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Attila the Hun, Leo the Great, and the Battle of Wills

November 10, 2017


I recently picked up a copy of Colin Evans’ Great Feuds In History: Ten Struggles That Shaped The World, an enticing joyride through some of the most interesting moments in the last 500 years where rulers, politicians, families, and dictators reveal some of mankind’s more dastardly capabilities towards revenge and jealousy. When reading the text, I couldn’t help but be reminded of the fact that these feuds ultimately wrought some semblance of change upon a much wider world than that of the two foes boxing out whatever their beef might be. The battles which so often seem on the mainstream to be about the path of a nation, or the potential undermining of the status quo and the current power structure most often came from the stubborn wills of the people involved. A testament to the power of man’s free will both for the good of a nation but also to the detriment of a vast people and the soul of the person pushing their will to power.

Which brings me to today’s feast. St. Leo the Great was an ardent theologian, a defender of the Faith, and a pastoral, simple man of holiness. Leo, one of only three pontiffs who’ve been given the title ‘Great’ (the others being St. Gregory and St. John Paul II), was the Supreme Pontiff from 440 to 461. When he took the reins of leadership Rome was in a dire fall, yet St. Leo was more than capable to steer through the raging waters of cultural and political strife. One of Leo’s great contentions was the necessity of unity for the Christian Church. Heretical factions were popping throughout the faithful. The Manichees, who held that evil was co-eternal with the good. The Nestorians who attacked Mary’s title of Theotokos. The Monophysites, who contended that Christ could not have been human and divine. And the Pelagians, who taught that man could achieve his own goodness by his own unaided will, no need for the grace of God.

Leo was a staunch defender of the primacy of Peter, not because he held the office but because of Christ’s call to have an authoritative head of His Church, through which the will of Christ and the work of the Holy Spirit finds an embodiment. He practiced this office most profoundly at the Council of Chalcedon. However, his role as the pastor and shepherd of the Christian people took a much deeper tone in the wave of the coming Hun army, distinctly setting its ravenous sights on the great city of Rome.

In the book, Readings In European History Volume I, James Robinson translates a witness testimony to the famed meeting of wills:

 Attila, the leader of the Huns, who was called the scourge of God, came into Italy, inflamed with fury, after he had laid waste with most savage frenzy Thrace and Illyricum, Macedonia and Moesia, Achaia and Greece, Pannonia and Germany. He was utterly cruel in inflicting torture, greedy in plundering, insolent in abuse. . .

Then Leo had compassion on the calamity of Italy and Rome, and with one of the consuls and a large part of the Roman senate he went to meet Attila. The old man of harmless simplicity, venerable in his gray hair and his majestic garb, ready of his own will to give himself entirely for the defense of his flock, went forth to meet the tyrant who was destroying all things. He met Attila, it is said, in the neighborhood of the river Mincio, and he spoke to the grim monarch, saying “The senate and the people of Rome, once conquerors of the world, now indeed vanquished, come before thee as suppliants. We pray for mercy and deliverance. O Attila, thou king of kings, thou couldst have no greater glory than to see suppliant at thy feet this people before whom once all peoples and kings lay suppliant. Thou hast subdued, O Attila, the whole circle of the lands which it was granted to the Romans, victors over all peoples, to conquer. Now we pray that thou, who hast conquered others, shouldst conquer thyself. The people have felt thy scourge; now as suppliants they would feel thy mercy.”

As Leo said these things Attila stood looking upon his venerable garb and aspect, silent, as if thinking deeply. And lo, suddenly there were seen the apostles Peter and Paul, clad like bishops, standing by Leo, the one on the right hand, the other on the left. They held swords stretched out over his head, and threatened Attila with death if he did not obey the pope’s command. Wherefore Attila was appeased, he who had raged as one mad. He, by Leo’s intercession, straightway promised a lasting peace and withdrew beyond the Danube.

While the miraculous nature of the vision given to Attila is certainly powerful in and of itself, the testimony of this clash of wills is something that we ought to take note of. Attila, who famously lived life on his own terms and had very little regard towards the will or desires of others, this man who became one of the most famous tyrants in the history of the world, comes face to face with a man who was struggling just to keep up his own inner guard. Yet the power of Leo’s holiness and desire for non-violence led to Attila backing away from his murderous ploy. I’m certain that this isn’t the first ruler of a nation or city-state to meet with Attila and ask for either mercy or at the very least, a treaty. Yet, it is only Pope Leo, garbed as a holy man, who was able to bend the will of the famed battle leader. Why?

The feuds that so often feed our fancy from history often involve two people with the desire to instigate their own wills over the other. Yet, in Leo’s case there was a different will at play. The profundity of the act of non-violence and humility toward a man who held weakness in no regard went far deeper than a simple battle of wills. Rather, it was the great rupturing of the constant answer to violence with violence. Leo certainly knew that Attila could have annihilated Rome and its citizens, yet he was the shepherd of this flock and was willing to meet this trouble face-to-face. Not in a reactionary, willful desire to prove his own power, but rather as a humble servant to a will much greater than his. Leo echoed the words of Our Lord in the Garden of Eden when He said, “Not my will, but thine be done”, even if that meant Leo giving his own life. So, in light of the feuds that changed the world, I would state that the great feud between Attila and St. Leo was an earthshattering moment that saved the Christian entity which was already in dire shape. However, this feud was not one that continued to cause the hurt and pain of those involved, rather it was a moment of great grace because one man had the courage to be a channel of the grace and humility of the God he served.