10 Facts About Attila the Hun

Léonie Chao-Fong

6 mins

11 Feb 2020

Attila (c. 406-453), frequently called Attila the Hun, was the ruler of the Hunnic Empire from 434 to 453.

Considered one of the greatest “barbarian” rulers in history, he was known for his brutality, penchant for sacking and pillaging Roman cities and his near-perfect record in battle.

He built a vast empire for his people across Eurasia, and nearly brought both the Western and Eastern Roman Empires to their knees.

Here are 10 facts about the infamous figure.

1. The origin of the Huns is unknown

The Huns were a nomadic tribe, however historians disagree over where they came from.

Some scholars believe they originated from Kazakhstan, or from the nomadic Xiongnu people who terrorised China during the Qin dynasty and the later Han dynasty. The Great Wall of China was said to have been built to protect against the mighty Xiongnu.

Huns

Huns in battle with the Alans, 1870s engraving after a drawing by Johann Nepomuk Geiger (Credit: Maksim).

The Huns were equestrian masters best known for their astounding military achievements. They were said to learn horsemanship from the age of three, sometimes even sleeping on horseback.

During the 4th and 5th centuries, they gained a reputation for being ruthless, indomitable savages with their unique approach to warfare.

The Huns were expert archers who used reflex bows that could cleanly hit a target 80 yards away.

On the battlefield, they moved swiftly and fought in seeming disarray, before skilfully lassoing the enemy, tearing them off their horses and dragging them to a violent death.

2. He was privileged and well-educated

Attila the Hun

Attila, as depicted in the Hungarian Chronicles in 1604 (Credit: Wilhelm Dilich).

Far from the Roman stereotype of uneducated, barbarian Huns, Attila was born into the most powerful family north of the Danube River.

He and his elder brother, Bleda, were taught in archery, sword fighting, diplomatic and military tactics. They also studied how to ride and care for horses. They could speak, and probably read, Gothic and Latin.

During the 420s and 430s their uncles, Octar and Rugar, ruled the Hunnic Empire. The two brothers were likely present when their uncles received Roman ambassadors.

3. He inherited his empire with his brother

Attila’s uncles, Octar and Rugar, ruled the Hunnic Empire in dual kingship. With their deaths in 434, Bleda and Attila inherited joint control over the empire.

Their inherited empire stretched from the Rhine region to the borders of Sassanian Iran in the Caucasus.

Early in his rule, Attila allied with the Western Roman general Aetius, who had previously been a hostage of the Huns.

Attila and Bleda would continue to give Aetius military support, allowing the Roman to suppress threats from both internal revolts and hostile Germanic tribes such as the Franks, Visigoths and Burgundians.

4. His first step was to negotiate peace with the Romans

Feast of Attila

Feast of Attila by Mór Than, 1870 (Credit: Hungarian National Gallery).

Atilla and Bleda’s first step as rulers was to negotiate a treaty with the Eastern Roman Empire.

Emperor Theodosius II agreed to pay some 700 pounds of gold each year, on the promise of peace between the Huns and the Romans.

However it would take only a few years for Attila to claim that the Roman had violated the treaty, and wage a devastating series of attacks through Eastern Roman cities in 441.

With Hun forces just 20 miles of Constantinople, the Eastern Roman emperor was forced to agree to increase the amount of gold paid to Attila to 2,100 pounds of gold annually.

5. He killed his own brother

In 445, Attila became the sole ruler of the Hunnic Empire when Bleda died. According to the classical sources, Attila may have murdered his brother while on a hunting trip.

After the Huns had returned to the Great Hungarian Plain in 443, Attila set about to challenge Bleda for power over the empire.

The Roman writer Priscus wrote in 445:

Bleda, king of the Huns, was assassinated as a result of the plots of his brother Attila.

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6. He waged war with the Romans to win a wife

With Attila ruling over Scythia, Germania and Scandinavia, the Hunnic Empire was at the height of its power.

In the spring of 450, princess Honoria – sister of the Western Roman Emperor Valentinian III – wrote to Attila, to appeal for his help in escaping an arranged marriage. In her message she enclosed a ring, which the Hunnic king interpreted as a proposal.

Invasion of the Barbarians

The Huns led by Attila, invade Italy, 1887 (Credit: Ulpiano Checa).

Until that time, Attila had been on good terms with the Western Roman Empire, thanks to his relationship with General Aetius. However upon receiving Honoria’s letter, he claimed her as his newest bride and demanded half of the Western Roman Empire as her dowry.

Emperor Valentinian III refused, and so Attila declared war against the empire. Some historians have argued that he used Honoria simply as an excuse to invade the West.

7. The Battle of Catalaunian Plains was his only defeat

Battle of the Catalaunian plains

Battle of the Catalaunian Plains between Attila, Aetius, Meroveus and Theodoric I (Credit:
National Library of the Netherlands).

In 451, Attila and his 200,000 men launched an attack on Gaul, going up against the Roman army under his former ally, General Aetius, the Visigoths, and Gaul’s other “barbaric” tribes – the Franks, Burgundians and Alans.

The two sides finally came to a clash at the Battle of Catalaunian Plains, also called the Battle of Chalons, which 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.

8. He died of a nosebleed

Death of Attila

Death of Attila by Ferenc Paczka (1856–1925).

Even as he was pursuing his claim on Honoria, Attila decided to take yet a young woman named Ildico as another of his wives.

The two married in 453, and he was found dead the morning after, his new wife weeping hysterically beside him.

Some scholars believe that Attila died from a nosebleed caused by a brain haemorrhage. Others claim that he had choked to death in his own blood while lying in a stupor, after a night of heavy drinking.

At the time of his death, the groom had been preparing another attack on the Eastern Roman Empire and its new emperor, Marcian.

There were also those who suggested that Ildico played a part in his death, or that he had fallen victim to a conspiracy by Marcian.

9. His burial site is unknown

According to Priscus, Attila’s men mourned his death by smearing their faces with blood and riding their horses in circles holding his body.

His body was then encased in three coffins in gold, silver and iron, and buried in a tomb filled with the weapons of his defeated enemies, along with jewels and treasures.

Hun warriors

Hun warriors. Coloured engraving from 1890 (Credit: Populär historia).

Legend has it that a river was diverted so that he could be buried in its bed, and then the waters were released to flow over the grave.

The servants who buried him were reportedly killed so his final resting place would never be revealed.

The location of his burial site is believed to be somewhere in Hungary.

10. He was known as the “scourge of God”

Empire of Attila

A map of Europe in 450 AD, showing the Hunnic Empire under Attila in orange, and the Roman Empire in yellow (Credit: William R. Shepherd).

In 443, Attila killed, ransacked and pillaged his way to the city of Constantinople, earning himself the nickname “Flagellum Dei” or “scourge of God”.

During the course of his reign, he became one of the most feared enemies the Romans ever faced.

He crossed the Danube twice and plundered the Balkans, marching as far as Aurelianum (present day Orléans) before being defeated at the Battle of the Catalaunian Plains. He invaded Italy, devastating the northern provinces, but was unable to conquer Rome.

After his death, his close adviser, Ardaric of the Gepids, led a Germanic revolt against Hunnic rule, after which the Hunnic Empire quickly collapsed.