Attila the Hun Empire

Huns Empire in AD 450

The Hun Empire, especially during its peak, terrorized many parts of Europe and the Roman Empire in the 4th and 5th centuries AD. It reached its peak during the reign of Attila the Hun, the so-called “Scourge of God” Flagellum Dei (Latin). As experts in mounted warfare, javelin throwing, and archery, the Hunnic forces devastated over 100 cities if not over 70 cities sacked after AD 447.

Attila was the ruler of the Hun Empire from 434 until his passing in 453. His reign signified the peak of the empire while one of the most brutal and feared rulers in history. Upon Inheriting an empire that stretched from the Alps and Baltic region to the Caspian Sea in the east, he expanded their realm to the Balkan region, Gaul (present-day France), Greece, and Italy.

Origins of the Huns and the Empire

According to research on genetics, Huns were a combination of East Asian and European ancestry based on genetic research. There are also perspectives on the origins of this group towards the Xiongnu who were a confederation of tribes from the Eurasian Steppe from the 3rd century BC to the 1st century AD. 

In AD 318, the Huns entered the historical records with these groups terrorizing China during the Qin Dynasty until the Han Dynasty. While other historians assert that the Huns originated somewhere else in Asia or from the Kazakh people.

Before their rise in the 4th century, the Hunnic people followed a chieftain style of rule with no unifying ruler. Traveling in small groups, they entered southeastern Europe around 370. They harassed the Roman Empire since then with attacks on the Germanic tribes in 372 and Visigoths in 376 among others. In 395, they continued their devastation in other Roman provinces and Christians believed they were devils.

By 430, the different tribes of the Huns became united under King Rugila and Octar. However, Octar died in 432. During Rugila’s rule, he continued attacking different Roman cities which led to negotiations with Roman Emperor Theodosius. Attila’s birth and early life entailed a level of domination of the Hunnic empire over a vast territory with ethnically varied cultures. Some became assimilated to its rules with a level of suzerainty or internal autonomy of cities conquered.

Inheriting and Enriching the Empire

In 434, Attila’s uncle and ruler of the Huns, Ruga, died unexpectedly. He and his elder brother Bleda ruled afterward with some noting that the former ruled in the west and the latter ruled in the east. The two finalized the treaty with the Eastern Roman Empire which led to a payment of annual tribute. The amount paid was 700 pounds of solid which served as a promise of peace between the two parties. However, he broke the treaty in 441 which resulted in a series of attacks on the Eastern Roman Empire. The result was a new term of the agreement in 443 that increased the annual tribute to 2,100 pounds of solid gold.

Between 444 to 445, Bleda died with some theories pointing to his brother as the suspect. One theory or account is the return to the Great Hungarian Plains after the peace treaty in 443. Attila challenged Bleda for sole control of the Huns which later would lead to the assassination of the elder brother. However, no contemporary evidence exists to support the claim. Yet, the death of Bleda provided his brother sole control of the empire. 

From inheriting the empire, Attila’s reign negotiated two peace treaties that extorted gold from the Romans. One entailed an annual tribute of 700 pounds of gold in 434 and another 2,100 pounds of gold in 442. Hence, peacetime enriched the empire during his rule while in wartime, plunder of different places also helped in increasing treasures, goods, and slaves for the empire.

The Peak of the Empire

Many attest to the idea that Attila’s reign implied the peak of the Hun Empire. He increased the reach of the empire while getting higher tributes from the Romans along with loot and treasures from their raids. However, the campaigns that began in 447 further increased the empire’s place in the region. Some did not even confront the march of the troops to avoid casualties and pushed for suzerainty or peace treaties.

In 447, the Huns resumed their attacks on Eastern Roman cities. It marked the rise and peak of its empire as it marched and stormed through the Balkans and Greece. Although halted in Greece, the campaign resulted in the sacking of 70 cities. The Hunnic army refocused on other Roman cities and provinces and was able to rule over parts of Scandinavia, Germania, and Scythia. One of the known confrontations, during this campaign, was the Battle of Utus. 

Later Years and Defeat

In 450, Atilla and his army started a new campaign because of Honoria, sister of Western Roman Emperor Valentinian III. He misunderstood Honoria thinking she wanted to marry him. Claimed as his new wife, he asked for territories as dowry, but Rome rejected his requests. Likewise, Honoria did not want to marry him. Still, his next two military campaigns were in Honoria’s name.

In 451, the Huns invaded Gaul or present-day France with around 200,000 troops with the recruitment of Franks, Goths, and Burgundian tribes. Gaul also was not the main objective of the campaign, but it left destruction and slaughter in numerous places. Instead, the Hunnic Empire sought to plunder the Visigoth kingdom. Some of those conquered and raided in Gaul include Metz and Orleans.

In 452, the Hunnic army marched towards northern Italy while raiding those in their path. During the campaign in Italy, the only defeat of Attila transpired with the Battle of the Catalaunian Plains. Here, the Romans led by General Flavius Aetius allied with the Visigoth King, Theoderic I. Learning from previous encounters, the Roman-barbarian alliance defeated the Huns with some estimates of casualties between 150,000 to 300,000 on both sides. The only recorded defeat made Attila’s forces withdraw to Gaul.

However, the Hunnic Empire returned and attacked other cities in Italy and the Alps in 452. Some of the cities sacked include Milan, Brixia, Bergomum, Verona, Vicetia, Aquileia. Attila also met with Pope Leo I where St. Paul and St. Peter threatened to kill Hunnic king. It ended the campaign, but some argue it was due to a disease outbreak that made the king pull out his forces.

In 453, Attila died either by nosebleed and hemorrhage or assassination. His death marked the beginning of the fall of the Hun Empire.

Economy, Governance, Women, and Religion

The Hun Empire during Attila’s reign almost entirely depended on a system of tribute and plunder of the Romans. It was apparent how different periods of his rule either coincided with peacetime or wartime. Plunder occurred during war and raids. The looting of cities helped him enrich the empire. Sacking cities and not keeping them helped in limiting monetary control. Likewise, those captured served as slaves if not ransomed back. The slave trade of the Huns helped in their sedentary lifestyle with some being used as architects, workers, warriors, or workers in administration. 

In times of peace, the tributes provided entry of funds for the empire. It varied depending on peace treaties but there were also those other than the Roman Empire that paid gold or other resources to avoid the wrath of the Huns.

In terms of the government, one historical account noted the “picked men” in the government. These individuals served as administrators of the empire that the king chose to collect taxes and tributes among other political work. The qualifications were based on birth or other reasons of merit. Some also attest that the empire was a loose confederacy but others argue it had a centralized structure. In either case, the governance of Attila was effective in their military conquests.

Moving into other facets of Hun society during his rule, one significant point was regarding women. Based on accounts, the people and their king practiced polygamy. Women were also put in high regard in some villages ruled by women such as Bleda’s wife.

With religion and language, nothing much was known but during Attila’s reign, many worshipped the sword of Mars that he possessed. Others argue the Huns worshipped steppe religions and its deity Tengri.