Prehistory to 999 A.D.

Invasion of the Huns into Italy (lead by Attila on the right).
From a painting by V. Checa

A Brief History of Attila and the Huns

The Emperor Diocletian (284 - 305) divided the Roman Empire into two parts, each ruled by its own Emperor. This precipitated the decline of Rome as the Imperial City and center of the Empire. The threat of barbarian invasion persuaded subsequent Emperors to move the seat of the Western Empire north to Milan and then to Ravenna.

Rome was first sacked in 410 by the Visigoths and again in 455 by the Vandals. Although the Roman Emperors abandoned the city, it remained the center of the Papacy and home of the Pope.

Originating in central Asia, the Huns were a Mongolian tribe who invaded southeastern Europe c. AD 370 and managed to build a remarkable empire. In their nomadic endeavors, the Huns crossed paths with the Ostrogoths and Visigoths and were able to maintain their dominance, especially at the Danubian frontier of the Roman empire.

This clan of Asiatic warriors invaded Gaul in 451, which became the unofficial center of their civilization. Although the Huns were seemingly primitive pastoralists, they did maintain a distinct, multifaceted society. The frontier along the Danube became the site for trade, where the Huns obtained silk and wine through annual fairs. Slaves captured in battle helped to define this civilization by bolstering the economy, whether it be through the strong output of their menial labor or through the slave sales market in Rome. Hunnic art added an interesting dimension to the culture as well. Art was expressed in the forms of bronze cauldrons and vessels. Hunnic women donned the latest in necklaces and bracelets, the jewels being anything from coral, carnelian, mother-of-pearl, quartz, pyrite, lapis and even Egyptian paste, which may have been obtained through their nomadic travels.

It is unquestionable, however, that although the Huns made noteworthy achievements in both the arts and economics, their unparalleled warring strategies remain most remembered. Armed with their signature bow and arrow, the Huns fought the Germans under King Ruglia, whose successors (Atilla and Bleda) ruled together. However, Atilla’s aggressive foreign policies (including having issued an ultimatum to the Eastern Roman empire demanding monetary tribute) led to a series of wars that had mixed results.

About 445, Atilla assassinated his brother and took upon himself the challenge of suppressing the Roman advances. A series of attacks were made by both parties. While the Huns were not exactly successful, the expeditions did introduce wealth (through the acquisition of gold), which consequently brought structure to a previously ambiguous governmental system. Now, Atilla adopted autocratic methods and even declared when his people would enter war and remain in peace. Also, the leader had an administration whom he chose (comparable to a political cabinet) and commenced a system of collecting food and tribute from his subjects.

Atilla continued his military undertakings in Gaul (present-day France) but was finally defeated at the Battle of the Catalaunian Plains by concerted Roman and Visigothic forces. Yet surprisingly, that was his only defeat. In 452 the tribe sacked several Italian cities; however, they left due to the lack of resources needed to feed his people. They were even routed in 455 by a combination of tribes (including the Gepidae, Ostrogoths, Heruli, and others) in a great battle on the river Nedao and were ultimately ostracized by the Eastern Roman empire. From that point on, the Huns remained voiceless in the changing face of history.

The City of Rome

Although he reigned almost 20 years as king of the Huns, the image of Attila in history and in the popular imagination is based upon two aggressive military campaigns in the last two years of his life which threatened to dramatically redirect the development of Western Europe.

Attila and his brother succeeded their uncle as leaders of the Huns in 434, with Attila in the junior role until his brother's death (perhaps at Attila's hand) 12 years later. The Hun kingdom was centered in modern-day Hungary. Attila embarked immediately upon a series of wars extending Hun rule from the Rhine across the north of the Black Sea as far as the Caspian Sea. From that base he soon began a long series of saber-rattling negotiations with the capitals of the Roman Empire at Constantinople in the East and Ravenna in the West.

The Battle of Chalons

Finally, Attila forged an alliance with the Franks and Vandals and in Spring 451 led a barbarian horde composed of Huns, Ostrogoths and others across the Rhine River into Gaul, thereby unleashing his long-threatened attack into the heart of Western Europe. Estimates of the size of this force range between 300,000 and 700,000. After sacking and pillaging a broad swath of cities in his path - Rheims, Mainz, Strasbourg, Cologne, Worms and Trier - he bypassed Paris and headed south. He was near obtaining the surrender of Orleans when the combined Roman and Visigoth armies arrived and forced Attila's retreat to the northeast.

To counter this threat, a Roman army under the generalship of Aetius marched from the south, forcing Attila to abandon his siege of Orleans. Near Troyes the opposing forces joined battle at Chalons in one of the decisive battles of European history. On a spring day in 451 the two great armies squared off near Chalons in France’s present-day Champagne District. The day-long combat was fierce, savage and bloody. Attila was beaten and forced to re-cross the Rhine River to his homeland. Imperial Rome was temporarily saved from the barbarian onslaught. Though the margin of victory was slim, this precipitated Attila's withdrawal back across the Rhine, thus avoiding a decisive shift in the course of political and economic development in Western Europe.

Attila's adventures in the West had not ended, however. In the following year he launched a devastating campaign into Italy.

Invasion of Aquileia and Italy

Hun InvasionIn the spring of 452, Attila mounted another invasion of the Western Roman Empire. This time he targeted the Italian peninsula and the seat of the Western Roman Empire which, by the by beginning of the 5th century, had moved from the city of Rome to Ravenna.

First he swept southward, attacking the city of Aquileia at the head of the Adriatic, and wiping it off the face off the earth, therby forcing many of its inhabitants to flee to the relative safety of the islands in the surrounding lagoons. Legend tells us that the city of Venice was founded as a result.

Attila moved next to the southwest, extending his path of destruction through the Po Valley, he burned Concordia, Altinum, Verona and Padua [Patavium]. Pillaging forays were sent westward toward Milan and other cities of Lombardy. He then threatened Ravenna, but stopped just short of reaching this city where the Roman Emperor made his home.

According to legend, the threat to Ravenna was averted when Pope Leo I met with Attila imploring him to spare the city and return to his homeland. It is said that Saints Peter and Paul appeared to the King of the Huns in a vision, threatening his immediate death if he did not follow Pope Leo's suggestion. Miraculously, Attila ended his campaign and led his army back to the north.

Historians propose that Attila's retreat was prompted by a lack of supplies and the inability to feed his troops, a desire to return across the Alps to his capital near present-day Budapest before the onset of winter, a seemingly more persuasive reason than Pope Leo's entreaties. Whatever the cause, the Western Roman Empire was again saved from destruction.


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Created: Sunday, August 15, 1999; Updated Sunday, January 08, 2017
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