Pope Leo I Convinces Attila the Hun Not to Sack Rome

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Pope Leo I Convinces Attila the Hun Not to Sack Rome

"Invasion of the Barbarians, or the Huns Approaching Rome" by Ulpiano Checa (1887) (Unless otherwise indicated, all illustrations are courtesy of Wikipedia)

Today in Military History: July 8, AD 452

Today’s military-related incident involves the man known to Romans and historians as the "Scourge of God." He was intent upon the looting of the preeminent city of western Europe at that time: Rome, the "Eternal City." Despite a weakened West Roman Empire swiftly sliding toward its dissolution…Attila retreated before achieving his main objective. What happened?


In the spring of 450, Attila received an unusual letter. It was from Justa Grata Honoria, the ambitious and promiscuous half-sister of the current West Roman emperor Valentinian III. She had plotted to assassinate her brother and replace him on the imperial throne. Rather than execute or exile her, Valentinian had tried to shut her up in a nunnery in Constantinople. After several unsuccessful attempts to escape, Valentinian decided that the next most likely way to keep his half-sibling occupied was to marry her off to an elderly Roman senator, one Bassus Herculanus, who is described as having good character and a total lack of ambition.

The wedding was probably celebrated in early 450. Wanting to avoid the oblivion of a loveless marriage, Honoria wrote a letter to Attila, asking for his assistance. She also sent her engagement ring with the letter, possibly to show the genuineness of her appeal. Attila, however, chose to interpret her appeal as a counter-marriage proposal. He replied to Honoria, saying he would "ride to her rescue." In addition, Attila asked that he be given half of the West Roman Empire as her dowry.

Within a year, Attila led a tribal coalition of various non-Roman peoples across the Rhine River into what is today France. Records of the period give wildly exaggerated numbers for the Hunnish horde, but it likely was somewhere in the neighborhood of 50,000-60,000 men. [Among the various peoples under his command, Attila controlled Ostrogoths, Thuringians, Rugians, Franks, Gepids, Burgundians, and Heruli.] After sacking such cities as Worms, Mainz, Cologne, Metz, Amiens, and Reims, and threatening Paris and Orléans, Attila was drawn to the Catalaunian Plains (or Fields) near the town of Châlons-sur-Marne. On June 20, after fighting during the afternoon and into the evening, the Roman-led force stopped the Hunnish invasion and drove them back to their headquarters in central Europe (modern-day Hungary).

Hunnic Empire, c. 450 (the star indicates the location of Attila’s capital
Hunnic Empire, c. 450 (the star indicates the location of Attila’s capital

Attila and his followers returned in 452, this time apparently heading directly for the "Eternal City" itself, Rome. Northern Italy was thoroughly ravaged and pillaged by the Huns. The city of Aquileia was besieged and completely destroyed. [Before its destruction, Aquileia was a center of government (with an imperial residence), commerce and finance (with a mint), military defense, and Christianity (with a bishop in residence). Its destruction and Attila's subsequent unimpeded ravaging of the province of Venetia paved the way for the rise of Venice, which within a few centuries replaced and even surpassed it in importance.]

Attila and his army then proceeded to sack many of the cities of the Po River valley, including Verona, Milan, and Padua. He threatened Ravenna – the capital of the West Roman Empire at that time – and likely considering turning further south to sack Rome itself.

Pope Leo I "the Great" meets Attila "The Scourge of God"

"The Meeting Between Leo the Great and Attilla" by Raphael (1514); Fresco in the Apostolic Palace, Vatican City, Rome, Italy
"The Meeting Between Leo the Great and Attilla" by Raphael (1514) Fresco in the Apostolic Palace, Vatican City, Rome, Italy

Emperor Valentinian, in an effort to make Attila "just go away," sent a trio of envoys to the Hunnish camp. They were: Gennadius Avienus, a former consul; Trigetius, apparently another high official of the Empire; and Pope Leo I – later to receive the cognomen of "the Great." The three envoys journeyed up the Po River valley to a spot near Mantua, where the River Minco flowed into the Po. Attila’s army was encamped there, weighing its options. Sometime after the arrival of the trio of ambassadors, they elicited from Attila a promise to proceed no further into Itally, and the Hunnish hordes began their withdrawal.

Why Did Attila Suddenly Change His Mind??

There are a number of theories as to the reasons for Attila’s sudden reversal. They include:

  1. The Supreme Army Commander of the West Roman Empire, Flavius Aetius, was still the one man capable of opposing the Huns. After defeating the Huns at the Catalaunian Fields the previous year, Aetius used the military units under his command (probably barbarian federati cavalry) to harass Attila’s scouts and supply train. Attila may have been skittish about once more facing the man who beat him on the battlefield.
  2. An army from the East Roman Empire had crossed the Danube River, and began raiding Hunnic settlements in Hungary, threatening Attila’s supply lines.
  3. Northern Italy had suffered a severe famine the previous year, which had caused massive privation in Italy. The harvest had not improved in the year since. Attila would need large supplies of food if his army was to march on Rome, but the continuing poor harvest did not bode well.
  4. Some historians speculate that famine and disease had broken out in the Hunnish army, and that made many of his soldiers unavailable for further military activities.
  5. There is also conjecture that the three Roman envoys offered Attila a huge bribe to leave Roman lands. That, however, is not backed up by any records.
  6. Finally, there is…the divine explanation. Pope Leo is given much credit (especially by the Catholic Church) for driving away the heathen Huns. [If you look at the fresco above, you will see floating above the Pope, Saints Peter and Paul, both brandishing swords threatening the Hunnic leader, who is riding a black horse at the center.] No wonder Leo I acquired the sobriquet "the Great."

Or, it may have been a combination of some or all of the above. [Remember, Rome was not the most prominent city of the shrinking West Roman Empire at that time. The main administrative offices of the empire had been transferred to the northern Italian city of Ravenna. Rome was now just a hollow symbol of the fading Empire’s glory days.]


Attila’s reign as Hunnic leader ended early in the year 453. According to most historians of the period, he was celebrating his marriage to a younger woman. One account said he began bleeding from his nose during the reception, and when he fell into a drunken stupor apparently drowned in his own blood. Another account said he was dispatched by his new bride, who was probably of Ostrogothic heritage. The account which many males probably would believe says that he was "having his way" with his new wife, and suffered a heart attack.

Footnote #1: Attila’s three sons fought over the succession. However, in 468 a coalition of Hunnic subject tribes revolted under the leadership of the Gepids. The Huns were defeated at the battle of Nedao, and were expelled from western and central Europe, returning to the area around the Black Sea, which was probably their original homeland.

Footnote #2: Many people in Hungary and Transylvania (part of nearby Romania) claim blood heritage with the Huns.

Footnote #3: The "glory that was Rome" had mostly faded by the mid-fifth century AD and the Empire’s administration was moved to the city of Ravenna in northern Italy. Rome’s population has been estimated at about 1.2 million people in about AD 175, but began declining through war, disease, famine, and overcrowding. The city’s population in AD 450 has been estimated at about 200,000 persons. By the mid sixth century, only about 30,000 people still inhabited the "Eternal City." Modern-day Rome boasts a population of 2.9 million people.

Footnote #4: Attila the Hun has been fodder for the motion picture industry. In the 1954 French-Italian movie "Attila," the title role was played by Anthony Quinn (with Sophia Loren as Honoria). Also in 1954, the film "Sign of the Pagan" had Jack ["Billy Crystal? I crap bigger than him"] Palance as Attila. Finally, a 2001 British-made mini-series entitled "Attila" starred Gerard Butler [remember the film "300"?] in the title role, with Powers Boothe as Aetius.

Lobby card for 1954 film Attila, starring Anthony Quinn in the title role; Image courtesy of http://www.emersonkent.com
Lobby card for 1954 film Attila, starring Anthony Quinn in the title role [I believe that is Sophia Loren in background] Image courtesy of http://www.emersonkent.com

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Black Sea Region was not Turks' original homeland. It was Middle Asia as most know, I have no idea why you would write that. Also Attila died while planning an attack on Sassanids.

Interesting. I looked up Justa and it seems there is no record of her after Attila's campaign. Was she punished? Executed? Or was she a gift to Atilla to make him turn away from Rome?

Sir, your guess is as good as mine. Apparently, she disappears from recorded history; any number of things may have happened to her. Her senator-husband may have locked her away in an estate in the country. Or, perhaps, as you suggest, she may have been executed. Or, she may have been taken hostage by the Vandals during their well-known-to-history Sack of Rome in AD 455. As so often happens, the minor players that come onto History's Stage, exit the stage after their brief scene, and never return...

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