AMWF History: Attila the Hun and Justa Grata Honoria

Justa Grata Honoria, pictured on Roman coins. By Classical Numismatic Group, Inc. http://www.cngcoins.com, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=308162

A few months ago, I blogged about Arcadio Huang and Marie-Claude Regnier, suggesting they might just stand as the earliest AMWF couple in recorded history.

But readers then responded with another possibility — what about Attila the Hun and Justa Grata Honoria, the sister of the Roman emperor?

In this scenario, we must assume Attila the Hun was East Asian or Eurasian, which some scholars have also suggested based on descriptions of Attila’s appearance.

Attila the Hun. By Peter d’Aprix – http://www.galleryhistoricalfigures.com/figuredetail.php?abvrname=AtillaMounted, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9817345

For those of you unfamiliar with the tale, it goes like this. While Attila the Hun was invading his way across Europe, supposedly Justa Grata Honoria secretly sent him her ring and a plea for help. She was hoping to escape an arranged marriage with a man her family considered “safe” for her – a man that clearly she wasn’t fond of. Now, Attila took the ring as a proposal to marry, though historians aren’t sure if this was Justa Grata Honoria’s intention.

In any event, once Honoria’s family discovered her overtures to Attila, they considered it treason – an accusation that would have lead to execution for Honoria, were it not for her mother’s intervention. But here’s the interesting thing, as explained by scholar J.B. Bury:

Attila, when he heard of her treatment, sent an embassy to Ravenna to vindicate her: she had done no wrong, she was affianced to him, and he would come to enforce her right to a share of the imperial power. Again when he was about to march to the Rhine at the beginning of 451, he sent a second embassy demanding her surrender, and gave his envoys her ring to show as a proof of the betrothal. It was as her champion that he invaded Italy in the following year, and, when he retreated, he threatened that he would do worse things unless the Augusta and her rightful inheritance were handed over to him.

In the end though, Attila the Hun and Justa Grata Honoria never were united as a couple, in marriage or otherwise. Here’s Bury’s explanation:

The design was frustrated, first by the energy of Aetius, then by plague, finally by Attila’s sudden death. In 451 he would have been master of Gaul, if Aetius had not succeeded, hardly and at the last moment, in mobilising the Visigoths. In 452 he had Italy at his mercy, and if disease had not broken out in his camp (for that certainly was the cause of his retreat), he could have compelled Valentinian to surrender Honoria. In 453 death only prevented him from coming again, and then he might well have been successful.

Reading about this story, one can’t help noticing how Justa Grata Honoria is vilified in many accounts about her and her proposal to Attila. Some have characterized her as the historical equivalent of a “wild woman” with a boundless thirst for sexual adventures. Whether or not this was true, it strikes me as another example of “slut-shaming” – and potentially, it was intentional. Again, Bury:

Our investigation has shown that the received view of Honoria as a profligate girl, who could not bridle her unchaste instincts…that this view cannot be sustained. I have little doubt that it was originated by Cassiodorus; the scandal gave him a welcome opportunity of denigrating a lady of the Theodosian house.

So are Attila the Huan and Justa Grata Honoria the earliest recorded example of an AMWF connection? Or were they just an intrigue in history? Share your thoughts in the comments!

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