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Few people have been so personally influential to history, so singularly identified with the nation that birthed them, as Attila (c. 406 - 453). Rampaging into Eastern Europe from the Central Asian steppe in the late fourth century A.D., the Huns had already assured their place in history before Attila was born. But it was Attila that finally led them - and the innumerable peoples they had conquered - upon their inevitable clash with the dying Roman Empire.
Attila's army of horse archers were trained from birth - Huns were famously said to have learned to ride before they could walk - and operated like the medieval equivalent of jet fighters, racing in to shower the enemy with arrows and riding off before a response could be offered. When the enemy attempted to give chase, they were ridden down and cut to pieces.
Attila plundered the Balkans until there was virtually nothing left to steal, and seemed content to simply annihilate every token force the Eastern Roman Empire sent against him. Upon receipt of a ring from an imprisoned Roman princess, however - a gift which Attila chose to interpret as an offer of marriage - he led his undefeated force into Western Europe, sacking numerous cities in what is today northern France. Only the successful defense of Aurelianum (Orleans) and a fierce battle against a coalition of Romans and Visigoths finally turned back the Huns.
Attila led an abortive campaign into Italy the following year during which his men suffered disease and starvation, and finally abandoned it after a meeting with Pope Leo I. Leo took the credit for stopping Attila and used the meeting as a propoganda tool, leading the Catholic church of Rome to become the preeminent Church in Europe. Attila, meanwhile, returned home to celebrate his marriage to a new wife. He was found dead the next day, his bride weeping beside him. Whether he was poisoned or simply drank himself to death remains uncertain.
After Attila's demise, the Hunnic Empire quickly fell to pieces. Their subsequent defeat by a Germanic coalition at Nedao in Pannonia spelled the end of the Huns as a political force. Attila, meanwhile, lived on in the European imagination for centuries afterward, becoming synonymous in the Christian imagination with evil (Attila had called himself "The Scourge of God"). He appears in the sagas and epic poetry of the Germanic nations that fought with and against him, depicted as both noble (King Etzel, the Nibelungenlied) and wicked (Atli, the Volsunga Saga). He even appears in the seventh circle of Dante's Inferno.
Many nomadic peoples followed the Huns out of central Asia in the centuries that followed, and often caused great destruction and terror. But none ever proved as threatening to civilization, or their leaders as enduring a representation of evil, as the Huns and their King, Attila.