‘Attila ground almost the whole of Europe into dust.’
To the people of Europe in the years between 441 and 453, it must have seemed like Armageddon was upon them. Waves of death and destruction swept the continent from Constantinople to northern France. Proud empires were laid waste and great cities were reduced to nothing. This was the horrid handiwork of Attila (c. 406-453), king of the Huns.
The Huns were an ancient nomadic people who originated from the Eurasian steppes and in the 4th century migrated westwards into eastern Europe.
At its greatest extent, Attila’s empire stretched from the eastern banks of the Rhine to the western shores of the Caspian Sea. Here we look at Attila, the ruthless barbarian king, in 10 ferocious facts.
1. Attila was scary but not flashy
Historians have made much use of the account of Priscus, a Roman writer who accompanied a diplomatic mission to Attila’s capital in the summer of 449 and hung out with the king in his palace.
According to Priscus, Attila was ‘short of stature, with a broad chest and a large head’. Attila was not loud and ill-tempered but was intimidating and frightening. He was said to have unsettled those near him with his wild eyes, which would roll ‘hither and thither’.
Priscus observed how Attila sat quiet and stony-faced while the others around him at dinner were getting animated and having a laugh. This could have been a determination to appear ‘kingly’ in front of the Roman ambassadors, but Attila nonetheless surprised the Romans with his relatively low-key habits. According to Priscus, ‘He ate nothing but meat on a wooden trencher […] His cup was of wood, while his guests were given goblets of gold and silver.’
2. Attila murdered his brother
After Hun king Rugila died in 434 his nephews Attila and Bleda took over as joint rulers.
Priscus tells us that in 445, Bleda was murdered ‘as a result of the plots of his brother Attila’, implying that Attila was behind the assassination but maybe didn’t do the deed himself. This bloody coup made Attila the sole ruler of the Hunnic Empire.
3. Attila went to war over a damsel in distress
In 434, Honoria, teenage sister to Valentinian III, the emperor of the Western Roman Empire, was packed off from Ravenna to Constantinople after getting pregnant by a court chamberlain.
In 450, Honoria managed to slip a note together with her ring out to Attila at his camp. The message to the Hun king was an offer of marriage if he could rescue her. Attila responded by telling Emperor Valentinian that he wanted Honoria’s hand in marriage plus half of the Western Roman Empire as dowry. Valentinian rejected this offer, and a furious Attila mobilised his forces and unleashed war on Roman lands.
4. The Huns liked to impale traitors
Common methods of execution among the Huns were impalement and crucifixion. Priscus witnessed the impalement of a Hun man who had been accused of spying for the Romans and the crucifixion of two Hunnic slaves who had killed their masters. Around this same time, several Hunnic fugitives who had been returned to Attila by the Romans also received the sharp end of the king’s justice.
5. The Huns’ horses were equally fierce
The Huns were famous throughout the ancient world for being master horsemen and skilled mounted warriors. When not in camp they were said to spend nearly all their time in the saddle – eating, drinking, and even sleeping on horseback. The Huns were excellent mounted archers, but also used spears and swords from the saddle, too. The Huns would scream as they charged into battle and slaughtered their enemies.
The Huns’ horses themselves were just as frightening and battle-hardened. Their horses were strong, stocky, hardy beasts that were equally happy in deep snow or sun-drenched plains. They had long manes, bushy tails, and wide hooves. These warhorses, adorned with the heads of slaughtered enemy soldiers, were said to be fiercely loyal and would bite and kick enemies in battle.
6. Attila’s horde was huge
When Attila marched into western Europe in 451, it was, according to 6th-century historian Jordanes, at the head of half a million men. Other chroniclers counted more. 19th-century author Samuel Goodrich wrote ‘Historians tell us that his army amounted to 700,000 men.’
An enormous horde if that number is to be believed. Modern historians dispute these figures, with some experts giving a slightly leaner figure of 200,000, and others less still.
7. The Battle of the Catalaunian Fields could have changed the course of history
Jordanes claimed that the Battle of the Catalaunian Fields, near Troyes in modern-day France, took 160,000 lives. Though this figure is not entertained by modern historians, the number of dead was likely extremely high in any case. What modern scholars would be more likely to agree on is that had Attila been victorious in this battle, the course of European history might have been vastly different.
This bloody battle saw Attila driven out of Gaul by a coalition of Visigoths and Romans, bringing to a close a vicious and unrelenting campaign by Attila in which many of the great cities of western Europe had fallen. In April that year, Metz and Trier had been sacked, and by June, the Hunnic horde was at the gates of Paris.
8. Attila destroyed everything in his path
Attila, called the ‘Scourge of God’ by the Romans, used to boast that a blade of grass never grew where his horse had trod.
He destroyed towns, villages, walled cities, churches, markets, ports, and farmland. The Huns were interested in grabbing people, animals, loot, and land. They destroyed food sources for their enemies, and nobody was safe from their wrath, including priests, monks, and nuns, which the Huns would often massacre.
When marauding through eastern Europe one year, Attila and his forces wiped 70 cities off the map.
Attila’s scorched earth policy backfired on him when in 452 he was forced to abandon his campaign in Italy and slink off back to his wooden capital – after running out of food.
9. Those who buried Attila were murdered to keep the location secret
Attila died at home from a haemorrhage in 453. His men mourned in the traditional Hunnic way. They made deep wounds on their faces and didn’t cry or scream but let their flowing blood honour their fallen king.
It is said that the course of a river was diverted so that the dead king could be buried in the river’s bed. Once the burial was complete, the flow of water was then restored. The ancient accounts also claim that the servants who worked at the burial site to inter the king were all killed afterward, in order that nobody would ever know the location. Whatever the truth of this, the place of Attila’s earthly remains is still a mystery to this day.
10. Attila’s capital has never been found
Attila’s capital was described by Priscus as being made entirely of wood, with just one building of stone in the whole settlement. Attila lived in a wooden palace and the king even drank from a wooden cup.
Historians have so far been unable to locate exactly where Attila’s capital was. In 1953 a scholar studied Priscus’s account of his party’s long journey to Attila’s base and argued that Attila’s wooden city was somewhere in modern-day Romania, north of the Danube and east of the Carpathian Mountains.