Attila the Hun, known to history as the Scourge of God, was a leader who struck fear into the hearts of the Roman Empire. A man of great ability, he led the Hunnic Empire on many ventures against the Roman Empire in the 5th century. His conquests included southern Balkan provinces, Greece, Gaul, and Italy, leaving his brutal mark on these territories.

His nickname, “Scourge of God,” was a title bestowed upon him by the Romans. This name was a reflection of Attila’s brutal and fearsome reputation, characterized by his penchant for sacking and pillaging Roman cities. In the eyes of the Romans, Attila was not just a man, but a divine punishment, a whip of God sent to chastise them for their sins.

The story of Attila is one of relentless pursuit of power, strategic diplomacy, and savage warfare. But who exactly was this man, and how did he rise to become one of the most feared leaders of his time? Let’s explore ten key aspects of Attila’s life story, from his birth to his death.

The Establishment of the Hunnic Empire

Long before Attila’s birth, the stage was being set for the rise of the Huns. The Huns, a nomadic people, roamed the lands of Central Asia, the Caucasus, and Eastern Europe between the 4th and 6th century AD. Their ethnic origins are not completely known. Some historians believe they were a Turkic people descended from the Xiongnu tribes, who first appeared as a tribal confederation on the northern frontier of China in the late 3rd century BC.

These nomads made their way into Western Asia around 370 AD, arriving from Central Asia. They swiftly conquered the Goths and the Alans, causing a multitude of tribes to seek refuge within the Roman Empire. This migration, caused by the Hunnic invasions, would be a harbinger of the conflicts to come.

The Huns’ aggressive expansion sent ripples through the region, disturbing the balance of power and setting the stage for the rise of one of history’s most notorious leaders. The empire they established would become the launching pad for Attila’s reign of power, shaping his destiny and that of Europe. But who was Attila before he became the Scourge of God? Let’s turn back the clock and look at his early days.

A map depicting the origins of the Huns in Mongolia and their movements throughout Asia and Europe.
Origins of the Huns

Attila’s Birth and His Early Days

Attila was born into nobility around 406 AD. His birthplace lies in present-day Hungary. His father, Mundzuk, was the brother of the Hun kings Ruga and Octar. These two ruled the Hunnic Empire jointly until their deaths in 434 AD. As a young prince, Attila was primed for leadership from an early age.

His education was well-rounded, preparing him for the future that lay ahead. He learned archery, sword fighting, and lasso use, skills needed by a warrior. He was also taught horse riding, an essential skill for the nomadic Huns. But his education was not limited to warfare. He was also instructed in military and diplomatic tactics, which would be crucial in his future dealings with the Romans.

Attila was multilingual, he spoke Gothic and possibly read Latin, which would have given him an edge in negotiations with the Roman Empire. His early years laid a firm foundation for his future rise to power, preparing him for the challenges and opportunities that would come his way. However, his path to power was not a straightforward one, as we will see in the next section.

A painting of a crowned Attila in a red robe and the name “ATTILA FLAGELDEI” in gold letters.
Attila, 19th-century painting, Encyclopædia Britannica

Attila Rises: The Ascension to Power

In 434 AD, Attila and his elder brother Bleda found themselves at the helm of the Hunnic Empire. They inherited the empire from their uncles, Octar and Ruga. The empire they inherited was vast, stretching from the Alps and the Baltic in the west to somewhere near the Caspian Sea in the east.

With their newfound power, the brothers set their sights on the Eastern Roman Empire. They negotiated a peace treaty at Margus (modern-day Požarevac) in 434 AD, which required the Romans to pay 700 pounds of gold each year to the Huns. This treaty demonstrates Attila’s early use of diplomacy as a tool for achieving his goals.

However this dual leadership would not last. In 445 AD, Bleda died under mysterious circumstances, and Attila emerged as the sole ruler of the Huns. With his brother out of the picture, Attila had the power and influence to shape the Hunnic Empire according to his vision. His true reign of power had begun. In the years to come, Attila would lead his people on numerous campaigns against the Eastern Roman Empire.

A digital painting of a group of warriors in a snowy landscape. The main subject is a warrior in the foreground, who appears to be Attila the Hun. The warrior is wearing a fur cloak and carrying a sword. In the background, there are other warriors carrying spears and shields. The background also includes a snowy landscape with mountains in the distance. The overall mood of the image is tense and battle-ready.
Attila emerged as the sole ruler of the Huns

Attila’s Eastern Campaigns: Confronting the Eastern Roman Empire

Attila’s time as ruler was marked by aggressive campaigns against the Eastern Roman Empire. Citing the alleged desecration of Hunnic graves by Christians, Attila launched two significant campaigns in 442 and 447 AD. The Huns, under Attila’s leadership, rampaged through the Balkans, capturing key cities and defeating the imperial armies in battle. But Attila’s ambitions didn’t end at territorial conquest. He also sought wealth. During these campaigns, the Huns extracted substantial booty from their raids.

During their 443 AD campaign against the Eastern Roman Empire, the Huns advanced all the way to the capital of Constantinople, reaching the sea on both sides of the city. However, the city’s formidable walls proved impenetrable. Attila’s forces, despite their might, were unable to capture the city. In the face of this stalemate, the Eastern Roman Emperor offered the Huns a massive booty of 6,000 Roman pounds (roughly 4,350 lbs or 2,000 kg) of gold to withdraw.

Warfare, however, was not the only tool in Attila’s arsenal. As we’ll see next, his personal life, including his marital alliances and diplomacy, played a pivotal role in his reign.

A painting of a group of warriors on horseback, with Attila the Hun in the front, riding across a map of Europe and Asia, with labels for different locations and dates.
Artistic interpretation of Attila leading mounted Huns across Europe, Encyclopædia Britannica

Attila’s Marital Alliances and Diplomacy

Attila’s personal life was as rich and complex as his military campaigns. The exact number of his wives is unknown, but historical sources record some of them. His first wife was Kreka, who bore him three sons: Ellac, Dengizich, and Ernak. She died sometime before 450 AD.

Attila’s marital alliances often intersected with his political strategies. For instance, he married Gudrun, the daughter of King Burgundio of the Burgundians, in 437 AD after the Huns captured her. However, she later escaped with the help of her brother Gundahar, who led a rebellion against the Huns.

Another political marriage was with Esca, the daughter of King Sangiban of the Alans. She was given to Attila as a hostage and a bride in 451 AD, after Sangiban betrayed the Romans and allied with the Huns.

Perhaps the most famous of Attila’s marital dealings involves Justa Grata Honoria, the sister of Valentinian III, the emperor of the Western Roman Empire. In 450 AD, Honoria, unhappy with her brother’s rule and her arranged marriage, sent a letter and a ring to Attila, asking him to rescue her.

Attila interpreted Honoria’s message as an offer of marriage and claimed her as his bride. He also demanded half of the Western Roman Empire as her dowry. This audacious demand was met with furious refusal by Valentinian III, who also attempted to kill Honoria, but she was protected by their mother, Galla Placidia.

This retraction of what Attila considered to be a marriage offer made in good faith, set the stage for the ensuing invasion of Gaul by Attila’s forces.

A painting depicting a scene from ancient Roman times, with a man in a green robe holding a scroll and gesturing towards a man in a red robe on a throne, surrounded by other figures and a crowd.
Attila is in the center; the young man to his left is probably his son Ellac, while the women at the top right and top left are his wives, including his senior wife Kreka, Wikimedia Commons

The Invasion of Gaul and the Battle of the Catalaunian Plains (Battle of Châlons)

Attila’s claim on Honoria and his demand for half of the Western Roman Empire as her dowry became the catalyst for his invasion of Gaul. However, this was not the only reason behind his aggression. Another motive was the instigation of the Vandal king Genseric, who sought to weaken the Visigoths and the Romans.

Attila’s forces clashed with a coalition of Roman and Visigothic forces led by Roman general Flavius Aetius and Theodoric I, King of the Visigoths. United by the common goal of stopping Attila’s advance, they faced off against the Huns on June 20, 451 AD, on the Catalaunian Plains, somewhere in Champagne.

The battle was fierce and bloody, a testament to the high stakes involved. Both sides suffered heavy casualties, including Theodoric, who was killed in action. Despite the losses, the coalition forces managed to halt Attila’s advance.

Attila was forced to retreat, marking a significant setback for the Huns. However, Aetius did not pursue Attila, fearing that the Visigoths would become too powerful if they completely destroyed the Huns. This decision allowed Attila to regroup and plan his next move: the invasion of Italy. But as we will see in the next section, this campaign too would prove challenging.

An illustration of a battle scene depicting a fierce clash between two armies with different symbols on their red and blue shields. The soldiers are wearing metal armor and helmets, and are fighting with swords, axes, spears, and bows. Some of them are mounted on horses, while others are on foot. The scene is set in a green field with trees and hills in the horizon. The sky is overcast and there are several flags and banners waving in the wind. The illustration shows a lot of detail and movement, and creates a sense of drama and violence.
The Battle of the Catalaunian Plains between the Romans and the Huns

The Italy Campaign: The Expeditions that Ended in Defeat

Following his defeat at the Battle of the Catalaunian Plains in 451 AD, also known as the Battle of Châlons, Attila set his sights on Italy. He led his forces into the heart of the Roman Empire, sacking and destroying many cities in northern Italy, such as Aquileia, Verona, Milan, and Pavia. Rome itself seemed within his grasp.

However, his unstoppable march came to a halt when he encountered a diplomatic mission led by Pope Leo I. The two met near the Mincio River, marking a significant turning point in Attila’s Italy campaign.

The reasons for Attila’s withdrawal are not entirely clear, but several factors likely played a part. Perhaps he was impressed by Pope Leo’s authority and charisma. Perhaps he feared a plague outbreak ravaging Italy at the time. There may have been concerns about the Eastern Roman emperor Marcian’s threat of invasion of his homeland. Some accounts even suggest that a vision of Saints Peter and Paul threatening him with divine punishment if he attacked Rome played a role.

Whatever the reasons, Attila’s Italy campaign ended not with a decisive battle, but with a retreat. His next and final campaign would be a personal one: a wedding that would end in disaster. Let’s turn the pages of history to Attila’s final days.

A painting of a historical meeting between Attila the Hun and Pope Leo I in the fifth century. The painting shows Attila on a white horse leading his army of horsemen, who are holding a banner with a bird symbol. Pope Leo I is on a brown horse leading his army of foot soldiers, who are holding a banner with a lion symbol. The two leaders are facing each other in the center of the painting, while their armies are on the sides. The painting has a hilly landscape with a castle in the background, and a cloudy sky with two angels hovering above. The painting is titled “Leo Pont Max Attila Fvrentinum Reprimiit” and is signed by the artist.
Pope Leo and Attila the Hun – turning back the barbarians at the gates of Rome, Galleria delle carte geografiche, commissioned by Gregory XIII, 1581, Musei Vaticani

Attila’s Mysterious Death: The End of the Scourge of God

In 453 AD, shortly after returning to his palace on the Tisza River in Hungary, Attila the Hun met his end. His death was as dramatic as his life. It occurred on his wedding night, after a feast that followed his marriage to his latest wife, a young woman named Ildico.

Attila was found dead in his bed, with no visible wound on his body, but bleeding from his nose. His young bride was weeping over his lifeless body, casting a shroud of suspicion over the circumstances of his demise.

The cause of Attila’s death has been the subject of much debate among historians. Some suggest that he choked on his own blood. Others propose theories of assassination by his wife, alcohol poisoning, or an esophageal hemorrhage. The mystery surrounding his death only adds to the enigma of Attila the Hun.

His body was laid to rest in a triple coffin, made of iron, silver, and gold, filled with treasure. The location of his grave remains unknown, as those who buried him were killed to keep it secret. The death of Attila marked the end of an era, but his legacy would live on, as we will explore in the next section.

A painting depicting the death of Attila. He is lying dead in bed, his wife half-naked next to him. The room they are in is richly decorated.
Death of Attila, Wikimedia Commons

The Aftermath: The Impact and Legacy of Attila

The death of Attila set off a power struggle among his sons. The unity and power that characterized the Hunnic Empire under Attila’s rule quickly disintegrated. In 454 AD, a coalition of Germanic tribes dealt a decisive defeat to the Huns at the Battle of Nedao.

One of Attila’s closest advisers, Ardaric of the Gepids, turned against the Huns, leading a Germanic revolt against their rule. The Hunnic Empire, once a formidable force under Attila, quickly collapsed.

The Huns faded from history after the 5th century, their origins and fate shrouded in uncertainty. Some scholars suggest that they may have been assimilated by other nomadic groups or migrated to other regions.

Attila’s impact on European history, though, is undeniable. His aggressive campaigns weakened the Roman Empire, contributing to its eventual collapse in the west. Moreover, his actions facilitated the migration of Germanic tribes and other peoples across Europe, shaping the continent’s history.

A photograph of a bust of Attila the Hun, a 5th-century ruler of the Hunnic Empire. The bust is made of bronze and shows Attila’s head and shoulders. He has long hair, a thick beard, and a stern expression. He is wearing a helmet with horns and a fur collar. The bust is on a stone pedestal with a plaque.
Bust of Attila the Hun at Kincsem Lovaspark, Hungary

Conclusion: Re-evaluating Attila the Hun—A Ruler, a Scourge, an Enigma

Attila the Hun, the Scourge of God, was a ruler who left a lasting mark on history. In less than ten years, he built a vast empire, stretching from the Alps and the Baltic in the west to somewhere near the Caspian Sea in the east. His reign was characterized by relentless expansion, strategic diplomacy, and brutal warfare.

Attila was a brilliant horseman and military leader. He led his armies on numerous campaigns across Europe, defeating Roman armies and taking a great deal of plunder in the Balkans.

But Attila was not just a warrior. He was also a skilled diplomat and negotiator. He extracted massive tributes and concessions from the Eastern Roman Empire through several peace treaties.

He was a complex figure: a ruthless conqueror, a skilled negotiator, a strategic thinker, and a legendary ruler. His life, marked by a constant pursuit of power, had a lasting impact on the course of European history. His story—filled with conquest, drama, and intrigue—offers a glimpse into a fascinating period in history.

A map of the Empire of Attila and the Roman Empire in the 5th century AD, showing the extent and borders of both empires in different colors. The map is in English, with the title “The Empire of Attila and the Roman Empire” at the top. The map has a scale of 1:15,000,000 and a legend at the bottom. The map shows the Empire of Attila in orange, covering most of Central and Eastern Europe, as well as parts of Western Asia. The map shows the Roman Empire in yellow, divided into two parts: the Western Roman Empire in the west and the Eastern Roman Empire in the east. The map also shows the locations of major cities, such as Rome.
Empire of Attila and the Roman Empire around 450 AD, Wikimedia Commons