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Why did Attila leave Italy?

In the year 452 the army of the Huns crossed the Danube River and went into northern Italy, where they captured ten cities and devestated much of the territory. It was feared that they would soon march on Rome, but before the end of the year Attila and his Hun forces had left the country.

16th century paingint by Raphael showing the Meeting between Leo the Great and Attila depicts Leo, escorted by Saint Peter and Saint Paul, meeting with the Hun king outside Rome.
16th century painting by Raphael showing the meeting between Pope Leo I and Attila the Hun.

In his paper, ‘Attila’s Appetite: The Logistics of Attila the Hun’s Invasion of Italy in 452’, given at the 50th International Congress on Medieval Studies, Jason Linn argues that previous explanations of why the Huns left Italy were inaccurate, and that the invaders probably never intended to stay in that country for more than a few months.

Attila began the invasion of Italy in the spring of 452, having crossed the Alps that April. The reason behind the invasion comes from events two years earlier – Honoria, the sister of Emperor Valentinian III, had secretly sent Attila a message asking him to help her escape from a forced betrothal with a Roman senator. Along with the message she sent him her engagement ring, a sign that Attila took to mean that she wanted to marry him. Shrewdly, Attila accepted this marriage proposal and demanded from the Emperor a dowry consisting of half of the Western Roman Empire. Valentinian refused, leading to hostility between the Huns against Rome and its allies. 

Now in 452, Attila had come to Italy to enforce his marriage claims, and the Hun army ravished much of the northern part of the country, even capturing and razing the city of Aquileia after a three-month siege.

Some sources from the period credit an embassy sent by Emperor Valentinian with getting the Huns to leave Italy. In particular, it was said that Pope Leo I who convinced Attila to return back beyond the Danube River to the Huns territory. The chronicler Prosper explains, “Our most blessed Pope Leo – trusting in the help of God, who never fails the righteous in their trials – undertook the task, accompanied by Avienus, a man of consular rank, and the prefect Trygetius. And the outcome was what his faith had foreseen; for when the king had received the embassy, he was so impressed by the presence of the high priest that he ordered his army to give up warfare and, after he had promised peace, he departed beyond the Danube.”

Many historians have doubted that the Pope would have somehow convinced Attila to return home. They point to other sources, such as Hydatius, who notes “The Huns, who had been plundering Italy and who had also stormed a number of cities, were victims of divine punishment, being visited with heaven-sent disasters: famine and some kind of disaster … Thus crushed, they made peace with the Romans and all retired to their homes.”

The idea that famine forced the Huns to retreat is common, but Linn argues that it is unlikely that the invaders had much difficulty finding food, especially in a fertile area such as northern Italy. He points out the Huns’ movements during the invasion were linear – they did not need to march around looking for food, but went straight from city to city. Moreover, when they captured these cities, they would also obtain the large storehouses of suppliess that would be kept there. Even during the three-month siege of Aquileia it seems as if the Huns were able to bring in supplies to their camp. Linn comments that “we tend to think of barbarians as unsophisticated and stupid, but they had logistical skill.”

Linn believes that Aquileia fell to the Huns sometime in mid-August, and within a month afterwards their army was heading back home. If Attila did not want winter in Italy that year, he would have had to start his journey back to what is now Hungary that fall, in order to avoid malaria outbreaks (which tend to start in northern Italy around October) as well as before snows closed the various passes in the Alps. His army would have already been taking with them booty and prisoners which would have slowed their march, another factor which would have encouraged him to leave Italy that fall.

In the end, Linn believes that the Huns never intended to stay in Italy for an extended period of time, or to attack Rome, but be back home by the time winter set in 452. Their logistical skill made sure that it was not a lack of food that forced him out, and the Pope Leo’s arrival and meeting with Attila was also not a real factor in getting the Huns to leave Italy.

Attila may have intended to return to Italy to complete his conquests, but his death in March of 453 put an end to his plans.

Jason Linn, who lectures at California Polytechnic State University, focuses his research on ancient and Byzantine history, and is currently working on his PhD Dissertation ‘The Dark Side Of Rome: A Social History Of Nighttime In Ancient Rome’. Click here to visit his page at the University of  California Santa Barbara



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