Sunday, 12 February 2012

The similarities of Charlemagne and Attila the Hun

I’m about halfway through the fifth volume of Edward Gibbon’s splendid (if bloody enormous) The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, and was suddenly struck by certain similarities between the heroic Charlemagne and the villainous Attila.

Charlemagne is widely regarded as a splendid fellow, and he certainly enjoyed great success. His empire (he was crowned Emperor of the West on Christmas Day 800AD) covered France, Germany, Italy and some of Spain (roughly 2/3 of the old Western Empire). He did not manage to eject the Saracens from Spain, but instead preferred to conquer much of Germany.

Charlemagne enjoyed a healthy inheritance of royalty and military might, as his father and grandfather had both been skilled military leaders as well. However, after him the Carlovingian line (which took over from the Merovingians) faltered and then failed quite quickly. The empire was split, and the powerful domains were not reunited again.

Attila’s generally seen as wicked, because he spent much of his time menacing the Roman Empire, as barbarians of the 5th century did rather a lot. He built up an absolutely massive army, comprised greatly of allied tribes who either freely offered manpower as a sign of allegiance or had been forced into so doing.

The defeat of the Huns was actually slightly reminiscent of Antigonus Monopthalmus, the Diadochus whose predominance of power in the 4th century BC encouraged his rival Diadochi (Lysimachus, Cassander and Seleucus) to combine their forces to try and bring him down. The Visigoths, who had control of Gaul, joined armies with Aetius (a Roman general) and managed to defeat the Huns at the Battle of the Catalaunian Plains. Attila died two years later (possibly due to drinking too much), and his great domains and military forces consumed themselves as his sons battled for control amongst themselves.

Both men were skilled military leaders who accrued great power, but after their deaths their legacies did not last long. Charlemagne split his territory amongst his sons, and though Attila had intended one son to succeed him (a more sensible policy) this did not occur. A state that is synonymous with a single leader cannot be stable, especially if it’s subsequently split into multiple states amongst succeeding brothers. Even the mightiest of empires can quickly disintegrate without sound foundations (Alexander’s unified empire fractured almost the moment he died).

On a longer scale, we see the same thing happen with Rome. During its Republican period soldiers were loyal to the state, and a soldier was synonymous with a citizen. After the Marian reforms and then the shift to an empire, soldiers became loyal to generals and emperors, which led to a great deal of infighting. There were times this stopped (the Flavian dynasty and the Golden Age from Nerva to Marcus Aurelius) but Rome was never able to regain her old form. Success depended on having a good emperor and good fortune, but the empire was hooked on regicide.



  1. Thaddeus.
    Of course we can observe similarities between Atilla and Charlemagne, as we are talking about the very same person. Atilla is the original historical character, who defeated the Romans, and defended Europe from the Arabs. Charlemagne never existed as a separate historical charter. Note that the name itself Charlemagne stands for Charle + Magne (Great), and Charle is the French version of German Karl. Now Karl is a derivation from Kiraly, that means "King" in Hungarian, the official title of Atilla, and all Hungarian kings since him (being the last Hungarian király, or king Károly (Karl) király, 1916-18). The time gap between Charlemagne and Atilla the Királymagne is explained that all historical documents of the Karolings resulted to be fake, and there is no evidence of any about the historical validity of Charlemagne as a French (Frankish) ruler. Medieval Hungarian chronicles also state that Atilla defeated the Arabs in Hispania, that would be impossible according to the accepted historical chronology. What happened is that Western rulers, especially the catholic church needed a rewritten history that underpins their historical claims of territory and power. They decided to create the figure of the Glorious Charlemagne, who did this and that, so the Roman church is entitled to this and that. It has also been proven that German Niebelung mythology's hero Etzel is not else but Atilla. Just a few remarks: Atilla died of being poisoned by his wife, not because of drinking too much (it's hard to imagine an alcoholic ruler who goes to battles drunk or so), and Atilla was the liberator of peoples, as the barbarians were the Romans, who enslaved people and their main entertainment was murdering their slaves in Arenas. Also, Atilla did not lose at Catalaunum, just decided to let the weak Romans leave. This was, and is totally incomprehensible to Westerners, who knew and know no mercy even today. Many of your observations are valid, but you still need to look though Western propaganda that has been poisoning our World since centuries. Greetings from Hungary, István

  2. Hey Istvan,

    there's about three centuries or so between Attila and Charlemagne, which I think coincides with the time period that some people believe was made up by Otto III, so that he'd end up being Holy Roman Emperor in 1000AD [I know that's not directly related to Attila/Charlemagne, but it does tally with the theory that Attila and Charlemagne could be the same person].

    The Romans can be seen in various lights. They did enslave a lot of people, but also brought prolonged peace and prosperity to many places (such as Gaul). It's also worth noting that Rome declined substantially during the latter Western years (during which Attila was about).

    This is the first time I've heard the view that Attila/Charlemagne might be the same person, but it's always interesting to hear new perspectives. Thanks for your comment.