Attila the Hun: Barbarian Terror and the Fall of the Roman Empire 
by Christopher Kelly.
Bodley Head, 290 pp., £17.99, September 2008, 978 0 224 07676 0
Show More
Show More

High in the Pyrenees, early in the fifth century, a knot of Roman soldiers huddled together over the saddest kind of duty. A comrade-in-arms had died young, after just two years under the standards. They buried him with the honours he deserved, in his best uniform and his shining metal belt – the cingulum that was every fighting man’s pride, the sign that he was a soldier. No headstone would mark his grave – there was no one for miles to do the carving and, besides, headstones had been falling out of fashion for centuries. Only the memory of the young soldier would remain, fixed in the minds of onlookers by the spectacle, by the precious things deposited with the body, vanishing for ever as the earth fell on it. Without a headstone, we can’t know this young soldier’s name. In that, as in the manner of his burial, he is typical of thousands of fifth-century soldiers whose graves have been excavated. Or typical save in one respect: the dead Pyrenean soldier was a monkey, an adolescent macaque from the coast of North Africa, a thousand kilometres from where he died.

A few decades later, another fifth-century soldier was laid to rest in a more lavish style. Attila the Hun had bound nations in iron chains and looted the gold and silver of empires, so he was interred in a coffin of gold sealed inside a coffin of silver, which was in turn sealed inside a coffin of iron. As he was lowered into the earth, armfuls of jewels, the weapons of defeated enemies, ‘priceless ornaments shining with the flickering glow of gemstones’, followed him. His people, their faces smeared with blood from the ritual scarification of mourning, rode in circles round his body and chanted his greatness. He had died a warrior, after a fashion: drunk and insensible on the night of yet another marriage, he suffered a brain haemorrhage and drowned on the blood that poured into his lungs. His murderous career continued from the grave: the slaves who buried him were executed to stop them revealing the location of his resting place.

Nothing apart from rough chronology would seem to connect the ‘monkey of the legions’ and the man later generations would call the Scourge of God. Only a few specialists have heard of the soldier-macaque, whereas Attila fuels an industry of popular histories and fantasy novels, straight-to-video films and documentaries, all the while dispensing business secrets to would-be world conquerors in middle management. Mutatis mutandis, it has always been thus: Attila the exemplary demon, driven by imagined saints from the walls of cities that didn’t yet exist; Attila the building-block of papal power, his encounter with Pope Leo I immortalised by Raphael and evoking the papal battles of the Middle Ages and Renaissance. Yet heroic macaque and Hunnic demon are equally representative of the fifth century, of the militarisation of a previously civilian social order that separates the ancient world from the incipient Middle Ages. The urban, literate, inscribing culture of antiquity, however much its existence may have been predicated on the Roman imperial war machine, was fundamentally civilian in outlook and affect; the fifth century witnessed its catastrophic impoverishment and the triumph of a military world where martial success was the main currency. For the general reader, Attila is a byword for barbarism; for the historian, he is a useful metonym for the end of the ancient world. In reality, however, both he and the macaque were no more than epiphenomena of the collapse of ancient civilisation.

Attila’s story is no less compelling for that reason. We know more about him than we do about other barbarian leaders, and from more reliable sources. He was born some time in the 410s, one of the first generation of Hunnic nobles to grow up entirely on the Roman frontier, without any personal experience of nomadism. Though Hun warriors still fought as cavalry, that was by now an ideological choice and not a by-product of a life lived on the move. Attila’s predecessors had first impinged on the Roman world in the 370s, when a series of Hun campaigns had sent thousands of terrified Gothic refugees into the empire, where some would eventually establish an Aquitainian kingdom. The Huns themselves did not become an organised presence on the imperial frontiers until the early 400s, but even then Roman writers portrayed them as half-human horsemen who ate their meat raw, drank fermented mare’s milk and killed indiscriminately with a terrifying bloodlust. By Attila’s time, they were a formidable power, more or less united and certainly sedentary, based in the Hungarian Puszta just across the Danube from Roman Pannonia.

The Hun empire was as much glorified protection racket as organised state, but the Huns were more than typically effective in that role. We can be sure of this, for though it had always been normal for barbarian princelings to receive their education as hostages at the imperial court, a novelty of the fifth century was that the Huns held noble Roman youths in a reciprocal position. Attila grew up alongside these young aristocrats and throughout his career exhibited a fine intuition into the best way to impose on Roman sensibilities. It was his good fortune, moreover, to face a fatally divided empire. Throughout Roman history, imperial disunity produced restiveness on the frontiers. The present period of division, which would prove final, had lasted since 395, after which one emperor reigned at Rome or Ravenna, and another at Constantinople. None can be said to have ruled rather than reigned, and both Theodosius II (408-450) and his younger cousin Valentinian III (425-455) deserve their reputations as fainéants. Valentinian was installed on his throne in the West by an imperial mother, with the backing of an Eastern army, but he reigned at the pleasure of the great marshal Aetius. Aetius was a friend of the Huns because of the mercenaries they provided him: he was constantly at war with the semi-independent barbarians and provincial grandees of the West, and always willing to turn his soldiers against the imperial court when it crossed him. In the East, Theodosius’ interests ran no further than theology and ecclesiastical politics, and he was insulated from the task of governing by a thick layer of bureaucrats, who needed the imperial system to prosper but needed any particular emperor rather less.

These divisions, and the constant rumble of low-grade civil wars, made Attila’s career possible. He and his brother Bleda succeeded their uncle Rua as the main Hun chieftains in 434, though it took them half a decade to secure their hold on power. In 440 they began pushing their uncle’s old claims against the empire, demanding the return of Hun refugees and a substantial annual payment. Theodosius and his ministers were in no position to comply: the North African metropolis at Carthage had fallen to the Vandals in 439, who thereby took hostage the empire’s grain supply, and indeed its whole maritime economy. Money was short and the Hun refugees were manpower for imperial armies. Knowing all this, Bleda and Attila tightened the screw. In 441, they besieged and sacked cities along the Danube frontier and beyond, even seizing Sirmium, the jewel of the Balkan provinces, and enslaving its inhabitants. Two years later, they destroyed the harbour of the emperor’s Danube fleet. For the next five years, the rich cities of the Balkans were the playthings of Hun armies. A meaningful frontier had ceased to exist and only an annual ransom of 2000 pounds of gold could keep back the seasonal devastation.

As he bled the Eastern government of cash, Attila moved to reinforce his own position, doing away with Bleda, probably in 445. At about the same time, he negotiated an advantageous treaty with Aetius’ Western government. Bleda’s prized possession – a charming dwarf named Zercon whom he had dressed in a special military costume of the sort worn by the soldier-macaque – went to Aetius, while Attila became a Roman magister militum, or high commander, which brought with it a handsome salary and the right to levy supplies for his followers. He was thus elevated to the select order of power players, barbarian and provincial, who secured formal recognition from one half of the empire while engaging in hostilities against the other half. Not content to be an imperial general, Attila revealed a divine imprimatur as well. A marvellous sword, that of the Hun war god himself, was found by one of Attila’s followers and now signalled his lordship over the whole world. War gods are demanding patrons: in 447, Attila made the entire city of Marcianople, the largest in Thrace and a day’s ride from the capital, his sacrifice. In that same year, and not for the first time, the pass at Thermopylae kept an invader out of Greece. By 448, the imperial court was willing to concede Attila’s right to intervene freely in territory up to a hundred miles beyond the Danube. The de facto disappearance of the frontier had been formalised.

In 449, the historian Priscus accompanied an imperial ambassador deep into Attila’s empire. Long fragments of his work survive and his tale has often been retold, but rarely as well as by Christopher Kelly here. Full of intrigue and local colour, Priscus reveals among much else the sedentary character of the fifth-century Huns, their distance from their nomadic roots, and the extent to which they had developed a sub-Roman court culture in the heart of central Europe. Attila comes across as harsh and inflexible, so sure of his position that he could ostentatiously ignore the embassies of both Eastern and Western empires, making them trail in his wake for days on end before admitting them to his presence – and even then, only after he had first seen the envoys of some petty barbarian king. As is so often the way of ancient history, the richest evidence documents an event of little intrinsic significance: the mission of Maximinus and Priscus served only to authorise future embassies with ambassadors more to Attila’s taste. But in 450 Constantinople won a reprieve. Attila had discovered a more tempting target in the West.

It may be that Eastern resources had been so thoroughly depleted by Hunnic demands that they could no longer sustain the scale of treasure and loot Attila needed to keep his followers in check. The West looked a better prospect, and Attila had already settled on a specious pretext – some stolen gold plate – when intrigue at the court of Valentinian presented him with something much better: the signet ring of a princess, sent by the lady herself. Apart perhaps from his meeting with Pope Leo, this is by far the most romanticised episode of Attila’s career. It is hard to resist the image of the princess in the tower, pining for her barbarian saviour, but the reality is rather different. The women of the Theodosian house never shrank from the public eye, no doubt encouraged by the various incapacities of their male relations. Valentinian’s sister, Justa Grata Honoria, had allowed herself to be seduced by her estate manager, Eugenius. Bed-hopping and coup-plotting were often the same thing at the higher levels of imperial society and they may have been so here. Eugenius’ rank was exalted enough to allow him realistic imperial aspirations and he shared the name of an earlier usurper suppressed by Valentinian’s grandfather in the 390s. But Valentinian had Honoria’s lover executed and the princess was condemned to spend her life under house arrest. Determined to embarrass her fraternal tormentor, she sent for Attila. She was, in effect, issuing an invitation to usurpation.

From Honoria’s point of view, Attila was not the scourge of god he became in later mythology, but merely a useful general. That he happened to be a Hun made no difference: Valentinian and Honoria had had a half-brother, dead before they were born, whose father was a barbarian general. With Attila as consort, Honoria might well rule the West. After all, when Theodosius II died without heir in 450 his imperial sister succeeded him, choosing a consort who suited her and exercising a great deal of power in her own right. Though Honoria’s first choice of Eugenius had failed, there was every reason to think a second attempt might succeed.

Attila understood what he was being offered and immediately proposed to claim his bride and liberate her from her brother’s clutches. At worst he would destroy Aetius and take his place; at best, he would claim the Western empire as his own. While pretending to defend Valentinian’s throne against the Visigoths in Aquitaine, and simultaneously demanding Honoria’s imperial portion as his right, he marched west in 451. It was a mistake, made in a fit of hubris, for Attila had taken the only action that could have united Aetius with the inveterately (and understandably) mistrustful Gothic king Theoderic. The battle of the Catalaunian Plains (or of Châlons, as it is now once again commonly known) is often numbered among the decisive battles of the Western world. As with so many decisive ancient battles, we know precious little about how it actually developed. Repulsed from Orléans on 14 June, Attila was brought to battle by a combined army of Goths, Romans and Aetius’ clients among the petty tribes of the Rhineland. Both armies suffered heavy casualties, the aged Theoderic was killed and Attila suffered his first great battlefield loss. Gothic fury, stoked by their king’s death, forced the Huns into the safety of their baggage train. Attila went so far as to prepare a funeral pyre, planning to anticipate defeat by suicide, when Aetius called off the Goths. Modern scholars have been horrified at Aetius’ willingness to take such a risk, but Roman commanders had always preferred to keep barbarians on hand for use against other barbarians. What’s more, the Huns had long been Aetius’ best source of mercenaries and, as things turned out, he was quite correct in his assessment of Attila’s strength.

The Hun king never recovered from the beating he took in Gaul, although he ventured to invade Italy in the following year. He crossed the Alps without opposition, but his main accomplishment was to destroy Aquileia, the great Roman city at the head of the Adriatic. The task almost defeated him, the story goes, until he saw the city’s storks abandon their nests and fly off with their young in tow. Attila understood the portent, pressed home the siege and left Aquileia in cinders. Other Italian cities fell in its wake, but Attila didn’t dare cross the Apennines. He was met by a high-ranking imperial embassy, retrospectively famous for its papal participant, and returned to Pannonia without further violence. What actually stopped Attila is unclear, but perhaps the diseases that so often destroyed Italy’s invaders had something to do with it. Back in the Hungarian plain, Attila contemplated a punitive campaign against the East, alleging the usual imperial failure to obey past treaty terms. But that night of heavy drinking put an end to him first, and in less than a year the Huns’ subjects had thrown off their yoke, while discord among Attila’s sons ruined any chance they might have had of restoring their lost position. Their father’s funeral rites were those of his empire as well.

A year rarely goes by without a new version of the Attila story, whether told in its own right or as part of the story of Rome’s fall. Given that all the thorny historical problems were worked out decades ago, each new version differs from the last mainly by way of emphasis, artistic colour, and the author’s competence as a historian. Kelly’s well-told and reliable account is the best to have come along in years, showing a judicious approach to archaeological evidence that one could wish more widely imitated. Its subtitle and some of its conclusions, however, stand rather too close to a revenant ‘it were the Huns wot done it’ school of analysis: no Huns means no Goths means no fall of the Roman Empire. The revival of this external catastrophist model, last popular immediately after the Second World War, is no doubt a response to the rose-tinted, EU-inspired interpretations of the 1990s, which at their height could construe the fall of the empire as a Mediterranean break from which the barbarian holidaymakers forgot to return. Yet I suspect that barbarian hordes have come back into vogue because they are, in their way, a comforting explanation. If only the aliens had been kept out, if only the empire had had the sense to strike back in time, then Rome wouldn’t have fallen. In a Western world that feels itself increasingly under assault from mystifying outside forces, from multiculturalism where once there was monoculture, and from Islamism where once there were colonies, the model of barbarian invasion spares us having to contemplate a far queasier proposition: the worrying capacity of an entire society to collapse, and a whole culture to disappear, through stupidity, greed, indifference and the weight of its own unsustainable contradictions.

That is precisely what happened to the Roman West. Its great magnates would not countenance the rise of a new elite of petits fonctionnaires – of the sort that took over in the East, newly rich and deeply invested in the empire’s success, if indifferent as a class to the fortunes of any particular emperor. Unwilling to pay the taxes that might have sustained a professional army, the West’s senatorial magnates forced the state to rely on warbands with no connection to it save the general who employed them. Small wonder that earlier generals had relied on barbarian recruits the way Aetius relied on Hun mercenaries, or that his soldiers guaranteed his authority rather better than his imperial rank did. Small wonder, too, that every other would-be strongman in the West followed suit, and that the officer’s uniform of the Pyrenean macaque replaced civilian finery as the visible symbol of genuine power. The old civilian magnates of the West discovered too late that their unwillingness to support the emperor’s administration might cause the imperial structure that sustained their own position to collapse. As the emperor and his supposed representatives grew weaker, so local sources of power – the warlords, the bandit chiefs, the barbarian kings on Roman soil – came to look more attractive and less alien. It took only a couple of decades for a generation to realise, with genuine surprise, that they had created a world that no longer needed an emperor. As for Attila, he and his Huns were spume on the waves of the historic, catastrophic implosion of ancient society. It was his inadvertent achievement to have razed Aquileia to the ground, and create a world in which Venice could be born. But the Western Roman Empire had already settled on a method of destroying itself that would have been effective had Attila never existed.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences