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  • Writer's pictureNick Holmes

The Strange Tale of Attila, Honoria and Milan

Updated: May 24, 2023

Ancient Roman columns moved to adorn the front of the Church of San Lorenzo built in the fourth century AD. The columns are thought to have been moved from an abandoned second century AD pagan temple.

Happy New Year 2023!

I was lucky enough to visit Milan just before Christmas. And one thing that’s always surprised me is its lack of Roman remains. Probably the most striking thing is the row of ancient columns in front of the church of San Lorenzo. I think my other favourites are a late Roman tower, which is the only remnant of the once mighty walls that protected the city, and a quite stupendous fourth/fifth century chapel in the San Lorenzo church, called the Cappella di Sant Aquilino, which has a stunning early Christian mosaic.

The only surviving fourth century AD Roman tower in Milan. The Roman walls were built in the late third century AD and withstood many sieges until the city was captured by Attila the Hun in AD 452.

This brilliantly preserved mosaic of Christ is probably either fourth or fifth-century AD, making it one of the earliest depictions. Very unusually, he is shown wearing a Roman toga and holding scrolls in his hand with another jar of scrolls at his feet. Whether the scrolls are legal documents signifying that he was a lawmaker or holy scriptures remains the subject of debate.

So, the question is why are there so few Roman remains? After all, Milan — or Mediolanum, as the Romans called it—was a hugely important city in the late empire. As you know, if you’re a regular listener to my podcast on the Fall of Rome, it was actually the de facto capital of Italy, and also of the wider western empire, from the late third century until AD 408, when Stilicho moved the capital to Ravenna.

The reason for the dearth of Roman remains is quite simple: Attila the Hun flattened the city in AD 452.

The story behind this is part amusing and part horrifying. The amusing bit is that his invitation to invade Italy came from the emperor Valentinian III’s sister, Honoria. Strong-willed women were a feature of the later Roman Empire, and she was certainly a good example. When her dim-witted brother tried to marry her off to a wealthy senator and a life of domestic boredom, she wrote to Attila, asking him to save her. She even sent him her ring, which he interpreted as an offer of marriage. Given Attila was one of the most bloodthirsty tyrants on the planet, you might think she could have done a bit more research on him. Shame the Romans didn’t have dating apps.

Meanwhile, over in the heart of the Hunnic empire (which was on the plains of Hungary at this time), Attila was pleasantly surprised by Honoria’s interest in him. He already had quite a few wives, but a Roman princess was a nice addition. He thought about it (probably not for long) and decided that her dowry should be most of the Roman Empire, which he coveted anyway. At this point, Honoria’s brother was almost certainly hiding behind a curtain. According to the Roman sources, he considered executing his annoying sister, but relented when he realised he would have to explain this to Attila.

Attila was not amused when he heard Honoria had been held up because of some feeble excuse. So, he invaded Gaul. By this date, the Roman Empire was a shadow of its former self (in the west, that is—in the east, it was still a serious force). Indeed, most of the west had been conquered by German tribes who were experimenting with new-fangled ideas like baths and latrines. They were now just as terrified of Attila as the Romans were. When Attila invaded Gaul to claim his dowry, he was met by a huge German confederation of tribes led by a courageous Roman general called Aetius (often called the Last of the Romans). Aetius and the Germans just stopped the Hunnic juggernaut and saved Europe.

Attila was furious. Next, he tried Italy. Here the opposition crumbled. He besieged the Roman fortress town of Aquileia at the top of the Adriatic, which resisted him at first but was then razed to the ground, leaving no archaeological remains. After that, the inhabitants of the towns of the Po valley were so terrified they simply opened their gates and fled. One by one, the great Roman cities of the north were obliterated. Verona (although its amphitheatre survived), Vicenzia, Ticinum and finally Mediolanum itself were all destroyed. So, this is the reason there are so few Roman remains in northern Italy compared to those south of the river Po. So, how, you ask, did Rome survive? And what happened to Attila? Well, our story has a few more twists and turns. The bishop of Rome, Leo, took the credit for saving Rome. As the useless emperor Valentinian was packing his bags, Leo courageously went to meet Attila. No-one knows exactly what happened at their meeting. But Attila immediately retreated to the north. The most likely explanation was that the Hunnic army was suffering from plague, induced by a famine in Italy.

Attila went home, saying he would be back for Honoria. Meanwhile, he found consolation with a beautiful German princess. But on the morning after their wedding night, he was found dead in a pool of blood but without a wound. The consensus is that he either died of a brain haemorrhage, or a nose bleed that choked him while he was in a drunken stupor. A German legend quickly sprang up that the brave young woman killed him. There was wild rejoicing across the western world.

As I was pondering this strange tale sitting in a little café just beside the columns of San Lorenzo, I wondered what happened to Honoria? She married that boring senator. Well, darling, you could have decided a bit earlier…

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