How much damage did Attila the Hun inflict on the Roman Empire? Essay
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The sixth-century account from Jordanes on Attila highlights the aura that the Hunnic leader had generated through his reign: ‘He was a man born into the world to shake nations, the scourge of all lands…’. Such repute is not created without substance. Attila’s exploits against the Roman Empire between 434-453 have shaped his standing in history, particularly on the basis that by 476, such an empire failed to exist in the West. In the broader context of Roman erosion, however, it is difficult to assess the damaging impact of Attila.
Whilst his notoriety has been carried forward by posterity, a modern historical thought has generally downplayed his significance in damaging Roman supremacy. The extent to which this is justified must be seen through a fragmented perspective. By examining the impact of Attila both militarily and economically, greater clarity is provided in terms of the scale of the damage he inflicted on the Romans. Added to this, Attila’s reign must be placed into a wider scope. The question of his inflictions can be answered when positioned into the chronology of Roman disintegration, primarily in the West. This is augmented by contrasting Attila’s impact against other detrimental influences during this period. In this sense, it allows us to consider whether or not Attila’s damage was simply a supplementation to the grand weakening of Roman power.
Perhaps the greatest attachment to the Hunnic empire under Attila was its ferocity as a military force. Embedded within the stereotyped culture of barbarity and ruthlessness was a sense of martial ascendancy; Priscus’ view asserts this: ‘he (Attila) has a military force which no nation can withstand’. From the Roman perspective, whilst this form of nomadic warfare was not a novelty, it was capable of sheer devastation. The Balkan offensive of 447 under Attila is an example of the capabilities the Huns possessed to inflict serious damage to their Roman counterparts. According to the Gallic Chronicle of 452, around 70 cities in the Balkans were sacked; cities under the control of the Eastern Roman Empire. Whilst this devastation was in itself injurious, it is more of a reflection of the military deficiencies they suffered as a result of the Huns. Defeats notably at the river Ultus and at Chersonesus were damning for the Roman army.
Despite their ternary defensive strategy and protection of Constantinople, they failed to record a single victory in this period; Attila’s forces had induced serious afflictions to their military strength. The extent to which this had paralyzed Eastern Roman forces is presented by Kim, who claims that they were ‘systematically wiped out’, and as a result, failed to effectively defend the Balkans until the end of the century. This brutal struggle against Attila was not isolated in the East. Campaigns across France and Italy from 451-453 also demonstrated his military might. Flavius Aetius’ inability to resist Attila’s invasion of Italy in 452 clearly contrives an image of depletion following a strenuous defense of Gaul; the Battle of Châlons being the dear consolation. It could be argued from this that due to such resulting inefficiencies in manpower, it directly catalyzed the subsequent invasion of Rome in 454 under Geiseric the Vandal. How direct this correlation is, and its root cause being the Hunnic invasions under Attila, is difficult to pinpoint. Despite this, what remains clearer is the fact that Roman manpower had been slashed, and the extent of the destruction caused had interrupted the orientation of society. The latter is most notable in the study of Aquileia.
Its notorious sacking and total ruination perfectly encapsulate Hunnic approach to warfare. Whilst Perkins rightly points out that the lack of archaeological evidence surrounding Aquileia may minimize the extent of its destruction, one may perceive it conversely, instead emphasizing the extremity of ruin capable under Attila. The 6th century Latin chronicler Marcellinus Comes emphasizes this point: ‘It (Hunnic war) devastated almost the whole of Europe and cities and forts were invaded and pillaged’. The military promise of Attila can be seen clearly through both this destruction and the ability of his Huns to efficiently stretch Roman forces across its empire. However, these instances of success did not conglomerate to totally destabilize their authority. It is therefore with this in mind that we must consider the extent to which Attila, and the nature of Hunnic warfare, failed to permanently damage Roman military presence.
Despite the evidence of Attila’s Huns possessing the ability to inflict serious damage to the Roman Empire through warfare, their presence as a military power in this period remains somewhat enigmatic. Whilst the offensives in the Balkans, Gaul, and Italy were effective, the damage seems to be fragmentary; the nature of nomadic warfare could be responsible for this. The deployment of rapid mobility, supplemented by a consistent extraction of resources characterized the Huns under Attila. Whilst this provided successes, the damage would likely have been more severe if territory occupied by the Huns was held, as the example of the Vandals in Carthage demonstrates. However, this was not in their nature, and Roman territory was never conquered by Attila. This is carried forward by Hugh Elton: ‘The Huns were no more capable of bringing down the empire militarily than any other barbarian people’. Furthermore, Christopher Kelly has highlighted the fact that the characteristics of this warfare meant that they could not cope with a conventional form of battle. This is important to stress: the Huns did suffer losses against the Romans.
Their defeat against the Roman/Visigothic coalition on the Catalaunian Plains was the watershed moment in Attila’s campaign in Gaul; whilst his decision not to take Constantinople in 447 was likely due to both the security of the Theodosian Walls, and his wariness of remaining Roman military strength. The latter case is a major indictment of the Huns’ damage to imperial rule. Seizing Constantinople would likely have catalyzed the disintegration of the Eastern Roman Empire, however, Atilla’s assessment prevented this. This once again emphasizes the characteristics of the Huns at this time, it was never in their interest to cause significant break-up by conquering territory, as this ‘reduced their opportunities for continued wealth extraction’. Therefore, the potential for enacting serious damage was never totally fulfilled. Furthermore, in the case of the West, the presence of the Huns may have even strengthened Roman power at one point. Aetius’ use of the Huns against the Visigoths, Armorican bagaudae, and Visigoths from the mid 430’s effectively solidified his position in Gaul. Imperial recognition was also conferred upon Attila, who was granted the honorary rank of magister militum in the 440’s. These were isolated instances, and do not detract us from Attila’s ability to produce the opposite effect. However, they do demonstrate that he was just as capable of maintaining Roman power when it suited his vested interests.
Ultimately, despite perceptions attached to his name, Attila was shrewd when deploying his forces, and the prospective gains were not always birthed from challenging the Romans: ‘Beneath his ferocity, he was a subtle man, and fought with the craft before he made war’. Nonetheless, the puzzling manner of the military threat Attila presented the Roman Empire cannot be denied. Whilst demonstrating instances of superiority on the field, Hunnic potential to enact major damage to the Roman infrastructure remained unfulfilled. The characteristics of Hunnic warfare meant the short-term effects were devastating but held little longevity; as Wickham summarises: ‘as a direct military threat to the Romans they were a flash in the pan’.
As previously stated, a military expedition by Attila was cohesive to economic extraction. The fundamental objective was the acquirement of mass wealth that the Romans possessed. With high demands, the Huns were able to directly exploit the imperial economic system. This is most notable in the East, particularly on the basis that Attila’s demands in 447 forced the Emperor Theodosius to raise taxes; this had never been previously necessary. The annual payment agreed was set at around 2100 pounds of gold, doubling the subsidy orchestrated by Attila and Bleda in 442. Whilst the payment itself does not emphasize economic dissolution, its combination with other expenses might do so. Factoring in the costs of the Hunnic offensive in the Balkans, e.g. loss in provincial revenue, re-equipment and ransoms; the economic picture becomes bleaker for the Eastern Roman Empire. This is reinforced by Priscus’ account of Eastern Roman senators committing suicide under the pressures of Hunnic demands, providing us with an insight into the extent of Attila’s financial bludgeoning. Perhaps greater evidence of the scale of wealth extracted by the Huns are the findings of grand burials across Europe, as Peter Heather states: ‘These rich burials are not just quite rich: they are staggeringly so’. The damage felt by the Roman Empire would not have been simply assessed as a standard loss of mass revenue; it had a deeper significance.
The agreement of major financial compromise would likely have distorted the complex fiscal structure of the Roman world, a structure that supplemented both the feeding of its people and, most importantly, the upkeep of its army. No matter how strong the correlation is on the part of Attila, his ability to coerce huge amounts of money from the Roman Empire would have played some form of role in the larger breakdown of its financial infrastructure. This broader perspective of financial dissolution also incorporates the influence of the Huns indirectly. Although capable of exploiting the Roman economic system, they also emerged crucially to accentuate the exploitation of others; this is shown in 441. Attila and Bleda’s arrival across the Danube aligned itself with the Vandal security of North Africa following their initial seizure in 439. The redirection of troops in Sicily and Aetius’ reluctant conceding of these valuable provinces to the Vandals come as a direct result of the Huns. The cruciality of this is noted by Heather: ‘The richest lands of the Western Empire were thus lost…and the legislation of Aetius’ regime from the 440’s shows unmistakable signs of the financial crisis’. Attila and Bleda’s expansionary ambitions arguably helped maintain the coup de grace for the Roman system in the West. The loss of North Africa, particularly Carthage, dismantled the Roman/Carthaginian tax backbone and potentially catalyzed the downfall of the Western Roman Empire. Therefore, economically, it is clear that Attila had a damaging effect on both sides of the Roman Empire. Whether directly coercing wealth, or indirectly sustaining foreseeable collapse, he inflicted economic injury.
The question of the extent of this damage, however, and its sole attribution being Attila, is not conclusive. It is generally agreed amongst modern historical thought that whilst the amounts coerced by Attila were large, it was done with an acknowledgment of the boundaries that the Roman Empire was able to go. If the extraction of wealth was an over-arching objective, surely the sustainment of this would rely upon the continued existence of the economic system they were targeting. Peter Sarris’ analysis of the Hunnic approach adds further weight to this argument: ‘Hunnic demands were ultimately dependant upon the smooth operation of the Roman fiscal economy’. Attila’s empire was ultimately ‘parasitic’, meaning his demands would have been recognized to be within the boundaries of what Theodosius could afford. In this sense, we can reassess the extent to which the subsidies agreed with the Eastern Roman Empire was truly damaging.
Although the importance of Priscus cannot be rivaled, his account of Eastern financial desperation is questionable, particularly when placed against Olympiodorus’ estimation of senatorial financial wealth. The pinnacle of the aristocratic elite within the Roman Empire was capable of amassing annual incomes of around 4000 pounds of gold; this makes the figures of 447 seem less impactful. In fact, despite Kim’s estimation of accumulative financial crisis, Thompson’s study suggests that Attila’s demands only fractured around 2.2% of the imperial budget. Therefore, despite the relenting nature of the Huns’ financial demands, their damage was not effective enough to hinder the long-term economic supremacy of the Eastern Empire; something that was maintained until the 15th century.
Mirrored with this is the outcome of the Western Roman Empire, whose economy had been stifling since initial barbarian invasions in 376. Whilst Attila did contribute to this breakdown, as previously stated, the extent to which this action correlated directly with Vandal success in North Africa is questionable. This is highlighted by the fact that Attila was not the only exterior threat that caused the sudden redirection of forces from Sicily: the Sassanian Persians had also sprung an offensive against the Roman Empire in 441. Nonetheless, economic struggle is not solely attributed to the age of Attila. Rather, his damage to the Western empire should be seen simply as a contribution to its larger decline, accentuated by a collective of barbarian groups, including the Huns. Peter Brown refers to this as a ‘gold-rush’ that had led to the Western Empire becoming ‘bankrupt up to the time of its extinction in 476’. From this perspective, Attila the Hun did not induce damage that would condemn the empire in the West, rather, his impact was an appendage to its dissolution.
This idea of a ‘steady erosion’ of the Western Roman Empire does detract us from considering Attila as a meaningful figure of damage. Other events can be seen as contributing to this decline in greater effect. Therefore, the extent of the harm caused by Attila can be assessed through chronology, placing it against what had been inflicted before and after his age. From this perspective, it becomes clearer that the impact he had was not as great as one might assume. The unique manner of Hunnic power at this time perhaps characterises this. Following Bleda’s death in 445, the Huns became highly centralised under Attila, displaying elements of a stratified structure of government. This did present a unified military challenge to the Roman Empire. However, it is argued that due to this centralization, the Huns were easier to manage, and therefore could not embed fragmented damage simultaneously. The importance of this becomes more severe when contrasting Attila’s empire to the decentralized Huns outside of his reign.
It was the movement of a multiplicity of Hunnic tribal units that catalysed the mass migration of barbarian groups across Roman frontiers in 376, an event that Heather sees as the direct cause of the eventual deposition of Romulus Augustus a century later. Furthermore, the nature of the Hunnic empire following the death of Attila reflects a similar crisis. The break-up into separate warring units can be seen as providing the final blow to the Western Empire, destabilising the balance of control established by Aetius. In this respect, despite Attila’s direct approach against the Romans during his reign, the damage may not have been as severe because his entity was so organised; a juxtaposing characteristic of usual Hunnic make-up. Whilst Jordanes referred to Attila’s empire as ‘a people to whom it was once thought the whole world would yield’, from a broader historical perspective, it was perhaps the manner of government employed by Attila that prevented this from happening. Narrowing the scope on his reign, however, the presence and influence of other barbarian groups may also downplay the extent of the damage imposed solely by Attila. The impact of the Vandals on the Roman Empire was catastrophic, whilst the Visigoths were a persistent force in the West; both sacked Rome. The latter were even capable of establishing a kingdom in the Iberian Peninsula by 456. This is damage on a long-term scale. Attila’s impact instead can only be measured as supplementing these more effective events with his short-term ferocity. Ultimately, the damage he inflicted on the Roman Empire was impermanent to its wider decline: ‘Attila’s decade of glory was no more than a sideshow in the drama of Western collapse’.
The reign of Attila the Hun can be seen as a paradox. In one respect, it is easy to acknowledge Attila as the ‘scourge of God’ as he has so commonly been portrayed. The antithesis of established Roman civilization, his campaigns on both sides of the Rhine/Danube frontiers clearly held some effect in impairing the economic stability, and military supremacy of the Roman Empire. Furthermore, one could also argue that they held some significance indirectly, particularly aiding the Vandals in North Africa. Despite this, however, considering the wider scope of decline across the Roman Empire, Attila’s effect seems insignificant. Military successes were present but never evolved into cases of materialized conquest. Added to this is the fact that whilst Attila extorted large amounts of wealth from the Eastern Roman Empire, it did nothing to unhinge its long-term dominance. The difficulty in assessing the extent of the damage is that it fits in the middle of a major chronological scope of Roman destabilization in the West. If this process had begun in 376, as many believe, Attila’s arrival in the 5th century seems to simply supplement the long erosion of the Western Roman Empire. Greater damage would be found if we assessed the effect of the Huns as a whole, because, as a collective, they inflicted serious damage over the 4th and 5th centuries. However, the scope is narrowed to Attila, whose impact was fierce, but unfulfilled in permanently damaging the Roman Empire.
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