17

The Hun

`The barbarian nation of the Huns ... became so great that more than a hundred cities were captured and Constantinople almost came into danger ... and there were so many murders and so much bloodshed that the dead could not be counted. They even captured the churches and monasteries and slaughtered great numbers of monks and nuns.' - Callinicus, describing the Hunnic invasion in the 44os.'

Attila the Hun remains to this day a byword for savagery and destruction. His is one of the few names from antiquity that still prompts instant recognition, putting him alongside the likes of Alexander, Caesar, Cleopatra and Nero. Of these, only Nero has a reputation so wholly negative, for Attila has become the barbarian of the ancient world. All too often his life merges with that of a later - and far more successful - conqueror, Ghengis Khan. The images are of thousands of narrow-eyed men on ponies, pouring out of the Steppes beneath wolf-tail standards to spread blood and ruin, of burning towns and mounds of skulls. At the close of the nineteenth century, first the French, and then more often the British, would dub the Germans as Huns. They did not choose Goth or Vandal, or any of the other names of peoples who could plausibly be seen as ancestors to the modern Germans. In 1914 it was the Hun who `raped' neutral Belgium. It helped that the name was short and catchy, which was highly convenient for slogan writers as well as poets like Kipling. More importantly, it conveyed an image of an enemy utterly opposed to all that was civilised and good.'

Within this stereotype is at least a shadow of the real fear inspired by the Huns in the late fourth and fifth centuries. Some of this was based on race. Huns looked different, even to other barbarians already in contact with Rome. They were short and stocky, with small eyes and faces that seemed almost featureless to Roman observers. Many accounts emphasise their ugliness, although curiously none mention the elongated skulls that a minority of Hunnic men and women sported - a deformity deliberately created by tightly binding a child's head to distort the cranium. No one knows why this was done, although similar practices have been fairly common in other cultures. For once, we are probably right to assume a ritual motive for something we do not understand.'

The Huns appeared alien to Roman and Goth alike. They also seemed terrifyingly ferocious and deadly warriors. Yet they were not invincible. Attila's empire was large, if not quite as extensive as his boasts - and some historians - would have us believe. His armies travelled deep into the Roman provinces spreading destruction, but they could not stay there. Some frontier regions were ceded to him, and more were devastated, but overall his territorial gains from Rome were modest. Attila's empire was also very short-lived, tearing itself apart in the years after his death as his sons squabbled for power and subject peoples rebelled. The Huns themselves are unlikely ever to have been especially numerous, and Attila's great armies seem always to have included a majority of allied warriors, including Goths, Alans and other peoples. Nor were the Huns only ever enemies of Rome. Both the Eastern and Western Empires frequently enlisted bands of Huns who fought very effectively on their behalf.

Attila the man is a good deal more interesting than the myth. He was not the same as Ghengis Khan, nor were the Huns identical in every way to the Mongols of the Middle Ages. Nomadic peoples do not all conform to a single, unchanging culture. The Huns have been blamed for provoking the barbarian invasions that eventually broke up the Western Empire. They have also been credited with preserving that empire for several decades, postponing its collapse by holding the Germanic tribes in check. There is an element of truth in both claims, but neither is the whole story. Nevertheless, it is fair to say that for a generation the Huns and their kings were the single most powerful force confronting the Romans in Europe.4

From the Steppes to the Danube

For the Romans, the Huns had simply appeared in the fourth century and, in spite of various attempts to link them to groups `known' from classical tradition, they had no real idea of their origin. Nothing has survived from the Huns' own oral culture to tell of their own beliefs in this matter. In the eighteenth century it was suggested that the Huns were the same people as the Hsuing-Nu - Xiongnu is the modern spelling - known from Chinese sources. This powerful confederation of nomadic tribes had posed a serious threat to the borders of China from the end of the third century BC until they were broken up in the late first century AD. Driven away by a resurgent Chinese empire, the survivors were then supposed to have drifted further and further west until they reached the fringes of the Roman world several centuries later. While this remains a possibility, the case is not at all strong. Certainly, the Huns seem to have originated somewhere on the great steppe, but that area of grassland is so vast and contained many different nomadic groups, so that this in itself does not tell us very much.'

We simply do not know why the Huns drifted westwards. Classical sources repeat the myth of their first contact with the Goths being accidental, a party of Huns chasing a straying animal further than ever before until they stumbled over a people previously unknown to them. Such stories are common in ancient literature, but rarely credible. Nomadic groups like the Huns include some highly skilled craftsmen, including metal workers, and more especially the men who made the wagons they travelled in and the bows with which they hunted and fought. However, they have tended always to be short of luxury items and were dependent on settled communities for such things. In the end, it was probably the wealth of Rome, and indeed Persia, as well as of the peoples living on their borders, which drew the Huns towards them. In the second half of the fourth century they reached the Black Sea. By its end some had come as far west as what is now the plain of Hungary.'

As with the Goths or Alamanni and other peoples, it is a mistake to think of the Huns as a single unified nation. On the Steppes, nomadic groups often spend much of the year in small parties consisting of a few families, moving from place to place to find seasonal grazing for the sheep and goats that provide them with so many of the necessities of life. There may well already have been kings and chieftains amongst them, even if their power was loose, as well as something vaguely resembling clans or tribes. Contact and conflict with peoples like the Goths and Alans, and eventually the Romans, encouraged the importance of such groupings and the power of individual leaders to grow. Large-scale raiding required leaders to control the bands of warriors and direct their attacks. Successful raids brought plunder and glory, adding to the prestige and power of the man in charge. The warfare that caused such large groups of Goths to seek refuge across the Danube in 376 will have fostered the growth in power of successful Hunnic war-leaders. Some groups fled from the onslaught of the Huns. Far more remained, joining them as more or less subordinate allies. Hunnic leaders came to have chieftains and kings from other races loyal to them as subordinate allies. Over the next half-century the trend was clearly towards a smaller and smaller number of Hunnic war leaders acquiring more and more power. This would culminate in Attila, although even then some groups of Huns do not seem to have acknowledged his rule. After his death they fragmented into many separate bands.

The military success of the Huns against the tribal peoples they encountered needs some explanation, although not perhaps as much as is often thought. We do not know enough about these initial conflicts to assess the role played by numbers, leadership and the strategic or tactical situation. In warfare success can feed off itself, making the victors more and more confident, while at the same time demoralising their enemies until they expect to lose. This is especially true when the victors look and act differently to their opponents, making it easier to believe that these strange enemies are invincible. In the earliest encounters the Huns had an advantage in that while they could strike at the enemy's farms and villages, it was hard for these opponents to respond and attack anything that was vital to the nomads. The Huns were mobile, and the wagons with their vital resources of families and food could withdraw to places beyond the range of most enemy attacks. As importantly, the Huns, all of whom were mounted and used to travelling great distances on horseback, could strike deep and move fast in their raids. Even in defeat they could often escape with only minimal losses.

The Huns were horse archers. Their horses were smaller than Roman mounts, but tough and with great stamina, which allowed them to survive the harsh winters on the Steppes. A sixth-century east Roman manual recommended attacking the Huns at the end of the winter when their horses were at their weakest. Most warriors would have owned more than one mount. On campaign, and especially during a raid, men would have regularly changed to a fresh horse, allowing the band to keep moving at a fast pace. This should not be exaggerated. There is not a shred of evidence for the claim that each Hun needed a string of ten horses. A few of the wealthier men may have had as many - although they would not necessarily have taken them all on campaign. Most ordinary warriors may have aspired to owning two or three mounts, but even as many as this required considerable amounts of fodder. The Huns used a wooden-frame saddle different in design to the four-horned type used by the Romans, but better suited to mounted archery. They did not use the stirrup, which was as yet still unknown in Europe.7

The Hunnic bow was a complex piece of craftsmanship. It was a composite bow, which combined wood with animal sinew, horn and bone. Sinew has great tensile strength, while horn has compressive strength. In combination they massively increase the power of a bow in relation to its size. When strung such a composite bow curves back elegantly from the hand grip. Its length is increased by bone or horn `ears' or laths. These are flexible and effectively make the string longer and so again add power. When the bow is unstrung, it will bend back in the opposite direction, hence these are commonly known as recurved bows. Composite bows were widely known in the ancient world. The Persians used them, as did nomadic and semi-nomadic peoples like the Sarmatians and Alans. Composite bows had been standard in the Roman army for centuries and laths are relatively common finds from military sites. Hunnic bows were unusually large - especially for use on horseback - and thus more powerful. The ear laths added to this. They were also asymmetric, so that the arm of the bow above the hand grip was longer than that below. This did not increase power, but made it easier to handle for a mounted archer. Hunnic bows were of extremely high quality. It probably took years to make a bow and required great specialist knowledge and experience, which was passed on from bowyer to bowyer. A good bow lasted for a long time and it is interesting that the traces of those found in burials seem to have been from broken weapons. A bow was too valuable to bury unless it was already damaged.'

Technology explains some of the deadliness of Hun warriors. Each of them used an exceptionally powerful and sophisticated bow. He also had a saddle that provided a secure seat, even when riding at speed and controlling the horse with his knees because both arms were needed to shoot. A bow is not like a firearm or crossbow, where the energy to propel the missile comes from the weapon itself. It is much easier to train men to use such weapons. Becoming a good archer takes far more practice and individual skill. A bow draws most of its energy from the person who shoots it. The composite design increases this power, but does not in itself create it. Archers need to be physically strong, especially in the chest and arms. Skill comes only with constant training. This is doubly true for horse archers, where the warrior must be an expert rider as well as proficient with a bow. Hunting provided practice for war, and to survive on the Steppes every Hun needed to be both an expert horseman and archer. Later, when the Huns had moved to lands closer to the Roman Empire and their lifestyle was modified, these skills were evidently still valued and practised.'

The initial encounters between the Huns and Goths tend to be painted in simple terms of warriors on foot, most of them without armour and protected only by a shield, almost helpless in the face of swift-moving archers on horseback. The comparison is often made to the hunt, where a group of riders systematically breaks up the herd and coldly kills individuals and small groups. However brave the foot soldiers, they simply could not catch their mobile opponents, who would only close with them when they had an overwhelming advantage. At that point the Huns would turn to their secondary weapons of slashing swords and lassoes. There may have been encounters like that, although we should note that the Alans were traditionally famous for their own cavalry and mounted archers and yet were also quickly overcome by the Huns. After their initial successes, Hunnic armies tended to include substantial contingents of allies fighting in their own traditional style. Many were infantry armed with javelins, spears or swords and not bows.'°

The Hunnic bow was deadly in skilled hands, but it was not a wonder weapon and there were limits to what Hun armies could achieve. Horse archers were only truly effective in open country, such as the Steppes or the Hungarian plain. Another disadvantage was that the long training and constant practice required for proficiency tended to limit their numbers, even when the nomads became a little more settled and their population may have increased. There may never have been that many Hun warriors and certainly heavy casualties were very hard to replace quickly. The expansion of the power of Hun leaders to control allies and subjects provided far greater resources of manpower, but ensured that armies were of a more mixed composition.

The Romans had fought very successfully against horse archers and nomadic peoples in the past - Sarmatians and Alans were two prime examples. In another age it is doubtful that the Huns would have enjoyed such spectacular success. Yet, as we have seen, the early fifth century was characterised by very tentative warfare. Roman generals like Stilicho and Constantius - and also war leaders like Alaric - could not afford to suffer serious casualties or risk the loss of prestige resulting from a defeat. It was not an era of frequent and decisive battles. Nor was the Roman army willing to embark on concerted aggressive campaigning, at least in Europe. There were always too many other problems with which to deal, not least the threat posed by Roman rivals. In this era Attila was able to field armies that were large and formidable by the standards of the day, and to maintain them on campaign for considerable periods. Only rarely were they faced by strong opposition. The success of the Huns was to a great extent a product of Roman weakness."

A New Threat on the Danube

The Eastern Empire was most exposed to Hunnic raiding. This seems to have escalated gradually from the start of the fifth century, so that in the usual way successful raids encouraged larger and more frequent attacks. Powerful Hunnic leaders emerged, such as Rua, the uncle of Attila. In 422 the government in Constantinople agreed to pay him 350 lb of gold every year as the price for his keeping the peace. In 434 he demanded that this be increased, and when the Romans refused, he launched an attack on the Balkan provinces. However, Rua died soon afterwards and was succeeded by Attila and his brother Bleda. They appear to have split their uncle's kingdom between them rather than ruling jointly. For a while the pressure on the Roman frontier was reduced, but by 440 the brothers were able to extort an annual payment of 700 lb of gold from the Eastern Empire. Theodosius II's ministers faced other military problems and this sum may have seemed a small price to pay for peace.12

Blackmailers inevitably interpret compliance as a sign of weakness and increase their demands. Peace proved illusory and within a year the Huns began raiding Illyricum and Thrace once again. One of the pretexts for the renewal of war was the alleged activity of the bishop of the city of Margus, who was supposed to have crossed the Danube to plunder gold from the graves of some Hun kings. Margus itself was soon targeted and the bishop began to worry that its citizens would prefer to hand him over to the enemy rather than all perish in his defence. Therefore he deserted to the Huns and promptly betrayed the city to them, arranging for some of his associates to open the gate and let in the enemy during the night."

Other walled cities fell to direct attack. Fragments of a contemporary history mention the Huns employing battering rams, scaling ladders and mobile towers to mount formal assaults. They may have copied such technology from the Romans or, alternatively, now included many contingents that had once served with the Roman army. As important as such comparatively simple machines were the numbers of troops they deployed, the capacity to keep them in one place long enough to mount a siege and the willingness to take casualties in an assault. The Hunnic ability to take fortified places set them apart from other tribal armies. Singidunum (modern Belgrade) and the major city of Sirmium were amongst their victims and were left in ruins. In 443 Naissus, another major city and the birthplace of Constantine, was also burned to the ground. Several years later some travellers noted that a few people lived a basic existence in the remaining buildings. More ominously, they had to camp in the open away from the nearby river, because `all the ground adjacent to the bank was full of the bones of men slain in war'. Even more people were carried off to lives of slavery. Of these, some would subsequently be ransomed, while a lucky few were able to win their freedom and even gain honours and status amongst their masters. Yet, for the overwhelming majority, slavery under the Huns was as brutal and unpleasant as in any other society.14

The Romans strengthened the army in the region by bringing troops from elsewhere and were eventually able to drive the raiders back. Payment of the subsidy ceased for some years. In 445 Attila killed his brother and became sole ruler of an enormous Hunnic empire. No other rival emerged during his lifetime. Much of central Europe seems to have been under his control, although we must be sceptical about claims that his rule stretched as far as the North Sea. Under Attila some other Huns enjoyed considerable power, as did a number of kings from other tribes. He took a larger number of wives, not only for pleasure but also no doubt to cement political alliances. We also know that at least one of Bleda's wives survived and was treated with considerable honour. Loyal followers were rewarded and prospered under Attila's rule. Gothic burials from within his empire are often accompanied by spectacular gold objects and in some cases reveal emulation of Hunnic customs, such as deliberately deformed skulls. Disloyalty was ruthlessly punished. A constant feature of treaties with the Romans was Attila's demand that anyone - and given that they were named he clearly meant prominent individuals - who fled from his rule into the empire must be returned to him. We know of two princes who were impaled as soon as they were handed over to Attila's men."

After two years of poor harvests and outbreaks of plague, a succession of earthquakes spread devastation throughout the Eastern Empire in 447. Constantinople was badly affected, with substantial parts of its great walls collapsing. Attila scented an opportunity and launched a major attack. A Roman general - as so often in these years, he was a man of German extraction - chose to risk a battle and was badly beaten. Once again, cities fell to the invader and were sacked. At Constantinople, the Praetorian Prefect Flavius Constantinus enlisted the services of the two factions into which the enthusiastic circusgoing population of the city was divided. The Blues and Greens were normally bitter rivals, but under his leadership they agreed to work together and in some sixty days had cleared up much of the damage in the city. Its walls were repaired long before the Huns were able to take advantage of its vulnerability. Elsewhere they spread devastation. One group even reached as far as Thermopylae in Greece, the famous pass where in 480 B c an army of Greeks led by the Spartans had made a sacrificial stand to delay Persian invaders."

Once again, the Eastern Empire felt forced to buy peace from the Huns. Attila was now to be sent no less than 2,100 lb of gold each year, and in addition received an immediate payment of 6,ooo more, which he calculated were the arrears due since the Romans had stopped paying the earlier subsidy. For the first time he was also granted land south of the Danube - a stretch of territory some 300 miles long, from Singidunum to Novae in Pannonia, and five days' journey in width, which could have meant anything from about 20 to 100 miles. This included all of the province of Dacia Ripensis - one of those named to conceal the abandonment of Dacia proper in the third century - and parts of three other provinces. Much of the area had suffered badly in the recent raids and it is unclear to what extent Attila actually occupied it. He may simply have wanted a depopulated strip of land to advertise his power and his ability to force concessions from the Romans. His main aim in his relationship with Rome was to profit from plunder during warfare and extortion in peacetime. Both reinforced his prestige and gave him the wealth to be generous to supporters.'7

The sums paid to Attila were considerable, although not wholly out of proportion to the amounts paid to other foreign leaders in the past. In the long run the Eastern Empire could well afford the expense. In the short term it meant an increase in taxation, including levies on the senatorial class, something that this group always resented. Yet Attila was never a comfortable neighbour, and the fear remained that he would choose to renew his attacks if ever he decided that the Eastern Empire was vulnerable. He was constantly sending embassies to Constantinople. One reason was the Roman convention of plying the ambassadors with lavish gifts to demonstrate the friendliness of the Roman authorities and in the hope of winning the envoys' goodwill. Attila exploited this by routinely choosing different men to go to Constantinople. In this way he rewarded his nobles at the expense of the Romans. The frequent embassies and their insistence on negotiation over often trivial matters also helped to keep the emperor and his senior advisers off balance, reminding them that peace could not be taken for granted.I"

A remarkable account survives written by Priscus, a member of a Roman delegation sent from Constantinople to visit Attila on his home ground in 448. It was tasked with returning some deserters or refugees from Attila's empire - although only five out of the seventeen individuals named by the Huns were taken back. After a lengthy journey, escorted much of the way by a group of Huns returning from an embassy to Constantinople, they finally reached Attila's camp. It was late and they attempted to pitch their tents on a hillock, but were promptly warned off by some riders: no one was permitted to camp on higher ground than the king. It was sometime before they managed to secure an audience. Messages were sent alternately telling them to leave, since they had failed to bring all the deserters and had nothing new to offer for negotiation, and then holding out the possibility of talks. On a more intimate scale, it was very similar to Attila's use of diplomacy in his relations with the Romans, keeping them off balance and threatening force, in the hope of winning concessions when the actual bargaining began. The Roman party went to a succession of important individuals, plying them with gifts and flattery to persuade them to use their influence to secure a hearing with Attila himself.'9

They encountered a number of remarkable characters. One was the widow of Bleda, who was clearly still a woman of wealth and local authority. She rescued the Roman party after a storm had knocked down their tent, providing them with food, warmth and several attractive young women - a gesture of hospitality amongst the Huns. Priscus primly reports that they allowed the women to share their meal, but did not otherwise take advantage of the situation. They also tried to approach Onegesius, Attila's most important deputy, but, when they could not reach him, instead went to his brother Scottas. Another person to receive the Romans was one of Attila's wives, held in considerable honour because she had given him his first son. All the while the ambassadors trailed behind Attila, as he toured his lands, stopping at one village to take an additional wife. Eventually they came to one of his more permanent residences, where he lived in a grand wooden hall surrounded by an impressive ornamental palisade. Onegesius had a smaller compound, which also included a Roman-style stone bath house. This had been built by Roman captives taken in the attacks on the Balkan provinces. There was no local source of stone in the Hungarian plain, so all of the materials had had to be carried hundreds of miles to the spot. The engineer who designed it had hoped to win his freedom by doing a good job, but instead found himself kept on permanently as the attendant.

He was not the only Roman to be found there. Priscus was surprised when a `Hun' greeted him in Greek. The man proved to have been a merchant taken prisoner when a city on the Danube had been sacked. Over time, he had won the trust of his master, a Hunnic nobleman, fighting as one of his warriors against both the Romans and other peoples. He won his freedom, took a Hunnic wife and told Priscus that his new life was preferable to the old, complaining of the empire's heavy taxes, corrupt government and the unfairness and cost of the legal system. Priscus claims to have convinced the man of the superiority of the emperor's rule, but it is hard to be sure whether he really meant this or sympathised with the criticism he attributes to the man in his account. There was also a long tradition in classical literature of contrasting the primitive honesty of barbarians with the corruption of civilised societies. Apart from such survivors, there was also an embassy from the Western Empire. It was there to placate Attila over an issue of some gold treasure from Sirmium in Pannonia. The bishop there had handed this over to one of Attila's secretaries, a Roman named Constantius, supplied to him by the Western Empire. This man promised to ransom the clergyman if he was taken captive or, if the bishop died, to use the treasure to pay for the freedom of his flock. In the event, Constantius kept the gold for himself and later pawned it on a visit to Rome on Attila's behalf. However, he later lost royal trust and was executed, and Attila was now demanding not simply the gold but the banker with whom Constantius had made the deal. The Roman ambassadors were hoping to persuade him to accept just the equivalent sum in gold.2O

It was a while before Priscus and his party got to see Attila and at first it was only from a distance. They saw the grand processions organised around him, and witnessed his courtesy to one of his hosts when he stopped in a village, remaining on horseback to take food and drink from them. Finally, they were invited to a feast in his hall. It was a ceremonial occasion, with guests seated according to their precedence. The Romans were placed on his left rather than his right - the latter was more honourable - and even there precedence was given to an important nobleman. There was a long succession of toasts, first by Attila, who saluted each of his guests from the most senior down. Then:

A luxurious meal, served on silver plate, had been made ready for us and the barbarian guests, but Attila ate nothing but meat on a wooden platter. In everything else too, he showed himself temperate; his cup was of wood, while his guests were given goblets of gold and silver. His dress too was simple, affecting only to be clean. The sword he carried at his side, the straps of his Hunnic shoes, and the bridle of his horse were not adorned, like those of the other Huns, with gold or anything else costly."

The ceremony was perhaps not quite as elaborate as that of the imperial courts, but it was far more directly imbued with the spirit of Attila himself. He confirmed his favour to his leading men, as well as demonstrating his power by treating the Roman representatives with less honour. Much of the time he appeared indifferent to what was going on, but punctuated this with outbursts of rage and only showed clear affection to one of his sons. He ignored the performance of the dwarf jester Zerco, who had been a favourite of Bleda. (The presence of this man, who was originally from North Africa and spoke a bizarre mixture of Latin, Gothic and Hunnic, is doubtless the source of the persistent myth that Attila himself was of diminutive stature.)

Attila treated the Romans to a few displays of anger, with more conciliatory signals coming via others. This seems to have been his normal method, although in this case he had more than usual grounds for displeasure. Priscus was assistant to the head of the embassy, a man named Maximinus. The latter had already tried and failed to persuade Onegesius to defect to the Romans. They were themselves unaware that the authorities in Constantinople had an ulterior motive in sending the embassy in the first place. Accompanying them was another official named Vigilas (in older books this is often rendered Bigilas), who had the rare distinction of being able to speak the Hunnic language. When the Hunnic embassy was in Constantinople, this man had secretly negotiated with its leader Edeco. Vigilas persuaded him to assassinate Attila for the price of 50 lb of gold and promise of sanctuary within the empire. It is hard to know whether Edeco ever considered fulfilling his part of the deal, for on his return home he quickly informed the king of the plot. With Attila's blessing, he then continued to play along with Vigilas. In the end, they caught him red-handed bringing the gold to pay the assassin. He and his son were taken prisoner and more money was extorted from the Roman authorities before they were released."

Assassination plots were obviously not conducive to successful diplomacy, and Maximinus and Priscus unsurprisingly achieved very little. Yet Attila was moderate in his response, using his discovery of the plot to give him the advantage over the Romans in subsequent negotiations. Even at its highest, the subsidy and other sums paid to him were comfortably affordable to the Constantinople government. Yet they were still an indication of its impotence in dealing with the Huns militarily. At best, when there were no other major military commitments elsewhere, they could hope to hold them in check. There was no prospect of attacking and permanently defeating Attila, hence the willingness to try assassination instead. Attila was too feared by those closest to him for this to be viable. For the moment the Eastern Empire had no choice but to live with him and continue to pay the subsidies. Fortunately for it, Attila was beginning to look further afield, transferring his attentions to the Western Empire."

The Last Roman

Flavius Aetius was born into one of those military families from the Balkan provinces that had filled the higher ranks of the army and provided a good number of the emperors in the third and fourth centuries. Like many of those emperors, he spent his career almost permanently at war, regularly leading troops on campaign against foreign and Roman opponents. For some twenty years he was by far the most powerful man in the Western Empire. Consul three times and Master of All Soldiers, he was named patrician in 435 and yet never made any attempt to become emperor himself. The civil wars he fought were struggles over who would dominate the imperial court. There were other ways in which his life showed just how different conditions were in the fifth century. Twice during his youth he was sent as a hostage to foreign leaders, first to Alaric and subsequently to a Hunnic leader. In earlier centuries the Romans had often taken hostages, who were given a properly Roman education in the hope that this would also create sympathy. The Romans did not themselves give hostages to others. By the fifth century the balance of power had shifted profoundly.

Aetius received a thoroughly Roman education, supplemented by the experience of living amongst foreign peoples. He became a highly proficient horseman and archer following his years with the Huns. Even more importantly, he gained an understanding of them and formed associations that would be of great use to him during his life. Following the death of Honorius, he was one of the most prominent supporters of the usurper John and went to raise a force of Huns as auxiliaries - perhaps better, as mercenaries - from the leaders he knew. Aetius and these warriors arrived in Italy too late to take part in the campaign and found John executed and Valentinian III established as emperor by an eastern army. His Huns remained loyal and, in return for not reigniting the war and instead pledging himself to the new emperor, Aetius was promoted to Master of Soldiers in Gaul. At least some of the Huns seem to have remained with him and fought in his subsequent campaigns against the Franks west of the Rhine and the Goths established within Gaul itself.24

There were two other commanders vying for supremacy in the Western Empire during these years. Galla Placidia tried to play them off against each other, hoping to prevent any of the three from becoming too powerful and so impossible to control. Eventually in 427 Felix, the senior Master of Soldiers in command of the imperial army in Italy, sent troops to attack his colleague Boniface, who commanded in Africa. This force was defeated and by 43o Aetius had supplanted Felix in his post and engineered his execution. Two years later Boniface led his army into Italy to fight for supremacy. He won the ensuing battle, but suffered a mortal wound in the process. Aetius fled, eventually going to the Huns and raising a new force of these warriors. In 433 he returned and once again assumed the supreme military command - Boniface's successor had fled to Constantinople without fighting. Galla Placidia's hopes were dashed; until his death some two decades later, Aetius would not face a serious rival."

As usual, the Roman preoccupation with in-fighting had seriously compromised the empire's ability to deal with other military problems. The Goths settled in Aquitania - now increasingly identified as the Visigoths or `West Goths', to distinguish them from the `East Goths' who still lived on the Danube - and on several occasions launched attacks on neighbouring parts of the Roman provinces. This seems to have been largely opportunism, although it is possible that some of the friction was provoked by the Roman authorities. Other tribal groups, such as the Franks and Burgundians, expanded the territory they controlled nearer to the frontiers. Raids from outside the empire also increased. In Spain the Suevi became more aggressive, taking the provincial capital at Merida and attacking Seville. From 429 onwards they were the single most powerful group in the Iberian Peninsula, for in that year the Vandals and surviving Alans migrated to North Africa. A later source claims that their leader, King Geiseric, was followed by some 8o,ooo people - women, children and the elderly, as well as warriors. The figure is not impossible, although as always we should note that we have no idea whether or not it is accurate. It may well be inflated. Yet even transporting a group far smaller than this would have required a high degree of organisation. Probably the migrants were ferried across the Straits of Gibraltar over the course of several weeks.26

At first the Vandals do not seem to have met serious opposition. There were units of cornitatenses in Africa, as well as lilnitanei, but they had to protect a huge area. It is more than probable that, like most other Roman armies by this time, some of the units existed only on paper or were pale shadows of their theoretical strength and efficiency. Add in the preoccupation with the struggle between Boniface and the other army commanders and it is less difficult to explain the repeated successes of the Vandals. The rumours of collusion and claims that Boniface invited the Vandals to cross may be no more than propaganda to blacken his reputation. Although the use of barbarian groups as allies was common, the Vandals did not in the event ever aid him. Over the next years Geiseric and his men moved gradually eastwards. The major city of Hippo Regius was captured and sacked in 431 - its famous bishop St Augustine had died more than a year before, but his last letters reflect the fear caused by the invaders. By this time the Vandals were Christian, but like the Goths they followed a distinctly Arian interpretation of the faith, making them heretics in the eyes of the Church.17

Whether or not Boniface ever colluded with the Vandals, in the end he fought against them and was badly beaten. He retreated and soon decided to take his army across to Italy and instead try his fortune there. BY 435 Aetius was left unchallenged by any rival commanders, but was too preoccupied with problems in Gaul to use force against Geiseric. The Vandals were granted a substantial part of Numidia by a formal treaty, but the peace proved brief. In 439 Geiseric took Carthage, one of the greatest cities in the world. Shiploads of Vandal raiders soon became a menace to merchantmen and coastal communities. In 44o Geiseric led a major attack on Sicily. North Africa remained one of the wealthiest regions of the Western Empire, supplying a substantial part of the food consumed in Italy, as well as tax revenue and perhaps also some manpower for the army. Its loss was probably the single most serious blow suffered by the government of Valentinian III .

In 441 a major expeditionary force of soldiers was concentrated in Sicily in preparation for an invasion of North Africa. Theodosius II sent substantial numbers of troops from the eastern army as well as warships to support his western colleague. Yet the invasion was never launched. Negotiations began and there was soon pressure for the eastern forces to return and bolster the Balkan frontier against the attacks of the Huns. In 442 a treaty granted the Vandals control of most of the more prosperous regions of North Africa. Around this time Valentinian's daughter Eudocia was betrothed to Geiseric's son Huneric. The latter was already married to a daughter of the Visigothic king. Geiseric swiftly terminated this by accusing the young woman of attempting to murder him. She was mutilated - her ears and nose cut off - and sent back to her father. The Visigoths were too far away for their enmity to matter and the prospect of the alliance with the imperial family was far more tempting to the Vandal king. Eudocia was still a child and for the moment remained in Italy.z8

Aetius dominated the Western Empire for two decades. He went on campaign in virtually all of these years, fighting against, amongst others, the Visigoths, Alamanni, Franks, Burgundians and Seuvi, as well as the rebels known as Bagaudae who had appeared in north-western Gaul. Just like Stilicho and Constantius before him, court poets celebrated his bravery, skill and sweeping victories in the grandest of styles. His cuirass was `not so much protective armour as his everyday clothes'. Almost always actively campaigning, Aetius used even the rare breaks from fighting to prepare for future wars. Yet the very frequency of operations reveals that his successes were limited and almost never decisive. He was also careful to prevent any potential rival from controlling troops and winning victories. There was effectively only one army and it was under the direct command of Aetius. If he did not deal with a problem, then it was unlikely that it would be dealt with at all.

The loss of much of Africa, as well as the continued occupation of parts of Gaul by the Visigoths and Spain by the Seuvi, produced a massive drop in the revenue and resources available to Valentinian's government. Inevitably, Aetius had substantially fewer troops at his disposal than Stilicho or Constantius. Some of this may also have been deliberate, as the emperor and senior figures at court tried to impose some limit on their general by restricting the resources available to him. A great deal of Aetius' success was due to his Hunnic allies, and it was largely through their efforts that the Burgundian kingdom was shattered in 436-437. The Burgundians' disastrous defeat later became the basis for the epic tale of the Nibelungen, more familiar to us today through Wagner's operatic cycle, although obviously this is far removed from the real events. It was the most decisive victory of Aetius' career and due almost entirely to his allies. The Huns also operated with success against the Bagaudae and the Visigoths, until they were badly beaten outside Arelate (modern Arles) in 439.'9

It is unclear how well Aetius and Attila knew each other. There seems to have been frequent diplomatic contact between the Western Empire and the Huns, and we know that Aetius supplied Attila with men to serve as his secretaries when writing in Latin. This need not suggest anything more than the desire to placate a powerful leader. By 45o Attila seems already to have been considering an attack on the Western Empire. Territorial expansion was never his primary aim in warfare and the Balkan provinces had already been thoroughly plundered during previous Hun attacks. Attila's power rested ultimately on his ability to reward his supporters lavishly. For this he needed to fight successful wars, to both gain plunder and maintain the fear that prompted payments of tribute. He was good at finding pretexts for attacks in small disputes and at first, he talked of fighting the Visigoths on behalf of Valentinian III. There were also rumours of a connection with Geiseric. In the end, he found an excuse from an extremely unlikely source.

Honoria was the sister of Valentinian III and daughter of Galla Placidia. As yet unmarried - no doubt to prevent any possible rival gaining a connection with the imperial family - she had an affair with her estate manager and became pregnant. The lover was executed and Honoria married off to a senator who was politically trustworthy, probably elderly and certainly dull. Determined to escape from this condition, she somehow managed to send a letter and her ring to Attila, pleading for his aid. The Hunnic king happily accepted this as an offer of marriage and laid claim to half of the Western Empire. Although this story sounds like a romantic invention, it appears quite early in our sources and may well be true. Honoria's mother had married the Goth Athaulf, admittedly while she was a captive and so may not have had much freedom to refuse. More recently, Honoria's niece, the emperor's daughter Eudocia, was promised as bride to a Vandal. Marriage to the powerful king of the Huns was not quite so unimaginable as it would have been in the past, even if it was still not up to the women of the imperial family to choose their own husbands.3°

The appeal from Honoria provided Attila with a convenient pretext and useful negotiating tool, but there is no good indication that his war was planned as anything other than a massive plundering raid. In 451 he led his army across the Rhine near modern Coblenz - after a considerable journey if scholars are correct to assume that it set out from Pannonia earlier in the same year - and quickly overran most of the neighbouring cities. Trier, so often used as an imperial capital in the late third and fourth centuries, was one of the cities sacked. The Hunnic army - in reality, a large majority of the troops were allies, including a strong contingent of Goths - pushed on, but seems to have lost momentum when it failed to capture Orleans. By this time Aetius had mustered an army to meet it. This also consisted mainly of allied troops fighting under their own leaders. There were Franks, Burgundians, Alans and Saxons, as well as a strong force of Goths from Aquitania led by their King Theodoric. A major battle - something rare for this period - was fought somewhere in the region known as the Catalaunian Plains (Campus Mauriacus). Attila certainly failed to win this encounter, and may have suffered a clear reverse. King Theodoric was amongst the fallen and a later Visigothic source claims that Attila was reduced to despair after the battle. He is supposed to have prepared a funeral pyre for himself, using the saddles of his men, and only at the last minute decided against suicide. However, Aetius' army swiftly broke up as the allied contingents went home. This was probably as much to do with the problems of supplying the concentrated force, although our sources allege that he deliberately persuaded his allies to leave since he did not want them to destroy the Huns. The threat of Attila was the best way of keeping the Visigoths and others docile."

The Huns had been checked, but Attila had not suffered catastrophic losses to his army. In 452 he attacked again, surprising Aetius by striking not at Gaul but at northern Italy. Aquileia, the old city on the border with Illyricum, was besieged and captured. Other cities, including Milan, were plundered, although the imperial capital at Ravenna was once again protected by its surrounding marshes. For a while Attila headed south, before retreating and returning to his own lands. Legends quickly grew up attributing this withdrawal to a meeting with the pope. Rather more probably it was due to supply shortages and a disturbing outbreak of plague within his army. Attila and his men had already acquired considerable quantities of plunder and many of the warriors were probably keen to carry this back to their homes before the winter.

The western Romans had not defeated Attila, but neither had he forced them to offer him tribute and other concessions. Even a failure to win an outright victory could be damaging to a war leader whose power rested on continuous success. While he was away the Eastern Empire had become more hostile. Theodosius II had died in 450 without an heir and been replaced by a fifty-eight-year-old army officer named Marcian. Pulcheria, herself well into middle age, renounced her vow of chastity and married the new emperor to make him legitimately a member of the Theodosian family. Marcian was fortunate that Attila was already committed to a western campaign and was unable to retaliate when he stopped paying tribute to the Huns. Troops were also sent to aid Aetius in 452. At the same time the eastern army was launching minor offensive operations against Attila's kingdom, exploiting the fact that his main forces and attention were elsewhere. It provided another reason for the Huns to withdraw from Italy."

Attila would doubtless have resumed the war in the next year. However, early in 453 he took yet another wife and celebrated the occasion by prodigious drinking, something that was common at his court. The next morning he was found dead next to his hysterical bride. He had passed out and then choked to death from internal bleeding. Much later romantic stories would be invented of his wife murdering him to exact revenge for wrongs done to her family. Attila had not marked out a successor and his numerous sons soon began to fight each other for power. At the same time, many of the allied and subject peoples made bids for power. In just a few years the Hunnic Empire collapsed."

Valentinian III's mother Galla Placidia had died in 450. His sister Honoria may not have survived their mother by very long and never again appears in our sources. The emperor was only in his early thirties, but never became his own man. Influence at court shifted and there were new opportunities for ambitious men. At the same time, Aetius' position had become weaker. In recent years, even before the attack of Attila, he had been less able to recruit Huns to fight for him. While Attila was alive, Valentinian clearly needed his most powerful general to oppose the enemy invasions. Now that the Hun was dead, Aetius seemed less necessary. The general understood his new vulnerability and hoped to secure his position by arranging a marriage between his son and Valentinian's daughter Placidia. The emperor continued to resent Aetius and was encouraged to act by a wily senator named Petronius Maximus. In September 454 the general came to the palace at Ravenna for a meeting. During the discussion Valentinian and his eunuch chamberlain suddenly attacked Aetius with swords and hacked him to death. One of the emperor's advisers told him that he had cut off his right hand with his left. Yet the instigator Petronius was disappointed with the scale of his emperor's gratitude. Recruiting two members of Aetius' bodyguard, he arranged for them to murder Valentinian III on i6 March 455. Petronius Maximus then immediately declared himself emperor.34

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!