Atrocious Facts About Attila The Hun

November 17, 2023 | C. C. Conway

Atrocious Facts About Attila The Hun

The mere mention of Attila the Hun elicits fear-inducing images of a monstrous barbarian leading his forces, causing wide-scale havoc, looting, and destruction across the territories of the Roman Empire. A closer look at the 5th century AD armed forces leader, while not disputing his barbarity, offers a glimpse into the complexities of his nature and the fascinating adventures of his life. Here are 40 facts about the Attila the Hun that help shed some light on this frightening, complex character.

1. Not Even One

The group that instilled fear in Europe from the late fourth to mid-fifth centuries, known as the Huns, should not be confused with Hungarians, despite the similarity in their names. Scant archaeological evidence suggests that the Huns derive from the Hsiung-Nu people whose origins trace to the late third-century BC. in northern China. Repelled by the Han Dynasty, the Hsiung-Nu splintered into factions. The northern faction was driven from China somewhere between 91-93 AD. These refugees, who migrated west to the Siberian-Kazakhstan steppes, most likely became the European Huns, according to many scholars. Others refute the link to the Hsiung-Nu culture yet still place the origins of the Huns in Kazakhstan. First mention of the tribe appears in European historical records at the end of the 3rd century AD. It is estimated that Attila was born between 370 and 400 AD.

attila the hun

2. Fast And Furious

Riding down from the steppes in marauding droves, the Huns began their rampage of Eastern Europe as early as 370 AD.  By 408 AD the Hunnic empire extended in the west from the Alps to the Baltic Sea, and in the east from the Alps to the Caspian Sea.  By 430 AD Rua, the uncle of Attila, had assumed leadership of the tribe.

Attila The Hun FactsWikimedia Commons

3. The Hunnish Life

Hunters and gatherers, the Huns traveled with flocks of sheep, which provided food and leather. They spent their lives atop their hardy horses, likely Mongolian ponies, and were said to dismount only when absolutely necessary. Attila was trained in horsemanship and marksmanship from an early age.

Attila The Hun facts Commons Wikimedia

4. Brotherly Love

Attila's uncle maintained rule over the confederation of the Huns until 434, after which the kingdom was left to Attila and his brother Bleda. The siblings co-ruled for approximately ten years—until it is assumed that Attila took Bleda's life and claimed sole leadership of the tribe. Before Bleda's demise, the Huns mainly targeted territories in the Eastern Roman Empire, but once in power, Attila shifted his focus to both parts of the Empire. The entirety of Attila’s reign spans the years between 434-453 AD.

Attila The Hun FactsWikipedia

5. Scary Screamers

Firsthand accounts depict the savage screaming and other noises made by the Huns as they charged at their victims on horseback, slashing and stabbing. Their prowess as equestrians made the Huns particularly terrifying. Sometimes they utilized a lasso-like tool to ensnare the adversary, subsequently subjecting them to powerful, forceful actions.

people riding black and white horses wearing archaic costumes

6. Nice Nickname

Romans viewed the Huns as barbarians, and Attila’s name was synonymous with destruction, chaos, and slaughter. He became known as “The Scourge of God". As 6th century writer Jordanes declares in his Gothic history book Getica:  “He was a man born into the world to shake the nations, the scourge of all lands, which in some way terrified all mankind by the dreadful rumours noised abroad concerning him".

Attila The Hun FactsWikipedia

7. The Art Of The Deal

So feared was Attila that rulers would fork over large payments just to be left alone. In 435 AD he extracted a winning deal with the Eastern Roman Emperor Theodosius II. In exchange for peace, the Romans would remit to him an annual tribute of 700 pounds of gold. A few years later Attila asserted that the Romans had not kept up their end of the bargain. He launched vicious attacks through Eastern Roman territories, forcing a hike in the fee to 2100 pounds of gold per year.

Their Biggest Workplace Mistakes factsPixabay

8. Love Thy Enemy

Attila and the famous Roman general Flavius Aetius may have enjoyed an unlikely friendship. Aetius, who might have been held captive in one of Attila's camps at some point, studied the Hunnic customs and language, likely spending considerable time with his counterpart. The bromance ended in 449, probably over missing payments to Attila by the Romans. A few years after that they would meet on the battlefield.

Attila The Hun FactsAttila,Embassy Pictures

9. Ugly Nomads

Most people who came face to face with the Huns and lived to tell the tale describe them as “ugly". In fact, the Roman historian Ammianus describes them as “so prodigiously ugly and bent that they might be two-legged animals, or the figures crudely carved from stumps which are seen on the parapets of bridges".  His view, of course, might have been colored by the hostility of the relationship between the Romans and the Huns.

Attila The Hun FactsShutterstock

10. The Tide Of History

Attila and his Huns made their mark on world history by their contribution to the fall of the Roman Empire, which is dated at about 476 AD. The Huns were responsible for driving migrating tribes into Roman lands, destabilizing the already weakening empire, creating an economic crisis, destroying important property and transforming society at a tremendous rate. The empire simply could not sustain the combined stress of all these factors.

Attila The Hun FactsWikimedia Commons

11. A Romantic At Heart?

When Attila was rejected by a Roman emperor’s sister, it caused him to go on a murderous rampage throughout Western Europe. Although Attila already had several wives at the time, he tried to claim another in 450 AD. This transpired when Honoria, the sister of Emperor Valentinianus III, sent him a ring and sought his help in extricating her from an impending marriage that had been arranged by her brother. Misinterpreting her plea for help as a marriage proposal, Attila proclaimed Honoria his betrothed. He also claimed half the Western Roman Empire as his dowry. Naturally, Valentinianus rejected the claim, and the irate man nearly sent his sister into the arms of that warrior tribe. The marriage did not take place, but Attila used the rejection as justification for his next rampage through the Western Roman Empire.

Attila The Hun FactsAttila,Embassy Pictures

12. If You Ask Nicely

After his marriage rejection, Attila cut a path of destruction through the Western Roman Empire as far south as the Loire River. In hopes of curtailing him, his old friend the Roman general Aetius joined forces with Visigoths whose borders were being encroached. Attila was busy attacking the city of Orleans when the twin forces of Aetius and the Visigoths approached. Attila made a calculated withdrawal. He was about to move on the nearby city of Troyes when the saintly Bishop Lupus pleaded with Attila not to destroy the city. Attila consented, but insisted on bringing the bishop with him for security.

Attila The Hun FactsWikimedia Commons

13. So We Meet Again 

Attila’s most devastating defeat was at the hands of his old friend Aetius in 451. After his departure from Orleans, he moved his personnel to an area known as the Catalaunian Plains (or the Plains of Châlons), anticipating a confrontation. There he would come face to face with the forces of Aetius and the Visigoths. During the extended and brutal battle, the Visigoth King Theodoric lost his life, and Aetius's horse was also claimed, but Attila was outwitted, resulting in his surrender of victory.  He also freed poor Bishop Lupus and asked the saintly man to pray for him.

Attila The Hun FactsWikimedia Commons

14. Do You Believe In Miracles?

Attila's defeat by Aetius did not halt the destructive invader. In 452, the following year, he veered south, forcefully engaging cities in northern Italy, such as Venetia, Aquileia, Milan, and Apuleia. Pope Leo I personally approached and pleaded with the nomadic warrior leader not to plunder the city of Rome. Reportedly Attila was impressed by the Pope’s bravery. In addition, a “miracle” reinforced the Pope’s message when Saints Peter and Paul appeared to Attila, warning him that he would die if he did not heed the Pontiff’s plea. A less fanciful account maintains that Attila retreated from Italy as resources began to deplete and numerous members of his group were unwell.

Attila The Hun FactsWikimedia Commons

15. If Looks Could Kill

No known portrait of Attila exists, but he has been described in writings by the Roman ambassador Priscus, who met him in 449 AD, as being short and snub-nosed with a grey-tinged beard. He was especially known for the ferocity of his stare, which was said to make people tremble. Attila revelled in the fear his gaze instilled. He is quoted as saying, “There, where I have passed, the grass will never grow again".

Attila The Hun FactsShutterstock

16. Supply And Demand

As nomadic hunters and gatherers, the Huns lacked a tradition of producing armaments. Their supply of arms likely came in the form of booty taken from the bodies of Romans, Ostrogoths, Visigoths or Persians they’d slain on the battlefield.

Attila The Hun FactsWikimedia Commons

17. Star Status

Historical studies suggest that social rank among the Huns was merit-based, largely depending upon proficiency in martial skills. The highest rank was held by the man with the best kill rate in battle. Attila's prowess on the battlefield was one of the reasons he was held in such great esteem.

Attila The Hun FactsShutterstock

18. Mind Games

Attila employed various strategies of psychological conflict. To further disarm demoralized enemies, Attila would terrorize bordering lands as a warning of what might come. His warriors were known to tie the severed heads of defeated combatants to their saddles as they charged, shrieking, into battle. Sometimes his forces pretended to retreat, only to lash back with brutal strength, confounding the enemy.

Attila The Hun FactsAttila,Embassy Pictures

19. Title Of Honor

Attila's army was organized by tribe. Each tribe consisted of 50,000 to 60,000 people.  From this number, 10,000 comprised the army of mounted archers. This fighting unit was known as a “tumen". Aside from "King," the most cherished title in their society was "Commander of the 10,000 Horsemen".

Attila The Hun FactsFlickr

20. He Wasn’t Perfect, But . . .

George Steinbrenner, the vibrant, former owner of the New York Yankees baseball team, was known to have studied Attila, the notorious historical figure, in search of insights that might enhance his business success. According to his biographer Bill Madden, Steinbrenner remarked about the famed barbarian, “He wasn’t perfect, but he did have some good things to say".

Attila The Hun FactsGetty Images

21. Fashion Forward

Attila was known to be modest in his dress, eschewing adornment. Nevertheless, the attire of most warriors demonstrated their status. They wore cone-shaped metal helmets covered in leather. Their neck and shoulders were protected with chain mail, and they wore up to four layers of body armor. This armor was constructed of skin-tight, hard leather, which was waterproofed with animal fat and reinforced with plaques of bone. Their pants were baggy, and their boots, not designed for walking, were soft. Completing the regalia was a richly embroidered knee-length felt or fur coat.

Attila The Hun FactsAttila,Embassy Pictures

22. Loyalty Oath

Attila was unwavering in his demand for loyalty. A stipulation of diplomatic relations with the Roman Empires was that all defectors originating from his nation should be returned immediately upon being found. In 448 AD, he confronted the Eastern Empire with potential conflict when only five of the twelve traitors Attila had anticipated were returned. Two of those returned were summarily impaled, and conjecture is that the others might have been lucky enough to flee and avoid a similar fate.

Attila The Hun FactsShutterstock

23. Helpful Horses 

The horses under Attila's command were trained to assist in battle by biting and kicking their opponents. Loyal to their masters, these small, hairy horses were rarely sick and tolerated both heat and cold very well. They had long heads, big eyes, and long manes. Their legs were short with broad hooves and their tails were bushy.

Attila The Hun FactsShutterstock

24. Tools Of The Trade

Attila's forces utilized a broad range of combat equipment, with the reflex composite bow being the primary one, capable of reaching distances between 70-100 meters (230-440 feet).  Made of wood, bone and sinew, the weapon was carried on the rider’s belt or saddle. In addition to the lasso, used to entangle opponents and drag them away, the Huns used short, curved swords probably of Iranian origin, maces, daggers, pickaxes, and sometimes lances.

Attila The Hun FactsAttila,Embassy Pictures

25. Food For Thought

The Huns ate raw meat, according to ancient Roman historian Ammianus Marcellinus in his book The History of Rome, warming it by “placing it between their own thighs and the back of their horses". No fan of the Huns, Ammianus also declared that the Huns surpassed all others in wildness, that they were “just bearing the likeness of men (of a very ugly pattern),” were singularly backward, made no use of fire and generally lived on roots found in the fields. As a Roman Ammianus might be expected to have a skewed view of the Huns.

Bad Guy factsPixabay

26. Take Charge Strategies

Originally published in 1985, the bestseller Leadership Secrets of Attila by Wess Roberts argues that tactics used on the battlefield by Attila's forces can help American executives foster a "win-directed, take-charge management".

Attila The Hun FactsShutterstock

27. Just A Simple Guy

According to the Roman writer and diplomat Priscus, Attila did not indulge in the luxuries of his own banquets. While his guests savored extravagant meals served on silver trenches and sipped from gold and silver cups, Attila only consumed meat from a wooden platter and sipped his beverage from a wooden cup.

Attila The Hun FactsAttila,Embassy Pictures

28. Of Witches Born

According to ancient Gothic lore, Attila and the Huns were spawned from witches. Jordanes, a 6th century Goth writer, relates the story of King Filimer, who discovered witches living among his people. Exiled from the land, these unclean spirits mated with other demons, making their home on the banks of the Maeotic swamps near the Black Sea. As the story goes, their stunted, scarcely human offspring were the first Huns. Primitive in speech and intelligence, their only skill was in hunting. Once they discovered the world beyond the swamp, the evil tribe swept into Scythia “like a whirlwind of nations,” stealing, raping, and murdering all in their path.

Students This Dumb Facts

29. Beautiful Barbarians

Attila’s Huns often wore colorful ribbons in both their hair and beards. Rarely cut, their hair was parted down the middle. Their beards were often parted, as well. They smeared their hair and faces with animal fat during rainy and cold seasons as protection against the elements.

Attila The Hun FactsShutterstock

30. Son Of A Dog

Among the strange pejorative myths surrounding Attila’s origins, one 13th  Century story identifies his parents as the king of Hungary’s daughter and a greyhound. Italian lore and artwork depict Attila as having the head and ears of a dog; in other portrayals he has been given horns.

Anna Nicole Smith FactsShutterstock

31. Playing Favorites

Attila blatantly favored one of his sons over the others, as reported in firsthand accounts of the Roman diplomat Priscus. This bias was because a prophecy had revealed to Attila that while he and his family would be vanquished his son Ernak, the favored one, would restore their status.

Attila The Hun FactsWikipedia

32. Unimpressed

It seems that Attila, the barbarian ruler, was not someone who could be easily amused. Based on the testimonials of spectators at one of his extravagant feasts, even during the peak of entertainment such as performances of songs concerning battles and actions, the humorous shenanigans of a tousled Moor blending Italian and Gothic and Hunnic languages, and a narrative from a madman, the nomadic chieftain stayed expressionless.

Attila The Hun FactsWikipedia

33. Acts Of Mercy

In a strange show of mercy, Attila once spared a would-be assassin sent to kill him. Instead, Attila dispatched the man back to the Romans who had hatched the plot, along with a humiliating note pointing out the folly of the plan, along with a demand for more monetary retribution.

Attila The Hun FactsWikipedia

34. What’s In A Name?

The name Attila was quite popular in Hungary from the 11th to mid-12th centuries, signifying the leader's heroic reputation among many in the region where this ancient tribe once resided.  The name is thought to derive from the Gothic language and is translated as “little father” with  “atta” meaning “father” and the suffix “-ila” meaning “little". 

Sherlock Holmes FactsFlickr, Jack Dorsey

35. The Holy One

Attila had a spiritual side. He held those he deemed to have heightened spiritual qualities in high esteem. He valued their words and was known to show them mercy. Attila also put faith in prophecy. According to the Gothic historian Jordanes, Attila was under the impression that a sword uncovered and presented to him by a shepherd was a legacy left for him by Mars, the Roman deity of conflict. Attila interpreted this as a sign that he was destined to rule the world. 

Bronze statue of Ruler Atilla in a parkEbru-Omer, Shutterstock

36. The Married Man

Attila was a polygamist with numerous wives, the final one he married on the night of his life's end. In the 13th century Norse saga Völsunga, Attila's wife Gudrun slays their sons and feeds them to Attila before piercing him with a blade as he slumbers.

Attila The Hun FactsWikimedia Commons

37. The Ultimate Wedding Night 

Attila met his end in 453 AD on his wedding night. This time the bride was the young and beautiful Ildico. According to Gothic historian Jordanes, Attila had "surrendered to extreme joy" at the celebration and was "weighed down with intoxication and slumber" when he suffered from a nosebleed. The blood, which would ordinarily have flowed from his nose, streamed in a fatal course down his throat and consequently caused his demise.  A later and more lurid account by Roman historian Ammianus suggests that “Attila, King of the Huns and ravager of the provinces of Europe, was pierced by the hand and blade of his wife". Regardless, his end appeared shameful for such a distinguished warrior.

Purple Crocus in Bloom during Daytime in a graveyardPixabay, Pexels

38. The Secret Burial

The burial place of Attila remains unknown even today although it is believed to be somewhere in Hungary. According to accounts by Roman writer Priscus, the loss of the leader was marked by profuse displays of grief. His body was laid in a series of gold, silver, and iron coffins, filled with jewels and the defeated tools of his conquered adversaries. His men, their faces smeared with blood, rode their horses in circles around the tent where his body reposed. According to lore, he was buried at the bottom of a river whose waters had been temporarily diverted for this purpose. Those who laid him to rest met their end to ensure they would never disclose the location of the sacred tomb.

Unsolved Mysteries FactsFlickr, Bilal Kamoon

39. End Of An Era

Within two decades following Attila's passing, the empire of the Huns fell apart owing to power conflicts and ongoing conflicts with the Romans.  Attila’s offspring, Irnik and Dengizik, who collectively led the prominent tribes, failed to rebuild the empire even though Dengizik made an attempt before his demise on the battlefield.

Attila The Hun FactsWikimedia Commons

40. Head Sculpting

Some Huns practiced cranial deformation, a method of intentionally altering the shape of a child’s skull by force. About a month after birth, a child’s head would be bound between boards for about six months, if a flattened or elongated skull was desired. Cloth binding would produce a rounded or conical-shaped skull. This practice may explain some of the strange perceptions others had about the appearance of Huns.

You Are Not The FatherShutterstock

Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21, 22, 23, 24, 25, 26

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