Attila the Hun by Christopher Kelly (2008)

The full title is Attila the Hun: Barbarian Terror and the Fall of the Roman Empire.

Kelly is a fellow at Corpus Christi College Cambridge and it shows in this book, which carefully weighs the existing written accounts of the Huns alongside the latest archaeological evidence to give a sober, untheatrical account of the historical background to the advent of the Huns and the rise to power of their legendary leader.

Sources

To start at the end, there is a very useful appendix detailing the 22 or so classical and early medieval authors who make any reference the Huns, long or short, giving you the opportunity to search for translations online.

As to the Huns, they left absolutely no written accounts of their lives or culture: they were illiterate nomads from central Asia. The one and only Hun word we know of is strava because Priscus uses it to describe the funeral ceremonies held for the dead Attila. Otherwise we are entirely dependent on the written records of their enemies.

Sieving the sources

Kelly shows how one of our two most important sources, Ammianus Marcellinus (our only written account of the Huns before Attila), like so many ancient and medieval authors, based his accounts on previous similar accounts of ‘barbarians’. Kelly shows how Ammianus copied elements from the account by the famous Greek historian Herodotus in his History (430s BC) of the Scythians, a non-Greek, horse-riding warrior race from north of the Black Sea. This was how Roman authors and their audiences expected barbarians to be.

So the historian must assess how much is ‘true’ and how much is repetition of the kind of topoi – clichés if you like – handed down in the literary tradition: ie you have to pick through all the written accounts very carefully, weeding out the handed-down, the rumour, the fantasy and the made-up, before you establish the tiny kernel of fact. If any.

So what is Kelly’s book like?

Comments

A commenter on Amazon made a shrewd point: there is surprisingly little about Attila in this book about Attila. For the book is overwhelmingly about the Romans – about Roman emperors and generals and administration and power politics from the 370s when the Huns first arrived, to the 450s when Attila abruptly died. This is for the reasons stated above – that the Huns left no written record, a very sparse archaeological record, and what we know about them comes from their interactions with the Empire. We only have half the story.

The book convinces you that everything about the build-up, about Attila’s reign, and then the aftermath of his death, is fully and completely recorded and assessed. But that turns out to be a tremendously complicated story of Roman alliances, deceits, of cheating generals and scheming emperors and even scheming emperors’ wives, with a long central section about a scheming emperor’s eunuch. Lots and lots about the Machiavellian politics of the two Roman imperial courts – disappointingly little about Attila himself.

Key questions

So, for example, neither Kelly nor anyone else can answer some simple questions:

Where did the Huns come from? Kelly spends a chapter discussing the Huns’ origins and considering at length the theory that they were descendants of the Xiongnu, Mongolian nomads who established an extensive empire in the 3rd century BC, only to reject the theories and conclude – as almost everyone else is forced to – that our best guess is they came from the Great Plains of Kazakhstan.

As they migrated west they found themselves cramped into a smaller area (the Hungarian Plain, itself flat and featureless) with less resources, less acreage for their thin, hardy horses, and fewer settlements to plunder. So after a while they realised it was better to extract ongoing tribute from these places rather than raze them to the ground: they developed a policy of terrorising the inhabitants to extract tribute. Thus arriving in Hungary forced the Huns to change their loose social structure, to become more settled and organised, which led (apparently) to the coalescing of clan leadership. It is against this background that Attila emerges. And all this is no more than intelligent guesswork…

Why did the Huns arrive? They first appear in the writings of Ammianus Marcellinus (330 – 391) who says they arrived in the 370s. The terror they spread with their policy of total devastation terrorised the Gothic tribes who had lived just across the Danube  for generations, to plead with the Roman authorities to be allowed to cross the river into the Empire. But what pushed the Huns out of Kazakhstan? Why did they migrate west? No-one knows.

The Battle of Adrianople

Kelly gives a detailed account of the build-up to the fateful Battle of Adrianople 378 AD. The Goths were pushed by the newly arrived Huns towards the Danube and then begged the Emperor Valens to flee to safety across it. Valens gave permission but then the management of 80,000 Goth refugees was badly handled: settlement and food for them were slow in being organised. Mounting discontent toppled into war when the local Roman officer invited the Goth leader, Fritigern, to peace talks, then tried to assassinate him. The attempt failed and Fritigern returned to mobilise his fighting men among the various tribes of Goths, along with some Huns who had crossed the border, into a sizeable force. The Emperor Valens, irritated at having to cancel a campaign he was waging in the East against the Persians, marched back to Constantinople where he was booed at the Imperial Games, and set off north to the city of Adrianople in a vengeful mood. He had asked the emperor in the West, Gratian, to send forces, and Gratian was making his way to rendezvous with his fellow emperor – but slowly.

Arriving early at Adrianople early, his scouts telling him the Goth army was only some 10,000 strong, and his own impatient mood prompted Valens to decide take the Goths on with his eastern army alone. It was exterminated. There is a detailed account of the heat which exhausted the waiting Romans and the fires which the Goths lit to blow smoke downwind into their faces and then, while the leaders were still discussing some kind of truce, skirmishing broke out among the impatient troops which escalated chaotically – thus denying the Romans the advantage of their traditional discipline and order. Some 20,000 Roman soldiers were slaughtered along with Valens himself, burned to death in a farmhouse where he had taken refuge. It was the biggest Roman military defeat in 700 years, throwing the East wide open, and bringing home to everyone the power of the invading ‘barbarians’.

Priscus’ mission

Part three of this four-part book retells in considerable detail the one and only account of Attila we have from personal experience, that of Priscus of Panium who was chosen to accompany Maximinus, the head of the Byzantine embassy representing Emperor Theodosius the Younger (ruled 408–450) which travelled across the Danube and into the heart of the Hun empire to meet Attila.

Kelly uses Priscus’s eye-witness account to critique the stereotyped hearsay of Ammianus and to draw some obvious conclusions, namely the Huns were more civilised than the Romans had been led to believe. Priscus was impressed by Attila’s palace beyond the Danube, as well as the quarters for his queen who supervised the creation of sophisticated tapestries. Slowly he realises that Attila is no psychopathic barbarian but a cunning strategist.

A calculating man

What emerges from Priscus’ account (which itself only survives in fragments) is Attila’s cunning and the extent to which he engaged in normal diplomacy. Like anyone else who’s heard of Attila, I assumed his horde raped, pillaged and burned their way indiscriminately across Europe, but this isn’t quite true or is only part of the truth. Attila undertook several incursions into Roman territory – into the Balkans in 441 and 447, then into Gaul in 451 where his rampage was stopped at the Battle of the Catalaunian Plains, and then south into Italy in 452, until he reached the gates of Rome.

However, after each of these campaigns he withdrew back to his strongholds across the Danube. Ie he never set out to conquer and take control of Roman territory. Kelly’s book makes clear that the incursions were carried out to spread terror and thus increase his main aim, to bolster his negotiating position with the emperors, forcing them to pay him off with ever-bigger tribute/bribes/pay-offs. Successive Roman emperors handed over staggering amounts of gold to Attila and also – a subtle Stalinist touch – he always insisted that any Hun refugees in Roman territory were also handed back to him, to be executed in short order. No Hun was to be allowed to create an alternative power-base or become a client of the Romans.

Kelly sums up Attila’s policy neatly as a protection racket on a grand scale.

Attila’s death

The last 40 pages of this 230 page book describe in minute detail the manoeuvres and machinations of the final emperors who faced him – Valentinian III (Western Emperor 425 to 455), Theodosius (Eastern Emperor 408 to 450) and Marcian.

As with the rest of the book, you need both a family tree and to have been keeping notes to remember which member of which imperial family was conspiring against who and why, let alone the network of barbarian rulers who by now had seized enormous tracts of the western empire – the Vandals in North Africa, the Goths in Spain, the Franks in Belgium, all of them potentially making alliances with any of the others against any of the others – it is like a permanent, super-complex game of Risk. And right in the thick of it, Attila abruptly died in 453.

One account has it that he stayed up late drinking in his palace on the night of his wedding to another wife (nobody knows how many wives he had) and the next morning his bodyguard found him dead in her bed. If the sources can be believed, he appears to have had a nosebleed and, drunken and unconscious, drowned in his own blood. Or did his new wife poison him? Or did his bodyguard kill him? Various theories and rumours survive in our ancient sources and, once again, you have to choose the one you think most plausible, in the full knowledge that they might all be fictions.

Aftermath

History doesn’t stop. The new situation threw all the players the book has described in such detail into a new matrix of strategic possibilities. The Vandals in North Africa, the Goths in Spain, the Franks in Belgium, the western Roman emperor, the eastern Roman emperor – all had to reconsider their plans and alliances now a key element in the geopolitical situation had been removed. Briefly, Attila’s three sons – Ellac, Dengizich, Ernak – fell into civil war, were killed, overthrown or defeated in battle and the empire built up by this cunning, calculating man collapsed, leaving absolutely no trace behind except the permanent weakening of the Roman Empire and a fearsome reputation.

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