Attila was one of the most brutal yet successful conquerors in history. At the height of his power, Attila held all the barbarian tribes of Europe in one fist and threatened to crush the entire Roman Empire with the other. Even to the Germanic tribesman Attila was a barbarian, they described him as a savage who dined on the flesh of his victims.
The Romans considered the Huns to be subhuman. They ate their meat raw, lived and slept on horse back, possessed no written language and built no dwellings or permanent structures. The Christianized Roman’s saw Attila as God’s punishment for their sins, but in reality, Attila was a skilled leader and diplomat as well as a fierce and mighty General who was adored by his people.
The Hun’s were a people who came from the central Asian steppes, these nomads migrated slowly towards Europe and began pushing other barbarian tribes towards the borders of the Roman Empire. The Germanic tribes in the Hun’s path spread terrible tales about the advancing horseman, and to the Christianized Roman’s of the ancient world, the Huns took on the shape of demon’s and servants of the antichrist.
Attila was born in 400 AD, it was at this time that the Hun’s had destroyed the Visigoth and Ostrogothic realm’s. The Hun’s followed up these victories by founding a nomadic kingdom on the rich and fertile plain’s of present day Hungary.
The Hunnic king Rua, continued the traditional policy of extortion and demanded an annual sum of 300 lbs of gold in return for not attacking the Eastern Roman Empire. Rua also continued to permit Hunnic warrior’s to serve in Roman armies against the barbarians in the Roman provinces of Spain, Gaul and Africa.
At the age of fifteen, Attila was offered as a hostage to the Imperial court of the Western Roman Empire to cement a peace treaty between the western Roman’s and the Hun’s. While as a hostage, Attila was to learn the Roman language and military techniques. Attila also witnessed first hand Rome's great wealth and was revolted by the decadence and corruption that infected Rome's way of life.
In the year 420 AD, after five years in captivity, Attila was returned to his people. Attila had learned a great deal about his foe and swore he would return to Italy one day not as a hostage, but as a conqueror.
It was during his return home that Attila was to meet the hostage offered by the western Roman’s, one Flavius Aetius. The two young men immediately became friends and were inseparable, during his captivity Aetius also learned the Hunnic way of life as well as their military techniques. The friendship forged between the two was to have everlasting effects on both their lives in ways they could not possibly imagine.
King Rua died in 434 AD and was succeeded by Attila and his brother Bleda. The two co ruled peacefully for the next seven years until in 441, the Eastern Roman Emperor, Theodosius halted the annual payments of gold.This was the opportunity Attila was waiting for, Attila had his brother killed and decided on a policy of national expansion.
The Hun’s crossed the Danube river and invaded the Balkan provinces of the Eastern Roman Empire. The Hun’s ravaged and destroyed the country side, burning every town and city in their path to the ground. Near the capital of the Eastern Empire, Constantinople, the Hun’s utterly destroyed the Roman army sent against them at the battle of Gallipoli.
ROMAN EMPEROR THEODOSIUS
Theodosius had no choice but to buy off Attila and his horde, but the price of peace would be high. The Eastern Empire was to pay a huge tribute of 700 lbs of gold annually, Attila also demanded a ransom for each Roman citizen held in his custody and the immediate return of his own subjects from Roman territory. The Roman’s were also forbidden to sign treaties with known enemies of the Hun’s or interfere with Hunnic trade along the Danube.
Theodosius knew that a humiliating and expensive peace was still far better than a war he could not win. With every pound of gold that crossed the Danube, Attila became more powerful and intimidating, while the Eastern Roman’s more weak and humiliated.
The Western Roman Empire offered no assistance to their Eastern cousins, Attila's childhood friend Aetius had risen in the ranks to become Emperor Valentinian's second in command and master General of all Roman armies of the west. Because of Aetius's friendship with Attila, a strong alliance with the Hun’s protected the western half of the empire.
In the year 447 AD, After raising a new army and strengthening his borders, Theodosius refused to pay the annual tribute to the Hun’s. In response Attila and his army once again crossed the Danube into the Eastern Roman Empire. Attila had given specific orders that everything in their path was to be destroyed and no living thing spared, the Eastern Roman’s were to pay dear for this latest insult. Theodosius sent the Eastern Roman army to stop Attila, but the Roman’s were once again completely destroyed at the battle of Marcianopolis.
With no Roman forces left to oppose them, the Hun’s ranged south to pillage Greece. Attila had now conquered most of the Balkan region of the Eastern Empire and then turned his army northwest towards the Eastern capitol of Constantinople. Outside the gates of the great city the Hunnic army made camp, the inhabitants were terrified and Theodosius had no choice but to once again sue for peace.
The terms offered to Theodosius were very harsh, Attila demanded an immediate payment of 7,000 lbs of gold and 1,000 lbs to be paid annually. To raise the 7,000 lbs up front, Theodosius emptied the treasury, stripped every statue and monument of its wealth and even went so far as to confiscate gold from the citizens of the city itself. With Attila's wagons overflowing with riches, the Hun’s crossed the Danube and returned home.
Since becoming king in 434 AD, Attila had united the warring Hunnic tribes into an unstoppable war machine. Attila's rein now stretched along the borders of both the East and Western Roman Empire’s including all the barbarian tribes within. Just one single word from Attila could make kingdom’s crumble and empire’s tremble. With his invincible armies, Attila was to become the most powerful man on the face of the earth.
In 450 AD, The Eastern Emperor Theodosius was killed when falling from a horse. His successor Marcian, took a hard line stance on Attila's encroachment’s and also refused to pay the annual tribute. Attila chose to ignore the action’s of the new Eastern Emperor, events in the West had caught his attention.
Honoria, the sister of the Western Emperor Valentinian, objected to her brother's choice for her husband. Honoria secretly wrote to Attila and enclosed a gold ring, Attila accepted this gift assuming she was proposing to him and then demanded that the western Roman province of Gaul would make a suitable dowry. Valentinian's refusal of Attila's request would result in the Hun’s crossing the Rhine river and invading the Western Roman Empire.
THE BATTLE OF CHALONS
When Attila crossed the Rhine in 451 AD, he threatened an Empire in name only. The Western Roman Empire had suffered greatly under the constant attacks by all the known barbarian tribes of the era, with the capital city of Rome itself being sacked by the Visigoth's in 410 AD.
Attila invaded the Roman province of Gaul with a large army of Hun’s and dependent barbarian tribes subject to his rule. The Hunnic advance sacked and destroyed some of the greatest cities in all the Western Roman Empire. The Hun’s advanced unopposed deep into central Gaul and put the walled city of Orleans under siege.
The Roman General Aetius, worked frantically to build a coalition of barbarian tribes to stand with Rome against the Hun’s. The barbarian’s had no interest in allying themselves with their long - time enemy, but they did have a common hatred for the Hun’s and at the time, the Roman’s seemed to be the lesser of the two evils.
Just as Attila and his army were about to launch their final assault to take Orlean’s, Aetius and the relief army arrived. The Hun’s did not expect any opposition and were caught completely by surprise. Attila immediately ordered his troops to abandon the siege and withdrawal to more open country. Aetius and the allied army followed close behind never losing contact with their foe. On the Catalonian plains near Chalon’s, the Hun’s turned and prepared for battle.
The two commanders now spent the day arranging their troops, the once childhood friends now stared one another down across the open battle field. Both armies were quite large for fifth century standards. Attila's army numbering 300,000 men ( 200,000 Huns, 60,000 Ostrogoths and 40,000 Gepidae, totalling some 200,000 cavalry and 100,000 infantry ) would be countered by Aetius's Roman - Gothic army numbering 260,000 men ( 120,000 Visigoths, 90,000 Romans and 50,000 Alans comprising 150,000 cavalry and 110,000 infantry ).
Attila formed up his forces on a broad front, on his right wing stood the Gepidae under King Adaric, on the left King Valamir and his Ostrogoths, Attila and his Hunnic troops commanded the center. Aetius placed his least reliable troops the Alan’s under King Sangiban in the center, in the hopes they would absorb and slow down the Hunnic attack as much as possible. The Visigoth’s under King Theodoric were positioned on the right wing while the Roman’s formed the left flank of the allied army.
Over looking the battle field on both the Hun’s left and the allied right flank, was a dominating ridge which both Attila and Aetius sought to gain for their army. Attila sent the Ostrogoth’s along with Hunnic forces from his center to take the mountain summit, at the same time Aetius ordered the Visigoth’s to seize this important feature.
King Theodoric sent in Visigothic forces lead by his son, the Crown Prince Thorismund who reached the summit before the Ostrogoths. Holding the high ground, the Visigoths easily repelled the Hun’s and their Ostrogothic levies as they attempted to claim this strategic prize.
Attila's army was thrown into confusion by the failure to take the high ground. Attila's Germanic subjects had never witnessed an attack by the Huns to fail, an eerie silence dawned over the Hunnic side of the battle field. Attila knew he had to act quickly to take their minds of this set back and immediately ordered his fearsome Hun’s to attack the Alan's holding the center of the allied line.
The Hunnic charge was able to drive back but not break through the allied center. As the Alan’s slowly began to give ground Attila ordered his Hun’s to turn inward and strike at the Visigoth’s from their rear, it was during this assault that King Theodoric was killed.
Prince Thorismund, still holding the summit, ordered his forces to charge down the slope towards their beleaguered country men, catching the unsuspecting Hun’s in their right flank. The Visigoth assault struck hard at the enemy, driving both the Ostrogoth’s and Hun’s before them. It was at this moment that Aetius ordered the Roman’s to advance across the battle field to threaten Attila's right flank held by the Gepidae.
Things were beginning to go bad for the Hun’s. The allied center had bent but not broken and Attila's left flank was falling back under the weight of renewed Visigothic attacks. Attila also knew the Gepidae on his right wing could not hold the Roman legions bearing down on them. Attila therefore decided to withdrawal his Hun’s to the safety of their wagons, leaving the Gepidae and the remainder of the Ostrogoths to fight a rear guard action to make good the Hun’s escape.
The Roman’s and Visigoths continued to press hard on the retreating Hun’s and their Germanic subjects until the coming of nightfall called off the pursuit. Both Aetius and Attila anticipated that the battle would resume the next day, but when morning dawned, both armies were to weak and disorganized to continue. Attila's army successfully escaped and re - crossed the Rhine, returning to their homeland’s along the Danube.
Loses at Chalon’s were considerable for both sides. The Roman’s and her allies suffered 80,000 casualties (45,000 Visigoth’s, 25,000 Alan’s and 10,000 Roman’s). Attila and his Germanic subjects suffered more severe casualties numbering 115,000, (60,000 Hun’s, 40,000 Ostrogoth’s and 15,000 Gepidae).
Although suffering his first defeat, Attila was still very powerful and he quickly restored his army to full strength. In 452 AD, Attila turned his attention once again toward’s the Western Roman Empire, crossing the alp’s and invading Italy. The city of Aquileia was the first to feel Attila's wrath as it was wiped from the face of the earth, so much so, that twenty years later the site was still uninhabited.
Northern Italy was utterly devastated, Aetius could not persuade the Alan’s and Visigoth’s to come to the defence of Italy as they had done a year earlier in protecting Gaul. Attila razed all the town’s and cities in his path to the ground, continuing ever south toward’s the eternal city of Rome itself. it appeared that nothing could stop Attila from destroying the entire country.
THE HUNS INVADE ITALY
All Rome awaited the coming of the Hunnic king in absolute terror. The Roman’s had no legion’s within Italy to put against Attila, this was truly Rome's darkest hour. The holy pontiff Pope Leo, took it upon himself and went out from the terrified city to meet with Attila.
After entering the Hunnic camp, Pope Leo began lecturing Attila to repent the sins he had committed against humanity and warned him of the absolute power of God's wrath if he did not turn back and leave Italy immediately. Incredibly, after their meeting Attila agreed to spare Rome and turned his army back for home.
Attila lead his army out of Italy not so much as to Pope Leo's threats and influence, but more probable that Attila's position was weaker than the Roman’s realized. There had been a severe famine in Italy the year before Attila's invasion and the Hunnic troops were having a hard time living off the land. The Hun’s were running low on supplies and a devastating plague was sweeping through Attila's army.
Also while Attila was in Italy, the Eastern Roman Emperor Marcian, had sent a Roman army across the Danube to strike at the heartland of Attila's Empire. Along with the defeat suffered by the Hun’s the previous year at Chalon’s and the fact that all the Hunnic wagons were overloaded with plunder anyway, Pope Leo's visit was an opportunity for Attila to end his Italian campaign as the victor, and return home.
Unlike Attila's crushing victories in the Eastern half of the Roman Empire, in the last two successive campaign’s the Hun’s proved incapable of bringing the Western Roman's to their knees.
In 452 AD, the night before Attila was preparing to invade Italy once again, Attila took a new bride. The wedding day was spent in heavy drinking which lasted long into the night, Attila eventually retired to bed in a drunken stupor. The next morning it was discovered that during the night Attila had suffered a nose bleed and had choked to death on his own blood.
Attila's Empire quickly disintegrated without his iron rule. In 454 AD all the Germanic subjects within the Hunnic Empire rebelled against there overlords. Attila's sons could not deal with the crisis at hand and began waring against one another. Almost overnight the word Hun disappeared from the language of the people it once terrified.
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