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What Did Attila the Hun Look Like?

What Did Attila the Hun Look Like?

Also known as Attila the Scourge of God and the sacker of cities, Attila the Hun was born in the early 5th century AD, north of the Danube River.

He made the Huns the most ferocious force, considered the direst enemy of the Western and Eastern Roman Empire. During his reign, the Hunnic empire stretched from central Asia to modern-day France. 

Although it is not known what exactly Attila the Hun looked like, as there are no contemporary descriptions or images of him, some historians have described his appearance. According to Priscus, who met Attila, the Hun king was short of stature.

Let’s talk more about the appearance of Attila the Hun.

What Did Attila the Hun Look Like? Infographic.

Appearance: How Did He Look?

There are a few references to Attila in ancient texts, but these are largely based on legend and folklore rather than historical facts.

Attila in a museum in Hungary.
Attila in a museum in Hungary.
A.Berger, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Some sources describe him as short and squat, with a large head and a flat nose. Others portray him as tall and muscular, with a long beard and piercing eyes. It is possible that these descriptions are more the product of later writers’ imaginations instead of accurate portrayals of Attila’s actual appearance.

However, there’s one historical figure, Priscus, who has described the Hunnic king’s appearance in detail. He was a Roman writer and had a chance to meet Attila, along with roman ambassadors, on a diplomatic mission [1].

Priscus says that Attila had a large head and a broad chest, but he was short of stature. The writer also states that he had small yet wild eyes, a flat nose, a thin beard sprinkled with gray, and a swarthy complexion [2]. He had a charisma that was said to have unsettled people near him.

Priscus also observed that he was stony-faced and quiet while sitting at a dinner table, even when other people around him were laughing. He also writes that the Hunnic king used a wooden cup while others used silver and gold goblets and ate only meat placed on a wooden trencher.

Brief History

Attila was a well-educated and highly skilled military leader who was known for his strategic thinking and diplomatic skills. 

He was able to successfully unite the various tribes of the Huns under his leadership and used his military prowess to conquer and plunder a large portion of Europe.

Despite his reputation as a ruthless conqueror, he was a savvy politician who employed negotiation and diplomacy to his advantage.

Upbringing and Personality

Attila was born into a well-respected and powerful family. During his puberty, he, along with his brother Bleda, saw his uncle (Rugila) ruling the Hun Empire [3]. Both brothers received a thorough education in various subjects, including military tactics, diplomacy, and horsemanship.

They were also fluent in multiple languages, including Gothic and Latin [4], which would have been important for communication and negotiation with other leaders and empires.

This suggests that Attila was not the stereotypical “barbarian” leader often depicted in popular culture but rather a sophisticated and intelligent leader who knew how to navigate the complex political landscape of his time.

Rise to Power

In 434 AD, Attila’s uncle, the king of Huns, died, and both brothers took control of the Hunnic empire. Right after that, Attila negotiated a treaty with Emperor Theodosius II of the Eastern Roman Empire. The emperor agreed to pay 700 pounds of gold to maintain peace.

But after a few years, Attila started attacking the Eastern Roman territory with his forces because he claimed that the emperor had violated the treaty. As a result, Emperor Theodosius II renegotiated the treaty in 443 AD and agreed to pay 2,100 pounds of gold annually [5].

Map showing the extent of Attila's Empire.
Map showing the extent of Attila’s Empire.
Slovenski Volk, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Attila Killing His Brother

Attila withdrew his forces and returned to the Great Hungarian Plain, with his brother, in 443 AD as the peace treaty was concluded.

Since he wanted to become the sole ruler of the Hun Empire, he started plotting to assassinate his brother. In 445 AD, he successfully murdered his brother Bleda and started ruling Huns as an autocrat [6].

Gaul Invasion

In 450 AD, Attila received a letter and a ring from Honoria, sister of Valentinian III, the emperor of the Western Roman Empire [7]. Honoria asked the Hun king to help her out as she was being forced by her brother to marry a Roman aristocrat.

The true intention of Honoria behind sending a ring is still controversial, but Attila chose to interpret it as a proposal of marriage and demanded half the western empire as dowry.

However, Honoria later claimed it wasn’t a marriage proposal when her brother, Valentinian III, discovered his sister was scheming against him.

The emperor wrote to the Hun king and strenuously denied the legitimacy of the proposal. But Attila didn’t give up and carried out two military campaigns for Honoria. But all went in vain as she was married to the Roman aristocrat his brother wanted.

Attila’s Death

Attila had several wives, and in 453 AD, he decided to take another named Ildico. The wedding ceremony took place at the king’s palace, where he drank and feasted late into the night.

Death of Attila, artwork.
Death of Attila
Ferenc Paczka, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The next morning, the Hunnic forces got worried as their king failed to appear. After some time, Attila’s guards broke into his chamber and found the dead body of their king, along with the weeping bride.

An artery had abruptly ruptured, and since the Hun king lay supine, he was choked by a stream of his own blood that regurgitated into his lungs and stomach instead of passing through his nose [8].

Some believed that his new wife played a role in his death, while others said that it was an accident because of binge drinking.

Final Words

As there are no surviving contemporaneous depictions or descriptions of Attila, it’s hard to say exactly what he looked like. But according to the historical evidence that we have, he was short of stature and had a large head and broad chest.

He was a fearless, intelligent, talented, and formidable king who played a significant role in shaping the history of Europe during his lifetime.