Attila the Hun, Part 2


Raphael’s depiction of Attila the Hun meeting with Pope Leo.

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.


The fearsome Dothraki are partially based on the Huns. (c) HBO

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 Course of Empire Destruction by Thomas Cole (1836) provides an example the sack of a city. This painting may depict the Vandal sack of Rome in 455.

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.


A Hunnish bracelet. Perhaps this is one of the ways the Huns transported their wealth. Source: Wikimedia Commons

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?


A gold coin (solidus) with Honoria’s image on it.

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.


Valentinian III, Honoria, and their mother Placidia.

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.


Coin with Marcian’s image.

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.

  1. Babcock The Night Attila Died p. 61 []
  2. Babcock The Night Attila Died p. 61 []
  3. M. Babcock The Night Attila Died p. 58 []
  4. M. Babcock, The Night Attila Died. []
  5. Military Commanders: The 100 Greatest Throughout History by Nigel Cawthorne p. 41. []
  6. M. Babcock p. 63 []
  7. M. Babcock p. 63 []
  8. See Michael Babcock The Night Attila Died p. 150. []
  9. Babcock p. 151. []
  10. See Military Commanders: The 100 Greatest Throughout History by Nigel Cawthorne p. 41. []

Jamie Adair is the editor of History Behind Game of Thrones, a website about the history behind George RR Martin's "A Song of Ice and Fire" novels and the hit TV show, "Game of Thrones."


  • Reply May 14, 2014


    Though it might sound cruel, things like when they chose to use scorched earth tactics are interesting to see. It would be nice if we could get more into the heads of the generals and leaders and see why they used such an extreme tactic then and not earlier. Desperation? More ruthless leadership?

    • Reply May 15, 2014

      Jamie Adair

      That’s a really interesting question. The sense I got from my research was that because Aetius’ army had lost so many lives in Gaul and he no longer had the Visigoth support, he had no way to fight Attila directly. He could only hope to starve the army in their attempts to live off the land. But presumably that meant sacrificing all the towns he did this too — they would have no supplies to live off of and may have starved or become refugees or a sort.

      I hate scorched earth tactics – I can’t write about the chevauchees in the Hundred Years War without ranting about them. But, in this case, the Huns had caused **so much devastation** and killed so many people, I guess it was a case of cut off the arm to save the patient. I didn’t really capture the carnage in the Balkans that well, but it was pretty horrific.

      In Aetius’ case, I think scorched earth must have been a tactic of last resort. But, in Edward III’s case, he went to it very quickly and he didn’t do it to starve an army of invaders out.

      You’re right. It would be very interesting to know how different leaders saw these tactics.

  • Reply May 14, 2014


    Sorry about jumping ahead. If Attila was murdered/assassinated, it seems more like the Khal Drogo story line than Purple Wedding. Drogo was poisoned by one if his victims.

    The Dany part in Book 1 is quite extraordinary in depicting the impossibility of usual, modern concepts of gallantry and compassion in a world like that. IIRC, Dany saved a young woman from rape but subsequently lost her to the blood thirst of her troops. She tried to rescue more women from rape and murder and in the process took in Mirri Maz Duur, which led to a series of unfortunate events… Basically her attempts at changing the Dothraki culture and way of life failed, even though the birth of the dragons somehow distracted us from that reality. Hmm, Book 5 seems a lot like a repeat of the same pattern…

    BTW, if anyone has any doubt about Martin’s position on rape, she or he should go back and read that part. His treatment of the Dothraki is very interesting and (I feel) not appreciated enough. He avoided the urge to romanticize the tribe as “the Noble Savages.” There is as much politics in Essos as there is in Westeros, but it is a different kind of political reality, unfamiliar to Western readers and audience. It is sad that the Dothraki chapter was cast as an unlikely (and uncomfortable) romance.

    • Reply May 15, 2014

      Jamie Adair

      Well, I definitely think that Dothraki are a cross between the Huns and other Steppe peoples – I mean GRRM has said a much. I thought Drogo died of an infected wound (IMO exacerbated by a funky poultice)??? (In fact, just to make sure I wasn’t mixing up the show and the books, I just checked it… )

      But, I also think that George RR Martin uses a lot more Roman history than is immediately obvious – including in his “King’s Landing” storyline. A whole bunch of people have written to me about this and I’m now becoming convinced.

      I’m not 100% convinced of the Attila the Hun theory. Somebody suggested it in a magazine article before GRRM made his announcement about Eustace. However, part of the reason this website exists is to explore history, so I’m okay with being wrong or taking chances. I’m just finishing up another article in this series, which will hopefully make some of the parallels clearer. (And, just because there are parallels doesn’t mean that it isn’t simply a coincidence.) With that said, I was really surprised by how many similarities I found. I could only find one or two with Eustace.

      I would definitely like to do more about the Dothraki at some point. When I was researching Attila the Hun, I found myself wondering about history from their perspective. It is easy to assume — based on the historical accounts of their atrocities and the Roman chroniclers — that everything about the Huns were “evil”. But, I’ve read a few points that disputed that perspective.

  • Reply May 15, 2014


    Wouldn’t be the first time that Martin split details among several characters or groups. Joffrey the leader who was murdered at a celebration, Attila the leader of the nomadic raiding group who died abruptly.

    As for Drogo, I don’t believe it’s been outright said, but while it might have been just infection that happened too quickly, we also do not see anything to prove to us that the Mirri Maz Duur did not deliberately sabotage the treatment to kill him. She certainly had motive, knowledge, opportunity and a clear willingness later to kill someone without fear of her actions being discovered.

    The good or bad of the Huns, that’s not totally certain because obviously the people who wrote about them made them out to be the worst, but I think we can be sure that they certainly were very destructive in their raids because of specifically what was written. The fact that bribes, a march on Rome and scorched earth tactics are mentioned at all must mean that the Huns were a significant threat. As for what they were like when they weren’t raiding, really hard to say. Sadly most groups like that didn’t put much value in writing or storing knowledge.

    And yeah Jun, Dany probably can be considered even more naive, or maybe willfully blind, when she was with the Dothraki. I don’t think she ever really accepted that if they invaded Westeros, rape and murder would be very common, and that her own power to stop them was limited purely to what Drogo decided when he and she were even around. At least in the cities she has an army, advisers and dragons to force her will on the people, with the Dothraki all she had was Drogo.

    • Reply May 15, 2014


      I would say Dany was naive rather than willfully blind, and the root of this has to do with a severe cultural clash. The nomad warrior tribes like the Huns and Mongolians built their society and thrive in a totally different way from the agricultural and stationary societies. It would be very difficult for a stationary society (like the Romans or the Chinese who were both invaded and plundered and even conquered by both mentioned above) to understand the other way of life and thinking, especially in terms of social order and means of survival.

      Of course then there is the common human nature. Rape and plunder are common practice in war, because these rewards are why young men are willing to go to war for in the first place through most of human history.

  • Reply May 15, 2014


    Yikes, the more you dig into any of the subjects the more “stuff” there seems to be, doesn’t it? I swear I remember reading the scored earth tactic in ASOIAF during the Wars of the Five Kings. Maybe it’s Tywin Lannister or someone trying to fight off Tywin who burned food supply in Riverrun strongholds. Now winter is coming and people of Riverrun is seriously threatened with starvation.

    Regarding the Roman vs. Hun perspective, I just realized that this is what Martin has done to me in a rather insidious way. After years of reading and obsessing over ASOIAF, I am at least made more aware of multiple and opposite perspectives, even if I’m not able to empathize with the other perspectives directly. It has indeed changes my mindset a lot. Shakespeare does the same kind of thing.

    • Reply May 15, 2014

      Jamie Adair

      I think a lot of that stuff is in the Wars of the Five kings – it is heavily based on the Hundred Years War (IMO) and I remember reading passages about the military tactics that echoed that war really closely. I don’t remember off-hand though.
      That is a very interesting comment about the Huns vs. Romans. Ultimately, there are two sides to every story. But, despite my comments yesterday about a redeeming side to the Huns, sometimes the other side’s perspective doesn’t justify their actions. (I think being delusional there about the Huns for a few minutes.) When I was reading about Vikings – another raiding and pillaging culture, they do have good qualities when they are amongst themselves and the argument maybe they raided because there wasn’t enough food to support them in Scandanavia. Both the Huns and Vikings did some terrible things – I should be careful not to fall in love with my subjects! 🙂

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