Peter Jones; From Literary Review, September 2008.
‘Empire’ derives from the Latin imperium, meaning ‘the power to give orders’ and, by implication, enforce them. In the 5thC AD the Roman empire in the West lost that power. Since its constituent peoples could now ignore imperial commands with impunity, the empire was at an end.
In 1984 a German scholar helpfully listed the 210 reasons which had been advocated for the fall of that empire - from moral decline to over-hot public baths to gout. The root reasons were, in fact, military and economic. Germanic tribes to the north of the empire’s Rhine-Danube frontier had been prodding away at the empire for hundreds of years but had, on the whole, been easily repelled. But by the 4^th C they had coalesced into more powerful groupings. The turning-point came in AD 376 when tribes of nomadic Huns, savage fighting forces on horseback that Kelly argues are more likely to have had their origins in modern Kazakhstan than Mongolia, started moving west, driving all before them.
The reason for this migration is obscure, but the result was that Germanic tribes in the Black Sea region – Goths – started escaping en masse across Roman frontiers, sometimes by force, sometimes by agreement, sometime by a mixture of both. Not that the Huns themselves seemed to have had that, or indeed any, particular goal in mind. From AD 370-410 their tribes moved piecemeal across Europe from the Ukraine to Romania and West Hungary, disrupting peoples and causing general havoc on the Roman frontiers as they went. Eventually the Hun tribes became settled in the Great Hungarian Plain in the heart of Europe. From that position of strength, they changed tactics, no longer attacking at random and leaving trails of destruction behind them but demanding regular tribute from agricultural communities against the threat of reprisals. It was, as Kelly summarises it, ‘a protection racket on a grand scale’.
But the Roman empire was not a pushover. For the tactic to work, the Huns needed to unite their disparate tribes and work to a common goal. They required, in other words, a leader who commanded lasting and unquestioned allegiance. That man was Attila, flagellum Dei, ‘the scourge of God’, who created and controlled a Hun empire between AD 435 and 453. Not that his empire was in any sense a constructive, let alone civilising force such as Romans could reasonably claim of theirs. Booty and captives were its beginning and end.
These Hun-generated frontier upheavals caused hundreds of thousands of Germanic peoples to enter the western Roman empire and spread widely across it into France, Spain and North Africa. Unsurprisingly, the empire could not cope either politically (by means of settlements and alliances) or militarily with these Germanic influxes on its north and eastern boundaries. Nor was it helped by the fact that, in order to control the vast area it covered - from Britain to Iraq, from the Rhine-Danube to Egypt and the Atlas mountains – the empire had been carved up into an eastern and western region under emperors who frequently did not see eye to eye. As a result, taxes that formerly went to the centre to pay for the army to deal with revolt and maintain control now stayed local, paid to the leaders of the new Germanic kingdoms. It was a vicious circle, and in AD 476 the last, imperium-less emperor was quietly pensioned off.
So Attila, for all the chaos he caused and terror he evoked, was only one player in the empire’s demise. Powerful as the Huns were – they crossed the Danube in AD 408, 422, 434, 441-2, 447, and invaded France in AD 450 and North Italy in 451 - Attila generally avoided large-scale confrontation in order to play his more lucrative game of Danegeld. Nor did the Huns attempt to settle inside the empire, as the Germanic tribes did so effectively, many learning Roman styles of government and law-making. When Attila died of nosebleed on (yet another) wedding night, his ‘empire’ soon collapsed.
Christopher Kelly, Fellow of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, gives a fine account of this complex story, unpicking its strands cleanly and persuasively. He is particularly instructive on the 5th C AD bureaucrat and historian Priscus, who was (unwittingly) involved in a plot by the eastern Roman emperor Theodosius to assassinate Attila, and subsequently wrote it all up in great detail. It involved bribing Edeco, one of Attila’s bodyguards, with fifty pounds of gold. The problem was getting the gold to Edeco without causing the suspicious Attila to smell a rat. So Theodosius – or rather his eunuch Chrysaphius – set up an embassy entirely ignorant of the plot to pay court to Attila and create an innocent reason for the transfer of the money. It included Priscus. Unfortunately, Edeco had spilled the beans to his master …
This is a wonderful story, all the more amusing because Attila soon becomes aware that the embassy is wholly ignorant of the real reason for its mission and therefore toys with it mercilessly while it tries to work out what the hell is going on, before stomping off back home in frustration. Unfortunately, only excerpts from Priscus’ fascinating account survive – very good on the problems of travel through alien cultures - but they are enough to reveal Priscus’ admiration for many aspects of Attila’s court. The point is that Romans (like Greeks) tended to regard all barbarians, especially those from far-away places, as moronic, uncultured, misshapen sub-humans without a brain-cell between them. Priscus, however, was surprised and impressed by many aspects of their artistic taste and subtle and cultivated social and diplomatic skills. In other words, he saw beyond the crude stereotypes and, while not hesitating to regard Attila and co. as ‘the enemy’, was prepared to raise questions about the morality of a Roman court willing to use diplomatic immunity to cover up an assassination attempt. Similar challenges, as Kelly concludes, still face us today.
Attila the Hun by Christopher Kelly (Bodley Head)