Invasions of Attila the Hun Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Invasions of Attila the Hun highlighted Roman weakness, pushed some German tribes into new regions, and dislocated much of the population of Italy.

Summary of Event

Although the connection is disputed by some, the Huns are generally identified with the Xiongnu (Hsiung-Nu), a nomadic tribe from the Gobi Desert who first attracted the attention of the civilized world when they attacked Han Dynasty China in the second and first centuries b.c.e. According to historian Edward Gibbon, the Xiongnu were ultimately defeated by the Han emperor, precipitating the permanent division of the tribe. One group remained in the Gobi Desert where they were soon conquered by another Mongol tribe called the Sienpi. Another group settled in southwestern China on land allotted to them by the emperor. A third group, however, headed west and split into a northern and a southern branch as they left central Asia. The southern branch eventually settled around the Caspian Sea while the northern branch, the Huns who so disrupted the late Roman Empire, headed for Europe. Attila Honoria Valentinian III Aetius Theodoric I Leo I, Saint

The Huns advanced very rapidly across the Ukraine, central Europe, and as far south as the junction of the Rhine and Danube Rivers. They organized the territory they conquered into a loose confederation of subservient tribes. The Alani, Scythians, Ostrogoths, and many other lesser tribes were subjected to Hunnish rule in this manner. Other tribes, such as the Visigoths, fled their homelands to avoid a similar fate and thereby contributed to increasing German pressure on Roman territory. The Visigoths fled en masse to the banks of the Danube and begged the Roman emperor Valens to allow them to enter the relative safety of the empire. He agreed and thereby introduced a dangerous and unstable element into the Western Roman Empire that many Roman leaders would later regret.

Attila and the Huns attack.

(Library of Congress)

When Attila assumed leadership of the Hunnish empire, it was at its greatest extent, with all German tribes, except the Frisians and Salian Franks, bound to the Huns in one way or another and the Eastern Roman Empire reduced to paying annual bribes to keep them at bay (a policy introduced by the emperor Theodosius the Great). Attila originally assumed kingship of the Huns jointly with his brother, Bleda, in 435 c.e. The two men ruled together until 444, when Attila murdered his brother and seized exclusive control of the tribe and its extensive possessions.

Attila became involved shortly thereafter in the internal politics of the family of the Western Roman emperor, Valentinian III. The emperor’s sister, Honoria, had disgraced herself by having an affair with one of her servants and had been excluded from her inheritance and former position within the royal family. She appealed to Attila for aid and seems to have promised him her hand in marriage and a tremendous amount of money if he would help her regain her lost prominence and prestige. This offer seems to have flattered Attila, and he began to demand that Valentinian hand Honoria over to him so that he could formalize her marriage offer. He also began to claim that half of the Western Roman Empire was his by right of the fact that he was Honoria’s fiancé. Valentinian rejected these demands, and the uneasy truce that had existed between the Huns and the Western Roman Empire steadily deteriorated.

This deterioration culminated in Attila’s invasion of Gaul in 451 c.e. The king of the Franks had just died, and a dispute over his throne had erupted among several of his sons. Attila hoped to take advantage of this confusion to add this valuable piece of the Western Roman Empire to his possessions. At the same time, he once again repeated his demand that Valentinian surrender Honoria to him and give him half of the Western Roman Empire. The ensuing campaign has been described as one of the decisive events in European history. Attila was more than simply a danger to Roman political control of the west. He also represented a serious threat to Latin civilization and to the Christian religion. Even though most of the Germanic tribes who had settled in Gaul were independent in a political sense, most of them had adopted Christianity and were at least to a degree appreciative of the merits of Roman civilization. Attila possessed no such appreciation and had no use at all for Christianity, preferring his own customs and beliefs.

In the end, all the Germanic tribes in the region—the Salian Franks, Burgundians, and Visigoths—joined together with Roman forces to stop Attila. This combined force was commanded by the Roman master-general Flavius Aetius and the king of the Visigoths, Theodoric I. In 451 c.e., this army met Attila’s force near Châlons in a bloody battle that cost, according to contemporary sources, between 162,000 and 320,000 lives. Theodoric himself was mortally wounded during the battle, but the joint German-Roman army did manage to halt Attila’s advance in Gaul and force him to retreat back beyond the Rhine River. It did not, however, have the strength left to follow Attila and finish him off.

Attila’s defeat at Châlons did nothing to weaken his powerful ambitions. The very next year, 452 c.e., he invaded Italy and laid siege to the large and prosperous city of Aquileia, on the northern Adriatic coast. After a three-month siege, the city fell to the Huns and was so thoroughly destroyed by them that it never rose again. Attila then headed south toward Rome, destroying any other city in his path that did not immediately surrender to him. His original intention was to capture and sack Rome but he began to waver in this goal after some of his advisers warned him that every other invader who had sacked Rome (most notably, Alaric I, former king of the Visigoths) had died shortly thereafter. At this point, an embassy, led by Pope Leo I (later Saint Leo), met Attila north of Rome and offered him a substantial bribe if he would spare the city. This bribe, combined with the fact that a famine was ravaging Italy and making it difficult for the Huns to support themselves, convinced Attila to alter his plans, and he withdrew from the peninsula shortly thereafter.

Significance

One long-term consequence of Attila’s invasion of Italy was that a large number of refugees settled on the low islands on the northern Adriatic coast. They became the nucleus of what would become the future republic of Venice.

After his withdrawal from Italy, Attila made another attempt to invade Gaul, only to be stopped by the forces of the new Visigothic king, Thorismund. He then began to threaten to invade the Eastern Roman Empire. Before he could carry this threat out, however, he died suddenly of a hemorrhage after excessive drinking during one of his frequent wedding celebrations. Attila’s empire quickly disintegrated after his death in 453 c.e., with many of the survivors drifting back into Central Asia, and the Huns ceased to be a force in world history. The Roman Empire and the Visigoths and the other Germanic tribes of Europe were saved from further invasions and free to maintain their civilizations and culture.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gibbon, Edward. The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Reprint. New York: Modern Library, 1995. A classic account of the collapse of the Roman Empire that contains several interesting and valuable sections on the impact of Attila and the Huns on this event.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Goffart, Walter. Rome’s Fall and After. London: The Hambledon Press, 1989. An excellent collection of essays that place the invasions of the Huns within the larger context of Rome’s problems during the third and fourth centuries c.e.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Howarth, Patrick. Attila, King of the Huns: Man and Myth. New York: Carroll and Graf, 2001. A biographical treatment of Attila that covers the history of the Huns. Bibliography and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Thompson, E. A. The Huns. London: Blackwell, 1996. A reissue of the author’s 1948 classic, A History of Attila and the Huns, this revised edition is one of the best sources in English on the history of both the Huns as a people and Attila as a leader.
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