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Why was Attila the Hun important?

6 Surprising facts about Attila and the Huns

More than 1,500 years after his death, Attila the Hun remains one of the most fear-inducing figures in history. He and his nomadic empire spent decades terrorizing and conquering Europe on horseback, so much so that he’s still remembered all across the continent — sometimes with reverence, sometimes with hatred. But many details of his life are unclear, and some that have been reliably recorded aren’t as widely known as the apocryphal legends about him. Here are five such facts about Attila and his empire.

No one knows where the Huns came from

The Huns were among the most feared people in the world, as well as some of the least understood. That’s exemplified by the fact that the tribe’s precise origins remain unknown to this day. They were nomads, after all, and while one popular theory posits that their roots can be traced back to the Xiongnu people of ancient Mongolia, it’s impossible to confirm. Even the etymology of the Huns’ name is disputed, with some historians ascribing it to the old Turkic word for “ferocious”; others thinking it comes from the Persian term hūnarā, meaning “skilled”; and others still of the belief that it’s derived from the Ongi River in Mongolia, which could possibly have been the Huns’ ancestral homeland.

They once launched an invasion to win Attila another wife

Attila had many wives — the precise number is unknown — the last of whom was Ildico, whom he married just hours before dying of a nosebleed. His courtships weren’t all traditional, as you might imagine, and he even launched one of his many military campaigns for the explicit purpose of winning himself a wife. That would be Justa Grata Honoria, the sister of Roman Emperor Valentinian III, who was unhappy at having her own hand in marriage promised to a Roman senator and sought Attila’s help in getting out of said engagement. Because she sent him not only a letter but her ring, Attila interpreted her actions as not just a plea for help but a marriage proposal. He accepted this supposed proposal, demanding half of the Western Empire as his dowry. Valentinian was furious and had to be persuaded to merely exile Honoria rather than execute her. 

Attila had been hoping to invade Roman territory for some time, and Honoria’s letter offered the pretext he needed. Although he was unsuccessful in winning her hand in marriage and never conquered Rome, it wasn’t due to defeat on the battlefield.

Attila almost sacked Rome until a meeting with the Pope changed his mind

The Huns proved troublesome for all of Europe, but they especially disliked the Romans. Attila and his army invaded Italy in 452 CE, sacking cities such as Aquileia en route to Rome. Upon his arrival in the capital, three men were sent to negotiate with the Hunnish king: Gennadius Avienus, Memmius Aemilius Trygetius, and, most significantly, Pope Leo I. Though the details of their meeting are lost to history, what is known is that Attila immediately withdrew.

There are theories, of course. Some believe Attila was dissuaded by his own men, who reminded him that Visigothic King Alaric died shortly after sacking Rome 40 years earlier, while others contend that Attila was swayed by this speech from the pope:

"The people of Rome, once conquerors of the world, now kneel conquered. We pray for mercy and deliverance. O Attila, you could have no greater glory than to see suppliant at your feet this people before whom once all peoples and kings lay suppliant. You have subdued, O Attila, the whole circle of the lands granted to the Romans. Now we pray that you, who have conquered others, should conquer yourself. The people have felt your scourge. Now they would feel your mercy."

Whatever the case, Attila left Rome shortly after the meeting. Nearly 1,000 years later, their encounter became the subject of Raphael’s fresco “The Meeting of Leo the Great and Attila,” which was completed in 1514 and is now part of the Vatican’s collection.

The Huns lost only 1 battle under Attila’s reign

Attila’s military prowess is hard to overstate, as is the terror he inspired in his enemies. No statistic speaks to this quite like the fact that he suffered just one defeat as leader of the Huns, during the Battle of the Catalaunian Plains on June 20, 451 CE. With 200,000 soldiers at his back during the Huns’ invasion of Gaul, Attila wreaked so much havoc that General Flavius Aetius of Rome took the desperate measure of forming an alliance with King Theodoric I of the Visigoths. Only their combined forces were able to best Attila on the battlefield, though Theodoric did not survive — he was one of the “massive number of casualties,” which had the unexpected effect of making his forces fight even harder. “When first light arrived” the following morning, according to historian Paul K. Davis, “both sides were able to view the carnage of the previous day’s fighting and neither seemed eager to renew it.” Victory was short-lived, with both Attila and Aetius dying within the next three years — the latter at the hands of Roman Emperor Valentinian himself.

He bore no relation with Genghis Kahn

A quick search of the two leaders’ names will result in any number of articles about their many differences, all of which stem from a tendency to conflate the two of them. It’s easy to understand why, as both led nomadic empires that terrorized Europe via brutal warfare and are either lionized or vilified depending on whom you ask. But they weren’t related in any way; in fact, Attila was born sometime around 406 CE and Genghis was not born until 1162 — more than 700 years after the former’s death. Genghis was ultimately much more successful as a conqueror, with his Mongol Empire becoming the largest contiguous land empire in history. Attila might not have been his ancestor, but he probably still would have been impressed by — and perhaps even a little envious of — Genghis’ skill at warfare.

Attila’s empire fell apart soon after he died

Following Attila’s strange demise — reportedly due to a nosebleed on his wedding night — his empire was meant to be divided equally among his sons Dengizich, Ellac, and Ernakh. They couldn’t coexist peacefully, however — like father, like sons — and the civil war that followed allowed their vassals to rise up against them. The first was Ardaric, king of the Gepidae, who defeated the Huns at the Battle of Nedao in 454 CE. (Prior to this rebellion, Ardaric was “famed for his loyalty and wisdom” and Attila “prized him above all the other chieftains.”) Ellac was slain in that battle, and it’s thought that what remained of his brothers’ empire was gone within a year or two — the Huns aren’t mentioned in most historical sources after 469 CE. 

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