Attila (Magyar, Etele; Ger. Etzel), king of the Huns, died in 453 or 454. About 434, with Bleda, his brother, he succeeded Roas, his uncle, in the leadership of the nation, which then included or swayed the northern tribes from the Rhine to the Volga. The brothers threatened to invade the eastern empire, but Theodosius II. obtained peace by the surrender of territory south of the Danube and the payment of an annual tribute. Attila assured the Huns that he had discovered the sword of the Scythian god of war, with which he was to procure for them the dominion of the world. He called himself the scourge of God, and his subjects looked on him with superstitious awe. In 444 he ordered the murder of his brother as a dictate of the divine will, and the fratricide was celebrated as a victory. He invaded the Persian dominions, but being defeated in Armenia, he turned toward the eastern empire. With an army of upward of half a million men, mostly cavalry, he overran Illyria and all the region between the Black sea and the Adriatic. Theodosius II. was overpowered in three battles. Thrace, Macedonia, and Greece were devastated, and more than 70 of the most flourishing cities destroyed. Theodosius obtained peace again only by an enormous ransom.

About 451 Attila turned west toward Gaul, marched through Germany, crossed the Rhine, the Moselle, and the Seine, and encamped before Orleans. The inhabitants, encouraged by their bishop Anianus, resisted the first attacks of the assailants, and were soon relieved, on June 14, by the approach of the army of Aetius, the commander of the Romans, with their allies the Visigoths under Theodoric, the Franks under Meroveus, the Burgundians, the Alans, and other barbarians. Attila retired into Champagne, and took his stand in the Catalaunian plains where Chalons-sur-Marne is now situated, and there fought about the end of June the most murderous battle ever known in European history. (See Aetius.) Attila was defeated, and recrossed the Rhine, but in the next year again assailed the empire, invading Italy. He destroyed Aquileia, Padua, Vicenza, Verona, and other cities, whose fugitives afterward founded Venice; pillaged Pavia and Milan, and established his camp at the confluence of the Mincio and the Po, near Mantua. Rome was saved by the personal mediation of Pope Leo I., who visited the barbarian in his camp, and is said to have awed him by his sacred character.

The chroniclers say the spirits of the apostles Peter and Paul appeared to him with menaces, a legend immortalized by Raphael. In July, 452, Attila, having concluded a truce, returned to the Danube, meditating for the next year a new invasion of the eastern empire, or, as some maintain, a return to Italy. But he died in his capital or Camp in Pannonia, the night of his nuptials with the beautiful Ildico, whom he had married in addition to the many wives he already possessed. The courtiers found him in the morning dead, either through sudden illness, or, as some suspected, through the treachery of Ildico, whose people, the Burgundians, had suffered much at his hands. His body was put in a coffin of iron, over which was one of silver, and a third of gold. He was buried secretly at night together with a mass of treasure and arms, and the prisoners who dug the grave were killed. He is also celebrated as a kind of national hero by the Hungarians.