Attila the Hun: Was He Really a Scourge?

Attila the Hun. Scourge of God. Bloodthirsty marauder. Destroyer of anything in his path. When we hear the word “barbarian,” he’s one of the first people we think of. But maybe, perhaps, this is a bad rap? What if Attila the Hun wasn’t quite as bad as he’s usually been portrayed for the past 1,600 years? What if there were even some redeeming qualities to his character? What if you can learn from Attila the Hun, the so-called Scourge of God? Clearly, he was a man of great ability, otherwise he wouldn’t have inspired so much fear and anger that gave him his popular image in the first place.

He was brutal by today’s standards, of course. The cities of Metz in France and Aquileia in Italy felt his wrath the hardest, with Aquileia in particular witnessing its almost total destruction. What was once one of the great cities in Italy during the height of the Roman Empire is today a tiny village. Attila the Hun is chiefly responsible for this transition.

But this was normal for that time. Recall that the Romans themselves were in many ways the pioneers of the complete destruction of cities. In Attila, King of the Huns, Patrick Howarth cites the examples of Carthage and Corinth. Another infamous one is Jerusalem, where the second temple was destroyed, with only one haggard wall remaining today. No biography of the so-called Scourge of God can be complete and omit these facts. By these measures, Attila was objectively no worse than other Roman leaders or indeed, Alexander the Great who came before him. So why the complete change in perception? Something is amiss.

Instead, on careful reading of Attila’s life, a charismatic, perhaps even humble leader emerges. Maybe he’s not the guy you want to emulate. Maybe he’s not the guy you admire. But he is a guy you should learn from.

Attila’s Charisma

In the time period we’re talking about, even using the term “Attila the Hun” or “Attila, King of the Huns” in general might be a misnomer. He wasn’t just King of the Huns during his eight year reign, but lorded over many nations. The fourth and fifth centuries were the start of a time of great migrations in Europe, and the Huns had by then established dominance over a number of Germanic and other Eurasian tribes. With a territory stretching from the Rhine to the Urals, Attila was in truth an emperor over a newly coalescing empire that could rival the decaying Roman Empire, particularly the far weaker Western Roman Empire. But without any established institutions as had been the case in Rome for centuries preceding the empire, how did Attila not only hold this hodge podge empire together, but raised it to be the most fearsome in the world at the time?

We dove into the details of charisma in Stumped and found that one hallmark of that elusive quality is that those who have it seem to personify contradictory traits at the same time. If this is indeed a rule, Attila the Hun was no exception to it. He carefully cultivated a reputation that he was to be feared. This fearsome reputation was all that was needed for many cities to open their gates to him and give him everything they wanted.  His name was so feared that the emperors in Constantinople gave him an increasing tonnage of gold almost whenever he demanded it.

Yet, he could back up this fear when required, as after the Eastern Emperor Theodosius II refused further payments in 447, Attila gathered his forces for a massive raid into imperial territory that seemed to spare only Constantinople with its impregnable walls. Theodosius caved and answered every one of Attila’s demands, enriching the Huns even more.

Knowing how to take advantage of symbolism is a cornerstone of power and certainly the dreaded Hun knew this too. Word began to spread that Attila was wielding a simple sword that once belonged to “Mars,” or more accurately the Hunnic war god, which would make him invincible in battle. This only enhanced his aura that much more.

Attila the Hun

However, despite this fearsome reputation cultivated in both word and deed, there seemed to be another side to the man. According to the historian Priscus, who met him personally, the fearsome barbarian, the dreaded Hun, could behave like any civilized Roman in the imperial court. Despite his constant demand for gold and his reliance on plunder for his empire’s economy, Attila himself seemed to lack ostentation in his personal mannerisms. While his courtiers and hangers-on drank from opulent golden goblets, Attila himself, Priscus says, drank from a simple wooden cup. The thing that gave him the most joy wasn’t splendor or riches, but his young son, who the King of the Huns believed was destined for great things.

These two sides to the King of the Huns cut a distinguishing presence. His warriors and followers knew not to cross him and that they would be rewarded for following him. At the same time, these more endearing qualities must have made him, if not loved, more respected by his followers.

Scourge of God or Something Else?

As we saw earlier, the campaigns of the Huns against the Western Roman Empire (in response to the Princess Honoria’s famous marriage proposal) in 451 and 452 saw a great deal of devastation laid to France and Italy. In 451, the Battle of Chalons, where the Huns suffered their first major tactical defeat, was particularly cited by historians for its brutality (but maybe or maybe not its decisiveness). Yet again, none of this was new or out of place for its time or for centuries earlier or centuries to come. So why were the Huns so scorned compared to other “barbarian” tribes, to the point that their leader was called the “Scourge of God?”

The Huns Scourge of God

It was perhaps because the Huns, unlike the Romans or indeed most of the other tribes they had conquered or did battle with, most notably the Visigoths, were not Christian. We must recall that this was a time that the nascent Christian Church was coming to dominance, consolidating power as Roman might decayed and ultimately in the case of the Western Empire, collapsed. Attila the Hun served as a perfect symbol and the Huns as a perfect out-group to contrast that power with.

This isn’t to say that the course of civilization wouldn’t have taken a different route had the Huns somehow been able to establish dominance (more on that in a moment). It probably would have. But objectively, if you’re measuring the term “Scourge of God” with destructiveness or cruelty, there were crueler people than Attila both in the past and in the future, some of whom had and still do have far more glowing reputations.

As always, facts don’t matter in persuasion or how people see you. If the King of the Huns could have learned something, it was pacing and leading his Roman antagonists.

The End of the Huns

Attila died after a drinking party on yet another of his wedding nights in 453. It must be recorded as one of the strangest deaths in history. Without his force of personality to hold it together, the lack of enduring institutions quickly dissolved the Hun Empire, as subject peoples rebelled. The Battle of Nedao shattered Hunnic power and in only 15 years after their great king’s death, the Huns were a minor tribe.

The arrival of new peoples in the next few hundred years assimilated the Huns out of existence as a distinct entity. The tribe that had taken Europe by storm ended with a whimper. It was a rather sad end to a once powerful people, but such is the way of the world. This is why no matter the result of their years of glory under their great king, the Huns are unlikely to have dominated Europe. Patrick Howarth tells the tale of their rise and fall in Attila, King of the Huns.

Now pair that with Stumped and you have a quick crash course in the art of charisma.

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