Attila was a warrior and leader of the Huns, a people likely of Asiatic origin who had pressed into northern Europe by the early fifth century A.D. By the time Attila came to power in 434, the Huns had for decades been displacing Germanic tribes, who themselves put pressure on the Roman Empire in their search for safety and new settlements. When Attila came to power he initially ruled alongside his brother, and they attacked Roman-held territory in the Balkans and exacted a huge tribute in what became a pattern of exploiting the wealthy but weakening Roman Empire.

The Failing Roman Empire

After enjoying several hundred years of successful rule over lands that stretched across Europe to Britain, Asia and Africa, the Roman Empire had begun to topple under its own weight by the start of the fifth century. The reasons were many: the expense of maintaining an army large enough to keep vast holdings secure, a series of weak emperors, political corruption and a crumbling infrastructure all helped to set the empire on an irreversible decline. This left the empire, by then administratively divided into eastern and western halves, extremely vulnerable to intruders. Of the many invaders that took advantage of the weakening empire, Attila and his Huns were among the most persistent and rapacious.

Attila's Path

After conquering the Balkans, Attila murdered his brother to rule alone. He attacked the Eastern Empire again, seeking to gain the capital Constantinople. He failed, but was able to exact an even larger tribute than before. Attila’s conquests and plunder cost the Roman Empire dearly in treasure, land, human lives and agricultural production. By 450 Attila had taken much territory in the Eastern Empire and decided to push into the Western Empire by attacking Gaul, but the Roman army forged an alliance with the Visigoths and dealt Attila's forces a number of defeats.

Attila Spares Rome

Undaunted by setbacks in Gaul, Attila marched his troops toward Rome in 452, laying waste to the northern Italian countryside. There, after negotiations with Roman emissaries, Attila dropped his plans to march on the city. According to a popular legend, the presence of Pope Leo I among the negotiators helped change Attila's mind. Other historians speculate that Attila's troops were suffering from famine or an epidemic of disease. For whatever reason, Attila turned his forces away and returned to his headquarters on the Danube River. He would not live long enough to wage another campaign against Rome.

Attila's Early Death

Soon after withdrawing from Italy, Attila died suddenly while celebrating a new marriage in early 453. During his lifetime, Attila’s armies dealt many crippling blows to the Romans as they rampaged through the empire. Rome was already destined to fall, but the devastation and expense that Attila and his warriors were able to inflict certainly helped to hasten its demise.