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History of Ancient Rome

Enemy of Rome: Attila the Hun

Do not underestimate the power of an enemy, no matter how great or small, to rise against you another day.

Attila the Hun

Attila was born around 406 AD into the most powerful family north of the Danube River, his uncle Ruga ruling the Hun Empire from the late 420s. The Hunnic Empire was a tribal confederation consisting of Huns (a group of Eurasian nomads, appearing from east of the Volga, who migrated into Europe circa 370), and Ostrogoths (a branch of the Goths who had migrated southward from the Baltic Sea during the 3rd and 4th centuries) among others, residing in Central and Eastern Europe. The Huns vast territory had no clear borders and they often caused problems from the Romans by driving Germanic tribes into their territory. Even so the Roman and Hunnic Empires were on good terms, Rome even employing the Huns as mercenaries in many battles. The death of Ruga in 434 left his nephews Attila and Bleda, in control of the united Hun tribes. The empire which the brothers inherited stretched from the Alps and the Baltic in the west to somewhere near the Caspian Sea in the east. Their first known action on becoming joint rulers was the successful negotiation of a peace treaty in which the Eastern Roman Empire agreed to double the subsidies it paid to the Huns. Rome, however, did not honour the agreement.

In 441, when Roman forces were occupied in the west and on the eastern frontier, Attila launched a heavy assault on the Danubian frontier of the Eastern Empire. He sacked a number of important cities, including Singidunum (modern day Belgrade). After a brief truce Attila resumed his assault, destroying towns on the Danube then driving into the interior of the empire toward Naissus and Serdica, both of which were destroyed. Next he took Philippopolis, defeated the main Eastern Roman forces in a succession of battles, and soon his forces reached the sea both north and south of Constantinople. Constantinople's defences proved too strong however and so, after turning back and destroying the Roman forces which had decamped to Gallipoli,  the Huns negotiated another peace treaty. This time Rome had to agree to pay Atilla 6,000 pounds of gold, plus 2,100 pounds per year from then on.

In 445 Attila murdered his brother, Bleda, and thus became the sole ruler of the Hunnic Empire. The Hun's second great attack on the Eastern Roman Empire was made in 447. Riding south into the Eastern Roman Empire through Moesia they met with the Roman forces in the Battle of the Utus. The Huns were left unopposed and rampaged through the Balkans as far as Thermopylae.

In 450, Honoria, sister of Western Emperor, Valentinian III, sent an engagement ring to Attila, asking him to rescue her from an arranged marriage. Attila evidently took this as a proposal, and decided to take Honoria as his wife, demanding half of Western Empire as her dowry. They never actually married, however. Attila attempted an invasion of Gaul in 451 but, despite a long and bloody campaign, he was ultimately repelled by the combined forces of Roman General Aetius and Visigothic king, Theodoric I (the latter of whom was killed in the fighting). This was Attila’s only defeat. 

In 452 the Huns invaded Italy and sacked many cities. General Aetius could do nothing to stop them but much of the country was suffering from a famine and disease at the time and the Huns dared not venture too far.

In 453 Attila married a beautiful young woman named Ildico, just as he was preparing another attack on the Eastern Roman Empire and its new emperor, Marcian. Attila ate and drank late into the night of his wedding but failed to appear the next day. Guards eventually broke down the door of the bridal chamber and found Attila dead, with a hysterical Ildico at his side. It appeared that Attila had suffered a nosebleed while unconscious and had choked to death on his own blood. 

DID YOU KNOW?

1. Legend has it that Atilla's body was encased in three coffins – one of gold, one of silver, and one iron – and buried in a tomb filled with trophies of his many battles and victories. The location of his burial remains unknown to this day but it is said that a river (possibly somewhere in Hungary) was diverted so that a the grave could be dug, then allowed to flow back over the site to hide it.

2. We have only one proper written record of Attila's life from his lifetime, written by Priscus of Panium a 5th century Roman diplomat and Greek historian. Even that is incomplete, so our information about Attila is fragmentary and based as much upon conjecture and legend as it is upon fact. For example Jordanes, a 6th century Roman bureaucrat who turned his hand to history later in life, wrote that that Attila had possessed the "Holy War Sword of the Scythians", which was given to him by Mars and made him a "prince of the entire world".

3. In 1812, Ludwig van Beethoven conceived the idea of writing an opera about Attila and approached August von Kotzebue to write the libretto. It was, however, never written.

4. Attila himself is said to have claimed the titles "Descendant of the Great Nimrod", and "King of the Huns, the Goths, the Danes, and the Medes"— the latter two being mentioned to show the extent of his control over subject nations even on the peripheries of his domain.