"The Night Attila Died" Looks Into the Leader's Death

Michael A. Babcock's solution to the mystery of the death of Attila the Hun.

The Night Attila Died
The Night Attila Died. Michael A. Babcock

In "The Night Attila Died: Solving the Murder of Attila the Hun," Michael A. Babcock explains how evidence supports his theory that Attila the Hun did not die on his wedding night of a nosebleed or an alcoholism-induced esophageal rupture. At least, not unaided.

How exactly Attila died is no longer available in the historical record, but between clues of a failed attempt and a cover-up, parallel death scenes in other literature, and ancient ideas on what constitutes a disgraceful way to die, Babcock concludes the Byzantine Emperor Marcian hired assassins to kill Attila.

Evaluating the Historical Evidence

The traditional account of the degrading death of the warrior Attila comes from the Gothic historian Jordanes, writing a century after the event. Jordanes bases his account of Attila's death on that of Attila's contemporary Priscus, who had the first-hand experience of a cautious, clear-headed Hun leader who did not, in Priscus' experience, drink to excess.

Priscus' description of the meal he shared with Attila is part of a travelogue he wrote. Priscus' travelogue has been judged so objective that its author has been "extended a blanket credibility to everything he wrote."

Babcock reveals Priscus as a propagandist with his own agenda, but that does not negate his credibility as a witness. The problem is only part of what Priscus wrote about the death of Attila has survived. Clues about payback for Attila's presumed fratricide linger.

Babcock does more than explain and back up his 17 points of evidence for the murder of Attila. He also shows philological detective work and paints an intimate portrait of life as a graduate student at the University of Minnesota. In addition, he pens portraits of the very romantic Gibbon, the sober Attila, the worthless Emperor Valentinian, the competent "second Constantine" Marcian, and the great "last of the Romans" Aetius. Babcock also crafts a memorable subplot about the 2-generational involvement between the last Roman emperor and the first Gothic king of Rome (following the overthrow of Romulus Augustulus, Odoacer).

German Legends

Unfortunately while reading of "The Night Attila Died: Solving the Murder of Attila the Hun," I wasn't familiar with the Germanic legends Babcock says contain evidence that contemporaries of Attila believed Attila was murdered. This personal deficiency means that after about a hundred fascinating pages, I was suddenly and utterly confused -- despite Babcock's attempt to condense the legends into a few pages. It was hard to pick up the thread again.

Babcock's Case on the Death of Attila the Hun

Michael A. Babcock does an excellent job of tying everything together at the end and he provides a compelling if the undetailed version of Attila's demise.