Thursday, February 4, 2016

Who was Attila the Hun? (Part 2)

Attila the Hun in Civilization VWith his brother dead, Attila began to rule alone and had a grandiose plan that shook Rome further. Explore continuation of 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 Sole King of the Huns

Attila ruled as the undisputed king of the Huns after the death of his brother. He ruled upon a vast loosely empire from the Don River and the Caucasus up to the Rhine River. Attila had to be strong and feared in order to maintain this empire.

Attila showed strong, aggressive and ruthless style of leadership. He crushed any traitors within his mist. Those traitors who escaped, he demanded back and crucified them afterwards. Those who worked as spies later found themselves impaled. He kept contentment within his people with riches through plunder, raid and tribute. As long as his people and his allies received gold and slaves, they followed Attila. Thus, Attila had to continue to sack various villages after villages either it be Roman or other barbarians to keep other leaders and nobles busy fighting and raiding rather than plotting against him.

Besides ruthlessness, Attila knew also how to inspire and command the respect of his warriors. He lived simply as the later Roman emissary Priscus saw. In a party, he wore simple and clean clothes unlike his general and other leaders who wore fabulous textile. He drank in simple wooden cup rather than a goblet made of gold and silver. His simplicity made him respectable and commendable to regular Hunnic men. For the Germanic barbarians like the Goths, Attila had to be creative. In addition to his simplicity, he claimed that he held the sword of Mars, god of war, which the Germanic tribes revered tremendously.

In politics and diplomacy he was unpredictable, cunning and rogue. He used whatever reasons he can find to use as pretext to launch raids and to wage war. Roman historians labelled him as treacherous and spread that his empire was not built by conquest but by deceit. Like any other dictators today, from Saddam Hussein to Kim Jong-Un, it made Attila impulsive, hence an always threat to the Romans and other barbarians.

Third Byzantine Campaign

Attila launched his first campaign against the Byzantine as sole ruler in 447. Emperor Theodosius once again refused to pay tribute. Attila then waged war against the Byzantines to force the Romans to pay again and to show his strength as the new sole king of the Huns. Throughout the provinces of Illyricum and Thrace in the Balkans, the Huns raided and sacked cities. In 450, the Huns succeeded in capturing the major city of Marcianopolis, opening the roads to Constantinople.

Theodosius once again sued for peace. Attila sent his trusted warrior – Edico – to negotiate with the Romans. But when Edico arrived, besides gift and an audience with the Emperor, he also received a daring proposal. A eunuch of the Emperor named Chrysaphilus and his interpreter Bigilas offered Edico to kill Attila in exchange for his safety and great wealth in Constantinople. After this, Edico returned to Attila’s court with the emissaries of Emperor Theodosius, which included Priscus who wrote a great detail to the life and campaigns of Attila.

When the embassy arrived in Attila’s court, they waited until Edico had done his part of the deal. However, Edico turned against them and told Attila the Roman plot. Attila was outraged. In anger, he demanded the dubious eunuch who concocted the plan be given to him. Attila also demanded additional land, tribute and Hunnic deserters who sought refuge in Rome.

Theodosius complied, but he did not gave Chrysaphius to Attila. Mainly because the eunuch also did offense to the Western Roman Emperor who also wanted him. In 450, Theodosius passed away, leaving the throne to Marcian who wanted to show his strength as emperor. In defiance to Attila and the Western Roman Emperor, he ordered the execution of Chrysaphius. He also rejected any further payment of tributes to the Huns. Attila was once again furious over the decision of Marcian. It was then followed by another bad news when the Western Roman Emperor Valentinian III also rejected to pay any further tribute.

Honoria’s Proposal

With the refusal of the whole Roman Empire to pay tribute Attila prepared for war. The only question was to whom? The Byzantines had prepared its military. But its brother the Western Roman Empire, suffered serious decline for decades since the fall of Rome. The West proved to be much weaker and ripe for conquest.  Then, Attila received a daring proposal that he cannot resist.

A Western Roman Princess welcomed Attila to come and get the Western Roman Empire. Princess Augusta Honoria, sister of Emperor Valentinian III, sent to Attila a ring and a marriage proposal with the Roman Empire as her dowry. The Princess had been at odds with her brother due her licentiousness. She became pregnant with a servant as the father. But for Valentian, it meant disgrace and had Honoria’s servant lover dead. Honria wanted revenge and sent the letter to Attila.

Attila saw his opportunity to take the Western Roman Empire with legitimacy. He sent envoys to Valentianian asking for Honoria and the half of the Western Roman Empire. Valentinian felt sick as the demand came. He cannot even accept a servant as a brother-in-law, hence, he much more did not want a lunatic barbarian to become one. So he denied Honoria to Attila and disavowed her proposal stating that Rome was governed by men, not by women. Valentinian’s refusal gave Attila what he needed to go and take the Western Roman Empire.

Attila Invaded the Western Roman Empire

In 451, Attila attacked the Western Roman province of Gaul. With a huge army of more than one hundred thousand, Attila crossed the Rhine River and came in Belgica. He gathered a huge alliance of other barbarians that made his army swell so large. His army included Ostrogoths under their leaders Thiudermir, Walamir and Widimir. He also had Alans, Herulis, Gepids, Marcomannis, Rugiis, Sciris, Suebis and small portions of Franks. Their army attacked major cities in Gaul. In Rheims, Attila’s army was said to be responsible with the killing of the Archbishop St. Nicasius. They also ransacked Metz, Strasbourg, Cologne and Trier. They also launched a massive siege of Orleans but this failed. After the failure of the siege of Orleans, then marched towards Catalaunian Plains

The Romans had prepared a massive army to face Attila in the Catalaunian Plains. Valentinian sent General Flavius Aetius to lead a massive strike force to end Attila’s rampage in Gaul. Valentinian also sent a letter to other barbarians to convince them to support Rome. The Emperor wrote to the leader of the Visigoths Theodoric:
"Bravest of nations, it is the part of prudence for us to unite against the lord of the earth who wishes to enslave the whole world; who requires no just cause for battle, but supposes whatever he does is right. He measures his ambition by his might. License satisfies his pride. Despising law and right, he shows himself an enemy to Nature herself. And thus he, who clearly is the common foe of each, deserves the hatred of all. Pray remember—what you surely cannot forget—that the Huns do not overthrow nations by means of war, where there is an equal chance, but assail them by treachery, which is a greater cause for anxiety. To say nothing about ourselves, can you suffer such insolence to go unpunished? Since you are mighty in arms, give heed to your own danger and join hands with us in common. Bear aid also to the Empire, of which you hold a part. If you would learn how needful such an alliance is for us, look into the plans of the foe."

Indeed, many took up the call of arms by the Roman Emperor. Some joined for bounty but other for revenge. The Burgundis, victim of Attila and also Aetius campaign decades ago, joined to fight the Huns. The Visigoths, Franks and other Germanic tribes also joined Rome’s coalition.

Battle of Catalaunian Plains

In 451, the two armies met in the Catalaunian Plains and fought in what some also called as the Battle of Maurica or the Battle of Chalons. The two armies met in the battlefield with a sharp ridge laid in between the two camps. Whoever got the top of the ridge, had the advantage of having higher ground.

Before the battle, Attila sought the advice of a soothsayer. The soothsayer burned pieces of bones. The soothsayer then looked in the cracks of these oracle bones and interpret its cracks. In the end, the soothsayer told Attila, the Huns would suffer a defeat but a commander from the enemy would fall during the battle. Ecstatic, Attila placed in his mind that Aetius, the Roman General, would be the one to fall in battle. And so in the following morning, the battle began. The Romans got first to the top of the center ridge and fortified it. Attila ordered his whole army to strike the Romans in full force.

The battle became one of the bloodiest battles in history. When the Huns charged the Romans, bodies just fell like dolls. Attila became obsessed in fulfilling the prophecy and aimed in killing Aetius. But in the process, many of his men fell. He made a last minute cry to motivate his army into pressing on.
"Here you stand, after conquering mighty nations and subduing the world. I therefore think it foolish for me to goad you with words, as though you were men who had not been proved in action. Let a new leader or an untried army resort to that. It is not right for me to say anything common, nor ought you to listen. For what is war but your usual custom? Or what is sweeter for a brave man than to seek revenge with his own hand? It is a right of nature to glut the soul with vengeance. Let us then attack the foe eagerly; for they are ever the bolder who make the attack. Despise this union of discordant races! To defend oneself by alliance is proof of cowardice. See, even before our attack they are smitten with terror. They seek the heights, they seize the hills and, repenting too late, clamor for protection against battle in the open fields. You know how slight a matter the Roman attack is. While they are still gathering in order and forming in one line with locked shields, they are checked, I will not say by the first wound, but even by the dust of battle. Then on to the fray with stout hearts, as is your wont. Despise their battle line. Attack the Alani, smite the Visigoths! Seek swift victory in that spot where the battle rages. For when the sinews are cut the limbs soon relax, nor can a body stand when you have taken away the bones. Let your courage rise and your own fury burst forth! Now show your cunning, Huns, now your deeds of arms! Let the wounded exact in return the death of his foe; let the unwounded revel in slaughter of the enemy. No spear shall harm those who are sure to live; and those who are sure to die Fate overtakes even in peace. And finally, why should fortune have made the Huns victorious over so many nations, unless it were to prepare them for the joy of this conflict. Who was it revealed to our sires the path through the Maeotian swamp, for so many ages closed secret? Who, moreover, made armed men yield to you, when you were as yet unarmed? Even a mass of federated nations could not endure the sight of the Huns. I am not deceived in the issue;—here is the field so many victories have promised us. I shall hurl the first spear at the foe. If any can stand at rest while Attila fights, he is a dead man."

His last ditched speech, however, failed to provide major gains for the Hunnic Army. Attila realized that he might loss the battle and retreated to his make-shift camp. There, he started to build his own funeral pyre in preparation of an impending defeat. Eventually, the situation forced Attila to retreat. However, Theodoric, King of the Visigoths fell in battle. The prophecy came true but Attila thought wrong who will it be.

At the aftermath of the battle, nothing but desolation remained. Jordannes described the aftermath.
"…a brook flowing between low banks through the plain was greatly increased by blood from the wounds of the slain. It was not flooded by showers, as brooks usually rise, but was swollen by a strange stream and turned into a torrent by the increase of blood. Those whose wounds drove them to slake their parching thirst drank water mingled with gore. In their wretched plight they were forced to drink what they thought was the blood they had poured from their own wounds."

Sources estimated that around 165,000 perished in the course of the one day battle. The carnage left both sides weakened.

Aetius, however, although gained a pyrrhic victory, did not pursue the Huns to give the killing blow. Political reasons said to have made him refuse to finish the Huns. Gaul had been menaced by other barbarians – Vandals, Goths, etc. – besides the Huns. He saw the Huns as a perfect counter balance to this other barbarian groups. He decided that he would wait for both of them to kill each other. At that time, Rome could reconstruct its military force and when their killing ended, Romans could assert once again their rule. But other said that besides political reasons, personal reasons might have contributed to his decision as well – he had lived with the Huns comfortably during his youth, thus hold a deep sentimental emotion with them. His decision to let go the Huns led Attila to rampage the home of Rome itself.

Attila attacked Italy

Attila, instead of attacking other parts of Gaul and other barbarians, stroke south, to the Northern Italian Peninsula itself. Attila’s army remained strong and attacked various cities. In 452, it laid waste to the city of Aquileia, the home of the Venetii. As Attila raped the city, its inhabitants escaped to the nearby coastal marsh and established a new city – Venice. Following Aquileia, Attila also wasted Milan, Pavia, Verona and Vicentia. His army seemed unstoppable and threatened to march to either Ravenna or Rome.

But then, a powerful religious man humbly sought audience with Attila. Valentinian sent Gennadius Avienus, Memmius Aemilius Trygetius, and the most holy Pope Leo I arrived at Attila’s camp to reason out with who they dubbed as “the Scourge of God.” No one knew what transpired within the meeting as it took place inside Attila’s quarters. Legends suggested that Sts. Paul and Peter descended from the heavens and threatened Attila and his army with death if they pushed through in attacking Rome. No one ever knew what truly happened. But clearly, after it took place, Attila withdrew from the Italian Peninsula.

Several reasons had been credited. First, a plague had been said to have convinced Attila to retreat. As his army marched to the peninsula, a disease spread across his army. Soldiers began to die due to sickness rather than battle. Another reason was the Eastern Roman Empire preparing for a campaign against Attila. With a threat near home and a disease weighting him down, Attila decided to withdraw momentarily. But he never came back.

Death of Attila the Hun

In 453, the Scourge of God fell at last. Before his preparation for another campaign against the Romans in Italy, Attila married again. This time to a woman named Ilico. Priscus said that Attila drunk hard during the night banquet after his wedding. In a drunken stupor, he settled for the night in his bed. On the following day, his new wife and his servants discovered him drowning in nosebleed. Some suggested that his new wife poisoned him. But no one really knew, perhaps his excessive life style had took a toll on him, which ended his life. A barbaric cause of death, to a barbaric man.

The Huns greatly honored Attila in his funeral. The Roman diplomat Priscus wrote:
“When they had mourned him with such lamentations, a strava, as they call it, was celebrated over his tomb with great reveling. They gave way in turn to the extremes of feeling and displayed funereal grief alternating with joy. Then in the secrecy of night they buried his body in the earth. They bound his coffins, the first with gold, the second with silver and the third with the strength of iron, showing by such means that these three things suited the mightiest of kings; iron because he subdued the nations, gold and silver because he received the honors of both empires. They also added the arms of foemen won in the fight, trappings of rare worth, sparkling with various gems, and ornaments of all sorts whereby princely state is maintained. And that so great riches might be kept from human curiosity, they slew those appointed to the work—a dreadful pay for their labor; and thus sudden death was the lot of those who buried him as well as of him who was buried." 

Even in death, he departed with riches and with blood. A burial fit to raging king.

The death of Attila marked the end of the major role of the Huns in history. His inept sons failed to maintain the empire that he and his brother Bleda built. The barbarians, which they once subdued, united to topple them down. After which, the Huns never again strengthen to the point it threatened the existence of civilization.

Summing Up

And so, as his empire crumbled, Attila’s legacy remained the fear and shock felt by anyone who knew his acts. Attila had become a legend in history – legendarily brutal. Because of lack of knowledge of his past and his people, speculation arose, with some made up to either to terrify or intimidate people. This along with the damaged he had done to Rome and other people – the incredible amount of plunder and death under their raids and campaigns – they became notorious in epic proportions. But beyond atrocities, Attila and Huns showed their cleverness that made Emperors bow to them. They showed great military skills that earned the respect of military history. They also had the open mindedness to accept other people and use their skills to their advantage. Nevertheless, this had been overshadowed by Attila’s cruelty. His name and that of his people remained synonymous by barbarity and savagery which persisted and outlived any other legacy, such as the empire they built.

Explore also:

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

"Huns."  In The Encyclopedia 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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