Pope St Leo the Great, the Deliverer of Rome

Gregory DiPippo

Today marks the anniversary of the death of Pope St Leo the Great in 461, after a reign of just over 21 years, the tenth longest in the Church’s history. His feast day was traditionally kept on April 11th, the anniversary of the placement of his relics in the basilica of St Peter, where they still rest in a side-altar at the church’s south-west corner. In the calendar of the Novus Ordo, it was moved to today.

(The altar of Pope St Leo the Great in St Peter’s Basilica, photographed on his feast day in 2010. Above it stands a relief sculpture by Alessando Algardi (1646-53) of the encounter between Pope Leo and Attila the Hun, described below. Photo courtesy of New Liturgical Movement.) 

The Church honors him as a pillar of orthodox teaching in the midst of the Christological controversies of the 5th century, and since 1754, has formally recognized him as one of her Doctors. But the most famous episode in his long papacy, and the one most frequently depicted in art, belongs to the sphere of politics rather than theology. In 452, Attila the Hun invaded Italy, and after sacking various cities in the north, would have descended though the peninsula and done the same to Rome itself. Three envoys, including Pope Leo, were sent by the Emperor Valentinian III to meet Attila outside the city of Mantua. The details of what they said to him are unknown to history, but he did in fact withdraw, only to die early in the following year.

The contemporary author St Prosper of Aquitaine (better known to posterity as the biographer of St Augustine) states that Attila acted as he did simply because he was “so impressed by the presence of the high priest.” A later and anonymous medieval writer gives the following more detailed account, which is generally regarded by modern scholars as a legendary embellishment.

“Occurrit omnia depopulanti tyranno senex innocuae simplicitatis, et multa idem canitie simul et augustiore habitu venerabilis, mitiorem reddit modesto alloquio, …  atque … ita regem truculentum affatus dicit, ‘Senatus populusque Romanus, quondam orbis victor, nunc vero victus, suppliciter abs te veniam et salutem precatur, Rex Regum Attila. Nihil tibi in tanta rerum gestarum gloria contingere potuit, aut ad praesens decus pulcrius, aut ad posteros memorabilius, quam ut is populus supplex ad tuos pedes jaceret, ante quem olim omnes gentes et reges supplices jacuerunt. Subegisti quidem, Attila, omnem terrarum orbem, cui Romanos omnium victores gentium subigere tributum est. Nunc tantum precamur, ut te ipsum vincas, qui vincis cetera. … Senserunt mali flagellum tuum: sentiant nunc supplices clementiam; vel quia se victos fatentur, vel quia sunt ultro imperata facturi’

Haec bona conscientia invictus Leo dixerat, in cujus habitu venerabilique aspectu contemplando cum tacitus staret Attila, deliberabundo similis; en duo quidam dextera levaque viri, Petrus nimirum et Paulus Apostoli, subito ipsi conspecti sunt, qui non solum augustiore habitu pro Pontifice quoque adstarent, verum etiam supra ipsius caput strictos tenerent intenderentque gladios, ac mortem demum minitarentur, nisi dicto Pontificis obtemperaret. Quamobrem hac Leonis intercessione placatus Attila, quamvis alioqui furiosus, confestim promissa pace firmissima ultra Danubium non rediturus abscessit. Nec enim diu post rebus humanis excessit, et humani generis diutinae vexationi finem aliquando vel mortuus imposuit. … Sub haec ad Urbem rediens (Leo), … in primis Deo optimo Maximo et Apostolis ejus Petro et Paulo gratias dixit; his omnem rei bene gestae gloriam adscribens…

(The Meeting of Pope St Leo the Great and Attila the Hun; fresco by Raphael and students, 1513-14, in the Stanze of Pope Julius II, now part of the Vatican Museums. Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.) 

An old man of innocent simplicity, and venerable in the white hair of old age and in a more august demeanor, comes to meet the tyrant who lays waste to all, and renders him more mild by his modest address… and … speaking to the ferocious king, said, ‘The Senate and the people of Rome, once victors over the world, but now themselves conquered, humbly begs from you, forgiveness and deliverance, o Attila, king of kings. Nothing could befall you in the great glory of your deeds more fitting to your present honor, or more memorable to posterity, than that such a people should lie begging at your feet, before whom formerly all peoples and kings lay begging. You have subjected, Attila, the whole circle of lands that were given to the Romans, victors over all peoples, to subject. Now we pray that only that you, who have conquered all else, conquer yourself. … The evil have felt your scourge; let the humble now fell your clemency, both those who admit themselves beaten, and those who will willingly do as you command.’

The unconquered Leo said these things in good conscience, and while Attila stood in silence, contemplating his venerable demeanor and aspect, like as one considering the matter deeply; behold, two men on his right and left, the apostles Peter and Paul, at once were seen, who not only were of more noble demeanor in honor of the bishop, but also held over his head swords drawn out and stretched out, and they threatened him with death at last, unless he obeyed the bishop’s word. Wherefore, being placated through Leo’s intersession, Attila, although elsewhere raging, at once promised a most firm peace and withdrew beyond the Danube, never to return. For not long after, he departed from this world, and in death, at last put an end to the his long troubling of the human race. … After these things, Leo, returning to the city, … said that thanks were due first of all to the great and good God, and to his apostles Peter and Paul; ascribing to them all the glory of this good deed…”

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