The meeting between St. Leo the Great, Pope of Rome, and Attila the Hun was brief. The story of what led up to that meeting takes somewhat longer to tell.
It started in the year 450. Honoria, the older sister of Valentinian III, emperor of the western Roman Empire, was frustrated. Her brother the emperor had decreed that she could never marry and must remain forever celibate. He was worried that if she had sons, they might try to take the throne from him. Which was not an unreasonable thing to worry a Roman emperor.
Unfortunately, Honoria wasn’t inclined to celibacy. And when she was caught in an affair with a chamberlain, Emperor Valentinian had to deal with the scandal. He first thought to send her to a convent in Constantinople. But either they refused to take her, or she refused to go. In any event, he decided to marry her off to a senator named Bassus Herculanus. Valentinian thought that Bassus was lacking in ambition, and was a safe choice for his sister. Bassus and his children wouldn’t be a threat to his throne.
Honoria seems to have agreed with her brother’s assessment of Bassus. And she wasn’t inclined to marry a man who lacked ambition, and she wasn’t particularly interested in someone who was safe. So she looked around and found a man who was more ambitious and not at all safe: Attila the Hun.
Honoria and Attila
Honoria sent Attila a letter, asking him to rescue her from this unwanted marriage, and including with it a ring. He replied that he would be happy to marry Honoria, with half the kingdom as the dowry.
Valentinian’s first thought, when he learned what Honoria had done, was to kill her. Their mother intervened. I don’t know if she pointed out that killing his sister would put him in danger of the vengeance of God, or of Attila , or both. In any event, Valentinian decided to exile Honoria, and to tell Attila that the letter from Honoria wasn’t a legitimate offer of marriage.
In 451, Valentinian got Attila’s response. He was on his way to Rome to collect his intended wife and his dowry. He arrived in northern Italy in 452. And, to make sure that Valentinian understood that he intended to take what he considered his own, he pillaged and looted and burned cities along the way.
Valentinian looks to Pope Leo
Valentinian didn’t have an army that could hold off the Huns. So he decided to send a delegation to negotiate with Attila. What was the worst that could happen? The Huns could kill the delegates first, then sack the city. Or they could sack the city first, then kill the delegates. Or perhaps there would be a miracle, and the city would be spared.
A Christian writer who may well have been a witness to the meeting described it, saying, “Our most blessed Pope Leo – trusting in the help of God, who never fails the righteous in their trials – undertook the task, accompanied by Avienus, a man of consular rank, and the prefect Trygetius. And the outcome was what his faith had foreseen; for when the king had received the embassy, he was so impressed by the presence of the high priest that he ordered his army to give up warfare and, after he had promised peace, he departed beyond the Danube.”
A later writer suggested it wasn’t so much Pope Leo’s presence that persuaded Attila to leave, but a vision of St. Peter and St. Paul threatening to kill him if he didn’t go. Others have suggested that his army was afflicted by plague and food shortages, and he was looking for a good excuse to turn back anyway.
Whatever it was, the people of Rome believed that Attila left because of Pope Leo, because of the power of his holiness. And while today we consider him a saint because of his theological writings, which laid the foundation for the Council of Chalcedon, he was acclaimed a saint because he was willing to risk his life to save his people.
Kontakion of St. Leo the Great
O glorious Leo, when you rose to the Bishop’s throne,
You shut the lions’ mouths with the true doctrine of the Holy Trinity:
You enlightened your flock with the knowledge of God.
Therefore you are glorified, O seer of things divine!
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