Peter Jones in The Sunday Telegraph, March 20 2005
To Christians, the terrifying warrior Attila was known as flagellum Dei, 'the scourge of God'. Raiding from his base in southern Hungary over much of the Roman empire East and West till his unexpected death in AD 453, he and his Huns were seen as the agents of divine retribution for moral backsliding.
Germanic tribes like the Goths, however, who were for a time part of Attila's rickety north European 'empire', saw him as a hero. From them Attila passed into Scandinavian saga and eventually into versions of the Nibelunglied saga. Wagner dropped him, and he might well have stayed dropped but for the Franco-Prussian war of 1870. As Kaiser Wilhelm I and his German army slaughtered their way across France, the French likened them to Attila and the Huns, who in AD 451 had taken an almost identical route into Gaul.
So it was that Attila and the Huns became a modern metaphor for 'barbarism', Kipling in particular delighting to talk of 'the shameless Hun' in poems attacking German imperialism.
Not a bad metaphor either. As John Man has to agree in his racy and imaginative account of the man, the Huns contributed nothing to civilisation as we know it except pillage, slaughter and blackmail.The Huns were a nomadic warrior elite, possibly of Turkish stock, from somewhere in central Asia. For whatever reason they began pushing West, and by 420 had massed on the lower Danube, driving Gothic tribes south into Roman-held territory in northern Greece. In a thrilling chapter, Man describes a demonstration by a Hungarian expert that their mounted archers could hit targets, at speed, every two seconds. With reloads, a circling force of 2,000 Huns could hit the enemy with 50,000 arrows every ten minutes.
Further, for all his nomadic background, Attila developed siege warfare to a pitch the Romans had not previously encountered. Even the most strongly fortified city was not safe from him.
This, then, was a warrior with whom the Romans had to do business, and most of it consisted in bribing him to stay his hand. Between 430-47, Hun-geld rose from 350 pounds of gold to 700 and then 2,100 every year, on top of numerous other gifts. Such were Attila's military prowess, diplomatic skills and powers of patronage that all the tribes along the Danube and the northern shores of the Black Sea owed him loyalty. Further, he was remarkably well-informed, seeming to know when the eastern Roman empire was under pressure and thus vulnerable to a strike deep into Roman territory, to plunder yet more and remind the Romans that he had not gone away.
But Attila felt betrayed when he was denied the hand of the emperor Valentinian's sister Honoria in marriage, together with 'half the Roman empire' that was supposed to come with her. In 451 he took matters into his own hands and marched West for Gaul. Roman diplomacy persuaded the usually hostile Visigoths settled there that Attila was more of a threat than Rome, and Attila was repulsed. In 452 he was back, ravaging north Italy as far as Milan, only for famine, disease and a Roman counter- attack in Hungary to force him to retreat. It was his last campaign. On his wedding night to another Hunnish bride Ildico in 453, the varicose veins in his gullet burst (Man's interesting diagnosis) and he drowned in his own blood. His 'empire' immediately disintegrated.
One wonders what Hungarians make of all this. Hungary was founded by the Magyar Árpád in 896. The Magyars had no connection whatever with the Huns, but that did not stop Magyar historians inventing one to bridge the 500-year gap with the people that had given their territory its name. They duly reconstructed Attila as a sort of Charlemagne. Haydn's wealthy Hungarian patrons the Ésterházys proudly traced their lineage back to him. What a pity the great man did not celebrate him by following up his oratorio 'The Creation' with 'The Destruction', though Verdi did finally oblige with an 'Attila' in 1871.
John Man's account does not go as far in the heroisation stakes as Verdi did, but sympathetically and readably puts flesh and bones on one of history's most turbulent characters.