Thursday, March 15, 2007

The Scourge of God


Attila, king of the Huns, known as the "Scourge of God," died on this day in 453 around the age of 47.

For hundreds of years, the mysterious Huns, a nomadic tribe from the Asian steppes, had been chipping away at the fringes of the Roman Empire, and the terrible cavalry invasions of the Huns under the leadership of Ruga during the early 400s were so successful that Rome paid an annual tribute to the Huns to keep themselves safe from further attacks.

After the death of his uncle Ruga in 437, Attila and his brother Bleda jointly assumed the kingship of the Huns, Bleda handling the government administration and Attila leading the military through invasions of much of modern-day Hungary, Greece, Spain and Italy -- destroying Sofia and Belgrade and leaving their riverbanks covered with human bones.

Attila was much more aggressive and unpredictable than his uncle, and his looks and bearing alone inspired fear in both his enemies and his subordinates: he had a disproportionately large head, swarthy complexion and fierce eyes which his own generals could not look directly into without shuddering. In 445, Attila executed his pesky brother and ruled the Huns by himself under his iron fist. Initially, in order to avoid further incursions, the Byzantines and the Romans each sought to appease Attila in their own ways: the Romans named him as one of their own generals and gave him a stipend, and Byzantine emperor Theodosius II acceded to Attila’s frivolous requests for increases in the tribute payments from 350 pounds of gold to 700 to 2,100 pounds per year. With his earnings, Attila lived a luxurious, somewhat decadent lifestyle, drinking excessively, carousing with his multiple wives and even indulging in cannibalism (according to medieval tabloids).

Finally in 450, the Byzantines began to tire of paying homage to Attila, and Theodosius II plotted to assassinate Attila. Attila quickly discovered the plot, and prepared to attack the Byzantines; however, the sister of Roman emperor Valentinian III, Honoria, sought Attila’s protection after having being caught in an affair with her servant against her family’s wishes, sending her ring to Attila and promising him half the Roman Empire if he would come and rescue her from imprisonment. Attila changed his plans and turned to the Roman Empire to demand his bounty as a matter of right. Although he was repelled in Gaul by the Roman general Flavius Aetius at the Battle of Chalons (451), Attila regrouped somewhat and turned his attack directly on Italy in 452, ravaging Aquilea, Milan and Padua until he was met by Pope Leo I near Mantua. Leo I threatened Attila with the wrath of St. Peter if he were to approach Rome, and Attila -- perhaps short of supplies and fearing that the Byzantines were coming after him, perhaps realizing that Honoria probably wasn’t worth the trouble -- turned tail and returned to the Great Hungarian Plain to take another young wife, Ildico.

After a mighty wedding feast, Attila retired to the bridal chamber, dead drunk, and his nose began to bleed. By the next morning, he had either bled or choked to death. Within 20 years or so, Attila’s empire was in ruins, disintegrating without the personality of its ruthless leader to keep it intact.

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