In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Attila And The Huns

  • Introduction
  • The Late Roman Empire and the Fall of the Western Roman Empire
  • The Barbarian Invasions
  • Primary Sources
  • Encyclopedias
  • The Huns
  • Attila and the Huns
  • Hun Encounters with the Eastern Roman Empire
  • Diplomatic Relations with the Roman Empire
  • Warfare and Military Engagements
  • The Huns Beyond the Imperial Frontiers
  • The Huns and Pannonia
  • Material Culture
  • Social, Cultural, Religious, and Economic Implications of the Huns
  • Prosopography
  • The Death of Attila
  • The End of the Hun Empire
  • Modern Metaphors

Medieval Studies Attila And The Huns
Ralph W. Mathisen
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 June 2016
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 June 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396584-0203


For Romans in the late 4th century CE and the first half of the 5th century CE, the Huns easily were the most fearsome of all the barbarian peoples. They were exceptional horse archers who were believed to live their lives on horseback. They set in motion movements of barbarian peoples that have been blamed for causing the end of the western Roman Empire in 480 CE. The Hun leader par excellence was Attila, who ruled from 434 until his death in 453. Mobilizing a shrewd mixture of terror, military might, and diplomatic subtlety, Attila created a short-lived barbarian empire that stretched from the Baltic Sea to Mongolia. Attila’s “horde” incorporated barbarian peoples that came to be known as the Ostrogoths, Alans, Rugians, Gepids, and Heruls. Under Attila, the Huns terrified the eastern Roman Empire during the 440s CE and extracted tons of gold in tribute. In 451, Attila invaded the western Roman Empire, and in one of the greatest upsets of all time the undefeated Huns were repulsed by a Roman-barbarian coalition led by the Roman Master of Soldiers Flavius Aëtius, sometimes described as “the last of the Romans.” Attila died mysteriously on his wedding night in 453, and his empire immediately collapsed. His subject peoples scattered and, if anything, caused the Romans even greater problems than they had had dealing with Attila himself. In Christian ideology, Attila became known as the “Scourge of God” for his perceived role in punishing sinful Christians. Attila also went down in later Germanic legend as a barbarian leader par excellence. In the modern day, nearly everyone is familiar with an image of Attila the Hun, and he remains one of the most recognizable figures from antiquity. Attila now serves as a metaphor for everything from barbarism versus civilization to a “take-no-prisoners” approach to business dealings.

The Late Roman Empire and the Fall of the Western Roman Empire

The arrival of the Huns in Europe is forever associated with one of the most significant events in world history, the fall of the western Roman Empire, variously dated to 476 CE, when the usurper Romulus, the last emperor to reside in Rome, was deposed, or 480 CE, at the death of Julius Nepos, the last legitimate western emperor. The first English writer to look comprehensively at the fall of the Roman Empire was Edward Gibbon (Gibbon 1974, originally published 1776–1789). In the early 20th century Bury 1923 was for a long time considered the standard account of the late Roman Empire after 395. Since that time, a multitude of works, including Moorhead 2001 and Mitchell 2007, also have discussed the late Roman Empire and the fall of the west, which in the modern day has become a metaphor for the fall of other empires, such as the British Empire and now the American Empire. The two primary models for understanding the fall of the western empire are what has been dubbed the “catastrophe model,” as portrayed in Heather 2005, Heather 1995, and Ward-Perkins 2005, which blames barbarians, often from outside the Roman Empire, for a loss of economic prosperity, material destruction, and even the end of civilization, and the “transformation model,” as manifested in Mathisen and Shanzer 2011, which sees the barbarian settlement as a generally peaceful infiltration in the context of existing imperial structures without momentous cultural disruptions.

  • Bury, John B. History of the Later Roman Empire from the Death of Theodosius I to the Death of Justinian (A.D. 395 to A.D. 565). 2d ed. London: Macmillan, 1923.

    A classic account of the late Roman and early Byzantine Empire focusing on political, ecclesiastical, and military history.

  • Gibbon, Edward. History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. 7 vols. Edited by J. B. Bury. New York: AMS, 1974.

    The first English-language comprehensive study of the fall of the Roman Empire, covering the period from the 3rd century CE until the fall of Constantinople in 1453 CE. Simplistically describes the decline and fall of the western Roman Empire as “the triumph of barbarism and religion” (vol. 7, pp. 308–309), that is, blaming the fall on barbarian invasions and the rise of Christianity. The Guttenberg Project 1996–1997 online edition of the revised 1845 edition is available online. First published 1776–1788.

  • Heather, Peter. “The Huns and the End of the Roman Empire in Western Europe.” The English Historical Review 110.435 (1995): 4–41.

    DOI: 10.1093/ehr/CX.435.4

    Proposes to give an unacknowledged coherence to the role of the barbarians in the fall of the western Roman Empire, with a concentration on the Huns. A proponent of the “catastrophe model” for the fall of the western Roman empire, stating, “There is still not the slightest sign that the Empire would have collapsed under its own weight” (p. 39). Suggests a domino effect in which “The most important effect of the Huns was to make sufficient numbers of these new Germanic powers, which were not themselves politically united, act in a sufficiently similar way at broadly the same time . . . The Huns induced too many of these more substantial groups to cross the frontier in too short a space of time for the Roman for the Roman state to be able to deal with them effectively” (p. 41). Concludes that the Huns “set in motion processes which generated . . . a new political order in western Europe” (p. 41).

  • Heather, Peter. The Fall of the Roman Empire: A New History of Rome and the Barbarians. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005.

    Expands at much greater length on the premise presented in Heather 1995, that it was the appearance of the Huns that ultimately led to the fall of the Roman Empire in the west, arguing that “The exogenous shock had two components, the Huns who generated it, and the largely Germanic groups who caught its momentum and whose invasions fatally holed the west Roman ship of state” (p. 450), and that “the growth of Hunnic power in Europe has been misunderstood, and, with it, the intimate link between the arrival of the Huns and the deposition of Romulus Augustulus” (p. 445). Expands on the Hunnic creation of a “domino effect”: “It is entirely uncontentious to state that the arrival of the Tervingi and Greuthungi on the banks of the Danube in the summer of 376 was caused by the Huns” (p. 433), and “the crisis of 405–8 must be seen as a rerun of 376, with the further movements of nomadic Huns as the trigger” (p. 202).

  • Mathisen, Ralph, and Danuta Shanzer, eds. Romans, Barbarians, and the Transformation of the Roman World: Cultural Interaction and the Creation of Identity in Late Antiquity. Farnham, UK: Ashgate, 2011.

    A collection of studies focusing on ways in which the western and eastern Roman worlds were transformed by Roman interactions with barbarians during Late Antiquity. Concludes, “An understanding of the degree of interaction, integration, and assimilation between Romans and barbarians during Late Antiquity does much to help explain how the barbarian settlement of the west was accomplished with a minimal, relatively speaking, level of disruption, and how barbarian populations were integrated so seamlessly into the old Roman world” (p. 4).

  • Mitchell, Stephen. A History of the Later Roman Empire AD 284–641. Oxford: Blackwell, 2007.

    A narrative survey of political and military events in the Roman Empire in Late Antiquity from Diocletian until the early Islamic period.

  • Moorhead, John. The Roman Empire Divided, 400–700. London: Pearson, 2001.

    Discusses the political changes in Europe and the Mediterranean world, including the increasing importance of religion and new kinds of social and economic activity.

  • Moss, J. R. “The Effects of the Policies of Aëtius on the History of the Western Empire.” Historia. Zeitschrift für Alte Geschichte 22 (1973): 711–731.

    Criticizes the policy of the Roman generalissimo Flavius Aëtius of defending Gaul at the expense of losing North Africa to the Vandals.

  • Ward-Perkins, Bryan. The Fall of Rome and the End of Civilization. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005.

    Along with Heather 2005, the most recent proponent of the “catastrophe model” for the end of the western Roman Empire; uses examples of material culture, such as roof tiles and coinage, to suggest that that Germanic invasions “were undoubtedly the principal cause of the death of the Roman economy” (p. 134) and brought “the end of ancient sophistication” (p. 182) in the western empire.

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