How Attila the Hun Worked


Fables and Legends About Attila
Raphael painted "Pope Leo I, Repulsing Attila," which tells the legend of the two men's fateful meeting, with Saints Peter and Paul flying overhead. Art Media/Print Collector/Getty Images

When you're notoriously famous, stories begin circulating about you, both true and false. There are several legends associated with Attila the Hun. Perhaps the most dramatic involves his incursion into Italy in 452. According to the famous tale, when Attila and his troops entered Italy, Valentinian III, the Western Roman Emperor, fled to Rome. That gave the Huns free reign to loot and destroy at will.

But the Huns were so destructive, Pope Leo I traveled up from Rome to confront the aggressor. He told Attila he was not welcome in Italy, making a great show of his bravery, and noted his personal hotline to God. Then, a miracle occurred. Saints Peter and Paul appeared before Attila and told him he must obey Pope Leo I or he would die. Attila agreed and quickly left the country. No written records exist about Attila's encounter with Pope Leo I. But a more likely occurrence is that after meeting with the pope, Attila decided to call off the invasion because his supplies were running low and his troops were falling ill from the disease ravaging the country. He was also probably concerned he was more needed back at home, where the Eastern Roman Empire had recently launched at offensive into Hun territory.

The fable about Pope Leo I confronting Attila with Saints Peter and Paul at his side is interesting because little is known about Attila's religious beliefs, or lack thereof. Whether or not he was a Christian, there is some evidence Attila may have believed in prophecies. One story about the Hun relates how a shepherd once discovered one of his animals limping and bleeding. Searching for the cause, the shepherd found a finely crafted sword lying in the field. The shepherd brought the sword to Attila, who believed it was a sign that he was ruler of the world, and was given the blessing to fight at will. Attila claimed this sword once belonged to Mars, the Roman god of war, which struck fear in the hearts of many.

Attila enjoyed his nefarious reputation. He fueled it by adopting a fierce gaze said to make people quake, and famously said, "There, where I have passed, the grass will never grow again." Partly because of this, ancient artists drew Attila as an unsightly creature with devil's horns and a goatish beard.

In more recent times, the names "Attila" and "Huns" continue to evoke savagery. During World War I, the British insultingly compared the German army to the Huns because of the soldiers' brutality. The comparison was also likely due to the fact that the German Kaiser sent troops to China in 1900 to squash the Boxer Rebellion, telling the men to fight like Huns [sources: History, Biography, Dash].

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