Soldiers and Sailors - C. F. Horne


(REIGNED 434-453)

Attila the Hun

The Goths were "improvable barbarians;" but the Huns whom Attila led to ravage the fair peninsula were mere Tartar savages of the lowest stamp.

All the other invaders of Italy were of Teutonic origin, but the Huns were Mongols—of such perfect hideousness that Jornandes regarded them as the offspring of witches and demons. Attila, son of Mundzuk, "the scourge of God," resembled his soldiers in his flat, swarthy features, deep-set, fierce, rolling black eyes, and stunted figure. The Huns were uncivilizable savages, who might harry a continent, but neither under Attila, nor Genghis, nor Timour, could ever found an organized kingdom. This terrific and brutal little Kalmuck, with his bead-like eyes, this skin-clad devourer of raw flesh, delighted to lay waste whole empires with fire and sword, and to terrify the world. In 434 he became king of the Huns with his brother Bleda. In 445 Bleda died, possibly by murder; and in 445 Attila, now sole king of the Huns, invaded the Eastern Empire, and ravaged it even to the gates of Constantinople. He was only bought off from destroying it by an enormous tribute. The infamous plot to assassinate him by the treachery of Edecon, who was one of his counsellors, was discovered and foiled, and Attila sent message after message filled with insults to Theodosius II. In 451 his vast army moved westward, and devastated Gaul. It was met in the Mauriac plain and defeated by Ætius in the tremendous battle of Chalons, after a carnage among the most frightful that the world has ever seen. The Huns were only saved from final destruction by the heroic boldness of Attila. He had a vast hill of saddles and other spoils erected, and declared his determination to burn himself alive rather than be taken captive. He led back his shattered host to Pannonia, and there in his wooden palace meditated revenge. In the one authentic glimpse which we get of his mode of life, we see him at a banquet, while his nobles and warriors caroused and burst into peals of laughter at the buffooneries of an idiot and a jester. But the Hunnish king sat grave and silent, caressing the cheeks of the boy Ernak, his favorite son, whom the augur pointed out as the heir of his destinies.

In 452 he once more put his myriads in motion and invaded Italy. Everywhere the land was as the garden of Eden before him; behind him it was a desolate wilderness. Encouraged by the omen of some storks leaving their nest, he stormed and destroyed Aquileia, and, razing city after city into heaps of blackened ruins, advanced to Milan, boasting that "where his horses' hoofs trod the grass never grew." Rome awaited with trembling a fate which seemed to threaten unprecedented catastrophe. But in this awful crisis the Pope, Leo I, showed himself the true Defensor civitatis. He headed a splendid embassy to the camp of Attila. Already Leo had helped to trace with firm hand the deep lines of Christian orthodoxy which were accepted by the Church at the fourth great Ecumenical Council of Chalcedon in 451 as her final utterance as to the true Godhead, the perfect Manhood, the invisible yet distinct union of both Godhead and Manhood, in the person of her Lord. Now Leo showed what miracle could be achieved by the irresistible might of weakness. Attila's god was a naked iron sword of gigantic size, which had been accidentally found by a herdsman and presented to him, but which he palmed off on his nation as the authentic sword of the Scythian war-god. Yet he was easily overawed by the majesty of religion. He scorned the guilty, corrupt courtiers of Constantinople, but he almost trembled before a holy man. Already in 451 he had spared the defenceless city of Troyes at the entreaty of its bishop, St. Lupus, and had asked the benefit of his prayers. And when he gazed on the calm countenance; noble presence, and dauntless demeanor of Pope Leo, an awful dread fell upon him. Alaric had conquered Rome, but Alaric had died immediately afterward. How if it would be so with Attila? He yielded, he retired; he said—or perhaps he said—that he could conquer men, but that the wolf (Lupus) and the lion (Leo) had learnt how to conquer him. The tide of brutal and barbarous invasion was rolled back again, and the world and the city saw that while the Emperor Valentinian had been ready to fly, the Pope Leo was not afraid to advance, and that "when the successor of Cæsar had been proved useless, the successor of St. Peter had been a very present help." Indirectly Attila was the strengthener of the Papacy, and the founder of Venice. That stately and gorgeous city owes its origin to the Italians who fled in terror before the brutal Huns from ruined Padua to the islands and lagoons at the mouth of the Piave.



In retiring, Attila had demanded once more the hand and dower of Honoria, the disgraced sister of Theodosius II. But in 453 he added a beautiful maiden, Ildico, to his innumerable wives. He retired from the banquet after a deep carouse, and in the morning was found dead amid a flood of gore by which he had been suffocated, while Ildico sat weeping beneath her veil by the dead king's bedside. He died as a fool dieth; and his warriors gashed their cheeks and wept tears of blood, and gave him a splendid burial. And his name passed into legend as the King Etzel of the Niebelungen Lied, and Alti of the Saga. But his "loutish sons" quarrelled among themselves. The Teutons, Goths, Gepidæ, Alani, and Heruli reasserted their independence in the great victory of Netad in Pannonia in 454; and though the Huns left their name in Hungary, henceforth the empire of Attila became mere "driftwood, on its way to inevitable oblivion."