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On the island of Torcello there exists an ancient white chair that local legend names as the throne of Attila the Hun. Attila never went to Torcello. Indeed, there is no evidence that any Huns ever set foot on the island. So for whom could such a seat have been made? Is there any evidence connecting it with the mighty Hun?
The intriguing ‘Throne of Attila’, situated outside the Cathedral of Torcello, Venice. ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )
Attila’s Presence in the Region
In 452 AD, Attila the Hun and his armies descended upon Italy, leaving a swath of destruction in their wake. Led by their fearsome leader, the Huns pillaged cities like Altinum and Aquilaeia. The latter city was in fact so devastated, that it was never inhabited again and for centuries it wasn’t even known precisely where the city had stood. By some miracle, Attila turned back when he reached the Po River, though the reason for his retreat is unknown.
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The Empire of the Huns and subject tribes at the time of Attila. ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )
Although Attila did not visit Torcello, it did end up being settled because of Attila. As news of Attila’s armies reached the towns and pasturelands of Italy, entire cities were relocated as people fled to safer ground. The island of Torcello received a large influx of refugees from the town of Altinum after it was destroyed by the Huns.
Although the Attila moniker adds some notoriety to the chair, the reality is that it more likely was used by an administrative official on the island. Two interesting common suggestions are that the chair belonged to the magister militum of the region and that it belonged to the local bishop respectively.
A Show of Roman Military Might?
The white chair, which has famously been referred to as Attila’s throne, is most likely the chair of a magistrate of the city that was later founded on Torcello, a city that would eventually become the mother city of the founders of Venice. This leads to the question, what magistrate was it?
One possibility is that it was the chair of the magister militum of the region. Magister militum was a term in the late Roman Empire referring to a supreme military leader within a province or region. It was used to refer to an officer who was second only to the emperor in terms of military authority in his realm of influence.
There is literary evidence that, in the 2nd century, the Roman fleet used the nearby harbor of Altinum and nearby islands for anchorage. The city of Altinum was also used to provide housing for the Roman array. Additionally, evidence exists that a major Roman road passed through the area where there would have been a Roman military station. There is possible archaeological support for this from the case of a grave that appears to have belonged to a soldier.
Archaeological evidence found of a Roman road at Altinum. ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )
This literary evidence, however, dates to the 2nd century not the 5th century, so it is unclear what presence the Roman military had in the area at the time, let alone if it was the main base of a magister militum. It would make sense for the Roman military to place bases of operations on the islands just off the coast since the barbarian raiders threatening the Empire at the time were mostly horse-riding nomads who would have been inexperienced with using boats and ships required to reach the islands. As a result, a military presence on islands would have been a good defense strategy for the Romans. There is, however, little literary or archaeological evidence for a significant military presence on the islands in the 5th century.
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The throne in the garden of the Cathedral and Museum, Torcello, Italy. ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )
Bearing the Weight of Religion?
It is also possible that the chair is the cathedra or Bishop’s chair of the bishop of Torcello. By 639 AD, a cathedral was built on the island that was dedicated to the Virgin Mary. Also, according to tradition, the bishop of Altinum fled with the populace to the island. It is also believed that relics in Altinum were moved to Torcello. The destruction of Altinum may have resulted in the bishop of Altinum becoming the bishop of Torcello. The possibility of the chair being a cathedra is not unreasonable since the use of cathedrae by bishops to sit during council meetings or deliver sermons dates to the earliest days of Christianity. One issue with this hypothesis is that there is still a lack of literary and archaeological evidence for the presence of a bishop in the town in the 5th century AD, which is when the chair is believed to have been made. The earliest mention of a bishop and cathedral in Torcello is the early 7th century, well after the traditional founding of the settlement on the island.
All theories regarding the origin of this mysterious chair suffer from the same lack of literary or archaeological evidence. This does not mean that none of them could have happened. It simply means that there is not enough evidence to come to a conclusion on which one is correct. Like many mysteries, we may never know the full story of the chair or how it got to Torcello. It may very well not be contemporary with the founding of the settlement at Torcello and actually date to a much earlier or later time period. One thing that is almost certain though is that it did not belong to Attila the Hun.