"The river banks were covered with human bones, and the stench of death was so great that no one could enter the city."
Ancient accounts give figures that range between 300,000 and 700,000 for the army of the Huns.
Attila the Hun
Scourge of God
One of the most fascinating features of the story of Attila and the Huns is that the background to their potent penetration of Roman Gaul and the decisive Battle of Châlons is every bit as spellbinding as the actual combat itself. Although parts of the story are nearly incredible, the evidence for it is reasonably good - as good, at least, as evidence ever is for the fifth century AD. It is a tale of lust for sex and power, for money and land, and the principal actors are as colourful as any who ever lived.
The Huns themselves were a people of mystery and terror. Arriving on the fringes of the Roman Empire in the late fourth century, riding their war horses out of the great steppes of Asia, they struck fear into Germanic Barbarians and Romans alike. Some scholars believe that they had earlier moved against the Chinese Empire but were turned away and swept towards Rome instead. As they approached the Black Sea and conquered the Ostrogoths, they also drove the Visigoths across the Danube into the Roman Empire and caused the crisis that led to the astounding defeat of the Roman army under the Emperor Valens at Adrianople in 378 AD.
Those early Huns, using the traditional tactics of mounted archers, seemed like monsters from the darkness to their more civilized contemporaries. The Roman historian Ammianus Marcellinus, writing at the end of the fourth century, described their savage customs and elaborated on their military tactics:
The nation of the Huns . . . surpasses all other Barbarians in wildness of life . . . And though [the Huns] do just bear the likeness of men (of a very ugly pattern), they are so little advanced in civilization that they make no use of fire, nor any kind of relish, in the preparation of their food, but feed upon the roots which they find in the fields, and the half-raw flesh of any sort of animal.
I say half-raw, because they give it a kind of cooking by placing it between their own thighs and the backs of their horses....
When attacked, they will sometimes engage in regular battle. Then, going into the fight in order of columns, they fill the air with varied and discordant cries. More often, however, they fight in no regular order of battle, but by being extremely swift and sudden in their movements, they disperse, and then rapidly come together again in loose array, spread havoc over vast plains, and flying over the rampart, they pillage the camp of their enemy almost before he has become aware of their approach. It must be owned that they are the most terrible of warriors because they fight at a distance with missile weapons having sharpened bones admirably fastened to the shaft. When in close combat with swords, they fight without regard to their own safety, and while their enemy is intent upon parrying the thrust of the swords, they throw a net over him and so entangle his limbs that he loses all power of walking or riding.
Obviously, when the Huns first appeared on the edges of the Roman Empire, they made a strong impression, but after their initial threats they settled down along the Danube, particularly in the Great Hungarian Plain, and for almost fifty years they served the Romans as allies more often than they attacked them as enemies. In return, the Eastern Emperor, beginning in the 420's, paid them an annual subsidy. On the whole, this uneasy relationship worked well although there were times when the Huns threatened to intervene directly in imperial affairs.
The decisive turn of events came with the accession of Attila as King of the Huns. The new ruler was much more aggressive and ambitious than his predecessors had been, and arrogance sometimes made him unpredictable.
One of the most feared and notorious barbarians of all time, Attila is believed to be of distant Mongol stock, he ravaged much of the European continent during the 5th century AD. Apparently Attila was as great a menace to the Teutonic tribespeople as he was to the Romans.
There is a story that he claimed to own the actual sword of Mars, and that other Barbarian chiefs could not look the King of the Huns directly in the eyes without flinching. Attila was a striking figure, and Edward Gibbon in The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire offered a famous description of the personality and appearance of the Hun, based on an ancient account:
His features, according to the observation of a Gothic historian, bore the stamp of his national origin . . . a large head, a swarthy complexion, small, deep-seated eyes, a flat nose, a few hairs in the place of a beard, broad shoulders, and a short square body, of a nervous strength, though of a disproportioned form. The haughty step and demeanour of the king of the Huns expressed the consciousness of his superiority above the rest of mankind; and he had a custom of fiercely rolling his eyes, as if he wished to enjoy the terror which he inspired....He delighted in war; but, after he had ascended the throne in a mature age, his head, rather than his hand, achieved the conquest of the North; and the fame of an adventurous soldier was usefully exchanged for that of a prudent and successful general.
In his own day he and his Huns were known as the "Scourge of God," and the devastation they caused in Gaul before the great Battle of Châlons in 451 AD became a part of medieval folklore and tradition.
The rumors of his cannibalistic practices are not unfounded; he is supposed to have eaten two of his sons. The circumstances of this act, however, may be more accurately depicted in the Edda poems where his revengeful wife serves him the meat of his sons under the guise that it was the meat of a young animal.
From the year 433 Attila shared the throne with his brother Bleda, but killed him in 445.
At the outset of his reign, Attila demanded more money, and the Eastern Emperor, Theodosius II, obligingly doubled the annual subsidy. For various reasons, however, the new king began in the late 440's to look to the West as the main area of opportunity for the Huns. For the next decade and a half after his accession Attila was the most powerful foreign potentate in the affairs of the Western Roman Empire. His Huns had become a sedentary nation and were no longer the horse nomads of the earlier days. The Great Hungarian Plain did not offer as much room as the steppes of Asia for grazing horses, and the Huns were forced to develop an infantry to supplement their now much smaller cavalry. As one leading authority has recently said, "When the Huns first appeared on the steppe north of the Black Sea, they were nomads and most of them may have been mounted warriors. In Europe, however, they could graze only a fraction of their former horse power, and their chiefs soon fielded armies which resembled the sedentary forces of Rome."
By the time of Attila the army of the Huns had become like that of most Barbarian nations in Europe. It was, however, very large, as we shall see, and capable of conducting siege operations, which most other Barbarian armies could not do effectively.
In any event the Hunnic invasion of Gaul was a huge undertaking. The Huns had a reputation for cruelty that was not undeserved. In the 440's one of Attila's attacks against the East in the Balkans aimed at a city in the Danubian provinces, Naissus (441-442). It was located about a hundred miles south of the Danube on the Nischava River. The Huns so devastated the place that when Roman ambassadors passed through to meet with Attila several years later, they had to camp outside the city on the river. The river banks were covered with human bones, and the stench of death was so great that no one could enter the city. Many cities of Gaul would soon suffer the same fate.
After securing a strong position on the Roman side of the Danube the Huns were checked by the famous Eastern Roman general, Aspar, as they raided Thrace (442).
By 447 he advanced through Illyria and devastated the whole region between the Black and the Mediterranean seas. Those of the conquered who were not destroyed were compelled to serve in his armies. He defeated the Byzantine emperor Theodosius II; Constantinople was saved only because the Hunnish army, primarily a cavalry force, lacked the technique of besieging a great city. The Huns marched as far as Thermopylae and stopped only when the Eastern Emperor, Thodosius II, begged for terms.
Attila accepted payment of all tribute in arrears and a new annual tribute of 2,100 pounds of gold. The Huns were also given considerable territory south of the Danube. One source says of this campaign, "There was so much killing and bloodletting that no one could number the dead. The Huns pillaged the churches and monasteries, and slew the monks and virgins . . . They so devastated Thrace that it will never rise again and be as it was before." This strong victory in the East left Attila free to plan the attack on the West that culminated in the invasion of Gaul.
Theodosius, however, was compelled to cede a portion of territory south of the Danube River and to pay a tribute and annual subsidy.
Two other considerations proved especially important. One was the death of the Eastern Emperor Theodosius II, who fell from his horse and died in 450. His successor, Marcian (450-7), took a hard line on Barbarian encroachment in the Balkans and refused to pay Attila the usual subsidy. The fury of the Hun was monstrous, but he decided to take out his wrath on the West, because it was weaker than the East,and because one of history's most peculiar scandals gave Attila a justification for war with the Western Emperor. Honoria, Emperor Valentinian's sister, had been discovered in 449 in an affair with her steward. The unfortunate lover was executed, and Honoria, who was probably pregnant, was kept in seclusion. In a rage she smuggled a ring and a message to the King of the Huns and asked Attila to become her champion. He treated this as a marriage proposal and asked for half of the Western Empire as her dowry. So when he crossed the Rhine, he could claim that he merely sought by force what was his by right of betrothal to Honoria.
After massive preparations Attila invaded the Rhine with a large army of Huns and allied Barbarian tribes. In his force was a sizable body of Ostrogoths and other Germanic warriors, including Burgundians and Alans who lived on the Barbarian side of the frontier. The Franks were split between pro and anti-Roman factions. As early as April Attila took Metz, and fear swept through Gaul. Ancient accounts give figures that range between 300,000 and 700,000 for the army of the Huns.
Whatever the size, it was
clearly enormous for the fifth century AD. Some of the
greatest cities of Europe were sacked and put to the
torch: Rheims, Mainz, Strasbourg, Cologne, Worms and
Trier. Paris fortunately had the advantage of having a
saint in the city and was spared because of the
ministrations of St. Genvieve.
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