The Wives Who Made Attila the Hun
In 448 AD, Priscus, a Roman diplomat and a Greek historian , and Maximus, the head of the Byzantine embassy, were on a mission by Eastern Roman Emperor Theodosius II to meet with the infamous Attila the Hun (405? AD - 453 AD). After many days of travel, they arrived at Attila's compound and exchanged gifts with Queen Kreka.
Then they proceeded to a banquet in honor of all Attila’s delegates. As the night ensued, Priscus took careful notes by studying Attila, his wives, and his children. Priscus' observations would be what most future historians would refer to when trying to understand Attila’s inner circle.
But what draws just as much mystery as Attila himself are the many wives and women who surrounded him. It is assumed that he had a vast number of wives, but the only existing records were of the daughter of Eskam, a political marriage for alliance; Kreka the first wife and mother to his three heirs; and Ildico the last wife he married before his death. Other sources mention the widowed wife of his brother Bleda, whom he cared for, as well as the betrothed Roman princess Justa Grata Honoria who hoped Attila would save her from a life of boredom.
Most of the reliable accounts come from the fragments of Priscus’ original eight volume series, History of Byzantium. Priscus’ reports revealed a Hunnic world which differed from the savage generalizations other Roman historians made about Attila and his people. So, what were the customs and who were Attila’s wives?
Feast of Attila. Source: Fulvio314 / Public Domain .
Customs of the Huns and How We View Their Women
If one were to read the Hunnic accounts from the Roman historian, Armanianus Marcellinus (330 AD- 400 AD), it would read:
“…Abnormally savage. From the moment of birth, they make deep gashes in their children’s cheeks, so that when in due course hair appears its growth is checked by the wrinkled scars; as they grew older this gives them the unlovely appearance of beardless eunuchs. They have squat bodies, strong limbs, and thick necks, and are so prodigiously ugly and bent that they might be two-legged animals, or the figures crudely carved from stumps which are seen in the parapets of bridges…” - Ammianus Marcellinus, 31.1, translated by Hamilton.
It should be noted that Marcellinus may have never met a Hunnic person and was reiterating the common prejudice of the time. The largest stereotypes which most Roman scholars, and even contemporary scholars, held was that “they were warriors who made their homes in skin covered chariots overflowing with children and the pillages of victory”. (Wess Roberts, Ph.D.) Most accounts of their women were of being muted property hidden in the domesticity of the yurt. However, stated in some of Priscus’ accounts, this was not true.
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Attila and the Huns were viewed as warriors who pillaged. (Shakko / CC BY-SA 3.0 )
The Huns were a mixture of Ostrogoth, Alan, Scythian, Asiatic, and Turkic people who made up a loose confederacy of multi-ethnic chiefdoms and their customs were a fusion of all these cultures. They were enigmatically nomadic and sedentary; they were fast allies and faster enemies.
Attila and most Huns were known for their polygamy, and it was not unusual for a son to marry his stepmother, or for a brother to marry the widow of his brother. If they rescued the body of a slain ally from the enemy, they could inherit all the dead man’s property. They were quick to make captives, whom they made their slaves, tend to their flocks and craft the essentials they needed in order to live.
The Huns were most likely used to women being tribal leaders and probably held widows in high regard. In Priscus’ descriptions of the Hunnic women, they openly mixed with men in social gatherings, they were quite vocal and took part in the handling of tribute and trade goods.
Attila’s Main Wife Kreka, Queen of the Huns
Queen Kreka (also translated as Hereca or Erecan) was Attila's first wife and mother to his three sons Ellac, Dengizich, and Ernak. What astounded Priscus was his first encounter with Queen Kreka. She was sophisticated and charming. In his accounts, Kreka oversaw several servants creating linen goods.
“…This is where Attila's wife dwelled. I passed the barbarians at the door and found her lying on a soft mattress. The ground was covered with woolen felt pieces for walking on. A number of male servants were gathered round her while female servants sat on the ground opposite her, dyeing some fine linens that were to be placed over the barbarians’ clothing as adornment. I approached her and, after a greeting, presented her with the gifts.…” - Priscus Line 128 - 132, Fragment 8 - Excerpts on Romans' Embassies to Foreigners of Constantine VII Porphyrogennetos .
Priscus’ gifts of dried fruits, Indian spices, and silver bowls were presented to Kreka as a custom of goodwill. It was also noted that dried fruits and spices were considered just as valuable as gold and silver to the Huns.
After sitting through the events of the banquet with Attila, Priscus and Maximus politely stepped out as they saw the celebrations becoming hardier with alcohol and lewd jokes. However, Kreka tried to make sure that both Priscus and Maximus would meet for one last discussion before they returned to their tents:
“…At this time, Kreka, Attila’s wife, invited us to dinner at the house of Adames, the man who oversaw her affairs. We joined him along with some of the nation’s leading men, and there we found cordiality. He greeted us with soothing words and prepared food. Each of those present, with Hun generosity [...] After dinner, we went back to our tent to sleep." - Priscus Line 178, Fragment 8 - Excerpts on Romans' Embassies to Foreigners of Constantine VII Porphyrogennetos .
Whether this act was a gracious gesture to thank them for their gifts, or whether it was to solidify that Attila’s messages would be returned to Emperor Theodosis II, remains a mystery. What was best described of Queen Kreka was her formal education in diplomatic relationships. The few glimpses of Kreka revealed an individual who was able to manage and delegate.
Attila’s Alliance Wife, the Daughter of Eskam
Most of the wives of Attila were unnamed in Priscus' accounts for he himself did not regard them as necessary in his narrative. However, one unnamed wife was mentioned, and for 100s of years, scholars had debated whether this woman was the daughter of a chieftain, or the daughter of Attila himself. If she was indeed the daughter of a Hunnic chieftain by the name of Eskam, then she was most likely a bride given to Attila in order to strengthen Hunnic alliances .
Attila married the daughter of a chieftain to strengthen Hunnic alliances. (Hohum / Public Domain )
“…The Huns who were guiding us told us to do this because Attila was going to a village where he wanted to marry the daughter of Eskam. Attila already had very many wives, but he was marrying her too in accordance with Hunnic custom…” - Priscus Line 63, Fragment 8 - Excerpts on Romans' Embassies to Foreigners of Constantine VII Porphyrogennetos .
However, if it were indeed his daughter that he married, then this would be an interestingly controversial custom. It has been mentioned before that the Hun customs allowed one to marry the widowed in-laws of fallen family members, but nothing is mentioned about incestuous relationships with fathers marrying their daughters. With this passage, most scholars have now accepted that the woman was indeed the daughter of a Hunnic chieftain named Eskam rather than Attila’s daughter.
Bleda’s Widowed Wife, the In-Law of Attila
A storm had rendered Priscus and Maximus’ camp unlivable and forced them to take refuge in a Hunnic village nearby. When they arrived, they met a woman ruler.
She welcomed them into the village for one evening and treated them to the very gracious Hunnic customs only shared by the elite. In this encounter, the woman revealed herself to be the widowed wife of Bleda, the slain brother of Attila:
“…The woman who ruled the village, she had been one of Bleda’s wives, sent us refreshments and beautiful women for sex [...] We treated the woman kindly and shared the provisions that had been set out, but we declined intercourse with them. We remained in the cabins, and at daybreak, we searched for our belongings […] After we tended to the horses and the other pack animals, we visited the queen. We greeted her and exchanged as gifts three silver bowls, some red hides, pepper from India, the fruit of date-palm trees and other fruits that were valuable to the barbarians because they did not grow locally. We then thanked her for her hospitality and slowly withdrew…” - Priscus Line 72-73, Fragment 8 - Excerpts on Romans' Embassies to Foreigners of Constantine VII Porphyrogennetos .
Bleda and Attila. (Finn Diesel / Free Art License )
If it was true that widows were honored with respect in Hunnic society, then one could explore the possibility that the widowed wife of Bleda might have been espoused by Attila after Attila killed Bleda in 445.
Justa Grata Honoria’s Proposal to Attila the Hun
Though Justa Grata Honoria and Attila were never married, their relationship escalated into an obsession which almost cost Attila his kingdom and reputation.
In 450 AD, Honoria the older sister of the Western Roman Emperor Valentinian III was betrothed to marry the Roman senator Bassus Herculanus. Honoria disapproved for she had ambitions of marrying someone in order to ascend to the throne. Alas, the senator Herculanus showed no desire to move past his station.
Honoria then sent her servant Hyacinthus with a plea for help to Attila stating her predicament as well as her ring as the first payment of more to come. However, this message was misunderstood, and Attila assumed the ring meant that Honoria wished to be his bride. Attila accepted and sent several replies to Emperor Valentinian III, to not only accept Honoria’s hand in marriage but to also accept half of Western Rome as dowry.
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Justa Grata Honoria proposed to Atilla the Hun. (Elekes Andor / Public Domain )
Emperor Valentinian III replied to Attila dismissing the marriage as a misunderstanding and that the Western Roman Empire would never give up half of their reign to him. According to Priscus, the situation with Attila grew worse:
“…when it was announced to [Attila] what had happened concerning Honoria; he sent representatives to the Western Roman ruler to argue that no harm should come to Honoria, whom he had betrothed to himself. He would avenge her, he said, unless she received the ornaments of power […] The Western Romans replied that Honoria could not marry him because she had already been given to another man and that the scepter was not owed to her since the rule of the Roman Empire belonged not to females but to males […] If Attila remained peaceful, they said, they would give him gifts; if he threatened war, they would lead against him arms and men not inferior to his force….Attila… decided it was best, for now, to turn his attention toward the bigger war and march against the West…" - Priscus Line 1, Fragment 15.
In 450, the allied forces of Attila marched to the west only to find defeat in the Battle of the Cataluanian Plains against his former ally and friend Flavius Eparachius Aetius (380 AD - 457 AD). It was a devastating defeat for Attila. In the end, Attila concluded that it would be more profitable to make peace and retreat to his homeland.
Attila was defeated in the Battle of the Cataluanian Plains. (Alipur70 / CC BY-SA 4.0 )
Attila’s Last Wife Ildico
Ildico would be known as the last wife of Attila. By all accounts she was a young and beautiful east Germanic woman of Gothic origins. Though there would be other scholars who suggested that she might have assassinated Attila due to blood feuds between her people and the Huns, the fact remains that the original accounts of Priscus records her as an innocent weeping bride:
“… Attila married an exceedingly beautiful girl, Ildico by the name […] Unwound by the excessive partying at his wedding and weighed down by wine and sleep; he was lying on his back. He often had nosebleeds, but his blood now flowed backward […] and spilled down […] into his throat, killing him. Thus, intoxication brought a shameful death to a king glorious in war…” - Jordanes, Getica. Fragment 23.
Whether Ildico was another alliance bride, or whether she was an assassin did not matter since she would be recorded as the last person to see Attila alive.
Death of Attila. (Fulvio314 / Public Domain )
Thoughts on Attila the Hun and His Wives
Attila the Hun was the only one who brought paralyzing fear to all who heard his name. He was synonymous with the fall of the Roman Empire . Even though he commanded chieftains, acquired immense wealth, and held lavish banquets, Attila himself lived humbly.
But there is almost nothing known about his wives. There were no written documents by his own Hunnic people about him and the only existing texts were written by those who considered the Huns enemies.
However, even with these accounts, the information about Kreka, Ildico, the daughter of Eskam, the widow of Bleda, and many more are still but sentences and paragraphs in history. Hopefully, as time goes on, further information will become available in order to understand better who the wives of Attila really were and what impact they had over trade, commerce, and their husband.
Top image: Kreka was Attila’s first wife. ( matiasdelcarmine / Adobe Stock)
By B. B. Wagner
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