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Updated on April 10, 2010

Attila the Hun (406-453) was known to Roman Christendom as the "scourge of God" because of the devastation he wrought throughout the Roman empire. He is remembered for his savagery and his unattractive, even brutal, appearance.

The Huns, whose language belonged to the Ural-Altaic family, had swept out of Asia across central Europe in the 4th century, pushing the Ostrogoths westward toward Gaul and the Visigoths southward into the Roman empire. Subsequently, the Huns controlled a large area north of the Danube and, on several occasions, invaded Roman territory. Only by annual payments in gold was Rome able to stall further depredations.

In 433, Attila and his brother Bleda inherited the kingship of the Huns from their uncle. Attila arranged a treaty with the Romans under which the annual payment was set at 700 pounds of gold. Among other things, the Romans agreed to ransom their nationals held captive by the Huns and to return to Attila deserters from his own realm. Occupied with extending his empire north and east of the Danube, Attila did not molest the Romans until 441, when he took advantage of the absence of Roman troops engaged in Sicilian and Persian campaigns to invade the eastern part of the empire. He advanced toward Constantinople along the great Roman highway that ran through Viminacium, Margus, and Naissus (in the Balkans), but the return of the Roman troops induced him to sign a new treaty with Rome. It was more advantageous to the Huns in that it raised the tribute to more than 2,000 pounds of gold a year.

After Attila had his brother Bleda killed, he made another incursion in 447 all the way to Constantinople, which, however, he was unable to capture. Nevertheless, this time even better terms were secured from the Romans- so much better that Attila did not bear a permanent grudge when a Roman plot to assassinate him failed a year or so later.

About 450, Attila turned his attention to the West. With an army of Huns, Ostrogoths, Gepids, Heruli, and Alans, along with some Burgundians and Franks, he invaded Gaul in 451. His' most formidable opponent was the Roman general Aetius, who also persuaded the Visigoth king Theodoric to take the field. After some maneuvering, the battle sometimes referred to as the Battle of Chalons took place, although the actual site has never been identified. Theodoric was killed, yet his side was victorious and might have inflicted further damage on Attila if Aetius had not wished to spare the Huns for some long-range scheme of his own. Attila then invaded Italy in 452, announcing his intention to claim the emperor's sister Honoria as his bride.

Attila never reached Rome. According to tradition, he was visited in his camp by an embassy headed by Pope Leo I and was persuaded to withdraw. It was said that the apostles Peter and Paul also appeared to second the pope's recommendation. It is known that plague and famine raged in the camp of the Huns at the time. Moreover, when Roman reinforcements arrived from the East, Attila was compelled to retreat northward and leave Italy.

By 453, Attila, the "scourge of God," was dead. Perhaps he was the victim of assassination, but the most popular and romantic version of his passing was that he burst a blood vessel on the night of his marriage to Hilda, a beautiful Gothic maiden.

The great kingdom of the Huns did not survive its great king. The subject peoples revolted, and the Huns themselves weakened and dispersed. One group under the sons of Attila is reputed to have been known as the Bulgarians and to have become the founders of Bulgaria.


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    • gmwilliams profile image

      Grace Marguerite Williams 5 years ago from the Greatest City In The World-New York City, New York

      Well researched and excellent!