FLAGELLUM DEI (LATIN: SCOURGE OF GOD), king of the Huns from 434 to 453 (ruling jointly with his elder brother Bleda until 445). He was one of the greatest of the barbarian rulers who assailed the Roman Empire, invading the southern Balkan provinces and Greece and then Gaul and Italy. In legend he appears under the name Etzel in the Nibelungenlied and under the name Atli in Icelandic sagas.
Of all the barbarian leaders who attacked the Roman Empire, none is more famous than Attila the Hun. In western Europe his ferocity earned him the nickname Scourge of God. He was king of the Huns from 434 until his death in 453. He shared power temporarily with his elder brother, Bleda, whom he murdered in about 445.
By the 5th century the Huns ruled a large empire. The Western Roman Empire had almost totally disintegrated. The Eastern, or Byzantine, Empire, which had its capital at Constantinople (now Istanbul, Turkey), was much stronger than its counterpart to the west. But it had extended its boundaries over too wide an area to stop an invasion at any one point. To keep from being attacked, the Eastern emperor paid an annual tribute to the Huns. The emperor's failure to keep up payments led Attila to invade the Byzantine Empire in two campaigns, in 441-443 and in 447-449. Much of what is now the Balkan region was devastated. The empire lost territory and had to pay a larger tribute.
In 450 Attila claimed Honoria, sister of the Western emperor, Valentinian III, as his wife. As a dowry he expected half of the Western Empire. To enforce this claim, Attila invaded Gaul (France) in 451. He was defeated and forced to withdraw. In 452 he overran much of northern Italy but turned back before attacking Rome. His next plan was to lead another invasion of the Byzantine Empire, but he died suddenly after celebrating the last of his marriages. He was succeeded by his sons, who divided his empire.
AD 445: Attila the Hun
The most famous of the Huns, Attila assumed full power over his people when he murdered his brother Bleda in 445. Before that, he had shared power with Bleda for 11 years, following the death of their uncle Rugila. The fear that Attila inspired earned him the appellation Scourge of God.
The Western Roman Empire was slowly disintegrating when the Huns under Bleda and Attila negotiated peace with the Eastern Empire. The emperor promised to pay 700 pounds of gold each year to the Huns as payment for not attacking the Eastern Empire. When the emperor missed some of his payments, Attila invaded the empire, once from 441 to 443 and again from 447 to 449. Much of the region was devastated, and the emperor was forced to increase his tribute.
Attila's only military defeat occurred during his invasion of Gaul (modern France) in 451. Following that, he invaded much of Italy and planned to reconquer the Eastern Empire. Attila died in his sleep in 453, however, before he could accomplish his plan. The men who buried him and his treasures were put to death so that his burial place would remain unknown.
Attacks on the Eastern Empire.
empire that Attila and his elder brother Bleda inherited seems to have
stretched from the Alps and the Baltic in the west to somewhere near the
Caspian Sea in the east. Their first known action on becoming joint
rulers was the negotiation of a peace treaty with the Eastern Roman
Empire, which was concluded at the city of Margus (Pozarevac). By the
terms of the treaty the Romans undertook to double the subsidies they
had been paying to the Huns and in future to pay 700 pounds (300
kilograms) of gold each year.
435 to 439 the activities of Attila are unknown, but he seems to have
been engaged in subduing barbarian peoples to the north or east of his
dominions. The Eastern Romans do not appear to have paid the sums
stipulated in the treaty of Margus, and so in 441, when their forces
were occupied in the west and on the eastern frontier, Attila launched a
heavy assault on the Danubian frontier of the Eastern Empire. He
captured and razed a number of important cities, including Singidunum
(Belgrade). The Eastern Romans managed to arrange a truce for the year
442 and recalled their forces from the West. But in 443 Attila resumed
his attack. He began by taking and destroying towns on the Danube and
then drove into the interior of the empire toward Naissus (Nis) and
Serdica (Sofia), both of which he destroyed. He next turned toward
Constantinople, took Philippopolis, defeated the main Eastern Roman
forces in a succession of battles, and so reached the sea both north and
south of Constantinople. It was hopeless for the Hun archers to attack
the great walls of the capital; so Attila turned on the remnants of the
empire's forces, which had withdrawn into the peninsula of Gallipoli,
and destroyed them. In the peace treaty that followed, he obliged the
Eastern Empire to pay the arrears of tribute, which he calculated at
6,000 pounds of gold, and he trebled the annual tribute, henceforth
extorting 2,100 pounds of gold each year.
Attila's movements after the conclusion of peace in the autumn of 443
are unknown. About 445 he murdered his brother Bleda and thenceforth
ruled the Huns as an autocrat. He made his second great attack on the
Eastern Roman Empire in 447, but little is known of the details of the
campaign. It was planned on an even bigger scale than that of 441-443,
and its main weight was directed toward the provinces of Lower Scythia
and Moesia in southeastern Europe--i.e., farther to the east than the
earlier assault. He engaged the Eastern Empire's forces on the Utus (Vid)
River and defeated them, but he himself suffered serious losses. He then
devastated the Balkan provinces and drove southward into Greece, where
he was only stopped at Thermopylae. The three years following the
invasion were filled with complicated negotiations between Attila and
the diplomats of the Eastern Roman emperor Theodosius II. Much
information about these diplomatic encounters has been preserved in the
fragments of the History of Priscus of Panium, who visited Attila's
headquarters in Walachia in company with a Roman embassy in 449. The
treaty by which the war was terminated was harsher than that of 443; the
Eastern Romans had to evacuate a wide belt of territory south of the
Danube, and the tribute payable by them was continued, though the rate
is not known.
Invasion of Gaul.
Attila's next great campaign was the invasion of Gaul in 451. Hitherto, he appears to have been on friendly terms with the Roman general Aetius, the real ruler of the West at this time, and his motives for marching into Gaul have not been recorded. He announced that his objective in the West was the kingdom of the Visigoths (a Germanic people who had conquered parts of the two Roman empires) centred on Tolosa (Toulouse) and that he had no quarrel with the Western emperor, Valentinian III. But in the spring of 450, Honoria, the Emperor's sister, sent her ring to Attila, asking him to rescue her from a marriage that had been arranged for her. Attila thereupon claimed Honoria as his wife and demanded half the Western Empire as her dowry. When Attila had already entered Gaul, Aetius reached an agreement with the Visigothic king, Theodoric I, to combine their forces in resisting the Huns. Many legends surround the campaign that followed. It is certain, however, that Attila almost succeeded in occupying Aurelianum (Orléans) before the allies arrived. Indeed, the Huns had already gained a footing inside the city when Aetius and Theodoric forced them to withdraw. The decisive engagement was the Battle of the Catalaunian Plains, or, according to some authorities, of Maurica (both places are unidentified). After fierce fighting, in which the Visigothic king was killed, Attila withdrew and shortly afterward retired from Gaul. This was his first and only defeat.
452 the Huns invaded Italy and sacked several cities, including
Aquileia, Patavium (Padua), Verona, Brixia (Brescia), Bergomum
(Bergamo), and Mediolanum (Milan); Aetius could do nothing to halt them.
But the famine and pestilence raging in Italy in that year compelled the
Huns to leave without crossing the Apennines.
453 Attila was intending to attack the Eastern Empire, where the new
emperor Marcian had refused to pay the subsidies agreed upon by his
predecessor, Theodosius II. But during the night following his marriage,
Attila died in his sleep. Those who buried him and his treasures were
subsequently put to death by the Huns so that his grave might never be
discovered. He was succeeded by his sons, who divided his empire among
Priscus, who saw Attila when he visited his camp in 448, described him as a short, squat man with a large head, deep-set eyes, flat nose, and a thin beard. According to the historians, Attila was, though of an irritable, blustering, and truculent disposition, a very persistent negotiator and by no means pitiless. When Priscus attended a banquet given by him, he noticed that Attila was served off wooden plates and ate only meat, whereas his chief lieutenants dined off silver platters loaded with dainties. No description of his qualities as a general survives, but his successes before the invasion of Gaul show him to have been an outstanding commander.