Authors: John Man
Tags: #History, #General, #Biography & Autobiography, #Historical, #Ancient, #Rome, #Huns
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HE’S HISTORY’S BOGEYMAN, ‘GOD’S SCOURGE’, A SYMBOL
of brute destructiveness, a cliché of extreme right-wingness. Beyond that, he’s known only to those who study the collapse of the Roman empire in the fifth century. Even to them, he is scarcely more than a predator, the grimmest of those many barbarians tearing at the flesh of the empire in its death agony.
But there is a lot more to Attila than clichéd barbarism. This is the story of a man of astonishing ambition, who deployed forces the like of which no-one had ever seen before. With his Hun army of mounted warriors, strengthened by a dozen allied tribes and contingents of siege machines, he was for a while the Genghis Khan of Europe. From his base in what is today Hungary, he created an empire that reached from
the Baltic to the Balkans, from the Rhine to the Black Sea. He struck deep into the Roman empire, threatening its very roots. Hun warriors who had once crossed the Balkans on their way to Constantinople could later have watered their horses in the Loire, in the heart of Roman Gaul within a three-day gallop of the Atlantic, and then the next year bathed in the Po, on a campaign that might have led to Rome itself. Constantinople and Rome did not fall. But Attila’s achievements ensured that his name lived on, and lives on today, not just as the supreme barbarian, but as a hero.
This is my attempt to explain Attila’s rise, his brief moment of glory, his sudden extinction, and why he is such an enduring presence.
t takes time to build up an image in the round, because he rose and operated in several worlds, all interfused in complicated ways.
The first world was the one from which he sprang, a way of life which dominated much of Asia for 2,000 years. This was the way of the nomadic herders, or pastoral nomads, to give them their formal name; in particular their military aspect, the mounted archer. From China to Europe, cultures outside the Eurasian heartland were at risk of sudden invasion by these centaur-like people, able to shoot with extraordinary accuracy and power while at full gallop. This book is in part a portrait of their most devastating manifestation before the rise of the Mongols 800 years later.
But Attila’s Huns were not the pastoral nomads – the mounted archers – their forebears had once been. By
the time they became known to the West, they were already victims of their own success. Most nomadic invasions were self-limiting, because pastoral nomads, when migrating or at war, could not at the same time create the military hardware they needed to extend their instant empires or build the necessary administrative infrastructure and skills to rule the lands they conquered. It happened in China, and in the West as well: for nomads, the sequel to conquest was either stability and a softer life, or retreat and dissipation.
So it was with the Huns. They swept like a tidal wave from the ocean of green, the grasslands of Asia, into the Hungarian plain, and broke upon the rocks of several other worlds of forests and cities – Rome; its eastern sister, Constantinople; and a dozen other tribes, all of them manoeuvring in alliance and rivalry. The Huns were the new bullies on the block, and for a time swaggered their way to power. But, like many nomad groups before them, they were increasingly caught in a contradiction, feeding off settled, agricultural peoples, but biting, indeed destroying, the hands that fed them.
The dilemma faced by Attila runs as a recurrent theme through this book. He was the leader of a people on the cusp of change. Their grandparents had been pastoral nomads; they themselves were betwixt and between: part nomad, part settled, unable to return whence they had come, unable to sustain their old way of life. Their sons faced a stark choice: to become partners of, or conquerors of, the greatest military power ever known – Rome – or perish.
His problem was to find a place for the Huns in the
world of the collapsing Roman empire. Unless he entirely re-created his people’s culture, behaved himself, built cities and joined the western world, his empire would never be secure from the threat of war and possible defeat. That was what his successors, the Hungarians, did, almost 500 years later. It was easier for them, because by then Europe had settled down a bit; but, even so, it took them a century. Attila was not the ruler to make such changes. He was, finally, more robber baron than empire-builder.
He is therefore remembered as our worst nightmare, matched in folk memory only by Genghis Khan. Actually, for Europeans, Attila is by far the worse of the two: Genghis never reached Europe, though his heirs did, and even they got no further west than Attila’s homeland; Attila led armies two-thirds of the way across France and well into Italy. A destroyer he certainly was, but not uniquely so: many leaders of many ages have become robber barons and murderers. They still emerge today – an Amin here, a Saddam there. Their murderous impulses constantly threaten to break through our civilizing constraints, as they did in Nazi Germany, in Rwanda, in the Balkans; and, in lesser ways, in Vietnam, Northern Ireland – any place where hatred of a feared or despised ‘other’ becomes dominant. This murderous hatred is the force exemplified by Attila in our minds. He is our own dark side, the ogre, Mr Hyde,
’s Grendel waiting to emerge from the swamp of our unconscious and destroy us all. That is the prejudice expressed by the Christian writers who recorded his assault on their
world, and the prejudice willingly embraced by most of us ever since.
Fortunately, there is an equal and opposite human impulse: the desire for peace, stability and reconciliation. Attila had this urge, too, employing secretaries to exchange letters in Greek and Latin, sending and receiving ambassadors galore. The Huns had no tradition of diplomacy, yet Attila could play at peace and politics as well as at war.
So, as the lights go on, the shadows fade, and the preconceptions flee. He is not all bogeyman. Indeed, to Hungarians he is a hero. All Hungarians know that their nation was founded by Árpád, who led his Magyar people over the Carpathians in 896. The event is celebrated in every Hungarian schoolbook history. Yet, deep in the Hungarian psyche, there lurks the shrewd suspicion that Árpád was only reclaiming land staked out 450 years before by Attila. This is the foundation myth, as told in the most impressive of medieval Hungarian chronicles. Until recently, Hungarian histories routinely reproduced a pseudo-biblical family tree, according to which Attila begat four generations of descendants, the last of whom begat Árpád – even though this genealogy requires each sire to have produced his heir at the age of 100. Deep down, the Hungarians feel that Attila was a Hungarian at heart, and honour him for it. Attila – the stress in Hungary is on the first syllable, which is rounded until it is almost an O,
ttila – is a common boy’s name. The nation’s most famous poet of the last century was Attila Jószef (1905–37) – or, rather, Jószef Attila, because the
Hungarians put the given name last. Many towns have streets named after Attila or Jószef Attila. To anyone coming from western Europe, it seems distinctly odd, rather like naming sons and streets and squares after Hitler. It is, of course, a question of winner takes all:
conquering hero is
brutal oppressor, now as always. Now that Mongolia’s national hero, for 70 years
persona non grata
under communism, has been rehabilitated, Mongolians name their sons Genghis. Hungarians, who suffered brutally under Mongol troops in 1241, do not.
Attila will never elsewhere enjoy the respect conferred on him in Hungary, but he deserves to be examined in more depth. I can’t do this in the usual way of historians, by re-assessing the written evidence, because written evidence is hard to come by. Ammianus Marcellinus, the fourth-century Greek historian from what is now Syria, covered a good deal of the background; Jordanes, an untutored Goth who became a Christian, turned out a rambling history that badly needed editing; Priscus, more a bureaucrat than a historian, left the only account of Attila at home. After these, we have only a few Christian chroniclers, more interested in seeing the ways of God among men than in recording events objectively. From the Huns themselves – nothing. The Huns did not write, and so all the written sources are by outsiders, none of whom spoke Hunnish, few of whom knew the Huns at first hand, and almost all of whom were keen to portray only the worst side of their subject. The best I can do is recruit archaeologists, historians, anthropologists and one
notable sportsman to add to the unreliable primary sources. Even so, trying to see Attila is like peering at a filthy old portrait by the light of a few candles.
It is worth trying, nevertheless, because these flickerings reveal new insights and some high drama that help us go beyond myth and cliché. Attila remains an archetype of oppression and pillage, quite rightly, and possessed many of the traits common in today’s pseudo-Attilas: he too was devious, ruthless, sometimes charming but never reliable, good at finding yes-men to do his bidding, self-deceptive – and fortunately, in the end, an engineer of his own destruction. But in other ways Attila was one of history’s great originals. Never before had such a force sprung upon the West from the world of nomadic horsemen. Never before had there been such a threat from a single leader, let alone one so admired by his own people and so adept at turning enemies into allies; nor would there be another such after him until the rise of the master strategist and empire-builder, Genghis Khan, 750 years later.
In the end, his reach vastly exceeded his grasp. He could never really have taken over the Roman empire. This makes him a failure in the eyes of historians, who tend to see him as no more than a pillager on a vast scale, the most extreme expression of anti-Roman barbarism. But there are other ways of assessing his historical significance. Though the Huns vanished from the earth, their disappearance was like that of gunpowder in a social and political explosion from which Europe’s nation-states emerged. It all happened in very slow motion, over centuries, and much of it would have
happened anyway; but from the post-Roman mess a new world emerged that bore scarcely a trace of one of the major causes of the bang, except in memory. Something enormous had vanished, the ruins of which were all around; and ever since, people have sought a focal point to simplify, explain and dramatize the cataclysm. Attila fits the bill perfectly, filling several roles at once: a force for historical change; a personality who straddled most of Europe; the ultimate destroyer; a divine scourge of sinful Christians – and always, to some, a hero.
IN 376 DISTURBING NEWS REACHED THE EMPEROR VALENS
in Constantinople. Valens, co-ruler with his brother of the Roman empire, was familiar enough with troubles on his frontiers, but there had never been anything like this. Far to the north, beyond the Balkans, on the marshy northern banks of the Danube, refugees were gathering by the thousand, destitute and starving, fleeing their farms and villages in terror, rather than face – what? They hardly knew; only that, in the words of the historian Ammianus, ‘a hitherto unknown race of men had appeared from some remote corner of the earth, uprooting and destroying everything in its path like a whirlwind descending from high mountains’.
It was an apt image. These aliens were mounted
archers who whirled into battle at the gallop, circling in to loose a rain of arrows before veering away to safety. They were horsemen such as no-one had ever seen before, riding as if
to their horses,
into their saddles – writers struggled to find suitable images – so that man and mount seemed one, like the centaurs of old come to life. They had blown in from the voids of Inner Asia, driving the residents ahead of them like cattle. It would take some years for the ‘unknown race’ to appear en masse, under their most effective and devastating leader, but already their eruption across the steppes of today’s southern Russia and Ukraine had shunted tribe against tribe, the last of which now clamoured on the Danube’s banks. Something had to give.