61. Capture of Aquileia.
Having thus raised a secure defence for his own troops against the destructive sallies of the garrison, Attila pressed the siege with vigour. At the northern angle of the tower stood a tower of great antiquity, which, being occupied by a strong force, very much molested Attila. Menapus had strengthened its fortifications, and made a wall and ditch in front of it. It was a great object to Attila to gain possession of this outwork, because it commanded the whole town He therefore approached his works to it, and filled the ditch with earth and stones, and tried by his archery to drive the Aquileians from the walls, while he sent light troops across the ditch to break down the wall with hatchets. Having succeeded in clearing the walls by incessant vollies of arrows, they overleaped the fosse, singing barbarian omens of victory. Menapus came immediately to the relief of the tower, and hot iron, molten lead, and blazing pitch, were thrown upon the Huns. Attila goaded on fresh troops to the attack, compelling them not only by words of command, but by the sword, to advance to certain death. But at length they gained a footing on the inner side of the fosse, and began to destroy the wall, where the mortar of the new works was not perfectly hardened, and a narrow breach was made.
Menapus singly resisted in the breach, and sallied through it, followed by a great power of Aquileians, and they forced their way even to Attila himself through the flying enemy, throwing torches and firebrands amongst them. Oricus brother of the governor sallied at the same time through the nearest gate with the Roman cavalry, and made great havoc amongst the enemy, killing all stragglers, and increasing the disorder of the discomfited Huns. Attila immediately ordered his own cavalry to advance, and charged at their head. After a severe conflict near the villa of Mencetius, Oricus was either killed or mortally wounded, and his followers nearly all cut off.
Menapus, wounded, returned through the breach in the outer wall, and some of the Huns forced their way in, but their comrades were beat off by the engines of the garrison, and he got safe into the town. Night succeeded, and the Huns continued to sap the foundations of the tower, but, being only protected by their shields, they were at last forced to fall back with great loss of men. The Aquileians however had sacrificed their whole cavalry and its leader, a loss which outweighed all the previous slaughter of the enemy, and the town was become ruinous and almost untenable. Forestus and many other valiant men had fallen in its defence.
Menapus, therefore, despairing of successful resistance, as the army of Aetius remained inactive behind the Po, and no hopes of relief were held out to him, sent by night the children and women, and the wounded men to the nearest island, Gradus, with the patriarch Nicetas and the church utensils, being confident that the barbarians, who were unskilled in navigation, would not pursue their enemies by sea. He then attempted to repair the fortifications of the town and the wall in front of it.
The third month was now far spent, since Attila had commenced operations against Aquileia, and yet there was no certain prospect of taking the town. His troops murmured, and began to talk of raising the siege, when he observed a stork remove its young from the long contested tower. Thereupon he turned to his soldiers, and, auguring its speedy fell from that circumstance, he exhorted them to make a most vigorous attack upon it. Having been undermined and shaken before, it was at last beat out of the perpendicular by the immense stones thrown by the engines which he had caused to be constructed. It fell in the night time with a tremendous crash, which made the whole population start out of their beds; and, if Attila had immediately attacked the city, he might have taken it in the first moment of confusion.
The obscurity of the night and the ignorance of the Huns as to the actual state of the defenses gave the besieged a short respite, and Menapus quickly constructed an inner fortification with mud and stones, but he was aware that such a defence could not hold out long. At day break, Attila, having seen the state of things, made a bloody attack, and gained possession of the ruins of the tower; and, having driven the Aquileians behind the old wall, he began to strengthen the post, intending to use it for offensive operations against the town. Menapus now despaired of making good the defence of Aquileia; provisions were beginning to fail, and Valentinian had abandoned the outfit of a fleet which he had ordered to be equipped at Ravenna at the commencement of the siege. The governor therefore removed the greater part of his people to Gradus during the night, and placed statues or figures on the walls to look like sentinels, and prevent the enemy from noticing the evacuation of the city by the garrison.
When the day broke, the Huns at first wondered at the unusual silence, but at length observing birds alight on some of the figures, they perceived that the fortifications were abandoned. They immediately forced their way through the new wall, and killed all the men, children, and aged women, who were still remaining in the town; the younger women found in it were reserved for the embraces of the conquerors. Two matrons of high rank, and distinguished for beauty and chastity, having lost their husbands during the siege, had continued day and night mourning over their tombs, and refused to leave them, when the town was evacuated. Their names were Digna and Honoria. When the defences were stormed, to escape the incontinency of the Huns, Digna ascended an adjoining tower, which stood beside the river, and, having veiled her head, she threw herself into it and perished. Honoria, having thrown her arms round the stone sepulcher in which the remains of her husband were interred, clung to it with such perseverance, that she could not be dragged from it, till slain by the swords of the enemy. Thus fell Aquileia, 633 years after its foundation, perhaps the greatest town in the West after Rome.
Almost all the writers, who mention its overthrow, say that it was completely burnt and demolished, so that the barbarians seemed desirous of obliterating every vestige of its existence, but many circumstances contradict that assertion, which has been hastily adopted by modern historians. Aquileia is frequently mentioned as existing after the departure of Attila, and it is certain that the patriarchs continued to dwell there till the time of the invasion of the Lombards, from whom the last calamity of the town proceeded. Justinian, long after the time of Attila, calls Aquileia the greatest of all the cities of the West, as if it were still existing. Many particulars indeed are known concerning Aquileia, down to the period of the removal of the see. Nicetas, the patriarch, returned from Gradus, after the retreat of Attila, and exerted himself to restore the church and the town.
The fugitives began to reassemble from different quarters, and many of them, having been supposed to have died in the war, found their wives provided with other husbands. This led to a correspondence between Nicetas and Pope Leo, the patriarch complaining that many of the women had remarried, knowing that their husbands were in captivity, and not expecting them to return. Leo exculpated the women who really believed their husbands to be dead, and condemned the others as guilty of adultery, but he ordered all to return to their first husbands under pain of excommunication. He directed those who had been baptized by heretics, not having been before baptized, to be confirmed by imposition of hands as having taken the form of baptism without the sanctification, but he forbad rebaptism. The heretics alluded to were the Sabellians and Arians, of whom there were many in the army of Attila, and who appear to have made common cause with the pagans. The whole letter of Leo is extant, and proves that Nicetas did not fall, as has been asserted, in the siege. He died about the year 463, and his statue and epitaph were placed in the patriarchal hall at Udine.