A 'Scourge' to the Romans, Attila the Hun Had Good Motive

Raids came in periods of extreme drought, suggesting king sought to prevent starvation
By Arden Dier,  Newser Staff
Posted Dec 23, 2022 9:01 AM CST
A 'Scourge' to the Romans, Attila the Hun Had Good Motive
This 1887 painting by Ulpiano Checa shows the Huns approaching Rome.   (Wikimedia Commons)

Attila the Hun doesn't have a great reputation some 1,500 years after his death in 453 AD. He's typically painted as a bloodthirsty barbarian bent on seizing power no matter the cost. As the 6th-century Eastern Roman bureaucrat Jordanes described the king of the Huns, "He was a man born into the world to shake the nations, the scourge of all lands, who in some way terrified all mankind by the dreadful rumors noised abroad concerning him." But that impression of Attila might now be changing. A study covering 2,000 years of climate data indicates Attila led the Huns on their most devastating raids in years with very dry conditions—suggesting he might have been driven not by a lust for power and bloodshed but by a desperate desire to save his people, per Live Science.

An analysis of tree rings indicates there were unusually dry summers around the floodplains of the Danube and Tisza rivers in what is now Hungary in the 4th and 5th centuries, with periods of extreme drought from 420 to 450. This "would have reduced crop yields and pasture for animals beyond the floodplains," according to a release. It also likely forced the Hunnic peoples to transition from farming and herding to raiding as a "buffer against severe economic challenges," according to the study published Dec. 14 in the Journal of Roman Archaeology. "We found that periods of drought recorded in biochemical signals in tree-rings coincided with an intensification of raiding activity in the region," says study co-author Ulf Büntgen of the University of Cambridge.

Though the Huns initially had a "system of collaboration" with the Romans, this "broke down in the 440s, leading to regular raids of Roman lands and increasing demands for gold," per the release. It adds one particular demand for land along the Danube following the Huns' invasion of the Western Roman province of Gaul in 451 may have been an attempt to secure grazing areas better suited for drought. Though Attila died two years later—Live Science reports he "choked to death on his own nosebleed"—Rome never fully recovered from the raids, which the researchers see as proof "that climatic disruption can fatally weaken even the most accomplished human societies." As for Attila's reputation, historical sources of the events "were primary written by elite Romans who had little direct experience of the peoples and events they described," per the release. (More ancient history stories.)

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