The Feast of Attila by Ede Heinrich (1863) (Public Domain)

Attila The Great, Reviled as a ‘Barbarian’


Qin Shi Huang , first emperor of China and Genghis Khan have received what one might call a ‘bad rap’.  They were of far greater honor and integrity than history has reported, and their achievements were truly momentous, but propaganda derailed objectivity in the histories of Qin Shi Huang and Genghis Khan. Now, one can add Attila to that list, an historical figure that has been generally reviled in the popular media and press, and often in learned journals. While Qin Shi Huang has been declared a merciless dictator who, among other atrocities, buried scholars and the builders of his mausoleum, and Genghis Khan is almost always referred to as a filthy barbarian, Attila is blamed in some sources for the fall of the Roman Empire.

Attila and his Hordes Overrun Italy and the Arts by Eugene Delacroix (1843 and 1847) Palais Bourbon (Public Domain)

Attila and his Hordes Overrun Italy and the Arts by Eugene Delacroix (1843 and 1847) Palais Bourbon ( Public Domain )

Biased Historians

A key to the influence that external factors may play in how history is recorded, is the cultural, and philosophical mindset of the historian. History books everywhere can't seem to avoid reference to ‘barbarians’ who live - without welcome - in a country, attack countries, or carry out acts of genocide and other evil deeds. But terms of derision such as this are assigned, not always earned or valid. In fact, such terms usually emerge as a device to support aggressive acts of one sort or another. Nations going to war very often will invent or focus on alleged racial, political, cultural and historical attributes that justify ‘corrective’ action. Sometimes outsiders gain a negative appellation because of fear, distrust, or they are simply different. The strangers may be completely unknown and their appearance, behaviors and beliefs are just made up. The common view in histories of Attila, and the Huns, as ‘barbarians’ derived from the Huns being different - different from the high ground claimed by the Roman Empire.

Most historians agree Attila belongs in all lists of great conquerors. But does one see ‘Attila the Great’ - joining the ranks of Cyrus the Great and Alexander the Great? No, one almost always sees ‘Attila the Hun’. This reads as a pejorative, assigned to ensure nobody forgets for one moment he was a ruffian leader of filthy peasants who had the audacity to attack ‘civilization’.

The Huns approaching Rome by Ulpiano Checa (1887) (Public Domain)

The Huns approaching Rome by Ulpiano Checa (1887) ( Public Domain )

Who Was Attila?

Attila was the chosen leader of nomadic central and eastern European peoples who may have had Mongolian ancestry.


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David G. Jones B.A., M.A. is a retired government executive and university teacher and administrator. Among other achievements, he is a Fellow of the University of King's College and was awarded the Queen's Jubilee Medal. He also holds an officer's commission in the Canadian Army. He is author of The School of Sun Tzu: Winning Empires without War .

Top Image : The Feast of Attila by Ede Heinrich (1863) ( Public Domain )

By David Jones

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