Biography of Attila the Hun

Though the world considers him a barbarian, Attila was an outstanding commander. Intrigued? Keep reading to find out much more about Attila the Hun.
Biography of Attila the Hun

Last update: 21 February, 2021

Attila the Hun was one of the most successful barbarian leaders of the Hunnic Empire. The world remembered him mostly for successfully attacking both the Eastern and Western Roman empires. In fact, this 5th-century king of the Hunnic Empire, devastated lands from the Black Sea to the Mediterranean, while inspiring fear through the late Roman Empire. 

Dubbed “Flagellum Dei” (meaning “Scourge of God” in Latin), Attila consolidated power after murdering his brother to become sole ruler of the Huns. He also expanded the rule of the Huns to include many Germanic tribes and attacked the Eastern Roman Empire in wars of extraction. 

He never invaded Constantinople or Rome and left a divided family following his death in 453. This barbaric ruler was so successful during his lifetime that his legacy remains even today. Not only did this ruler inspire his people, but he also incredibly inspired numerous historians, including Priscus. 

During his rule, many diplomats of the Eastern Roman emperor Theodosius II had negotiations with him. Luckily, a book named The Fragmentary History of Priscus: Attila the Hun preserved these important diplomatic encounters. Priscus wrote this book while visiting Attila’s headquarters in Walachia in 443. Roman diplomatic people accompanied him.

King of the Huns

Attila the Hun was born in 406 in Pannonia, a province of the Roman Empire (now Hungary). He, along with his own brother, Bleda, became co-rulers of the Huns back in the year 434. 

Nevertheless, upon murdering his brother in 445, Attila became the 5th-century king of the Hunnic Empire and the sole ruler of the Huns. Attila united the tribes of the Hun kingdom and his own people considered him a fair ruler. But he was also an aggressive and ruthless leader. 

He expanded the rule of the Huns to include many Germanic tribes and attacked the Eastern Roman Empire in wars of extraction, devastating lands from the Black Sea to the Mediterranean. He also inspired fear throughout the late Roman Empire.

The wrath of Attila

Attila was notorious for his fierce gaze, according to historian Edward Gibbon. He often rolled his eyes “as if to enjoy the terror he inspired”. He also reputedly scared others by claiming to own the actual sword of Mars, the Roman god of war. In 434, Roman Emperor Theodosius II paid a tribute—in essence, protection money—to Attila. 

Yet, Attila broke the peace treaty, destroying towns along the Danube River before moving into the empire’s interior and obliterating Naissus and Serdica. He then moved to Constantinople, defeating the main Eastern Roman forces in a range of battles. 

However, upon reaching the sea near Constantinople, he realized the impossibility of an attack on the capital’s great walls by his army, which consisted largely of horsemen. Theodosius II had specifically built the great walls to defend against Attila the Hun. 

Subsequently, Attila retargeted and destroyed what was left of the Eastern Roman Empire’s forces. In 441, Attila invaded the Balkans. When Theodosius begged for terms, Attila’s tribute was tripled, but, in 447, he struck the empire again and negotiated yet another new treaty. 

When the new Eastern Roman emperor, Marcian, and Western Roman Emperor Valentinian III, refused to pay tribute, Attila amassed an army of half a million men and invaded Gaul (now France). He was defeated at Chalons in 451 by Aetius, who had banded together with the Visigoths.

“Never arbitrate. Arbitration allows a third party to determine your destiny. It’s a resort of the weak.”

-Attila-

Final years

Attila invaded northern Italy in 452 but spared the city of Rome due to the diplomacy of Pope Leo I and the rough shape of his own troops. Legend has it that St. Peter and St. Paul appeared to Attila, threatening to strike him dead if he didn’t settle with Pope Leo I. 

Sadly, Attila died the following year, in 453, before he could try once again to take Italy. Attila left behind a divided family. In fact, his appointed successor, his oldest son Ellac, fought with his other sons, Dengizich and Ernakh, over control of their father’s empire. 

This empire was ultimately divided among them. Bear in mind that Attila left behind many memorable quotes. Among them, Attila the Hun is remembered for saying “There, where I have passed, the grass will never grow again“.

An outstanding commander

Priscus, who saw Attila when he visited his camp in 443, described him as a short, squat man with a large head, deep-set eyes, flat nose, and a thin beard. According to the historian, Attila was, though of an irritable, blustering, and truculent disposition, a very persistent negotiator and by no means pitiless. 

When Priscus attended a banquet given by him, he noticed that Attila ate only meat off wooden plates. Whereas his chief lieutenants dined off silver platters loaded with dainties. No description of his qualities as a general survives, but his successes during his reign show him to have been an outstanding commander.

We hope this information truly inspires you. As you can see, even though more than 1,500 years after his highly thriving reign, the world still remembers Attila the Hun. He became a legend who inspired many.

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  • Bussagli, Marco (1988) Atila, Alianza.