John Bury
History of the Later Roman Empire

He was not well favoured. His features, according to a Gothic historian, 'bore the stamp of his origin; and the portrait of Attila exhibited the genuine deformity of a modern Kalmuck: a large head, a swarthy complexion, small, deep-seated eyes, a flat nose, a few hairs in the place of a beard, broad shoulders, and a short square body of nervous strength though of a disproportioned form. The haughty step and demeanour of the king of the Huns expressed the consciousness of his superiority above the rest of mankind, and he had the custom of fiercely rolling his eyes as if he wished to enjoy the terror which he inspired.' He was versed in all the arts of diplomacy, but the chief aim of his policy was plunder. He was far less cruel than the great Mongolian conqueror of the thirteenth century, Chingiz Khan, with whom he has sometimes been compared; he was capable of pity and could sometimes, pardon his enemies.

Attila had some reason for his haughty disdain if he could trace his line of ancestry back for a thousand years and was directly descended from the great chieftains of the Hiung-nu, whose names have been recorded by early Chinese writers. And if we accept this descent as a genuine tradition, we can infer that he was not of pure Turkish blood. Some of his forefathers had married Chinese princesses, and there may also have been an admixture of the blood of Indo-Scythians.

At the beginning of the new reign several points of dispute which had arisen between Rugila and Theodosius were settled. The settlement was entirely to the advantage of the Huns. The Imperial government undertook to double the annual payment, which was thus raised to 700 lbs. of gold; not to receive Hun deserters; to surrender all those who had already deserted; to restore or pay a ransom for Roman prisoners who had escaped; not to form an alliance with any barbarian people at war with the Huns; and to place no restrictions on the trade between the two peoples. The prohibition of receiving fugitives from Attila's empire was particularly important, because the Roman army was largely recruited from barbarians beyond the Danube.

During the early years of his reign, from A.D. 434 to 441, he seems to have been engaged in extending his power in the east towards the Caucasian Mountains. But in A.D. 441 an irresistible opportunity offered itself for attacking the provinces of Theodosius, for in that year the Imperial armies were engaged in operations against both the Vandals and the Persians.

He condescended to allege reasons for his aggression. He complained that the tribute had not been regularly paid, and that deserters had not been restored. When the Imperial government disregarded his complaints, he appeared on the Danube and laid siege to Ratiaria. Here Roman ambassadors arrived to remonstrate with him for breaking the peace. He replied by alleging that the bishop of Margus had entered the
land of the Huns and robbed treasures from the tombs of their kings, and he demanded the surrender of these treasures as well as of deserters. The negotiations broke down, and, having captured and plundered Ratiaria, the Hunnic horsemen rode up the course of the Danube to take the great towns on its banks. Viminacium and Singidunum itself were overwhelmed in the onslaught. Margus, which faces Constantia on the opposite side of the river, fell by treachery; the same bishop whom Attila accused as a grave-robber betrayed a Roman town and its Christian inhabitants to the cruelty of the heathen destroyer. Advancing up the valley of the Margus, the invaders halted before the walls of Naissus, and though the inhabitants made a brave defence, the place yielded to the machines of Attila and the missiles of a countless host. Then the marauders rode south-eastward and approached Constantinople. He did not venture to attack the capital, but he took Philippopolis and Arcadiopolis and the fort of Athyras.

  The World was all before them, where to choose
Their place of rest, and Providence their guide:
They, hand in hand, with wand'ring steps and slow,

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Through Eden took their solitary way.