 2011 Serbian general Ratko Mladić was dubbed Attila in his own country and abroad, and authors continue to exploit the negative image of Attila and his people, this time comparing Wall Street financiers to the Huns.
In contradiction to this image, in the 1980s author Wess Roberts published a business management book entitled Leadership Secrets of Attila the Hun, which became a best-seller in the United States by claiming that “bloodthirsty barbarians had much to teach American executives about ”win-spirited management and accountability. In the same vein, several of Attila”s relatives are known by name, but soon valid genealogical sources virtually dried up, and there seems to be no verifiable way to identify the descendants of the Hun king and his relatives. However, this has not stopped genealogists from seeking to reconstruct a valid lineage for medieval rulers. One of the claims considered most credible is that of the Nominalia of the Bulgarian Cans, regarding the origins of the founding figures of the Dulo Clan.
On a smaller scale than in Hungary, the king of the Huns continued to arouse interest in the rest of Europe, notably in the arts. For historian Edina Bozoky, the wealth and variety of works on Attila are exceptional: “every country and every age creates an Attila in its own image.
Sculpture, stained glass, paintings and engravings
Christian art represented Attila frequently, in illuminations of hagriographic works, such as the Golden Legend of James of Voragine, and also on canvases, frescoes, statues, altarpieces, and church windows. Attila is often used as a secondary character, in order to highlight the qualities of saints, such as Alpine of Châlons, Lupo, Genoveva, Ursula, and the virgins of Cologne. One of these most famous paintings is Martyrdom of Saint Ursula, produced by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio in 1610; in it, Attila is depicted looking somber and holding a bow, while an arrow pierces the martyr”s chest. Other famous depictions of Attila in the visual arts include the fresco Incontro di Leone Magno con Attila (1513-1514) by Raphael Sanzio, and the paintings Attila suivi de ses hordes barbares foule aux pieds l”Italie et les Arts (and La invasión de los barbaros (1887) by Ulpiano Checa. With a markedly more positive air, Hungarian painters, sculptors, and engravers of the Renaissance and Baroque periods produced majestic portraits of Attila.
More recently Attila is the central character in several comic books and graphic novels. These works may approach the theme from a historical perspective, as in Jean-Yves Mitton and Franck Bonnet”s Attila mon amour, released in six volumes between 1999 and 2003, or in Léon le grand, défier Attila, published in 2019 by France Richemond and Stefano Carloni, which focuses on the episode in which the pope allegedly dissuaded him from sacking Rome. On the other hand, some works portray him in an ostensibly fantastical manner, such as Une aventure rocambolesque d”Attila le Hun – le Fléau de Dieu, published by Manu Larcenet and Daniel Casanave in 2006, which presents the conqueror in a humorous tone; and Le Fléau des Dieux, by Valérie Mangin and Aleksa Gajić, which transforms the combat between Attila and Aetius into a battle between gods.
Attila is one of Pierre Corneille”s last tragedies, published in 1667. A romantic drama in which Attila must choose between Honoria, the empress, and Ildione, sister of the king of the Franks, Corneille considered it his best play, although it did not achieve great success. For Nicolas Boileau, on the contrary, Attila marked the decline of Corneille”s genius. By portraying an Attila tormented by his ambitions for glorious conquests and involving himself in tumultuous loves, Corneille refers to the France of the young and ambitious Louis XIV of the 1660s.
Zacharias Werner, an Austrian playwright, wrote Attila, König der Hunnen in the last years of his life, and published it in 1807. This play stages the campaign of Italy and the pillage of Aquileia. Attila is portrayed as a metaphor for Napoleon Bonaparte, who, offended, in 1810 ordered the destruction of all copies of the play.
Music and Opera
The figure of Attila is widely used in opera. In the 17th century Pietro Andrea Ziani composed Attila to a libretto by Matteo Noris, and in 1812 Beethoven considered composing an opera with Attila as its subject, whose libretto would be written by August von Kotzebue. However, neither the music nor the libretto was written. In 1807 in Hamburg, in 1818 in Palermo, in 1827 in Parma, and in 1845 in Venice, different operas were performed under the name of Attila. The best known is the opera Attila, composed by Giuseppe Verdi with libretto by Temistocle Solera, which premiered in 1846 and is based on the play by Zacharias Werner.
This tradition has spanned the 20th and 21st centuries. In 1967 Henri Salvador wrote and performed the song Attila est là, with lyrics by Bernard Michel, and in 1993 the Hungarian poet and MP Sándor Lezsák wrote a rock opera entitled Atilla, Isten kardja, which was directed and performed by Levente Szörényi. In 2002 the French musician Olivier Boreau composed a piece for orchestra with the title Attila, and this is also the name used by several American bands and musical ensembles, including a deathcore band formed by Chris Fronzak in 2005. More recently, the name Attila has been used in rap songs. Booba apparently mentions him on several recordings, and named one of his songs after him.
Russian literature of the first half of the 20th century, in the spirit of local nationalism and recognition of Russia”s Asian roots, gave significant attention to the figure of Attila. Valeri Briusov dedicated a poem to him in 1921, in which Attila personifies the fear of destruction and the hope for renewal. Ievgueni Zamiatin worked on the historical novel Scourge of God, which draws a parallel between Attila”s life and the rivalry between Russia and the West, but which, because of the author”s death, was never completed.
Numerous writers from other countries have also dedicated historical novels to him, such as the German Felix Dahn, in his collection Historical Novels of the Great Migration, published between 1882 and 1901; the Canadian Thomas Costain, in 1959; and the American William Dietrich, in 2005. In these works, while Attila is depicted as a barbarian, he also serves to illustrate a Roman world in decay. Similarly, in L”anell d”Àtila, published in 1999, Andorran Albert Salvadó stresses the corruption and ineptitude of contemporary Roman emperors, which serves as the backdrop for Attila”s campaigns.
Film and television
The first film to portray Attila was a 1918 Italian silent film directed by Febo Mari. In 1924 Fritz Lang”s German classic Die Nibelungen presented the Huns as simple barbarians, and Douglas Sirk”s Sign of the Pagan and Pietro Francisci”s Attila, il flagello di Dio were both released in 1954.
On television, the French teleseries Kaamelott, produced by Alexandre Astier in 2005, features Attila in some episodes, but in a humorous way. Attila also appeared in a 2008 episode of the British BBC series Heroes and Villains, played by Rory McCann, and in the 2006 US film Night at the Museum, played by Patrick Gallagher.
A considerable number of video games have Attila as a main or secondary character. In Age of Empires II: The Conquerors a campaign follows Attila”s great conquests, from his ascension to the Hun throne to his campaign in the Italian peninsula. In Total War: Attila, the leader of the Huns is the game”s protagonist, while in Civilization V he is a playable leader. In FateGrand Order, Attila is referenced through the character Altera.
Attila gave its name to an asteroid, Attila (#1489), identified on April 12, 1939. This celestial body is approximately fifteen kilometers in diameter and has an orbital period of 5.7 Earth years. Attila is also a genus of tropical passerines, comprising seven species of predatory birds, and Atilla is a plateau in central Australia, also known as Mount Conner.