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Things You Didn't Know About Attila The Hun.

Who was Attila the Hun? Attila the Hun is known as the most prolific killer of the Early Middle Ages. But the facts about Attila's life are much more complicated than that. Born into the royalty of a small but ambitious steppe tribe, Attila and his brother Bleda were groomed for a life of combat. They ascended to control the Hunnic Empire, and were soon at war with Rome.

Information on Attila the Hun is hard to come by and often biased. We know he was an innovative general feared by his enemies, but did you know that his conquests were instrumental in founding the city of Venice? Or that one of his greatest invasions started with a possibly fraudulent marriage proposal? 

Here are some facts you probably have never heard about Attila the Hun, interesting Attila the Hun trivia, and other biographical information about the greatest conqueror of his time, and a legendary warrior even today.

Little Is Known About His Birth Or Early Life.

Photo: ThomasPusch/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 3.0

Despite being one of the most important figures of the Early Middle Ages, historians agree on little regarding Attila's birth or youth. He was likely born in 406 CE in Pannonia, a province of the Roman Empire that now comprises part of several Balkan countries. His father was Mundzuck, a powerful Hunnic chieftain, and his mother's identity is unknown. He had at least one brother named Bleda.

His Birth Name Likely Wasn't 'Attila'.

Like Genghis Khan being born Temujin centuries years later, Attila was born with a different name than the one we commonly know him as. Unlike the great Khan, Attila's birth name is likely lost to history. Scholars disagree on the origin of the name he was eventually known by, but most agree that "Attila" is a Germanic adaptation of the nickname "little father" - indicating Attila carried on his father Mundzuk's conquests. The actual Hunnic language is largely lost, with only a few words being known.

Nobody Knows For Sure What Attila Looked Like.

Photo: Eugène Delacroix/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

As with most Middle Ages figures, we have no first-hand accounts of Attila's appearance. The closest description is second-hand hearsay from 6th century Roman historian Jordanes, who cites the work of another Roman historian, Attila's contemporary Priscus. This work, History of Byzantium, describes Attila as "short of stature, with a broad chest and a large head; his eyes were small, his beard thin and sprinkled with grey; and he had a flat nose and tanned skin."

He Was Born Into Hunnic Royalty.

While there's little reliable information about Attila's upbringing, we know he was born into an important Hunnic family. His father, Mundzuk, was the brother of the Hunnic tribe's co-leaders, Octar and Rugila (also called Ruga or Rug). The death of their father and uncles in the 430s CE (along with neither uncle having sons) left Atilla and his brother Bleda as co-leader of the Huns.

Attila's Brother Bleda Was A Hugely Important Part Of His Life.

Photo: Tulipán Tamás/Wikimedia Commons/FAL

The Hunnic system of co-leadership ensured that Attila's brother Bleda would play an enormous role in the future of the tribe. Like other Hun co-leaders, the brothers ruled their territory together. Bleda was probably born in the late 300s CE, died in 445 CE, and he is known as having been a noble leader during his reign. He's considered one of the fathers of modern Hungary, lending an adaptation of his name to the city Buda, now part of Budapest.

Huns Had Been In Europe Less Than A Century When Attila Was Born.

Photo: Peter Johann Nepomuk Geiger/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

The tribe of which Attila and Bleda took leadership was a newcomer on the European geopolitical scene. The Huns were initially one of many tribes on the Eurasian Steppe, likely living close to modern-day Kazakhstan, before they migrated west. They arrived in and settled part of the Roman Empire around 370 CE, and instantly made their presence known thanks to their military power and fighting skill. In 376, they crossed the Danube and fought a brutal war against Rome, eventually killing Valens, the Roman Emperor.

Little Is Known About The Huns As A People.

As they had no written tradition, we have to rely on Roman sources for knowledge about the Huns. The Roman historians viewed the Huns as savages, unable to govern themselves, write, work with metals, or build simple structures. They ate raw meat, mutilated themselves, and killed for conquest or profit.

These biased accounts were written by Romans who warred for decades with the Huns, so they have to be looked at as purposefully unfavorable. In reality, the Huns probably weren't that different from later steppe people. They were experts with horses, had a shamanistic religion, disdained sedentary lifestyles, and raised children in a brutal and unforgiving environment. This is how Attila and his brother were raised.

The Huns Were At War When Attila Took The Throne.

After Valens died in 378 at the hands of a combined Vandal, Gothic, and Hunnic army, the Huns power expanded across the Empire. They had already subjugated a number of small tribes within the Empire, and had designs on conquering as much territory as they could. For the next 50 years, the Huns fought against both the Vandals and the Eastern Roman Empire (the Empire had split in two in 395), with the Huns marching on Eastern capital Constantinople when Rugila died, leaving Attilla and Bleda as the new rulers.

Almost Everything We Know About Attila Comes From His Enemies.

Photo: Mór Than/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

The Huns had little written tradition, and it's not even clear what their written script looked like. So the majority of our information about Attila, Bleda, and the Huns comes from Roman scholars. But it's important to note that the primary chronicler of Attila, the Roman diplomat Priscus, was his enemy. He was part of the court of Eastern Roman Emperor Theodosius II, who fought a devastating war against Attila.

Hunnic Warriors Were Already Fearsome.

Photo: Georges-Antoine Rochegrosse/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

Attila and Bleda were taught in the formidable tradition the Huns had already developed as fighters. They dressed in leather armor that was lined with steel, so it was both light and tough. Like the steppe people before and after them, they were outstanding horse archers, lassoing enemies from their steeds - and proved to be almost impossible for poorly trained, sedentary armies of the time to beat.

Legends Say He Carried A Special Sword.

Photo: Hartmann Schedel/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

According to legend, Attila carried a mythical sword called either the Sword of Attila, the Sword of God, or the Sword of Mars. In the 11th century, a sword said to be the legendary blade of Attila was given to royal family of Hungary and is now on display at a museum in Vienna. This sword is almost certainly a forgery, made in the 9th or 10th century.

Attila And Bleda Negotiated Peace With The Eastern Roman Empire And Cashed In.

When the brothers took the throne, the Huns were negotiating with the Eastern Roman Empire for the return of hostages. In 435, the year after Rugila likely died, the brothers and Roman consul Plintha agreed on the Treaty of Margus, declaring peace between the empires. As part of this, the brothers were paid a massive ransom of gold - likely 700 pounds per year. They also opened the Eastern Empire to Hunnic goods, and received additional money for the return of prisoners.

The Huns' First Military Campaign Under Attila Was A Disaster.

With the Margus Treaty keeping the Eastern Roman Empire at bay, Attila and Bleda launched a war to the east, against the Persian Sassanid tribe. Little is known about this conflict, but the Huns were beaten badly, and had to retreat back toward the Hungarian plain. It's one of the only defeats inflicted on Attila during his time of conquest.

Attila And Bleda Then Turned Back To The Romans And Crushed Them.

After the bloody nose at the hands of the Sassanids, the brothers decided that they'd had enough of abiding by the Treaty of Margus. They launched a massive attack against the Eastern Roman Empire in 441, sacking the Balkans. Their horsemen destroyed everything in their path and wiped a number of ancient cities off the map entirely. They finally reached Constantinople and forced Theodosius II to come to terms.

The Romans Paid A Massive Tribute To Keep Their Capital From Being Sacked.

Attila and Bleda extracted a mighty price from the Eastern Empire for halting their invasion. They tripled the gold tribute being paid by the Empire, to over 2,000 pounds per year. They also demanded the return of hostages. The burdens of the tribute were crushing to the Eastern Empire, so much so that Theodosius's successor refused to pay them. By then, the Huns had moved on to sack other pastures.

Bleda Was Killed - Possibly By Attila.

Photo: Internet Archive Book Images/Wikimedia Commons/No Restrictions

After beating the Eastern Roman Empire, Bleda disappears from the historical record. There's a perfectly valid reason for this: he died in 443 or 445, a couple of years after the Byzantine Campaign. As with everything related to Attila, it's not clear how Bleda died, but rumor has it that Attila assassinated his brother to gain total control of the tribe. Bleda may also have been killed in combat returning to the Hungarian Plain, or have died in a hunting accident. Whatever happened, Attila became sole ruler of the Huns in 445.

Attila's Attack On Western Rome Started With A Romantic Misunderstanding.

In 447, Attila again campaigned against the Eastern Roman Empire, and his forces laid waste to dozens of legendary Balkan cities. They were stopped at the Dardanelles, just west of the capital of the Eastern Empire, only by massive fortifications.

450 saw Attila turn to the Western Roman Empire for conquest, and the impetus was a strange marriage proposal. At first, Attila intended to ally with Western Emperor Valentinian III to fight the Visigoths. But Attila then received a message from the emperor's sister Honoria with a plea to rescue her from betrothal to a Roman aristocrat. She included her engagement ring with the letter, leading Attila to see the message as a proposal. Attila's "dowry" was spectacularly audacious: half of the Western Roman Empire would be given to him.

Valentinian was appalled when he discovered his sister's treachery. He forced Honoria to marry her Roman fiancé. Undeterred, Attila continued his charge toward Rome.

Attila Moved Through Gaul Like A Scourge.

Photo: Own work/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 3.0

451 saw Attila leading a massive, mixed-race army on a march into Western Europe to claim his "dowry." They marched on the Roman road from Budapest to Vienna and beyond, and sacked everything in their path. By this time, the Hunnic reputation for combat skill and cruelty preceded them, and virtually no Roman or European general dared go into combat against them.

They laid waste to modern day Germany and France, burning cities and slaughtering populations as they went. Worms, Mains, Cologne, Metz, Reims, Amiens, Cambrai, and Strasbourg - many of which would be fought over 1,500 years later in the World Wars - are thought to have all been put to the sword. Casualties likely ran into the hundreds of thousands.

He Used Innovative Military Tactics Nobody Had Ever Seen.

While sedentary European armies fought in disorganized ranks, the Huns moved as a giant cavalry unit. Rather than fight close-quarters battles with edged weapons, Huns set traps. They fired volleys of arrows hidden behind hills, often using different ranks firing at different angles. Then they rode in on horseback, made swift attacks, and rode away, coming and going in all different directions. They were also masters at siege warfare, having learned it while in the employ of Rome as mercenaries.

The Huns Were Stopped In One Of The Bloodiest Battles In Ancient History.

Attila and the Huns reached Orleans in June 451, but this time, the Romans were ready for them. A confederation of Romans, Visigoths, Franks, Saxons, and others met Attila's army of Huns, Burgundians, Gepids, and other tribes. The Battle of the Catalaunian Plains, also called the Battle of Châlons or the Battle of Maurica, probably took place on June 20, 451, in a cacophony of hooves, clattering steel, and human screams.

In a day-long struggle, Attila's thrust into Gaul was blunted. The armies fought on a large ridge overlooking the plain, and the Romans broke the Hun advance, sending them reeling. Attila's own personal guard was attacked, and only the fall of night saved him. Attila prepared for the next day's attack, which might have crushed his army right there, but it never came. Roman politics scuttled any attempt to press their advantage, and Attila retreated several days later. The casualties are unknown, but as many as 100,000 men were involved.

The Huns Returned A Year Later, With A Vengeance.

Photo: Poniol/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 4.0

Bloodied and embarrassed, Attila again pressed his "engagement" to Honoria with a direct stab into Italy toward Rome. In 452, just a year after the draw at Chalons. Attila renewed the push into the Western Roman Empire. Like Gaul a year earlier, the Huns destroyed, burned, looted, and killed at will. Cities were emptied out as reeling populations fled the rampaging Attila - and there would be no Battle of Chalons to stop them.

Venice Was Supposedly Founded As A Defense Against Attila.

Tradition holds that the great city of Venice was formed by a group of refugees who took to the island lagoon off the coast of Padua in northern Italy. In reality, there had already been a small community there, made up of people who had fled previous invasions, but the first government of "lagoon dwellers" was formed in 452, during the worst of Attila's invasion.

Venice would grow to become a major maritime power, and is still one of the most recognizable cities in the world.

Attila Suddenly Stopped His Attack And Nobody Knows Why.

Photo: Francesco Solimena/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

The way to Rome was almost completely clear for Attila in 452. Numerous cities had been razed, with some being so utterly destroyed that it was difficult to determine where they'd been. Emperor Valentinian was on the run, having been driven from the Western capital of Ravenna.

But for unclear reasons, the Huns stopped their march at the River Po, still a fairly long way from Rome. Some historians speculated that a bad harvest was making it difficult for Attila to feed his army. Others claim that an outbreak of plague had hit the troops, or that rival tribes were raiding Hungary and threatening the Hun supply lines. Claims at the time had Pope Leo I seeking piece with Attila, with Saints Peter and Paul coming down from the Heavens to act as brokers. It's also possible that the Emperor simply gave Attila a massive bribe to halt. Whatever the reason, Attila's men turned around and headed back to Buda.

A Year After His Attack On Rome, Attila Died.

Photo: Julius Naue/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

In 453, Attila returned to Hungary. There was little left to plunder in either Europe or the Balkans, and the Eastern Roman Emperor had made an affront to the Hun by ending tribute payments. Attila soon died.

Like His Birth, The Events Of Attila's Death Are Unclear.

The "official story" about the death of Attila the Hun is that he took a new wife (polygamy being standard practice among steppe people) and celebrated with an excess of food and drink. He's said to have been found that morning having drowned in his own blood following a stroke. This account, from contemporary chronicler Priscus, has been questioned in recent years, with some historians positing a conspiracy to kill Attila, possibly engineered by the Eastern Roman Emperor that Attila was planning to invade.

Like Genghis Khan eight centuries later, Attila's death brought great lamentations. His burial site was covered by a river and those who attended it killed so they may keep the secret. Despite many archaeological expeditions, the tomb has never been found.

After Attila's Death, The Hunnic Empire Was Divided Among His Sons.

The Hunnic Empire was divided between three of Attila's sons. They all immediately began feuding over who should get the biggest share, and the empire began to crumble. The oldest son was killed a year later in combat against a revolting vassal tribe, and the others couldn't hold the Empire together.

The Empire Was Gone Within Two Decades.

With Attila's two sons co-leading the Empire, the tribes broke apart. The sons vanish from the history books, and the conquests of Attila broke into a number of other kingdoms. The Hunnic Empire was gone.

Attila Left Behind A Voluminous Cultural Legacy.

Photo: Attila/Embassy Pictures

As the greatest conqueror of the Early Middle Ages, Attila is the subject of a great number of writings in cultures all across Europe and Asia. He was a major figure of chronicles as far back as the 7th century CE, and films, sagas, and other cultural productions for years to come. Screen depictions of him have been played by Anthony Quinn, Gerard Butler, and Jack Palance. 

Content created and supplied by: Emmy_Ohiolei (via Opera News )

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