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The Roman Empire was, at nearly a thousand years, the longest-running empire the world has ever known. Though the most powerful empire in the world for hundreds of years, the Romans gained power as much through their ruthlessness as they did through their technical ingenuity. On the one hand they gave the world Virgil and Horace, magnificent architecture and roads, and on the other, Nero, Caligula, crucifixion, and human and animal slaughter served up as entertainment.

- Paul Rance/

When Attila the Hun Met Pope Leo I

Attila the Hun has long been known as one of the most fearsome characters in history, but the lesser known Pope Leo I was also a formidable enemy. Their methods, though, of getting what they wanted did appear to be quite different.

The First Great Pope

Born at the end of the 4th Century AD, Leo I was the first Pope to be given the title 'the Great', and he was later made a saint. From an aristocratic Italian family, Leo was credited with the meritorious feat of making Attila the Hun abandon his plans to conquer Rome and all of Italy.

Attila the Hun's birthdate is unknown, but the age differences between Leo and Attila would not have been vast. There were vast differences in their individual beliefs, with Attila being a pagan from the nomadic warrior race the Huns.

The Need for a Christian Hero

Christianity was a new if flourishing religion, and any Christian who could make Attila the Hun take a backward step was going to be lauded. There may also have been the fear in the back of Attila's mind that Rome was protected in an unearthly way. In 410, Alaric, King of the Visigoths, had sacked Rome, but had also died soon afterwards. In a very superstitious age, Attila may well have feared that he'd suffer the same fate after his meeting with Leo in 452.

Reasons for Attila's Retreat

Not all historians are convinced that Attila's reason for turning back was down to Leo's persuasiveness. Plague had affected Attila's army, which itself was coming under attack. Food was also running out.

Certainly Leo was courageous to meet Attila in the first place. Whereas Attila depended on the power of the sword, Leo's strength came from his spiritual beliefs. This spiritual strength would have seemed unusual to a pagan such as Attila, and would have given him food for thought. There was, however, a tale that the apparitions of the apostles Peter and Paul, with swords, also accompanied Leo, and that Attila retreated as he feared for his life.

Leo took two other envoys with him to meet Attila the Hun. So they may also have been persuasive in deterring Attila from going any further in his campaign. It has also been speculated that one of the things Attila was offered to retreat was gold. This may indicate that there were efforts to persuade Attila in several ways.

The actual truth of the meeting between these two powerful, historical figures has never been reliably recorded. Thus, how much is genuine, and how much is an invention, is still not known.

Copyright © Paul Rance/

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~Suetonius, et al
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~Cornelius Tacitus, Michael Grant (Translator)
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~Colin Wells
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Penguin Great Ideas : The Christians and the Fall of Rome
~Edward Gibbon
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