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The Huns: AD 434-453

In 434 two brothers, Bleda and Attila, jointly succeed their uncle in the leadership of the Huns. In the two generations since their defeat of the Ostrogoths and Visigoths, these people have steadily won control of a large territory stretching from the Alps up to the Baltic and east as far as the Caspian. With their speed and ferocity as mounted archers, the Huns terrify their more sedate neighbours. They have developed the habit of demanding large sums in tribute from the eastern Roman empire.

One of the first acts of Bleda and Attila is to double the annual tribute of gold from Constantinople - to more than 300 kilograms a year.

When the Romans are slow to pay, Attila goes on a rampage of destruction - south over the Danube and east as far as Gallipoli (he wastes no time attacking Constantinople itself, where the great walls are impervious to mere archers, however Hunnish). The result is a new agreement in 443. The Roman arrears are calculated at 3000 kilograms of gold. The annual tribute is raised to 1000 kilograms.

In about 445 Attila murders his brother and henceforth rules without restriction.

As yet Attila has not invaded the western empire, but he is provided in 450 with an interesting pretext. He receives a ring from Honoria, the sister of the western emperor. In the accompanying message Honoria explains that an unwelcome marriage has been arranged for her; she begs Attila to rescue her from this fate. With some justification he takes this as a proposal. He accepts, and demands half the western empire as her dowry.

When Attila enters Gaul in 451, the expectant bridegroom meets his first setback. A Roman army, supported by Visigoths and Burgundians (fulfilling their obligation as federates), defeats him at an unidentified site described as the Catalaunian Plain, somewhere between Troyes and Châlons-sur-Marne.

Attila withdraws from Gaul but in the spring of 452 he invades northern Italy, sacking many towns before plague and famine cause him to turn and retreat again to the north - a happy conclusion often also credited to a timely visit by pope Leo I. In 453 the conqueror, who has earned from his Christian enemies the title 'Scourge of God', dies in his bed on the night of his wedding to a new young wife.

He already has a great many sons, whose quarrels soon dissipate the empire of the Huns. By the end of the 5th century, during which Attila has terrorized the Roman empire, the Huns have effectively faded from history. Their collapse provides a welcome opportunity for the neighbouring Slavs.

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