(ORDO NEWS) — Human history is littered with lost cultures and forgotten great leaders. Many of them are unfamiliar to the average person, but on rare occasions their actions win them a place in our modern consciousness.
He called himself flagellum Dei, the scourge of God, and even today, 1500 years after his blood-soaked death, his name remains a label of cruelty. Ancient artists emphasized his inhumanity by depicting him with a goat’s beard and devil’s horns.
Then, as now, he seemed to be the epitome of an Asiatic steppe nomad: ugly, squat and formidable, deadly with a bow, interested mainly in robbery and rape.
His real name was Attila, King of the Huns, and even today the mention of this name causes atavistic panic in the hearts of civilized people.
For Edward Gibbon – not a big fan of the Roman Empire, which the Huns repeatedly ravaged from 434 to 453 AD. – Attila was a “wild destroyer”, about whom it was said that “grass never grew on the place where his horse stepped.”
For the Roman historian Jordanes, he was “a man born into the world to shake the nations.” A century ago, when the British wanted to emphasize how barbaric and un-English their opponents in World War I had become – how far they had sunk in their understanding of honor, justice and fair play – they called the Germans “Huns”.
And yet there are those who believe that we have a lot to learn from a people who appeared seemingly out of nowhere and brought the mighty Roman Empire almost to its knees.
A few years ago, Wess Roberts made a best-selling book called Attila the Hun’s Secrets of Leadership, arguing that for blood-splattered barbarians, the Huns have much to teach American leaders about “management to win and take responsibility.”
And Bill Madden, in his biography of George Steinbrenner, reported that the former owner of the New York Yankees had a habit of studying Attila in the hope of gaining knowledge that would prove invaluable in business. Attila, Steinbrenner argued, “was not perfect, but he had something to say.”
Even serious historians tend to wonder why Attila is so remembered – why, as Adrian Goldsworthy notes, there were many barbarian leaders, but Attila is “one of the few names of antiquity that still evokes instant recognition, putting him on a par with Alexander, Caesar, Cleopatra and Nero.” Attila became the barbarian of the ancient world.”
For me, this question only became relevant last month when an old friend emailed to ask: “Was A the H really bad? Or was his reputation undeservedly tarnished in the general vilification of everything that does not belong to the Roman period ?”. This strange request, he explained, was caused by the recent birth of twins.
He and his wife considered the name Attila for their newborn son (and Berengaria for their daughter). And although it can be explained that the mother is Greek and that the name remains popular in some parts of the Balkans, the more I thought about this problem, the more I realized that at least a few good things can be said about Attila the Hun.
First, this barbarian leader was, for the most part, a man of his word – at least by the standards of his time. For many years he exacted an annual tribute from the Roman Empire, but although the cost of peace with the Huns was significant – 350 pounds of pure gold per year in 422, increased to 700 in 440 and eventually to 2100 in 480 – it can be was to buy the world. While tribute was being paid, the Huns were quiet.
And while most historians agree that Attila chose not to push the Romans any further because he thought it was far easier to take their money than engage in risky military action, it is not hard to recall examples of barbarians who exacted tribute and then attacked without paying back. no attention to the leaders (Ethelred the Incorruptible comes to mind) who paid tribute, secretly plotting reprisals against their tormentors.
It might be added that Attila was a barbarian of equal opportunity. “His main goal,” notes Goldsworthy, “was to cash in on robbery during the war and extortion in peacetime.”
More convincing, perhaps, is that Attila always valued loyalty highly. It was a constant feature of the diplomatic relations he maintained with both the eastern and western part of the Roman Empire that all dissenting Huns found in their territories should be returned to him.
In 448, Attila showed himself ready to go to war against the Eastern Empire for failing to honor one of these treaties and returning only five of the 17 defector Huns demanded by the king. (It is possible that the other dozen fled; our sources testify that the fate of the traitors, who were not lucky enough to surrender to Attila, was extremely pleasant. Two Hun princes, who were betrayed by the Romans, were instantly beheaded).
Of course, it would be wrong to present Attila as a kind of beacon of enlightenment. He killed Bleda, his own brother, in order to unite the empire of the Huns and rule it alone. He was not a patron of education and ordered massacres, putting entire monasteries to the sword.
The Roman historian Priscus, who, as part of an embassy, visited Attila on the Danube and left the only eyewitness account of the Hunnic king and his capital that we have preserved, saw regular outbursts of rage.
However, it is difficult to say whether these storms of anger were genuine or just a demonstration designed to awed the ambassadors, and there is much to admire in the respect that Attila paid to the widow of Bleda – when Priscus met her, she held the post of ruler of the Hunnic village.
The same author observed Attila with his son and noted a certain tenderness, writing: “He drew him close to him… and looked at him with tender eyes.”
The discovery of a rich 5th-century Hunnic hoard in Pietrosa (Romania) strongly suggests that the Hunnic king allowed his subjects to enrich themselves, but it is to Priscus that we owe most of our evidence of Attila’s generosity.
Surprised that one “tribesman”, whom he and his companions met on the Hungarian plain, greeted them in Greek, Priscus questioned him and learned that he had once been a Roman subject and was captured when Attila sacked one of the cities on Danube.
Freed from slavery by his Hun master, the Greek decided to fight for the “Scythians” (as Priscus called the Huns) and now protested that “his new life is preferable to the old one, complaining about the heavy taxes of the empire, the corrupt government, the injustice and high cost of the legal system”.
Attila, according to Priscus, also employed two Roman secretaries who served him out of loyalty rather than fear, and even had a Roman friend, Flavius Aetius, who lived as a hostage among the Huns for several years. Aetius used the military skills he received from them to become a skilled horseman and archer, and eventually one of the leading generals of his time.
The most surprising thing, perhaps, is that the king of the Huns was capable of mercy – or, at least, of cold political calculation. When he uncovered a Roman conspiracy against his life, Attila spared the would-be assassin from a terrible fate that would have awaited any other person.
Instead, he sent the would-be assassin back to his hosts in Constantinople, accompanied by a note humiliatingly detailing the revelation of the Roman plan and demanding further tribute.
Nevertheless, Attila remained a threat to both the Western and Eastern empires. In 443 his troops reached the south of Constantinople; in 450-453 he invaded France and Italy. It is strange, but perhaps worthy, that the last two campaigns were carried out – so the king of the Huns claimed – to satisfy the honor of a Roman princess.
Honoria, the sister of the Western Emperor Valentinian III, was severely disappointed by the husband chosen for her by her brother, and sent Attila her wedding ring asking for help. The Tsar decided to interpret this act as a marriage proposal and, after demanding half of the Western Empire as dowry, he launched two bloody campaigns on behalf of Honoria.
Of all Attila’s best qualities, however, the one that pleases the modern mind the most is his refusal to be tempted by wealth. Priscus, again, expresses this idea most clearly when he says that when Attila greeted the Roman ambassadors with a feast,
next to Attila’s table were tables large enough for three or four, or even more, to sit at them, so that everyone could take food from the dishes without leaving their place. Attila’s attendant entered first with a dish full of meat, followed by other attendants with bread and dishes, which they laid out on the tables.
A luxurious meal was prepared for us and the barbarian guests on silver platters, but Attila ate only meat on a wooden cauldron. In all other respects he also showed moderation; his goblet was wooden, while goblets of gold and silver were served to the guests.
His clothes were also quite simple and required only cleanliness. The sword that he carried on his side, the bolts of his Scythian shoes, the bridle of his horse were not decorated, like other Scythians, with gold, precious stones, or anything expensive.
Thus lived Attila, king of the Huns, and thus he died in 453, probably about 50 years of age, still not succumbing to the temptations of luxury. His spectacular death on one of their many wedding nights was remembered by Gibbon:
Before the Hun king evacuated from Italy, he threatened to return even more fearsome and implacable if his bride, Princess Honoria, was not delivered to his ambassadors. Meanwhile, Attila relieved his tender anxiety by adding to the list of his innumerable wives a beautiful maiden, whose name was Ildiko.
Their marriage was celebrated with barbarous pomp and pomp in his wooden palace across the Danube, and the monarch, overwhelmed by wine and sleep, retired from the feast to the marriage bed at a late hour.
His attendants continued to respect his pleasures or rest for most of the next day, until an unusual silence aroused their apprehensions and suspicions; after trying to wake Attila with loud and repeated screams, they finally broke into the royal apartments.
They found the bride, trembling, sitting by the bed, her face covered with a veil. Tsar… died at night. The artery suddenly burst, and when Attila lay in a recumbent position, he was suffocated by a stream of blood, which, instead of escaping through the nostrils, erupted into the lungs and stomach.
In short, the king drowned in his own blood. Gibbon adds that he was “glorious in life, invincible in death, the father of his people, the scourge of his enemies and the terror of the whole world.”
The Huns buried him in a triple coffin – an iron one on the outside that hid an inner silver coffin, which, in turn, hid a gold one – and they did this secretly, at night, cracking down on the captives, whom they forced to dig the grave so that it would never be discovered.
Attila’s men no longer threatened Rome, and they knew what they had lost. Gibbon said it best: “The barbarians cut off part of their hair, smeared their faces with indecent wounds and mourned their valiant leader, as he deserved. Not with women’s tears, but with the blood of warriors.”
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