That was what the writers of the Christian faith called him, for they believed that the coming of Attila the Hun and his barbarian hordes into the fair provinces on the western side of the great rivers was a judgment on the nations of Europe, a visitation sent upon them in punishment for their sins.
It was fifty years since Athanaric and his Gothic tribes had been forced by the Huns into the arms of Rome, and for all that half century the danger of Hunnish invasion had hung over Europe like a thundercloud, black and forbidding. The storm might break here, it might break there. None could tell, for the Huns fought not by plan nor by reason, but for sudden impulse, for a mad spirit of restlessness, for a fierce lust of battle.
The Romans kept them at bay for a time by payment of gold. They found that this barbarian mob, clad in dingy skin tunics and living on raw meat and uncooked grain, who chose to make themselves hideous by gashing their cheeks with the sword in infancy that their beards should not grow,—this people, more barbarous than barbarism itself, had developed in the half century of their contact with civilized peoples one engrossing, absorbing passion, the greed for gold. They did not know how to measure its value, for it was new to them. The first year that they threatened, the Romans bought them off from attacking any part of the Empire for nineteen pounds of gold. Nineteen pounds to keep back a nation of ninety thousand warriors! And it was but a few years since Alaric the Goth had demanded and received five thousand pounds of gold, thirty thousand pounds of silver, and much treasure beside, as a price for the safety of Rome. But the Huns learned. Twenty years later the ransom money was three hundred and fifty pounds, and then in a single year it was doubled.
That was the year when in the chronicles of the nations it was written that "the kingdom of the Huns passed unto Attila."
Attila was a typical Hun, little in stature but broad-shouldered and deep-chested, with swarthy skin and small, beadlike black eyes which were never still but darted fierce glances to this side and that, as if, says the Roman narrator, "he felt himself to be lord of all and was perpetually asking of those about him, "Who is he that shall deliver you out of my hand?" He delighted to inspire men with fear of what he would do to them. It was part of his fierce, unquenchable pride that every one should come into his presence with dread. He longed to be a terror to the whole world. Nothing pleased him more than to be called "The Destroyer"; and to see the proud rulers of the proudest nations on earth cringe before him,—that was the aim and ambition of his life. Attila probably never spent a happier hour than when he sat at his banquet table and saw seated before him suppliant ambassadors from the two great capitals of the Roman Empire. It was part of his pleasure that the Romans never passed a more unpleasant day.
The ambassadors had started from Rome and Constantinople, each party without knowledge of the other, with orders to seek the newly elected king of the Huns wherever he might be, and confer with him about the tribute money. The Roman nobles expected it to be a disagreeable mission. They did not dream it was to be as unpleasant as Attila succeeded in making it for them.
Their first task was to find the Hunnish king. They had heard that he held some sort of rude court away off on the Hungarian plains; but as they came nearer the frontiers of the Roman Empire they found that the barbarian king had been on a plundering expedition and was only a couple of days' journey ahead of them. Every city on the route was deserted and empty. The inhabitants had fled at the approach of the Huns, or had been driven out by the sword if they had lingered too long, and they had not yet dared to creep back, for fear the enemy might return.
On the banks of the Danube the Romans came up with the barbarians. Every road was crowded with Huns, and the river was full of unwieldy boats fashioned from hollow logs, in which ferrymen were transporting the people to the farther bank. Roman gold gained for the travelers a speedy passage, and on the second day after crossing the river they came in sight of the tents of Attila.
Rejoicing that they were to be spared the long journey into the interior, the ambassadors began to pitch their tents on a hilltop near by, but their preparations were speedily interrupted. A party of Hunnish horsemen dashed up the hill, and their leader demanded furiously what the Romans meant by presuming to camp on such high land. "It would be quite improper," he declared, "for the Roman ambassadors to occupy the hill while Attila was below in the valley."
This was but the first of a series of petty humiliations which Attila took a fiendish pleasure in imposing on the Roman nobles. He dallied so long about granting any audience to them that they seriously feared lest he should refuse to treat with them at all. Then he allowed them to see him and accepted their gifts, but refused to come to any discussion of terms. Finally he sent a message to their tent, commanding them to go to his "palace" in the interior, where he would give them his answer.
We can imagine the disgust of the Romans at being forced to plunge into the wilderness at the caprice of this rude barbarian. But they had no choice; on their success depended the peace of Europe for a twelvemonth. It was a forsaken country through which they must travel, and they suffered many hardships on the way. They had to cross three great rivers and ford innumerable streams. It was the flood time of the year, and even the roads were little better than swamps. They could buy nothing in the villages along the way but a kind of grain called millet.
After they had journeyed in this fashion for seven days and nights, and were rejoicing that one more day would bring them to their destination, they received abrupt orders to halt. They had been traveling too fast, it seemed, and had got ahead of Attila. He was to come over the road which they were now to take, and it was part of his pride that the Romans must not precede him even on the road to his own home.
While the Romans waited, with ill-concealed impatience, in the miserable little Hungarian village, they met the other Roman embassy, recently arrived from Constantinople and held up, as were their companions in misery, until the royal bridegroom should arrive. Attila's pride might well be satisfied when embassies from the two capitals of the world were forced to wait until he came through and gave them permission to follow in his train. They must stand by and see the barbarian monarch served from a silver table, held up before him that he might eat and drink without dismounting from his horse. At last, when he gave the word, they might come on to the village where he had established his court, and on the second day of their stay they were invited to a banquet.
"Punctually at three o'clock," writes the ambassador, "we went to the dinner and stood on the threshold of Attila's palace. According to the custom of the country the cupbearers brought us a bowl of wine that we might drink and pray for the good luck of our host before sitting down."
Attila half sat, half reclined on a couch behind a table raised above the board. He would not demean himself by being on a level with his guests. Nor did he converse with them. Throughout the meal he sat silent and sullen at the head of the table.
When the feasting was over, and the singers and harpists came in and chanted verses in praise of his victories and his might, his face did not change. Clowns came and did their tricks and made their jests, and all the company were in roars of laughter, but Attila did not smile. With unmoved face he sat silent while the others shouted with merriment, until at last the mirth was stilled and the Romans sat silent and uncomfortable, shooting furtive glances at their strange host.
The Huns remained at the table drinking till far into the night, but the Romans slipped away from the wild, barbarous orgy. Three days later they were dismissed with their business accomplished, and turned their backs with rejoicing on the barbarian court.
Attila was content for ten years to receive an ever increasing tribute from the Romans. Then, making alliance with the Vandals in the west and the Franks in the north, he prepared to pour his barbarian hordes into the plains of Europe and wipe out the civilized nations that occupied the land.
The great question was, Would the Romans and Goths unite against the Huns? We to-day can see that on the answer to that question hung the fate of Europe. If they did, Europe might be saved; if they did not, Europe and civilization were doomed. Attila feared that they would combine, and did his best to prevent it. To the Gothic king he sent messengers to explain that this was the time to destroy Rome, the hated conqueror, and to the emperor he represented that this was a chance to drive out the Goths, against whom they had so long waged war, and regain their supremacy. But the Romans and Goths had learned wisdom since the days of Alaric.
The Gothic peoples had come into Italy by means of the sword. Then they had lost their great leader and been left in the land they had coveted, a vast, unwieldy army burdened with long wagon trains of treasure and great camps of women and children. "Before two years were ended," says the historian, "God moved the hearts of the invaders to occupy the land without wasting it. The wandering hosts settled down and became nations dwelling under their kings on conquered soil."
So the two races had dwelt together, and a new generation had been born to each. They had come to know each other, and though there had not always been peace between them, yet the dark-haired Italian noble had found that his tall, fair-haired, fair-skinned neighbor from the north was not so different from himself as he had supposed. The Goths were the noblest of all the barbarian nations, and if it took them some time to learn all the grace of civilization from their cultured neighbors, yet they brought with them from the north a spirit of freedom, a purity, and an unspoiled strength which the Romans were forced to recognize, and to which they were glad to turn in this hour of need, when this Hunnish people, who were so barbarian that it made the Goths seem in comparison like their own race, threatened to come down upon them.
So the Goths and the Romans united their armies and called in their allies, and in July of the year 451they met Attila and his forces on the battle field of Chalons, midway between the north and the south. Such a confusion of all the barbarian nations was never seen before nor since. On the one side were the Romans, a mere shadow people in numbers or power as compared to their great allies, the East Goths and West Goths, the Alans and the Saxons and the Britons, those barbarian peoples who were so fast being transformed into civilized nations, and who were soon to take up that work of maintaining law and order which the Romans were laying down. Against this army of nations, which had been united only by their common danger, stood the Huns and the allies from the Vandals and Franks and Ostrogoths whom they had been able to gather about their standard. It was a conflict of barbarian against barbarian, with every nation and tribe represented; and the more noble barbarians won. Attila and his Huns used all the strange customs of fighting with which they had been wont to terrify the European world. They swept down from the neighboring hills with wild, discordant cries. Dashing through the lines of soldiery on horseback, they threw their lassos or nets round the bodies of their opponents, making them helpless. "It was a battle," says an eyewitness, "which for ruthlessness, for multitude of men, for horror, and for stubbornness has not in all stories of similar encounters since the world began a parallel." Night fell, and the weary hosts were forced by the darkness to cease fighting; but neither Goth nor Roman nor Hun knew till morning which side had been victorious. When day dawned the Goths and Romans, seeing that the Huns did not venture forth from their camp, concluded that the victory was theirs. But Attila, though so many of his followers had been cut down that he dared not renew the battle, yet did not admit defeat, "but clashed his arms, sounded his trumpets, and continually threatened a fresh attack. As a lion close pressed by his hunters, ramps up and down before the entrance to the cave, and neither dares make a spring, nor yet ceases to frighten all the neighborhood with his roarings, so did that most warlike king, though hemmed in, trouble his conquerors. The Goths and Romans accordingly called a council of war and deliberated what was to be done with their worsted foe. As he had no store of provisions, and as he had so posted his archers within the boundaries of his camp as to rain a shower of missiles on an advancing assailant, they decided not to attempt a storm, but to weary him out by a blockade. It is said that seeing his desperate plight the Hunnish king had constructed a funeral pyre of horses' saddles, determined, if the enemy should break into his camp, to hurl himself headlong into the flames, that none should boast himself and say, 'I have wounded Attila,' nor that the lord of so many nations should fall alive into the hands of his enemies."
Attila was not forced to this desperate death. Though the victory was with the Goths it was not an unmixed triumph. They had lost their king and many thousands of men, and they deemed it wise not to press their success farther, but retired in their triumph, leaving the defeated chief to return with his conquered army beyond the Rhine. Both sides had suffered immense losses, and the Hunnish invaders had received for the first time a check in their march of destruction.
Attila returned to his log hut, and there on the vast, lonely plains of Hungary he spent the winter brooding over his defeat and nursing his wounded pride. He became more silent and sullen than ever, until his courtiers came to be afraid of the motionless figure of the king, who seemed hardly to heed whether he was alone or whether a company was about him, but sat ever looking, looking toward the world beyond the river, toward Rome, which he longed to destroy.
With the coming of spring Attila's energy returned, and he became once more the active, alert general, planning an Italian campaign by which he hoped to revive his fallen prestige and regain his position as a terror to the world. He was to succeed in part and for a time, but he was never to sweep things before him as he had in the days when the Huns were surrounded by a mysterious terror far beyond their actual power of destruction. The Italian cities of the Venetian plains were forced to yield, but it was after long sieges and sharp battles. Still it was a terrible invasion, and Rome began to tremble lest once more she should find herself in the power of barbarians.
The cities which Attila was conquering were the most beautiful cities in all Europe. Here had been collected treasures of art, statues of the golden age of Greek and Roman sculpture, paintings, beautiful vases, all preserved in the splendid palaces and churches and public buildings of Aquileia, Verona, Milan, and Pavia. In these marble palaces and amid these priceless treasures Attila and his Huns camped.
To-day we cherish in museums the fragments which they left when they had thrown aside and smashed what was in their way or did not for some reason please them. In the palace where he stayed in Milan, Attila came one day, in the course of his wanderings through the great salons, upon a picture which filled him with rage. It was entitled "The Triumph of Rome over the Barbarians," and pictured the two Roman emperors sitting on their golden thrones, while conquered Scythians crouched at their feet in abject subjection. The "Scythians" were without doubt Goths, and the period of the picture at least a century before Attila's time; but Attila took it as a personal insult to his race. With one of those strange impulses which make us see what shrewdness and humor were combined in this world conqueror with his more terrible qualities, he did not destroy the picture, but called an artist, whom he commanded to paint a companion picture on the opposite wall. In this painting Attila sat on his throne, and the two emperors knelt humbly before him, one with a huge sack of tribute money still on his shoulder, the other pouring out before him a heap of gold pieces from another bag.
Another side of the character of this strange man was soon to be shown. It was time for him to turn southward in his march toward Rome. As Alaric had paused in the passes of Switzerland, so he paused, and his counselors, filled with the awe which every barbarian host felt when it came face to face with the world power which they had so long reverenced, reminded him of the fate of Alaric which came on him so soon after he had taken the Eternal City, and advised him to turn back.
Attila did not turn back, but the strange awe of Rome began to steal over his heart. As he rode on at the head of his army he was met by an embassy from Rome, headed by a commanding figure. Pope Leo I, head of the great Christian Church, which stood for the spiritual power of Christendom, had come to turn Attila from his purpose of attacking Rome. One man—of commanding presence, it is true, and quiet strength—but one man against an army of barbarians! Ah! but he stood for all which the superstitious barbarian feared. He had behind him a might before which Attila did well to tremble. Civilization, with all its constructive power of religion to uplift and lead men, stood over against barbarism, with its superstition and its fierce power of destruction. And civilization triumphed. The awe of Rome fell upon Attila, and he turned back, murmuring, "What gain indeed if I conquer like Alaric, to die with him?"