Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Who was Attila the Hun? (Part 1)

The Feast of Attila the Hun by Mor Than
The Huns ravaged Rome for decades. But he led the ultimate rampaged that earned the Huns there place in history. Explore the life of Rome’s scourge and ultimate barbarian – Attila the Hun.

Name: Attila the Hun (Etzel or Ethele)
Country: The Hunnic Empire
Position: King of the Huns
Tenure: 434 – 453
  • Creation of the Hunnic Empire
  • Weakened the Romans
  • Murdered thousands
  • Sacked hundreds of towns and cities
  • Plundered and Extorted thousands of pounds of gold

Attila the Hun (406 – 453) was known as the Scourge of God. As the barbaric leader of the Huns, he incited fear to the Romans and other barbarians. He built an empire from murder, plunder and extortion. His impulsiveness and violence forced Emperors and other barbarians to his will. Even his relatives fell to his ambition and brutality. His legacy, however, remained the destruction he left, which outlived the Empire he created.

Early Life

Attila the Hun was born to a royal family of the Huns. He and his brother Bleda were the sons of Mundzuk (Mandiuch), the brother of the ruling King of the Huns Rugila (Rua). Not much was known about his childhood besides his family ties due to the lack of sources. The Huns did not developed their own writing system making the lives of their rulers as well as their people shrouded in mystery and inferences. But many agreed, he knew as a childhood friend a Roman hostage in the court of Rua named Flavius Aetius, his later foe in battle.

Like other Hunnic boys, he was prepared for a life of a horseman and a warrior. Huns became known for their excellent horsemanship. This with their warrior skills made them the most formidable cavalry force in the western world during that time. The Huns used it either in service of Rome as mercenaries and auxiliaries or to raid and plunder Roman villages and other barbarians. In 434, Rua passed away. Attila and Bleda succeeded together as Kings of the Huns.

Attila’s Appearance

Priscus described Attila’s physical attribute:
“A lover of war, he was personally restrained in action, most impressive in counsel, gracious to suppliants, and generous to those to whom he had once given his trust. He was short of stature with a broad chest, massive head, and small eyes. His beard was thin and sprinkled with grey, his nose flat, and his complexion swarthy, showing thus the signs of his origins”

Clearly, he showed characteristics that defined a Hun and those who lived in Central Asia. He had flat nose and small eyes. His massive head and thin beard attributed to Hunnic tradition of skull deformation and cheek slashing, which led to large heads and thin to no beard. He also had a small stature but broad chest typical of a Hun.

Co-rule with Bleda

Attila ruled the Huns as co-rulers with Bleda. Together they strengthen their position within the Hunnic Confederation. They did this with military achievements and plunder – military victories and plunder coming from the Eastern Roman Empire.

Rome at the time of Attila the Hun

The Roman Empire had faced decline and decay. Since 330, the mighty Roman Empire had been divided into two – the Western Roman Empire with Rome as the capital and the Eastern Roman Empire with Constantinople as its capital.  The Western Roman Empire saw rapid decline after the division. Within less than a century, Rome – the once magnificent center of Roman civilization – fell to barbarians in 410.  With the fall of Rome, the capital of the Western Roman Empire moved to the city of Ravenna where continuous inept emperors further contributed to the demise of the empire.

The Eastern Roman Empire (otherwise known as the Byzantine Empire), however, also faced constant barbaric attack from different directions. Constant weak emperors led to a state of stagnation. Barbarians took this weaknesses as an opportunity to take plunder. And the Huns, took it as well.

Treaty of Margus

In 435, Attila and Bleda achieved a great political and diplomatic victory when they cemented an agreement with the Eastern Roman Empire. At the start of their reign, the brother launched massive raids against the Romans near the Danube River (the border between Rome and Hunnic territory). In order to preserve peace in the frontier, envoys of Eastern Roman Emperor Theodosius and those of Attila and Bleda met in Margus and agreed with the following terms:
  • Constantinople must pay an annual tribute of 700 lbs. of gold to the Huns.
  • The Eastern Roman Empire can’t enter into an alliance with the enemies of the Huns.
  • The Romans must return to Attila and Bleda traitors and deserters from the Hunnic Empire.
  • The Eastern Roman Empire and the Huns should conduct market fairs along the Danube River where Huns and Romans traded in equal footing.

For years, the Byzantine Empire and the Huns lived in peace and even became allies. Constantinople paid the tribute annually and returned Hunnic traitors and deserters to Attila and left them to their terrible fate. In addition to peace, Attila and Huns agreed to Flavius Aetius offer to fight for the Romans in Gaul against the Burgundis. The Huns and the Romans annihilated the Burgundis. The Burgundi King Gundicar fell in battle. The Burgundi since then held a grudge against the Huns.

Second Campaign against the Byzantines

In 441, the Byzantines ceased paying their tribute to the Huns. Attila and Bleda immediately launched a massive raiding campaign against the Eastern Roman Empire. They attacked villages and, by that time, even walled cities. The Huns succeeded in capturing the fortified Roman city of Naisus, shocking the Romans with its fall. Years before, Huns avoided Roman cities because of their incapability as cavalry to breach walls. But with the fall of Naisus, Attila unleashed a transforming Hunnic Army.

Attila’s Hunnic Army

Attila’s Hunnic Army was composed of cavalry, infantry and siege weapons from varying ethnicity. Before, the Huns avoided walled cities due to the reason that they had no infantry good in hand to hand combat and capable of siege warfare. But as the Huns expanded their alliance with other ethnicity, most especially the Ostrogoths and Herulis. The Huns successfully assimilated them to their force in order to serve as foot soldiers. Eventually, the Goths and Herulis shared their talents and knowledge of siege weapons to the Goths.

The capture of Naisus debuted the latest siege weapons of the Huns. Priscus detailed the weapons used during the siege. He stated:
“Many engines were in this way brought close to the city wall, so that those on the battlements, on account of the multitude of the missiles, retired, and the so-called rams advanced.”

The Huns probably learned to build siege weapons similar to the Romans, like the Ballista. They also built battering rams that their soldiers used to bash into Roman walls or gates.

Nevertheless, the Huns center and core of its military remained the cavalry. The Huns came from the Central Asian Steppes, living though herding using their horses. Horses played a key role in their lives. They conducted almost all aspects of their lives in horseback. Through migration and warfare, they developed their fighting skill in horseback, making them the most formidable cavalry that the world saw.

The Huns had different weapons in horseback. They had swords and javelins, which they threw to their enemies. They also had their iconic reflex bow, with its exquisite shape made of horns, bones and tortured wood. Its reverse curving resulted to stronger tension that made its arrow fly faster and stronger. Sources also revealed that Huns used lassos to entangle their foes to either disable or to drag them across long distances.

In tactics, the Hunnic cavalry used the classic technique of hit and run. They rapidly galloped in battle together, only to scatter upon nearing the enemy unleashing each of their deadly weapons, and to come together to strike hard into enemy formation, and to scatter once again. There quick hit and run tactic brought confusion and chaos within their enemy’s rank.

In addition, the Hunnic cavalry allowed the Huns to use hit and run tactics strategically. It allowed them to descend upon numerous villages and escape quickly from the Romans. It also gave them the capability to rapidly to move from one place to another, giving them the element of surprise during their strike.

With this army, Attila and Bleda ravaged the Eastern Roman Empire and later, the Western Roman Empire as well.

Byzantine Defeat

Attila and Bleda scored additional victories against the Eastern Roman Empire.  The Byzantines failed to cease the attacks of the Huns because most of their troops were fighting the Vandals in North Africa and the Persians in the Middle East. As a result, Attila and Bleda were unstoppable. They destroyed Singidunum (modern-day Belgrade) and Serdica (modern-day Sofia). Emperor Theodosius sent troops that he can muster in attempt to stop the Huns. It failed. The Huns slaughtered them quickly.

Attila and Bleda succeeded in breaking Roman cities and armies, but they cannot breach the defense of the formidable Eastern Roman capital of Constantinople. Knowing this, they agreed to a truce in 442, with Attila and Bleda believing that they had the upper hand in negotiations. In 443, Emperor Theodosius agreed to a peace deal where Rome must back pay and increase the amount of the annual tribute. The Byzantines must pay around 6,000 lbs. of gold for the past years they refused to pay. In addition, they needed to pay an increased annual tribute from 700 lbs. to 2,100 lbs. of gold. In addition, they wanted additional lands to occupy in the Danube River. This amount of land and gold from Theodosius established once again peace with Bleda and Attila.

End of Co-rule and the Murder of Bleda

In 445, Bleda fell to Attila. Between the years 443 and 445, the Huns’ raids to Rome fell silent. Some suggested a plague spread in the Hunnic Empire and food became scarce. Power struggle might also be a reason. Since 434, Bleda and Attila ruled together. But with the truce, sibling rule became a sibling rivalry. Eventually in 445, Bleda saw his demise during a hunting expedition in the forest. Some said that an arrow hit him accidently. However, much of the sources and most believed that he fell victim to the ambitions of Attila who wanted to rule solely. He succeeded and in 445, his sole rule as King of the Huns began.

Explore also:

General References:
"Attila the Hun." In Encyclopedia of Barbarian Europe: Society in Transformation. Edited by Michael Frassetto. Santa Barbara, California: ABC-CLIO, Inc., 2003.

"Huns."  In the Enyclopedia of European Peoples. Edited by Carl Waldman and Catherine Mason. New York, New York: Facts On File, Inc., 2006.

"Huns." In the Encyclopedia of The Roman Empire. Edited by Matthew Bunson. New York, New York: Facts On File, Inc., 2002.

Ammianus Marcellinus. "The Roman History of Ammianus Marcellinus: During the Reigns of The Emperors Constantius, Julian, Jovianus, Valentinian, and Valens." Project Gutenburg. Accessed on January 12, 2016.

Jordanes. "The Origin and Deeds of the Goths." Project Gutenberg. Accessed on January 12, 2016.

Priscus of Panium. “Embassy to Attila.” Accessed on January 14, 2016.

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