attila, attila the hun, attila poetic edda, attilla the hun
Attila the Hun depicted in an illustration
from the Poetic Edda.

Attila the Hun

November 15, 2010
by Colleen Brondou
Known as the “Scourge of God” thanks to the destruction he brought upon the Roman Empire, Attila was a fifth-century warrior and king of the Huns. Though his name has become synonymous with savagery, his leadership principles are still admired today.

Attila the Hun’s Rise to Power

Born around 406 A.D., Attila descended from the Huns, a nomadic people who originated in the steppes of Central Asia and traveled to Europe where they made repeated attacks on the Roman Empire. The Huns were superior horsemen, experts with the bow and arrow, and seemed bred for battle from birth.

The faces of Hunnic boys were mutilated at birth. “That led to fearsome looks, but the point of the mutilation was to teach children to endure pain,” the Web site Awesome Stories explains.

In 433, Ruga (also known as Ruglia or Rua) ruled the Huns and negotiated a treaty with the Eastern Roman Empire: In exchange for a permanent homeland—and 350 pounds of gold from the Empire, as assurance that the Huns wouldn’t attack the city of Constantinople—the Huns would fight on behalf of the empire. The Huns settled near the Danube River in what is now Hungary.

Ruga died in 434, leaving his kingdom to his nephews, Bleda and Attila. The brothers ruled together for 10 years, attacking the Eastern Roman Empire many times, and demanding annual payments of gold in exchange for peace.

In 443 or 445, Bleda was killed. Some sources say he died in a hunting accident, while others believe that he was murdered by Attila. Sixth century historian Jordanes wrote that Attila “sought to increase his strength by murder. Thus he proceeded from the destruction of his own kindred to the menace of all others.”

Attila became king of the Huns, and “ruled with absolute authority, his power based in large part on the extensive wealth from his conquests,” the Encyclopedia of World Biography reports.

Attila as King of the the Huns

After Bleda’s death, Attila made a second attack on the Eastern Roman Empire in 447, and then destroyed the Balkan provinces and journeyed into Greece, where he was stopped at Thermopylae. Attila then engaged in negotiations with diplomats of the Eastern Roman Emperor Theodosius II.

Priscus of Panium, an envoy for the Eastern Roman Empire, was present for the negotiations. His account of his time in Attila’s court is the only surviving first-hand source on Attila. Much of Jordanes’ history of Attila come from Priscus, including the only known description of Attila’s appearance.

Jordanes wrote: “He was haughty in his walk, rolling his eyes hither and thither, so that the power of his proud spirit appeared in the movement of his body. … He was short of stature, with a broad chest and a large head; his eyes were small, his beard thin and sprinkled with gray; and he had a flat nose and a swarthy complexion, showing the evidences of his origin.”

In 451, Attila launched his next campaign: the westward invasion of Gaul. Meanwhile, Aetius, a Roman general, had united forces with Theodoric I, king of the Visigoths, to resist the Huns. The Huns nearly succeeded in occupying Orleans but were forced to retreat during the Battle of Catalaunian Plains (also known as the Battle of Chalons), in what is now France.

Next, Attila turned his attention to Italy, invading and destroying many cities until famine and pestilence forced the Huns to leave. He planned to attack the Eastern Roman Empire again, but didn’t have a chance. In 453, he died on the night of one of his many weddings; most historians say his death was caused by nosebleed, while others suggest he may have died due to “esophageal varices,” a condition common in heavy drinkers.

Jordanes wrote: “He had given himself up to excessive joy at his wedding, and as he lay on his back, heavy with wine and sleep, a rush of superfluous blood, which would ordinarily have flowed from his nose, streamed in deadly course down his throat and killed him, since it was hindered in the usual passages. Thus did drunkenness put a disgraceful end to a king renowned in war.”

Attila was buried in a coffin of gold, silver and iron, and members of the funeral party were killed in order to keep the location of his grave a secret. His sons divided the vast empire among them, causing the united Empire of the Huns to crumble.

Known as the “Scourge of God,” Attila had ruled for just eight years. But the “length of his rule … pales when compared with the vast spread of his carnage,” according to Awesome Stories.

Attila the Hun’s Legacy

After Attila’s death, the Huns disappeared from the history books—until the 21st century, that is. In 2005, approximately 2,500 people identified themselves as Huns and asked to be recognized as an ethnic minority group in Hungary. Gyorgy Kisfaludy, a spokesman for the group, told the BBC “that to be a Hun today was a matter of feeling and cultural identity.” The Human Rights Committee of the Hungarian parliament rejected the idea of recognizing the Huns, however.

Others have sought to reconnect with the Huns through biographies. Tom Holland, in a review of “Attila the Hun” by Christopher Kelly, salutes the biographer for painting a comprehensive portrait of the Hunnish leader.

Kelly “is too nuanced a historian to buy into the notion of his subject as merely a mindless thug; but nor does he go to the opposite extreme, and cast Attila as a misunderstood man of peace,” Holland writes.

In the book, Kelly retells Priscus’ eyewitness account of his meeting with Attila, and in so doing, draws a “sophisticated and disturbing” conclusion, according to Holland: “It is always reassuring to think of our enemies as godless barbarians,” Kelly writes. “It is troubling to learn that they might be more like us than we would ever care to admit."

Wess Roberts’ “Leadership Secrets of Attila the Hun” draws a connection between Attila the Hun and business leaders today. In his review of the book, Tom O’Connor explains that the book is a collection of leadership principles presented as though they were campfire stories shared by Attila with his chieftains.

As Roberts wrote in the introduction to his book, “The controversy surrounding Attila will perhaps never be resolved, but his ‘leadership secrets’ present insightful opportunity to learn, by way of metaphor, age-old characteristics, values and principles that separate those who lead from those who follow.”

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