Even to speak his name is to invoke images of savagery and destruction. He was known as flagellum Dei, ‘the scourge of God’, sent to punish the wicked Christians of the tottering Roman empire. In Italy, according to tradition, he spread fire and death far and wide, slaughtering 5000 people of Florence and levelling the city. Cologne on the Rhine saw an even more grisly massacre, when Attila made martyrs of no fewer than 11,000 nuns.
Even nature itself withered before him: ‘It is a saying worthy of the ferocious pride of Attila,’ wrote Edward Gibbon, ‘that the grass never grew on the spot where his horse had trod.’
|The latest installment of the popular Total War video game series sums up modern perceptions of Attila|
Hopefully by this point you have raised at least one sceptical eyebrow. The truth is that Attila became a victim of his success, and soon after his death was turned into a monster to frighten children. He never sacked Florence; he never even came anywhere near the city. Likewise there’s not a shred of evidence that he met a single nun in Cologne, let alone murdering 11,000 of them.
This is all the stuff of medieval fables, but when I came to write my second novel, At the Ruin of the World, he was still the obvious choice for the threatening bogeyman looming over the empire. There's no escaping his legacy.
So who was the real Attila? In fact, he was a lot more fascinating than the pantomime villain history has turned him into. Here are some nuggets we can dig out from beneath the centuries of myth...
1. Attila ruled an empire from the Baltic to the Black Sea
We know very little about the empire ruled by Attila from 434 to 453, because his own government, such as it was, left behind no written records. Everything we know comes from either Roman writers (not always as hostile to Attila as you might think) or archaeology.
One thing that does come through the sources clearly, though, is the extent of his rule. ‘Empire’ is maybe not the best word, as this was nothing like the Roman empire. Far from being an organised, bureaucratic state, it looks more like a loose confederation of various barbarian peoples drawn together by Attila’s charisma and success as a warlord.
Even so, never before had a single barbarian ruler managed to gather such a following on the very borders of Rome. The emperors were right to be afraid of Attila.
2. Attila (allegedly) owned the sword of a god
All right, this is a myth, but at least one put about by Attila himself. This is the earliest version of the story:
When a certain shepherd beheld one heifer of his flock limping and could find no cause for this wound, he anxiously followed the trail of blood and at length came to a sword it had unwittingly trampled while nibbling the grass. He dug it up and took it straight to Attila. He rejoiced at this gift and, being ambitious, thought he had been appointed ruler of the whole world, and that through the sword of Mars supremacy in all wars was assured to him.
It was recorded by the Roman diplomat Priscus, who visited Attila’s court in AD 449 and wrote a remarkable account of his experience. Much of Priscus’s account is lost, but this passage was preserved by a historian called Jordanes, writing a century later.
Here we get a glimpse of Attila’s propaganda machine. There was a long tradition of sword-worship among the Eurasian peoples, and the idea of having a sword gifted by the god of war himself must have sent out a pretty powerful message.
3. Attila owned a dwarf called Zerkon
Zerkon is an odd figure who gets a walk-on role in the account of Priscus. Originally from North Africa, somehow he found himself north of the river Danube, where he became a favourite entertainer of Attila’s brother Bleda, and even married a Hunnic lady.
But when Bleda was assassinated by Attila, who apparently didn’t have much of a sense of humour, Zerkon found himself torn from his wife and packed off as a diplomatic ‘gift’ to the Roman general Aëtius.
All hope was not lost, however, as Zerkon was allowed to return to Attila’s court in order to claim back his wife. Priscus describes how Zerkon entered the hall during a feast Attila was holding for the Roman ambassadors. A talented performer, Zerkon, dressed in a bizarre costume and speaking a hilarious mish-mash of three languages, soon had his audience in stitches.
|A 19th-century depiction of Attila's feast (unfortunately Zerkon the Moorish dwarf is not included)|
Not quite everyone, however. ‘Attila,’ Priscus later recalled, ‘remained immovable and of unchanging countenance, nor by word or act did he betray anything approaching a smile of merriment.’
Sadly, Zerkon was not reunited with his wife.
4. ‘Attila’ is not a Hunnic name
‘Attila’ may not have been the original name of the famous Hun. It is not Hunnic in origin, but Gothic; it literally means ‘little father’, and may have been an honorific title (as with Genghis Khan, whose birth name was Temüjin).
This makes some sense, as the historian Peter Heather has underlined the ‘deeply multicultural’ nature of Attila’s realm. Its population was largely Germanic, and Gothic was the most obvious common language. It may even be that Attila himself was part Goth by descent.
5. Attila claimed half of the Roman empire as a wedding gift
Attila’s wedding present list on Amazon would have been something to behold. No bread bins or cut-glass trifle bowls here; he aimed high.
|A 19th-century imaginative depiction of Attila|
As far as Attila was concerned, this was a marriage proposal. He promptly wrote to Emperor Valentinian advising him that he accepted his sister’s offer, and demanded half of the empire as her dowry.
Needless to say, Valentinian was not impressed, and rejected the Hun’s demands. This gave Attila the justification he needed to invade Gaul the following year, and Italy the year after that. Both times he caused massive damage before being forced to retreat.
As for Honoria, she disappears from history at this point. We don’t know what happened to her, but she certainly never married Attila.
6. Attila died on his wedding night
Live hard, die easy. Attila may not have appreciated clowns, but he knew how to party. He was married to several women at the same time, and each wedding no doubt saw a fair degree of merriment.
His last wife, according to Priscus, was a slave girl called Ildico to whom Attila had taken a fancy. Priscus gives the clearest account of what happened on the night of their wedding, in 453.
Rather overdoing the celebrations at the wedding, he lay down on his back, overcome by wine and sleep. An excess of blood that would normally have spilled out through his nose drained back in a deadly stream into his throat, as it could not flow out by the usual passages, and killed him. And so drunkenness brought about a shameful end to a King renowned in war.
Shameful from one point of view, perhaps. The Huns apparently regarded this as a fortunate way to die, ‘happy amidst rejoicing, his nation safe’.
It may be that Attila doesn’t deserve the prominence granted him by posterity. He ruled a loose barbarian confederation for 19 years, and did terrorise the Balkans on numerous occasions, but he never permanently conquered any parts of the Roman empire. His attempts to invade both Gaul and Italy were ultimately aborted. Most of all, he failed to leave any kind of political legacy.
At least in terms of reputation, though, he can’t be ignored. Through charisma and warfare he managed to make a name for himself that echoed down the centuries, inspiring fear in generations of Europeans.
Click here to learn more about my second novel, released by Hodder & Stoughton on May 7 - At the Ruin of the World, 'an epic of war and love in the twilight of empire'!
- Peter Heather, Empires and Barbarians: Migration, Development and the Birth of Europe
- John Man, Attila the Hun: A Barbarian King and the Fall of Rome
- Alexander Callander Murray, From Roman to Merovingian Gaul: A Reader
- Charles C. Mierow, Getica: The Origin and Deeds of the Goths