Nowadays Attila the Hun is a metaphor for a cold blooded, violent thug. And 1,500 years ago, that's pretty much what people thought of him too.
The Scourge of God
The Scourge of God, as he was known professionally, had a reputation for cruelty that was deserved, but not unusual for the time. He killed his brother and co-ruler, Bleda, and is also accused of cannibalism and eating his own two sons.
In 441 AD his army of Huns ravaged the Eastern Roman empire, forcing its emperor, Theodosius II, to pay an annual tribute of 2,100 pounds of gold. Having found the Eastern Romans to be a rather pleasant appetiser, he turned his attentions to the Western Roman empire for the main course of his invasions.
Cruising the Balkans
He cruised through the Balkans, Austria and Germany, absorbing those he conquered into his army. Attila got his comeuppance, however, at Chalons-sur-Marne in Gaul, France, in 451. In a battle not unlike a Dark Age World War, two massive armies came head to head. Attila and his Huns on one side, the Roman Master-General Aëtius and the might of Rome on the other. Tribes from all over Europe and beyond were allied with either of the two factions.
Attila was allied with the Vandal King Gaiseric, and the Hunnic army comprised Ostrogoths, Thuringians, Gepidae and numerous conquered conscripts.
Aëtius was allied with King Theodoric of the Visigoths, and Rome's army, which consisted of Armoricans, Breones, Burgundians, Ripuarian Franks, Salian Franks, supposedly under Meroveus II, and Saxons.
The Alans, Burgundians and Franks were split into pro-Roman and anti-Roman factions.
The Final Score
The final score was Romans 2, Huns 1. Estimates of the time put the number of dead into the hundreds of thousands1. Theodoric was dead. Attila had been defeated, but not decimated. Aëtius allowed him to retreat back to the Rhine, ignoring the cries of vengeance from his Visigoth allies.
The Romans permitted the Huns to settle in Pannonia, Hungary, a massive error in judgement they came to regret. The very next year, Attila invaded Italy and threatened to sack Rome. It was only the intervention of Pope Leo the Great, and the acceptance of a healthy tribute, that prevented this from happening.
In the year after that, AD 453, while preparing to conquer Italy, Attila died preparing to conquer a new bride.
Many European countries have legends of Attila as either cultural superhero or the evil foe overwhelmed by nationalist fervour. One of the most well-known legends is the story of Etzel (Attila) in the Nibelungen-lied2.