In the 5th century, the migration of warlike Germanic tribes across northern Europe culminated in the destruction of the Roman Empire in the west. That much is relatively well known, but the “why”, is not. What would a people so fearsome that they brought down an empire, have been trying to get away from?
The Roman Empire was split in two in the 5th century and ruled by two separate governments. Ravenna, in northern Italy, became capital to the Western Roman Empire in 402, and would remain so until the final collapse in 476. Constantinople, seat of the Byzantine empire and destined to become modern day Istanbul, ruled in the East.
Vast populations moved westward from Germania during the early fifth century, and into Roman territories in the west and south. They were Alans and Vandals, Suebi, Goths, and Burgundians. There were others as well, crossing the Rhine and the Danube and entering Roman Gaul. They came not in conquest: that would come later. These tribes were fleeing the Huns: a people so terrifying that whole tribes agreed to be disarmed, in exchange for the protection of Rome.
Rome itself had mostly friendly relations with the Hunnic Empire, which stretched from modern day Germany in the west, to Turkey and most of Ukraine in the east. The Huns were nomads, mounted warriors whose main weapons were the bow and javelin. Huns frequently acted as mercenary soldiers, paid to fight on behalf of Rome.
Rome looked at such payments as just compensation for services rendered. The Huns looked at them as tribute, tokens of Roman submission to the Hunnic Empire.
Nestorius, Patriarch of Constantinople, described Rome’s Hun problem, succinctly. “They have become both masters and slaves of the Romans”.
Relations were strained between the two powers in the time of the Hunnic King Rugila, as his nephew the future King Attila, came of age.
Rugila’s death in 434 left the sons of his brother Mundzuk, Attila and Bleda, in control of the united Hunnic tribes. The brothers negotiated a treaty with Emperor Theodosius of Constantinople the following year, giving him time to strengthen the city’s defenses. This included building the first sea wall, a structure the city would be forced to defend a thousand years later in the Islamic conquest of 1453, but that is a story for another day.
The priest of the Greek church Callinicus wrote what happened next, in his “Life of Saint Hypatius”. “The barbarian nation of the Huns, which was in Thrace, became so great that more than a hundred cities were captured and Constantinople almost came into danger and most men fled from it. … And there were so many murders and blood-lettings that the dead could not be numbered. Ay, for they took captive the churches and monasteries and slew the monks and maidens in great numbers“.
Bleda died sometime in 445, leaving Attila the sole King of the Huns. Relations with the Western Roman Empire had been relatively friendly, for a time. That changed in 450 when Justa Grata Honoria, sister of Emperor Valentinian, wanted to escape a forced marriage to the former consul Herculanus. Honoria sent the eunuch Hyacinthus with a note to King Attila, asking him to intervene on her behalf. She enclosed her ring in token of the message’s authenticity, which Attila took to be an offer of marriage.
Valentinian was furious with his sister. Only the influence of their mother Galla Placidia convinced him to exile rather than have her put to death, while he frantically wrote to Attila saying it was all a misunderstanding.
The King of the Huns wasn’t buying it, and sent an emissary to Ravenna, to claim what was his. Attila demanded delivery of his “bride”, along with half the empire, as dowry.
In 451, Attila gathered his vassals and began a march to the west. The Hunnic force was estimated to be half a million strong, though the number is probably exaggerated. The Romans hurriedly gathered an army to oppose them, while the Huns sacked the cities of Mainz, Worms and Strasbourg. Trier and Metz fell in quick succession, as did Cologne, Cambrai, and Orleans.
The Roman army, allied with the Visigothic King Theodoric I, finally stopped the army of Attila at the Battle of the Catalaunian Plains, near Chalons. Some sources date the Battle of Chalons at June 20, 451, others at September 20. Even the outcome of the battle is open to interpretation. Sources may be found to support the conclusion that it was a Roman, a Gothic or a Hunnic victory.
Apparently a Pyrrhic victory, Chalons was one of the last major military operations of the Roman Empire in the west. The Roman alliance had stopped the Hunnic invasion in Gaul, but the military capacity of Roman and Visigoth, both, was destroyed. The Hunnic Empire was dismantled by a coalition of Germanic vassals at the Battle of Nedau, in 454.
Attila would return to sack much of Italy in 452, this time razing Aquileia so completely that no trace of it was left behind. Legend has it that Venice was founded at this time, when local residents fled the Huns, taking refuge in the marshes and islands of the Venetian Lagoon.
Attila died the following year at a wedding feast, celebrating his marriage to the young Ostrogoth, Ildico. The King of the Huns died in a drunken stupor, suffering a massive nosebleed or possibly esophageal bleeding. The Hunnic Empire died along with Attila the Hun, as he choked to death on his own blood.