He called himself flagellum Dei, the scourge of God, and even today, 1,500 years after his blood-drenched death, his name remains a byword for brutality. Ancient artists placed great stress on his inhumanity, depicting him with goatish beard and devil’s horns. Then as now, he seemed the epitome of an Asian steppe nomad: ugly, squat and fearsome, lethal with a bow, interested chiefly in looting and in rape.
His real name was Attila, King of the Huns, and even today the mention of it jangles some atavistic panic bell deep within civilized hearts. For Edward Gibbon—no great admirer of the Roman Empire that the Huns ravaged repeatedly between 434 and 453 A.D.—Attila was a “savage destroyer” of whom it was said that “the grass never grew on the spot where his horse had trod.” For the Roman historian Jordanes, he was “a man born into the world to shake the nations.” As recently as a century ago, when the British wanted to emphasize how barbarous and how un-English their opponents in the First World War had grown—how very far they had fallen short in their sense of honor, justice and fair play—they called the Germans “Huns.” Yet there are those who think we have much to learn from a people who came apparently from nowhere to force the mighty Roman Empire almost to its knees. A few years ago now, Wess Roberts made a bestseller out of a book titled Leadership Secrets of Attila the Hun by arguing that—for blood-spattered barbarians—the Huns had plenty to teach American executives about “win-directed, take-charge management.” And Bill Madden reported, in his biography of George Steinbrenner, that the one-time owner of the New York Yankees was in the habit of studying Attila in the hope of gaining insights that would prove invaluable in business. Attila, Steinbrenner asserted, “wasn’t perfect, but he did have some good things to say.” Even serious historians are prone to ponder why exactly Attila is so memorable—why it is, as Adrian Goldsworthy observes, that there have been many barbarian leaders, and yet Attila’s is “one of the few names from antiquity that still prompt instant recognition, putting him alongside the likes of Alexander, Caesar, Cleopatra and Nero. Attila has become the barbarian of the ancient world.”
For me, this question became immediate just last month, when an old friend e-mailed out of the blue to ask: “Was A the H all bad? Or has his reputation been unfairly traduced in the course of generally rubbishing everything from that period that wasn’t Roman?” This odd request was, he explained, the product of the recent birth of twins. He and his wife were considering the name Attila for their newborn son (and Berengaria for their daughter). And while it may help to explain that the mother is Greek, and that the name remains popular in some parts of the Balkans, the more I mulled over the problem, the more I realized that there were indeed at least some nice things to be said about Attila the Hun.
For one thing, the barbarian leader was, for the most part, a man of his word—by the standards of his time, at least. For years, he levied annual tribute from the Roman Empire, but while the cost of dealing with the Huns was considerable—350 pounds of solid gold a year in 422, rising to 700 in 440 and eventually to 2,100 in 480—it did buy peace. While the tribute was paid, the Huns were quiet. And though most historians agree that Attila chose not to press the Romans harder because he calculated that it was far easier to take their money than to indulge in risky military action, it is not hard to think of examples of barbarians who extracted tribute and then attacked regardless—nor of leaders (Æthelred the Unready springs to mind) who paid up while secretly plotting to massacre their tormentors. It might be added that Attila was very much an equal-opportunity sort of barbarian. “His main aim,” notes Goldsworthy, “was to profit from plunder during warfare and extortion in peacetime.”
More compelling, perhaps, is the high regard that Attila always placed on loyalty. A constant feature of the diplomatic relations he maintained with both the Eastern and the Western portions of the Roman Empire was that any dissident Huns found in their territories should be returned to him. In 448, Attila showed himself ready to go to war against the Eastern Empire for failing to comply with one of these treaties and returning only five of the 17 Hun turncoats that the king demanded. (It is possible, that the other dozen fled; our sources indicate that the fate of those traitors unlucky enough to be surrendered to Attila was rarely pleasant. Two Hun princes whom the Romans handed over were instantly impaled.)
It would be wrong, of course, to portray Attila as some sort of beacon of enlightenment. He killed Bleda, his own brother, in order to unite the Hun empire and rule it alone. He was no patron of learning, and he did order massacres, putting entire monasteries to the sword. The Roman historian Priscus, who was part of an embassy that visited Attila on the Danube and who left the only eyewitness account that we have of the Hun king and his capital, saw regular explosions of rage.
Still, it is difficult to know whether these storms of anger were genuine or simply displays intended to awe the ambassadors, and there are things to admire in the respect that Attila accorded Bleda’s widow—when Priscus encountered her, she held the post of governor of a Hun village. The same writer observed Attila with his son and noted definite tenderness, writing: “He drew him close… and gazed at him with gentle eyes.”
The discovery of a rich fifth century Hun hoard in Pietrosa, Romania, strongly suggests that the Hun king permitted his subjects to enrich themselves, but it is to Priscus that we owe much of our evidence of Attila’s generosity. Surprised to be greeted in Greek by one “tribesman” he and his companions encountered on the Hungarian plain, Priscus questioned the man and discovered he had once been a Roman subject and had been captured when Attila sacked a city of the Danube. Freed from slavery by his Hun master, the Greek had elected to fight for the “Scythians” (as Priscus called the Huns), and now protested that “his new life was preferable to his old, complaining of the Empire’s heavy taxes, corrupt government, and the unfairness and cost of the legal system.”
Attila, Priscus recorded, also employed two Roman secretaries, who served him out of loyalty rather than fear, and even had a Roman friend, Flavius Aëtius, who lived among the Huns as a hostage for several years. Aëtius used the military skills he learned from them to become a highly proficient horseman and archer, and, eventually, one of the leading generals of his day.
Most surprising, perhaps, the Hun king was capable of mercy—or at least cool political calculation. When he uncovered a Roman plot against his life, Attila spared the would-be assassin from the hideous fate that would have awaited any other man. Instead, he sent the would-be assassin back to his paymasters in Constantinople, accompanied by note setting out in humiliating detail the discovery of the Roman scheme–and a demand for further tribute.
Attila remained a threat to both the Western and the Eastern Empires, nonetheless. His armies reached as far south as Constantinople in 443; between 450 and 453 he invaded France and Italy. Oddly, but arguably creditably, the latter two campaigns were fought—so the Hun king claimed—to satisfy the honor of a Roman princess. Honoria, sister of the Western emperor, Valentinian III, had been sadly disappointed with the husband that her brother had selected for her and sent her engagement ring to Attila with a request for aid. The king chose to interpret this act as a proposal of marriage, and—demanding half the Western Empire as a dowry—he fought two bloody campaigns in Honoria’s name.
Of all Attila’s better qualities, though, the one that most commends him to the modern mind is his refusal to be seduced by wealth. Priscus, again, makes the point most clearly, relating that when Attila greeted the Roman ambassadors with a banquet,
tables, large enough for three or four, or even more, to sit at, were placed next to the table of Attila, so that each could take of the food on the dishes without leaving his seat. The attendant of Attila entered first with a dish full of meat, and behind him came the other attendants with bread and viands, which they laid on the tables. A luxurious meal, served on silver plate, had been made ready for us and the barbarian guests, but Attila ate nothing but meat on a wooden trencher. In everything else, too, 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, like those of the other Scythians, with gold or gems or anything costly.
So lived Attila, king of the Huns—and so he died, in 453, age probably about 50 and still refusing to yield to the temptations of luxury. His spectacular demise, on one of his many wedding nights, is memorably described by Gibbon:
Before the king of the Huns evacuated Italy, he threatened to return more dreadful, and more implacable, if his bride, the princess Honoria, were not delivered to his ambassadors…. Yet, in the mean while Attila relieved his tender anxiety, by adding a beautiful maid, whose name was Ildico, to the list of his innumerable wives. Their marriage was celebrated with barbaric pomp and festivity, at his wooden palace beyond the Danube; and the monarch, oppressed with wine and sleep, retired, at a late hour, from the banquet to the nuptial bed.
His attendants continued to respect his pleasures, or his repose, the greatest part of the ensuing day, till the unusual silence alarmed their fears and suspicions; and, after attempting to awaken Attila by loud and repeated cries, they at length broke into the royal apartment. They found the trembling bride sitting by the bedside, hiding her face with her veil…. The king…had expired during the night. An artery had suddenly burst; and as Attila lay in a supine posture, he was suffocated by a torrent of blood, which instead of finding a passage through his nostrils, regurgitated into the lungs and stomach.
The king, in short, had drowned in his own gore. He had, Gibbon adds, been “glorious in his life, invincible in death, the father of his people, the scourge of his enemies, and the terror of the world.” The Huns buried him in a triple coffin—an iron exterior concealing an inner silver casket which, in turn, masked one of gold—and did it secretly at night, massacring the prisoners whom they had forced to dig his grave so that it would never be discovered. Attila’s people would not threaten Rome again, and they knew what they had lost. Gibbon puts it best: “The Barbarians cut off a part of their hair, gashed their faces with unseemly wounds, and bewailed their valiant leader as he deserved. Not with the tears of women, but with the blood of warriors.”
Michael D. Blodgett. Attila, Flagellum Dei? Huns and Romans, Conflict and Cooperation in the Late Antique World. Unpublished PhD thesis, University of California at Santa Barbara, 2007; Edward Creasy. The Fifteen Decisive Battles of the Western World, From Marathon to Waterloo. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1851; Edward Gibbon. The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Basle, JJ Tourneisen, 1787; Adrian Goldsworthy. The Fall of the West: The Death of the Roman Superpower. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2009; Christopher Kelly. The End of Empire: Attila the Hun and the Fall of Rome. New York: WW Norton, 2010; John Man. Attila the Hun: A Barbarian Leader and the Fall of Rome. London: Bantam, 2006; Denis Sinor, The Cambridge History of Early Inner Asia. Cambridge: CUP, 2004.