Huns in Italy – Death of Attila

Attila lost little time in seeking to take revenge for the unexpected blow which had been dealt him. He again came forward as the champion of the Augusta Honoria, claiming her as his affianced bride, and invaded Italy in the following year (A.D. 452). Aquileia, the city of the Venetian march, now fell before the Huns, and was razed to the ground, never to rise again: in the next century hardly a trace of it could be seen. Verona and Vicentia did not share this fate, but they were exposed to the violence of the invader, while Ticinum and Mediolanum were compelled to purchase exemption from fire and sword.

Attila, the Scourge of God, by Ulpiano Checa, 1887

The path of Attila was now open to Rome. Aetius, with whatever forces he could muster, might hang upon his line of march, but was not strong enough to risk a battle. But the lands south of the Po, and Rome herself, were spared the presence of the Huns. According to tradition, the thanks of Italy were on this occasion due not to Aetius, but to Leo, the bishop of Rome. The Emperor, who was at Rome, sent Leo and two leading senators, Avienus and Trygetius, to negotiate with the invader. Trygetius had diplomatic experience; he had negotiated the treaty with Gaiseric in A.D. 435. Leo was an imposing figure, and the story gives him the credit for having persuaded Attila to retreat. He was supported by celestial beings; the apostles Peter and Paul are said to have appeared to Attila and by their threats terrified him into leaving the soil of Italy.

The fact of the embassy cannot be doubted. The distinguished ambassadors visited the Huns’ camp near the south shore of Lake Garda. It is also certain that Attila suddenly retreated. But we are at a loss to know what considerations were offered him to induce him to depart. It is unreasonable to suppose that this heathen king would have cared for the thunders or persuasions of the Church. The Emperor refused to surrender Honoria, and it is not recorded that money was paid. A trustworthy chronicle hands down another account which does not conflict with the fact that an embassy was sent, but evidently furnishes the true reasons which moved Attila to receive it favourably. Plague broke out in the barbarian host and their food ran short, and at the same time troops arrived from the east, sent by Marcian to the aid of Italy. If his host was suffering from pestilence, and if troops arrived from the east, we can understand that Attila was forced to withdraw. But, whatever terms were arranged, he did not pretend that they meant a permanent peace. The question of Honoria was left unsettled, and he threatened that he would come again and do worse things in Italy unless she were given up with the due portion of the imperial possessions.

Death of Attila and the Collapse of the Empire

Attila survived his Italian expedition only one year. His attendants found him dead one morning, and the bride whom he had married the day before sitting beside his bed in tears. His death was ascribed to the bursting of an artery, but it was also rumoured that he had been slain by the woman in his sleep.

With the death of Attila, the Empire of the Huns, which had no natural cohesion, was soon scattered to the winds. Among the dead king’s numerous children there was none of commanding ability, none who had the strength to remove his brothers and step into his father’s place. Hence the sons proposed to divide the inheritance into portions. This was the opportunity of their German vassals, who did not choose to allow themselves to be allotted to various masters like herds of cattle. The rebellion was led by Ardaric, the Gepid, Attila’s chief adviser. In Pannonia near the river Nedao another battle of the nations was fought, and the coalition of German vassals—Gepids, Ostrogoths, Rugians, Heruls, and the rest—utterly defeated the host of their Hun lords (A.D. 454). 

Death of Attila, Hermann Knackfuß (1873)

This cardinal event led to considerable changes in the geographical distribution of the barbarian peoples. The Huns themselves were scattered far and wide. Some remained in the west, but the greater part of them fled to the regions north of the lower Danube, where we shall presently find them, under two of Attila’s sons, playing a part in the troubled history of the Thracian provinces. The Gepids extended their power over the whole of Dacia (Siebenburgen), along with the plains between the Theiss and the Danube which had been the habitation of the Huns. The Emperor Marcian was deeply interested in the new disposition of the German nations, and his diplomacy aimed at arranging them in such a way that they would mutually check each other. He seems to have made an alliance with the Gepids which proved exceptionally permanent. He assigned to the Ostrogoths settlements in northern Pannonia, as federates of the Empire. The Rugians found new abodes on the north banks of the Danube, opposite to Noricum, where they also were for some years federates of Rome. The Scirians settled farther east, and were the northern neighbours and foes of the Ostrogoths in Pannonia; and the Heruls found territory in the same vicinity—perhaps between the Scirians and Rugians. But from all these peoples there was a continual flow into the Roman Empire of men seeking military service. In the depopulated provinces of Illyricum and Thrace there was room and demand for new settlers. Rugians were settled in Bizye and Arcadiopolis; Scirians in Lower Moesia.

The battle of the Nedao was an arbitrament far more momentous than the battle of Troyes. The catastrophe of the Hun power was indeed inevitable, for the social fabric of the Huns and all their social instincts were opposed to the concentration and organisation which could alone maintain the permanence of their empire. But it was not the less important that the catastrophe arrived at this particular moment—important both for the German peoples and for the Empire. Although the Hunnic power disappeared, at one stroke, into the void from which it had so suddenly arisen, we shall see, if we reflect for a moment, that it affected profoundly the course of history. The invasion of the nomads in the fourth century had precipitated the Visigoths from Dacia into the Balkan peninsula, had led to the disaster of Hadrianople, and may be said to have determined the whole chain of Visigothic history. But, apart from this special consequence of the Hun invasion, the Hun empire performed a function of much greater significance in European history. It helped to retard the whole process of the German dismemberment of the Empire. It did this in two ways: in the first place, by controlling many of the East German peoples beyond the Danube, from whom the Empire had most to fear; and in the second place by constantly supplying Roman generals with auxiliaries who proved an invaluable resource in the struggle with the German enemies. The devastations which some of the Roman provinces suffered from the Huns in the last years of Theodosius II. and Valentinian III. must be esteemed a loss which was more than set off by the support which Hunnic arms had for many years lent to the Empire, especially if we consider that, as subsequent events showed, the Germans would have committed the same depredations if the Huns had not been there. This retardation of the process of dismemberment, enabling the imperial government to maintain itself for a longer period in those lands which were destined ultimately to become Teutonic kingdoms, was all in the interest of civilisation; for the Germans, who in almost all cases were forced to establish their footing on imperial territory as federates, and who then by degrees converted this dependent relation into independent sovranty, were more likely to gain some faint apprehension of Roman order, some slight taste for Roman civilisation, than if their careers of conquest had been less gradual and impeded.

(Source: “The Invasion of Europe By the Barbarians”, by Bury, J.B.)

Research-Selection for NovoScriptorium: Anastasius Philoponus

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