Attila: King of the Huns – the Man and the Myth...

by ExperiencePlus! - Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Attila: King of the Huns – the Man and the Myth – by Patrick Howarth

If you have the time you should read Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire rather than this short volume on Attila. If you don’t have time for Gibbon’s six volumes, though, or the Penguin Classics abridged edition (The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire edited by David Womersley) but you want to put Attila and his Huns into context, then this monograph might be for you. It’s an easy read while traveling, or at the end of a long day on a bicycle or walking tour.

I recommend this book because many of us know little about that period in European history from the fall of Rome until the rise of the great city states of Europe. We learned to call it the "dark ages" or, at best, the Middle Ages. Now, historians are revisiting the entire period. Our knowledge of it is "dark", perhaps, but the entire period is being re-assessed and shown to be an important time of technological development and innovation (see, for example, Frances and Joseph Gies’ book, Cathedral, Forge and Wheel, Technology and Invention in the Middle Ages).

If you are headed on any of our tours that go through Venice or Ravenna, this book helps you to understand the context of how both these cities, especially Ravenna, fit between East and West during the last decades of the Roman Empire. (See Venice to Pisa, Pisa to Venice, Venice to Florence, and the Culinary Cycling Circus.)

Attila ruled for the briefest of period, from 445 – 453 A.D. Yet he and his army became known as the "scourge of God" in western Europe as his horsemen could move faster than word of mouth, often appearing on the doorstep of west European cities before advance warning could reach his victims. He chose western Europe, including the areas of modern Germany, France and northern Italy as his prey because Constantinople, the prize of the Eastern Roman Empire was too heavily fortified to storm. The west, though, still had rich cities but a declining military that could not withstand the onslaught of a Hun "blitzkrieg."

Cologne and Trier in Germany, and Metz, Reims, Besancon, and other cities in northeast France fell to Attila’s advancing army in the winter and spring of 451 A.D. Troyes was saved by the intervention of its Bishop, later to become St. Loup, who through wit and diplomacy convinced Attila to bypass the city. Finally, Orleans resisted Attila by force and after a decisive battle somewhere in northern France (the actual location is still in dispute) between Orleans and Troyes, the Roman army and its allies stopped Attila’s advance. He chose to retreat to his homeland in the Pannonian plains of modern Hungary.

Attila didn’t stay long, though, and by spring of 452 he invaded Italy, laying waste to the important northern Roman city of Aquilea, at the head of the Adriatic Sea. From here he went on to conquer Padua, whose refugees founded Venice, safely protected by the waters of the Venetian lagoon. He then took Verona and Vicenza and the Roman towns of Lombardy including Bergamo, Brescia, Milan, and Pavia. Attila then turned east and headed down the Po River valley. Where he was bound, we’ll never know, as Pope Leo I met Attila near present day Mantua and pleaded with him to spare Rome. He agreed, and in so doing, also spared Ravenna, then capital of the Western Empire.

Howarth speculates as to why Attila spared Italy from further devastation. But we’ll not likely know why the great commander chose, once again, to head home to Pannonia after his meeting with the Pope. A year later after marrying another of many wives, Attila died on his wedding night, leaving a rich legacy. If you are just beginning to read about early medieval history, this might be the place to start. If it inspires you to read more, it will have done the job!