Prior to Attila’s rule, the West had not experienced such a threat from a single, fearsome leader born of a nomadic people. His conquests gave the Huns control of a region extending from the Danube River to the Baltic Sea, and from the Rhine River to the Caspian Sea. In terms of impact on the course of history, there would not be another conqueror such as Attila until the rise of Genghis Khan 750 years later.
The Huns, excellent equestrians especially during battles, migrated from Central Asia and settled in Central Europe north of the Roman Empire in the late 300s. Little of Attila’s early life is known, including the exact year of his birth. He and his elder brother, Bleda, inherited the Hunnish kingdom from their uncle, King Ruga, when he died in 434.
The Treaty of Margum of 435 required the Eastern Empire to pay an annual fee to Attila and was the first of many humiliating agreements. From 435 to 439, Attila campaigned to consolidate control of Hunnic provinces in the Caucasus and trans-Volga regions. In 443, the First Peace of Anatolius between Attila and the Eastern Romans further humbled the empire. Bleda died a year later, leaving Attila as sole ruler. Historians debate whether his death was a murder or an accident.
In 447, Attila’s army conquered the Balkan territories, destroying many cities in their wake. They reached Constantinople but did not succeed in taking it. The Second Peace of Anatolius was imposed on the Eastern Romans. It called for an increased annual fee, repatriation of former Huns, and for the Romans to evacuate all the territories south of the Danube River. Two years later, an assassination attempt on Attila on the orders of the Eastern Roman emperor, Theodosius II, was foiled, and the emperor was once again embarrassed.
In 451, Attila invaded France (Gaul) in hopes of conquering the Western Roman Empire. A combined army of Germanic and Roman forces stopped him in the Battle of Chalons-sur-Marne, near Troyes. It has been described as one of the 15 decisive battles of world history. Approximately 100,000 people were killed. Attila invaded northern Italy and conquered 12 cities in 452. A papal delegation led by Pope Leo I persuaded Attila to leave in return for a large sum of money and the right to launch another invasion. In 453, on the night of his wedding to the last of several wives, he died as a result of a suffocating nosebleed probably induced by intoxication. His sons divided his empire, but internal strife soon destroyed the power of the Huns. Eventually they were absorbed into the people of the Balkans. During Attila’s lifetime he was a major threat to the Roman Empire, but his challenge did not outlive him. Nevertheless, he is well remembered in history, drama, and literature.
See also Alexander the Great; Caesar, Gaius Julius; Genghis Khan; Nevsky, Saint Alexander; Rameses II; Rome, Ancient
Howarth, P. (2001). Attila, king of the Huns: Man and myth. New York: Carroll & Graf.
Thompson, E. A. (1996). The Huns. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press