Attila the Hun: A Motive for Murder?


A latter day depiction of Attila the Hun at a feast.

Series introduction: Did a 1500 year old murder mystery inspire George RR Martin’s Purple Wedding? Sure, he’s admitted that Prince Eustace’s death during the Anarchy inspired him, but there are way too many parallels between Joffrey’s death and Attila the Hun’s death for it to be a coincidence.

The vicious barbarian raider Attila the Hun died of a massive nosebleed at his wedding in 453AD. However, not everyone is convinced that Attila died of natural causes. Some historians suspect poison. And, when you’ve extorted money from the Roman Empire for years, tortured, raped, and massacred millions — and even murdered your brother — there are a lot of suspects.

In this series of articles, we explore Attila the Hun’s murder to see what we can learn about Joffrey’s murder and see if George RR Martin has any twists in store.

Attila the Hun, gave plenty of parties motive to murder him. In his role as leader of the Hun tribes, he reduced numerous cities to rubble. However, he also betrayed his brother’s widow, broke his peace treaties with the Romans, and began to lose ground as a leader. To understand, Attila, it is important to understand his background as a Hun.

Who Were the Huns?

The Huns were “warrior” horse-nomadic tribes, who originated from the Steppes in Central Asia and who lived across Eastern Europe, the Caucasus, and Central Asia from 1 CE to 7 CE. Attila the Hun united many of the tribes into a merciless raiding machine that brought the mighty Roman Empire to its knees, trembling in fear.

To the Romans, the Huns “had the “cruelty of wild beasts,” according to a near contemporary, Jordanes. Ultimately, the Huns deadly surprise attacks penetrated deep into territory and left neighboring towns in a state of extreme terror.

The Huns were exceptionally dangerous militarily — and deadly fast. At the time, their army was unique. It contained only mounted archers wielding 5-foot bows. Each archer carried his own provisions on ponies — there was no enormous winding baggage train – which let the force move quickly and overwhelm bigger armies.


Huns fighting with the Alans. Image: engraving based on an 1870s drawing by Johann Nepomuk Geiger (1805-1880).

The high fronts and backs (pommels) on the Hun’s saddles let them fire arrows turned around, nearly standing up, and from 150 meters away (which kept them clear of enemy range). A favorite Hun trick was engaging their enemy, pretending to retreat (which led the enemy to chase them) and once the enemy started to lose formation, the Huns would suddenly turn, engage them again, and fire on the separated individuals.

The tribes of the Central Asian Steppe had such a fearsome reputation that the Wall of China was built to keep them away.1 In short, they were lethal: hell on horses.


Attila the Hun’s empire about 450. Image: William Shepherd (1911) in the Historical Atlas. Click the image to see a less grainy version.

Perhaps, it goes without saying, but the Huns were unparalleled horsemen. They learned to ride before they could walk. Like the Dothraki, they rarely got off their saddles for anything: they negotiated, ate, made love, and slept on horseback2 .

Out of these tribes arose a man, a member of the royal family, who united the Hunnic tribes and led them burned, sacked, and pillaged their way through half of Europe: Attila the Hun.

Who was Attila the Hun?

Attila the Hun — also known to history as Etzel, Atli, Attila — was one of the most vicious, ruthless, and successful barbarian leaders who ever attacked the Roman empire. The “Scourge of God,” as the Romans nicknamed him, was born in roughly 406 CE in Pannonia (modern-day Transdanubia, Hungary). Attila led roughy 100,000 men in savage pillaging, and burning raids across half of Europe — and brought the both halves of the once mighty Roman empire to their knees.


A miniature of Attila the Hun on Horseback by George Stuart from Wikimedia Commons.

Attila and his brother grew up in the rule of their uncle Rua – himself an extremely successful Hunnic leader. His raids against the Eastern Roman empire were so devastating that the Romans were already paying Rua a tribute when Attila inherited the throne.

Attila became ruler of the Huns in 434, a post he shared with his (likely) elder brother Bleda. The two brothers soon united the Hunnic tribes, which came to include many Germanic tribes, into one restless raiding horde of mounted warriors. This may not have been the happiest relationship, however. The brothers may have differed over foreign policy — Attila favoring fear and plunder3 — and Attila likely had his brother assassinated in 445 so he could rule alone.

Attila (and previous Hunnic leaders) operated in a way that was not unlike many other pirate and raiding type cultures, including the Vikings. Attila had followers provided he could supply them with gold and booty from raids. If Attila could not provide riches to his men, they would stop following him.


Gold Hunnish horse trappings might be an example of how the Hunns stored their wealth. Wikimedia Commons.

Consequently, the major activity of the Huns was viciously attacking cities and towns throughout Europe. To avoid, the carnage and destruction of a Hunnic raid, cities might be able to pay off Attila, and he would leave the city in peace — provided they could meet his price.

If not, the waste the Hunns laid to a city could be horrific.

Attila’s goal was gold. It didn’t really matter to him that much how he got it. But, he needed the gold to keep rolling in — or he would lose power.

The State of the Crumbling Roman Empire



By the fifth century, the Roman empire was no longer quite as mighty as it had once been.
This is not Julius Caesar’s Roman empire. It is nearly 500 years later, and the empire is no longer pagan. It is more than religion that’s changed however. Rome has moved on. Literally. It is now Constantinople, not Rome, that is the center of power.

In 330 CE, the Roman emperor Constantine shockingly “moved” the Roman capital to a shabby seedy seaport, Byzantium, with its deep-water harbor and strategic location.
As the first Christian emperor, Constantine intended his city to be Rome reborn, a shining beacon of Christianity. He even rebuilt and enlarged the city and even enlarged its Hippodrome (stadium for chariot races, “circuses,” etc.) to hold 100,000 people. Constantine renamed the city “New Rome.” The name did not stick: it became known as “Constantinople” instead.


The ruins of Hippodrome from a sixteenth century depiction.

By the time of Attila — a hundred years later — the Roman empire has become flabby.
Parts of the empire are crumbling — in fact, in roughly forty years, the Western empire would no longer exist. Wars with invading Barbarians have weakened Rome. It’s legions are not as motivated by civic pride and patriotic duty; in fact, they are staffed primarily with foreign mercenaries. Overtaxation is leading the aristocracy to exit the empire cities and set up their own fiefdoms.


Byzantium, the site of Constantinople (modern-day Istanbul). Wikimedia commons.

In fact, by the fifth century, the Roman has become so sprawling and hard to govern that the emperor Theodosius I (the Great) splits the rule of the empire between his sons when he dies, convinced neither son possessed sufficient talent to rule the behemoth. His son Honorius ruled Western Rome and his other son Arcadius ruled the Eastern Roman empire (also known as Byzantium).

When Arcadius died, Theodosius II took over the Eastern empire. His gentle, scholarly temperament and weak ruling style presented plump pickings for Attila.


Theodosius II

Theodosius II did not have the ruthless temperament required to stand against Attila. Easily dominated, Theodosius let his sister, Pulcheria – a religious fanatic — and his ministers, notably the eunuch Chrysaphius, run his government. Byzantine emperors lived like near gods. Regal and deeply isolated, they were not battle-hardened commanders like Julius Caesar.

In contrast, although Attila was royal, he was a die-hard soldier. He was also ugly, direct, short-tempered, shrewd, cunning, and lived somewhat simply. He did not favor lavishness for himself. While Attila reputedly had a voracious appetite for gold, he did not live extravagantly. He ate meat out of wooden bowls while his lieutenants ate delicacies off of silvers dishes.

In some ways, Attila was significantly more sophisticated than what we might imagine when we hear him described as a “barbarian” — as the Romans dubbed all invading peoples. Attila even had foreign-born advisors. He understood the Romans — in fact, the Western general Aetius may have been a boyhood companion. And, possibly most importantly of all, Attila understood the power of propaganda.

To be continued…

Until next time, here is a video, courtesy of the Biography channel, about Attila the Hun.


This website may contain references to any aired episode of Game of Thrones.

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