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The Image of Attila in Legend, Movie and Historiography

Korean Minjok Leadership Academy
International Program
Yoon, Jaewon
Term Paper, Seminar History of Historiography, December 2010

Table of Contents

I. Introduction
II. The Common Perception of Attila
III. Attila in the "Nibelungenlied"
III.1 How Attila appears in the "Nibelungenlied"
III.2 Why positive ?
III.3 Why Chivalrous ?
IV. Attila in the Movie (Attila 2001)
V. Attila in Written History, "The History of the Decline and the Fall of the Roman Empire"
V.1 How Attila appears in "The History of the Decline and the Fall of the Roman Empire"
V.2 Why Attila appears so in this example of written history of the 18th century
VI. Conclusion

I. Introduction
            When you ask those who are around you about a specific person, each of their answers varies greatly. In extreme cases, a certain characteristic of that person is described as being the exact opposite. For example, while one may say he is generous, another may say he is selfish. Also, even when the content of the description is similar, the way of describing the quality differs. For instance, one may appraise him to be generous by describing his acts of donations, while another may depict his generosity by quoting one of his lines.
            Such is also the case in how data containing historical figures illustrate the figures. These differences occur because each of the descriptions and the methods of descriptions are effective in different purposes. This study will examine how three different historical materials - legend, Movie, and Written History - each deals with the King of the Huns, Attila, and try to explain why, or find the significance of each methods of description.

II. The Common Perception of Attila
            Attila the Hun is the king of the Hunnic Empire who lived from A.C. 406 to 453. Also known as Etzel, Attila shared the united Hun tribes with his brother, Bleda.
            Right after the two became the leaders of the united Hun tribes, the Hun tribes negotiated a treaty with the Eastern Roman Empire. In the year 443 the Huns attacked the Eastern Roman Empire once more, defeated it, and negotiated a harsh peace treaty. Following t he withdrawal from the Eastern Roman Empire, Bleda was killed by Attila, and Attila became the sole king of the Huns.
            Then, in 450, Attila allied with the Roman Emperor Valentinian III to attack the Visigoth Kingdom. The Western Roman Empire and Attila had a good relation, until Valentinian¡¯s sister Honoria sent Attila a plea for help in order to escape a forced marriage with a Roman senator. Honoria sent her engagement ring with her plea, and Attila accepted this as a message for engagement; he asked half of the Western Roman Empire for dowry. Valentinian III did not approve the engagement as valid; hence Attila and Valentinian III came to oppose each other.
            In 452 Attila invaded the Western Roman Empire in order to claim his marriage with Honoria as a righteous one, but was forced to return back to his home territory because an East Roman forced attacked the home territory of the Huns.
            After his return, Attila planed to attack Italy once more, but could not, for he died in 453. There are several theories relating to Attila's death. The conventional account, from Priscus, says that during his marriage with his latest wife, Attila suffered from a severe nosebleed and choked to death in a stupor. Another theory says that he had an internal bleeding after heavy drinking and died of hemorrhage. Also, there is another theory, reporting that Attila was killed by one of his wives. (1)

III. Attila in the "Nibelungenlied"
            Attila appears in the German epic poem, the "Nibelungenlied". The "Nibelungenlied" is thought by the scholars as a work of an anonymous poet from the area of Danube between Passau and Vienna, dating from about 1180 to 1210. It is based on Germanic heroic motifs, which include oral traditions and reports based on historic events and individuals of the 5th and 6th centuries. (2)

III.1 How Attila Appears in the "Nibelungenlied"
            Attila is a gentle figure in the "Nibelungenlied". Written as Etzel, he is the second husband of Kriemhild, and is ignorant about Kriemhild's scheme to revenge throughout the whole epic.
            "In spite of all these signs, Etzel, whose heart was full of the kindliest intentions, remained entirely ignorant or his wife's evil designs." (3)
            "Had he known, it is quite certain he would have prevented the carrying out of her fell design, for he was a just as well as brave sovereign." (4)
            He is also a generous host, throwing "a sumptuous feast", "preventing (prevented) open hostilities" between the Huns and the Burgundians. Attila was not only a kind host for those alive, but also for those who died.
            "At this point the 'Nibelungenlied' proper ends, but an appendix, probably by another hand, called the 'Lament,' continues the story, and relates how Etzel, Dietrich, and Hildebrand in turn extolled the high deeds and bewailed the untimely end of each hero." (5)
            Furthermore, he even baptizes his new born son in a Christian way.
            "For his part, Etzel was very happy and his happiness was further increased by the birth of a little son, who was baptized in the Christian faith, and called Ortlieb." (6)

III.2 Why Positive ?
            It is easy to understand that Attila in the "Nibelungenlied" is illustrated as a positive character. Why is this so ? This can be explained by the origins of the legend. This legend is known to be incorporated by the fall of the first Kingdom of Burgundy. (7) It used to be told as a oral literature among the Burgundians before it was written. Burgundy was conquered by the Huns in 437.(8) The tendency of formerly conquered nations to depict the conqueror positively is not uncommon, for such a tendency can also be found in the legend of "Dietrich von Bern" (Theoderic the Great), which is also an oral legend, of the Ostrogoths. The Ostrogoths was also conquered by the Huns, like the Burgundians. The legend also mentions Attila briefly, illustrating him as a figure who heroically supports Dietrich. (9)

III.3 Why Chivalrous ?
            Also, if we put all these positive aspects of Attila, he resembles a perfect example of a chivalrous knight. He is a generous, hospitable host. He is a noble king. He shows aspects of faithful Christian when baptizing his son. These are all characteristics known as knightly virtues. (10)
            Considering the time this legend was written, which was the 12th century, it is not odd that the main characters of this legend shows knightly aspects. The literature of the middle ages often depicted chivalric attitudes, as an ideal. Such can be found in many legends concerning King Arthur and his noble knights. (11)

IV. Attila in the Movie (Attila 2001)
            "Attila" the movie successfully captured the actual history in many ways. For instance, most of the events within the movie actually happened in the past. However, there are some parts which were dramatized by the scenario writer's imagination.
            The most important imagination which mainly sets up the character of Attila is his excessive love toward his first wife, N'Kara.
            According to the movie, Attila was killed by Ildico, a servant of the Roman emperor who became another wife of Attila. She resembled N'Kara greatly, so Aetius sent her as an assassin.
            Attila's love, along with his ambition, inspires him to become the king of the Huns. While attempting to become the king of the Huns, Attila fights over Bleda. Here come in another dramatized factor. Bleda is expressed as a cruel man who assassinated Rua, who was the former king before him. Also, Attila has a dual with Bleda in order to become the king.
            Both events did not occur historically. However by inserting this event, Attila, who could even have been a cruel power-hungry murderer of his brother according to the historical facts, becomes a righteous man who punished his brother's wrongdoings.
            Another imagined scene is his visit to Rome and what he learned from there. In the movie Attila, by the invitation of Aetius, visits Rome and learns what civilization is. Later, when he unites the Hunnic tribes, he attempts to introduce civilized culture such as bath tubs in the Hunnic Empire.
            By this the director attempted to show a man full of dreams; a survival who is powerful, fearless, and tough. Furthermore, the movie attempted to capture Attila as a ¡®man¡¯ who desperately loved his people and wanted love. Attila¡¯s attempt to build a civilized empire for the Huns, friendship with Aetius, and romantic but tragic relationship with N¡¯Kara and Ildico all brilliantly illustrates Attila as a loving man.
            Of course there are several minor differences, such as the fact that Gerard Butler is a Caucasian when he is supposed to be the king of the Huns. But such minor differences do not seem to effect the characterization of Attila within the movie.

V. Attila in Written History
            "The History of the Decline and the Fall of the Roman Empire", written by Edward Gibbon and first published from 1776 to 1789 (it is composed of six volumes of books. Volume I was published in 1776, II and III in 1781, IV, V, VI in 1788-89), is a written historical text which contains descriptions of Attila.

V.1. How Attila appears in "The History of the Decline and the Fall of the Roman Empire" (12)
            In this text Attila appears as the king of the barbarians which bothered the Roman Empire. It describes the following events : Attila's invasion to the Eastern empire, the making of the peace treaty between Attila and the Eastern empire, Sending of Embassies between Attila and Theodosius, the engagement between princess Honoria and Attila, Attila's invasion to Gaul and the siege of Orleans, Attila's invasion of Italy, the failure of the invasion, and Attila's death. (13)
            The text also has a chapter containing the personal qualities of the "barbarian".
            "... that formidable barbarian, who alternately insulted and invaded the East and the West, and urged the rapid downfall of the Roman Empire." (14)
            According to the text, "that formidable barbarian" is also arrogant and enjoys other people's terror.
            "The haughty step and demeanor 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." (15)
            He is even described as a deformed figure.
            "... and the portrait of Attila exhibits the genuine deformity of a modern Calmuck ; 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." (16)
            On the other hand, the text tries to show positive aspects of Attila too.
            "Yet this savage hero was not inaccessible to pity; his suppliant enemies might confide in the assurance of peace or pardon; and Attila was considered by his subjects as a just and indulgent master." (17)

V.2. Why Attila appears so in this example of written history of the 18th century
            So why was Attila depicted in such a way in "The History of the Decline and the Fall of the Roman Empire" ?
            On the one hand Attila is described as a total barbarian. This can be explained by the common trend of the historian, Edward Gibbon's time. In the 18th and 19th century, the Roman Empire was idolized by the Europeans. This tradition can be found from Charlemagne's claiming himself as the renewer of the Roman Empire.
(18) Following this tradition, many historians perceived foreign races which attacked the Rome as barbaric. Such aspects can also be found in another historical text published in 1864 by David Pryde.
            "After this fearful proof of his power, the savage little Hun took a strange delight in bullying the degenerate Romans" (19)
            On the other hand, Gibbon attempts to show also some admirable aspects of Attila. This clearly shows that Gibbon attempted to take an objective perspective when describing Attila. Gibbon¡¯s might have done so because of the precedent within his primary source, "Priscus at the Court of Attila." (We can infer that the text was Gibbon's primary source, for Priscus is frequently mentioned in the 6th volume of the book when describing Attila. (20)) In this text Priscus, a late Roman diplomat who visited the court of Attila, describes Attila objectively as possible. (21) For example, on the one hand Priscus states that Attila is a menacing and war-liking figure.
            "...Attila said that if they do not choose to comply with his wishes the differences will be adjusted by arms." (22)
            On the other hand, Priscus describes Attila as being generous and caring for his people. Attila greatly loves his son, who is expected by a prophecy to restore the fallen race of the Huns. (23)
            Because of its objectiveness "The History of the Decline and the Fall of the Roman Empire" is valued by its mostly objective approach and highly accurate use of reference material. Sometimes called as the first "modern historian of ancient Rome", Gibbon left a model for the methodologies of 19th and 20th century historians. (24)
            This fact may be observed by observing post-Gibbon texts such as the Wikipedia. The Wikipedia attempts to qualify its primary sources so that the information given is as unbiased as possible. For example, the article on Attila describes three different credible theories on Attila¡¯s death. (25)

VI. Conclusion
            Just as we perceive individuals around us differently, the views of historical data on historical figures differ. The aforementioned data, the legend "Nibelungenlied", the movie "Attila", and the text "The History of the Decline and the Fall of the Roman Empire", pictures Attila in different perspectives. The "Nibelungenlied" viewed Attila as a chivalrous king, because of the positive feelings the original storytellers, the Burgundians, had and the trend of the 12th century tending to describe heroes as chivalrous. The movie "Attila" views Attila as a righteous, ambitious man, with some bias showing Attila as a figure craving for love. The historical text, "The History of the Decline and the Fall of the Roman Empire", describes Attila as both a barbaric and reasonable figure, because of the European trend of idolizing the Roman Empire and the author's personal attempt to write an unbiased text. All three data each has its own significance, due to the differences of their illustration.

(1)      Article: Attila, from Wikipedia
(2)      Article: Nibelungenlied, from Wikipedia
(3)      Middle Ages, 1987
(4)      ibid.
(5)      ibid.
(6)      ibid.
(7)      Masterpieces of World Literature - The Nibelungenlied, from
(8)      Article : Burgundians from Wikipedia
(9)      Article : Legends about Theodoric the Great from Wikipedia
(10)      Article : Knightly Virtues from Wikipedia
(11)      Article : Chivalry from Wikipedia
(12)      Article : The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire from Wikipedia
(13)      The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, 1861
(14)      ibid.
(15)      ibid.
(16)      ibid.
(17)      ibid.
(18)      Article: Charlemagne from Wikipedia
(19)      Pryde 1864
(20)      The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, 2004
(21)      Article: Priscus from Wikipedia
(22)      Priscus at the Court of Attila from
(23)      ibid.
(24)      Article: The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire from Wikipedia
(25)      Article: Attila, from Wikipedia

Bibliography The following websites were visited in November/December 2010

Primary Sources
1.      Guerber, H. A. "The Nibelungenlied." Middle Ages. Mystic, 1987. Myths and Legends Ser.
2.      Attila. Dir. Dick Lowry. By Robert Cochran. Perf. Gerard Butler, Powers Boothe, and Simmone Mackinnon. Universal, 2001. DVD
3.      Gibbon, Edward, and J. B. Bury. The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, New York: F. DeFau &, (1776-1789) 1861. posted on Google Books
4.      Gibbon, Edward, and J. B. Bury. The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire Vol. 6. Holicong, PA: Wildside, (1776-1789) 2004. posted on Google Books
5.      "Medieval Sourcebook: Priscus at the Court of Attila." FORDHAM.EDU. Web. 08 Dec. 2010. .

Secondary Sources
6.      Article: "Attila." Wikipedia. Web. 03 Oct. 2010. .
7.      Article : "Nibelungenlied." Wikipedia. Web. 03 Oct. 2010. .
8.      Article : "Knightly Virtues." Wikipedia. Web. 22 Nov. 2010. .
9.      Article : "Chivalry." Wikipedia. Web. 22 Nov. 2010. .
10.      Article : "Burgundians." Wikipedia. Web. 23 Nov. 2010. .
11.      Article : "Legends about Theodoric the Great." Wikipedia. Web. 29 Nov. 2010. .
12.      May, By Force. "Masterpieces of World Literature - The Nibelungenlied." History of Art. Web. 24 Nov. 2010. .
13.      Article : "The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire." Wikipedia. Web. 25 Nov. 2010. .
14.      "Charlemagne." Wikipedia. Web. 29 Nov. 2010. .
15.      "Priscus." Wikipedia. Web. 08 Dec. 2010. .
16.      Pryde, David. European History in a Series of Biographies : from the Beginning of the Christian Era till the Present Time. Edinburgh: William P. Nimmo, 1864. posted on Google Books

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