Justa Grata Honoria
“Every woman needs a Hun in her life”
“I tried to be good but Rome wasn't built on love but lust”
Think Justa Grata Honoria. Think bosoms. And hips, and the biggest arse in the Roman Empire. Kim Kardashian? No. Sophia Loren. And moreover, add a big dollop of a hairy Hun called Attila and that's all you need to know about this Roman princess.
It was Sophia Loren who played Justa Grata Honoria (or simply 'Honoria') in the Italian film Attila: Scourge of God in the 1950s. Some may go for Anthony Quinn's version of 'Zorba the Hun' (a performance to go along with Zorba the Arab in Lawrence of Arabia), but all eyes will look at Sophia Loren as the love-hungry Honoria. More curves than the Grand Prix track at Monaco, Sophia/Honoria is the type of woman a man like Attila would invade Europe for. And did.
The real Justa Grata Honoria was the eldest child of Emperor Constantius III and Empress Galla Placidia. She had a younger brother, Valentinian, who would become an emperor. Honoria herself was granted the title of 'Augusta,' which made her an empress as well, even absent a husband. It was that frustration that eventually led to Honoria offering herself to Attila and a wedding present the size of Western Europe.
It would have made an interesting wedding! Imagine a church full of Huns in full fur and animal skins! Talk about mixing the rough with the smooth. But, alas, that didn't happen. Plenty of scandals did, though!
Honoria grew up in the Roman cities of Ravenna and Rome. The Roman Empire at this time was split into two. The Western half was ruled nominally ruled by her brother, though in effect Honoria's mother and the Roman general Aetius ran a particular poor shit-show. The Eastern half was under the control of Honoria's prim cousins, Emperor Theodosius II and his sister, Pulcheria. What was missing for Honoria was a suitable marital match, not that she seems to have been keen to have married anyone put forward.
Naturally, Honoria looked elsewhere for comfort and flattery. An unlucky court chamberlain called Eugenius (one of the few on the staff who were not officially castrated and re-employed as eunuchs) returned her interest, but they were caught naked together in the steam room. Eugenius offered up his bollocks in a hope of a 'second chance' as a eunuch, but he had defiled 'the imperial sacred goods' and was executed, the first lab exam in what would become Eugenics. Honoria got off by being banished to Constantinople, where her cousins confined her to a nunnery for a severe re-education.
Return to Italy
How long Honoria was forced to stay there isn't clear. She may have put on enough of a show to convince Theodosius and Pulcheria she had reformed. She was allowed to go back home and resume her status as a Roman lady, though thoroughly sullied.
Meanwhile, her mother, Galla, had been studying whom she could marry Honoria to. Eventually she chose an ancient, rancid senatorial bachelor called Bassus Herculanus. Honoria refused the suggestion and was banished to the coldest wing of the imperial palace.
You want to marry a Hun??
How and why Honoria got the idea to marry Attila the Hun isn't recorded. It isn't likely she would have seen him beforehand but perhaps she fell in love the exotic danger of it all. Somehow she got to know where Attila was hanging out and sent a messenger with a scroll and one of her rings to ask if the Hun minded to come to Italy and rescue her from a marriage-worse-than-death. Attila wrote back and said 'Ta!' and set off with his horde for Italy, also shamelessly posting a letter to Valentinian disclosing the offer made by his sister and that he was coming over to collect his share.
Honoria was summoned to a meeting with her brother, mother, Aetius and other officials. The emperor wanted her 'dead! dead!! dead!!!' — and only Aetius kept him from stabbing her. Honoria, for her part, gave back as good as she received, blaming her family for both making life difficult and asking why she wanted to make out with a barbarian. After arguing, Honoria was given the choices of permanent imprisonment, death, or marriage to Bassus. Honoria may have been brave, but she wasn't an idiot. She reluctantly married Bassus and retreated to one of his estates outside Rome. Valentinian gave strict instructions that if Honoria returned, she would be executed as a traitor.
Attila the Hun reached as far as Rome but got spooked by Pope Leo predicting the wild man would die if he set foot in Rome. Attila retreated and died after an almighty bender 'with the lads.' If Honoria had sent any secret messages to her wanna-be Hun lover, none got through. She was stuck in her crap marriage to Bassus.
Regretfully, like a novel where someone has torn out the last pages, we don't know what happened next to Honoria. Her mother died not long after Honoria's second banishment. Aetius was killed by Valentinian, who in turn was cut down by assassins in the pay of Petronius Maximus. It's suggested that Honoria was already dead by 455, when the Vandals hit Rome, on the basis that she wasn't one of the classy hostages shipped off to Carthage by Genseric. Perhaps she managed to slip out of Italy and went looking for Attila. If so, what happened next is missing but in effect Honoria disappears.
Honoria in films
Sophia Loren's cantilevered performance as Honoria remains the best on screen. In the film, at least, she gets to have 'Hun Fun,' but dies on a battlefield.
In the television mini-series, Honoria was played by Kirsty Mitchell. Here, Honoria gets to know Attila as he once worked in the Roman army as one of their barbarian allies. A visit to Rome was a reward for victories, and this is how Attila met Honoria for a sweaty session in the pool. Gerard 'Shouty' Butler was Attila in this production. Coincidentally, both he and Kirsty Mitchell are Scottish, so their love scenes in the TV series had to be subtitled for American audiences, who would have had difficulty understanding them.