By Dr Peter Heather
Last updated 2011-02-17
Attila ruled the Hunnic Empire from 440 to 453 AD, first with his brother Bleda, then alone after he had Bleda murdered. A first-hand account of Atilla by the Roman historian Priscus tells us that he was intelligent and extremely modest in his dress, although capable of violent outbursts of anger.
He ruled at the height of Hunnic power, when the dominant Huns had gathered under their control many of the Roman Empire's Germanic neighbours: Goths, Gepids, Rugi, Heruli and others. Attila set his huge war machine loose from the Great Hungarian Plain on two major campaigns against the eastern Empire in 442 and 447 AD, taking many of the major cities of the Balkans and defeating the imperial armies in open battle.
The huge booty he extracted was supplemented by an annual subsidy from Constantinople of 2000lbs of gold. This wealth shows up in a string of fabulously rich burials of the Hunnic era, found in central Europe. In 451 and 452 AD, he turned westwards, attacking Gaul and Italy respectively. Again, these were not wars of conquest, but raids to extract wealth. Neither was completely successful.
Attila retreated from Gaul after defeat at the Catalaunian Plains and from Italy when his army was ravaged by disease. He died on the latest of many wedding nights in 453 AD, apparently from a hemorrhage. On his death, his sons quarrelled over succession and the Germanic subject peoples took the opportunity to reassert their independence. This destroyed Hunnic power and in 469 AD Attila's only surviving son, Hernac, himself sought asylum in the eastern Empire.