|The Huns, led by Attila, invade Italy (Attila, the Scourge of God, by Ulpiano Checa, 1887). Attribution: Ulpiano Checa, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.
Page URL: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Ulpiano_Checa_La_invasi%C3%B3n_de_los_b%C3%A1rbaros.jpg
Attila (c. 406–453 AD), frequently called Attila the Hun, was the ruler of the Huns from 434 until his death in March 453. The leader of a tribal empire of Huns, Ostrogoths, Alans
and Bulgars, among others, in Central and Eastern Europe, he is considered one of the most powerful rulers in world history.
During his reign, he was one of the most feared adversaries of the Western and
Eastern Roman Empires. He crossed the Danube twice and plundered the Balkans but could not take Constantinople. His unsuccessful campaign in Persia was followed in 441 by an invasion of the Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Empire, the success of which encouraged Attila to invade the West. He also attempted to conquer Roman Gaul
(modern France), crossing the Rhine in 451 and marching as far as Aurelianum (Orléans) before being stopped in the Battle of the Catalaunian Plains. Attila subsequently invaded Italy, devastating the northern provinces, but failed to take Rome. Although he planned further campaigns against the Romans, he died in 453, after which his close adviser, Ardaric of the Gepids led a Germanic revolt against Hunnic rule, leading to the collapse of the Hunnic Empire in the Battle of Nedao.
It is said that Attila died in bed – supposedly due to a nosebleed caused by a brain haemorrhage – after a heavy feast and drinking on his wedding night to new bride Ildico. Attila lives on as a character in Germanic heroic legend – he appears under the name
Etzel in the Nibelungenlied and Atli in Icelandic sagas.
Attila means “Little Father” in Gothic or perhaps “Land-Father” in Hunnic. Atil was also the ancient name of the Volga River (renamed after Bulgarians, a Turkic people related to the Huns).
What did Attila look like?
There is no surviving first-hand account of Attila’s appearance, but there is a possible second-hand source provided by Jordanes (the 6th century Eastern Roman bureaucrat), who cites the following description given by Priscus:
“Attila was a man born into the world to shake the nations, the scourge of all lands, who in some way terrified all mankind by the dreadful rumours noised abroad concerning him. He was haughty in his walk, rolling his eyes hither and thither, so that the power of his proud spirit appeared in the movement of his body. He was indeed a lover of war, yet restrained in action, mighty in counsel, gracious to suppliants and lenient to those who were once received into his protection. Short of stature, with a broad chest and a large head; his eyes were small, his beard thin and sprinkled with grey; and he had a flat nose and swarthy skin, showing evidence of his origin.” 
Some scholars have suggested that these features are typically East Asian because, in combination, they fit the physical type of people from Eastern Asia, so Attila’s ancestors may have come from there. Other historians have suggested that the same features may have been typical of some Scythian people. &  Huns looked physically quite different from any other nations the Romans had encountered, adding to the fear they instilled. Some Huns practised head-binding, a procedure that involves binding the skull of young children to elongate it.
Softpedia News describe Attila’s image thus:
“The historical context of Attila’s life played a large part in determining his later public image: in the last years of the Western Empire, his conflicts with the general Aetius (called the “last of the Romans”) and the strangeness of his culture and appearance contributed to cover him in the mask of the ferocious barbarian and enemy of civilisation, as he has been portrayed in many films and other art forms. Attila is known in Western history and tradition by the grim “Scourge of God”, and his name has become a symbol for cruelty and barbarism. In the popular imagination, the steppe warlords such as the Mongol Ghengis Khan and Turkic Tamerlane were cruel, clever, and sanguinary lovers of battle and pillage.”
According to historians, Attila was of an irritable, blustering, and truculent disposition, a very persistent negotiator and by no means pitiless. Priscus tells us that he was intelligent and extremely modest in his dress, although capable of violent outbursts of anger.
Attila, the Brutal but Skilful Warrior
Attila was born in Pannonia, at that time a province of the Roman Empire (present-day Transdanubia, Hungary), around 406 AD. He and his brother, Bleda, were named co-rulers of the Huns in 434. Eleven years later, he murdered his brother and became the 5th century king of the Hunnic Empire and the sole autocratic ruler of the Huns. Under his rule, Atilla and his army devastated lands from the Black Sea to the Mediterranean, inspiring fear throughout the late Roman Empire. Nicknamed “Flagellum Dei” (meaning “Scourge of God“), Attila consolidated power and expanded the rule of the Huns to include many Germanic tribes and attacked the Eastern Roman Empire in wars of extraction, but never invaded Constantinople or Rome, and left a divided family following his death in 453 bringing an end to his eight-year reign. Although he was a just ruler of his own people, he was also an aggressive and ruthless leader who devastated lands from the Black Sea to the Mediterranean and engendered fear throughout the late Roman Empire.
Attila’s incursions into the regions of Germania drove the populations across the borders of the Western Roman Empire and contributed to its decline in the late 5th century. The influx of the Visigoths, in particular, and their later revolt against Rome, is considered a significant contributor to the eventual fall of Rome. The Visigoth victory over the Romans at the Battle of Adrianople in 378 AD was an event from which the Roman military never fully recovered, causing a ‘domino effect’ that brought about the final decline and fall of the Roman Empire in the west.
Although Attila the Hun was considered one of the greatest “barbarian” rulers in history, known for his brutality, penchant for sacking and pillaging Roman cities and his near-perfect record in battle (see below), he was some way off from the Roman stereotype of uneducated, barbarian Huns, and was born into the most powerful family north of the Danube River.
In battle, the Huns were masters of speedy raids, able to move in on a group of ‘enemy’ soldiers, fire hundreds of arrows and ride off, having killed hundreds without engaging their enemy at close quarters. When they did get close to enemy soldiers, they often used lassoes to drag them across the ground, then hacked them to pieces with their swords – see picture (right).
The Battle of Catalaunian Plains (also called the Battle of Chalons), fought near Paris, saw the death of the Visigoth king Theodoric I and the destruction of most of the Western Roman army. However, the allied forces held their ground, and Attila was forced to retreat his army back to central Europe. The battle was one of the bloodiest conflicts in history and Attila’s first and only battlefield loss.
Did the Huns come from Hungary?
The Huns were an ancient, nomadic, non-Christian people who lived in Central Asia, the Caucasus, and Eastern Europe between the 4th and 6th century AD. According to European tradition, they were first reported living east of the Volga River, in an area that was part of Scythia at the time – the Huns’ arrival is associated with the migration westward of an Iranian people, called the Alans. By 370 AD, the Huns had arrived on the Volga, and by 430, they established a vast, if short-lived, dominion in Europe, conquering the Goths and many other Germanic peoples living outside of Roman borders and causing many others to flee to Roman territory. The Huns, especially under King Attila, made frequent and devastating raids into the Eastern Roman Empire. In 451, the Huns invaded the Western Roman province of Gaul, where they fought a combined army of Romans and Visigoths at the Battle of the Catalaunian Fields, and the next year they invaded Italy.
The Huns terrorised Europe in the late-4th to mid-5th centuries and were probably not Hungarians despite the common prefix “Hun”. Scant archaeological evidence suggests that the Huns derive from the Hsiung-Nu people, whose origins trace to the late 3rd century BC in northern China. Repelled by the Han Dynasty, the Hsiung-Nu splintered into factions. The northern faction was driven from China somewhere between 91-93 AD. According to many scholars, these refugees, who migrated west to the Siberian-Kazakhstan steppes, probably came from the European Huns. Other scholars refute the link to the Hsiung-Nu culture yet still place the origins of the Huns in Kazakhstan. The first mention of the tribe appears in European historical records at the end of the 3rd century AD.
In the 18th century, French scholar Joseph de Guignes became the first to propose a link between the Huns and the Xiongnu people, who lived in northern China from the 3rd century BC to the late 1st century AD. Since Guignes’ time, a considerable scholarly effort has been devoted to investigating such a connection, and the issue remains controversial, but recent archaeogenetic studies suggest their Xiongnu origin is from Mongolia and as an admixture with Scythian and Germanic peoples. Their relationships with other entities – such as the Iranian Huns and the Huna people of South Asia – have also been disputed.
The Sword of Attila
The Sword of Attila, also called the Sword of Mars or Sword of God, was the legendary weapon carried by Attila the Hun. The Roman historian Jordanes, quoting the work of the historian Priscus, gave the story of its origin:
“When a certain shepherd beheld one heifer of his flock limping and could find no cause for this wound, he anxiously followed the trail of blood and at length came to a sword it had unwittingly trampled while nibbling the grass. He dug it up and took it straight to Attila. He rejoiced at this gift and, being ambitious, thought he had been appointed ruler of the whole world, and that through the sword of Mars, supremacy in all wars was assured to him.”
The use of “Mars” here is due to the interpretatio romana of Priscus. Hungarian legends refer to it simply as “az Isten kardja”, the sword of God. Priscus’s description is also notable for describing how Attila used it as both a military weapon and a symbol of divine favour, which may have contributed to his reputation as “the Scourge of God,” a divinely-appointed punisher.
In the 11th century, some 500 years after Attila’s death, a sword allegedly belonging to him surfaced, according to Lambert of Hersfeld, who attributed its provenance to the recently established Árpád kings of Hungary, who in turn appropriated the cult of Attila and linked their claimed descent from him with the right to rule. There is no evidence to substantiate these medieval claims of its origin with Attila. The sword, now in the
Kunsthistorisches Museum of Vienna as part of the Habsburg Schatzkammer, appears to be from the early 10th century and is possibly Hungarian. The real historical events of the discovery of this sword will probably remain unknown.
Where is Attila buried?
Attila may have failed to sack Rome but achieved financial success against the Romans, forcing emperors to pay him vast amounts of gold in exchange for peace agreements that often did not last long. Some of the gold (and other treasures) were buried with him.
Attila was buried in three coffins, one nested inside the other; the outer one was of iron, the middle one was silver, and the inner one was gold, according to the 6th century ancient writer Jordanes, who wrote in his book “Getica” that Attila was buried in a triple coffin. The gold and silver represented the wealth that Attila had gained for the Huns, while the iron signified the Huns’ military might. Attila was also buried with gems, captured enemy weapons and valuable ornaments. Jordanes claimed he got his information from records written by Priscus, a Roman diplomat who had contact with Attila and others from his court.
According to legends of the time, when Attila’s body was buried, those who buried him were killed so that his burial place would not be discovered.
Several recent reports have claimed to have discovered Attila’s tomb, but those claims have proven false. Mysteriously, to date, no one knows where Attila the Hun is buried. One unverified story suggests that his followers diverted a river, buried Attila, and then allowed the river to return to its course. If that were the case, then Attila the Hun still lies safely buried under a river somewhere in Asia. Although Attila’s gravesite remains unknown, historians believe it cannot be very far from the palace where he died, an enclosed wooden compound with a courtyard and porticoes set within a large village surrounded by a smooth, wooden fence.
Quotations by Attila
Among many memorable quotes, Attila the Hun is remembered for saying about his powerful but cruel reign,
“There, where I have passed, the grass will never grow again.”
Other notable quotes include:
- “Everybody has value; even if to serve as a bad example.”
- “Trample the weak. Hurdle the dead.”
- “It takes less courage to criticise the decisions of others than to stand by your own.
- “It’s not that I succeed, it’s that everyone else has to fail, horribly, preferably in front of their parents.”
- “Never arbitrate. Arbitration allows a third party to determine your destiny. It is a resort of the weak.”
- “Do not underestimate the power of an enemy, no matter how great or small, to rise against you another day.”
- “Superficial goals lead to superficial results.”
- “It is unfortunate when final decisions are made by chieftains headquartered miles away from the front, where they can only guess at conditions and potentialities known only to the captain of the battlefield.”
- “For what fortress, what city, in the wide extent of the Roman empire, can hope to exist, secure and impregnable, if it is our pleasure that it should be erased from the earth?”
- “Chieftains must understand that the spirit of the law is greater than its letter.”
|CAUTION: Neither we nor any third parties provide any warranty or guarantee as to the accuracy, timeliness, performance, completeness or suitability of the information and materials covered in this paper for any particular purpose. Such information and materials may contain inaccuracies or errors and we expressly exclude liability for any such inaccuracies or errors to the fullest extent permitted by law. Your use of any information or materials on this website is entirely at your own risk, for which we shall not be liable. It shall be your own responsibility to ensure that any products, services or information available through this paper meet your specific requirements and you should neither take action or exercise inaction without taking appropriate professional advice. The hyperlinks were current at the date of publication.|
Sources and Further Reading
- YouTube Video: Total War – Attila Documentary, at https://youtu.be/c_QA30DDt3o
- YouTube Video: Barbarians Rising: Attila, King of the Huns, at: https://youtu.be/DnW6H0EEBBI
- Book: Attila The Hun: A Barbarian King and the Fall of Rome, by John Man, published by Bantam, 31st October 2010, available at: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Attila-Hun-Barbarian-King-Fall/dp/0553816586/
- Book: Attila The Hun: Barbarian Terror and the Fall of the Roman Empire, by Christopher Kelly, published by Vintage, 3rd September 2009, available at: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Attila-Hun-Barbarian-Terror-Empire/dp/1844139158/
- Book: Attila the Hun: Arch-Enemy of Rome, by Ian Hughes, published by Pen & Sword, 14th January 2019, available at: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Attila-Hun-Arch-enemy-Hughes-Ian/dp/1781590095/
- Book: Attila the Hun: A Captivating Guide to the Ruler of the Huns and His Invasions of the Roman Empire (Barbarians in the Ancient World), published by Captivating History, 21st June 2019, available at: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Attila-Hun-Captivating-Invasions-Empire/dp/1950922294/
- Book: ATTILA THE HUN: Fascinating History of the Hunnic Emperor and his Invasions of the Roman Empire (2022 Guide for Newbie), by Ivor Day, self-published, 15th September 2022, available at: https://www.amazon.co.uk/ATTILA-HUN-Fascinating-History-Invasions/dp/398653962X/
- Book: The Fragmentary History of Priscus: Attila, the Huns and the Roman Empire, Ad 430-476 (Christian Roman Empire), by Evolution Publishing & Manufacturing, 7th October 2014, available at: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Fragmentary-History-Priscus-430-476-Christian/dp/1935228145/
 Explanation: The Battle of Nedao was fought in Pannonia in 454 AD. Pannonia was a province of the Roman Empire located in the territory that is now western Hungary, western Slovakia, eastern Austria, northern Croatia, northwestern Serbia, northern Slovenia, and northern Bosnia and Herzegovina.
 Sources: (1) Reyhner, Jon (2013). “Genocide”. In Danver, Steven (ed.). Native Peoples of the World: An Encyclopedia of Groups, Cultures, and Contemporary Issues (1st ed.). Routledge. p. 732. ISBN 9780765682222. OCLC 905985948, and (2) Hedeager, Lotte (24th May 2011). “Historical framework: the impact of the Huns”. Iron Age Myth and Materiality: An Archaeology of Scandinavia AD 400-1000.
 Sources: (1) Bakker, Marco. “Attila the Hun”. Gallery of reconstructed portraits, and (2) Wolfram, Herwig (1997). The Roman Empire and its Germanic Peoples (Hardcover). Dunlap, Thomas (translator) (1st ed.). University of California Press. p. 143. ISBN 978-0-520-08511-4.
 Sources: (1) Wolfram, Herwig (1997). The Roman Empire and its Germanic Peoples (Hardcover). Dunlap, Thomas (translator) (1st ed.). University of California Press. p. 143. ISBN 978-0-520-08511-4, and (2) Sinor, Denis (1990). The Cambridge History of Early Inner Asia. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-0-521-24304-9.
Scythica after them, and who dominated the territory of the Pontic Steppe from approximately the 7th century BC until the 3rd century BC. The Scythians were led by a warrior aristocracy known as the Royal Scythians. Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scythiansikipedia
 Sources: Wolff, Larry. Inventing Eastern Europe: The Map of Civilization on the Mind of the Enlightenment. Stanford University Press; 1 edition (1994). pp. 299–230. ISBN 978-0-8047-2702-0, and (2) Fields, Nic. Attila the Hun (Command). Osprey Publishing; UK ed. edition (2015). pp. 58–60. ISBN 978-1-4728-0887-5
 Priscus of Panium was a 5th century Eastern Roman diplomat and Greek historian and rhetorician.
 Source: Sinor, Denis (1990). “The Hun Period”. In Sinor, Denis (ed.). The Cambridge history of early Inner Asia (1. publ. ed.). Cambridge [u.a.]: Cambridge University Press. pp. 177–203. ISBN 9780521243049. Referenced at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Huns
 Source: de la Vaissière, Étienne (2015). “The Steppe World and the Rise of the Huns”. In Maas, Michael (ed.). The Cambridge Companion to the Age of Attila. Cambridge University Press. pp. 175–192. ISBN 978-1-107-63388-9. Referenced at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Huns
 Source: Saag, Lehti; Staniuk, Robert (11th July 2022). “Historical human migrations: From the steppe to the basin”. Current Biology. 32 (13): 38–41. Many migrations during human history have made the Carpathian Basin the melting pot of Europe. New ancient genomes confirm the Asian origin of European Huns, Avars and Magyars and huge within-group variability that is linked with social structure. Referenced at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Huns
 Source: Lambertus, in Johann Pistorius, Illustrium Veterum Scriptorum, qui rerum a Germanis… (Frankfurt 1613), quoted in William Herbert, Attila, King of the Huns (London: Bohn) 1838:350f. Referenced at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sword_of_Attila