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Attila Invictus

In the eighth instalment of ‘The So-Called Dark Ages,’ Herbert Bushman describes the Huns’ increasingly violent incursions into the Eastern half of the Roman Empire.

· 19 min read
Attila Invictus
Detail from Attila and his Hordes Overrun Italy and the Arts, by French artist Eugène Delacroix (1798-1863).

The article that follows forms part of The So-Called Dark Ages, a serialized Quillette history of Late Antiquity, adapted from Herbert Bushman’s ongoing Dark Ages podcast. This instalment is the third dedicated to the Huns. For previous instalments, tracing the history of the Goths, click here.

We left off last time in the mid-430s C.E., with Theodosius II, the long-serving Roman Emperor in the East, praying for the demise of the Hunnic warlord Rugila. When those prayers were answered, history served up an epic case study in that well-known adage: Be careful what you wish for, because you might just get it.

Rugila had ruled a vast territory and demanded tribute from the eastern Romans. At the same time, his men were very much for sale, and worked as mercenaries and bodyguards in both the Eastern and Western halves of the empire. His nephews, Bleda and Attila, initially maintained that status quo once they inherited power. And Aetius, the military commander then controlling the Roman Empire’s Western half, continued to enjoy a mutually beneficial relationship with the Huns. In the East, however, the relationship took a dark turn.

A Gathering of the Huns
In the seventh instalment of ‘The So-Called Dark Ages,’ Herbert Bushman describes how disparate Hunnic tribes coalesced into the unified force that would terrorize Europe.

The Huns were already raiding the Balkans at the time of Rugila’s death in 435 C.E., and so the diplomatic envoys dispatched from Constantinople by Theodosius during this period weren’t bargaining from a strong position. Decades of war along the Danube frontier had left the Roman border garrisons dangerously undermanned, and the idea of ejecting the Huns by force wasn’t much more than a pipe dream. When the two sides met at the city of Margus (present-day Požarevac, in Serbia), Attila and Bleda were more or less able to name their price.

Sitting astride their horses even while negotiating, as per the Hunnic custom, the joint rulers demanded that the annual Roman “tribute” formerly paid to Rugila—essentially, protection money—be doubled to 700 pounds of gold. As had been the case during previous negotiations, the Huns also demanded the return of any fugitives who’d escaped their clutches and were now being sheltered by Constantinople. The Romans not only accepted these terms, but also agreed to open their markets to Hun traders, and pay a ransom of eight gold coins for each Roman captive being held by Hunnic captors. Having gotten everything they asked for, Attila and Bleda withdrew.

What the Huns did after this is a mystery. As previously discussed, Hunnic society was pre-literate and so left no written accounts. But it’s possible that there were already fissures developing between the two co-rulers. According to the diplomats who dealt with Bleda and Attila, the two brothers could not have been more different. The former was boisterous and quick to laugh, while his younger brother Attila was serious, quick to anger, and impatient.

There is a line from the historian Priscus (whose diplomatic mission to the court of Attila the Hun in 448-49 C.E. supplies us with much of what we know about Hunnic society), that suggests the brothers followed up on their new treaty with Theodosius by “subduing the nations in Scythia and [making] war upon the Sorosgi.” But this doesn’t tell us much because the term “Scythia,” as it was used by Romans during this period, referred somewhat ambiguously to a wide range of peoples inhabiting the Pontic-Caspian steppe. As for the Sorosgi, they aren’t mentioned by any other surviving source.

On most historical maps depicting Europe’s geopolitical situation during this period, the Huns’ territory is shown as extending solidly northward from the Danube River, with a shaded gradient extending in all directions—south into the Balkans, west toward northern Italy, north into (modern) Poland, and east into Ukraine. But little is actually known about where Hunnic control truly began and ended at this time.

A Wikipedia map showing territory under Hunnic control circa 450 C.E.

For his part, Priscus reports that “all of Scythia” was under Hunnic rule, though that tells us little, for reasons already discussed. In the west, we know that the Huns were pushing toward the Rhine, but had not yet reached it. German kingdoms still existed on the east bank of the river, though they were already feeling the pressure from refugees fleeing west ahead of Hunnic conquerors.

In addition to knowing little about the true extent of the Hunnic realm in the mid-fifth century C.E., we also don’t know how the two co-rulers divided their jurisdiction, or how they went about imposing their will on subjugated peoples.

Today, we are used to well-defined borders: This side of the line is California, that side is Oregon. On this side, you pump your own gas; on that side you don’t. Things were much woollier in late antiquity (and, indeed, throughout most of human history). It’s possible, for instance, that the Huns received tribute from far afield, deep into the northern forests and eastern plains, even as these areas remained almost entirely autonomous.

A surviving fifth-century marble bust of Eastern Roman Emperor Theodosius II.

Meanwhile, back in Constantinople, Theodosius used this time of quasi-peace to improve the urban fortifications that bear his name—the famed Theodosian Walls. But it’s hard to get a completely clear picture of his mental state because the historical record focuses so heavily on the powerful characters surrounding him. This list starts with the administrator Anthemius, but also includes his older sister Pulcheria, who either pushed Theodosius around or provided him with sage advice, depending on which source you believe.

Surviving portion of the Theodosian Walls, in the Turkish city now known as Istanbul.

Though the one-sided nature of the treaty agreed to at Margus clearly represented a diplomatic defeat for the Romans, Theodosius and his government were hardly punctilious in fulfilling its terms. A show was made of rounding up some prisoners and refugees, and returning them to Hunnic territory; but fugitive tribes that provided manpower to the Roman army remained right where they were. And it appears that not one gold coin (or solidus) of the agreed tribute crossed the Danube.

The Romans got away with this for about five years, in part because their fortunes in the Balkans seemed to be recovering. Anthemius’ fleet patrolled the Danube, fortifications were being rebuilt, and the Huns seemed to be occupied with tightening their grip on other parts of their growing empire. But for Theodosius, these (relatively) good times couldn’t last forever.

A solidus minted in Constantinople during the reign of Theodosius II. Thousands of coins of this type would be paid to the Huns as a form of Roman tribute.

The Huns were ferocious and frightening, but they were also masters of timing who made good use of available intelligence regarding their foes. The initial Hun raids of 408 and 422 C.E. had been timed to take place while the Roman Empire was distracted by other threats or internal disruptions. And in 440, the Hun leadership spotted a similarly promising opportunity.

To explain this subplot, it’s necessary to reference the Vandals—a group of barbarians (as the Romans described them) who will soon get their own multi-instalment So-Called Dark Ages arc once we’re done with Attila’s adventures. Since our focus remains with the Huns for now, the Vandal-related information supplied below will be highly abbreviated.

In 439, the Vandals captured Carthage in North Africa, which Scipio Africanus had taken for the Romans all the way back in 146 B.C. This cataclysm got the attention of both halves of the Roman Empire: Not only did the Vandals now control the African-sourced food supplies that fed much of the Empire, but they also now had a naval headquarters that would allow them to range across the Mediterranean, raiding and pillaging at will.

An expeditionary force was duly put together, staffed by soldiers from both halves of the Empire, to retake the city. Field armies were pulled out of the Balkans and ships reassigned away from the Danube patrols. You see where this is going, yes?

To make matters worse, the Persians chose this moment to invade Armenia, further distracting Constantinople from the now wide-open Danube frontier. And to top things off, the African campaign proved to be an embarrassing failure: Many of the men who’d sailed off to take Carthage never returned to their European posts.

All the Huns needed now was an excuse to invade. In this regard, the story that’s told is that the Bishop of Margus, for reasons known only to himself, slipped across the Danube River and robbed some Hunnic gravesites on the other side. We don’t know anything about this man, not even his name; but based on his later behavior, this improbable-sounding story actually doesn’t seem too far-fetched.

The Huns responded by attacking one of the Roman trading posts located on their territory. Led by Attila, the force took the garrison by surprise, killed many of its members, and expelled the traders. The Romans protested, though when the bishop’s behavior was pointed out to them, their ambassadors apparently were left somewhat speechless.

The Huns then crossed the Danube and raided the countryside. They scored their first really painful hit with the capture of Viminacium in northeastern Serbia, which was then the capital of the Roman province of Moesia. The Huns razed it to the ground, destroying it, in the words of sixth-century historian Procopius, “from the bottom of its foundations.” (The city would remain completely abandoned for generations, until it was rebuilt by the Emperor Justinian long after the Hunnic hordes had passed into history.)

This was destruction on a whole new scale. Moesia had previously suffered terribly at the hands of Gothic raiders, but the wanton annihilation of an entire city was another matter entirely.

Terror spread across the province, and the population of Margus turned against its allegedly grave-vandalizing bishop. The bishop slipped out of the city and, in a bid to trade the lives of his fellow Margus residents for his own, made a separate deal with Attila and Bleda. The Huns moved their force away from Margus while the bishop opened the gates and then vanished into the east (and out of the historical record) while the Huns levelled the city. Unlike Viminacium, it was never rebuilt.

Ruins of Sirmium, preserved at the modern Serbian city of Sremska Mitrovica.

Next, the Huns destroyed Singidunum—modern Belgrade—which also remained a ruin until the reign of Justinian. Then came Sirmium—modern-day Sremska Mitrovica—and this was an even bigger deal. This was the birthplace of no fewer than ten Roman Emperors. The city’s population had been as high as 700,000 at its peak. Though Sirmium had gone into decline during the Gothic wars, it remained the linchpin of the central Empire. And it seemed astounding to the Romans that it had fallen to a bunch of horse archers from the back end of nowhere.

Sirmium had been the linchpin of the central Roman Empire. And it seemed astounding to the Romans that the city had fallen to a bunch of horse archers from the back end of nowhere.

Here we get to one of the factors that made the Huns different from other barbarians, who’d typically struggled with siege warfare. Cities occasionally fell to the Goths, either due to treachery or exhaustion; but more often than not, barbarian forces broke against Roman fortifications. Now the Huns had stormed four major cities in a single summer. How?

Part of the answer is likely the fact that an entire generation of Hunnic mercenaries had served alongside Roman legions. And it’s likely that at least some engineering knowledge had made its way to Hunnic commanders. It’s equally possible that a few Roman engineers had as well.

In this regard, the stereotype of Huns storming suddenly out of the east and conquering Roman lands without pause is misleading: In reality, the Huns westward advance came by stages over a period of several decades, during which time they lived beside—and learned from—their Roman neighbours. Had the Huns simply sent their horse archers up against properly garrisoned fortifications without taking the time to develop even primitive forms of siegecraft, their story would have ended much sooner.

Despite the fact that the Huns seemed to have Constantinople over the proverbial barrel, they agreed to a new treaty the following year. We know next to nothing about its terms, but we can make some inferences based on later events. Specifically, there must have been a provision made for tribute and hostages, since the Roman failure to deliver these would constitute part of the Huns’ casus belli in later conflicts.

For the moment though, Attila and Bleda withdrew from the territories they’d devastated, while Theodosius scrambled to shore up the Empire’s defenses. In this regard, he was assisted by a rising military star named Flavius Ardabur Aspar.

Aspar, as he is commonly known to history, was the son of a Gothic commander who’d distinguished himself fighting against the Persians. His mother was of either Gothic or Alan descent. As a child, he’d accompanied his father on campaign and rose rapidly through the ranks, becoming magister militum and then praetorian prefect. Remember his name: Aspar would remain a fixture of Eastern Roman politics for almost four more decades.

As Stilicho had done in the West during the reign of Honorius, Aspar led a German military clique in Constantinople. Also as with Stilicho, this fact made him unpopular with other court factions, who played on anti-German sentiment to amplify their complaints.

Detail of a dish depicting Aspar and his elder son Ardabur.

The truce with the Huns gave Aspar a chance to return ships to the Danube, where they renewed their patrols. New coinage was struck to pay newly recruited armies. By 443 C.E., Aspar and Theodosius believed their position was strong enough to allow them to cut off whatever payments they’d been making to the Huns without serious consequences. The outcome of that year’s war would prove them wrong.

(A quick but important digression before we embark on the war of 443: At some point during this period, Bleda simply disappears from the historical record. It’s pretty much universally assumed that Attila had him murdered—though it’s unclear under what pretext (if any). Nor do we know the timing, except that Bleda was almost certainly dead by 445 C.E. To simplify the narration of events, from this point onwards, I’ll be referring to Attila as sole leader of the Huns, even if Bleda may have been alive—and possibly even in a position of command—at the time of the 443 campaign.)

Priscus relates a story that gives some idea of how Attila sold his political legitimacy to his people (a politically diffuse group who, remember, did not have a long history of consolidating power within one overall leader):

When a certain shepherd beheld one heifer of his flock limping and could find no cause for this wound, he anxiously followed the trail of blood and at length came to a sword it had unwittingly trampled while nibbling the grass. He dug it up and took it straight to Attila. Attila rejoiced in the gift and, being ambitious, thought he had been appointed ruler of the whole world and that through the sword of Mars, supremacy in war was assured to him.

In effect, Attila seems to have been presenting himself as a divine king with a heavenly mandate—though the God he would have invoked obviously wasn’t actually Mars, but rather Mars’ Hunnic equivalent. (Roman historians had a tendency to swap their own dieties’ names into their accounts of other groups’ pantheons.) Moreover, even to such extent as Priscus was accurately conveying Attila’s origin myth, that myth itself was probably fabricated by Attila himself for the benefit of the chiefs whose loyalty he sought to preserve.

In 443, Attila crossed the Danube at Ratiaria, in modern Bulgaria. The city fell quickly, and he turned into the heart of Rome’s Balkan provinces. Priscus describes some of the methods the Huns used in their assault on one of their targets—Naissus, site of the modern city of Nis—which involved battering rams, ladders, and a simplified siege tower whose purpose was to provide a platform for archers to attack the defenders:

The barbarians bridged the river on the southern side…They brought machines up to the city wall. First they brought up beams laid on wheels. Men standing on the beams shot arrows at the defenders on the ramparts…The machines were covered…with hide and leather as a protection against fire and whatever projectiles were launched against them.

Before too long, Naissus fell, and suffered the same fate as Margus and Viminacium. This was an enormous strategic loss for the Romans, as Naissus sat at the intersection of three significant roads, which could take an army, respectively, eastward through Moesia to the Black Sea; south to the port city of Thessalonika; and southeast to Constantinople.

The Huns’ mobility had always been one of their greatest advantages. When combined with Roman roads, their speed seemed nearly supernatural. Leaving behind the burnt husk of Naissus, Attila marched southeast and sacked Serdica in modern Bulgaria, then the Thracian city of Philipopols. Behind him, the roads were clogged with wagonloads of treasure and slaves being shipped back to the home territories.

The Huns now effectively controlled all of Rome’s Balkan provinces, even if a few city garrisons managed to defy Attila, such as at Adrianople and the port town of Heraclea. What’s more, Attila was now approaching Constantinople’s doorstep. Among the Hun conquests was the fortress city of Arcadiopolis, which lay just 160 km away from the Eastern Roman capital.

Finally, a Roman field army moved out to counter the onslaught. Commanded by Aspar and two other German veterans, the force didn’t lack for competent leadership. But the bulk of the fighting men were untested recruits who were quickly routed by the Hunnic forces. It was now clear that nothing stood between Attila and Constantinople.

Except, of course, for the city’s famous walls. Despite all his recent success in cracking the defenses of smaller cities, Attila knew that he had little hope of getting past the capital’s uniquely imposing fortifications. So instead, he busied himself crushing the last remnants of Aspar’s army, and waiting for Theodosius to beg for terms. He didn’t have to wait long.

All the refugees and hostages that the Huns had been demanding were to be surrendered at once—presumably so that they could be dispatched in horrifying fashion by Attila. Not surprisingly, many refused to go, and so were instead simply executed by the Romans (an outcome that the Huns apparently found acceptable). Withheld tribute payments were to be paid immediately and in full—a lump sum of 6,000 pounds of gold, with subsequent annual payments to be increased to 2,100 pounds. Not surprisingly, gold ornamentation begins to appear more frequently in Hunnic burial sites at this point, most of it having no doubt been sourced from the plunder of the 443 C.E. campaign and the flow of precious metal that began pouring forth from Constantinople’s treasury in the years following.

By my crude calculations, 6,000 pounds of gold—we’re talking Roman pounds here, which were about 28% lighter than the corresponding modern unit—would fetch about US$141-million on today’s market. Since we don’t have a copy of the Imperial budgets, we can’t really say whether such payments represented a large fiscal burden. But we do know that earlier payments, in the three-digit range, were seen as standard subsidies to be dispensed as part of routine diplomatic manoeuvring, and so even these larger four-digit outlays probably weren’t back-breaking. Still, there was no way for these payments to be spun as a mere gift or remuneration for border-protection services. This was tribute being paid to a powerful enemy that had bested the Romans on the battlefield, and it was humiliating.

There was no way for the Romans to spin these payments to the Huns as a mere gift. This was tribute being paid to a powerful enemy that had bested the Romans on the battlefield, and it was humiliating.

The end of the fighting in 443 C.E. brought peace of a kind to the Eastern half of the Roman Empire, but not tranquility. Attila continually sent ambassadors to Theodosius’ court to raise new grievances or accuse the Romans of deviating from the treaty’s terms. And since it was a well-established custom for diplomats to be given rich gifts by the courts they visited, Attila was able to use these nuisance embassies as a means to reward his followers at the Empire’s expense. As Priscus summed things up:

The Barbarian, seeing the Romans’ generosity as they avoided transgressing the treaty, kept sending whichever of his retainers he wanted to treat well, inventing reasons and finding empty pretenses. The Romans heeded every injunction and considered the despot’s every command, whatever it was. Not only were they avoiding starting a war with him, but they also feared the [Persians] who were in a state of preparation, the Vandals who were drawing up in formation by the sea, the Isaurians [restive mountain tribes inhabiting the interior of Asia Minor] who were again practising banditry, the Saracens [Arabs] who were overrunning the eastern end of their dominion, and the [Africans] who were unifying.

This peace without rest persisted along the Danube for four years, during which time history’s veil was once again drawn across Hunnic society. The few details we have, by way of Roman embassies, suggest that Attila had moved north into the European interior, though the exact location of his capital—if he had anything that could even be described as such—is unknown. The Huns’ lifestyle was becoming less nomadic, but they never seemed to develop the habit of creating large, permanent public buildings or economic infrastructure. (A prisoner of the Huns, quoted by Priscus, described the lives of his captors as being somewhat carefree when not at war: “They spend their time at ease, each man enjoying what is to hand and causing trouble or being troubled not at all.”)

To make matters worse for the Eastern Roman Empire, the winter of 444-45 C.E. was especially harsh. The Spring planting was delayed, which in turn disrupted food supplies and sparked deadly riots in Constantinople. To top it all off, there was an outbreak of plague. And all this was before the Huns decided to return.

No one knows what exactly triggered the Hunnic invasion of 447 C.E. It probably wasn’t a Roman provocation, as Theodosius’ hands were full enough without picking fights with Attila. It’s possible the bad weather in the region had affected the Huns’ flocks and their subjects’ fields, and so Attila found himself unable to provide his followers with the bounty to which they’d become accustomed. The sharing of war booty was, after all, critical to the stability of Attila’s regime.

This time, the Huns bypassed the Romans’ newly strengthened forts and cities, bringing with them allied auxiliary forces composed of Gepids and Ostrogoths. As part of a string of cursed luck that seems almost Biblical in its proportions, the same year also brought earthquakes to the region (with Constantinople itself being severely hit), floods, and epidemic disease. Constantinople no longer seemed impregnable: The earthquakes destroyed a huge section of the city’s walls, including 57 towers.

Attila was met in the field by a Roman army led by a general named Arnegisclus, one of the German commanders who’d accompanied Aspar in the previous fighting. The battle took place near the Utus River in modern Bulgaria (a river now known as the Vit). Arnegliscus reportedly fought bravely, but his horse was killed from underneath him, and he was cut down by the Huns. We don’t know much else about the battle except that the Huns won, and the way to Constantinople once again lay wide open.

Back in the capital, however, the initial post-earthquake panic had morphed into a monumental civic effort to rebuild the city’s walls. With the help of the (usually squabbling) gangs who mobilized themselves around Constantinople’s chariot-racing competitions, the citizens not only restored the damaged walls within two months, but also created a third wall to add to the original pair. And so the barrier facing Attila was now a 200-foot deep ring of fortifications, overlooked by 100-foot-high missile platforms.

Word of this remarkable achievement apparently reached Attila, who now stopped driving east and instead sent his armies far and wide across the Balkans. No less than seventy towns were captured, and possibly more. The Huns drove south into Greece, and were stopped only at Thermopylae (yes, that Thermopylae).

There are frustratingly few details available about the course of the invasion of 447 C.E. But we do know from the Chronica Gallica of 452 that the extent of the Hunnic carnage was so enormous that it caused observers to wonder why the Western half of the Roman Empire, whose forces were led by Aetius, hadn’t yet sent assistance. After all, the East had come to the West’s assistance on many occasions—including during the recent (albeit disastrous) expedition against Vandal Africa. Why was help not on offer now that the shoe was on the other foot?

The Eastern Roman Empire had come to the West’s assistance often—including during the recent expedition against Vandal Africa. Why was Western help not on offer now that the shoe was on he other foot?

The answer emerges from what we know about the state of the Western Empire, which wasn’t yet being menaced by the Huns. At this time, in fact, Aetius seemed to regard Attila as more ally than foe.

For the most part, Aetius was busy in Gaul, both keeping the Visigoths in line and subduing the local peasant insurgents known as bagaudae. Up through 439 C.E., he’d continued to employ Hunnic contingents in his armies, and seems to have taken pains to maintain good relations with Attila. Indeed, he’d regularly sent able men to serve as Attila’s secretaries—subordinates who could handle the Hun leader’s Latin correspondence while also, presumably, keeping Aetius up to date about developments within the Hunnic sphere of control.

When one of these men fell out with Attila and was crucified, Aetius simply sent a replacement. (In return, Attila sent along a dwarf that had once belonged to Bleda.) Aetius even went so far as to name Attila magister militum—master of soldiers—in the Western Empire, complete with a salary and a grain subsidy (even if the job description itself was purely ceremonial).

Over the course of the 440s, however, the bloom seems to have come off of Aetius’ relationship with Attila. The Hun leader complained, for instance, that one of the secretaries sent by Aetius has stolen loot from the sack of Sirmium. And there was a bagaudae leader who escaped from Aetius’ clutches and then found protection under Attila. These were hardly major issues. But as we’ve seen already, Attila didn’t need much of a pretext to renounce old agreements and strike up new hostilities.

For the time being, however, Aetius saw no reason to give up his still tenuous position in Gaul in order to march eastward to assist Theodosius against Attila. The Western half of the Empire just wasn’t strong enough to help its Eastern counterpart, even if Aetius had wanted to.

But ultimately, Aetius’ views proved immaterial. While Aetius wasn’t going to bring his army east, Attila would soon be coming west—and his plan was to keep going until his men’s horses had brought them to the Atlantic Ocean.

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