Who Was Attila The Hun?

By | August 25, 2021

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Pope Leo I, Repulsing Attila, (detail), 1511-14. Vatican Museums and Galleries, Vatican City, Italy. (Art Media/Print Collector/Getty Images)

Attila the Hun was called the Scourge of God by many of his European contemporaries, as he was famous for brutal battles, razing cities, and massacring civilians, including women and children. However, much is a mystery about both Attila and the Huns, who had a massive impact on Europe and Asia Minor during the fourth and fifth centuries but more or less dispersed into different regions after the demise of their great ruler. Their origins are unclear, as they likely came from a lineage of nomadic peoples, and though they taught their children Latin in order to communicate with the outside world, their own language is still not well understood.

What can be said is that they were epic warriors who used cranial deformation to give their heads a larger, elongated appearance and trained their males from infancy to endure pain, even scarring or burning the newborn's cheek on the day of a son's birth. Though often called "barbarians" due to their nomadic lifestyle and ruthlessness, it was actually their technological superiority that made them so successful, thanks to their long range composite bow and unique high front and back saddle.

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The general path of the Hun forces in the invasion of Gaul. (MapMaster/Wikimedia Commons)

Attila's birth date is likewise unknown, but most evidence shows that he was born around the cusp of the 400s, the nephew of the previous ruler, Ruga. Attila and his brother, Bleda, wasted little time making their presence known in Europe and invaded the Eastern Roman Empire despite having a treaty with them. Strangely, one of their greatest allies was a former prisoner of war, Aetius of the Western Roman Empire, who assisted them in attacking the Burgundians, almost wiping their people out entirely. Aetius also used the Huns almost as a mercenary force to push around the Goths and Franks who threatened the Roman power monopoly over much of Europe.

This relationship could exist between the Western Romans and the Huns because, despite their mastery of war, Attila's Huns were not the conquering type. They made their money by offering "protection" to the various people of Europe for payment, ranging anywhere from 700–2,100 lbs. of gold per year. Basically, it was like the mafia but on a global scale and with a lot more horses.

Attila went on to invade the Balkans, raid Constantinople, and literally burn Naissus to the ground and throw the bodies of all of the inhabitants into the riverbed. Despite being paid, Attila continued to attack the Eastern Romans, then rampaged across the Balkans and into Greece, killing untold numbers of soldiers and civilians and remaining undefeated despite wave after wave of pushback.