If you have watched Night at the Museum, you would have remembered one of the museum artifacts that came to life being Attila the Hun. In case you have not watched it, Attila was depicted as a barbarian with a small gang of minions in tow chasing Larry the museum guard, intent on capturing him and executing him by tearing his limbs apart. Obviously, it was just an unimportant movie portrayal but to what extent is that depiction accurate?
Here is a brief background story. Attila was the ruler of the Hunnic Empire from c. 434 to 453 CE. Under his reign, the Hunnic Empire expanded its territory from Central Europe to the Black Sea and from the Danube River to the Baltic. His unrestrained invasions on the Eastern Roman Empire left a path of destruction in Danube and Constantinople, and he even attacked Italy and Gaul.
Attila is also consistently placed as one of the most evil men in history, along with the likes of Adolf Hitler and Pol Pot. This documentary painted Attila as extremely merciless, earning his infamous nickname “Scourge of God” and power-hungry, killing his own brother Bleda just so he could hog the throne. Worse, he was a cannibal who ate his own sons and drank women’s blood!
However, was Attila as ‘evil’ as most people try to make him to be?
Sure, he invaded an empire and demolished some cities, but didn't Alexander the "Great" also invaded Persia before conquering it? And, the claims of Attila murdering his own brother and cannibalizing his own sons are questionable especially when there were no sources that prove as such. It was stated that he killed his brother in 445 CE during a staged hunting trip but there is a lack of classical sources that proved such an event.
So, if the claims may most likely not be true, why were they even made in the first place? Was it because Attila was one of the Roman Empire’s dangerous enemies so Roman historians fabricated their accounts just to strengthen the impression that Attila was a very evil man?
First of all, I’m not trying to say that Attila the Hun was a saint. I am arguing that while Attila may be depicted as a man who sparked terror in others, especially in his enemies, he could also prove to be quite a man of his word, humble and magnanimous at times, as gleaned from reliable historical sources.
According to The Life and Times of Attila the Hun, Attila and his brother Bleda signed the Treaty of Margus in 435 CE with the Romans such that the latter would pay a yearly tribute of 700 pounds of gold in return for peace. However, Theodosius II, the Emperor of the Eastern Roman Empire, stopped paying 6 years later and this elicited a huge onslaught by the Hunnic Empire. After being defeated, Theodosius II tripled the yearly tribute to 21,000 pounds of gold in exchange for peace yet again and satisfied by the offer, Attila and Bleda pulled their army out of Rome. From here, this convinces me that Attila would only be provoked when his enemies did not fulfil their end of their agreement. When the Romans dutifully paid him the amount, Attila kept his word of not invading them. ("And Then There Was One", loc. 17-20)
Around 448 and 449 CE, Priscus of Panium, a Greek writer, followed Attila back to his home to study him and even conversed and had a feast with Attila and his fellow warriors. Priscus suggested that Attila was not one who was interested in materialism which meant that he may not be greedy for the Roman's gold.
“A luxurious meal, served on silver plate, had been made ready for us and the barbarian guests, but Attila ate nothing but meat on a wooden trencher. In everything else, too, he showed himself temperate - his cup was of wood, while to the guests were given goblets of gold and silver. His dress, too, was quite simple, affecting only to be clean. The sword he carried at his side, the ratchets of his Scythian shoes, the bridle of his horse were not adorned, like those of the other Scythians, with gold or gems or anything costly.”
Such vivid accounts by Priscus also demonstrated Attila’s humility and uncharacteristic gentleness towards children, which debunked the claim that he ate his own sons.
“Attila, however, remained immovable and of unchanging countenance nor by word or act did he betray anything approaching to a smile of merriment except at the entry of Ernas, his youngest son, whom he pulled by the cheek, and gazed on with a calm look of satisfaction. I was surprised that he made so much of this son.”
In 449 CE, a Roman assassin tried to kill Attila. Despite being almost killed, Attila spared his assassin’s life instead of executing him mercilessly. Also, when Attila invaded North Italy in 452 CE, he eventually spared the city of Rome due to the diplomacy of Pope Leo I and the rugged shape of his own army. These two examples are clear demonstrations of Attila being magnanimous.
So, Attila may not had been entirely evil. Historical sources may not tell the whole story so we should always question them and not take them at face value. It is also worth noting that a Hungarian author named Géza Gárdonyi wrote a novel titled ‘A láthatatlan ember’ (‘The Slave of the Huns’) in which Attila was portrayed as a clever and beloved leader.