When Leo the Great, the bishop of Rome, rode out of the Eternal City in the year A.D. 452 to meet Attila the Hun, Leo had no arms, no army, no armor, no bodyguards, no great retinue of ambassadors and advisers, advance men and area specialists, no makeup men and publicists, no claque of courtiers, flatterers, or other hangers-on. He went out with only a few fellow churchmen riding alongside him and a couple of lesser officials of the enfeebled and fading Roman Empire.
Attila, the man Leo went to meet, came to the encounter at the head of a large, well-armed, infamously rapacious, battle-hardened army of Huns on horseback: more than three hundred thousand of them according to some sources, men who had a reputation - at the time, if not among recent, more skeptical scholars, who regard him at a comfortable distance - for roasting pregnant women, cutting out the fetus, putting it in a dish, pour water over it, dipping their weapons into the potion, eating the flesh of children, and drinking the blood of women. They supported themselves, as they rode through the countryside, with pillage and extortion. They ate horse-meat and drank vast amounts of wine. Even the Goths were terrified, according to the Roman historian Ammianus Marcellinus, when the Hunnish cavalry swept into battle, with dazzling speed, howling and yelling, and dashing in all directions at once.
While some modern historians doubt the reports of this savage behavior, others are inclined to accept it, given similar atrocities committed in wars of the 1600's, or even by revolutionaries in the twentieth century.
The Huns, said Ammianus, were "almost glued to their horses," which was part of the secret of their success in war. And if Attila followed his usual custom, he did not dismount when he met the pope, but instead stayed on his horse, one leg thrown casually over the horse's neck, surrounded by mounted companions, ready to turn and scatter at any moment.
The two men met because Attila and his followers, having plundered the northern Italian peninsula, were on their way south, with the apparent intention of sacking the city of Rome. Leo's task was to persuade Attila not to move on down the peninsula and plunder and burn the center of Western civilization.
Sadly, we have no exact records of the discussion between Leo and Attila. Leo, speaking from a position of very little power, had to think of something to say to Attila to make the Hun king hesitate. What would make the Huns turn away from attacking Rome?
What seems most likely, astonishing as it may be, is that Leo told Attila the truth. The truth was that there was a plague raging in Rome, and that if Attila brought his soldiers there by might die of the plague. Such a warning would have struck Attila with considerable force: Alaric had died of the plague after he sacked Rome.
Alaric, king of the Visigoths, had pillaged Rome in 410 A.D., alarming Roman society. Augustine had written his famous book in response to those who said that the Roman gods had caused the Visigoths to attack Rome; the gods were allegedly angry that the Romans were allowing Christians to exist in the city, and pagans were demanding a return to the mass execution of Christians. Augustine had argued that the Visigoths would have attacked Rome regardless of the religion of the city's inhabitants. In any case, Alaric had indeed been killed by the disease shortly after conquering the city, a fact which was well-known to Attila.
To be sure, it may be that Attila had already heard of the plague from others, of as some historians have said, that his army had already been struck by the plague, and his forces were growing weaker moment by moment - and that all Leo did was to add the finishing touch.
Riding with Leo were Avienus and Trigetius, two Roman officials. Why didn't they carry out this diplomatic errand? Why bring along the leader of a religious group, a religious group viewed somewhat suspiciously by many Romans? Why not only bring him along, but why put him in charge of this task? Why not let Roman officials speak for the Roman government? Leo wasn't part of the Roman government, but he was known for his integrity. Leo was honest, and when all of Rome was terrified, concerned about whether the entire city might be destroyed, they trusted Leo. Even those who wanted the Christians executed were willing to put the fate of their nation in the hands of a Christian, because they knew that Leo's reputation for honesty would cause Attila to listen.
But why was it necessary for Leo to make this long trip just to tell Attila what Attila might already have heard from others, or Avienus or Trigetius could quite as easily have said? Perhaps because Leo was the only credible voice in the empire, the only Attila, having been lied to repeatedly by emissaries of the empire, could be counted on to believe. This is why diplomats so often insist, odd as it may seem, that truthfulness is the first among the virtues of a successful ambassador. Delivered at precisely the right moment, it can alter the course of history.
Attila turned back from Rome. He took his army and withdrew from Italy.
There are many unanswered questions about this encounter: what would have happened had Leo not gone to see Attila? How much did Attila know about the plague?
What difference did this meeting between Leo and Attila finally make? In the years that followed, not even Leo could keep the Roman Empire from final dissolution. By the end of the century, all the remnants of the empire in the west had been incorporated into Germanic kingdoms, and the great empire of antiquity was gone forever.
Leo's feat, then, was no so much about adding a few more years to life of the Roman empire, but rather about creating a foundation for a new phase of world history. Yes, he did save Rome for a while longer, but Rome was inevitably falling, and it had started falling before Leo took a leadership position among Rome's Christians. Leo created a safe zone for a new European culture, shaped by Frankish-Germanic culture and Christian spirituality, to take root, and he created this incubator by means of honest diplomacy, not by means of deception. Attila knew that, even if Leo was in some sense an enemy, Leo could be trusted.