How Did Attila the Hun Die?

Was the Great Warrior Murdered or Just Over-Exercised?

Collection of book jackets cover showing Attila the Scourge of God.
NYPL Digital Gallery

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 Atilla'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. When he died 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 taking prisoners as slaves.

Attila's Death

Sources differ on the exact circumstances of Attila's death, but it seems clear that he died on his wedding night. He had just married a young woman named Ildico and celebrated with great feasting. In the morning, he was found dead in his bed, having choked on his own blood. It is possible that Attila was assassinated by his new wife in a conspiracy with Marcian, rival Emperor of the East.

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.

After his death, 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. 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.