Drunk and staggering, a bloody death from esophageal cancer, poison, murder – how Attila the Hun died is a 1500-year old murder mystery and may be the historical basis of Joffrey Baratheon’s murder – despite George RR Martin’s fishy story about it being based on Prince Eustace’s death. This article looks at Attila’s death, especially in light of Dr. Michael Babcock’s remarkable book, The Night Attila Died, and shows the similarities to Joffrey’s death.
According to various legends and historians, the night Attila died, the Hunnic king was thrilled with his radiantly beautiful new blonde bride, Ildico, and celebrated enthusiastically. This wasn’t because Attila was deeply in love with Ildico – they had probably only just met – nor was it because Attila was excited to be married – he had many wives.
Attila’s marriage feast wasn’t a wild Dothraki wedding like you might imagine – rather it was likely steeped in layers of formal etiquette. At a previous Hunnic banquet, Roman historian Priscus witnessed the elaborate customs. The Huns formally toasted each guest individually. The guest could not be seated until the king sipped his wine (or drank the cup) and passed it back to his cupbearer.1
Reputedly, Attila guzzled wine until he was completely smashed. The stocky Hun then ripped off Ildico’s clothes, carried her up to his bedchamber, locked the door, and ravaged her.
Groggy from the wine, Attila passed out and choked to death on his own blood. When Attila’s attendants found him the next morning – with a weeping Ildico shaking in a corner of the chamber – it looked like Attila suffered a massive nosebleed.
Over the centuries, there have been many theories about how Attila died. The chroniclers who recorded his death were not actually witnesses to it. According to some of these theories…
Attila died from a nosebleed. He was so drunk he essentially passed out and choked on his own blood. (Alternatively, Attila died from an esophageal cancer or from chronic alcoholism (which caused an esophageal hemorrhage).)
Flaw: As Michael Babcock points out, the chronicler Priscus noted that Attila was not known to drink to excess. When he witnessed the austere king at a banquet, he sipped his wine from a wooden mug. From Priscus’ description, the mirthless Attila didn’t have the “swinging from the rafters” personality type. Attila was the epitome of icy steel and reserve. He was too much of a control freak – and possibly too vulnerable — to get so intoxicated he passed out.
Ildico killed Attila
Flaw: It would have been very daring for a young girl to poison her fierce warlord husband. Still, if her family threatened her enough, it is possible she might have agreed to poison him.
Bleda’s widow poisoned Attila
Flaw: Bleda’s widow wasn’t at the wedding feast.
Attila was killed to avenge his brother’s death – this may be true.
What Actually May Have Happened
Exhausted and desperate to stop the gold from draining out of their treasuring, the Eastern and Western Romans may have conspired with two of Attila’s inner circle to assassinate him. These two officials, Edecon and Orestes, may have killed Attila to avenge the death of their original leader, Bleda. Attila probably murdered his brother Bleda.
Jordanes notes that Attila died “by the balance of justice” as a hideous consequence of his action – likely the murder of his own brother2 .
When the conspirators struck, Attila was already vulnerable. He had recently suffered major military losses in Italy and Gaul, and presumably his followers were dissatisfied.3 In fact, he may have married the (likely) Ostrogoth princess Ildico to appease his Ostrogoth followers – and prevent them from abandoning him. (Incidentally, her appearance and nationality are unrecorded – she is only described as “beautiful.”)
The Romans, of course, had wanted Attila dead for years. They were bleeding cash, Attila had repeatedly humiliated them and slaughtered scores of people. However, Attila was heavily guarded. Gaining physical access to him was a problem.
Back in 449, the Byzantine eunuch and chief minister Chrysaphius bribed Attila’s lieutenant Edecon to cooperate with an assassination attempt; it failed.
After the Byzantine emperor Theodosius II died, his successor Marcian allied with the Western Roman general, Aetius, to try again to assassinate Attila. Aetius lived at the Hunnic court in his teens and had a cordial relationship with the Barbarian king. In fact, Attila had even sent Bleda’s favorite dwarf, Zerko, as a gift to Aetius after Bleda’s death. But, after Attila’s savage rampage through Gaul, he crossed a line in the sand. Aetius’ relationship with Attila was over, and he wanted him dead.
Aetius used his connection to Orestes to draw him into the conspiracy. Aetius may have provided Orestes, as a Roman secretary, to Attila.4
Orestes and Edecon were essential parts of the plan. As part of Attila’s inner circle, they could easily have bribed or commanded Attila’s cupbearers to sneak a few drops of poison into his wine.
Similarities to Joffrey’s Death
George RR Martin has said that Joffrey’s death was based on the convenient death of a medieval prince. “I based it a little on the death of Eustace, the son of King Stephen of England…” There are some small similarities between Prince Eustace and Prince Joffrey’s deaths.
It seems possible that Martin is neglecting to mention that he may have used Attila’s death as a model. There are far more similarities between Attila and Joffrey’s deaths than there are between Attila and Eustace’s death.
Another issue is this quotation from George RR Martin:
“Because by removing Eustace, it brought about a peace that ended the English civil war. Eustace’s death was accepted [as accidental], and I think that’s what the murderers here were hoping for — the whole realm will see Joffrey choke to death on a piece of pie or something ((See http://insidetv.ew.com/2014/04/13/george-r-r-martin-why-joffrey-killed/ )) .”
Joffrey’s death does not end the civil war and there is no reason the murderers should assume that it would. The Lannisters still have Tommen as an heir. As Jaime, I believe it was, recently noted, the war is not over: Stannis is still alive.
Olenna Tyrell is not motivated to end the war – she just doesn’t want her granddaughter married to a sociopath. And the climber Petyr Baelish could care less about the war – he is only motivated to help the Tyrells.
Does this mean that the conclusions of the “careful reader” are incorrect? Assuming the murderer misguidedly thought the war could be ended by killing Joffrey, who would be motivated to end a civil war? Varys?
But, if Attila’s death is the basis for Joffrey’s death, why wouldn’t Martin say so? Is it because there are historical spoilers in the story of Attila’s death?
Similarity to Joffrey’s Death #1: A savage possibly sociopathic leader who dies at a wedding
Neither Joffrey nor Attila had any regard for human life. Both died at their own politically arranged weddings.
Similarity to Joffrey’s Death #2: Natural Causes or Murder?
Throughout the centuries, a debate has raged about the cause of Attila’s death. Did he die from natural causes, or was he murdered? Like Joffrey, Attila appeared to choke, he may have suffered some type of nose bleed or hemorrhage, or he may have been poisoned – possibly by his cupbearer.
Although the Tyrells and Peter Baelish believe they murdered Joffrey, this doesn’t necessarily mean they succeeded.
Similarity to Joffrey’s Death #3: Joffrey and Attila were allegedly drunk
According to legend, Attila got extremely drunk at his wedding and then died. Likewsie, Joffrey got extremely drunk at his wedding. As Tyrion notes in the books, “My nephew is drunker than I am5 .”
Similarity to Joffrey’s Death #4: The Wife is a Primary Suspect
In some legends, Ildico or a wife of Attila’s named Gudrun, killed him. Until Olenna’s announcement, many people believed that Margaery killed Joffrey. Avoiding a wedding night with Joffrey would be ample motive.
Similarity to Joffrey’s Death #5: Attila was Probably Killed Due to a Conspiracy
At this stage, we believe that Joffrey died as the result of a conspiracy between Olenna Tyrell and Petyr Baelish – a conspiracy that crossed political lines. Still, George RR Martin has all but admitted he is leading us down the garden path in his Rolling Stone interview:
“In the books – and I make no promises, because I have two more books to write, and I may have more surprises to reveal – the conclusion that the careful reader draws is that Joffrey was killed by the Queen of Thorns, using poison from Sansa’s hairnet…”
There is no reason that there couldn’t have been multiple attempts, or even multiple conspiracies, to murder Joffrey at his wedding.
Similarity to Joffrey’s Death #6: A member of the Joffrey’s own party betrayed Joffrey
The Lannisters gave Petyr Baelish – position, power, a castle. Despite his apparent loyalty to the Lannisters, he betrayed them to forge a new alliance with a party he felt was more stable. Perhaps, Orestes felt that an alliance with the Romans was more stable than an alliance with the merciless Attila.
Similarity to Joffrey’s Death #7: Protecting a dwarf may be a clue
In Michael Babcock’s book, The Night Attila died, one of the key clues he uncovers – which reveals Edecon was motivated by revenge — is Edecon’s desire to protect his former master’s favorite, the dwarf Zerko.
Bleda adored his Moorish dwarf Zerko, and brought him everywhere almost like a pet or Austin Powers and his mini-me. Bleda even had a small suit of armor made for Zerko, so he could go on the battlefield with him, make the troops laugh at his cuteness, and provide stress relief.6 Despite the threat of crucifixion for deserters, Zerko hated this indignity so much he ran away.
Nonetheless, Bleda laughed his guts out when he saw Zerko brought back in chains and forgave him – especially after Zerko asked for a wife, which Bleda found even more hilarious. In a curious parallel with Game of Thrones, Zerko was given a noblewoman in the queen’s retinue who had fallen out of favor.7
Later, after Bleda died and Attila sent Zerko away, Edecon went to extensive lengths to bring Zerko back to court and try to reunite him with his wife. Historian Michael Babcock concludes that this was done because Edecon felt obliged to protect his late master’s beloved favorite.
Is it possible that Joffrey had once again resumed his quest to kill Tyrion? Perhaps, Tommen or somebody else was protecting Tyrion by poisoning Joffrey at the Purple Wedding?
- Michael Babcock The Night Attila Died p. 243 [↩]
- Babcock p. 250 [↩]
- Michael Babcock The Night Attila Died p. 242. [↩]
- Babcock p. 234 [↩]
- Martin, George R.R. (2003-03-04). A Storm of Swords: A Song of Ice and Fire: Book Three (p. 823). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition. [↩]
- Babcock p. 90 [↩]
- Babcock p. 91 [↩]