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18th Century painting by Pinacoteca di Brera of ‘The Meeting of Pope Leo and Attila.’

The Scourge of God: Did Attila the Hun Really Deserve the Nickname?

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The Latin statement Ego sum Attila flagellum Dei, which means I am Attila, the scourge of God, is said to have been first expressed in 1387, and is obviously making a reference to Attila the Hun. Like other rulers regarded (by the West) as ‘barbarians,’ including Gaiseric and Genghis Khan, Attila the Hun has a bad reputation amongst Westerners. This Hunnic ruler has been portrayed as an enemy of civilization, a ruthless mass murderer, and an uncultured savage.

Nevertheless, this is only one side of the coin, as Attila the Hun also possessed some positive values (though often forgotten or not highlighted) that would be normally applied to the heroes of Western history. For instance, the historian Jordanes wrote that:

“He (Attila) was indeed a lover of war, yet restrained in action, mighty in counsel, gracious to suppliants and lenient to those who were once received into his protection.”

Attila’s Early Life

Little is known about Attila’s early life. Although the exact date of his birth is unknown, it is possible that Attila was born sometime in the early 5th century AD. We do know that Attila’s father was a man by the name of Mundzuk, whilst his uncle, Rugila (known also as Rua or Ruga), was the king of the Huns. The name of Attila’s mother is not known, though today, her name is sometimes given as Hungysung Vladdysurf. This name, however, is likely to have been a recent fabrication. Attila also had an older brother, Bleda (known also as Buda), whom many claim he later murdered, in order to unite the Huns and become their sole ruler.

As young men, Attila and Bleda were probably taught archery, horse-riding, and the art of war to prepare them for their future role as leaders of the Huns. Additionally, it has been said that Attila and his brother were also taught Latin and Gothic so that they could do business with the Romans and the Goths.

Detail of Attila the Hun from ‘Attila and his Hordes Overrun Italy and the Arts’ (1847) by Eugène Delacroix.

Detail of Attila the Hun from ‘Attila and his Hordes Overrun Italy and the Arts’ (1847) by Eugène Delacroix. (Public Domain)

Was Attila a ‘Family Man’?

Rugila died whilst on a campaign against Constantinople in 433 AD, and the leadership of the Huns passed to Attila and Bleda, who ruled jointly. Bleda, however, disappears from history following the war against the Byzantines along the Danube. According to Jordanes:

“Now when his brother Bleda, who ruled over a great part of the Huns, had been slain by his treachery, Attila united all the people under his own rule.”    

It may be possible that Bleda died during the campaign against the Byzantines, rather than as a victim of Attila’s plotting. Priscus, a diplomat who was part of the Byzantine embassy to the court of Attila the Hun, did not record the circumstances of Bleda’s death, but wrote that one of his widows was a governor of a Hunnic village. It might be inferred that Attila respected his brother’s wife, and provided for her after her husband’s death. Attila’s possible image as a ‘family man’ may be seen in another section of Priscus’ writings:

“But Attila remained unmoved and his expression unaltered, nor in speech nor action did he reveal that he had any laughter in him, except when his youngest son (Ernach was the boy's name) came in and stood before him. He pinched the lad's cheeks and looked on him with serene eyes.”

Feast of Attila (1870) by Mór Than

Feast of Attila (1870) by Mór Than. (Public Domain) The youth beside Attila may have been one of his youngest son, Ernach.

Nevertheless, Priscus continues by saying that:

“I was surprised that he should take small account of his other sons but give his attention to this one, until a barbarian sitting beside me who knew the Latin language, warning me to repeat nothing of what he was about to tell me, said that the seers had prophesied to Attila that his race would fail but would be restored by this son.”

A Man of His Word

Whilst it is indeed debatable whether Attila the Hun was a ‘family man’ or not, it has been said with more certainty that he was (mostly) a man of his word, at least by the standards of his time. Priscus records that the Romans paid the Huns a tribute of 700 pounds of gold each year from 440 AD to maintain peace between the two powers. Prior to that, since 422 AD, the Romans had been paying only 350 pounds of gold. Attila the Hun kept his promise, and did not cause trouble for the Romans as long as the tribute was paid.

The United Huns – a Force to Be Reckoned With

Perhaps the greatest positive point of Attila the Hun was his ability to unite the Huns into a force to be reckoned with. Under Attila’s leadership, the Huns rampaged across the Balkans, invaded Gaul, marched into Italy, and almost sacked Rome - had it not been for the intervention of Pope Leo I, as stated by tradition.

The Meeting of Leo the Great and Attila. (1514) By Raphael.

The Meeting of Leo the Great and Attila. (1514) By Raphael. (Public Domain)

The strength and attributes of Attila becomes more pronounced after his death in 453 AD, as the Hunnic Empire soon disintegrated, and the Huns were no longer the threat to Rome that they once were.

Featured image: 18th Century painting by Pinacoteca di Brera of ‘The Meeting of Pope Leo and Attila.’ Photo source: (Public Domain)

By: Ḏḥwty


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dhwty's picture


Wu Mingren (‘Dhwty’) has a Bachelor of Arts in Ancient History and Archaeology. Although his primary interest is in the ancient civilizations of the Near East, he is also interested in other geographical regions, as well as other time periods.... Read More

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