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"These scenes of the death throes of the Roman Empire are full of intimate and little known details. It is as though a mosaic had been discovered on an ancient wall." Harold Lamb

The Death of Attila the Hun, 453 A.D.

Map - Roman Empire in the 5th Century AD

Attila and Istria

History books record the destruction of Aquiliea by the Huns, but in myths and legends still evoked in Istria, the historical figure of Attila, the leader of the Huns, was reputed to have spent some time in Istria and, more significantly, to have met his untimely death there. 

This is by no means a unique belief of just the local inhabitants. About 10-15 years ago, there was a very short New York Times article which stated that archealogists discovered a burial site in Istria and that the description of its accompanying adornments suggested the possibility that it might be Attila's burial site which had been a secret to his contemporaries. I have neither read nor heard of a follow-up to this report (which may or may not exist), so I do not know whether the findings were a hoax or proved to be of other origins.

To dispell some of the myths about Attila, what follows below is the recorded account of his death as reported by eyewitnesses and recorded by Priscus of Panium, an embassador to Attila who was sent by the Eastern Emperor Theodosius II. Priscus wrote a history covering the period 433 to 474, but only fragments of his history remain. Included among them is this climatic event in history which is provided in English translation by C.D. Gordon in his book, The Age of Attila, which was published in 1960 by the University of Michican Press.

Fifth Century Historians

During the fifth century the writing of contemporary history in the western part of the Roman world was limited virtually to the compilation of meager chronicles. In the East on the other hand, a sequence of historians writings in Greek maintained the literary tradition of the Classical Hellenistic periods and consciousIy sought to link the present with the past by adding to the works of their predecessors' substantial narratives of their own times. Thus, they recorded the death throes of the Western Empire and the desperate yet in the end successful struggle for survival by its Eastem counterpart.

Unfortunately, the remains of these fifth-century histories consist of fragments of varying length preserved in works of of writers of a later age. But such as they are, they constitute an indispensable source for our interpretation of the history of the critical period in which they were written. Professor Gordon has made the bulk of the fragments available for the first time in English translation. He has supplied an introduction that facilitates their interpretation and linked them together with short supplementary narratives in such a way as to present a fairly continuous account of the outstanding military and political developments from the death of the Emperor Theodosius I in 395 to the conquest of Italy by Theodoric the Ostrogoth in 493. 

[The following are Prof. C. D. Gordon's notes on Priscus of Panium]

Priscus had many of the faults usual to Byzantine historians - a desire to be elegant at the cost of accuracy and preciseness and a dislike of statistics of all kinds, of careful chronology, and of geographical detail. He has been accused of bias in favor of the privileged landed classes and even of such slavish imitation of the great classical historians that he sacrifices truth to literary merit. On the other hand, he knew many high government officials and took part in several of the episodes he records. And any reader can judge for himself his ability as a vivid storyteller; the eighth [fragment of his history] is justifiably famous and of all these fragments the only one frequently translated. The ancients uniformly praised him, and other historians - Joannes Antichenus, Jordanes, the author of the Paschal Chronicle, Evagrius, and Theophanes - made wide use of him in compiling their works. J.B. Bury, in his History of the Later Roman Empire (1923, I, 279-88), and A.J. Toynbee, in Greek Civilization and Character (Library of Greek Thought Series, pp. 130-36), have translated or paraphrased most of the eight fragment. C.C. Mierow in his translation of Jordanes gives, of course, those fragments of Priscus found in his author.

The death of Attila the Hun

In 453... at the time of his death, as the historian Priscus reports, Attila took in marriage a very beautiful girl, Ildico by name - after numerous other wives according to the custom of his race. Worn out by excessive merriment at his wedding and sodden with sleep and wine he lay on his back. In this position a hemorrhage which ordinarily would have flowed from his nose, since it was hindered from its accustomed channels, poured down his throat in deadly passage and killed him. So drunkenness put a shameful end to a king famed in war.

(According to more romantic rumors current in Roman circles he was stabbed with a knife by a woman.) But late on the following day the royal attendants, suspecting some misfortune, after loud shouts broke down the doors. They found Attila dead from a flow of blood, unwounded, and the girl with downcast look weeping beneath her veil. Then, as is the custom of that race, they cut off part of their hair and disfigured their faces horribly with deep wounds so that the distinguished warrior might be bewailed, not with feminine lamentations and tears, but with manly blood. Concerning this event, it happened miraculously to Marcian, emperor of the East, who was disturbed about his fierce enemy, that a divinity standing near him in his dreams showed the bow of Attila broken that very night, as if the Huns owed much to this weapon. Priscus, the historian, says he accepts this on true evidence. Attila was considered fearsome to such a degree by the empires that supernatural signs showed his death to rulers by way of a boon. We shall not omit to say a little about the many ways in which his corpse was honored by his race.

In the middle of a plain in a silk tent his body was laid out and solemnly displayed to inspire awe. The most select horsemen of the whole Hunnish race rode around him where he had been placed, in the fashion of the circus races, uttering his funeral song as follows: "Chief of the Huns, King Attila, born of Mundiuch his father, lord of the mightiest races, who alone, with power unknown before his time, held the Scythian and German realms and even terrified both empires of the Roman world, captured their cities, and, placated by their prayers, took yearly tribute from them to save the rest from being plundered. When he had done all these things through the kindness of fortune, neither by an enemy's wound nor a friend's treachery but with his nation secure, amid his pleasures, and in happiness and without sense ot pain he fell. Who then would consider this a death which no one thinks should be avenged?" Atter he had been mourned with such lamentations they celebrated a "Strava," as they call it, over his tomb with great  revelry, coupling opposite extremes of feeling in turn among themselves. They expressed funereal grief mixed with joy; and then secretly by night they buried the body in the ground. They bound his coffins the first with gold, the second with si1ver, and the third with the strength ot iron, showing by such a device that these suited a most mighty king - iron, because with it he subdued nations, gold and silver because he received the honors of both empires. They added arms of enemies gained in battles, fittings costly in the gleam ot their various precious stones and ornaments of every kind and sort whereby royal state is upheld. In order that human curiosity might be kept away from such great riches, they slaughtered those appointed to the task - a grim payment for theix work - and so sudden death covered the buriers and the buried.

Thus, Attila became a legend to terrify the fancy and haunt the folklore of succeeding ages. In the "Niebelungenlied" Ildico became Kiemhilde and Attila Etzel. His genius alone had held the loose fabric of his empire together, and at his death dissensions almost at once tore it apart. The subject allies, especially the Gepids and Ostrogoths, broke free, and in the battle of Nedao in 454 the quarreling sons of Attila were decisively defeated, and Ellac, the elder, killed. This battle ended for all time the monolithic Hunnish empire, and though various Hunnish tribes are heard of periodically they no longer offered any serious threats to the Romans.

See also:

Bibliography:

  • Roberts, Wess. Victory Secrets of Atilla, the Hun. (New York: Doubleday Publishers, 1993). pp. 13-19, 38-43, 61-90.
  • Simons, Gerald. Barbarian Europe. (New York: Time Life Books, 1971) pp 32-43, 56-91.
  • Maenchen-Helfen, Otto J. The World of the Huns. (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1973) pgs. 18-165, 186-189, 190-199, 203-238, 297-320.

Text copyright 1996-9 by David W. Koeller. dkoeller@northpark.edu. All rights reserved.

Sources:

  • C.D. Gordon, The Age of Attila, Fifth-Century Byzantium and the Barbarians, Copyright 1960 by The University of Michigan Press, republished Barnes & Noble, Inc. (New York, 1993), Chapter 3 (The Huns), p. 109-111, Preface B, p. 194-5, and back cover.
  • Harold Lamb's quotation - from the back cover of C.D. Gordon's book
  • Image - from the front cover of C.D. Gordon's book, courtesy of Art Resource
  • The Huns - http://campus.northpark.edu/history/WebChron/EastEurope/Huns.html

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Created: Saturday, January 12, 2002; Updated Sunday, January 08, 2017
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