Friday, 20 March 2015

Six things you might not know about Attila the Hun

Few figures in history have inspired more terror than Attila the Hun. 

Even to speak his name is to invoke images of savagery and destruction. He was known as flagellum Dei, ‘the scourge of God’, sent to punish the wicked Christians of the tottering Roman empire. In Italy, according to tradition, he spread fire and death far and wide, slaughtering 5000 people of Florence and levelling the city. Cologne on the Rhine saw an even more grisly massacre, when Attila made martyrs of no fewer than 11,000 nuns.

Even nature itself withered before him: ‘It is a saying worthy of the ferocious pride of Attila,’ wrote Edward Gibbon, ‘that the grass never grew on the spot where his horse had trod.’

The latest installment of the popular Total War video game series sums up modern perceptions of Attila

Hopefully by this point you have raised at least one sceptical eyebrow. The truth is that Attila became a victim of his success, and soon after his death was turned into a monster to frighten children. He never sacked Florence; he never even came anywhere near the city. Likewise there’s not a shred of evidence that he met a single nun in Cologne, let alone murdering 11,000 of them.

This is all the stuff of medieval fables, but when I came to write my second novel, At the Ruin of the World, he was still the obvious choice for the threatening bogeyman looming over the empire. There's no escaping his legacy.

So who was the real Attila? In fact, he was a lot more fascinating than the pantomime villain history has turned him into. Here are some nuggets we can dig out from beneath the centuries of myth...

1. Attila ruled an empire from the Baltic to the Black Sea

We know very little about the empire ruled by Attila from 434 to 453, because his own government, such as it was, left behind no written records. Everything we know comes from either Roman writers (not always as hostile to Attila as you might think) or archaeology.


One thing that does come through the sources clearly, though, is the extent of his rule. ‘Empire’ is maybe not the best word, as this was nothing like the Roman empire. Far from being an organised, bureaucratic state, it looks more like a loose confederation of various barbarian peoples drawn together by Attila’s charisma and success as a warlord.

Even so, never before had a single barbarian ruler managed to gather such a following on the very borders of Rome. The emperors were right to be afraid of Attila.

2. Attila (allegedly) owned the sword of a god

All right, this is a myth, but at least one put about by Attila himself. This is the earliest version of the story:

When a certain shepherd beheld one heifer of his flock limping and could find no cause for this wound, he anxiously followed the trail of blood and at length came to a sword it had unwittingly trampled while nibbling the grass. He dug it up and took it straight to Attila. He rejoiced at this gift and, being ambitious, thought he had been appointed ruler of the whole world, and that through the sword of Mars supremacy in all wars was assured to him.

It was recorded by the Roman diplomat Priscus, who visited Attila’s court in AD 449 and wrote a remarkable account of his experience. Much of Priscus’s account is lost, but this passage was preserved by a historian called Jordanes, writing a century later.

Here we get a glimpse of Attila’s propaganda machine. There was a long tradition of sword-worship among the Eurasian peoples, and the idea of having a sword gifted by the god of war himself must have sent out a pretty powerful message.

3. Attila owned a dwarf called Zerkon

Zerkon is an odd figure who gets a walk-on role in the account of Priscus. Originally from North Africa, somehow he found himself north of the river Danube, where he became a favourite entertainer of Attila’s brother Bleda, and even married a Hunnic lady.

But when Bleda was assassinated by Attila, who apparently didn’t have much of a sense of humour, Zerkon found himself torn from his wife and packed off as a diplomatic ‘gift’ to the Roman general Aëtius.

All hope was not lost, however, as Zerkon was allowed to return to Attila’s court in order to claim back his wife. Priscus describes how Zerkon entered the hall during a feast Attila was holding for the Roman ambassadors. A talented performer, Zerkon, dressed in a bizarre costume and speaking a hilarious mish-mash of three languages, soon had his audience in stitches.

A 19th-century depiction of Attila's feast (unfortunately Zerkon the Moorish dwarf is not included)

Not quite everyone, however. ‘Attila,’ Priscus later recalled, ‘remained immovable and of unchanging countenance, nor by word or act did he betray anything approaching a smile of merriment.’

Sadly, Zerkon was not reunited with his wife.

4. ‘Attila’ is not a Hunnic name

‘Attila’ may not have been the original name of the famous Hun. It is not Hunnic in origin, but Gothic; it literally means ‘little father’, and may have been an honorific title (as with Genghis Khan, whose birth name was Temüjin).

This makes some sense, as the historian Peter Heather has underlined the ‘deeply multicultural’ nature of Attila’s realm. Its population was largely Germanic, and Gothic was the most obvious common language. It may even be that Attila himself was part Goth by descent.

5. Attila claimed half of the Roman empire as a wedding gift

Attila’s wedding present list on Amazon would have been something to behold. No bread bins or cut-glass trifle bowls here; he aimed high.

A 19th-century imaginative depiction of Attila
This demand didn’t come out of nowhere. As well as being a fearsome foe of the empire, he was also something of an enticing, even romantic, figure. Or at least he was to the princess Honoria, who (after having been caught sleeping with her steward) was forced by her brother into a betrothal with an unattractive old senator. In order to escape this marriage, in 450 Honoria secretly sent a ring and some money to Attila, pleading for his help.

As far as Attila was concerned, this was a marriage proposal. He promptly wrote to Emperor Valentinian advising him that he accepted his sister’s offer, and demanded half of the empire as her dowry.

Needless to say, Valentinian was not impressed, and rejected the Hun’s demands. This gave Attila the justification he needed to invade Gaul the following year, and Italy the year after that. Both times he caused massive damage before being forced to retreat.

As for Honoria, she disappears from history at this point. We don’t know what happened to her, but she certainly never married Attila.

6. Attila died on his wedding night

Live hard, die easy. Attila may not have appreciated clowns, but he knew how to party. He was married to several women at the same time, and each wedding no doubt saw a fair degree of merriment.

His last wife, according to Priscus, was a slave girl called Ildico to whom Attila had taken a fancy. Priscus gives the clearest account of what happened on the night of their wedding, in 453.

Rather overdoing the celebrations at the wedding, he lay down on his back, overcome by wine and sleep. An excess of blood that would normally have spilled out through his nose drained back in a deadly stream into his throat, as it could not flow out by the usual passages, and killed him. And so drunkenness brought about a shameful end to a King renowned in war.

Shameful from one point of view, perhaps. The Huns apparently regarded this as a fortunate way to die, ‘happy amidst rejoicing, his nation safe’.

But the ‘nation’ would not stay safe for long. His three sons quarreled over the succession, and other powerful chieftains, taking advantage of the fraternal division, quickly rose up and defeated them in battle. The brief Hunnic hegemony disintegrated, and with it the greatest threat the empire faced.

It may be that Attila doesn’t deserve the prominence granted him by posterity. He ruled a loose barbarian confederation for 19 years, and did terrorise the Balkans on numerous occasions, but he never permanently conquered any parts of the Roman empire. His attempts to invade both Gaul and Italy were ultimately aborted. Most of all, he failed to leave any kind of political legacy.

At least in terms of reputation, though, he can’t be ignored. Through charisma and warfare he managed to make a name for himself that echoed down the centuries, inspiring fear in generations of Europeans.

Click here to learn more about my second novel, released by Hodder & Stoughton on May 7 - At the Ruin of the World, 'an epic of war and love in the twilight of empire'!

Further reading:
  • Peter Heather, Empires and Barbarians: Migration, Development and the Birth of Europe
  • John Man, Attila the Hun: A Barbarian King and the Fall of Rome
  • Alexander Callander Murray, From Roman to Merovingian Gaul: A Reader
  •  Charles C. Mierow, Getica: The Origin and Deeds of the Goths

Tuesday, 13 January 2015

Richard the Jerkheart

We all know and love this man:


No, I don't mean Kevin Costner, or Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, and certainly not Sir Sean Connery.

I mean Richard Plantaganet, or Richard the Lionheart to you and me. He's the guy who liberated Jerusalem with the English flag emblazoned across his manly chest, only to be captured by the devious Austrians on his way home to his much-loved people.

Luckily his plucky Troubadour Blondel decided to sing outside every castle in Europe in the desperate hope that his master would recognise his voice and sing back.

The cunning plan worked, the people of England willingly raised the money to ransom their noble ruler, and Richard got back to England just in time to depose his wicked brother King John, kick Guy of Gisbourne in the nuts and snog Maid Marian at her Sherwood Forest wedding (see first picture).

Since revisionist history is all the rage these days, here's a couple of points for your consideration:

1. Richard hated England and the English people

He wasn't born in England, his family wasn't English, he didn't speak the language, he spent about half a year of his life in the country, and treated it mainly as a cash cow to fund his boyish adventures in the Holy Land. In fact, the only reason that Richard didn't smear the entire island with his excrement is that even he wasn't a big enough arsehole to pull that stunt off.

2. He was an anti-semite

On the day of his coronation in London some wealthy Jews came to offer their gifts and loyalty to the new king, as was customary. Richard, seriously pumped about going on Crusade, had the men beaten and stripped, and in the ensuing chaos countless Jews in the city were massacred, their homes burned and possessions stolen.

3. He was a war criminal

He was not averse to massacring thousands of Muslim prisoners when it was tactically expedient.

4. He was a massive jerk

After capturing Acre in 1191, Richard and his cronies took all the credit, despite the fact that the city had been under siege for two years before his arrival. When Duke Leopold of Austria had the audacity to raise his banner along with those of his allies on the fortifications, Richard had it torn down and thrown in a ditch.

5. He was an arrogant arse

After failing to capture Jerusalem, Richard decided to cut his holiday short and headed back home. He was shipwrecked off the Italian coast and tried to sneak through Austria disguised as a pilgrim.

His plan apparently involved getting pissed up in a tavern just outside Vienna, brandishing an absurdly expensive ring and probably insisting on singing to West Life on the karaoke machine, even though it was past last orders and nobody was in the mood. The upshot was that he got himself recognised and was carted off to this castle, Dürnstein, in the Danube valley:


Nice move, Dick. And with any luck, this is exactly where he found himself wallowing in his own waste:


The story about the troubadour is rubbish as well. Richard was eventually released only when England, already ruined by his pointless eastern escapades, was utterly bankrupted in order to raise the massive ransom.

6. Literally in the last moments of his life he behaved like a prick

During the siege of a castle in Limousin, Richard saw a crossbowman on the parapet using a frying pan as a shield. Firstly the king was stupid enough to attract the attention of an armed missile troop on a good vantage point and well within effective range by screaming mockery at him, and secondly he forgot that he had removed his own chainmail earlier. Anyway, the result was that Richard got stuck by a crossbow bolt, refused all assistance like a true idiot, and then died.

And it was about jolly time, too.

Saturday, 4 October 2014

Student life in ancient Rome

Student life hasn't really changed that much since ancient times.



I must say, though, I'm glad that this imperial decree of A.D. 370 didn't apply when I was an undergraduate...

Emperors Valentinian, Valens, and Gratian Augustuses to Olybrius, Prefect of the City [of Rome].

The office of tax assessment shall carefully investigate the life of the students and their lodging places, to see that they actually do bestow their time on the studies which they assert that they are pursuing.

These same officials of tax assessment shall warn the students that they shall severally conduct themselves in their assemblies as persons should who consider it their duty to avoid a disgraceful and scandalous reputation and bad associations, all of which We consider as the next worst thing to actual criminality.

Nor shall the students attend shows too frequently nor commonly take part in unseasonable carousals.

We furthermore grant to you as prefect the authority that, if any student in the City should fail to conduct himself as the dignity of a liberal education demands, he shall be publicly flogged, immediately put on board a boat, expelled from the City and returned home.

From: Clyde Pharr (trans.), The Theodosian Code and Novels and the Sirmondian Constitutions (New York, 1952), p. 414