Revision of the "history" of Attila and his people is an ongoing process and provides a fertile field for popular historians, established academics, and degree candidates. Very little can be said with any certainty because contemporary writers were either deluded or they were propagandists who consciously twisted the facts either to explain why their patrons had done so poorly against the Huns or to glorify their victories. Attila's own public relations department added to the confusion by putting out horror stories designed to awe his enemies. Later historians have not been much better -- "Hunnism" became an ideological and ethnic football, and, depending on your nationality (when nationality became popular), you either thought Attila was a Hero or a villain.
The Germans, in fact, had, already in the late Middle Ages, woven Etzel (Attila) into the Nibelungenlied as an avenging hero who helped his German bride, Kriemheld, wreak vengeance on her three royal Burgundian brothers, who had killed off her first husband, Siegfried. Wagner's operas and Jung's psychological meanderings brought the old legends back into popular German consciousness, and, by the start of World War 1 and even more so with the Nazis who followed, Attila and his Huns were all good Germans.
Attila earlier appeared (as Atli) in the Lay of Atli in the Norse Poetic Edda, one of the sources of the Nibelungenlied, but there, he was the avaricious and evil husband of Gudrun. Atli killed Gudrun's brothers while interrogating them about the family treasure. Gudrun slaughtered Atli in his turn, but only after she served him the roasted hearts of his sons disguised as a local delicacy. She burned down his great hall and everyone inside, but she did let his dogs out first.
Both of these "northern" tales of Attila are loosely based on two events that most historians don't dispute: A Burgundian king, Gundahar (or Gunther or Gunnar), and his followers were defeated and killed by the Huns in 437, and Attila died in 453 after marrying the German girl.
The "southern" version of the Attila story is based on "facts" originally promulgated by Byzantine (Orthodox) and Roman Christianity. This version is currently popular in "Western Civilization" (i.e. among the winners of the 20th century World Wars 1, 2, and Cold), but that has more to do with 19th century German (pro-Hun) and 20th century British (anti-Hun) propaganda than with knowable facts.
In the Southern story, Attila is definitely evil. In 433 AD, he and his brother inherited leadership of the "Scythian" tribes, who had sometimes interacted violently with Rome in the late Republic and early Empire and brought them back as a real fighting force. His activities in South West Asia had triggered the latest wave of Gothic migrations, and he had followed close on their heels into Europe. He had a large, disciplined fighting force of warriors who slept and ate and who knows what else on their horses. They ate lots of raw meat that they kept warm under their saddles, and didn't hesitate to eat their enemies or their own fallen heroes. Attila ran a fairly successful protection racket -- "pay up or we'll eat you" -- which extracted gold from municipal and other local governments along the northern edge of the rapidly shrinking Roman Empire.
Attila eventually moved into the big time after killing off his brother, who may not have had the vision for high-end racketeering. At his height, Attila was reportedly extorting more than a ton of gold a year from the Eastern Roman Emperor in Constantinople and was also squeezing towns as far west as central France (Gaul). But this kind of activity pushed what was left of the Empire (East and West) into interlocking alliances with the Visigoths. A combined army defeated Attila outside Chalons in the modern Champagne district of France in June of 452. Attila had lost battles before, but he had always found softer targets, refilled his war chest, done some local recruiting, and hit the comeback trail.
After Chalons, Attila turned south into Italy and took several northern Italian towns including Aquileia at the top of the Adriatic -- its refugees fled to the islands and marshes that later became Venice. Milan, Verona and Padua followed. Although later Roman and local legends say he burned them to the ground, it's clear that he didn't -- the pre-Attila buildings are still there. It was obvious that he was heading for Rome, which appeared to be another easy target. At that point, Pope Leo led out his delegation, which met Attila south of Mantua. Accounts of what happened at the meeting are sketchy and biased. Two "eyewitness" accounts exist, but they don't tell much, and in one of them Saints Peter and Paul appear with swords at the side of the Pope and threaten Attila with immediate destruction if he doesn't retreat over the Alps. Some much later accounts say that Attila himself told the story about the Saints and the swords, but evidence of this is lacking. Needless to say, such details do not inspire the confidence of modern historians.
Attila did withdraw, whatever the reason, and Rome was saved, but thereafter all of Italy was easy pickings for barbarians. It is recorded that the last Emperor of Rome, Romulus Augustulus, was the son of Orestes, a member of Attila's staff.
Modern times: It has become popular to describe far-right politicians as "just to the right of Attila the Hun" -- sometimes this is a self-description designed to burnish "conservative" political credentials. It's obvious, however, that Attila was about as far from "conservative" as anyone could be and that radical anarchism was more his style. The "Attila the Hun" right-wing political identifier really has more to do with Hitler than with Attila.
As noted above, Attila is a popular subject with authors -- it's a lot easier to write about a subject when there is so little established fact. Movies, TV mini-series, and other media (operas by Handel and Verdi) follow. Some of this production is noteworthy, but not always for the right reasons. Serious attempts to research Attila come from the expected academic venues and can be purchased from Internet booksellers. The same booksellers will gladly sell you popular "self help" books supposedly based on Attila's leadership strategies. The Handel opera Attila includes countertenor duets (originally for castrati) that are considered the most difficult ever written. Verdi's Attila, another of his Italian patriotic masterpieces, is coming back into favor, mostly because of the epic performances of basso Samuel Ramey. Raphael's 1513 fresco of the famous confrontation between Pope Leo I ("The Great") and Attila in the Vatican in the Stanza di Eliodoro (one of the four Raphael stanzae) but it is not on the standard tour.
Attila Internet Links
About.com web links to Attila: http://historymedren.about.com/homework/historymedren/library/who/blwwattilaweb.htm
More About.com Attila links: http://historymedren.about.com/homework/historymedren/library/who/blwwattila.htm
Some details of his life mixed with historical fancy -- a non-academic site: http://art1.candor.com/barbarian/attila.htm
The Catholic Encyclopedia site: http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/02061b.htm
Jordanes describes Attila: http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/source/jordanes-attila.html
Priscus in Attila's court: http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/source/priscus1.html
Priscus describes Attila: http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/source/attila1.html
Leo i and Attala -- two accounts: http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/source/attila2.html
Verdi's Attila -- La Scala Opera Video (ntsc) with Samuel Ramey: http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/6303300707/qid=967021171/sr=1-1/104-8203101-0869557
A & E Biography video (ntsc): http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/B000006Q9D/qid=967021171/sr=1-2/104-8203101-0869557