FOR OVER A DECADE, from 441 to 453, the history of Europe was dominated by military campaigns on an unprecedented scale – the work of Attila, ‘scourge of God’. Historians’ opinions about him have ranged from one end of the spectrum to the other. After Gibbon, he tended to be viewed as a military and diplomatic genius. Edward Thompson, writing in the 1940s, sought to set the record straight by portraying him as a bungler. To Christian contemporaries, Attila’s armies seemed like a whip wielded by the Almighty. His pagan forces ranged across Europe, sweeping those of God-chosen Roman emperors before them. Roman imperial ideology was good at explaining victory, but not so good at explaining defeat, especially at the hands of non- Christians. Why was God allowing the unbelievers to destroy His people? In the 440s, Attila the Hun, spreading devastation from Constantinople to the gates of Paris, prompted this question as it had never been prompted before. As one contemporary put it, ‘Attila ground almost the whole of Europe into dust.’1

The Loss of Africa

ATTILA BURSTS into history as joint ruler of the Huns with his brother Bleda. The pair inherited power from an uncle, Rua (or Ruga; still alive in November 435).2 The first recorded east Roman embassy to Attila and Bleda was sent sometime after 15 February 438, and it is likely that the brothers came to power only at the end of the 430s, possibly as late as 440. Their debut brought changes of policy, as new regimes usually do. Initial contacts with Constantinople led to a decision to renegotiate the existing relationship between the two parties. Their representatives met outside the city of Margus on the Danube in Upper Moesia (map 11). The fifth-century historian Priscus treats us to this detail:3 ‘the [Huns] do not think it proper to confer dismounted, so that the Romans, mindful of their own dignity, chose to meet [them] in the same fashion, lest one side speak from horseback, the other on foot.’

The salient feature of the new agreement was an increase in the amount of the annual subsidy paid to the Huns, from 350 pounds of gold to 700. The treaty also agreed the terms under which Roman prisoners might be returned and where and how markets would be conducted; also, that the Romans would receive no refugees from the Hunnic Empire. But the new terms, despite the increased payments, did not satisfy the Huns’ new leaders. Shortly afterwards at a market, probably in winter 440/1, Hunnic ‘traders’ suddenly produced their weapons and seized the Roman fort in which the market was being held, killing the guards as well as some of the Roman merchants. According to Priscus, when a Roman embassy complained, the Huns retorted that ‘the bishop of Margus had crossed over to their land, and searching out their royal tombs, had stolen the valuables stored there.’ But our episcopal Indiana Jones was only a pretext. Taking the opportunity to raise the issue of refugees once again, Attila and Bleda threatened war if such Hunnic refugees as the Romans then held (and the bishop) were not immediately handed over. When they weren’t, the Huns waited for the campaigning season, then crossed the Danube in force and took forts and cities along the frontier, including the major Roman military base at Viminacium.

At this point, the Bishop of Margus began to panic, and did a deal with the Huns to hand over his city if they would drop their accusations against him. Attila and his brother jumped at the chance to secure another strongpoint and to exploit the opportunities its capture presented. Margus was the key that opened up the great Roman military road across the Balkans, and the Huns were quick to besiege the next key point along it: the city of Naissus (modern Niimgs.jpg). At Naissus the road divides, one branch leading more or less due south to Thessalonica, the other running south-east via Serdica (Sofia) to Constantinople. This was a crossroads worth the taking, and, for once, we have a lengthy account (courtesy of Priscus) of the siege that followed:

When . . . a large number of [Hunnic siege] engines had been brought up to the wall . . . the defenders on the battlements gave in because of the clouds of missiles and evacuated their positions; the so-called rams were brought up also. This is a very large machine. A beam is suspended by slack chains from timbers which incline together, and it is provided with a sharp metal point and screens . . . for the safety of those working it. With short ropes attached to the rear, men vigorously swing the beam away from the target of the blow and then release it . . . From the walls the defenders tumbled down wagon-sized boulders . . . Some [rams] they crushed together with the men working them, but they could not hold out against the great number of machines. Then the enemy brought up scaling ladders . . . The barbarians entered through the part of the circuit wall broken by the blows of the rams and also over the scaling ladders . . . and the city was taken.

In the past, this passage aroused a great deal of suspicion. It contains obvious references to the most famous ancient siege account of them all: Thucydides’ narrative of the siege of Plataea in 431 BC at the start of the Peloponnesian War. Traditionally, to draw such parallels would be taken as a sign that the whole story was fabricated. But ancient authors were expected to show off their learning, and audiences always enjoyed spotting the allusions. There is no need to dismiss the entire siege as fantasy, just because Priscus borrowed a few phrases from a well known historian.4 We know, anyway, that Naissus was taken by the Huns in 442.

In their first campaign against the east Roman Empire, Attila and Bleda had shown that they had the military capacity to take fully defended front-rank Roman fortresses. They may have gained Margus by stratagem; but Viminacium and Naissus were both large and well fortified, and yet they had been able to force their way in. This represented a huge change in the balance of military power between the Roman and non-Roman worlds in the European theatre of war. As we have seen, the last serious attack on the Balkans had been by Goths between 376 and 382; and then, although they had been able to take smaller fortified posts or force their evacuation, large walled cities had been beyond them. Consequently, even though at times hard-pressed for food, the cities of the Roman Balkans had survived the war more or less intact (see Chapter 4). The same was true of western Germania. When Roman forces were distracted by civil wars, Rhine frontier groups had on occasion overrun large tracts of imperial territory: witness the Alamanni in the aftermath of the civil war between Magnentius and Constantius II in the early 350s. All they had done then, though, was occupy the outskirts of the cities and destroy small watch-towers. They did not attempt to take on the major fortified centres such as Cologne, Strasbourg, Speyer, Worms or Mainz, all of which survived more or less intact.5 Now, the Huns were able to mount successful sieges of such strongholds.

No source records the origins of this skill. Did they bring it with them from over the steppe, or was it a recent development? Siege techniques were hardly needed against the Goths and other groups north of the Black Sea – accounts of Hunnic fighting from the 370s concentrate on their skill in open combat as mounted archers. But if our Huns had been part of the old Hsiung-Nu confederation (see pp. 148-9), the latter had certainly needed to mount sieges in making war on the Chinese Empire. By the late antique period, in addition, even the more obscure steppe groups needed to take the rich fortified cities along the Silk Road, or at least apply pressure on them. So the capacity to mount a plausible siege would have been important in this context too.6 On the other hand, by the 440s the Huns had been in the employ of Aetius certainly, and quite possibly of Constantius before him, so that close observation of the Roman army could easily have been the source of their knowledge – in other eras, Roman techniques and weaponry had quickly been adopted by non-Romans. As recently as 439, Hunnic auxiliaries had been part of the western Roman force that had besieged the Goths in Toulouse, and would have seen a siege at first hand. On balance, I think it slightly more likely that the Huns’ capture of Viminacium and Naissus represented the deployment of a newly developed skill. And just as important for successful siege warfare was the availability of manpower. Men were needed to make and man machines, to dig trenches and to make the final assault. As we shall see later in this chapter, even if the designs for siege machinery did come from old knowledge, it was only recently that manpower on such a scale was available to the Huns.

Whatever its origins, the barbarians’ capacity to take key fortified centres was a huge strategic shock for the Roman Empire. Impregnable fortified cities were central to the Empire’s control of its territories. But, serious as the capture of Viminacium and Naissus was, what mattered most at this moment was that the Huns had picked their first fight with Constantinople at exactly the point when the joint east-west expedition force was gathering in Sicily to attempt to wrest Carthage from the Vandals. As we noted earlier, much of the eastern component for this expedition had been drawn from the field armies of the Balkans, and of this, no doubt, the Huns were well aware. Information passed too freely across the Roman frontier for it to be possible to hide the withdrawal of large numbers of troops from their normal stations.7 I suspect that by raising the annual tribute so readily at the start of the reign of Attila and Bleda to 700 pounds of gold, the authorities in Constantinople were trying to buy a big enough breathing space for the African expedition to be launched. If so, they spectacularly failed. Instead of being bought off, the Huns decided to exploit the Romans’ temporary weakness farther, and so, with havoc in mind, hurled their armies across the Danube. The authorities in Constantinople thus had no choice but to withdraw their troops from Sicily; and after the unprecedented loss of three major bases – Viminacium, Margus and Naissus (although the latter had probably not yet fallen when the orders were given) – it’s hard to blame them. The Hunnic army was now poised astride the great military road through the Balkans and pointing straight at Constantinople. Without going anywhere near North Africa, Attila’s first campaign had forced the two halves of the Empire to abandon a project of the utmost importance. The Huns had dealt a strategic blow to the Roman world whose consequences were every bit as wide-ranging as the one dealt by the Persians two centuries before. But the history of Attila the Hun doesn’t end here, of course. He had a long agenda, and in the course of the next decade both halves of the Roman Empire were to feel its force.


THE INITIAL strategic effect upon the west of the increasing Hunnic aggression in the 440s is clear enough, but other aspects of the reign of Attila are less certain. Illiterate when they first hit the fringes of Europe in the 370s, the Huns remained so seventy years later, and there are no Hunnic accounts of even the greatest of their leaders. Our Roman sources, as always, are much more concerned with the political and military impact of alien groups upon the Empire than with chronicling their deeds, so there are always points of huge interest, particularly in the internal history of such groups, that receive little or no coverage. As in the case of Olympiodorus for the first two decades of the fifth century, we are left bemoaning the loss of the history of one particular Roman author: a man called Priscus (already quoted in this book), who came from the town of Panium in Thrace. Again, however, we have been lucky, because some substantial extracts from his history have been preserved in the works of an underemployed tenth-century Byzantine emperor by the name of Constantine VII Porphyrogenitus.

Porphyrogenitus, Greek for ‘born in the purple’, gives us a strong clue to this medieval emperor’s predicament. He was born in 905, son of the emperor Leo VI ‘the Wise’, who died when Constantine was only seven. The tenth century was a time of imperial expansion, as the political unity of the Islamic world collapsed, leaving some easy pickings for Byzantine armies on its borders in Asia Minor and the Near East. Military success brought regular distributions of booty and estates, which in turn threw up a self-confident and ambitious officer class in Constantinople, who squabbled amongst themselves for political power. Constantine, however, had the useful quality of actually having been born into the purple. This made him an excellent vehicle for conferring legitimacy on the latest successful general, whether through marriage alliance or by elevating him to the position of co-emperor. But this was where the trouble lay. So powerful did his protégés become that it was only in the last fourteen years of his life, between 945 and 959, that Constantine was nominally in sole control of the Empire, and even then he was little more than a figurehead.8 In its long stretches of political insignificance punctuated by occasional memorable moments, his reign resembled that of the emperor Honorius, whose travails concerned us in Chapters 5 and 6. But where Honorius, as far as we know, did little with his spare time apart from worrying about the next usurpation, Constantine VII devoted himself to culture with a capital C. In particular, he was concerned that Byzantium had lost touch with its classical heritage.

He conceived a maniacal project to preserve classical learning by assembling excerpts from all the great works of antiquity: ‘Given the immensity of these writings which it is tiring even to think about and which seems generally overwhelming and heavy, [I] thought it a good idea to break it up and organize it in order to make more widely available everything it contains that is useful,’ he tells us in the preface to one of his volumes. A grand total of fifty-three were planned, with titles as disparate as Excerpts concerning Victories and Excerpts concerning Nations. We know the titles of twenty-three of the volumes, but all or parts of only four survive.9 These alone fill six hefty tomes in the best modern edition, and it has been estimated that this is only one thirty-fifth of Constantine’s original project. The only title to survive the Middle Ages in full was a single manuscript of number twenty-seven, Excerpts concerning Embassies. This was divided into Embassies from the Romans to Foreigners and Embassies from Foreigners to the Romans. And even this volume survived only by a whisker. The original manuscript was destroyed in a fire in the Escorial Palace library in Madrid in 1671, but not, thankfully, before it had been copied.10 Both halves of volume twenty-seven contain extensive extracts from Priscus’ history, leaving us for ever in Constantine’s debt. Without them, our knowledge of Attila would be almost non-existent.

There is one more point to note. The titles of Constantine’s volumes were accurate, if not pithy, and Excerpts concerning Embassies deals with precisely that. Military and other information may well be mentioned incidentally, but the main focus of the extracts is diplomacy. Consequently, while we are very well informed about negotiations between Attila and Constantinople, in which – as we shall see in a moment – Priscus himself played a major role, we are underinformed about the operations of the Hunnic war machine and the internal politics of the world that produced it. Much of this was presumably (and in part, demonstrably) well covered in Priscus’ lost text. But what we need, and don’t have, is Constantine’s lost Excerpts concerning Big Battles between the Romans and Foreigners, should he have written such a volume. One of the lost volumes was entitled Excerpts concerning Victories, but, given that the Huns kept winning, this probably didn’t contain much from Priscus. While we have much of his wonderful account of Romano-Hunnic diplomacy, then, we have to scrabble around in much lesser texts for details of Attila’s campaigns and other aspects of his reign.

How Are the Mighty Fallen

ANCIENT LOGISTICS being what they were, the east Roman contingent to the expeditionary force bound for North Africa in 441, though withdrawn from Sicily in the same year, was not back in the Balkans in time to save Constantinople from the humiliation of having to make peace after the fall of Naissus in 442. We don’t know the exact terms, as Constantine VII’s flunkeys extracted no relevant fragment from Priscus’ history, but its outlines are clear enough from references to it in later negotiations. As you might expect, the annual subsidy went up again: a plausible guess would be 1,400 pounds of gold per annum – in 447 it went up to 2,100 pounds, which would make 1,400 the halfway point (before the attacks of 441/2 it stood at 700). The figure also has to be high enough for arrears of 6,000 pounds to have built up by 447. Other than that, the Hunnic leadership continued to bang on about fugitives and Roman prisoners, and these issues were no doubt also settled to the Huns’ advantage.11

The working methods of Constantine VII mean that Priscus’ narrative outline of the 440s has been lost beyond recovery, so that the surviving fragments of diplomatic history have to be arranged chronologically according to information from other sources. In this case, reconstruction turns on the degree of credibility to be accorded the Byzantine chronicler Theophanes, who wrote in the ninth century. If you broadly accept his narrative construction, and the fragments of Priscus are arranged accordingly, you come to the conclusion that, after the engagements of 441/2, Attila mounted two further successful attacks upon east Roman forces in the Balkans: one in 443, when a Roman army was defeated in the Chersonesus, and a second in 447, when the Huns threatened the walls of Constantinople. Theophanes’ credibility has been convincingly undermined, however, by Otto J. Maenchen-Helfen.12 This extraordinary historian of the Huns spent many months in 1929 living with Turkish-speaking nomads in northwest Mongolia, and was equally at home in Greek and Latin, Russian, Persian and Chinese. Add to this a capacity for detailed observation and a logical mind. Maenchen-Helfen wasn’t the first to assault Theophanes’ credibility, but he did do the ultimate demolition job. He was able to show that Theophanes wrote one catch-all entry on the Huns in the era of Attila, placing everything that happened in the year 449/50, even though he was actually dealing with materials covering the whole of the 440s. Refracting the evidence through Maenchen- Helfen’s lens, and comparing it with everything else we know, it becomes apparent that there were not two more wars between Attila and the east Romans after 442, but only one, in 447 (map 11).13

The road leading to that confrontation can be easily discerned. The east Romans had conceded the treaty of 442/3, with its increased annual gold subsidy, only in a moment of weakness when much of its Balkan army had been away in Sicily. As soon as the forces returned, attitudes hardened. At some point in 443 or soon afterwards, the authorities stopped paying the tribute. Hence the arrears of 6,000 pounds of gold that had built up by 447. So if the payments began in 442 when peace was negotiated, and the payment was indeed 1,400 pounds per annum, the east Romans paid only part of two years’ instalments before calling a halt.14 Other countermeasures followed. On 12 September 443, a new law was put in place to ensure military readiness: ‘We command that each duke [dux, commander of limitanei garrisons] . . . shall restore the soldiers to the ancient number . . . and shall devote himself to their daily training. Furthermore, we entrust to such dukes also the care and repair of the fortified camps and the river patrol boats.’15 Eastern field forces had also been strengthened by the recruitment of a large number of Isaurians – traditionally bandits – from the highlands of Cilicia in south-west Asia Minor.16 Everything was now in place, and the east Romans were confident of being able to overturn the Huns’ ascendancy.

They may also have been encouraged in this belief by a major ruction in the top Hunnic echelons. In 444 or 445, Attila had his brother Bleda murdered, and took unchallenged command of his people. Nothing survives from Priscus’ account of this murder, so all we have is a date, no how or why. It coincided chronologically, though, with the east Roman countermeasures to overturn the peace of 442/3. Constantinople no doubt grasped the opportunity to cut off the annual payments without fear of immediate retribution, because the new sole ruler of the Huns was far too busy consolidating his authority to mount a major campaign. But both sides were gearing up for a test of strength, and it duly followed in 447.

Attila opened the exchanges, sending an embassy to Constantinople to complain about the arrears and the fact that fugitives had not been handed over. The east Romans replied that they were ready enough to talk, but nothing else. So Attila unleashed his armies, sweeping over the Danube and destroying the frontier forts in his way. So much for the poor old garrison troops, supposedly put on their mettle by the law of 443. The first big fortress Attila encountered was Ratiaria, an important base close to the river in the province of Dacia. It quickly fell. The Hunnic horde then advanced westwards along the Danube to the north of the Haemus Mountains. There they had their first confrontation with the Roman army. Arnegisclus, commander of imperial field forces in the eastern Balkans (magister militum per Thraciam), having advanced north-east from his headquarters at the city of Marcianople with every available man, gave battle on the river Utus. The Romans, we are told, fought bravely but were overwhelmed, and Arnegisclus himself fell, having carried on the fight after his horse was killed underneath him. Victory opened up the mountain passes to the Huns, who now swarmed south on to the Thracian Plain. Attila’s first port of call was the eastern imperial capital.

On 27 January 447, during the second hour after midnight, an earthquake had struck Constantinople. The whole district around the Golden Gate was in ruins, and, even worse, part of the city’s great landwalls had collapsed. Attila was on the point of invading anyway, but news of the earthquake may have altered his line of attack. By the time he got there, the crisis was over. The Praetorian Prefect of the east, Constantinus, had mobilized the circus factions to clear the moats of rubble and rebuild gates and towers. By the end of March the damage was repaired and, as a commemorative inscription put it, ‘even Athene could not have built it quicker and better’.17 Long before Attila’s forces got anywhere near the city the opportunity to take it had gone, and the Huns’ advance led not to a siege but to the second major confrontation of the year. Although the Thracian field army had been defeated and scattered, the east Romans still had central forces stationed around the capital on either side of the Bosporus. This second army was mobilized in the Chersonesus, where a second major battle, and a second huge defeat for the Romans, duly followed.

Attila had failed to force his way into Constantinople, but having reached the coast of both the Black Sea and the Dardanelles, at Sestus and Callipollis (modern-day Gallipoli) respectively (map 11), he had mastery of the Balkans in all other respects. And he proceeded to wield his domination to dire effect for the Roman provincial communities. In the aftermath of victory the Hunnic forces split up, raiding as far south as the pass of Thermopylae, site of Leonidas’ famous defence of Greece against the Persians nearly a thousand years before. Accounts of the devastation are easy to come by, such as that recorded in the life of the more or less contemporary Thracian saint Hypatius:

The barbarian people of the Huns . . . became so strong that they captured more than a hundred cities and almost brought Constantinople into danger, and most men fled from it. Even the monks wanted to run away to Jerusalem . . . They so devastated Thrace that it will never rise again and be as it was before.18

One hundred is a suspiciously round number, but there is no doubt that many strongholds were captured and destroyed. Theophanes says that everywhere except Hadrianople and Heracleia fell to the Huns, and other sources give us some names of the victims: Ratiaria, where it all began, Marcianople, Philippopolis (modern Plovdiv), Arcadiopolis and Constantia. The list includes most of the major Roman towns of the Balkans, though many of the other places destroyed were no doubt quite small. We also have some specific evidence of what it meant for such a city to be taken by Hunnic assault. As mentioned earlier, the one major Roman city of the northern Balkans to have been excavated more or less completely is Nicopolis ad Istrum, in the northern foothills of the Haemus Mountains. Like Carthage, this site was abandoned in the Middle Ages and has no modern town on top of it, so that it has been possible, in a long-running excavation, to take a good look at a lot of the city. In the Gothic war of 376 to 382, all the rich villas in the countryside around Nicopolis had been destroyed and looted, presumably by Gothic marauders. These villas were never rebuilt, but from the later 380s onwards a large number of rich houses were built in the urban centre, by the first half of the fifth century occupying over 49 per cent of it. One reasonable guess would be that the local Roman landowners responded to increased insecurity in the period after 376 by moving into houses in the walled city, while still continuing to farm their estates as absentee landlords. The dig revealed that these houses, as well as the city centre, terminated in a substantial destruction layer, which the end of a more or less continuous coin sequence dates firmly to the mid- to late-440s.


There is little doubt, therefore, that in the total destruction of the old city we are looking at the effects of its sack at the hands of Attila’s Huns in 447. At a slightly later date part of the site was rebuilt, but it covered a much smaller area and the place had changed out of all recognition. Gone were all the opulent houses; in their place, the excavators found only an episcopal complex, some poor housing and some administrative buildings. Roman urban development north of the Haemus Mountains, a phenomenon stretching back 300 years to the Romanization of the Balkans in the first and second centuries AD, was destroyed by the Huns, never to recover. This was evidently no cosy little sack, like that of Rome in 410 when the Goths were paid off, then went home. What we’re looking at in Nicopolis is large-scale destruction.19

Whether it was like this everywhere the Huns descended is impossible to say. Of those places that managed to survive, the most famous is the town of Asemus, perched on an impregnable hilltop. Armed and organized, its citizens not only weathered Attila’s storm but emerged from the action with Hunnic prisoners. Their city would survive further storms in the centuries to come.20 But there can be no doubt that the campaigns of 447 were an unprecedented disaster for Roman life in the Balkans: two major field armies defeated, a host of defended strongholds captured and some destroyed. It’s hardly surprising, then, that in the aftermath of their second defeat in the Chersonesus the east Romans were forced to sue for peace. An extract from Priscus’ history gives us the terms:

[Any] fugitives should be handed over to the Huns, and six thousand pounds of gold be paid to complete the outstanding instalments of tribute; the tribute henceforth be set at 2,100 pounds of gold per year; for each Roman prisoner of war [amongst the Huns] who escaped and reached his home territory without ransom, twelve solidi [one-sixth of a pound of gold] were to be paid . . . and . . . the Romans were to receive no barbarian who fled to them.

As Priscus went on to comment wryly:

The Romans pretended that they had made these agreements voluntarily, but because of the overwhelming fear which gripped their commanders they were compelled to accept gladly every injunction, however harsh, in their eagerness for peace.

No doubt the propaganda machine was trundled out to explain the whys and wherefores of this latest Roman ‘victory’, but when the taxman came knocking no one could have been left in any doubt as to its true nature. Priscus went on to describe how hard it was to come up with the cash for the arrears payment: ‘even members of the Senate contributed a fixed amount of gold according to their rank’. As with the west after the loss of Carthage, the terms of the 447 peace were sufficiently fierce for tax privileges to be at least partly rescinded. That the regime was willing to hit its chief political constituency in the pocket is a clear sign of the desperation to which Attila’s campaigns had reduced the Constantinopolitan authorities.

The extent of Attila’s success in the 440s emerges clearly, then, even from the truncated sources that have survived. What we’re as yet no closer to understanding, though, is how he was so successful, or why, having been content hitherto with little more than a modest annual subsidy, he so fundamentally transformed the dynamic of the Huns’ relationship with the Empire. We must begin with Attila himself, the man behind the reign of terror.

On the Trail of Attila

WE CAN GET closer to Attila than to most other ‘barbarian’ leaders of the late fourth and fifth centuries because the historian Priscus, following the path pioneered by Olympiodorus and his parrot forty years before, wrote a full account of the embassy that took him first into Hunnic territory and eventually into the presence of the great man himself. In 449 one of Priscus’ friends, a distinguished staff officer by the name of Maximinus, having drawn the short straw became the latest in a long line of east Roman ambassadors to trudge north and attempt to placate Attila. Maximinus’ brief was to tackle two outstanding issues: one was the perennial topic of Hunnic fugitives; the other concerned a strip of territory ‘five days’ journey wide’ south of the Danube, which Attila was claiming as a result of his victories in 447. The Huns wanted this area evacuated, presumably to form some kind of buffer zone between Roman and Hunnic possessions – they complained that some of its native population were still farming there. The Romans’ strategy was to try to get Attila’s right-hand man Onegesius involved in the negotiations, in the hope that he had enough clout with his leader to persuade him to come to a settlement. They were well aware, though, that these two issues might yet provide Attila, should the mood take him, with the pretext for another war.

There were many preparations to make before the embassy could leave. We saw in Chapter 3, through the person of Theophanes, how cumbersome it was for a Roman official to get around even within the Empire, despite the logistic support provided by the public transport system, the cursus publicus. Moving outside the Empire was even more difficult. Theophanes had to take with him not only every conceivable item of household equipment and a gang of slaves to operate them, but also letters of introduction and gifts for anyone of substance he was likely to encounter. Going on a diplomatic embassy, especially such a sensitive one to a potential enemy whose hostility Maximinus and Priscus were anxious to head off, required a plentiful supply of rich and elegant presents. I count no fewer than five separate occasions when Priscus records gifts being handed over, and there may well have been others. Silks and pearls were delivered to the Hunnic ambassadors in whose company our heroes travelled. Bleda’s wife, who gave the Romans hospitality, received unspecified ‘gifts’, as did Attila himself when the ambassadors were finally ushered into his presence. To solicit his good offices Onegesius was given gold, and there were yet more presents for Attila’s wife Hereka. Gold, silks, pearls, perhaps also silver and gemstones, were clearly part of your average ambassador’s luggage. Although, like the accompanying slaves, not explicitly mentioned by Priscus, an armed escort is likely to have been part of the delegation.

Ambassadors had also to be briefed on diplomatic niceties. Some potential banana skins were pretty obvious. If you were travelling on the same road as Attila you made sure that you were behind him, never in front. When camping near him, you made sure that your tents were not pitched on higher ground than his. (These were essential tips, in view of the fact that it was for Attila’s camp they were heading.) Maximinus and Priscus got this last one wrong at one point, and had to move.21 But it was also important for a Roman ambassador to maintain his dignity. He could not be seen hanging about Attila’s headquarters trying to catch the eye of Hunnic bigwigs. That was Priscus’ job, and the reason he went along. Their respective roles are nicely caught in his own words after the mission’s first exchange with Onegesius: ‘Having instructed that I should confer with him on questions we wished to ask of him – for continual visiting was not proper for Maximinus, a man in an official position – [Onegesius] went away’.22 Priscus was, in short, Maximinus’ go-between, there to lend dignity and grandeur to the Roman ambassador’s presence; but he was also a significant player in the action, and had to be briefed accordingly. And all this placed him in an excellent position to make notes for his new bestseller.

We don’t know how many Romans took to the road. Priscus’ narrative concentrates on just three: Maximinus, himself and their interpreter Vigilas, who had participated in the peace delegation after the debacle of 447.23 With them also travelled the two Hunnic ambassadors, Edeco and Orestes, the latter a Roman from Pannonia who had ended up in Attila’s service after Aetius had handed over the province to the Huns. These two, and their large entourage, had come to Constantinople earlier in 449 to raise the issues to which it was now Maximinus’ job to respond. Such was the pace of shuttle diplomacy in antiquity.

Setting off together from Constantinople in a northwesterly direction, the two parties followed the main military road through the Balkans. After thirteen days travelling at breakneck speed, they reached the city of Serdica, 500 kilometres from the east Roman capital. There the Romans decided to break the ice by holding a dinner party, buying sheep and cattle for the purpose from the locals. Everything was going swimmingly until the toasts: ‘When we were drinking, the barbarians toasted Attila and we Theodosius [the east Roman emperor]. But Vigilas said it was not proper to compare a god and a man, meaning Attila by a man and Theodosius by a god. This annoyed the Huns, and gradually they grew heated and angry.’

A bit of quick thinking saved the day: ‘We turned the conversation to other things and by our friendly manner calmed their anger, and when we were leaving after dinner, Maximinus won over Edeco and Orestes with gifts of silk garments and pearls.’

All returned to sweetness and light, but there was one rather bizarre incident – or so it seemed at the time. As the Huns were waiting to return to their tents, Orestes remarked that he was very pleased that Maximinus and Priscus hadn’t committed the same faux pas as the authorities in Constantinople: they had invited Edeco to dinner, but not himself. Neither Priscus nor Maximinus quite knew what Orestes was getting at, but the significance of the remark was to emerge later.24

Over the next few days, the caravan slowly wound its way northwest through the Balkans, crossing over the Succi Pass, to Naissus. There, the evidence of the city’s capture by the Huns in 441/2 assailed the eye. The two parties had to search at length beside the river outside the city walls before they found a camping ground that wasn’t still littered with the bones of the slaughtered. The next day, their numbers were increased by the arrival of five of the seventeen Hunnic fugitives that had been the subjects of Attila’s complaints to Constantinople. They were handed over to Maximinus by Agintheus, commanding general of the Roman field forces in Illyricum. Everyone realized that these men were returning home to their deaths, so it must have been an emotionally charged occasion; Priscus notes that Agintheus treated them with great kindness. At Naissus, the road turned north and the cavalcade wound its way through woods and wasteland to the banks of the Danube. Here they found none of the proud cutters of the Roman navy that the law of September 443 had so recently commanded, but only ‘barbarian ferrymen’. These conveyed the party across the river in canoes, each made from a single hollowed-out tree trunk. Now they were on the last lap of their journey. Another 70 stades (about 14 kilometres), plus another halfday’s journey, and they finally arrived at the camp of Attila.

Here a second odd thing happened, this one rather more disturbing. Having finally reached their destination, after the best part of a month on the road, the ambassadors were ready to do their stuff. They had just pitched camp when a party of Huns rode up, including Edeco and Orestes, together with Scottas, another of Attila’s inner circle. Onegesius, potential smoother of diplomatic channels, was not present, being away with one of Attila’s sons. This was a setback in itself, but things went from bad to worse. The messengers demanded to know what the ambassadors wanted, and when the Romans replied that their message was for Attila’s ears alone, went back to consult their leader. They then returned, and, Priscus reports, this time the Hunnic emissaries ‘told us everything for which we had come on the embassy, ordering us to leave with all speed if we had nothing further to say’.

The Romans were dumbfounded. First, they had been greeted with unexpected hostility; then, the Huns knew everything that they’d come for anyway. The ambassadors could think of nothing to say, although Vigilas, the interpreter, later berated Maximinus for not making something up on the spot to keep the talks going. That would have been better than just turning for home, even if, whatever spin was put on their mission, the lie was exposed later. Months of preparation and journeying seemed down the drain. Then, when the slaves were loading up the animals and they were about to set off, even though darkness had fallen, another messenger from Attila arrived. He brought them an ox and some fish, and told them that Attila’s instructions were that, because it was so late, they should have dinner and stay the night. So they duly ate their dinner and went to bed in more cheerful mood, certain that Attila must have decided to be more conciliatory.

When they woke up, their optimism evaporated. Attila’s next message was unequivocal: unless they had something more to say, they were to leave. Dejectedly, they loaded up again. Maximinus, especially, was plunged in despair.

Priscus now made his first positive contribution. Seeking out Scottas, one of the messengers of the night before, he made a desperate play to keep the embassy afloat. Cunningly, he offered Scottas a reward if he could get the Romans in to see Attila, while presenting his proposition as a challenge: if Scottas was as important as he claimed to be, then certainly he could manage it. Scottas rose to the bait, and the Romans got their first audience. But having presented letters and gifts they soon found themselves faced with yet another obstacle: Attila refused to let the discussions get going along the lines the Romans desired, instead turning viciously on their interpreter. Vigilas knew full well that there were to be no more Roman embassies until all fugitives had been returned, he said. When Vigilas replied that they had been returned, Attila ‘became even more angry and abused [Vigilas] violently, shouting that he would have impaled him and left him as food for the birds if he had not thought it infringed the rights of ambassadors to punish him . . . for . . . shamelessness and effrontery’.

Attila now ordered Maximinus to remain in attendance while he replied to the emperor’s letters, but told Vigilas to hurry on home to pass on his demands about the fugitives. And that was the end of the audience.

Unnerved, the Romans returned to their tents, puzzled at what had made Attila so angry. Vigilas was particularly at a loss, because Attila had been extremely friendly towards him on the previous embassy. Then Edeco came to talk to Vigilas alone, emphasizing, or so the interpreter said afterwards, that Attila would indeed make war if the fugitives weren’t returned. Neither Maximinus nor Priscus knew whether to believe this account of what had passed between the two men, but before they could press things further, more Hunnic messengers arrived. The Romans were to make no expensive purchases, or ransom any prisoners, they announced; until all disputes between the two camps were settled, they could only buy food. What were the Romans to make of it all? Before they had time to reflect, Vigilas had left.

For the next week or so, the Romans were reduced to trailing around after Attila as he made his way to the northerly parts of his kingdom. The journey was hardly comfortable. At one point they were caught in a downpour, from which they were rescued only by the intervention of one of Bleda’s wives, who still ran her own fiefdom. Her hospitality included providing attractive women for the night, but after taking care to treat them with the greatest courtesy, the Romans sent them home.

Eventually they reached their destination: one of Attila’s permanent palace compounds. Now diplomatic contact reopened, this time on a more friendly basis, and Priscus was afforded more leisure to observe this ruler and his world. From his observations, even as reflected through the distorting mirror of Roman cultural prejudice, there emerges a striking portrait of Attila, the court over which he presided and the means whereby he exercised power.

To Priscus’ eyes, the settlement, consisting of a series of walled compounds, looked like no more than a ‘very large village’. Attila’s was the largest and most elaborate dwelling, embellished with towers where others had none. Leading figures such as Onegesius also had dwellings here, and each was surrounded by circuit walls ‘made of timbers’ – constructed with ‘elegance’ not ‘security’ in mind, Priscus emphasized:25

Inside the wall there was a large cluster of buildings, some made of planks carved and fitted together for ornamental effect, others from timbers which had been debarked and planed straight. They were set on circular piles made of stones, which began from the ground and rose to a moderate height.

When the Roman ambassadors were invited to dinner, Priscus eventually gained entry to Attila’s living quarters:

All the seats were arranged around the walls of the building . . . In the very middle of the room Attila sat upon a couch. Behind him was another couch, and behind that steps led up to Attila’s bed, which was screened by fine linens and multicoloured ornamental hangings like those which the Greeks and Romans prepare for weddings.

Attila’s wife Hereka, mother of his eldest son, had her own dwelling, which, while not laid out for public entertaining, seems to have been similarly furnished:

I . . . found her reclining on a soft couch. The floor was covered with woollen-felt rugs for walking upon. A group of servants stood around her in attendance, and servant girls sat facing her working coloured embroidery on fine linens to be worn as ornaments over the barbarian clothing.

The place looked not unlike a nomad’s tented encampment, though constructed out of more permanent materials. Priscus implies that Attila had several of these palace compounds dotted around his kingdom, but doesn’t tell us how many.

The historian also gives us a sense of the public life that animated them. On their arrival, he witnessed the ceremonial greeting for Attila’s return:

As Attila was entering, young girls came to meet him and went before him in rows under narrow cloths of white linen, which were held up by the hands of women on either side. These cloths were stretched out to such a length that under each one seven or more girls walked. There were many such rows of women under the cloths and they sang Scythian songs.

At dinner, Priscus remarks, the seating was carefully arranged. Attila sat in the middle of a horseshoe arrangement of couches, in which it was more honourable to be seated on the right than on the left. Then the drinking began. A wine waiter brought Attila a cup, with which he greeted the first person on his right. That person stood up, and sipped or drained the cup in return, then sat down; every other guest, likewise, drank in honour of the first one greeted. Attila worked his way down the right-hand side of the horseshoe, then the left, greeting all his guests in turn. Nothing could have better illustrated the formal bond supposed to exist between all those gathered at his table, while at the same time making clear their positions in the pecking order.26

Priscus also introduces us to Attila himself. His account of the Hun’s appearance does not survive at first hand in the fragments collected by Constantine VII Porphyrogenitus, but has been transmitted via an intermediary, the sixth-century historian Jordanes referred to earlier:27

[Attila’s] gait was haughty, and he cast his eyes hither and thither, so that the power of his pride was reflected in the movements of his body. Though a lover of war he was not prone to violence. He was a very wise counsellor, merciful to those who sought it and loyal to those whom he had accepted as friends. He was short, with a broad chest and large head; his eyes were small, his beard sparse and flecked with grey, his nose flat and his complexion dark.

Whether this is a direct translation of what Priscus said (he wrote in Greek, Jordanes in Latin) or a paraphrase is unclear, but in some ways a surprising picture of the great conqueror emerges from it. We would expect Attila not to shrink from conflict, but would we expect him to be described as wise and merciful? Both sides of his character emerge elsewhere in Priscus’ account. On the one hand, we are told, he built a personality cult around his divine predestination to conquer; while in other respects he was unassuming. Priscus tells the story of a herdsman who followed the trail of blood left by a wounded heifer back to a buried sword on which he had trodden:

He dug it up and took it straight to Attila. He was pleased by this gift and, since he was a high-spirited man, he concluded that he had been appointed ruler of the whole world and that through the sword of Mars he had been granted invincibility in war.

I don’t doubt that the finding of the sword, if true, merely added to a conquest ideology that Attila was already fostering. At the same time, his habits and self-presentation were not what you might expect. Priscus reports on dining chez Attila:

While for the other barbarians and for us there were lavishly prepared dishes served on silver platters, for Attila there was only meat on a wooden plate . . . Gold and silver goblets were handed to the men at the feast, whereas his cup was of wood. His clothing was plain and differed not at all from that of the rest, except that it was clean. Neither the sword that hung at his side nor the fastenings of his barbarian boots nor his horse’s bridle was adorned, like those of the other Scythians, with gold or precious stones.

Archaeological finds, as we shall see later in this chapter, have demonstrated that Priscus was not exaggerating the richness of the utensils used by the Hunnic Empire’s elite. But for the god-appointed conqueror, plain was good.

What all this tells us about the ‘real’ Attila is debatable. All we have is an exterior view, as it were, and nothing of his internal workings. But even this is enough to suggest that we are dealing with an intelligent man of some complexity who took considerable care over his public image. Totally confident in his own destiny, he had no need of the outward trappings of power. Rejecting rich dress and rich food showed that such worldly concerns were beneath one destined for greatness. This was one of the leadership secrets of Attila the Hun; Priscus’ history, supplemented by one or two other sources, lets us into one or two others. He was, as you might expect, ruthless when dealing with potential enemies. Priscus never tells us what happened to the five Hunnic fugitives the embassy had picked up at Naissus; but two who had been returned to Attila earlier, Mama and Atakam, described as ‘children of the royal house’, were impaled.28 Impaling seems to have been the main method of dealing with most problems in the Hunnic world. Priscus later witnessed the impaling of a captured spy and the gibbeting of two slaves who had killed their Hunnic masters in the midst of battle.29 And although they provide no details, our sources are unanimous that Attila was somehow responsible for the death of his brother Bleda.

At the same time, violence was tempered where it could be. Although Bleda himself was eliminated, one of his wives retained her fiefdom, receiving Maximinus and Priscus with great hospitality, it will be remembered, when they were caught in a rainstorm. That his brother’s entire family was not wiped out compares favourably, perhaps, with the treatment meted out to the wives of Stilicho and Felix upon their political demise, as we saw in Chapter 5. Why this might have been so emerges from Attila’s marriage policies. He took many wives, no doubt at least some for political reasons, using marriage alliances to bind important second-level leaders among the Huns to his support. Bleda had presumably done likewise, so the kings’ wives are likely to have had important relations whom, even if one of the kings was to fall, it was sensible not to alienate. It also emerges from Priscus’ account that Attila was careful to honour his chief supporters. The ceremonial drinking of toasts with which he began his formal dinners not only established hierarchies, but gave each man his due. Priscus witnessed a telling scene when, on the embassy, he arrived at the palace compound. The wife of Onegesius, Attila’s right-hand man, came out to greet him ‘carrying food and . . . wine (this is a very great honour among the Scythians), welcomed him and asked him to partake of what she had brought out of friendship. In order to please the wife of a close friend, he ate while sitting on his horse . . .’ Good relations with key supporters no doubt required many such niceties of behaviour. (Attila could also behave with apparent unreasonableness, but this would often be when he wanted to pick a quarrel anyway.) More practically, good relations also demanded the regular sharing of the booty of war.30

None of this takes us far inside Attila’s head, but it gives us some insight into his recipe for success: total self-confidence and the charisma that often flows from this; ruthlessness when called for, but also a capacity for moderation, married to shrewdness; and a respect for his subordinates, whose loyalty was so vital. The kind of hold that Attila had over his inner circle is well illustrated in the denouement of Priscus’ embassy. On one level, it ended as a complete damp squib. The historian gives us this marvellous picture of Attila being chased around the Middle Danube Plain, lots of insights into how his Empire worked, and the battle even to gain admittance to the Hunnic court. Dramatic satisfaction then demands a verbal confrontation, in which Maximinus and Priscus somehow manage to win Attila over and return home heroes. Reality was more prosaic. Having secured access with so much difficulty, Maximinus and Priscus subsequently just had to hang around while Attila answered the emperor’s letters, and their only triumph was to ransom one noble Roman lady, Sylla, for 500 solidi, with her children thrown in as a goodwill gesture. They were then sent packing with another of Attila’s inner circle, Berichus, who started off friendly enough but, again inexplicably, became hostile en route, taking back a horse he had given them and refusing either to ride or eat with them. The embassy generated, therefore, neither peace nor war, and any contribution that Priscus and Maximinus may have made to Romano-Hunnic relations quietly fizzled out.

But the embassy did have another, more dramatic, climax, even if this didn’t involve Priscus directly. Trudging home through the Balkans in the company of the grumpy Hun, Maximinus and Priscus were passed on the road by Vigilas, their interpreter, on his way back north, ostensibly with the emperor’s answer on the fugitive issue. But as soon as Vigilas reached Attila’s court, he was jumped by some of the Hun’s men who found in his baggage the huge sum of fifty pounds of gold. Vigilas started to bluster, insisting that the money was for ransoming prisoners and buying better baggage animals, but as you will remember, Attila had ordered that the Roman ambassadors were to purchase nothing except food until a full peace was negotiated, and fifty pounds of gold would buy enough bread to feed a small army. When the Hun threatened to kill Vigilas’ son, who was accompanying him on the trip, the interpreter confessed. What had happened was this. Back in Constantinople while the embassy of Maximinus and Priscus was being prepared, the current éminence grise, the eunuch Chrysaphius, had plotted with ambassador Edeco to assassinate Attila, and the money was Edeco’s reward. The real job of Priscus and Maximinus, had they but known it, had been to provide a diplomatic front behind which the dirty-tricks brigade could do their stuff.

If this were not dangerous enough, the actual situation was even more convoluted. As soon as he was north of the Danube on that first journey, Edeco had told Attila everything. Writing in retrospect, Priscus could see that the plot explained all the odd incidents that he and Maximinus had noted in the course of their travels. It was the reason why Orestes, the other Hun ambassador, had not been invited to dinner with Edeco that time in Constantinople – that was the moment when the plot was first hatched. It also explained how the Huns knew all about the ostensible purpose of the embassy. Edeco had been let in on that as well, and had passed on the details to Attila. Hence, too, the private chat between Vigilas and Edeco, which Vigilas had tried to explain away in a fashion that Priscus had found unconvincing even at the time, Attila’s hostility to Vigilas and, above all, the strange order that the Romans were not to buy anything except food. It was all a trap for Vigilas, who was left with no excuse when he turned up with the gold. Chrysaphius’ plot was carefully laid, but doomed from the start; Attila’s hold on Edeco, no doubt a mix of fear and admiration, was much too strong for him to act against his master.

Given the degree of intrigue, Priscus’ narrative is surprisingly matter-of-fact. Attila could have had them all impaled at any moment, since the Romans had themselves broken all the normal rules protecting diplomats on their travels. Lucky for them that Attila was so calculating. Rather than gibbeting everyone in sight, he saw the plot as another opportunity to reinforce his psychological domination over the east Romans. Vigilas was allowed to ransom his son by payment of a further fifty pounds of gold, and two Hunnic ambassadors, Orestes again and Eslas, were sent to Constantinople:

[Attila] ordered Orestes to go before the emperor [Theodosius II] wearing around his neck the bag in which Vigilas had placed the gold to be given to Edeco. He was to show him and the eunuch [Chrysaphius] the bag and to ask if they recognized it. Eslas was to say directly that Theodosius was the son of a nobly born father, and Attila too was of noble descent . . . But whereas Attila had preserved his noble lineage, Theodosius had fallen from his and was Attila’s slave, bound to the payment of tribute. Therefore, in attacking him covertly like a worthless slave, he was acting unjustly towards his better, whom fortune had made his master.31

What a moment it must have been. Here was the full imperial court drawn up in their gorgeous robes and minutely defined order of precedence, the living representation of the divine favour that made the Roman Empire supreme, when in strode the two barbarian ambassadors to act out their pantomime. Priscus’ description of the Roman reaction doesn’t survive, but nothing better illustrates the confidence with which Attila trod his particular corner of the globe than this ceremonial humiliation of the ruler of the eastern Roman Empire.

An Empire of Many Colours

THERE WAS MUCH more to Attila’s European reign of terror, however, than this personal charisma and his finely honed demonstrations of dominance. Such tours de force were as much effect as cause of the two transformations which, in just one generation, had turned the Huns from useful allies of Constantius and Aetius into world conquerors. Priscus’ narrative, implicitly points us towards the causes of these changes, without which Attila’s career of conquest could not have happened.

As we’ve seen, Priscus was not the first east Roman historian-cum-diplomat to visit the Huns. In 411/12, Olympiodorus had taken to sea with his parrot, braving fierce storms off Constantinople, then skirting Athens and up the Adriatic to Aquileia on its northern shore. Unfortunately, only a brief summary of this embassy survives, but it does contain one piece of crucial information:

Olympiodorus discusses Donatus and the Huns and the natural talent of their kings for archery. The historian describes the embassy on which he went to them and to Donatus and . . . tells how Donatus was deceived by an oath and wickedly killed, how Charaton, the first of the kings, flared up with rage at the murder and how he was calmed down and pacified with regal gifts.32

The extract is not without mystery; not least concerning the identity of Donatus – opinions differ as to whether he was a Hun or not – and of his killers. Some have supposed that the arrival of Olympiodorus’ embassy did not merely coincide with Donatus’ death, but was an earlier and more successful enactment of the kind of plot that Priscus found himself embroiled in.33 But the key point is that in 411/12 the Huns were ruled by a series of kings (how many is not specified), and that these kings operated according to a ranking system which clearly marked out Charaton as senior. It sounds highly reminiscent, in fact, of the hierarchical system of another nomadic group, the Akatziri, whose fate came to Priscus’ attention during his own embassy. When the Romans arrived at the Huns’ camp, Onegesius was away with Attila’s eldest son subduing this group. The opportunity to do so had come about in an interesting fashion, as Priscus describes:

The [Akatziri] had many rulers according to their tribes and clans, and the Emperor Theodosius sent gifts to them to the end that they might unanimously renounce their alliance with Attila and seek peace with the Romans. The envoy who conveyed the gifts did not deliver them to each of the kings by rank, with the result that Kouridachus, the senior in office, received his gifts second and, being thus overlooked and deprived of his due honours, called in Attila against his fellow kings.

Apart from allowing one the pleasure of imagining the report of the Roman ambassador who had managed to make such a mess of his mission,34 the passage gives us some idea of the kind of political system operating among the Huns in the early 410s.35

The contrast with Attila’s time, a generation or so later, could not be more marked. Priscus spent a great deal of time at the Hunnic court, and devoted many words to its structure and modes of operation. As we have seen, there was then an inner core of leading men – Onegesius first, then others such as Edeco, Scottas and Berichus – whom Attila treated with great respect; but none of them enjoyed any kind of royal dignity. In all of this information, there is not the slightest indication that the Huns had more than one ruler: Attila himself. The multiplicity of power-sharing kings of 411 had given way to a monarch in the literal sense of the word. Of the process that ended up with supreme power in one man’s hands, no account survives. As you would expect, all the indications suggest, however, that it was not a peaceful evolution. The final act in the drama was Attila’s murder of his brother Bleda. By that stage, power had anyway narrowed to just two members of the same family – which suggests that Rua (or Ruga), the uncle whom the brothers succeeded, must have played a major role in reducing the number of Hunnic royal lines.

The naked violence of Bleda’s murder is probably a fair indication of how the other surplus kings had been removed. The first negotiations between Constantinople and Attila and Bleda, before they attacked Viminacium in 441, resulted in the return, as we have seen, of two fleeing Hunnic royals, Mama and Atakam, who were promptly impaled. They could have been cousins of Attila and Bleda, for Rua had at least two brothers, but might equally have been descended from royal lines suppressed earlier by Rua. The whole fugitive issue, which so bedevilled Hunno-Roman diplomacy in the 440s, was clearly concerned with Hunnic royals and ex-royals of one kind or another. Maximinus and Priscus had to listen to the names of seventeen fugitives being read out – a very small number, so we are clearly dealing here with individuals who posed some kind of threat at the highest level. It is also possible that some of the lesser kings had accepted demotion rather than face extinction. (When something similar was happening among Goths in the decade after Attila’s death, though most of the minor royals died fighting or fled from the scene, at least one was willing to be demoted to leading-noble status.36)

Set against what we know about nomad anthropology, political centralization – the first of the two transformations that concern us here – must also have been associated with a broader transformation among the Huns. Devolved power structures occur very naturally among nomadic groups, because their herds cannot be concentrated in large groupings, for fear of overgrazing. In the nomad world, the main purpose of any larger political structure is simply to provide a temporary forum where grazing rights can be negotiated, and a force put together, if necessary, to protect those rights against outsiders. This being the case, the permanent centralization of political power among the Huns strongly implies that they were no longer so economically dependent upon the produce of their flocks. Priscus provides a number of clues to the nature of these economic adjustments. As we saw in Chapter 4, nomads always need to form economic relationships with settled agricultural producers. This was clearly the case with the Huns, and commercial exchanges were still taking place in the 440s.37 But by the time of Attila, the main form of exchange between Hunnic nomad and Roman agriculturalist was not grain in return for animal products, but cash in return for military aid of one kind or another. This form of exchange had its origins in previous generations, when Huns had performed mercenary service for the Roman state. Uldin and his followers were the first we know of to have fulfilled this role, in the early 400s, and larger Hunnic forces may have aided Constantius in the 410s, and certainly supported Aetius in the 420s and 430s.

Shortly after, military service for pay evolved into demands for money with menaces. Precisely when the line was crossed is impossible to say, but Attila’s uncle Rua certainly launched one major assault on the east Roman Empire with cash in mind, even if he also provided mercenary service for the west. By the reign of Attila, targeted foreign aid had become tribute, and it clearly emerges from Priscus’ record of Romano-Hunnic diplomacy that the main thing the Huns wanted from these exchanges, and from their periodic assaults across the frontier, was cash and yet more cash. As we saw earlier, the first treaty between Attila and Bleda and the east Romans fixed the size of this annual tribute at seven hundred pounds of gold – and from there the demands could only escalate. Hunnic warfare against the Romans also brought other one-sided economic exchanges in its wake: booty, slaves and ransoms such as the one Priscus and Maximinus negotiated.38

By the 440s, then, military predation upon the Roman Empire had become the source of an ever-expanding flow of funds into the Hunnic world. To overthrow a system of ranked but more or less equal kings, the king-who-would-be-preeminent needed to convince the followers of the other kings that they should transfer their loyalties to him. Cornering the market in the flow of funds from the Empire was the ideal means of putting sufficient powers of patronage into the hands of just one man, and rendering the old political structures redundant. Only by controlling the flow of new funds could one king outbid the others in the struggle for support. Already in the mid- to late-fourth century, Huns had presumably been raiding and intimidating both other nomads and Germanic agriculturalists north of the Black Sea, but real centralization only became possible once the main body of the Huns was operating close to the Roman world. Raid and intimidate the Goths and you might get some slaves, a bit of silver and some agricultural produce, but that was about it – not enough to fund fullscale political revolution. But do the same vis-à-vis the Roman Empire, and the gold would begin to roll in, first in hundreds of pounds annually, then thousands – enough to transform both economic and political systems.

While the argument is not susceptible to proof, we could understand these transformations as an adaptation away from nomadism, rather than a complete break with the past. As mentioned earlier, in normal circumstances nomads rear a range of animals to make full use of the varying qualities of available grazing. The horse figures primarily as an expensive, almost luxury animal, used for raiding, war, transport and trade; its meat and milk provide only a very inefficient return in terms of usable protein compared with the quality and quantity of grazing required. As a result, nomads generally keep relatively few horses. If, however, warfare becomes a financially attractive proposition, as it did when the Huns came within range of the Roman Empire, then nomads might well start to breed increasing numbers of horses for war – evolving, in the process, into a particular type of militarily predatory nomadic group. This could never have worked as a subsistence strategy out on the steppe, where the potential proceeds from warfare were so much less.

It is impossible to prove that this is what happened, but one relevant factor is the size of the fifth-century Hunnic homeland, the Hungarian Plain: while providing good-quality grazing, it was much smaller than the plains of the Great Eurasian Steppe the Huns had left behind. Its 42,400 square kilometres amount to less than 4 per cent of the grazing available, for instance, in the republic of Mongolia alone. And because the grazing was now so limited, some historians have wondered whether the Huns were evolving towards a fully sedentary existence in the fifth century. This is a possible argument, but not a necessary one. The Hungarian Plain notionally provides grazing for 320,000 horses, but this figure must be reduced so as to accommodate other animals, forest and so on; so it would be reasonable to suppose that it could support, maybe, 150,000. Given that each nomad warrior requires a string of ten horses to be able to rotate and not overtire them, the Hungarian Plain would thus provide sufficient space to support horses for up to 15,000 warriors. I would doubt that there were ever more Huns than this in total, so that, as late as the reign of Attila, there is in fact no firm indication that the Huns did not retain part of their nomad character.39 Whatever the case, the real point is that, once they found themselves within hailing distance of the Roman Empire, the Huns perceived a new and better way to make a living, based on military predation upon the relatively rich economy of the Mediterranean world.

Priscus’ evidence also implicitly documents the other fundamental change that made Attila’s Empire possible. At his court, Maximinus and Priscus were interacting primarily with an inner core of second-rankers, rather than with Attila himself. Identifying the language group that ancient personal names belong to is fraught with danger, but the names of these men are extremely interesting. There is no doubt that Onegesius and Edeco possessed Germanic or Germanicized names, while Berichus and Scottas probablydid. And both Attila (‘Little Father’) and Bleda are also Germanic. This doesn’t mean that these individuals were necessarily of Germanic rather than Hunnic origin (though they may have been), because we know that by the mid-fifth century ‘Gothic’ – probably the collective term for a number of mutually comprehensible Germanic dialects spoken across central and eastern Europe – was one of the main languages of the Hunnic Empire, and was spoken at Attila’s court. Hence, in addition to their original Hunnic names (and the argument continues over what type of language the Huns originally spoke), important figures in the Hunnic Empire seem to have had Germanic or Germanicized names as well.40 Why had Germanic languages come to play a prominent role in the Hunnic Empire?

The explanation lies in the broader evolution of Attila’s Empire. As far back as the 370s when they were attacking Goths beyond the Black Sea, Huns were forcing others they had already subdued to fight alongside them. When they first attacked the Greuthungi, starting the avalanche that ended at the battle of Hadrianople (see p. 167), they were operating in alliance with Iranian-speaking Alan nomads. And whenever we encounter them subsequently, we find that Hunnic forces always fought alongside non-Hunnic allies. Although Uldin, as we saw in Chapter 5, was not a conqueror on the scale of Attila, once the east Romans had dismantled his following, most of the force they were left with to resettle turned out to be Germanic-speaking Sciri.41 Likewise, in the early 420s, east Roman forces intervening to curb Hunnic power west of the Carpathian Mountains found themselves left with a large number of Germanic Goths.42

In the years preceding the rise of Attila, the process of incorporation continued apace. By the 440s, an unprecedented number of Germanic groups found themselves within the orbit defined by the formidable power of Attila the Hun. For example, his Empire contained at least three separate clusters of Goths. One group, dominated by the Amal family and their rivals, would later become central to the creation of a second Gothic supergroup: the Ostrogoths. Another Gothic group was led in the mid-460s by a man called Bigelis, while a third remained under the tight control of Attila’s sons until the later 460s. In addition, Germanic-speaking Gepids, Rugi, Suevi (left behind in 406), Sciri and Heruli were all by this point under direct Hunnic control, and a looser hegemony may also have been exercised over Lombards and Thuringians, as well as over at least some subgroups of the Alamanni and Franks.43 We can’t put figures on this vast body of Germanic-speaking humanity, but the Amal-led Goths alone could muster ten thousand-plus fighting men, and hence had maybe a total population of fifty thousand. And there is no reason to suppose that the other groups were much, if at all, smaller. Many tens of thousands, therefore, and probably several hundreds of thousands, of Germanic-speakers were caught up in the Hunnic Empire by the time of Attila. In fact, by the 440s there were probably many more Germanic-speakers than Huns, which explains why ‘Gothic’ should have become the Empire’s lingua franca. Nor do these Germani exhaust the list of Attila’s non-Hunnic subjects. Iranian-speaking Alanic and Sarmatian groups, as we saw earlier, had long been in alliance with the Huns, and Attila continued to grasp at opportunities to acquire new allies.

As this catalogue makes clear, the Hunnic Empire was all about incorporating people, not territory: hence Attila’s virtual lack of interest in annexing substantial chunks of the Roman Empire. He took two Middle Danubian provinces from the western Empire as the price of his alliance with Aetius, as we saw in Chapter 6, but otherwise showed interest only in establishing a cordon sanitaire between himself and the east. Although there are many brief chronicle references to Attila’s military forces as ‘Huns’ or (if they’re archaizing) ‘Scythians’, from all the sources that go into any detail it is clear that his armies, like those of his less powerful predecessors, were always composites, consisting both of Huns and of contingents from the numerous other peoples incorporated into his Empire.44

Archaeological evidence confirms the point (map 12). Since 1945 a mass of material has been unearthed from cemetery excavations on the Great Hungarian Plain and its environs, dating to the period of Hunnic domination there. (Some treasure hoards have been discovered, but no one has ever found any of Attila’s camps, since only post-holes would remain.) In this material, ‘proper’ Huns have proved extremely hard to find. In total – and this includes the Volga Steppe north of the Black Sea as well as the Hungarian Plain – archaeologists have identified no more than two hundred burials as plausibly Hunnic. These are distinguished by bows, non-standard European modes of dress,45 cranial deformation (some Huns bound the heads of babies, which provoked a distinctive elongated skull), and the presence of socalled Hunnic cauldrons. So either the Huns generally disposed of their dead in ways that did not leave traces, or some other explanation is required for the scarcity of Hunnic material.46 What these fifth-century Middle Danubian cemeteries have produced in large quantities, however, are the remains – or what look like the remains – of the Huns’ Germanic subjects (unfortunately, it isn’t possible to tell the latter apart from one another on the strength of archaeological finds alone).47 These remains have close fourth-century antecedents in Gothic- and other Germanic-dominated areas east and north of the Carpathian Mountains. Those that interest us here – the fifth-century finds – mark the emergence of what has been christened the ‘Danubian style’ of Germanic burial.48


The Danubian style is characterized by inhumation rather than cremation,49 with a large number of objects being deposited in a relatively small number of rich burials. (Many other individuals were buried with few or no grave goods at all.) These characteristic objects included items of personal adornment: particularly large semicircular brooches, plate buckles, earrings with polyhedric pendants, and gold necklaces. Weapons and military equipment have also been quite commonly found: saddles with metal appliqués, long straight swords suitable for cavalry use and arrows. The remains also show up some odd ritual quirks; it became quite usual, for instance, to bury broken metallic mirrors with the dead. The kinds of items found in the graves, the ways in which people were buried and, perhaps above all, the way women, in particular, wore their clothes – gathered with a safety-pin, or fibula, on each shoulder, with another closing the outer garment in front – all reflect the patterns observable in definitely Germanic remains of the fourth century. These habits and items were then pooled and developed further among the massed ranks of Attila’s subjects on the Great Hungarian Plain in the fifth.

One possible answer to the question of the lack of Hunnic burials, then, is that, quite simply, they started to dress like their Germanic subject peoples, in just the same way that they learned the Gothic language. If so, it would be impossible to tell Hun from Goth – or anyone else – in the cemetery evidence. But even if our ‘real Huns’ are lying there in disguise, as it were, this doesn’t alter the fact that there were an awful lot of Germani buried in and around the Great Hungarian Plain in the Hunnic period. What we’re looking at in the richly furnished Danubian-style burials are the remains of many of Attila’s elite Germanic followers. Date and geographical placement make this a dead certainty.50

Every time a new barbarian group was added to Attila’s Empire, that group’s manpower was mobilized for Hunnic campaigns. Hence the Huns’ military machine increased, and increased very quickly, by incorporating ever larger numbers of the Germani of central and eastern Europe. In the short term, this benefited the embattled Roman west. The reason, as many historians have remarked, that the rush of Germanic immigration into the Roman Empire ceased after the crisis of 405–8 (see Chapter 5) was that those who had not crossed the frontier by about 410 found themselves incorporated instead into the Empire of the Huns; and there is an inverse relationship between the pace of migration into the Roman Empire and the rise of Hunnic power.51

In the longer term, however, the respite from assault was only illusory, and a succession of Hunnic leaders achieved something analogous to what the Sasanians had achieved in the Near East. For the first time in imperial Roman history, the Huns managed to unite a large number of Rome’s European neighbours into something approaching a rival imperial superpower.

‘The Whole North into Gaul’

THE FULL FEROCITY of this extraordinary new war machine was felt in the first instance by the east Roman Empire, whose Balkan communities suffered heavily in 441/2 and again in 447. After the two defeats of the 447 campaign, the east Romans had nothing left to throw in Attila’s direction. Hence, in 449, their resorting to the assassination attempt in which Maximinus and Priscus found themselves unwittingly embroiled. Still Attila didn’t let Constantinople off the hook. Having refused to settle the matter of the fugitives and repeated his demands for the establishment of a cordon sanitaire inside the Danube frontier, he now added another: that the east Romans should provide a nobly born wife (with an appropriate dowry) for his Roman-born secretary. These demands, if unsatisfied, were possible pretexts for war, and his constant agitating shows that Attila was still actively considering another major assault on the Balkans.

In 450, the diplomatic mood was to change abruptly. A new Roman embassy followed the same path north that Priscus and Maximinus had trodden the previous year. This one comprised Anatolius, one of the two most senior military commanders at the eastern court (magister militum praesentalis), and Nomus, the Master of Offices (magister officiorum). Anatolius was well known to Attila, having negotiated the interim peace deal that had followed the Hunnic victories of 447. It is hard to think of a grander ambassadorial duo – that he should treat only with the noblest had been one of Attila’s stipulations. The Roman view of what happened next is recorded by Priscus: ‘At first Attila negotiated arrogantly, but he was overwhelmed by the number of their gifts and mollified by their words of appeasement . . .’ In the end:

Attila swore that he would keep the peace on the same terms, that he would withdraw from the Roman territory bordering the Danube and that he would cease to press the matter of the fugitives . . . providing the Romans did not again receive other fugitives who fled from him. He also freed Vigilas . . . [and] a large number of prisoners without ransom, gratifying Anatolius and Nomus . . . [who were] given gifts of horses and skins of wild animals.52

Rarely can an international summit have had such a satisfactory outcome. Back to Constantinople rode the jubilant ambassadors, bringing with them Attila’s secretary, who was to be found a suitable wife.

What quickly emerged, however, was that Attila had settled with Constantinople not because – as the stereotypical barbarian – he had been blown away by the wisdom of his east Roman interlocutors, but because he wanted a secure eastern front, having decided on a massive invasion of the Roman west.

As Priscus tells it, in launching this new attack Attila was motivated by his hunger for further and greater conquests, thereby playing out the destiny that the gods intended for him – as his finding of the sword of Mars proclaimed – to conquer the entire world. On his embassy to the Huns, Priscus had at some point in the summer of 449 witnessed Attila acting in what seemed to him an unreasonable manner towards some ambassadors from the western Roman Empire. Afterwards, the talk naturally turned to Attila’s character, and Priscus quotes with approval what one of the ambassadors had to say on the matter:

[Attila’s] great good fortune and the power which it had given him had made him so arrogant that he would not entertain just proposals unless he thought that they were to his advantage. No previous ruler of Scythia . . . had ever achieved so much in so short a time. He ruled the islands of the Ocean [the Atlantic, or west] and, in addition to the whole of Scythia, forced the Romans to pay tribute . . . and, in order to increase his empire further, he now wanted to attack the Persians.53

Someone then asked how Attila proposed to get to Persia from central Europe, to which the reply was that the Huns remembered that, if you followed the north Black Sea coast all the way to the end, you could get there without having to cross Roman territory. True, of course, but going via the Caucasus would be an extremely long trek, and the last time the Huns had done this – in 395/6, as far as we know – they had been living north of the Black Sea, not on the Great Hungarian Plain so much further west. Ambitious plans of conquest, on the face of it, were being drawn up on the strength of half-remembered geography: here was pure lust for conquest aching to swallow up the known world.

But, as we know, Attila went west instead. The sources transmit a variety of reasons why he did so. According to one juicy piece of court gossip, he led his armies into the western Roman Empire because the sister of the western emperor Valentinian III, a high-spirited lady of considerable stamina by the name of Iusta Grata Honoria, offered him her hand in marriage with half the western Empire as her dowry. Supposedly, she sent him a brooch with her portrait on it, along with a letter, and this was enough to ensnare him. Honoria was the daughter of the formidable Galla Placidia who had a fondness for barbarians herself, as we learned in Chapter 6, having married and borne a son to Alaric’s brother-in-law Athaulf in the 410s. Placidia, with her Gothic bodyguard, had had what it took to play a major political role, until Aetius took over.

Having fallen pregnant, her daughter Honoria was caught in an illicit love affair with her business manager, a certain Eugenius. Eugenius was executed, and Honoria removed from public life and betrothed to a dull senator by the name of Herculianus. It was in her distress and frustration that she had written to the lord of the Huns and asked him to rescue her. But the story gives one pause. Even after it was discovered that she had written to Attila she escaped death, and was handed over to the custody of her mother; but before, irritatingly, breaking off in mid-sentence, the pertinent Priscus fragment hints that further escapades followed. Honoria’s antics are too well documented for there not to be some grain of truth in them,54 but I don’t believe that she was the reason why Attila eventually preferred the west Roman to the Persian option. Just consider the geography. As we will see in a moment, having decided to attack the west, Attila did not rush towards Italy, where Honoria was incarcerated, but first attacked Gaul. While no doubt sketchy, Attila’s knowledge of European geography was good enough for us to be sure he knew on which side of the Alps he was likely to find his putative bride. We don’t know what ultimately happened to Honoria. Heading west out of Hungary, the Huns turned right towards Gaul rather than left into Italy, and that’s enough in itself to relegate Honoria to a historical footnote.

The sources indicate that rescuing Honoria was only one of several reasons proposed for Attila’s invasion of the west. Another was the issue that had prompted his tantrum before the conversation in the summer of 449 in which his possible ambitions concerning Persia had been raised. That particular western embassy had been sent to answer the charge that a Roman banker by the name of Silvanus was in possession of some gold plate that was Attila’s by right of conquest. Trivial though the matter was, Attila was threatening war if it was not settled to his satisfaction. There are also vague, but quite convincing, hints of some kind of contact at this date between Attila and Geiseric, king of the Vandals, who is said to have bribed Attila to turn his armies westwards. Late in 450, Attila backed a different candidate for the recently vacant kingship of the Ripuarian Franks from the one Aetius had chosen to support. He had also recently given sanctuary to one of the leaders of a rebellion in north-west Gaul defeated by Aetius in 448. This suggests that Attila had in mind the possibility of using him to stir up trouble and to smooth the path of any Hunnic army operating in the west. Once his armies were on the move, in much the same vein the Hun sent out some mutually contradictory letters to different recipients, some of which claimed that the purpose of his campaign was to attack not the western Empire but the Visigoths of south-west Gaul, while others urged those same Visigoths to join him in attacking the Empire.55

What emerges, therefore, is that Attila was simultaneously juggling with several possible pretexts for an attack on the western Empire in the years 449 and 450, as he prepared his next move. Whether an attack on Persia was ever seriously contemplated I doubt, but in 449 he still hadn’t decided whether to launch his next assault upon the eastern or the western half of the Empire; and he was not only stirring up trouble with the west, but also refusing to settle outstanding issues with Constantinople. The generous treaty he eventually granted Constantinople was the sign that he was ready to tie up loose ends in the east, having set his sights on the west.

In spring 451, Attila’s massive army surged westwards out of the Middle Danube, probably following the route taken by the Rhine invaders of 406. ‘It is said’ that the army consisted of a staggering half-million men, reported Jordanes,56 in his choice of words revealing that for once even he didn’t believe the figure; but there is no doubting the huge size of the force, or that Attila was drawing on the full resources of the Hunnic war machine. As Sidonius Apollinaris, a more or less contemporary Gallic poet, put it:

Suddenly the barbarian world, rent by a mighty upheaval, poured the whole north into Gaul. After the warlike Rugian comes the fierce Gepid, with the Gelonian close by; the Burgundian urges on the Scirian; forward rush the Hun, the Bellonotian, the Neurian, the Bastarnian, the Thuringian, the Bructeran, and the Frank.57

Sidonius was writing metred poetry, and required names of the right length and stress to make it work. What he gives us here is an interesting mixture of ancient groups who had nothing to do with the Hunnic Empire (Gelonian, Bellonotian, Neurian, Bastarnian, Bructeran) and real subjects of Attila (Rugian, Gepid, Burgundian, Scirian, Thuringian and Frank), not to mention, of course, the Huns themselves. But, in essence, Sidonius was spot on. And we know from other sources that large numbers of Goths were also present.58

No surviving source describes the campaign in detail, but we know roughly what happened. Having followed the Upper Danube northwestwards out of the Great Hungarian Plain, the horde crossed the Rhine in the region of Coblenz and continued west (map 13). According to some admittedly fairly dubious sources, the city of Metz fell on 7 April, shortly followed by the old imperial capital of Trier. The army then thrust into the heart of Roman Gaul. By June, it was outside the city of Orléans, where a considerable force of Alans in Roman service had their headquarters. The city was placed under heavy siege; there are hints that Attila was hoping to lure Sangibanus, king of some of the Alans based in the city, over to his side.59 At the same time, according to another pretty dubious source, elements of the army had also reached the gates of Paris, where they were driven back by the miraculous intervention of the city’s patron Saint Genevieve. It looks as if the Hunnic army was swarming far and wide over Roman Gaul, looting and ransacking as it went.

Aetius was still generalissimo of the west, and as we know from Merobaudes’ second panegyric, he had been anticipating the possibility of a Hunnic assault on the west from at least 443. When it finally materialized, nearly a decade later, he sprang into action. Faced with this enormous threat, he strove to put together a coalition of forces that would stand some chance of success. Early summer 451 saw him advancing north through Gaul with contingents of the Roman armies of Italy and Gaul, plus forces from many allied groups, such as the Burgundians and the Aquitainian Visigoths under their king Theoderic. On 14 June, the approach of this motley force compelled Attila’s withdrawal from Orléans. Later in the same month, Aetius’ men caught up with the retreating horde somewhere in the vicinity of Troyes, another 150 kilometres or so to the east.

On a plain called by different sources the Catalaunian fields or campus Mauriacus, which has never been conclusively identified, a huge battle took place:

The battlefield was a plain rising by a sharp slope to a ridge, which both armies sought to gain . . . The Huns with their forces seized the right side, the Romans, the Visigoths and their allies the left . . . The battleline of the Huns was so arranged that Attila and his bravest followers were in the centre . . . The innumerable peoples of diverse tribes, which he had subjected to his sway, formed the wings.


The Romans and Visigoths reached the ridge first and thwarted every attempt to dislodge them – so our main source tells us, but then lapses into rhetoric (though pretty good rhetoric it is):

The fight grew fierce, confused, monstrous, unrelenting – a fight whose like no ancient time has ever recorded . . . A brook flowing between low banks . . . was swollen by a strange stream and turned into a torrent by the flow of blood. Those whose wounds drove them to slake their parching thirst drank water mingled with gore.

Theoderic was killed in the fighting, either struck by a spear or trampled to death when he fell from his horse, but the accounts of his death are confusing. Again according to our main source, a total of 165,000 men died, but this figure is nonsense. At the end of the day’s fighting, Attila was distraught. Forced back inside a defensive wagon circle, for the first time ever his army had suffered a major defeat. His initial reaction was to heap up saddles to make his own funeral pyre.60 But his lieutenants persuaded him that the battle was only a tactical check, and he relented. A stalemate followed, with the two armies facing each other, until the Huns began slowly to retreat. Aetius didn’t press them too hard, and disbanded his coalition of forces as quickly as possible – a task made much easier by the fact that the Visigoths were keen to return to Toulouse to sort out the succession to their dead king. Attila consented to his army’s continued withdrawal and, tails between their legs, the Huns returned to Hungary. Although the cost to the Roman communities in the Huns’ line of march was enormous, Attila’s first assault on the west had been repulsed. Yet again, Aetius had delivered at the moment of crisis. Despite the limited resources available, he had put together a coalition that had saved Gaul.

In his wrath, the Hun spent the winter of 451/2 limbering up for yet more violence. This time the blow fell on Italy. In the spring of 452, his force broke through the Alpine passes. The first obstacle in their path was Aquileia. Here they were held up by the city’s massive defences – Attila even contemplated calling off the whole campaign. On the point of bringing their long and frustrating siege to a halt, he saw a stork shipping its young out of the nest that it had built in one of the city’s towers, carrying one by one those that couldn’t yet fly. Seeing this, Priscus tells us, ‘he ordered his army to remain still in the same place, saying that the bird would never have gone . . . unless it was foretelling that some disaster would strike the place very shortly.’61 The stork, of course (not to mention Attila), was right. The Huns’ precocious skill at taking fortified strongholds prevailed, and Aquileia fell to them in short order. Its capture opened up the main route into north-eastern Italy.

The horde then followed the ancient Roman roads west across the Po Plain. One of the political heartlands of the western Empire and agriculturally rich, this region was endowed with many prosperous cities. Now, as in the Balkans, one after the other these cities fell to the Huns, and they took in swift succession Padua, Mantua, Vicentia, Verona, Brescia and Bergamo (map 13). Now Attila was at the gates of Milan, a long-time imperial capital. The siege was protracted, but again Attila triumphed, and another centre of Empire was looted and sacked. A fragment of Priscus’ history preserves a nice vignette:

When [Attila] saw [in Milan] in a painting the Roman Emperors sitting upon golden thrones and Scythians lying dead before their feet, he sought out a painter and ordered him to paint Attila upon a throne and the Roman emperors heaving sacks upon their shoulders and pouring out gold before his feet.

But, as in Gaul the previous year, Attila’s Italian campaign failed to go entirely to plan. Papal sources and Hollywood scriptwriters love to focus on one incident in particular when, after the capture of Milan, Pope Leo, as part of a peace embassy that included the Prefect Trygetius and ex-consul Avienus, met Attila to try to persuade him not to attack the city of Rome. In the end, the Huns did turn back, retreating to Hungary once again.

In some circles this went down as a great personal triumph for the Pope in face-to-face diplomacy. Reality was more prosaic. Other forces apart from the God-guided Leo were at work. Attila’s Italian campaign, essentially a series of sieges, lacked substantial logistic support; and in their often cramped conditions the Hunnic army was vulnerable in more ways than one. The chronicler Hydatius put it succinctly: ‘The Huns who had been plundering Italy and who had also stormed a number of cities, were victims of divine punishment, being visited with heaven-sent disasters: famine and some kind of disease.’ By the time Milan was captured, disease was taking a heavy toll, and food running dangerously short. Also, Constantinople now had a new ruler, the emperor Marcian, and his forces, together with what Aetius could put together, were far from idle: ‘In addition, [the Huns] were slaughtered by auxiliaries sent by the Emperor Marcian and led by Aetius, and at the same time they were crushed in their settlements by both heaven-sent disasters and the army of Marcian.’62 It looks as though, while the Hunnic army in Italy was being harassed by Aetius leading a joint east-west force, other eastern forces were launching a raid north of the Danube, into Attila’s heartland. The combination was deadly, and, as in the previous year, the Hun had no choice but to retreat. With some kind of peace or truce in operation, his army rolled back into central Europe.63

If 451 was itself no more than a tactical check, two major defeats in as many years put a substantial dent in the great conqueror’s reputation. These western campaigns were much more difficult to mount, in fact, than Attila’s Balkan adventures of the previous decade. The Hunnic Empire did not have the bureaucratic machinery of its Roman counterpart, however lumbering that might be. As far as we know, it ran to one Roman-supplied secretary at a time, and a prisoner called Rusticius who was kept for his skill at writing letters in Greek and Latin. Nothing suggests that the Huns had any equivalent, therefore, of the Romans’ capacity for planning and putting in place the necessary logistic support, in terms of food and fodder, for major campaigns. No doubt, when the word went out to assemble for war, each warrior was expected to bring a certain amount of food along with him, but as the campaign dragged on, the Hunnic army was bound to be living mainly off the land. Hence, in campaigns over longer distances, the difficulties involved in maintaining the army as an effective fighting force increased exponentially. Fatigue as well as the likelihood of food shortages and disease increased with distance. There was also every chance that the army would spread so widely over an unfamiliar landscape in search of supplies that it would be difficult to concentrate for battle. In 447, during the widest-reaching of the Balkan campaigns, for their first major battle Attila’s armies had marched west along the northern line of the Haemus Mountains, crossed them, then moved south towards Constantinople, then southwest to the Chersonesus for their second: a total distance of something like 500 kilometres. In 451, the army had to cover the distance from Hungary to Orléans, about 1,200 kilometres; and in 452 from Hungary to Milan, perhaps 800, but this time they were laying siege as they went, which made them yet more susceptible to disease.64 As many historians have commented, in campaigns covering such vast distances into the western Empire, Attila and his forces were almost bound to experience serious setbacks.

But Attila didn’t learn the lesson. Early in 453, he was on the eve of launching yet another destructive campaign across the European landscape, when finally the scourge of God went to meet his employer. He had just taken another wife (we don’t know how many he had in total). On his wedding night he drank too much, burst a blood vessel and died. His bride was too scared to raise the alarm, and was found beside the corpse in the morning. The funeral was an orgy of mourning and glorification, as Jordanes describes:

His body was placed . . . in state in a silken tent . . . The best horsemen of the entire tribe of the Huns rode around in circles . . . and told of his deeds[:] ‘The Chief of the Huns, King Attila, born of his father Mundiuch, lord of the bravest tribes, sole possessor of the Scythian and German realms – powers previously unknown – captured cities and terrified both empires of the Roman world and, appeased by their entreaties, took annual tribute to save the rest from plunder. And when he had accomplished all this . . . he fell not by wound of the foe, nor by treachery of friends, but in the midst of his nation at peace, happy in his joy and without sense of pain.’

When the wake had finished:

In the secrecy of the night they buried his body in the earth. They bound his coffins, the first with gold, the second with silver and the third with the strength of iron . . . iron because he subdued the nations, gold and silver because he received the honours of both empires. They also added the arms of foemen won in the fight, trappings of rare worth, sparkling with various gems, and ornaments of all sorts . . . then . . . they slew those appointed to the work.65

The Huns and Rome

THE FULL EFFECT upon the Roman world of the rise of the Hunnic Empire can be broken down into three phases. The first, as we saw in Chapters 4 and 5, generated two great moments of crisis on the frontier for the Roman Empire, during 376–80 and 405–8, forcing it to accept upon its soil the establishment of enclaves of unsubdued barbarians. The existence of these enclaves in turn created new and, as we saw in Chapter 6, hugely damaging centrifugal forces within the Empire’s body politic. In the second phase, in the generation before Attila, the Huns evolved from invaders into empire-builders in central Europe, and the flow of refugees into Roman territory ceased. The Huns wanted subjects to exploit, and strove to bring potential candidates under control. In this era, too, Constantius and Aetius were able to make use of Hunnic power to control the immigrant groups who had previously crossed the Empire’s frontier to escape from the Huns. Since none of these groups was actually destroyed, however, the palliative effects of phase two of the Hunnic impact upon the Roman world by no means outweighed the damage done in phase one.

Attila’s massive military campaigns of the 440s and early 450s mark the third phase in Hunnic-Roman relations. Their effects, as one might expect, were far-reaching. The east Roman Empire’s Balkan provinces were devastated, with thousands killed as one stronghold after another was taken. As the remains of Nicopolis ad Istrum so graphically show, Roman administration might be restored but not so the Latin- and Greek-speaking landowning class that had grown up over the preceding four centuries. The Gallic campaign of 451, and particularly the assault upon Italy in 452, inflicted enormous damage upon those unfortunate enough to find themselves in the Huns’ path.

But if we step back from the immediate drama and consider the Roman state in broader terms, Attila’s campaigns, though serious, were not life-threatening. The eastern half of the Roman Empire depended on the tax it collected from a rich arc of provinces stretching from Asia Minor to Egypt, territories out of reach of the Huns. For all the latter’s siege technology, the triple landwalls surrounding Constantinople made the eastern capital impregnable; and the Huns had no navy to take them across the narrow straits that separated the Balkans from the rich provinces of Asia. A similar situation prevailed in the west. By the time of Attila, it was already feeling a heavy financial strain, as we have seen, but given the logistic limitations of the Hunnic military machine, Attila came nowhere near to conquering it. In fact, far more serious damage was indirectly inflicted upon the structures of Empire by the influx of armed immigrants between 376 and 408. Moreover, it was again the indirect effects of the age of Attila that posed the real threat to the integrity of the west Roman state. Because he had to concentrate on dealing with Attila, Aetius had less time and fewer resources for tackling other threats to the Roman west in the 440s. And these other threats cost the western Empire much more dearly than the Hunnic invasions of 451 and 452. The first and most serious loss was the enforced abandonment of the reconquest of North Africa from the Vandals.

In such circumstances, most unfortunately, Aetius could give little help to the Iberian peninsula. There, the departure of the Vandals in 429 had seen some restoration of Roman order, and some reclamation of the revenues that had been lost in the 410s. The Hispanic provinces were rich and well developed, and, if no match for the abundance of North Africa, were still a valued contributor to western coffers. In the 410s, most of the peninsula had fallen out of direct Roman control except for Tarraconensis in the north-east, as the Vandals, Alans and Suevi shared out the rest. After 429, only the Suevi remained in large numbers, confined to the least prosperous north-western upland zone of Gallaecia. Aetius, like his predecessors, was happy to leave them there, seeing no need to risk valuable troops for its recovery.66 Instead, he concentrated his efforts on restoring order and on maintaining the flow of funds from the richer provinces abandoned by the Vandals and Alans, until he was interrupted by Geiseric’s seizure of Carthage.

Under their new king Rechila, who succeeded his father in 438, the Suevi took advantage of Aetius’ preoccupation with North Africa to expand their dominion. In 439, they moved out of Gallaecia to take Merida, the main city of the neighbouring province of Lusitania. In 440, they captured Aetius’ military commander and main representative in the peninsula, the comes (count) Censorius. In 441, they took Seville and extended their control over the whole of Baetica and Carthaginiensis. The lack of any concerted response from Aetius, who was now frantically gathering his forces in Sicily, gave local self-help groups, the Bagaudae, the chance to undermine central control in parts of Tarraconensis, the one province still in imperial hands. As had been the case in Gaul, these uprisings were probably assertions of local power at a time when the imperial grip was perceived to be slipping. At least one of the revolts, led by one Basilius in Tyriasso (Tirasona) in 449, seems to have favoured a Suevic takeover, perhaps because it seemed the best way to guarantee peace, just as Gallic landowners had supported Athaulf the Visigoth in the early 410s.

The situation in Spain went from bad to worse, then, between 439 and 441, and the flow of tax revenue dried up. Even after making peace with the Vandals, there was little Aetius could do. Large-scale intervention was out of the question. A series of commanders were sent to Spain: Asturius in 442, Merobaudes himself in 443, and Vitus in 446. Asturius and Merobaudes concentrated on defeating the Bagaudae, presumably so as to hold on at least to Tarraconensis. Vitus’ brief was more ambitious. Repeating the strategy of the 410s, he led a combined Romano-Visigothic force into Carthaginiensis and Baetica. Our main informant, the bishop-chronicler Hydatius, complains about this army’s ‘plundering’, but his attitude was perhaps shaped by the expedition’s outcome. When Vitus’ force met the Suevi in battle, it was routed. Aetius had, in fact, scraped together what Hydatius calls a ‘not inconsiderable’ body of troops for Vitus, in the circumstances a fair testimony to the importance he accorded to retrieving the Hispanic revenues. What he clearly could not do, however, was bring down on the Suevi the full weight of the remaining western field armies, since they had to be kept in reserve to defend the Empire against Attila. This defeat confirmed the Suevi in their possession of most of the peninsula; and once again the bulk of Hispanic revenues were lost.67

Roman Britain, too, was in its death throes. Although, despite the letter of Honorius in 410 ‘urging [the British] to fend for themselves’ (p. 245), the Empire had no pretensions to direct control there, Roman life had survived in parts of the province, and there was a fair amount of informal contact between Romano-Britons and their continental counterparts. In 429, then again in the early 440s, Bishop Germanus of Auxerre made trips to the island to help native Christians combat the influence of Pelagian heretics.68But heresy wasn’t the only problem facing this last generation of Romano-Britons: raiders from Ireland (the Scots) and Scotland (the Picts) were troubling the western and northern fringes of the province, and Saxons from across the North Sea also took advantage of Romano-British isolation to start helping themselves to its wealth. The latter had been a worry since at least the third century, and their incursions had prompted the construction of massive fortifications along the eastern and southern shores. Some of them still stand today, notably the forts of Portchester and Caerleon. We don’t know who was exercising authority in the troubled world of sub-Roman Britain, but for a generation or so the cities continued to function, still producing at least some tax revenues in kind.69

A sixth-century British source, the monk Gildas, reports in his appropriately named On the Ruin of Britain that power eventually fell into the hands of an unnamed tyrant, whom Bede names as Vortigern. He and a ‘council’ (perhaps representatives from the surviving city councils) decided that employing Saxon mercenaries was the solution to the problems of the much threatened, much raided, Romano-British. The story of what happened next is told in outline by Gildas, who was writing a moral tale for his own times, but, as far as it goes, the account is credible enough:70

The [Saxons] . . . asked to be given supplies, falsely representing themselves as soldiers ready to undergo extreme dangers for their excellent hosts. The supplies were granted and for a long time ‘shut the dog’s mouth’. Then they again complained that their monthly allowance was insufficient . . . and swore that they would break their agreement and plunder the whole island unless more lavish payment were heaped upon them. There was no delay: they put their threats into immediate effect.

And the result:

All the major towns were laid low by the repeated battering of enemy rams; laid low, too, all the inhabitants – church leaders, priests and people alike, as the swords glinted all around and the flames crackled . . . In the middle of the squares the foundation-stones of high walls and towers that had been torn from their lofty base, holy altars, fragments of corpses covered with a purple crust of congealed blood looked as though they had been mixed up in some dreadful wine-press.

Gildas does not date the revolt – actually, he doesn’t explicitly date anything – but two chronicles written in Gaul, whose knowledge of events in Britain demonstrates the continued cross-Channel contact also evident in the Life of St Germanus, note that conditions turned seriously nasty in what remained of Roman Britain round about the year 440. Faced with an ever-worsening situation, the Romano-British made one final appeal to be taken back under the imperial wing, writing formally to Aetius. The date of the letter is controversial, but Gildas refers to Aetius at that point as ‘three times consul’. Aetius became consul for the third time in 446, so if Gildas’ usage is accurate, the appeal arrived just as he was anxiously scanning the Danube for early signs of the brewing Hunnic tempest. Even if Gildas is wrong, though, the general point holds. Aetius was facing too many threats elsewhere to be able to answer the last desperate call of Roman Britain.71


The picture was bleak. The western Empire had by 452 lost a substantial percentage of its provinces (map 14): the whole of Britain, most of Spain, the richest provinces of North Africa, those parts of south-western Gaul ceded to the Visigoths, plus south-eastern Gaul ceded to the Burgundians. Furthermore, much of the rest had also seen serious fighting in the last decade or so, and the revenues from these areas too would have been substantially reduced.72 The problem of diminishing funds had become overwhelming. The Huns’ indirect role in this process of attrition, in having originally pushed many of the armed immigrants across the frontier, did far more harm than any damage directly inflicted by Attila.

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