StMU Research Scholars

Attila the Hun: The Scourge of God

There aren’t many people whose actions and life have brought astounding renown. In the case of those who have, their name, work, and stories have withstood the test of time. A lot of these people you may have heard of at some point in time, for example, Julius Caesar, one of Rome’s famous leaders. Of the many leaders and conquerors of history, there is one known as the “Scourge of God,” known for his ruthlessness, savagery, and barbaric acts, as he would overrun those who opposed him. And no, it is not Genghis Khan. Although they are somewhat similar, the “Scourge of God” came long before the famous Mongolian. The “Scourge of God” was the man Attila, leader of the Huns.

Born around 406 C.E. in Pannonia, in modern Hungary, Attila was the nephew of Rugila, King of the Huns. When Rugila died, around 435 C.E., Attila and his brother Bleda were appointed joint rulers.1 However, ten years later, Attila killed Bleda.2 No one knows exactly how or why Attila killed his brother, but many say it was on a hunting trip when an argument between the two might have escalated, and Attila, tired of sharing the throne, slew his brother. Attila was then in sole command of the Huns, and at this point he began his rampage across central Asia and into the Roman Empire, seeking to build his own empire.

Drawing of Attila the Hun, circa 1789 | Courtesy of WikiMedia Commons

The Romans were particularly concerned about the Huns, and rightly so, as the Huns were skilled warriors, primarily consisting of cavalry. After Attila’s uncle died and he took the mantle, he knew that he had to end the usage of the Hunnish people by the Romans. As a result of negotiating, the Romans had conceded to Hun demands and paid a tribute to the Huns! Attila expanded his empire at the expense of the Romans, raiding and plundering their cities as if he were some sort of pirate. He was known as the “Scourge of God” for his ferocious and cunning nature.3 But what exactly did they mean by the “Scourge of God?” The Romans thought that Attila’s invasions and attacks were an affliction or punishment from God, who was calling them to get right with Him. The Roman Empire had recently turned to Christianity, following the conversion of Emperor Constantine in the previous century. In the wake of Rome’s sack by the Visigoths in 410, Christian Rome was awash in apocalyptic interpretations of its plight. It is said that the Romans believed Attila to be one of the four horsemen of the apocalypse. The four horsemen are said to represent Conquest, Famine, Death, and War. At the time of Attila’s raids and expansion of his empire, the eastern Romans were also facing plagues and famines. Also during this period, the eastern Romans faced the effects of a fierce earthquake, which destroyed parts of their cities. The Roman people began to interpret these things as the beginning of the end as foretold in the Book of Revelations.4  

Attila’s raids and the formation of the Hunnic Empire helped hasten the fall of the Roman Empire in its western half.5 You could imagine that the people of Rome became distressed at the fact that neither they nor their government could do anything to stop Attila. The scourge stomped his way into central Europe wreaking havoc and displaying his authority. Attila may have been seen as a warmonger to the people of Rome, but to his own people, he actually wasn’t so bad. He is said to have been a fair and generous leader with his people; he also didn’t impose taxes on them.6

The barbaric rage of Attila eventually slowed down when he invaded Gaul around 451 C.E. He was met by Roman general Flavius Aetius, who was aided by Visigoths under their king, Theodoric I. This led to Attila’s defeat in the great Battle of Chalons, from which he lost a great amount of men and was forced to retreat.7 Defeated, Attila and his forces had no other choice but to sit back and recover from the casualties from their last battle. Once they regained some of their strength, Attila decided to divert his focus to Italy, where he devastated some of its cities. When Attila came to Rome, it is noted that he had a meeting with Pope Leo (the Great), where the Pope was able to persuade him to spare them. Attila then led his armies out of Italy.8 It is thought that the “Scourge of God” supported the development of various stories about saints who protected their cities, in this case, somewhat boosting Pope Leo’s own favor.9

After his defeat at Chalons, and his sparing of Rome, Attila was no longer seen as intimidating as he once had been. He returned to the region of the lower Danube, where he apparently remarried. The “Scourge of God” was found dead in 453 C.E. in his bed after a party, where his newlywed wife also laid. There remains only speculations as to how Attila truly died, but he was mourned greatly by his people. Eventually, the confederation of tribes that Attila had brought together grew restless under the rule of Attila’s sons, and those tribes began to dispersed, ending the “Scourge” so dreaded by so many.10

  1. Salem Press Biographical Encyclopedia, January 2017, s.v. “Attila the Hun,” by John D. Windhausen.
  2. Salem Press Biographical Encyclopedia, January 2017, s.v. “Attila the Hun,” by John D. Windhausen.
  3. The Greenhaven Encyclopedia of Ancient Rome, 2002, s.v. “Attila” by Don Nardo.
  4. Salem Press Biographical Encyclopedia, January 2017, s.v. “Attila the Hun,” by John D. Windhausen.
  5. Salem Press Biographical Encyclopedia, January 2017, s.v. “Attila the Hun,” by John D. Windhausen.
  6. Gale Encyclopedia of World History: Governments, 2008, s.v. “Hunnic Empire.”
  7. Funk & Wagnalls New World Encyclopedia, 2016, s.v. “Atilla.”
  8. The Greenhaven Encyclopedia of Ancient Rome, 2002, s.v. “Attila,” by Don Nardo.
  9. Michael Whitby, “Attila the Hun, Barbarian Terror and the fall of the Roman Empire,” The Journal of Roman Studies, Vol. 100 (2010): 344.
  10. Salem Press Biographical Encyclopedia, January 2017, s.v. “Attila the Hun,” by John D. Windhausen.

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32 Responses

  1. Attila is one of my favorite historical figures, specifically for his military prowess and fierce brutality that you particularly emphasized very well in your article. Always fascinating as to how a few backwoods nomads can bring down even the mightiest of empires. Indeed he and the Great Khan are very similar (I’d love to see someone recreate a theoretical duel between Genghis Khan and AttilaP.

    I knew the Huns originated somewhere near the Hungarian plain, but never exactly the precise location, so I appreciated the little detail you added in your article regarding that.

    Overall, incredibly interesting article on an amazing military leader.

  2. It never really occurred to me, but I do not think I distinguished Attila the Hun from Genghis Khan in my mind. They both were really great military leaders, were feared by many and had accomplished many unique amazing feats, but for some reason I just clumped them together. It might just be because of how well they are known as warriors/leaders. I think it is note worthy that he put fear in the great civilization of Rome, that is not an easy task. I had no idea that he went by “Scourge of God”, but after reading this article it makes a lot of sense and he rightfully deserves that title.

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