Attila became the King of the Huns alongside his brother Bleda following the death of their uncle Rugila in AD 434. He was to unite a disputatious people torn apart by feuds and internal strife, and turn them into one of the most formidable armies known to history. He was feared and loathed in equal measure and those who met him trembled in his presence.
Known as ‘The Scourge of God,’ he was to lay waste to, much of Europe and stand before Rome – quite literally the Barbarian at the Gates.
Then he turned away – Why?
The Huns were a nomadic people who arrived in Europe from the Steppes of Central Asia around AD 370 and settled in the central plains of Hungary.
The Historian Priscus described them thus:
“Though they do just bear the likeness of men (though of an ugly person) they are so little advanced in civilisation they make no use of fire, nor any kind of relish in the preparation of their food, but feed upon the roots they find in the fields, and the half-raw flesh of any animals.”
Their culinary skills may have been lacking but they were superb horsemen and ferocious warriors. They would attack their enemies en masse and at speed firing arrows as they did so. They would then disperse just as quickly and then attack from elsewhere on the field with a favoured tactic being to use nets strung between horsemen to entangle their enemies before dismounting and hacking them to death.
By AD 434 the Huns were threatening the Eastern Roman Empire.
Unable to militarily defend themselves as once they had the Romans had taken to buying their enemies off and the Eastern Roman Emperor Theodosius II offered Attila and Bleda 660 pounds of gold and the return of those nobles who had opposed their succession and had sought asylum in Constantinople, if they agreed to leave the Empire alone.
They agreed and took particular delight in disposing of the repatriated nobles whom they had tied between two horses and then watched as their bodies were torn apart.
For the time being then Attila and Bleda turned their attention towards Armenia, but Theodosius, knowing the Huns would be back took the opportunity afforded him by their absence to reinforce the defences of Constantinople making it virtually impregnable.
In AD 440 the Huns attacked IIIyria and the Danubian Provinces destroying much of the Balkans in the process.
The Historian Callinicus wrote:
“The Barbarian Hun Nation became so great that more than a hundred cities were captured and destroyed and Constantinople itself came into danger, most men fleeing from it. And there were so many deaths and blood-lettings that the dead could not be numbered”.
It was said that Attila took particular delight in killing women and children whom he not only considered an unnecessary burden, but knew that by doing so he would sew dread into the hearts of his enemies.
By AD 443 the Huns were rampaging across the Byzantine Empire virtually unopposed and Theodosius was forced to act. Reinforced with troops from Sicily he rode out from his capital to challenge the invaders but his campaign was a disaster.
Attila, who was the military commander of the Huns, destroyed a Roman army outside the walls of Constantinople, an annihilation witnessed by its citizens and Attila was only prevented from taking the city by its formidable fortifications.
He was to destroy a second Roman army at the Battle of Callinopolis, and Theodosius with no army left with which to fight was forced into a humiliating peace.
He paid Attila and Bleda a further 700 pounds worth of gold, he had to pay again for the release of every Roman prisoner taken, and an annual tribute. But at least he remained safe behind the walls of Constantinople.
In AD 445, Bleda was killed in a mysterious hunting accident and Attila became sole ruler of the Hun Empire and he soon hungrily turned his eyes west.
He marched his armies through Austria and Germany destroying everything in his path on his way to France where his declared aim was the destruction of the Visigoth Empire centred round Toulouse.
He intended to do this in alliance with the Western Roman Emperor Valentinian III with who he had remained on good terms.
The friendly relations between the two men was broke down however when Valentinian’s sister Honoria, angry at her brother’s insistence that she marry an elderly Senator, sent an engagement ring and a proposal of marriage to Attila.
Attila was both surprised and delighted and accepted the proposal immediately demanding half of the Western Empire as his dowry.
A furious Valentinian sent a letter to Attila denying the validity of the proposal. He then ordered that his sister be executed and she was only saved from death by the tear-stained intervention of their mother. She was instead sent into exile.
Meanwhile, Attila declared Honoria to be his wife and property and announced that he was coming to get what was his.
Attila was at the peak of his powers and was described by the Historian Priscus as being:
“Short of stature, with a broad chest and a large head, his eyes were small and his beard thin and sprinkled with grey, and he had a flat nose and tanned skin”.
He was said to be a humourless man who was rarely heard to laugh or even seen to smile. He dressed plainly and wore no adornments or jewellery. He drank little and ate only sparingly. It was said that his children looked upon him with terror.
Valentinian had been forced to break his alliance with Attila and instead join forces with the Visigoth King Theodoric.
Whilst Valentinian remained in Rome his army marched west under the command of his right-hand man Flavius Aetius.
Attila, who had already put to the sword the cities of Rheims, Metz, and Nicasius met the combined forces of Rome and the Visigoth Kingdom on the plains of Chalons.
The Battle of Chalons on 20 June, AD 451 is considered to be one of the great turning points of history, but it was one that Attila had not been expecting.
His forces were engaged besieging the town of Aurelanium (Orleans) when the armies of Theodoric and Aetius appeared on the horizon much to his surprise.
He was unprepared for battle and had to break off the siege and hastily form a battle-line.
The key to success in the coming conflict was a high ridge that dominated the plains below and both sides now raced to take possession of it. Theodoric and Aetius got there first.
The Huns repeatedly attacked the ridge but were repulsed each time at great cost. The fighting was fierce and Theodoric was killed but by nightfall the Huns had been forced to withdraw back into their camp in some confusion.
The defeat at Chalons was Attila’s first ever serious military setback but it was by no means decisive. His army still remained largely intact.
Even so, he awaited the attack he felt was sure to come in the morning with some trepidation.
Thorismund, Theodoric’s son and designated heir, was eager to assault the Hun camp and finish Attila off once and for all but Aetius was more cautious.
Attila had been defeated and his invasion of the Western Empire halted. Why risk everything now?
Aetius kept to himself the fact he feared the power of the Visigoths as much as he did that of the Huns.
Angry at Aetius’s reluctance to continue the battle Thorismund now withdrew his army to the Visigoth capital at Tolosa forcing Aetius also to withdraw.
Attila remained in camp for a few days uncertain of the situation but he was aware that the battle had been a particularly bloody one which had left thousands of his men killed.
Finally, he withdrew his army back across the Rhine greatly weakened, to lick his wounds.
The Battle of Chalons had seen the aura of Hun invincibility shattered though it did little to diminish Attila’s fearsome reputation neither had it destroyed the Hun Army or ended the Hun threat, but it had saved Western Europe from falling to the Asiatic Hordes, for the time being at least.
Despite the defeat at Chalons Attila remained undeterred and was still determined to claim what he believed was rightfully his and within a few months he was back this time attacking Italy directly.
His army trampled upon northern Italy, laying waste to the Lombard Plain, and as if in a fury utterly destroyed the city of Aquilea.
Valentinian, in a panic, fled his capital at Ravenna to seek sanctuary with Pope Leo I in Rome. He could do nothing to prevent Attila from seizing the whole of the Western Empire.
Rome lay at his mercy but he declined to attack it. Why exactly has remained a subject of conjecture ever since.
Attila is known to have had a meeting with Pope Leo I who promised him a Holy Crown and a place alongside the Saints in Heaven if he turned away from Rome. But why would Attila, who was not a Christian, be influenced by such things?
He was though a deeply superstitious man who would have been aware of the fate that befell Alaric, the leader of the Goths, who had died just days after sacking Rome in AD 410.
There may have been more prosaic reasons, however. The Huns had never before successfully besieged a major city and he had also lost a great many of his best warriors Chalons. He was also concerned that he may have to cross the Alps in winter or face being trapped in Italy.
Whatever the reason, he now turned away from the Gates of Rome.
Less than a year later, Attila the Hun, the Scourge of God, was dead.
It was the night of his marriage and the usually sober Attila had drunk heavily. He had retired to his bedchamber alone where he passed out. In doing so he smashed his nose on the stone floor which caused it to bleed so profusely that he drowned in his own blood.
It was an ignominious end for the most powerful and feared man in the known world.
Attila the Hun was buried in a lead coffin beneath the waters of the River Tisza in Hungary. Those who had participated in the burial were executed to ensure the exact location remained a secret – but then as the Historian Jordanes wrote:
“The greatness of warriors should not be mourned with feminine lamentations and the tears of women, but with the blood of men.”