Attila the Hun: Conquests & Empire

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Attila the Hun's name became so feared in European history that even today it is nearly synonymous with terror and destruction. In this lesson, we'll learn about Attila's life and see how he developed this reputation.

Attila the Hun

Every generation has its boogeyman. Well, 5th century Western Europe had a boogeyman so terrifying that his memory haunted the continent for generations. Attila the Hun, ruler of the Hunnic Empire, was renowned for his cruelty, barbarism, savagery, violence, leadership skills, intelligence, defense of his peoples' rights, and... wait what?

Attila the Hun
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Attila the Hun may have been remembered as a cruel and barbarous warlord in Western Europe, but the truth is that he was a much more complex figure. Overseeing the end of the Roman Empire, Attila turned a nomadic, warring tribe into an empire that spanned Eastern Europe. A brilliant military tactician, famed leader, and fierce negotiator on behalf of the Huns, Attila became the boogeyman of Western Europe.

Early Life and Reign

Attila was born sometime around 406 CE to the nomadic, warring, horse culture of Eastern Europe, known as the Huns. They were generally a non-literate people, so we don't know much about his early life. We do know that he was born to rule the Huns, alongside his brother Bleda.

Attila's uncle, Rugila, had worked hard to unite the various Hunnish tribes. He died in battle in 433/434, leaving the tribe to his nephews, who ruled it as co-monarchs. They were now responsible for overseeing the Huns' many wars, as well as negotiating the Huns' relationship with the Roman Empire.

The Roman Empire was in the last years of its existence, mired in corruption and scandal. For years, they used the Huns as mercenaries to help fight against the Germanic tribes. This introduced the Huns to Roman military weapons and tactics, which they incorporated into their own systems of warfare very effectively.

In 439 Attila and Bleda renegotiated this relationship, signing the Treaty of Margus and ensuring that Rome would pay off the Huns simply to prevent them from invading. Attila and Bleda ended up invading Roman territories anyway, claiming the Romans had failed to return political prisoners. With Rome under threat of invasion, the Byzantine emperor Theodosius sent ambassadors to negotiate. All this did was turn the Huns' attention east. They invaded the Eastern Roman Empire, coming within 20 miles of Constantinople itself.

To end the invasion, Theodosius agreed to follow the Roman practice of paying off the Huns. By the mid 440's, the Huns were receiving 2,000 lbs of gold per year from Constantinople, on top of their payments from Rome. They quickly became one of the wealthiest empires in Europe, which can be seen in the high quality metalwork and finery we find in Hunnish graves from the era.

Hunnish artisans became renowned for their metalworking
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Attila as Sole Ruler

Up to this point, Attila achieved everything as a co-monarch of the nomadic kingdom with his older brother. However, around 445 CE, Bleda died. Some say he died in battle, while others claim that Attila had him killed. Either way, Attila became the sole leader of the most feared army on the continent. He was seen as an unstoppable force, called the ''Scourge of God'' by Christian Europeans, sent to punish them for their sins and cleanse Europe of corrupt empires like Rome.

Rome certainly was a favorite target of Attila's. After fighting against Persian empires, he turned back to the Roman Balkans around 446. Then, the Roman emperor's sister contacted Attila, and, interpreting her gesture as a wedding proposal, he agreed, and asked for half of the Western Roman Empire as her dowry. When the Roman emperor tried to correct the miscommunication, Attila launched a full-scale invasion of Roman Italy and Gaul.

Attila launched a massive campaign against Rome
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Rome had few choices. Not only was a Hun army of up to 500,000 warriors on horseback bearing down on them, but the Hun conquest of Germanic lands was pushing those tribes into Roman territories as well. So, Rome turned to the Visigoths, one of the Germanic tribes they often warred against, for help. In 451, the Visigoths and Romans together stopped Attila's invasion. However, the war was far from won.

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