November 29, 2008

Attila the Hun

Christopher Kelly's new biography of Attila the Hun is a welcome addition to the scholarship surrounding the later Roman empire. It is welcome because Attila is one of those figures who is always off stage in accounts which focus on what is happening in Ravenna, Milan and Constantinople- as the Eastern Empire struggled to survive and the Western Empire failed to. Attila himself as Kelly argues deserves a more constructive place in history- rather than just destroying an empire, the Hunnic King created one- presiding over an area which swept through northern Europe from the southern tip of the Danube to the northern banks of the Rhine. He also was not merely a terrifying warrior- indeed as Kelly comments his success as a warrior has been overrated (Attila did not, unlike the Goths at Adrianople, defeat a major Roman army in battle and his two encounters were bloody draws rather than victories)- but a cunning and skilful diplomat with an excellent appreciation of the realities of Roman power in the later empire.

What were those realities- what did Rome face and who were the Huns? Those questions are vital to considering Kelly's narrative of Attila's life. The first set are easier to answer than the second- so let us start with considering the strategical dilemmas faced by the Roman empire. From the time of Constantinople the empire had been split in two- one half contained all the lands west of Italy, the other half all those to her East. The capital of the West moved from Rome, north to Milan and later to the stronghold of Ravenna. That of the East was at Constantinople- a key fortress dominating the Bosphorous. The Romans faced a quandary by the time of Attila both in the West and in the East. In the West, they faced worries about the Rhine frontier and the barbarians ammassing there and also about the fact that from the early 5th Century the Vandals had conquered North Africa. In the East- the Danube was the frontier where Barbarians might pour through, but Eastern Emperors also were concerned about the long frontier along the Euphrates with Persia and about the Vandal threat across Africa to Egypt. In order to understand Attila's role in this- you have to understand those facts. Attila was neccessary for the Romans- as the Western Prefect Aetius understood- because he maintained a kind of stability on the northern frontier- at least he was predictable. He was also though in a position to extract conditions when Roman forces were engaged either in Africa or in Persia away from the Danube and Rhine frontiers.

But who was Attila. Attila was a Hun. The Huns, Kelly argues, arrived in Europe coming across the Asian steppe from somewhere in modern Kazackhstan. They intimidated and destroyed armies of other tribes- but they also incorporated other tribes. Gothic armies for example fought with the Huns against the Romans under Attila at the battle of the Catalaunian Plains. They also evolved as they moved across into Europe. Kelly argues that in the steppe, the nomadic lifestyle traditional to the Huns was economically possible. Once at the beggining of the fifth century they arrived in the Great Hungarian Plain- the resources of that little steppe in central Europe could not support the Hun horde and so they had to rely upon the farmers and others that inhabited that area. Kelly reccomends that we think of the Huns as a semi-sophisticated warrior aristocracy moving through central Europe, living off the revenues of plunder and of taxation from the empire to the south and the people that surrounded them. Attila was a figure within the Huns who arose in the 430s, having slain his brother Bleda. There is no real record of his early life- and we have only one pen portrait which comes from a Roman diplomat, Priscus, who met him. Priscus's history of the Huns from which this comes though has vanished, we rely on later Byzantine compilers of an encyclopedia of knowledge for our awareness of what he said about Attila.

Kelly tells his story as a narrative- and there doesn't seem much point in repeating all his points here. However it is the analytical thrust of what he says that is particularly interesting. The main point about his narrative is to reinforce the idea that Attila was a brilliant politician- when the Romans and Goths defeated him at the Catalaunian Plains in France, the Hun King switched his attentions to an invasion of Italy. Valentinian the Roman Emperor was then faced with the dilemma of calling in the Goths to Italy or facing the whole Hunnic force on his own. The diplomatic mission that I discussed Priscus being involved in is equally interesting: the Huns found out that the Roman mission contained (unknown to Priscus) assassins sent to murder Attila but the King instead of revealing the fact instantly, allowed the plot to unravel in front of his very eyes and used it as a weapon in his negotiations with the Roman Emperor, Theodosius. Attila exploited divisions in the Imperial households in both East and West. He was able to turn the discontent of Valentinian's sister Honoria into a major casus belli. The Romans may have been able to cope with Attila's armies- but the consequences of fighting him- even to a victory- would be so grave, particularly in terms of stripping the frontier armies and the potential of another Adrianople that they preferred not to fight.

This picture of Attila's strategical nous and his ability to hold together his disparate group of followers through tribute received from Rome- a minor tribute that Kelly reminds us represented the income of a moderately wealthy senator- is a convincing one. It is an interesting one too because it contributes to the picture of what the barbarians were like and the ways that they were affected by the Romans. Still Kelly leaves in the story enough detail about the horrors of the Hun conquest to remind us of why St Jerome styled Attila a wolf from the north and others considered the Huns the whip of God, sent to spur sinners to repentance before the second coming. What Attila was able to do, which other barbarian kings before him were unable to do was succeed a seige warfare- this major advance made his incursions more lucrative and more terrifying for Roman citizens than the invasions of the third century by the Goths.

All in all, Kelly's account suffers from the odd colloquialism- from some imaginative reconstructions- but presents in a broad sweep a story about Attila that fits into conventional notions of how the Roman Empire collapsed. It is unsurprising to note the way that he sees Attila as a leader who thrived on plunder, or that Hun society was influenced by Roman society, or that the Romans were decisively weakened by losing to the Goths in 378 or lastly that they were threatened on several frontiers. What is new is the enthusiasm with which he knits these things together with the life of Attila- so that characters as various as Aetius (Attila's ally who was also a general of the Roman forces in Gaul), Theodosius (Emperor in the East), the eunuch John and the historian Priscus all emerge in their vitality and all have roles to play. The broad contours of the story may be familiar- but the detail was not and the read was enjoyable.

10 comments:

Georg said...

Hallo Graccy,

C. Kelly's book could be read in relation to Peter Heather's "The Fall Of the Roman Empire". I bought it some months ago but stopped somewhere in the middle.

I just could not stand it anymore to read about the destruction of this great civilization.

Georg

Gracchi said...

Georg- of course and I reccomend Heather's book too, its a really good study. I know what you mean about the destruction of the civilisation- it holds a grim fascination for me though in that its interesting to see how a civilisation does collapse. Furthermore I suppose one of the reasons I'm interested in it is that the shape of Europe today- particularly its division into many states stems partly from the fact that the Western Empire never did recover.

goodbanker said...

I've read a review of a 1987 book by Wess Roberts called "Leadership Secrets of Attila the Hun". By way of setting out lessons for modern leaders, he identifies in Attila (among other things): an inherent desire for leadership, the importance of maintaining both morale and discipline (partly through reward), a "lead by example" approach, cunning, decisiveness, delegation, flexibility / pragmatism, survival, and a willingness to learn from the past.

Perhaps some of the best (indirect) evidence for Attila's strengths as a leader comes from comparing his achievement in galvanising this formidable nomadic tribe, which less than two generations earlier Ammianus Marcellinus had described thus: "The people of the Huns...are quite abnormally savage. ... They...are so prodigiously ugly and bent that they might be two-legged animals... . They are not subject to the authority of any king, but break through any obstacle in their path under the improvised command of their chief men. ... You cannot make a truce with them, because they are quite unreliable and easily swayed by any breath of rumour which promises advantage; like unreasoning beasts they are entirely at the mercy of the maddest impulses."

To turn such a tough yet unruly tribe into one that was such a force to be reckoned with is undeniably impressive: Kelly appears to be spot-on in characterising Attila as a brilliant politician.

Georg said...

Hallo Gracchy,

Glad to hear we understand each other regarding that point. "Grim fascination" indeed.

I have been interested in history all my life especially what the past could mean to us today.

I am quite happy to have found your blog though it took me two years to find it.

Cheers
Georg

Gracchi said...

Thanks Georg its always nice to have good readers as well :)

Goodbanker- I agree about the important of Attila as a politician. I'd be wary about quoting Ammianus with too much authority though on this- Ammianus had never actually seen or met a Hun and he may well have been writing about the barbarian he expected, rather than the one that he would actually meet. But the acheivement is still remarkable

Georg said...

Hallo Gracchy though this is more for Goodbanker,

Let me tell you that I appreciate very much this comment from Ammianus Marcellinus.

People described by him exist till now
"....they are quite unreliable and easily swayed by any breath of rumour which promises advantage; like unreasoning beasts they are entirely at the mercy of the maddest impulses....." You can find them in the Congo, in Afghanistan, in Pakistan and remember those pictures we saw after those caricatures from Denmark. All those chaps brandishing something and yelling their head off.

As to their ugliness, well that is a question of taste. But to a neatly dressed Roman those dwarfy Huns with their bent legs and unkempt hair might have been appalling.

No, in a nutshell I can easily belief that this worthy Roman saw those Huns alright.

Cheers to both of you
Georg

James Higham said...

What would Livy have had to say on this, Tiberius?

goodbanker said...

Gracchi - fair enough about not relying on Ammianus Marcellinus too much when describing the Huns. [It's some time since I last looked at the text properly; re-reading the editor's introduction to the translation I have, I notice he reinforces your point, asserting that Ammianus' "...geographical digressions evoke a picture of the Roman world and its neighbours, even if it is only loosely related to contemporary reality, being partly the product...of stereotyping and fantasy (his nomads, Huns or Saracens, bear an uncanny generic similarity, while the notion that the Huns half cooked their meat by placing it under their saddles is a typical piece of learned invention)."]

All that said, I think we would be ill-advised to ignore Ammianus Marcellinus' description of the Huns altogether. For one thing, he was himself a military man by background, who mixed in high circles; even if he had never seen / met a Hun, he probably spoke with Roman military men who had. That the description should be biased (cf. Georg's point) may mean we should take the bit about the Huns' ugliness with a pinch of salt. On the other hand, I could imagine that the disfunctional nature of the Huns' societal organisation, prior to Attila's ascendency, is on the more accurate end of the spectrum - and it was this that I meant really to be focusing on when reinforcing the point about Attila being such an exceptional leader. (Indeed, I meant to conclude my previous post by suggesting that Kelly was spot on in saying that Attila was a brilliant politician; and to say that I would go further, as Wess Roberts does, and suggest he was a brilliant leader - in possessing not only great political acumen, but all manner of other leadership skills.)

Gracchi said...

Goodbanker- its an interesting question. Yes I agree Marcellinus might have had information through the high command about Hunnic social structure- but he also might have had information about other groups which he turned into a discussion of the Huns or even historical information. It is worth I think remembering as well that Marcellinus wrote 40 years before Attila came on the scene. There is evidence that the culture of the Huns changed- but I'd be uncertain about accepting Marcellinus as my guide to what they were- and uncertain as to whether Attila created that change or whether it was more organic.

I think though the point you are making about Attila is correct- I'm pretty sure he was a deft politician and probably a good leader too. Kelly's portrait definitely suggests that.

edmund said...

the goodbanker grachi discussion reminds me of how hard it is to estabihs truth on so much ancient history :) i'm inclined to agree with Goodbanker but hte trurth is both agreement and negation are to a large degree a matter of guesswork.

How much was this tribute compared to roman revenues? (as opposed to indinvidal senators) and is there any indication why he was good at siege work was this like Ghenghas khan - he imported roman siege workers?

really intereting would love to read the book!