When Attila and his brother Bleda became kings, the Romans met with them, hoping to renegotiate their tribute. If the Romans had expected the young men to reduce the annual gold payment, they must have received a rude awakening. [This article is continued from here…]
The meeting was brief. The Huns did not get off their horses, and, the befuddled Romans followed suit. The Huns had four demands — all of which the Romans immediately agreed to. Double the gold tribute. Deny asylum to Huns. Free trade with Margus. No alliance with Hunnic enemies.1 Needless to say, the Roman’s ready agreement set a bad precedent.
This lightning fast and blunt diplomacy remained constant throughout Attila’s life: it was a mark of his character.
Attila was ruthless, determined, and unswayable. Always on message in his diplomatic negotiations, he was notably terse. Invariably, he made the same two requests:
“Send me the gold you owe me,” and “Return the deserters to me now.”2
Not only did Attila viciously kill deserters, he (or his leaders) must have tracked any soldiers he learned had left his army. If he believed any of the cities who paid him tribute were harboring fugitives, the price was severe. He would not tolerate desertion – or disobedience. No exceptions.
Much to the Romans horror, Attila impaled or crucified the first two deserters they returned to him — two royal teenagers, Mama and Atakam — close enough to Constantinople to send a message.3
Initially, the Roman relationship with Attila wasn’t too bad as far (as relationships with your extortioner can go) – provided the Roman’s met his terms.
In fact, the Western Roman general Aetius employed the Huns as mercenaries. Most intriguingly, Aetius lived at the Hunnic court as a diplomatic hostage in his youth and likely knew Attila from that time. In 437, Aetius hired the Huns to fight off the Burgundians near the Roman’s German border. Aetius and the Huns annihilated the Burgundians in a battle so savage Germanic legend has immortalized it.
The Eastern Roman empire coexisted in relative peace with the Huns until 441 when the Huns embarked on a sacking spree of the Balkans. By 442, the Huns crushed numerous towns and cities along the Danube, including Naissus (modern-day Serbia), and slaughtered the inhabitants.
The carnage was so extreme that, when Roman ambassadors arrived there eight years later to negotiate with Attila, the stench of death was still so pungent the party had to camp outside of the ruins to avoid it. The river banks were overflowing with human skeletons. Those who made it through the mass slaughter lived “around the ruins” (Babcock p. 51) in subhuman conditions.
Attila understood that history, like the end of a spear, is how you make a point4 .
By accounts, Attila loved the fear his sieges provoked. No doubt he chose many of his atrocities to grow his legend. After all, it’s far easier to extort tributes from those who are terrified of you and see you as unbeatable. As townspeople screamed during Attila’s violent raids, he often rolled his eyes as though he reveled in the terror the Huns’ acts inspired.
When Theodossius begged Attila for terms, Attila tripled the tribute to 2,100 pounds. Attila also made Theodossius pay 6,000 pounds of gold (arrears)5 .
However, despite this exorbitant sum, the peace would not last. From a Roman perspective, Attila was proving both terrifying and exceptionally troublesome — he couldn’t even be bought off consistently. In 447, Attila reembarked on another Balkan and Greek rampage.
The Huns sacked and burned monasteries and churches and smashed through city walls with battering rams and siege weapons. One chronicler of the 447 campaign wrote, “There was so much killing and blood letting 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.”
The Romans negotiated another treaty with the Huns. By the end of the 440s, the Romans may have paid Attila as much as 22,000 of gold.6 Much of this “honorarium” was funded through war taxes on the aristocracy. To pay, the Roman nobility had to pawn their jewelry and furniture. As historian Michael Babcock so aptly put it, “Every ounce [of gold] paid to Attila became one more reason to kill him7 .”
A Wedding Proposal That Led to a State of Emergency
The Roman’s situation with the Huns became dire when an unhappy Roman noblewoman sent a letter to a prospective suitor, proclaimed her love, and offered to be his wife – a story undoubtedly replayed thousands, if not millions, of times throughout history. The letter wouldn’t have been a problem except the noblewoman was Honoria — the sister of the Western Roman emperor, Valentinian III — and the prospective groom, well, he was Attila the Hun.
Honoria was unhappy with her lot after she allegedly seduced her chamberlain (or possibly formed a political alliance), was banished to a convent in Constantinople, and then engaged to an unambitious senator.8 Was Honoria’s letter to Attila a power play?
Much to the Romans horror, Attila cunningly decided to interpret this wedding proposal as an open-door to claiming half of the Western Roman empire. He accepted Honoria’s marriage proposal and claimed half of Western Roman empire as his dowry. His argument was that, as the elder child of an emperor, Honoria could claim half the empire.
Honoria’s fate is unclear. After Valentinian learned of Honoria’s harebrained scheme of asking an invading mass murderer for help, it was only due to his mother’s pleas that he didn’t execute Honoria.
Perhaps Valentinian’s harsh reaction stemmed because Honoria was attempting to organize some type of coup. Marrying Attila would unite her with the most powerful military leader in the Western Europe and enable her to easily overthrow her brother. Given Honoria may have formed a political alliance with her chamberlain, perhaps she sought a stronger ally in Attila. Honoria was likely executed 452 and 455 after she proposed marriage to Attila – given she falls silently off the historical record9 .
Attila never wanted to rule or conquer territory. His previous raids only aimed to gain gold, not land to administer. Attila ultimately used Honoria’s proposal as a springboard to invade Gaul in 451AD.
After the Eastern Roman emperor Theodossius II died in 450, the new emperor Marcian and the Western Roman emperor, Valentinian III balked at the tribute. Not everyone believed that the empire should agree to Attila’s demands so readily. Theodossius and his chief minister, the eunuch Chrysaphius, believed in an appeasement policy. Some of the senators and nobility believed they should go to war.
When Marcian and Valentinian refused to pay, how did Attila respond? He gathered an army of 500,000 men and invade Gaul. In 451, Attila and his men obliterated Rheims, Mainz, Strasbourg, Cologne, Worms, and Trier. Just as Attila was besieging the city of Orleans, the Western Roman general Aetius, who had allied with the Visigoths, arrived and defeated him (the Battle of the Catalunian, near modern-day Chalons). All-day battle resulted in massive deaths on both sides — and even the Visigoth king, Theodoric, died. This was the only time Attila was ever defeated — and Aetius nearly destroyed Attila’s army. Attila was certain he’d be captured and planned on immolating himself on pyre of burning booty.
Aetius’ victory cost a significant amount of the Western Roman forces – and his Visigoth alliance. When Attila invaded Italy, Aetius no longer had enough men to stop him.
Attila sacked Aquilean, Milan, Padua, Verona, Brescia and Bergamo. (Terrified survivors escaped to islands and lagoons in the Adriatic and founded what became Venice.10 ) To stop Attila, Aetius burned a string of northern cities to the ground — a desperate scorched earth policy — to prevent Attila’s armies from getting food and supplies from the surrounding area.
Aetius’ tactic worked. Attila’s army fell sick and began to die. When Pope Leo I negotiated peace with Attila, he accepted. Given the state of his army, Attila may have had no choice but to retreat; Leo’s peace terms were likely a good deal for him. Attila turned back at the gates of Rome.
The Romans, no doubt, realized it was just a matter of time before Attila struck again.
- Babcock The Night Attila Died p. 61 [↩]
- Babcock The Night Attila Died p. 61 [↩]
- M. Babcock The Night Attila Died p. 58 [↩]
- M. Babcock, The Night Attila Died. [↩]
- Military Commanders: The 100 Greatest Throughout History by Nigel Cawthorne p. 41. [↩]
- M. Babcock p. 63 [↩]
- M. Babcock p. 63 [↩]
- See Michael Babcock The Night Attila Died p. 150. [↩]
- Babcock p. 151. [↩]
- See Military Commanders: The 100 Greatest Throughout History by Nigel Cawthorne p. 41. [↩]