Attila and the Huns: Horsemen of the Apocalypse


Few men in the annals of history inspire such horrific
infamy as Attila and the Huns.
Although the Huns had swept down from the Steppes of Asia
onto the western edges of the
Roman Empire as early as the late fourth century, it was
not until some time after 435,
that Attila became leader of the Huns. This transition
would prove to mark the
beginning of what would be one of the greatest death blows
to the already ailing Roman
Empire. For under Attila, the Huns would ravage the
European continent to such an
extent never felt before and almost unparalleled since.
As a precursor to the aggressive and fierce campaign Attila
would one day let loose on
Europe, the Huns had established themselves with the
reputations of biblical monsters
amongst the Europeans. Known for mastering the art of
horseback riding and their
bloodthirsty savagery in battle, the Huns were a force to
be reckoned with. Stout in
stature, bow-legged (from constantly being on their
horses)in stance, and mantled with
grotesquely scared faces (purposely done at birth to
inspire fear into the hearts of
their enemies), the Huns proved to be just as savage in
appearance, as they were in
Since their arrival in the west, the Huns had from the
outset, caused an unsettling of
nerves as well as peoples. In 372 AD, the Huns destroyed
the Ostrogothic Empire of
Hermanic, and temporarily absorbed these eastern Goths,
into their own population.
Next they let loose on the Visigoths, under Athanaric on
the Dniester River, and forced
them to flee into the Roman Empire. This event marked the
first time a peoples had
ever been forced into mass migration. It is also, more
important to note, signified
the beginning of a barbarian presence in the Roman Empire
that would eventually not be
so much assimilated, as it would dominate.
The Huns crossed the Carpathian Mountains, and setup their
so-called 'headquarters' on
the Great Hungarian Plain. It was from this vantage point
that they would eventually
raid southward into the Balkans, and westward into Italy
and Gaul. Also, it was the
place where, in just after the year 400 AD, a Hunnic ruler
by the name of Munzak, bore
a son, whom he named Attila (Attila being the hunnic word
for 'iron'). Munzak,
however, soon died after the birth of his son, which meant
it was up to Munzak's
brother Ruga to raise both Attila and his older brother
Bleda. Attila's uncle taught
him to ride a horse before he could even walk, and use both
a bow and a saber, before
the age of five. It was also in Attila's youth, around 410
AD, that he would befriend
a prominent young Roman citizen, whom had been sent to the
Hunnic court as a sign of
peace between the Romans and Huns. The name of this boy was
Flavius Aetius, a name not
to be soon forgotten. Before long though, Attila was sent
to the court of the Western
Roman Empire, to live as a hostage himself. There, he
learned the Roman's language,
culture and military tactics, all of which would be of
great importance later on in
Attila's future campaigns against the Roman Empire. It was
also while Attila lived
here, amongst the Romans, that he learned to despise their
decadent and excessive
lifestyles. In 420 AD, Attila departed back for his
homeland, with much knowledge of
the Roman civilization.
During Attila's 20s and 30s, he fought as a respected
warrior in his uncle Ruga's army,
and by the time Attila had reached the age of 32, he had
already invaded Italy twice.
Both times however, it is important to note, were done in
aid of his boyhood friend
Aetius. Attila was of course handsomely paid for his
services in fending off the
Visigoths, but it was Aetius who gained the most, for he
won the powerful position as
the Master of Soldiers in Rome.
By the time of Attila's accession as the leader of his own
people in 433 AD, however,
his aggressive and ambitious barbarian nature, was
personally restrained in action.
Due to this, he was rather quite impressive in council, and
was not to be considered a
savage by any means, except for his looks. Indeed, after
his accession to the throne,
"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." It is more likely then, that Attila gained such a
vicious reputation as
being the "Scourge of God" through several other
contributing factors. For one, Attila
epitomized the quintessential Hun. He as did all Huns,
looked different, acted
different and lived different than any known peoples of
that time in Europe. The Huns
were barbarian, even to the barbarians, and it is for this
reason, a clash of cultures
so to say, that they were viewed as being almost sub-human.
Another reason for
Attila's bad image was due to the anti-Hun propaganda, that
the church had been
spreading throughout the Roman Empire. This created horror
stories of a demon-man, to
which many people became horrified. A final, and notably
substantial reason for
Attila's besmirched image, was due to the way the Huns
treated their enemies. They
burned and looted towns, raped, killed and beat the
inhabitants, and raised churches
and monasteries without remorse. Although this was an
indeed brutal and different way
of waging battle, it was purposely done for the
demoralizing psychological effect it
gave. Hence, a menacing image made it easier to intimidate
ones enemies.
Attila, himself was a rather humble man, who although was
surrounded by wealth, never
showed it. He lived in clean but very 'plain' quarters, and
"in everything else he
showed himself temperate; his cup was of wood, while to the
guests were given goblets
of gold and silver. His dress, too, was quite simple,
affecting only to be clean. The
sword he carried at his side, the latchets of his Scythian
shoes, the bridle of his
horse were not adorned . . .". This aversion towards
decadencey, could probably be
attributed to the disgust he felt of living in excess which
he got while living in Rome
as a young boy. He saw how it weakened the Roman Empire,
and thus took personal
precautions to avoid contaminating himself with such an
exorbitant lifestyle. Attila
may have also been displaying that he felt himself no
better than any other man of whom
he ruled over.
Attila's first decision as partial leader of the Huns, was
to demand double the annual
subsidy from the Eastern Emperor, Theodosius II, which had
been normally collected up
to that time. These subsidies were little more than subtle
forms of extortion, yet as
what would become usual, Attila got what he demanded. Peace
between the Eastern Roman
Empire and the Huns was extremely fragile, and it only took
specific instances to
shatter that peace. Such as what happened in 440 AD, when a
Roman bishop was caught
stealing artifacts from buried Hun dead. The Huns under
Attila and Bleda, crossed the
Danube in the Eastern Empire, and by 442 AD had made it as
far as Thrace, until they
were halted by the great Eastern Roman general, Aspar.
Peace was finally agreed upon
with the Eastern Roman Emperor, Theodosius II, but only at
an initial cost of six
thousand pounds of gold, and an annual cost of one thousand
pounds of gold, all at the
Romans expense. In 444 AD, Attila's brother Bleda died,
which left him solely in
charge of the Huns. In 447 AD, Attila again attacked the
Eastern Empire, however this
time he had managed to conquer the entirety of the Balkans
(i.e. present day Greece,
Bulgaria, and the former Yugoslavia). A peace treaty was
again drawn up, this time
however, as was to be expected, Attila demanded more gold,
2, 100 pounds worth, which
he would receive annually.
With the east thus being subjugated, Attila turned towards
the west in the 440's, for
future conquest. Attila had amassed an army made up of
numerous barbarian tribes and
ethnic groups, including many Romans. The core of Attila's
army was nonetheless,
still made up solely of the infamous mounted calvary that
was a staple of the Huns
success up to that time. The Huns were masters of rapid and
brutal warfare. They
could strike anywhere at almost any given time, due to
their mounted mobility. They
would ride up on their enemies and from a safe distance let
loose a volley of arrows
that blackened the skies. Attached to these arrows were
whistles that screamed
through the darkened sky, creating a menacing psychological
effect on their victims.
The Huns would then retreat for a distance, and then
suddenly turn back on their
pursuers, who were caught off guard. From there, the Hunnic
infantry would make short
work of their prey, due, if not to their skill in combat,
then simply to their sheer
numbers. Estimates of Attila's army range from as low as
50, 000 to as high as half a
million in number.
Attila set his expansionist sights next on the province of
Gaul. Although still
considered to be under Roman rule, Gaul had long been
overrun by barbarian tribes.
Nevertheless, many large Roman cities still existed
throughout the province, ripe for
the taking. Attila, who had become a shrewd negotiator and
benevolent ruler, thought
it somewhat necessary to find a substantial reason for
invading the West. He got that
reason from the Western Emperor, Valentinian III's sister,
Honoria. Honoria had been
caught in a love affair with her steward, who had been
subsequently executed. Honoria
was kept in seclusion, and it was from there that she
managed to have her ring smuggled
out to Attila, asking for his aid. Attila took this as a
marriage proposal, and in
return asked/demanded that he receive half of the Western
Empire as a dowry. For
Attila, this was the perfect opportunity to take Gaul. So,
in 451 AD, Attila crossed
the Rhine with his army of Huns, Ostrogoths, Burgundians,
Alans, and other small tribal
factions, using Honoria as a rouse for taking Gaul. Before
long, the cities of Metz,
Rhemis, Mainz, Strasbourg, Cologne, Worms, and Trier, were
all sacked and burned. For
unknown reasons, Attila spared Paris, although some believe
it was because the city
harboured St. Genvieve. Attila believed in karma and
soothsayers, which probably lead
him to believe attacking Paris, would be bad luck.
Next, Attila turned towards the Champagne region of Gaul,
which held the Roman city of
Orleans. The city was put to siege, but to Attila's
unexpected surprise, Aetius had
shown up, with a force of upwards of 50, 000 men, which he
had managed to put together,
of Celts, Visigoths, Franks, Burgundians and Romans. All of
these tribes which had
been the traditional enemies of Rome, had now temporarily
aligned into one massive
force, in order to take out the marauding Attila. The siege
on Orleans was halted, and
Attila and his men retreated out onto the Catalonian Plains
near Chalons, were one of
the greatest battles of history took place.
Aetius struck down hard against his former ally. The Roman
leader along with the
Visigothic King, Theodoric, managed to envelope the Hunnic
forces on both sides, and in
doing so, stole the Huns of their greatest weapon, which
was the mobility of their
calvary. Confounded by heavy losses, Attila prepared for
his demise by having a
funeral pyre set up to have himself burned alive, in the
event of his conceivable
defeat. Aetius however let him retreat, for his side too,
had suffered great losses,
and it was also his intention to maintain order by keeping
the barbarians of Gaul
united behind Rome.
The Huns continued their long retreat across the Rhine, and
marched vengefully over the
Julian Alps, through a harsh winter. The Huns by this point
were down, but definitely
not beaten, for "War has long been their industry, and
defeat has not dampened their
spirits or drive.". In 452 AD, Attila set out to re-make
his claim on Honoria, and
entered Italy with an unbridled fury. His first target was
the great city of Aquileia,
which he laid siege to for three long months. When he
entered it, he and his warriors
raised it to the ground and paid special attention to
destroying the city's magnificent
harbour. The city's inhabitants fled to the marshes, where
the Huns dared not tread,
for the soft ground was too unstable for their horses. The
fugitives established a new
city which they named Venne Atsium (trans.- "I made it this
far."), or as it is
presently known today - Venice. From that point, Attila and
his men continued to
ravage the Northern Italian country side, giving rise to
the Roman belief that they
were the 'horsemen of the Apocalypse'.
Despite this initial momentum, three major events halted
Attila's advances into Italy,
before he could do any more damage. The first being that a
bad case of malaria had
broken out amongst his men, which weakened his power
substantially. Secondly, food
shortages due to an Italian famine which had occurred in
the previous years of 450-451
AD, had weakened his forces even further. Finally, the
Eastern Emperor Marcian, had
sent out troops across the Danube, to attack the Huns
territory in the Great Hungarian
Plains. This caused Attila's attention to be diverted from
his present course of
action, to what was going on back at 'home'. Fate, however,
would spare Attila once
In 452 AD, the Western Roman Emperor unwittingly sued for
peace. Pope Leo I, was sent
out along with an embassy from Rome, to meet with Attila.
Roman legend claims that the
heathen Hunnic King turned back due to the eloquence of the
Pope, and the warnings that
he gave Attila of a possible divine intervention by God,
had Attila wished to pursue
his present course of action. What is more likely to have
occurred though, is that
Attila agreed to peace due to his weakened position and
also due to a large subsidy
that he was more than likely paid by the Emperor.
Thus, Attila and his men rode off in 453 AD, laden down
with the bounty they had
occurred both from the great cities they had sacked, as
well as from the treasure they
were paid off by. Attila's castle at Estagrom-gron, on the
banks of the Danube in
Hungary was to be the sight of a large party, held both in
triumph of the Huns
conquests, as well as in honour of Attila's recent marriage
to Ildico, the daughter of
a Germanic prince. This was to be Attila's last appearance
though, for that night he
died asleep in his drunkenness - drowned on his own
Attila was buried in a tomb lined with lead, which
represented his conquests, as well
as gold and silver, which represented the tribute he
received from both Roman Empires.
His tomb was laid to permanently rest at the bottom of the
Theiss River in Hungry.
Attila's saddle, clothes, and weapons, on the other hand
were burned while a group of
the Huns best horsemen circled around, and looking on
"having cut their faces deep with
knives, so that they may mourn the great warrior not with
tears, but with the blood of
Attila had had many sons, but as they all wrestled for
power after their father's
death, the Hunnic Empire fell to pieces around them. Even
Attila's favorite son
Ernoch, who had been chosen by a great Hun prophet, to
raise the Hunnic Empire back up
after his father's death, was to become of nothing. Thus,
by the year 469 AD, the
great Hunnic Confederation, had virtually "scattered to the
In conclusion, the Huns under their most formidable leader
Attila, combined to sap one
of the greatest civilizations ever, of both its wealth and
pride. In war, Attila's
fury was unparalleled, and even when calm, the peace
agreements he made were corrosive.
Punishing the Romans for becoming weak and living such
decadent lifestyles, the best
epitaph for Attila, may just be the one written on a 1500
year old fresco on a
monastery wall in Pavia, Italy, which reads, Attila the Hun
- 'Flagellum Dei' - the
Scourge of God.
a friend

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