, German, Etzel,
king of the Huns, remarkable as being the most formidable of the invaders of the Roman empire, and (except Radagaisus) the only one of them who was not only a barbarian, but a savage and a heathen, and as the only conqueror of ancient or modern times who has united under his rule the German and Sclavonic nations.
He was the son of Mundzuk, descended from the ancient kings of the Huns, and with his brother Bleda, in German Blödel
(who died, according to Jornandes, by his hand, in A. D. 445), attained in A. D. 434 to the sovereignty of all the northern tribes between the frontier of Gaul and the frontier of China (see Desguignes, Hist. des Huns,
vol. ii. pp. 295-301), and to the command of an army of at least 500,000 barbarians. (Jornandes, Reb. Get.
cc. 35, 37, 49.)
In this position, partly from the real terror which it inspired, partly from his own endeavours to invest himself in the eyes of Christendom with the dreadful character of the predicted Antichrist (see Herbert, Attila,
p. 360), and in the eyes of his own countrymen with the invincible attributes attendant on the possessor of the miraculous sword of the Scythian god of war (Jornandes, Reb. Get.
35), he gradually concentrated upon himself the awe and fear of the whole ancient world, which ultimately expressed itself by affixing to his name the well-known epithet of "the Scourge of God."
The word seems to have been used generally at the time to denote the barbarian invaders, but it is not applied directly to Attila in any author prior to the Hungarian Chronicles, which first relate the story of his receiving the name from a hermit in Gaul.
The earliest contemporary approaches to it are in a passage in Isidore's Chronicle, speaking of the Huns as "virga Dei," and in an inscription at Aquileia, written a short time before the siege in 451 (see Herbert, Attila,
p. 486), in which they are described as "imminentia peccatorum flagella."
His career divides itself into two parts.
The first (A. D. 445-450) consists of the ravage of the Eastern empire between the Euxine and the Adriatic and the negotiations with Theodosius II., which followed upon it, and which were rendered remarkable by the resistance of Azimus (Priscus, cc. 35, 36), by the embassy from Constantinople to the royal village beyond the Danube, and the discovery of the treacherous design of the emperor against his life. (Ib. 37-72.) They were ended by a treaty which ceded to Attila a large territory south of the Danube, an annual tribute, and the claims which he made for the surrender of the deserters from his army. (Ib. 34-37.)
The invasion of the Western empire (A. D. 450-453) was grounded on various pretexts, of which the chief were the refusal of the Eastern emperor, Marcian, the successor of Theodosius II., to pay the above-mentioned tribute (Priscus, 39, 72), and the rejection by the Western emperor Valentinian III. of his proposals of marriage to his sister Honoria. (Jornandes, Regn. Succ.
97, Reb. Get.
42.) Its particular direction was determined by his alliance with the Vandals and Franks, whose dominion in Spain and Gaul was threatened by Aetius and Theodoric.
With an immense army composed of various nations, he crossed the Rhine at Strasburg, which is said to have derived its name from his having made it a place of thoroughfare (Klemm, Attila,
p. 175), and marched upon Orleans. From hence he was driven, by the arrival of Aetius, to the plains of Chalons on the Marne, where he was defeated in the last great battle ever fought by the Romans, and in which there fell 252,000 (Jornandes, Reb. Get.
42) or 300,000 men. (Idatius and Isidore.)
He retired by way of Troyes, Cologne, and Thuringia, to one of his cities on the Danube, and having there recruited his forces, crossed the Alps in A. D. 451, laid siege to Aquileia, then the second city in Italy, and at length took and utterly destroyed it.
After ravaging the whole of Lombardy, he was then preparing to march upon Rome, when he was suddenly diverted from his purpose, partly perhaps by the diseases which had begun to waste his army, partly by the fear instilled into his mind that he, like Alaric, could not survive an attack upon the city, but ostensibly and chiefly by his celebrated interview with Pope Leo the Great and the senator Avienus at Peschiera or Governolo on the banks of the Mincius. (Jornandes, Reb. Get.
The story of the apparition of St. Peter and St. Paul rests on the authority of an ancient MS. record of it in the Roman church, and on Paulus Diaconus, who wrote in the eighth century, and who mentions only St. Peter. (Baronius, Ann. Eccl.
A. D. 452.)
He accordingly returned to his palace beyond the Danube, and (if we except the doubtful story in Jornandes, de Reb. Get.
43, of his invasion of the Alani and repulse by Thorismund) there remained till on the night of his marriage with a beautiful girl, variously named Hilda, Ildico, Mycolth, the last of his innumerable wives, possibly by her hand (Marcellin. Chronicon),
but probably by the bursting of a blood-vessel, he suddenly expired, and was buried according to the ancient and savage customs of his nation. (A. D. 454.)
The instantaneous fall of his empire is well symbolized in the story that, on that same night, the emperor Marcian at Constantinople dreamed that he saw the bow of Attila broken asunder. (Jornandes, Reb. Get.
In person Attila was, like the Mongolian race in general, a short thickset man, of stately gait, with a large head, dark complexion, flat nose, thin beard, and bald with the exception of a few white hairs, his eyes small, but of great brilliancy and quickness. (Jornandes, Reb. Get.
11; Priscus, 55.)
He is distinguished from the general character of savage conquerors only by the gigantic nature of his designs, and the critical era at which he appeared, --unless we add also the magnanimity which he shewed to the innocent ambassador of Theodosius II. on discovering the emperor's plot against his life, and the awe with which he was inspired by the majesty of Pope Leo and of Rome. Among the few personal traits recorded of him may be mentioned the humorous order to invert the picture at Milan which represented the subjugation of the Scythians to the Caesars (Suidas, s. v. Κόρυκος
); the command to burn the poem of Marullus at Padua, who had referred his origin to the gods of Greece and Rome (Hungarian Chronicles, as quoted by Herbert. Attila,
p. 500); the readiness with which he saw in the flight of the storks from Aquileia a favourable omen for the approaching end of the siege (Jornandes, Reb. Get.
42; Procop. Bell. Vand.
1.4); the stern simplicity of his diet, and the immoveable gravity which he alone maintained amiidst the uproar of his wild court, unbending only to caress and pinch the check of his favourite boy, Irnac (Priscus, 49-70); the preparation of the funeral pile on which to burn himself, had the Romans forced his camp at Chalons (Jornandes, Reb. Get.
40); the saying, that no fortress could exist in the empire, if he wished to raze it; and the speech at Chalons, recorded by Jornandes (Reb. Get.
39), which contains parts too characteristic to have been forged.
The only permanent monuments of his career, besides its destructiveness, are to be found in the great mound which he raised for the defence of his army during the siege of Aquileia, and which still remains at Udine (Herbert, Attila,
p. 489); and indirectly in the foundation of Venice by the Italian nobles who fled from his ravages in A. D. 451.
The partial descent of the Hungarians from the remnant of his army, though maintained strenuously by Hungarian historians, has been generally doubted by later writers, as resting on insufficient evidence.
The chief historical authority for his life is Priscus, either as preserved in Excerpt. de Legat.
33-76 (in the Byzantine historians), or retailed to us through Jornandes. (Reb. Get.
But he has also become the centre of three distinct cycles of tradition, which, though now inseparably blended with fable, furnish glimpses of historical truth.
1. The Hungarian Legends.
These are to be found in the life of him by Dalmatinus and Nicolaus Olahus, the Enneads of Sabellicus and the Decads of Bonfinius,--none of which are earlier, in their present form, than the twelfth century.
2. The Ecclesiastical Legends.
These relate to his invasion of Gaul, and which are to be found in the lives of St. Anianus, St. Servatius, St. Genovefa, St. Lupus, and St. Ursula, in the Acta Sanetorum.
3. The German Legends.
These depart more entirely from history, and are to be found in the Nibelungen Lied, in a Latin poem on Attila, published by Fischer, and, as Mr. Herbert supposes (p. 536), in the romances about Arthur.
See also W. Grimm's Heldensayen.
In modern works, a short account is given in Gibbon (cc. 34, 35), Rotteck (in Ersch and Gruber's Encyclopädie
), and a most elaborate one in the notes to Mr. Herbert's poem of Attila,
1838, and in Klemm's Attila,
1827. Comp. J. v. Milller, Attila der Held des fünften Jarh.