From the second century AD, the Goths were regarded as Europe’s most ferocious warriors. In the fourth century AD, a nomadic tribe appeared that was ferocious on a new level: the Huns. The Huns arrived on the Volga in 370 AD, and they started raiding the territory dominated by the Goths and other Germanic tribes that were living outside the borders of the Roman Empire. In 376 AD, they defeated the Goths. Ermanaric, King of the Goths, was devastated by the defeat and committed suicide. The Romans were shocked by the speed and brutality with which the Huns had slaughtered the Goths, who were Rome’s allies.
By 430 AD, the Huns had conquered a large part of Europe. In 434 AD, they rallied around a charismatic leader, Attila the Hun. Attila and his brother Belda had ascended the throne jointly. They shared power and jointly led the expeditions. They were not just raiding the European cities but capturing a number of them. In 444 AD, Attila killed his brother and became the sole ruler of the Huns. By 445 AD, he had reached the height of his power. The Latin chroniclers have described Attila as Flagellum Dei (whip of God). The chroniclers would use the same term for two other powerful steppe nomad conquerors: Genghis Khan and Tamerlane.
In 450 AD, Attila received a ring from Empress Justa Grata Honoria, elder half-sister of Roman Emperor (of the Western Roman Empire), Valentinian III. She resented her brother and felt that she would be a better Empress of Rome. Valentinian III tried to subdue his sister’s imperial ambitions by marrying her off to an old senator called Bassus Herculanus. Faced with an unwanted marriage, she sent Attila her plea for help and her ring. Attila took her ring as a marriage proposal. He dispatched a message to Emperor Valentinian that he would marry Honoria and that he would take Gaul and Spain as his bride’s dowry.
Valentinian did not have the power to hand over Gaul and Spain (which were Roman territories) to Attila. He was furious at his sister for getting the royal family involved with Attila. He wanted to execute her. But due to the influence of his mother Galla Placidia, he exiled Honoria to a monastery in Constantinople. He wrote to Attila that his sister’s marriage proposal was not legitimate.
When Attila learned that Valentinian had refused his proposal and exiled Honoria, he declared war on Rome. In 451 AD, he marched towards Rome with an army of 50,000 to 100,000 soldiers, including a large number of mounted horsemen. The Hun army swept Western Europe like a swarm of locusts (this is how the Latin chronicles describe the Huns) destroying the cities that they passed. Strasbourg, Worms, Mainz, Cologne, and others were sacked by the Huns. They did a thorough job of destroying eastern and central France—Paris was the only city that they spared.
The Roman General Flavius Aetius, who is often called “the last of the Romans,” raised a large Roman army, which consisted of a number of Gauls, Visigoths, and other Gothic tribes. Flavius’s army met Attila’s Huns on 20 June, 451 AD, in the Battle of the Catalaunian Plains.
Attila divided his forces into three parts—the strongest component, the Hun cavalry, was in the center, and the weaker allied groups were stationed at the flanks. Flavius kept his weakest forces in the center and stationed his strongest forces at the flanks—the Visigoths were stationed on the right, and the Romans and the Franks on the left. The Hun cavalry at the center of Attila’s formation attacked first. They charged deep into the center of the Roman formation and scattered it. It appeared as if the Roman army had been ripped into two. But the Huns had done exactly what Flavius had expected (and wanted) them to do. The Visigoths plowed into the right flank of the Hun army, while the Romans and Franks attacked from the left. The estimates of the dead vary between 165,000 to 300,000. Neither side conceded the battle. But Attila was forced to withdraw with his army.
A year later, in 452 AD, he attacked Italy with another large Hun army. It was during this invasion that Pope Leo I met Attila and convinced him to withdraw, for reasons that are unclear.
It is believed that the Huns came from the Russian steppes, but they might have come from the region of Central Asia that would give rise to Genghis Khan in the thirteenth century. Some historians have theorized that the Huns could have been one of the earlier Turkic tribes. The Hun language has not survived but there are historical records which indicate that they spoke an old form of Turkish. The name “Attila” could be of Turkic origin. In modern Turkey (and in Hungary), Attila is a revered figure. Attila is a popular name for men in Turkey and Hungary.
Ammianus Marcellinus, the fourth century Roman soldier and historian, has offered a savage image of the Huns in his writing. He says that instead of cooking their meat, the Huns used to place slices of meat under their saddles. When the meat got warmed by friction, they ate it. He talks about the Huns decorating their horses with the severed heads of their enemies and using the skulls of their enemies as drinking goblets. To describe the physical features of the Huns, Marcellinus has used terms like “wild”, “savage”, “compact”, “sturdy limbs”, and “thick necks.”