How Did Attila the Hun Die?

Was the Great Warrior Murdered or Just Over-Exercised?

Portrait of Attila the Hun

 Leemage/Corbis/Getty Images

The death of Attila the Hun was an important high point in the waning days of the Roman Empire and how he died is something of a mystery. Attila ruled the rival Hunnite Empire between the years 434–453 CE, a time when the Roman Empire had ineffective leadership who were struggling to manage their far-flung territories. The combination of Attila's might and Rome's troubles proved lethal: Attila was able to conquer many of Rome's territories and, finally, Rome itself.

Attila the Warrior

As the military leader of a central Asian nomadic group called the Huns, Attila was able to bring together multiple tribes of warriors to create vast armies. His ferocious troops would sweep in, decimate whole cities, and claim the territory for their own.

Within just ten years, Attila went from leading a group of nomadic tribesmen to leading the (short-lived) Hunnite Empire. At the time of his death in 453 CE, his empire stretched from central Asia across to modern-day France and the Danube Valley. While Attila's achievements were tremendous, his sons were unable to carry on in his footsteps. By 469 CE, the Hunnite Empire had broken apart.

Attila's defeat of Roman cities was due in part to his ruthlessness, but also to his willingness to make and break treaties. When dealing with the Romans, Attila first forced concessions from the cities and then attacked them, leaving devastation behind him and enslaving people as prisoners.

Attila's Death

Sources differ on the exact circumstances of Attila's death, but it seems clear that he died on his wedding night. The primary source for information is the 6th century Gothic monk/historian Jordanes, who had complete access to the writings of the 5th century historian Priscus—only parts of which have survived.

According to Jordanes, in 453 CE, Attila had just married his latest wife, a young woman named Ildico, and celebrated with great feasting. In the morning, the guards broke into his room and found him dead in his bed, his bride weeping over him. There was no wound, and it seemed as though Attila had hemorrhaged through his nose, and he choked on his own blood.

At the time of his death and since, various scenarios for how Attila's death occurred have been put forward. It is possible that Attila was assassinated by his new wife in a conspiracy with Marcian, rival Emperor of the East, and then that murder was covered up by the guards. It is also possible that he died accidentally as a result of alcohol poisoning or esophageal hemorrhage. The most probable cause, as suggested by the historian Priscus of Panium, is a burst blood vessel—a result of decades of large amounts of alcohol.


Attila was buried in three coffins, one nested inside the other; the outer one was of iron, the middle one was of silver, and the inner one was of gold. According to legends of the time, when Attila's body was buried, those who buried him were killed so that his burial place would not be discovered.

Though several recent reports have claimed to have discovered Attila's tomb, those claims have proven to be false. To date, no one knows where Attila the Hun is buried. One unverified story suggests that his followers diverted a river, buried Attila, and then allowed the river to return to its course. If that were the case, then Attila the Hun still lies safely buried under a river in Asia.


Once Attila died, reports Priscus, the men of the army cut their long hair and slashed their cheeks out of grief, so that the greatest of all warriors should be mourned not with tears or the wailing of women but rather with the blood of men.

The death of Attila led to the collapse of the Hun Empire. Three of his sons fought among themselves, the army broke up into pieces supporting one or other of the sons, and as a result suffered severe losses. The Roman Empire was now freed from the threat of invasion by the Huns, but it wasn't enough to halt their own inevitable decay.

Sources and Further Reading

  • Babcock, Michael A. "The Night Attila Died: Solving the Murder of Atilla the Hun." Berkley Books, 2005. 
  • Ecsedy, Ildikó. "The Oriental Background to the Hungarian Tradition About 'Attila's Tomb.'" Acta Orientalia Academiae Scientiarum Hungaricae 36.1/3 (1982): 129–53. Print.
  • Kelly, Christopher. "The End of Empire: Attila the Hun & the Fall of Rome." New York: W.W. North, 2006. 
  • Man, John. 'Attila: The Barbarian King Who Challenged Rome." New York: St. Martin's Press, 2005.
  • Priscus of Panium. "The Fragmentary History of Priscus: Attila, the Huns and the Roman Empire AD 430–476." Trans: Given, John. Merchantville NJ: Evolution Publishing, 2014. 
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Gill, N.S. "How Did Attila the Hun Die?" ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Gill, N.S. (2023, April 5). How Did Attila the Hun Die? Retrieved from Gill, N.S. "How Did Attila the Hun Die?" ThoughtCo. (accessed June 1, 2023).