Attila the Hun: The Scourge of God - Demonic Savage or Inspired Leader?

  By Alexander Knights, 18 June 2007; Revised
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Attila the Hun rides into battle upon his horse
Attila the Hun rides into battle upon his horse

Clearly, the actions and values of Attila the Hun, the 5th Century AD barbarian that brought death and destruction upon the crumbling Roman Empire, point to him being a savage and demonic leader. The havoc that he wreaked throughout Europe led to him being self-dubbed[1] “The Scourge of God”. This pseudonym Attila was known by is symbolic of his manner of conquests, ruthless barbarity. Although Attila displayed savage acts of violence and cruelty in his campaigns, a sense of forgiveness, justice and inspiration is illustrated off the battleground. His centralisation of Hunnic authority and unification of the Hunnic tribes is unmatched by any of his predecessors. On the contrary, all sense of justice and respect is lost in Attila during battle and during the post-battle pillaging and looting commissioned by Attila; a further demonstration of his savage and barbaric qualities. In addition to this, when faced with a formidable opposition, Attila could not stand up to the pressure. He relied on terror tactics and fear alone for victory, which reverted back at him when this fear had been come to terms with by his opponents. This essay will demonstrate that Attila, despite the occasional instance of forgiveness and justice, was a demonic savage with one goal, as Jordanes states in “Getica”: “He was a man born into the world to shake the nations, the scourge of all lands, which in some way terrified all mankind by the dreadful rumours noised abroad concerning him”. Was Attila the demonic savage he is made out to be[2] by historians such as Jordanes, Gibbon and Priscus, or is he an inspired leader? Although the generalisation that Attila was wholly a savage barbarian is incorrect, it is important to keep in mind the legacy he left was one of a barbaric, cruel and unforgiving leader whose actions are the hallmark of a demonic savage. 
Firstly, Attila appears to show a side of respect, compassion and forgiveness, a reminder that even the most savage can have a brighter half. Upon reading Edward Gibbon’s “Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire”, one realises that “the politeness as well as hospitality [was reason for praise]…as he respected the laws of hospitality and generously entertained…the minister…who had conspired against his life”. After bribing Attila’s chief guard, Edecon, to assassinate Attila, Emperor Theodosius II’s chief minister, Chrysaphius, was betrayed and his plot revealed. Attila’s reaction, however, was surprising. As opposed to the expected execution of Chrysaphius, he was forgiven by Attila. This generous and forgiving spirit, so uncharacteristic of a cruel barbarian such as the likes of Attila, is firm evidence for the existence of a ‘good’ and just side of the Hunnic King. In his “Getica”, Jordanes describes Attila the Hun as a “lover of war”, but goes on to remedy this -not to make a generalisation- by saying “…yet restrained in action, mighty in council, gracious to suppliants and lenient to those received into his protection”. Jordanes is right, Attila was not solely a bloodthirsty ‘war-monger’, but opted for tribute over immediate war, as this gave him a sense of superiority and authority over his rivals[3]. Evidently, even Attila could show compassion, and in the most unexpected of times. For this reason, Attila the Hun clearly had good intentions, respect and mercy - characteristics of an inspired leader. 
Secondly, Attila the Hun’s most notable achievement, and, thus, indication of some success during his rule, was the strengthening of central authority among the Huns. Prior kings were content with shaky and portioned rule over the Hunnic tribes, and no unity could be established. Attila, however, managed to unify the Huns, affirming his position as sole ruler after Bleda’s death in 445AD. Especially notable about this unification was the quelling of uprisings against his autocratic rule. Attila used clever diplomacy and war to neutralise and subjugate the unsatisfied Amilzuri, Itimari, Tunsurcs and Boisci tribes. After establishing his capital on the bank of the Danube, in modern day Budapest, Hungary, Attila set out to further the interests of his people. As E.A Thompson in his “History of Attila and the Huns” exclaims, “Attila’s greatness lay in his remarkable insight into the potentialities of Hun society”. Attila could see the direction his people were going –downwards- , and reversed it, creating an institution to combat the tribal squabbling taking place. By putting his ideas into practice and without questioning too, Attila managed to organise the Huns into a formidable military force, as well as a firmly set society. A lot of Attila’s inspiration stems from the audacity of his uncle, King Rua of the Huns, 15 or so years prior. Rua had laid the foundations for Attila to put his idea of a centralised authority into place. It is these internal civil and social achievements of Attila that display attestation of an inspired leader. 
Thirdly, regardless of the compassion, justice and internal accomplishments of Attila, his demonic and savage characteristics are acutely visible over those few attributes he possessed of an inspired leader. Attila’s barbaric savagery is exemplified through his self dubbing of the title “The Scourge of God”. The ‘Scourge’ was an Ancient Roman type of whip, designed to inflict the most damage and pain possible on the victim. Attila dubbed himself the “Scourge of God” as he believed himself to be God’s whip to inflict as much pain and damage to the Western and Eastern Roman Empires as possible. This is then evident in the manner by which he carried out his campaigns against the Romans. He was ruthless and efficient, having “raided far and wide…imposing crushing tributes"[4]. The Romans used the Scourge primarily for punishment of parricide, the murder of an overruling or superior person. This can be likened to Attila’s brutal campaigns and military ventures, annihilating the omnipotent empire of Rome, as well as many neighbouring regions. An anonymous historian vividly describes Attila’s exploits upon approaching Italy; “he has laid waste with the most savage frenzy Thrace and Illyricum, Macedonia and Moesia, Achaia and Greece, Pannonia and Germany”. This is a blatant example of the destructive and ruthless nature of Attila the Hun, which deems him well suited to the title, “The Scourge of God”. Undoubtedly, Attila the Hun is a demonic savage because of the reflection of his title, “The Scourge of God”, on his true nature - that of a cruel and vulgar barbarian.  
Fourthly, Attila’s terror tactics and savage disposition were deemed useless when faced by a disciplined and sizeable foe, well versed in the tactics and warfare style of Attila. Attila’s campaigns through the Balkans saw him capture numerous settlements, razing them to the ground. He managed to penetrate the border defenses of the Eastern Roman Empire, and take further settlements in Northern Italy and Gaul. However, were his ventures the work of an inspired leader, a military genius of some sort? Upon closely scrutinising the military exploits of Attila against the cities and towns of Gaul and the Balkans, as well as against the Eastern Romans, plus other barbarian foes, it is evident that Attila the Hun does not face well disciplined or manned armies with poor morale and in awkward logistical positions. For example, the Battle of the Utus clearly displays Attila’s lack of genius. After ravaging through Roman Macedonia and Thrace, Attila faced the Eastern Romans in several indecisive battles, where the understrength Romans, mainly composed of foederati[5], managed to lock Attila’s forces in a stalemate. The final and decisive battle at the River Utus came as a shock to the ignorant and cocky Attila. The Romans had reinforced the mercenaries with fresh kataphraktoi -heavily armoured horseman- and mounted archers to combat the Hunnic equivalent. The Huns were soundly annihilated, leaving Attila dumbfounded. A similar situation occurred at the Siege of Orleans in Southern Gaul. Attila had destroyed most of the defenses, and overwhelmed the garrison with his superior army. However, on the horizon appeared the armies of Flavius Aetius and Theodoric. The Hunnic King promptly lifted the siege and fled north to Central Gaul on the Catalunian Plains. Here, at the Battle of Chalons, Attila’s huge army of Huns was defeated by the disciplined and well led forces of Romans and Goths. This is testament to Attila’s inability to withstand the pressure of formidable foe, further evidence that his terror tactics and barbarous savagery were not suffice, despite their effects on the morale stricken and undisciplined mercenaries and garrisons. Attila the Hun was not an inspired leader, merely a demonic savage able only to exercise terror and fear over his opponents. 
Fifthly, the barbarity and savagery employed in battle and warfare by Attila is second to none of Rome’s enemies throughout history. Attila’s method was simple and very effective against undisciplined and low morale foes: to terrorise the surrounding lands and armies, as a warning to others. The fear invoked by the Hunnic horde ravaging through the countryside completely sapped spirit from all who opposed him. English historian, Edward Gibbon, talks of Attila’s twisted desire for war, explaining how “he wished to enjoy the terror which he inspired"[6]. Part of Attila’s terror tactics was to strike fear into the enemy by tying severed enemies’ heads and skulls to his men’s saddles. Furthermore, Gibbon talks of the Huns screaming and wailing into battle, surely a bloodcurdling sight for even the bravest warrior. Attila’s foremost tactic was to use hit and run tactics, incorporating a feigned retreat, taking full advantage of his mobile missile cavalry. Initially, this brought him great success, but repetition was its flaw. Aetius countered Attila’s feigned retreat, as well as the monumental impact that terror tactics had on enemy soldiers. Through discipline and charisma, Aetius lifted the spirits of his troops, thus, neutralising the effects of the Huns savagery. Furthermore, Attila was outdone by Aetius’s allies, the Visigothic Paladin heavy cavalry and light Alans cavalry[7]. The barbaric savagery that worked so effectively initially for Attila, for example at the Sieges of Reims, Strasbourg and Trier, was eventually undone due to his inability to adapt. Clearly, Attila was not an inspired leader, but, merely, an unadaptable demonic savage versed in only terror and barbarity.  
Sixthly, Attila’s true brutality is demonstrated succeeding a siege or battle when he has free reign to pillage, plunder, sack, and all the rights of a conqueror over the vanquished. This is exemplified no better than during his campaigns in Gaul during 451AD. Edward Gibbon recounts Attila’s exploits in Gaul, destroying over 70 cities, stating “cities…were reduced into heaps of stones and ashes…exposed to the rapacious cruelty of the Huns"[8]. Discontent with solely razing the settlement to the ground, Attila went on to pillage and plunder, and torture and abuse the surviving populace. An anonymous historian puts this rather ineloquently, saying Attila was, “utterly cruel in inflicting torture, greedy in plundering, insolent in abuse”. In fact, so proud of the savagery and cruelness of their ruler’s conquests, the Huns would sing songs dedicated to Attila and his barbaric victories[9]. The fear Attila spread throughout the Roman Empire and entire western world was incredible, and Gibbon illustrates the famous, or, rather, infamous reputation of Attila among the Romans, “the name of Attila was familiar and formidable at Constantinople”. Attila the Hun’s demonic savagery is excellently demonstrated in the post-battle or siege actions he and his army took. The rape, torture, abuse, pillaging, sacking and burning of so many settlements is a testament to the barbarity of this cruel and bloodthirsty warlord. Attila the Hun was, beyond doubt, a demonic savage, bent on destruction and obliteration of those who did not submit to him, such as those foes who succumbed to his forces in Gaul. 
In conclusion, the barbarous and sadistic exploits of Attila the Hun leave one with no other option but to view him as a demonic savage. Attila did possess an extent of compassion and forgiveness, and did benefit his people by unifying the Huns. Regardless, the atrocity of Attila on campaign, both during and after battle, in combination with the fear he wreaked through Europe, makes him most deserving of the title, “The Scourge of God”. Attila the Hun, in his decade of military ventures, managed to contribute more to the fall of the Western Roman Empire than any other figure, seen as the most formidable enemy of the Empire (A.E.R Boak, 1966). However, the brutality and truculence of Attila indicates, unquestionably, that Attila the Hun was a demonic savage, not an inspired leader.  

Primary Sources
Jordanes, Getica in Davis, W.S, trans., Readings in Ancient History: Illustrative Extracts from the Sources, 2 Vols., (Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1912-19130), p.322 
Priscus, History of Byzantium, in Gordon, C.D, trans., The Age of Attila: Fifth-Century Byzantium and the Barbarians. (Toronto: Ambassador Books Limited, 1966)  
Prosper, Chronicle in Robinson, J.H, trans., Readings in European History. (Boston: Ginn, 1905), pp.49-51 
Secondary Sources
Anonymous, in Robinson, J.H, trans., Readings in European History. (Boston: Ginn, 1905), pp.49-51 
Christensen, S., Cassiodorus and Jordanes and the History of the Goths. (Copenhagen: Museum Tusculaneum Press, 2002) 
Dupuy, R.E., The Harper Encyclopedia of Military History: From 3500B.C to the Present. (HarperCollins, 1994) 
Fields, N., The Hun. Scourge of God AD 375 - 565. (Oxford: Osprey Publishing Ltd., 2006) pp.10-27, pp.53-59 
Gibbon, E., The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. (London: John Murray, 1881), Vol.IV, ChXXXIV, ChXXXV pp.191-248 
Gordon, C.D., The Age of Attila: Fifth-Century Byzantium and the Barbarians. (Toronto: Ambassador Books Limited, 1966)  
Grant, R.G., Battle: A visual journey through 5,000 years of combat. (London: Dorling Kindersley Limited, 2005) p.51 
Howarth, P., Attila: King of the Huns (London: Constable and Company United, 1994) 
Nardo, D., The End of Ancient Rome. (San Diego: Greenhaven Press, 2001) pp.73-80 
Perowne, S., The end of the Roman World. (New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1966)
Thompson, E.A., A History of Attila and the Huns. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1948), pp.9-14, pp.205-215 
“Dining with Attila the Hun, 448”, Eyewitness to History, <> (2003) Retrieved 13/6/07 
“The Huns”, Invictus, <> (2001) Retrieved 17/5/07 
“Attila, King of The Huns”, Timeline Index, <> Retrieved 18/6/07 
“Attila King of the Hun”, Boglewood Corp, <> (2004) Retrieved 17/6/07 

Priscus, "At the court of Attila” (History of Byzantium) - Evaluative Review
Priscus was a Greek historian who lived in the 5th century AD, during the time of Attila. He accompanied the Eastern Roman ambassador, Maxim, to the court of Attila in 448AD. This means he is the only surviving eyewitness source on Attila the Hun. This increases the credibility of Priscus’s work because he gives an eyewitness account, however, he was a representative of the enemy, and, thus, Roman bias must be accounted for when using his work. Furthermore, Priscus strictly followed Greek historian’s convention, giving only vague descriptions of military and migrational/logistical matters. This limits the extent of information to which we can gather about Attila, but does not really limit the source’s accuracy. Other than through eyewitness account, Priscus gathered information from interviewing eyewitnesses, speeches, pamphlets and poems. All of these are liable to contain bias, as eyewitnesses may distort events to their view, speeches and pamphlets would have been pro-Roman, possibly even anti-Attila propaganda, and poetic licence could get in the way of facts and accuracy. He shows a rather lack of Roman/Greek bias, and even shows tendencies of bias towards the Huns and Attila during his meeting at Attila’s court. All in all, Priscus was very useful as he gives an astute description of Hunnic society and Attila, from a first hand point of view.

References and Notes:
  1. ^ Anonymous. Trans J.H Robinson, in European History
  2. ^ Jordanes, Ch.38. Gibbon, Ch.XXXV. Priscus, History of Byzantium
  3. ^ Invictus, <> Retrieved 17/5/07
  4. ^ C.D Gordon, “”, p.viii
  5. ^ Foederati is a generic term for peoples not under Roman control or possessing Roman citizenship, but vassals expected to provide the Empire with contingents of soldiers. In this case, it is referring to the Gothic mercenaries of the Eastern Romans
  6. ^ Gibbon, E. , Ch.XXXIV
  7. ^ Two thirds of Aetius’s army was in fact allies and mercenaries. Theodore the Visigoth contributed his elite heavy cavalry along with other infantry and cavalry, while the Alans mercenary cavalry could match the Hunnic mounted bowmen in manoeuvrability and speed
  8. ^ Gibbon, E. . Ch.XXXV
  9. ^ Priscus. . fr, 8, 236