Attila the Hun

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Podcast Transcript

During the 5th century, one name struck fear into the hearts of almost every European: Attila, leader of the Huns. 

For a period of almost 20 years, Attila ravaged Europe, conquering various tribes and causing one of the largest migrations ever seen on the continent.

Then, quite suddenly and unexpectedly, the conquests of Attila stopped, and the Huns were no longer a major power.

Learn more about Attila the Hun and how he changed the course of European history on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.

We like to think of Europe and Asia as being separate continents. In reality, you can take a cursory look at a map and see that it is actually one giant landmass.

While places like China and Italy may have been far apart from each other and had little contact, the lands in the middle never made any distinction between Asia and Europe.

This was the realm of the Eurasian steppe and the nomadic people who lived there. The steppe is a very large swath of land that extends from Northern China to Eastern Europe.

One of the nomadic groups from this region in the 4th century was the Huns.

Little is known about the early history of the Huns. We know that the group originated somewhere in Central Asia and then began a westward migration towards Europe which lasted the better part of a century. 

Current theories hold that the Huns were a mix of Mongol, Turkic, and Ugric peoples, and their language was, in all likelihood, a Turkic language. 

Around the year 370, the Huns were reported to be living around the Volga River in modern-day Russia, and from there, they continued to move west.

The Huns, like many nomadic people from Central Asia, had mastered the art of horseback riding and, in particular, mounted archery. It was a form of warfare that was almost unknown in Europe. 

The subject of this episode, Attila, was probably born sometime around 395 to 406, somewhere in Eastern Europe north of the Danube River. 

It is probable that his given name was not Attila. Attila was believed to have been a Germanic name with which he was referred to. In the Gothic language, ‘atta’ means father, and ‘-lia” was a suffix that was a diminutive. 

So Attila meant “little father” in Gothic. That being said, it could very well be the case that the name was simply a Germanized form of whatever his real name was, which might have sounded similar.  It is also possible that it was a regal name given to him when he became the leader of the Huns.

Attila’s father was named Mundzuk, who was the brother of the Hunnic kings, Octar and Ruga, who jointly ruled the Huns. 

The period where Attlia grew up was one of great change in Europe, mostly caused by the Huns themselves. 

The Huns conquered many people north of the Danube, which resulted in massive migrations of Germanic people into Roman territories. 

The story really begins in the year 434 with the death of Attila’s uncle, King Ruga, who, with the previous passing of his brother, was the sole leader of the Huns. The new rulers of the Huns were now Attila and his older brother Bleda.

Attila and Bleda put in place a policy to consolidate power and to expand the Hunnic Empire. This largely meant clashing with the Eastern Roman Empire in the Balkans. The Hunnic Empire at this time was centered in the region north of the Danube River, just outside the borders of the Roman Empire, in what is modern-day Romania and Hungary.

The Huns had been clashing with the Romans for years, but Attila and Bleda stepped up the campaign. 

One year after coming to power, in 435, the Huns and the Romans signed the Treaty of Margus, named after the ancient city located in modern-day Serbia. The treaty stipulated that the Romans double their annual tribute to the Huns from 350 to 700 pounds of gold. They also agreed not to enter any alliances with the enemies of the Huns and to return any refugees from their lands.

This worked for a couple of years. The Huns turned their attention east and attempted to conquer the Sassanid Empire in Iran.

This ultimately failed, so they turned their attention back to the Romans around the year 440. 

While the Huns were focusing once again on Rome, over in the Western Half of the empire, a Germanic people known as the Vandals were running wild. After the Treaty of Margus, the Romans redeployed several legions from the Danube frontier to Sicily to deal with the Vandals, leaving the border with the Huns exposed. 

The Huns accused the Romans of breaking the treaty, claiming that they hadn’t returned all of the refugees, a claim for which they had no proof. 

The Eastern Emperor Theodosius seemed not actually to believe that the Huns would violate the treaty and attack as they had been delivering their gold payments on time.

However, in 441, the Huns invaded the Balkans. 

The Romans had hired Hunnic mercenaries for decades. During that time, the Huns had learned the secrets of Roman siege warfare and now used these same techniques against the Romans. 

In 442, Theodosius recalled his troops from Sicily to deal with the Hun threat, but in 443, the Huns began moving towards Constantinople, slowly destroying every town it encountered along the way. 

They were only stopped by the walls of Constantinople. Eventually, Theodosius realized he couldn’t win and agreed to a new treaty, this time requiring the Romans to pay triple what they did under the Treaty of Margus, 2,100 pounds of gold annually. 

This, again, temporarily got the Huns to retreat. 

However, in 445, there was a major change in the leadership of the Huns. Attila’s co-ruler and older brother, Bleda, died. His death was under mysterious circumstances, and there were some who say Attila murdered him. 

Either way, Attila was now the sole ruler of the Huns. 

It was as the sole ruler that the legend of Attilla began to grow. 

Attila began to up his attacks on the Eastern Roman Empire in the Balkans. He attacked city after city, plundering everything he found, and took the survivors as slaves. 

In 450, he intended to attack the Visigoth, this time with the Western Roman Emperor Valentinian III as his ally. 

However, something odd happened. The sister of Valentinian III was a woman named Honiara. She was betrothed to a Roman senator whom she didn’t want to marry. 

In desperation, she sent a letter to Attila to ask for his help in this matter, and as a good-faith gesture, she sent her engagement ring along with the message.

Attila, who was highly intelligent but illiterate, took this as a marriage proposal and demanded half of the Western Roman Empire as a dowry.

Valentinian tried to explain that this was all a big mistake, but Attila would have none of it and used it as a pretense to invade the Western Empire.

In 451, Attila embarked on an invasion of Gaul, or modern-day France. His army was a collection of allies and conquered people, which was estimated to be between 200,000 to 500,000 men. 

After a series of victories, Attila met a combined Roman/Visigoth army at the Battle of the Catalaunian Plains.  The Romans were led by one of its last great generals, Aetius. 

Aetius had actually grown up with the Huns as a hostage. He knew their language, culture, and their fighting techniques. 

The Romans and the Visigoths won, with the Visigoth ruler, King Theodoric, dying in battle. Despite having a victory on the field, Aetius refused to pursue Attila because he feared the Visigoths just as much as the Huns. 

In 452, Attila entered Italy to pursue his marriage claims with Honoria. Aetius, his forces having been greatly diminished after the Catalaunian Plains, only had enough men to slow and harass Attila, fighting using a Fabian Strategy.

While in Northern Italy in 452, Attila was met by several envoys sent by the emperor, including Pope Leo I. 

Pope Leo somehow managed to convince Attila to pack up and leave Italy. According to legend, it was because Attila was so impressed by Leo, and others said it was because angels descended from heaven to help Leo.

In reality, it was probably several other things. 

The first is the superstition that Attila would suffer the same fate as the Visigoth King Alaric, who sacked Rome 40 years earlier and died soon thereafter. 

Another reason might have been a drought that affected Italy the year before. Foodstuffs were in low supply, which meant it would have been difficult for Attila to support his army as it marched through Rome. 

The final reason, and probably the biggest, was that the Huns were losing ground in the east while Attila was away. Theodosius II had died and had been replaced by the Emperor Marcian. Marcian stopped tribute payments and was starting to fight back. 

Without the leadership of Attila, the Huns began losing ground. 

Attila, in all likelihood, left Italy because he planned to go back to Constantinople to demand his tribute.

However, something along the way happened. 

In early 453, Attila was supposedly attending a feast celebrating his marriage to his latest wife, Ildico, a woman of Gothic origin. 

Later that evening, Attila died. 

How he died isn’t exactly clear. One account is that after a night of heavy eating and drinking, he retired to his tent, where he was found dead the next morning. 

One theory is that he suffered a severe nosebleed and choked on his own blood. Another is that he had some sort of embolism. Yet another says his new bride assassinated him while he was sleeping.

Either way, Attila the Hun, the man dubbed the Scourge of God, was very suddenly dead. He was in his late 40s or early 50s.

No one knows where he was buried. According to legend, a river was diverted. He was buried in the riverbed in a casket of gold, silver, and iron, and the water was then allowed to flow over the grave. 

The servants who buried him were then killed so no one would ever know the location of Attila’s burial site.

The empire fell to his three sons, Ellac, Dengizich, and Ernak. The three of them fought amongst themselves, and none of them was their father.  The Romans and Germanic tribes took advantage of the chaos in the Hunnic leadership.

Within 16 years, the entire Hunnic empire was gone. 

The legacy of the Attila and the Huns lived on long after they were gone. The terror that he inflicted across Europe has been passed down to the present day. 

The name Attila conveys both fear and respect.  In Hungary, Attila is considered a national hero, and the name Attila is still used as a first name for boys. 

Kaiser Wilhelm II gave a speech in the year 1900 which praised the military acumen of Attila. This resulted in the Germans being called Huns as a pejorative during the First World War.

Perhaps oddest of all, before embarking on a solo career, Billy Joel was a member of a hard rock band called Attila. They released a single album of the same name, of which one music reviewer said, “Attila undoubtedly is the worst album released in the history of rock & roll.”

Attila was undoubtedly one of the greatest military leaders of his era. The extent of his conquests was unrivaled even by the Romans, who took centuries to do what he did in just two decades. In fact, when it came to conquests north of the Danube in Germanic regions, the Romans never were able to equal his achievements.

That is why almost 1,600 years later, people still know the name of Attila the Hun.

The Executive Producer of Everything Everywhere Daily is Charles Daniel. 

The associate producers are Thor Thomsen and Peter Bennett.

Today’s review comes from listener Tom Makau over on Podcast Republic. They write:

This must be the first review from the African savannah. I’ve been a daily listener of the podcast from Nairobi, Kenya. The episodes are informative, and I make it more exciting by starting to listen without reading the day’s topic, try it.

Thanks, Tom! I’m very pleased to say that you have unlocked the Kenya badge. We will instantly begin looking for locations to open the Nairobi chapter of the completionist club. 

Tusker Beer will be served on tap, and in the restaurant, we will be serving nyama choma and ugali for dinner. 

Remember, if you leave a review or send me a boostagram, you too can have it read on the show.