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Useful Notes / Attila the Hun

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"Even a mass of federated nations could not endure the sight of the Huns. I am not deceived in the issue; here is the field so many victories have promised us. I shall hurl the first spear at the foe. If any can stand at rest while Attila fights, he is a dead man."note 

"I know nothing of the mother of Attila, but I rather suspect that she spoilt the little darling, who subsequently found the world irritating because it sometimes resisted his whims."
Bertrand Russell, Power: A New Social Analysis (1938)

Attila was the ruler of the Huns from 434 until his death in 453.note  He was leader of the Hunnic Empire, which stretched from the Ural River to the Rhine River and from the Danube River to the Baltic Sea. During his reign he was one of the most feared enemies of The Roman Empire both East and West, earning him the title, "The Scourge of God"; while he wasn't known as this in his own time, a near-contemporary description does ascribe the honorific "scourge of all lands" and the "terror of mankind". Despite all of these premises, he is regarded as a national hero in Hungary; many streets in the country (10 of which in the capital Budapest) are named after him, and Attila itself is a common male first name.

Depending on which account you follow, he used either the pretext of the Emperor Honorius' sister, Honoria, sending him her signet ring and a plea to save her from a loveless marriage to some Senator, with Attila genuinely or willfully interpreting this as a wedding proposal and demanding half the Roman Empire as a dowry, or a dispute over the inheritance of the Frankish throne to try and conquer Roman Gaul (modern France), crossing the Rhine in 451 and raiding northern Gaul before being held up at Aurelianum (modern Orléans) and forced out of the province following the Battle of the Catalaunian Plains.

He subsequently invaded the Italian peninsula, devastating its northern provinces and supposedly expelling the residents of Aquileia, who went on to found the floating city of Venice, but was unable to take Rome, being turned away by an embassy comprising Pope Leo I and two other emissaries; what they said to him remains a Riddle for the Ages.note  He planned for further campaigns against the Romans but died in 453 on the night of his wedding to the Gothic lady Hildico, either from his usual nosebleed accidentally flowing down into his windpipe, or by her hand. The Hunnic state fell apart in less than a year after that due to squabbles amongst his sons as well as their mistreatment of their subject peoples; an uprising of the Gepids and the death of his eldest son Ellac at the Battle of Nedao in 454 broke Hunnic hegemony on the Roman borderlands forever.

There is no universally accepted image of Attila, although he is normally depicted as a large hairy barbarian similar in appearance to Genghis Khan, another horseback archer barbarian conqueror. Even the ethno-linguistic identity of the Huns he ruled remains under hot debate to this day, with the three known recorded "Hunnic" words being Indo-European and the vast majority of Hunnic names either being Turkic or Germanic.note  Among peoples who claim to be his descendants were the Bulgar khans, predecessors of modern Bulgaria, through his son Ernak; Hungary's first dynasty, the Árpáds, through his more mythical son Csaba (the Hungarian minority in Romania known as Székelys claimed to outright be Huns during the Middle Ages); and Turkey more generally through their Turkic heritage, although his branch of Turkic is represented nowadays only by the Chuvash people resident in Russia, hence his appearance in Civilization featuring that language.

His impact on popular culture is considerable—in fact, before World War II made Those Wacky Nazis the absolute shorthand for "evil", Attila the Hun was one of the most-invoked "historical villains" (along with Biblical bad guys, like the Nepharious Pharaoh from the Book of Exodus, and Pontius Pilate and Judas Iscariot from The Four Gospels) for such comparisons. During World War I, the soldiers of Imperial Germany were widely referred to as "Huns", in reference to their supposed savagery as invoked by Kaiser Wilhelm II, who told the Germans being shipped off to quell the Boxer Rebellion to retaliate so severely that their renown would be akin to that of Attila's and no Chinese person would ever dare disrespect a German thereafter. And Those Wacky Nazis themselves frequently compared Slavs (more specifically, East Slavs) to Huns, using the Hordes from the East trope in their propaganda to further dehumanize the peoples they targeted.

Trope Namer for:

  • The Scourge of God: Although, as discussed above, the earliest work to give him this title, namely the Golden Legend, was written in thirteenth century, nearly a thousand years after he died.

Tropes as portrayed in fiction, legend and history:

  • Arch-Enemy: The Romanised Gothic general Flavius Aetius (also known as Ezionote ), who once had been raised by the Huns as a political hostage, who would prove his most intractable foe. It's said that when Attila's soothsayers predicted a terrible Hunnic defeat at the Catalaunian Plains he made battle anyway to take Aetius down with defeat because it was also predicted that an enemy commander would be slain. Unfortunately for Attila, it wasn't Aetius who died, but the Visigothic king Theoderic.
    • Although their contest was described by contemporary sources in strictly geopolitical terms, later accounts added the element of a personal feud to their rivalry, such as the Verdi opera and the Attila miniseries.
  • Blood from the Mouth: He was found dead choking on his own blood. Exactly what killed him is up for debate; most sources cite internal bleeding in the throat/sinuses, while one source claims an assassination.
  • Blood Knight: Although Jordanes tries to temper this with a claim that he was "restrained in action", he repeats this quote of Attila's right before the Battle of the Catalaunian Plains:
    For what is war but your usual custom? Or what is sweeter for a brave man than to seek revenge with his own hand? It is a right of nature to glut the soul with vengeance.
  • Cain and Abel: He is believed to have killed his older brother Bleda to become sole ruler amongst the Huns, who, according to some sources, tried to kill him as well.
  • Cool Sword: He's reputed to have possessed the Sword of Mars, which might be one and the same as the sacred sword of the war god worshipped by the Scythians he subjugated. It was rumored to be made out of meteorite iron, and had been acting as a grave marker of the previous owner, also having struck by lightning whilst it stood there. A supposed "Sword of Attila" is kept in a museum in Vienna, but has been dated to half a millennium after he died.
  • Death by Gluttony: Attila drowned in his own blood on his wedding night, in bed with his newest wife Hildico, possibly from drinking too much alcohol; ancient sources state that he usually suffered a nosebleed whilst drinking, the difference here being that this time his head tipped forward and it flowed into his windpipe.
  • Death Is Dramatic:
    • Subverted in its actual facts; the scourge of all nations didn't die in battle or in any sort of fight or conflict, nor did he have any pithy last words—he went to bed on his wedding night and never woke up. Fictionalised accounts of his life in the sagas generally spice this up by having him being trapped in his keep with his children while his vengeful wife sets it on fire.
    • Played straight in other accounts where the Eastern Roman Emperor, Marcian, supposedly Dreaming of Things to Come, had a vision of some god (not specifically the Christian God) breaking a Hunnic bow in half the very night Attila died, with Priscus the historian implying that the leaders of the other great empires also received such divine portents of the scourge of mankind's death.
  • Depending on the Writer: There are at least two traditions concerning Attila, the Nibelungenlied, written in Germany, and Icelandic accounts such as the Völsunga saga. The former version, giving him the name "Etzel", tells the story of a benevolent and just ruler who is nevertheless murdered by Kreimhild/Guðrún along with his sons by her.note  The latter traditions tell of a vicious, greedy and ruthless king called "Atli" who showed no mercy.note 
    • All of the contemporary or near-contemporary historical sources we have concerning him describe him as an erudite (if unlettered) ruler, polite to guests and merciful to those who surrendered to him, but almost all of these are filtered through Jordanes, an Christianised Eastern Goth whose ancestors numbered amongst Attila's subjects; he himself conceded that Attila had "somehow terrified all mankind by the dreadful rumors noised abroad concerning him" and was widely known as "the scourge of all lands".
  • Know When to Fold 'Em: Called off his invasion of Rome and withdrew his armies after meeting with The Pope Leo I and a few other Roman envoys, most likely because disease was breaking out in his ranks and the Eastern Roman were gearing up for a campaign targeted at the Hunnic heartlands. The relieved Christians nevertheless considered it a miracle, with later writers even claiming St. Peter and St. Paul turned up to dissuade him.
  • Modest Royalty: He made a point of serving his guests' food on platters of gold and silver whilst drinking out of a wooden cup to demonstrate his supposed humility.
  • The Napoleon: According to Roman sources, he was short of stature like all of his kind, meaning that the part-Asian if not full-Asian Huns were shorter than the European Romans. In modern times this has been distorted into the factoid that he suffered some form of dwarfism, as sometimes found in trivia books and the like, and there is no evidence for this.
  • Out with a Bang: Reportedly died on his wedding night—or, more likely, the last of his many wedding nights as the Huns probably practiced polygyny and kept harems of concubines.
  • Ultimate Showdown of Ultimate Destiny: The greatest battle he partook in, that of the Catalaunian Plains in which he was expelled from Gaul, was considered to be this by most historians on the part of the Western Roman Empire. Many agree that this battle was its last noteworthy military action.
    • Although the reported figures at the battle numbering in the hundreds of thousands are definitely massive exaggerations, both armies were multi-ethnic alliances, with Attila's forces comprising the Huns, Ostrogoths and all the other barbarian tribes north of the Danube and east of modern-day Germany, opposed by Romans allied with Visigoths and Franks, followed by Saxons and Burgundians; the latter alliance's descendants would establish the majority of Western European nations following the Roman Empire's collapse there.

Works featuring Attila:

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    Comic Books 
  • In Requiem Vampire Knight, Attila reincarnates in Hell as a vampire and as membber of the ruling elite governed by Count Dracula. He serves as Admiral of the Count's armies and is known by many colorful nicknames besides "the Scourge of God" such as The Antichrist, King of Tartarus and Hades, and Commander of the 666 Legions.
  • One of Shazam!'s villains Ibac derives his superpowers from four ruthless historical figures, with Attila the Hun providing his fierceness and the latter "a" in his name.
  • The French comic "Attila Mon Amour" is about a Roman noblewoman betrayed by her people who ends up siding with the Huns to get her revenge.
  • The French comic "Le Fleaudes Dieux" (The Scourge of Gods) is Attila Recycled In Space, although the story takes a turn for the weird when both Attila and the Roman woman worshipped as a goddess by his tribe turn out to be unkillable (much to their surprise).
  • Appears briefly in The Wicked + The Divine during the 455 AD one-shot. His final wife was a recurrance of the goddess Inanna who killed him mid-coitus on their wedding night.

    Comic Strips 

  • He appears as one of the many wax figures brought to life in Night at the Museum in what is probably meant to be a Roman à Clef of Genghis Khan, whose comedic portrayal would've been more controversial since the latter remains a national hero whilst the affiliation of the Huns is still a mystery.

  • Attila appears in rather mythologized form in the Nibelungenlied and the Völsunga saga under the name of Etzel or Atli. The Valkyrie Brunnhilde is said to be his sister.
    • The eponymous hero of Waltharius grows up as a hostage at Attila's court.
  • Attila appears in Dante's The Divine Comedy in the seventh circle of Hell.
  • Count Dracula in his eponymous novel claims to be descended from Attila through his Székely heritage, boasting "What devil or what witch was ever so great as Attila, whose blood is in these veins?"
  • Several Historical Fiction novels:
    • The White Stag: A highly fictionalized Origin Story for the Huns.
    • The Attila Trilogy by William Napier
    • The Scourge of God by William Dietrich
    • The Sword of Attila by Michael Curtis Ford
    • Slave of the Huns by Geza Gardonyi
  • Attila is depicted surprisingly sympathetically in Thomas Costain's The Darkness and the Dawn.
  • The Battle of the Pelennor Fields in The Return of the King parallels the accounts of the Battle of the Catalaunian Plains fairly closely, especially the plot element involving the leader of the opposing army (Theodoric the Visigoth in real life,note  Theoden of Rohan in the novel) dying during or after a cavalry charge but his side's army prevailing nevertheless.

    Live-Action TV 
  • The Goodies. In "Rome Antics", the Roman emperor has opened up Rome to tourists to raise money. He starts to panic on hearing that Attila the Hun has accepted his invitation and wants room and board for his barbarian horde (shown to be the Vandals instead of the Huns, because the producers couldn't resist the Visual Pun of having them act like modern day vandals).
  • Monty Python's Flying Circus
    • Episode 20 presents a parody of a typical American sitcom called The Attila the Hun Show, with John Cleese as the eponymous conqueror in the starring role as a suburban father.
    • Also a briefly glimpsed reference to "Attila the Nun" and a Terry Gilliam animation of "Attila the Bun", showing a dinner roll wielding a sword rampaging across a table.
  • Attila: A miniseries starring Gerard Butler.
  • Defeated Alexander the Great in Deadliest Warrior.
  • Attila and his hordes occasionally show up on Kaamelott, where he is an easily fooled, short Asian man and his hordes consist of a single bodyguard... yet is apparently considered a legitimate Scourge of God.
  • The Daily Show wrote a segment about China's ban on puns; Jon Stewart panics when he sees China-related puns until it moves to slide that said "Attila the Pun".
    Jon: That doesn't make any sense, Attila was nowhere near China.'

  • A Trinidadian calypso singer from the first half of the 20th century called himself Atilla the Hun. He is notable for being the first calypso musician to be elected into the City Council of Port of Spain and the Legislative Council of Trinidad and Tobago.
  • Billy Joel started his career as part of a Psychedelic Rock band called Attila. Their only album Attila (1970) is often called "one of the worst albums ever created."
  • There is also a 2005 Metalcore band from Atlanta, Georgia called Attila.

  • Giuseppe Verdi wrote an opera about Attila the Hun in 1846, simply called Attila. Attila is written as a bass-baritone and his foeman Ezio (Aetius) is also a baritone.

    Video Games 
  • Age of Empires series:
  • Appears as the faction leader of the Huns in Civilization V. The AI assigned for him is easily the most aggressive out of all the leaders in the game (even memetic asshole Montezuma). His unique units and powers make him the the best choice for an early game conquest victory. He is depicted as speaking Chuvash in the game, hinting at their possible shared Oghur Turkic heritage.
  • A Gender Flipped version of him appears as a Saber in Fate/Grand Ordernote , though she prefers to be called "Altera". This depiction is also a very favorable one, as her In-Universe Character Alignment is Chaotic Good, and she's one of the more just Servants. It briefly mentions that she was married to Siegfried's wife Kriemhild for a time, like in Nibelungenlied. However, the fact that the Attila of the Nasuverse is female becomes tame when it's revealed in Fate/Extella: The Umbral Star that she's actually the remains of an alien superweapon that wiped out all prehistoric human civilization, found in the ruins of her original shattered form and raised as a warrior and conqueror by the Huns.
  • Total War series:

    Web Animation 
  • Attila was inevitably brought up in the final episode of The Unbiased History of Rome. Given the nature of the series, Attila was portrayed as a villainous sorcerer who can summon earthquakes to bring down the walls of Constantinople. And then after being driven off in the Catalaunian Plains he met with Pope Leo at the River Po... revealing that he was a Spurdo Sparde who wasn't interested in conquering Rome in the first place.

    Western Animation 
  • In Time Squad Attila is a sniveling, neurotic and strangely Ambiguously Jewish wannabe leader. Time Squad comes in to turn him into a leader that his men can respect and follow orders.
  • In the episode "Kif Gets Knocked Up a Notch" of Futurama, Attila is one of several simulations of evil characters accidentally brought to life (others included Jack the Ripper and Professor Moriarty). He points out to Zapp Brannigan that firing a gun at them inside the spaceship will cause explosive decompression.
  • In Los Trotamúsicos, an adaptation of The Bremen Town Musicians, the four animals were confronted by three robbers whose evil dog was named Attila.
  • In The Simpsons pilot episode Simpsons Roasting On An Open Fire the family tries to sing Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer but Bart keeps adding lines of his own to Homer's annoyance. After singing "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer: you'll go in history." Bart belts out: "Like Attila the Hun!", which is the final straw for Homer who starts strangling him.
  • In the Garfield and Friends segment "Fine Feathered Funnyman", Roy gives the viewers a sneak peak of an upcoming U.S. Acres cartoon called "Hiya Hun", in which he tries to convince the animals that Attila has returned while dressed up like him, with the clip shown being of him warning Wade of his return. It is unknown if this was going to be an actual episode of Season 7 of the show, but got scrapped, or if it was intended to be a joke like "Much Ado About Orson".
  • Animaniacs had a song called "Here Comes Attila" which was about him. He also appeared in another sketch (though looking markedly different) dispatching some persistent network censors who were complaining about the excessive violence in the Warners' cartoons.
  • Histeria! depicted him as one half of a musical duo called "Attila and the Hun". He also appeared without Hun in several other sketches. Attila's growly vocals were provided by Maurice LaMarche or, at times, by Jim Cummings.
  • Attila appears as a major contestant twice on Skatoony.

  • In the famous essay "For the New Intellectual," Ayn Rand used Attila as the symbol of all historical figures who think and act like The Brute, without thinking about the long-term future, or any form of morality (particularly the reasons why dealing with people through brute force is a bad thing), or an understanding of things that uses the concepts of philosophy and science, etc.
  • British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was known as "Attila the Hen" by her detractors.