Attila the Hun remains a mythical figure in ancient history. His unprecedented military skills and political aptitude contributed to the Huns creating a territorial empire, which even constituted a threat to the Romans. Being the Huns’ southern neighbors, the Romans truly feared this tribal confederation which often allied with the Germanic tribes of Central and Eastern Europe. Attila was the ruler of Huns from 434 until 453 and is remembered as one of the most charismatic leaders. He crossed the Danube river twice, sacked Balkan cities by the dozen and also made a pact with the Eastern Roman Empire. Here are some things you probably don’t know about Attila the Hun.
1. His uncle was the first Hun to beat the Roman forces.
The Huns inhabited both Europe and Asia from 1st until 7th century AD. Attila was born at the beginning of the 5th century, but this doesn’t mean that the Huns did not try to sack Roman lands before. In fact, there were numerous military expeditions aimed at the Roman Empire, or Empires after the schism, but not all of them were successful. Attila’s father Mundzuk undertook such expeditions along with his brothers Octar and Rugila, with whom he jointly ruled the Hunnic Empire. Around 430, Rugila became the sole king and he was the first Hunnic leader to secure a victory against the Roman army.
2. Attila ruled the Huns alongside his brother.
When Rugila died in 434 AD, Attila and his brother Bleda became the new joint rulers of the Hunnic tribes. Their first major success was negotiating a peace treaty with the Eastern Roman Empire. Because the Emperor Theodosius II did not wish for his lands to be sacked, he soon agreed to pay 700 pounds, or 300 kilograms, of gold a year to the Huns for peace in return. Other provisions of the treaty included always allowing the Hun traders to the market place and paying a ransom of 8 gold coins for every Roman citizen captured by the Huns.
3. Attila’s and Bleda’s treaty with Theodosius was breached.
No sooner than the treaty of Margus was established, that it was breached. The impatient Emperor Theodosius began to invade Hun land, and Attila and his brother were not in favor. However, the Hunnic military skills once again proved a threat to the Romans who had to back out. Theodosius II send a trusted diplomats to negotiate the terms of a new peace, and those were harsh: the Huns raised the annual tribute to 6000 Roman pounds, or 2000 kg of gold and 12 gold coins ransom for every Roman prisoner. Soon after the new treaty, Bleda died, leaving Attila to lead the Huns all by himself.
4. Attila defeated the Romans many times.
In 447 AD Attila attacked the Eastern Roman Empire again and won against the Roman army under the command of Arnegisclus. The decisive point of the campaign was the Battle of the Utus, where both sides suffered severe losses. Having conquered the Roman empire, Attila went on to invade the Balkan lands and Constantinople. However, a spread of disease among the Hunnic military forces forced him to retreat. All in all, the war with Romans ended in 449 AD with yet another peace treaty claiming annual tribute.
5. Attila married the Western Roman Emperor’s sister
Even though the Huns frequently invaded the Eastern Roman Empire, they still wanted to keep up good diplomatic relations with the Western Roman Empire. This proved to be an effective tactic until 450 AD, when Honoria, sister of Valentinian III, the Western Roman Empire, send Attila a letter declining her engagement to a prominent Roman senator and offering him marriage instead. Attila took up the offer and took Honoria for his wife, claiming half of the Western Roman Empire as his dowry. Valentinian wanted Honoria dead, but his mother eventually persuaded him not to punish his sister for her deeds.
6. Attila suffered a defeat at the Catalaunian Plains
In the year 451 AD, the Hunnic forces led by Attila put nearly all of Gaul under a threat. First Metz was sacked and then the Hun army also lay siege to Paris, Troyes and Orleans. The King of Gaul, Aetius, joined forces with Visigoths to fight the siege and this led to the famous Battle of the Catalaunian Plains. Theodoric I, the leader of the Visigoths was killed, but this did not stop the Visigoth-Gaul army to suppress Attila’s army, forcing them to retreat. This was Attila’s only failure in the course of all his military campaigns.
7. Historians are baffled as to why he suddenly retreated from Italy.
In the year 452 AD, Attila invaded Italy and sacked many cities on his way, such as Aquileia, Padua, Verona and Milan. But en route to Rome, his forces were stopped by Valentinian III, who sent Pope Leo I to reason with Attila. In the end, the Huns decided to withdraw. Historians are not sure why this was so. And though it could have been due to the sheer religious persuasion of the Pope, more likely it was because of either supply shortage or plague overcoming Italy. The third possible reason for Attila’s withdrawal from Rome was that his soldiers had already taken enough war booty and were unable to accommodate more goods.
8. Attila was dubbed „The Scourge of God”.
During the time of his reign over the Hunnic Empire, Attila was often called this peculiar nickname, due to his particular fierceness in battle. The historic Roman records tell that:“the grass never grew on the spot where his horse had trod”. Indeed, the Hunnic Empire spread far and wide at the time of his rule and became quickly dismantled later, when Attila’s sons divided the land among themselves. A legend attributed his glorious conquests to a particular sword. The weapon was said to have been given to Attila by the Roman war god Mars himself. This also contributed to his nickname, as a divinely appointed avenger.
9. We do not really know what he looked like.
No first-hand accurate historic sources are available to the modern day historians, but quite a thorough description has been made by Priscus, and later recovered by Jordanes, a 6th-century Roman official turned historian. In his account, Priscus is highly impressed with Attila as a person. He writes:”He 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 rumors noised abroad concerning him.” We also find out that Attila the Hun was „Short of stature, with a broad chest and a large head; his eyes were small, his beard thin and sprinkled with gray; and he had a flat nose and tanned skin, showing evidence of his origin”.
10. Attila was most likely not a birth name.
All the contemporary scholars tend to agree on that. What they don’t agree on, however, is the etymology of the name „Attila”. Some trace it to the Eastern Germanic dialects, where it would mean „little father”, denoting a little, or younger person acting like his father. Others tend to see it as a blend of Turkic „es” (great, old) and „t il” (sea, ocean), which could have been translated to something like “the oceanic, universal ruler”. It could also stem from the Turkic-Mongolian at, adyy/agta (gelding, warhorse) and Turkish atli (horseman, cavalier).
11. Attila the Hun died of a severe nosebleed.
After retreating from Italy, Attila planned an invasion on Constantinople again. However, he died in the midst of preparations. Historic sources say that this happened in 453 AD on a wedding night, after Attila got married to a girl named Ildico, probably of Gothic or Ostrogoth origin. During the night he apparently suffered a severe nosebleed, which eventually led to his sudden and unexpected death while he slept. Another version of the story says that it was severe internal hemorrhage after a night of heavy drinking, a condition called esophageal varices, which led to Attila’s death.
12. He appears as a character in the „Nibelungslied”.
„Nibelungslied”, also known as „The Song of the Nibelungs” is a classical epic poem written in Middle High German. It was written down eventually, but first was passed on as part of the oral tradition during the 5th and 6th centuries. The plot tells about a Siegfried, a knight at the court of the Burgundians, who slayed a dragon and was later murdered and avenged by his wife Kriemhild. Attila is hidden under the name King Etzel of the Huns and in the end marries Kriemhild. During the baptism of their child, a battle between Huns and Burgundians ensues.
13. A movie has been made about Attila the Hun.
It is called „Sign of the Pagan” and was first screened in cinemas in 1954. The movie stars Jeff Chandler and tells about the Hunnic invasion of Rome. It tells the story of a Roman soldier called Marcian, who by the power of his military prowess gains Attila’s friendship. The movie ends with a slight twist of plot, as Attila duels with Marcian and Ildico, his wife kills him with a dagger to his chest. Marcian is subsequently named the new Roman Emperor by Pulcheria, the sister of Theodosius II. The film was quite a success, earning 2.5 million dollars in box office.