Great Lives from History: Notorious Lives
Identity: King of the Huns (r. 433-453 C.E.)
Born: c. 406 C.E.; probably Pannonia (now primarily in Hungary)
Died: 453 C.E.; probably Jazberin (now in Hungary)
Also Known As: Attila the Hun; Atli; Etzel; Flagellum Dei (Scourge of God)
Active: 433-453 C.E.
Locale: Southern and Central Europe
Cause of Notoriety
In his military campaigns against the Roman Empire, Attila engaged in invasion, conquest, and devastation involving mass murder, rape, and other atrocities.
Attila (aht-TIHL-ah) was the son of Mundiuch, king of the Huns, but little is known of his youth. In 433 C.E., with his brother Bleda, Attila became coruler of the Huns, succeeding his uncle, Rua, who had united the Huns. At the beginning of their reign, the corulers negotiated with representatives of the Eastern Roman emperor Theodosius II about the return of several tribes, who, opposed to the new rulers, had fled into Roman (Byzantine) territory. The following year, the Hunnic kings, satisfied with the return of the tribes and a large tribute from the Romans, moved east in an attempt to conquer Persia.
By 440, Attila and Bleda, accusing the Romans of breaking the agreement, invaded the Roman Balkans (approximately modern Croatia and Serbia). In 443, after Theodosius had refused the Huns' demands, the kings invaded Roman territory farther south, in modern Bulgaria, and ransacked cities; they were unable to breach the walls of Constantinople (modern Istanbul). The result was peace bought by the Romans for a much larger tribute. Attila murdered Bleda in 445 and became the sole Hunnish ruler. He attacked the Balkans again, demanding a larger tribute and Roman withdrawal from a large area in modern Serbia and Bulgaria.
In 447, another Hunnish attack on Constantinople was defeated because the city's walls had been restored and in places rebuilt as a result of destructive earthquakes. As a condition of peace, Attila demanded a still larger tribute together with Roman withdrawal from a vast area south of the Danube, in modern Serbia and Bulgaria. Negotiations continued for three years; the Roman embassy to Attila's camp included the historian Priscus, who later gave an elaborate description of Attila, Atilla's entourage, and events occurring during this period.
Around 449, Attila turned his interests westward and planned to attack the Western Roman Empire. Attila was allied with the Western Roman emperor Valentinian III, who had given him the honorary title of "military commander." Valentinian's sister, Princess Justa Grata Honoria, was caught in an illicit love affair and sent to Constantinople. She sent Attila a ring and appealed to him for help. Attila, interpreting this gesture as a proposal of marriage, asked for half of the Western Roman Empire as a dowry. A struggle ensued between Valentinian III and Attila, who, convinced that there was little left to plunder in the Eastern Empire, went west with an immense army, including many Germanic allies. Numerous cities in modern Belgium and northern France were plundered. However, after a battle near modern Châlons, France, Attila was defeated by Roman armies under his former ally Aetius, a Roman general. The Gothic king, Theodoric, temporarily allied with the Romans, died in the battle.
In 452, Attila invaded and plundered the Alps region of Italy but was persuaded not to attack Rome by a delegation headed by Pope Leo I, who reportedly told Attila that almost everything of value had been taken from the city during the invasion of Alaric I forty-two years earlier. Turning eastward to his palace near modern Budapest, conceivably because of an epidemic that may have broken out among his troops, Attila died there early in 453, either of disease or at the hand of his wife, Ildico, who, according to a later Roman historian, had married him earlier that day. After Attila's death, his three sons fought one another and were defeated by other tribes; the Huns lost their empire and were disbursed among other ethnic groups.
The impact of Attila's depredations arguably helped usher in the Dark Ages. It has been said that if Europe had had steppes such as those in Central Asia, the Huns and other Turkic and Mongol groups would have permanently destroyed Western civilization. In literature, Attila and the Huns figure prominently in the Nibelungenlied and other Germanic epics, including early Viking sagas. Some Turkish and Hungarian nationalists regard Atilla as a national hero, but among many Europeans, his name is synonymous with "barbarian" and "boor."
Gordon, C. D. The Age of Attila: Fifth-Century Byzantium and the Barbarians. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1960. A collection of translated original sources, with notes and commentary.
Maenchen-Helfen, Otto. The World of the Huns: Studies in Their History and Culture. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1973. Continental Europe's leading expert on the Huns thoroughly surveys the topic.
Man, John. Attila: The Barbarian King Who Challenged Rome. London: Bantam, 2005. Although intended primarily for a popular audience, this work covers the facts thoroughly and includes biblographical references.
Thompson, E. A. The Huns. Rev. ed. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1999. A revised edition of A History of Attila and the Huns, originally published by Oxford University Press in 1948. One of the standard works in English on the subject. The author attributes Attila's victories to the weakness and disorganization of opposing forces.
Stephen A. StertzSee Also
Benedict VIII; Caligula; Charles II; Christian VII; Clement VII; Commodus; Cypselus of Corinth; Domitian; Elagabalus; Fulvia; Galerius; Genghis Khan; al-Hakim; Ibrahim I; Ivan the Terrible; Justin II; Murad IV; Mustafa I; Nero; Nicholas I; Peter the Cruel; Phalaris; Polycrates; Robespierre; Shi Huangdi; Lucius Cornelius Sulla; Theodora.
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