What was the impact of Attila the Hun on the Roman Empire?

A modern recreation of Attila the Hun

Attila the Hun is one of the most infamous conquerors and warriors in history. He ruled a large nomadic confederation known as the Huns. Attila either as sole or as co-ruler ruled a large empire, that was centred on the vast plains of central Europe and included much of modern Ukraine. His name is associated with the final days of the western Roman Empire and it is widely assumed that he played a significant role in the downfall of Rome. Attila’s invasions of the Roman Empire weakened the western and the eastern Roman Empire. The Western Empire was such that he enabled the Germanic tribes to eventually take over the western regions of what had been the Roman Empire.


] A modern recreation of the Huns

No one really knows the origins of the Huns. The great British historian Gibbon believed that they were identical to the Xiongnu tribes who were defeated by Imperial Chinese armies in the third century AD.[1] The Xiongnu were then forced to migrate to seek new pasturelands for their vast herds of sheep and horses. One source speculates that they were driven further west by attacks from other nomads. Modern historians believe that their origins lie in Central Asia, possibly in the modern nation of Kazakhstan.[2] What seems likely is that the Huns were not a definite and homogenous group. They may have been an amalgam of many different tribes and peoples.

This was common in Central Asia, where diverse groups of tribes formed vast confederations led usually by a great war-leader. From the early 4th century the Huns pressed into the modern Ukrainian Steppe driving the Goths and other tribes before them. The forced unknown numbers to seek refuge in the Roman Empire and this was to destabilize the Empire [3]. The Huns core area of activity was in modern Hungary and from here they dominated the surrounding tribes and peoples. They terrorized and forced many people’s to obey their will and soon they began to serve as mercenaries in Roman armies.[4] The Huns were largely a nomadic people and had lived in camps all year around, even in the winter. They were expert horsemen, being taught to ride a horse from an early and they were outstanding bowmen. They used the composite bow, to fire arrows quickly and accurately. Because of their increasing contact with other people and especially their interaction with the Romans the Huns were becoming less nomadic.[5]

There is evidence that the Huns constructed large villages and it seems likely that Attila had a capital. The Huns were becoming increasingly indistinguishable from those they had conquered. They full impact of these changes on the Huns is not known[6]. Despite them being referred to as a horde the number of Hunnic warriors was probably not very large. Modern historians believe that at most that there were approximately twenty thousand thousand Hun warriors. The army of the Hums were inflated by their contributions from subject peoples or their allies. The Huns success was also due to the fact that the Roman Empire was divided[7]. The west and east of the Empire were ruled by two different emperors who were often rivals and suspicious of each other. The two parts of the Empire rarely cooperated and had become very different societies.

The reign of Attila the Hun

A 19th century illustration of a Hun raid

Attila was the nephew of the Hunnic king Rugila. When he died on a campaign against the Emperor in Constantinople in 433 CE, the leadership passed to Attila and his brother Bleda. The two brothers were joint rulers and they changed their people’s relationship with the Roman. Prior to their reign, the Huns had often been hired as mercenaries to guard the Roman borders. In 439 ADS, the two brothers signed a treaty with the Romans.[8] This treaty resulted in the Eastern Roman Empire paying the Huns protection money to ensure that they did not attack its territories. These payments by the Romans continued in one form or another until after the death of Attila. Attila and his brother after an ill-fated invasion of Persia decided to break the terms of the treaty. Using the alleged desecration of some Hunnic graves by Christians the Huns invaded the territories of the Eastern Roman Empire.

Attila and his brother ravaged much of the Balkans and destroyed great cities such as Naissus.[9] They had learned siege warfare from the Romans. For the next decade, the Huns regularly invaded the Balkans and they became rich from booty and took many slaves. Sometime in 445 AD, Bleda died, there are suspicions that Attila killed his brother. Attila was a shrewd man and he used religion to maintain his control over his people. He claimed to have a divine ‘war sword’ that allegedly demonstrated that he was destined to rule the world.[10] In 446 AD Attila turned his attention to the western provinces. This was because he believed that he could secure an easy victory over the enfeebled western Emperor in Rome. He was given a pretext to invade the west by the sister of the Emperor Valentinian III.[11] She was being forced to marry a nobleman and she pleaded with Attila to rescue her.

The king of the Huns took her pleas as an offer of marriage and this became his justification for his invasion of the western European empire. Attila invaded the province of Gaul and he sacked and razed several cities. The Romans could not cope with the Huns and their hit and run tactics. A brilliant Roman general Aetius, who was called the ‘last of the Romans’ by Gibbon forged an anti-Hun coalition.[12] He persuaded many Germanic tribes to join this alliance including the Visigoths and Vandals. The army of Attila penetrated deep into Gaul and they were confronted by a massive army, under Aetius. At the Battle of Cataluanian Fields or the Battle of Chalon’s (451 AD) in what has been described as one of the bloodiest battles in history, the army of Attila was halted. The Hunnic horde was halted but they were far from defeated. The year following the Battle of Cataluanian Fields the Huns invaded Italy. They caused widespread destruction and they sacked the great city of Aquileia that it ‘disappeared from history.’[13]

The Huns caused massive devastation and entire populations moved and many cities and towns were abandoned. However, the Huns stopped at the River Po and did not proceed to Rome[14]. Legend has it that Pope Leo persuaded Attila not to attack Rome. The real reasons why Attila did not attack Rome was that there was a famine and his army was running low on supplies.[15] Attila and his army returned to their Hungarian homelands. Soon after Attila died after a feast to celebrate a marriage. The Hunnic Empire was divided and soon the subject peoples defeated the Huns and their power was broken forever.

Socio-Economic impact on the Roman Empires

Map of the Hunnic Empire c450

The Huns preyed upon the Romans. Attila and his brother changed the strategy of the Huns. No longer were they prepared to serve as mercenaries they demanded tribute and other payments, usually in the form of gold and silver. The constant tribute was a serious drain on the Romans. They were forced to raise taxes and this led to a serious economic downturn. Furthermore, so much gold was leaving the Empire that it led to a reduction in economic activity as there was not enough coin in circulation.[16] The west was unable to pay for subsidies to Attila and they adopted desperate measures such as increasing taxation and minting coins. This led to inflation and this caused great distress in the western provinces.[17]

The raids and invasions of the Huns were devastating. They not only plundered cities and regions they took a positive delight in destruction. Like many other nomads before and since, they hated sedentary culture and delighted in destroying its form and it structures. This meant that the Huns unlike other tribes who invaded the Empire were unique in the level of destruction they inflicted on the Roman Empire. The Balkans were devastated by the Huns and subsequently became a wasteland apart from some enclaves in Greece and on the coasts. The area was not really controlled by the Emperor in Constantinople and many Germanic and other tribes settled in the area.[18]

It was about 200 years before the Balkans was once more under the control of Constantinople and even then, it never recovered its former prosperity. The impact of Attila on France was devastating. However, Attila’s invasion of Italy was to have profound consequences for Italy. Before the invasion, the area was recovering from the Goths invasion and subsequent sack of Rome. The invasion of the Huns devastated Northern Italy and the area took generations to recover. The area’s urban centres were destroyed and the region depopulated.[19]. Many of the refugees sought shelter in remote areas. Some refugees found sanctuary on some islets in the Adriatic and from these small settlements the great city of Venice emerged in the early Middle Ages.[20] Attila’s invasion weakened Italy the core area of the western Empire and this fatally weakened the Romans in the west.

Attila and the fall of the Western Empire

The fall of the Western Empire is usually dated 476 ADS, when a Scirian Warlord Odoacer deposed the last Roman Emperor. This was a full generation after the invasion of Italy by Attila. However, the Hunnic king played a very important role in the decline and final fall of the Western Roman Empire.[21] The financial demands of the Huns resulted in a series of fiscal crises for the Emperor. This has implications for the western Empire which was in serious economic decline unlike the eastern section of the Empire. This and the scale of the devastation caused by the raids of Attila resulted in a growing economic crisis by 450 AD. It has been argued that the economic impact of the Huns campaigns was a major factor in the fall of Rome.

This was because no longer could the Roman Emperor buy off the many barbarian tribes that had occupied sections of the Empire. The Goths and the other tribes instead of receiving payments began to demand land in exchange for their continued obedience to the Emperor and above all to desist from attacking the remnants of the once mighty Roman army. Then the Roman army could no longer afford to hire mercenaries who were mostly Germans to defend the state. In fact, mutinous mercenaries were a fact of life in the dying days of the Roman Empire. Odoacer seized Italy after he led one such mutiny.[22] The economic crisis that was in part attributable to Attila and his strategies was crucial in undermining the ability of the Roman state to defend itself and to secure its outlying provinces.[23]


Attila the Hun was one of the most important figures in the dying days of the Western Roman Empire. He was one of a series of barbarian leaders, who inflicted so much damage on the fabric of the western Roman Empire. The social and economic impact of his armies’ attacks, that appear to have been on an unprecedented scale seriously weakened both the eastern and the western empires. The western part of the Empire was weaker and not able to cope with Attila, his raids and financial exactions. The western Romans had neither the military or the economic means to defend themselves against the Huns. Attila deliberately targeted the west because he knows that it was weaker. He did not conquer it but he did leave it in an economic and social crisis and this so undermined the state in the west that its fall was inevitable.


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  1. Edward Gibbon. Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (London, Penguin Classics, 2000), p. 454
  2. Heather, Peter. Empires and Barbarians: The Fall of Rome and the Birth of Europe (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2010), p. 134
  3. Gibbon, p 456
  4. Maenchen-Helfen, Otto J. The World of the Huns: Studies in Their History and Culture (Berkeley, University of California Press, 1973), p. 113
  5. Maenchen-Helfen, p 116
  6. Heather, p 256
  7. Heather, p. 345
  8. Heather,p. 112
  9. Gibbon, p 456
  10. Boston and Halsall, Paul. Medieval Sourcebook: Pricus on Attila the Hun (Readings in European History) (HP, London, 1905) 46-49
  11. Gibbon, p. 478
  12. Gibbon,p. 478
  13. Gibbon,p. 491
  14. Gibbon, p. 497
  15. Kim, Hyun Jin. The Huns, Rome, and the Birth of Europe. (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2013). pp. 17–19
  16. Kim. p. 119
  17. Norwich, p. 5
  18. Heather, p. 203
  19. Kim, p. 167
  20. Norwich, John Julius. The History of Venice (Pelican, London, 1997), p. 14
  21. Heather, p. 378
  22. Gibbon, p. 489
  23. Kim. p. 214