By Leo Damrosch, PhD, Harvard University
Everyone recognizes the name “Attila the Hun,” but how much do we actually know about his rise to infamy?
Many may recognize Attila’s name, but we don’t necessarily know much about him, apart from the cliché that somebody’s politics are “to the right of Attila the Hun.” Attila could be brutal, but that wouldn’t identify him as “right-wing.”
“The Tide of Emigration”
In the large sweep of Edward Gibbon’s narrative, this is the culmination of the chain reaction, of successive groups that moved westward. He describes them much like a natural phenomenon:
“In the tide of emigration which impetuously rolled from the confines of China to those of Germany, the most powerful and populous tribes – may commonly be found on the verge of the Roman provinces, where they acquired an eager appetite for the luxuries of civilized life.”
This “tide of emigration” is a human equivalent to the terrible earthquake that devastated the Mediterranean region not long before. The earthquake happened in the year 365, and the Huns entered the picture in 376.
Those earlier tribes had developed an appetite for civilized luxury, which from Gibbon’s point of view was good: It de-barbarized them. The more primitive Huns weren’t interested in that.
This is a transcript from the video series Books That Matter: The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
The Introduction of Attila
Gibbon introduces Attila with a vivid portrait:
“A large head – a swarthy complexion – small deep-seated eyes – a flat nose – a few hairs in the place of a beard – broad shoulders – and a short square body – of nervous strength – though of a disproportioned form. The haughty step and demeanor of the king of the Huns – expressed the consciousness of his superiority above the rest of mankind; and he had a custom of fiercely rolling his eyes, as if he wished to enjoy the terror which he inspired.”
So far, we might be hearing about one of the orcs in The Lord of the Rings. But then the tone changes:
“Yet this savage hero was not inaccessible to pity – his suppliant enemies might confide in the assurance of peace or pardon – and Attila was considered by his subjects as a just and indulgent master. He delighted in war; but after he had ascended the throne in a mature age – his head – rather than his hand – achieved the conquest of the North; and the fame of an adventurous soldier was usefully exchanged – for that of a prudent and successful general.”
Learn more about successive waves of barbarian invaders, beginning with the assault of the Huns
Finding a Leader
The presentation here is impressively judicious. To unite those disparate groups, a true general was needed; one might even say, a statesman. Although the Huns first entered the consciousness of the Roman world back in 376, it was not until 434 that the Hunnic Empire was consolidated under Attila; often, Gibbon doesn’t supply the dates that would help us to keep our bearings. Or at least, it’s conventional to call it an empire, but a better word might be “hegemony.”
The formerly nomadic Huns made their headquarters somewhere in upper Hungary, which takes its name from them. The lifestyle was still rustic, with a palace made entirely of wood. Gibbon took it as axiomatic that a proper palace is made of stone. He also remarks that over the extent of several thousand miles, the empire of the Huns didn’t contain a single city.
Peter Heather, in his excellent book The Fall of the Roman Empire, describes the exceptional skill of the Huns on horseback, and their powerful laminated bows, which could wound unarmored foes at a distance of four hundred yards. At closer quarters, not even the simple armor of those days was adequate protection.
Learn more about the emergence of imperial dictatorship
The Attack on Gaul
In 450, Attila’s soldiers were on the move. They planned to conquer Gaul, with the assistance of some of the resident Vandals and Franks who became their allies. Gibbon seems to treat this campaign as resulting from mere belligerence, but from a modern perspective, there was a more calculated motive. The Hunnic confederation was unstable and could fragment at any time. Attila needed victories to keep it together, and after they finished ransacking the region along the Danube, new targets had to be found. As always, barbarian troops had little hope of capturing heavily fortified Constantinople, therefore leaving Gaul.
An impressive alliance of tribal groups in Gaul came together to resist the Huns, and you can hear Gibbon savoring their names as he gives a resonant roll call:
“the Laeti – the Armoricans – the Breones – the Saxons – the Burgundians – the Sarmatians or Aláni – the Ripuarians, and the Franks. Such was the various army which, under the conduct of Aetius [“Ee-tee-us’] and Theódoric, advanced by rapid marches to relieve Orléans – and to give battle to the innumerable host of Attila.”
Theódoric was a king of the Ostrogoths, and Flavius Aetius has been described as the last great Roman hero. As a young soldier, he had spent time with the Huns as a hostage, giving him an unusual insight into their culture and methods. Though he was never named emperor, he was the de facto emperor in the West at this time.
The opposing forces met in an enormous battle in 451, on the Catalaunian Plains (known in French as the battle of Châlons), about a hundred miles east of Paris. The historical record is sketchy here, and it’s not at all clear what happened, except that Theódoric the Visigoth was killed—not by a Hun, but by a javelin hurled by an Ostrogoth who was allied with Attila.
The fighting ended in a stalemate, after horrific bloodshed, but Gaul was saved. Attila withdrew his forces and decided to attack Italy instead.
Learn more about increased barbarian threats from in Britain, Germany, the Middle East, the Danube, and North Africa
Common Questions About Attila the Hun
Attila the Hun was from what is now known as Hungary.
Attila the Hun was not a Christian. The Huns practiced Tengrism, which is a shamanic belief system.
It is not entirely known where the Huns originated. Scholars debate whether they were from the Xiongnu near China or Kazakhstan.
It is not exactly known how Attila the Hun died. He apparently choked on his own blood the morning after his wedding night feasts. It is suggested his new wife killed him in a conspiracy, he died of alcohol poisoning or a burst blood vessel.