SELDOM HAS A GIRL BECOME SO FAMOUS FOR DOING nothing. In Greek and Latin, she was Ildico, which historians equate with the German name Hildegunde. She could have been a Germanic princess, sent by some distant vassal to secure Attila’s blessing. Attila already had numerous wives, not so much because he was a man of huge sexual energy, but because the presentation of high-born women was a form of tribute, and their seizure a way of asserting dominance over distant and unreliable vassals. Jordanes, quoting a lost passage of Priscus, says that Ildico was a very beautiful girl. No-one else mentions her. Anyway, she was Attila’s latest wife, picked up or delivered in the spring of 453.

What happened on the night of Attila’s wedding to Ildico was told by Priscus, who had been with Attila himself four years before and would have taken a passionate interest in these events. For the past three years he had been with his old chief Maximinus up the Nile, sorting out another sub-chapter in the long-running dispute about the balance of divinity and humanity in Christ. This fuss had been re-ignited in 448, when an elderly priest named Eutyches claimed that Christ was of a single nature, all divine, not human at all. Disputes had been vicious, with the authority of Rome and Constantinople again in dispute. The Fourth Ecumenical Council in Chalcedon in 451 tried to draw a line under the argument, stating that Christ was one person with two natures, allowing him by a sleight of baffling terminology to be both God and man. But the council also in effect proclaimed equality with Rome for Constantinople, which would henceforth have authority over the Balkans and all points east. Rome was furious, and so were the monophysites of Egypt – those who stuck to the idea that Christ had just one nature. Priscus and Maximinus were negotiating peace with two wayward Egyptian groups when Maximinus died. In early 453, then, Priscus had just returned to Constantinople, to find the place still in a chaos of religious dispute. He may even have advised the city’s military governor on the best measures to control the riots. Apparently, there were still good links between the Greeks and the Huns, perhaps through some multilingual Gothic intermediary, who brought the shocking news from Hungary.

Priscus’ original does not survive, but it was copied by Jordanes. Here is Jordanes’ account of what happened after the wedding, when Attila retired with his new young bride:

He had given himself up to excessive merry-making and he threw himself down on his back heavy with wine and sleep. He suffered a haemorrhage, and the blood, which would ordinarily have drained through his nose, was unable to pass through the usual passages and flowed in its deadly course down his throat, killing him. Thus drunkenness brought a shameful end to a king who had won glory in war. On the morrow, when most of the day had passed, the king’s attendants, suspecting something was amiss, first shouted loudly then broke open the doors. They found Attila without any wounds but dead from an effusion of blood and the girl weeping with downcast face beneath her head-scarf.

The details are convincing – a young girl, a good deal of drink, no hint of ill health, a night of lusty consummation, the body, the weeping girl, the concealing velamen. What could have gone wrong? Later, imaginations worked overtime on the subject of Ildico – a wronged princess set upon vengeance, a hidden dagger, poison, who knows what skull duggery? Similar tales arose after the death of Genghis Khan, claiming that he was the victim of a revenge attack by his latest wife. Lesser mortals do not like their kings simply to die; there should be comets and portents and high drama. But there was no hint of that at the time, and Ildico’s shocked state is against it. More likely Attila, now in his mid-fifties, suffered a catastrophic collapse of some kind.

But what? I think the question can be answered, with recourse to some medical detail.

The report spoke of blood, flowing out through nose and mouth. So much for one dramatic suggestion – that the king died while in the full flow, as it were, of his creative energy, i.e. of a heart attack or stroke brought on by sex. Neither strokes nor heart attacks cause external bleeding. The blood could only have come from some organ with a connection to the mouth – lungs, stomach or oesophagus. Lungs do not suffer sudden haemorrhage (only slow bleeding after years of debilitating disease, like TB). This leaves stomach and throat.

Take the stomach first. He could simply have choked on his own vomit. But there is no mention of vomit; it was the blood that seized the attention of his attendants. One possibility is that the blood could have come from a peptic ulcer, which could have been developing for some time, without necessarily causing any symptoms (ulcers are not always painful). One component in the growth of an ulcer is stress, and of that Attila had borne more than most. The effect of years of tough campaigning might now have been compounded by the painful awareness that he had done all he could, that there never would be a Great Hunnic Empire encompassing Gaul and the Hun homelands, let alone all the eastern and western realms of Constantinople and Rome. If he ever had believed he was destined – by the Blue Heaven or the God of War or whatever deity his shamans worshipped – to rule the world, he now knew for sure he would have to settle for less. It was, actually, the end. So perhaps what happened was that an ulcer broke, causing him to vomit, which would normally have woken him, except that he lay unconscious from drink and exhaustion.

There is another and, I think, slightly more convincing possibility. The Huns were great drinkers, not only of their own barley-beer but of the wine that they imported from Rome. It was wine that Priscus mentioned at his supper with Attila. For 20 years Attila had been consuming alcohol, perhaps in large amounts (remember the Hun habit of draining the cup after each toast). There is a condition caused by alcoholism known as portal hypertension, which produces oesophageal varices, which in plain language means varicose veins in the gullet. These swollen, weakened veins can burst without warning, producing a sudden rush of blood, which would, for a man lying on his back in a drunken stupor, run straight into his lungs. If he had been awake, or sober, he would have sat up, bled, and probably recovered. Drink, hypertension and weakened veins in his throat – that was probably the combination that killed him. He drowned in his own blood.

Poor, innocent Ildico awoke next to a corpse, and could only weep, too shocked and apprehensive to go for help, or even open the door when attendants concerned at the strange silence knocked and shouted.

Jordanes takes up the account. The word spread. Distraught attendants called others. People trooped in aghast. As the terrible truth struck them, they began their ritual mourning, which all cultures express in their own way. In this case, they drew knives and sliced off chunks of hair – a habit which may have survived for three centuries from the days of the Xiongnu, in whose royal graves archaeologists have found plaited hair cut off at the roots. The men also cut their cheeks, an act that explains the scarring to which several authors referred in their descriptions of the Huns. As Jordanes writes, they ‘disfigured their already hideous faces with deep wounds to mourn the famous warrior not with womanly tears and wailings, but with male blood’. This ritual was common to many tribes from the Balkans across Central Asia, and was already well known in the West. Sidonius recalls it to praise the courage of his hero Avitus: ‘In the bearing of wounds, you surpass the one to whom wailing means self-wounding and furrowing the cheeks with iron and gouging red traces of scars on menacing features.’

The body was placed out on the grassland, lying in state in a silken tent in full view of his mourning people. Around the tent circled horsemen, ‘after the manner of circus games’, while one of Attila’s senior aides delivered a funeral dirge, which seems to have been repeated to Priscus word for word, though of course translated from Hunnish into Gothic and then Greek, from which Jordanes produced a Latin version, from which at last this version comes:

Chief of the Huns, King Attila, born of his father Mundzuk, lord of the bravest tribes, who with unprecedented power alone possessed the kingdoms of Scythia and Germany, and having captured their cities terrorized both Roman empires and, that they might save their remnants from plunder, was appeased by their prayers and took an annual tribute. And when he had by good fortune accomplished all this, he fell neither by an enemy’s blow nor by treachery, but safe among his own people, happy, rejoicing, without any pain. Who therefore can think of this as death, seeing that no-one thinks it calls for vengeance?

These lines have inspired much scholarly analysis, even some brave attempts to reconstruct a Gothic version, to little effect. It is impossible to prove if it had a genuine Hunnish source, let alone if it captured anything of the original. But Priscus surely believed it did, or why would he have quoted it so exactly? Perhaps he was eager to do a good job of reportage that does something to record the Huns’ grief, albeit nothing much for their poetic abilities. The best Attila’s people can say of him, apparently, is that he pillaged on a massive scale, and died without giving them an excuse to kill in revenge for his death. As Maenchen-Helfen says, it sounds ‘like an epitaph for an American gangster’.

The description continues with a ritual lamentation, a sort of wake, a display of both grief and celebration of a life well lived.1

Then, when night fell, the body was prepared for burial. The Huns did something to which we will return in a moment, ‘first with gold, second with silver and third with the hardness of iron’. The metals, Priscus says through Jordanes, were symbols – iron because he subdued nations, gold and silver for the treasures he had stolen. And then ‘they added the arms of enemies won in combat, trappings gleaming with various special stones and ornaments of various types, the marks of royal glory’.

What was it that was done with the metals? Most translations say they bound his ‘coffins’ with them, from which flows a ludicrous but often-repeated story that Attila was buried inside three coffins, one of gold, one of silver, one of iron. Gibbon accepts the legend as fact, without comment. As a result, generations of treasure-hunters have hoped to find a royal tomb containing these treasures.

This idea is widely accepted in Hungary – it was even taught as hard historical fact in schools – partly thanks to the account in Géza Gárdonyi’s novel, The Invisible Man. As Attila lies in state,

the head shamans sacrificed a black horse behind the catafalque, and the blind Kama questioned the departed Hunnish souls as to how Attila should be buried.

‘Put him in a triple coffin,’ was the reply. ‘Let the first coffin be made of gold, like the sunshine, for he was the sun of the Huns. Let the second coffin be made of silver, like the tail of a comet, for he was the comet of the world. Let the third coffin be made of steel, for he was as strong as steel.’

It’s nonsense if you give it a moment’s thought. How much gold would it take to make a coffin? I’ll tell you: about 60,000 cubic centimetres. This is $15 million worth in today’s terms, a solid tonne of gold: not much in terms of modern production or in terms of the empire’s annual gold output, but still the equivalent of a year’s tribute from Constantinople (which, remember, had dried up long before). If the Huns had had that much gold, Attila would never have needed to invade the west, and he would by now have had a good deal more than a wooden palace and a single stone bathhouse. And, if they had it, is it really conceivable that they would do anything so dumb as to bury it all?

And there are still two more coffins to go, each bigger than the last. Two hundred thousand cubic centimetres of metal! No emperor was ever buried with wealth like that. Besides, it would have taken months to cast and make them, and then they would have weighed over 3 tonnes. Handling them would have been a considerable operation – 60 people to lift them, a hefty wagon, a team of oxen – and this was a ritual that was supposedly performed secretly, at dead of night. The whole thing is as daft as anything that can be spun from a single word.

And spun it was, not by Gárdonyi, but by his sources, examined in detail by the eminent director of Szeged’s museum, now named after him, the Mora Ferenc Museum. He traced the story back to a nineteenth-century writer, Mor Jokai, who in turn took it from a priest, Arnold Ipolyi, who in 1840 claimed he had it from Jordanes, at a time when very few people had access to Jordanes. More likely, he had heard of Gibbon’s account. Anyway, Ipolyi either failed to understand, or deliberately improvised for the sake of a good story.

If you look at what Jordanes actually wrote, there were no metal coffins. The Latin suggests a more realistic solution: coopercula . . . communiunt, ‘they fortified the covers’. No mention of arcae (coffins), although the word is used in verbal form later in the account. Now it begins to make sense. We may, at the most, be talking of a wooden coffin, into which are placed a few precious items like the slivers of gold used to decorate bows. The lid is then sealed with small, symbolic golden, silver and iron clasps. As it happens, there are precisely such coffins among the Xiongnu finds in the Noyan Uul hills of Mongolia.

What, then, of the riches supposedly buried with the body? As Peter Tomka writes, ‘The dead man would have been laid in his coffin in ceremonial clothing. He would have been furnished with gifts of food and drink, sometimes with simple tools, like knives or tweezers.’ But nothing of much great value would have been placed in the coffin itself. If the Pannonhalma treasure – cult objects decorated with gold flake, but no body – is anything to go by, the body and the king’s prize possessions would have been buried separately. What treasure-seekers and archaeologists are looking for is a corpse in a wooden box, which might by now have vanished into the Tisza’s flood plain, and a hoard of small personal objects.

In Szeged’s museum, you feel you are as close to Attila as you are likely to get, especially in the company of its current director, Bela Kurti, who routinely handles objects that could well have been handled by Attila himself. Kurti, a burly man with a greying beard who has been at the museum for over 30 years, explained how this had come about.

The hero of this story is an octogenarian who lives in a hamlet on the flood plain of the Tisza, about 12 kilo-metres south-west of Szeged. Balint Joszef – Joseph Balint, if you like – is a former farm worker who is famous locally because of what he found when he was five. The place is too small to show up on a map, but there’s a lake that bears the same name – Nagyszéksós (pronounced Narj-sake-shosh). It was a fine day in the early summer of 1926. Little Joszef was out with his family, playing while they planted pumpkins. He saw something hard sticking up from some newly turned earth, scratched at the soil, and pulled out a strange-looking metal pot, which seemed to be all holes – 39 of them to be precise, in three rows. He showed it to his mother. As a pot, it was completely useless, being filthy and full of holes, so she took a hammer and flattened it out, and made it into a rough-and-ready circle, like a crown. ‘Now you’re going to be king!’ she said, and he took it away to play in the pig-sty. It was a heavy thing. He couldn’t wear it. So, having rolled it like a hoop around the farmyard, he forgot about it, and lost it.

Six months later, one of the farm labourers found it again, and this time it occurred to one of the family that it might be important. He cleaned it, and saw to his astonishment that he was holding gold. He cut it into three pieces and took it to a jeweller in Szeged to see what it might fetch. The jeweller, wary of the law, reported the find to the police, who took it to Szeged’s museum, where it came into the hands of the director, Mora Ferenc. Mora at once drove out to the farm and spoke kindly to little Joszef, who pointed out where he had made his discovery. The other two bits of the bowl appeared. There followed an official request: could the museum’s archaeologists please dig up the Balints’ pumpkin field? Balint senior was appalled at the idea, and wouldn’t hear of it.

Eight years passed. Mora died. His successor, rather more determined, returned to Nagyszéksós, overruled Mr Balint, excavated the field, and discovered the greatest Hun treasure ever found – 162 pieces: belt buckles, neckrings, gold jewellery inlaid with precious stones, horse harnesses, saddle decorations, boot clasps, decorative bits of swords and daggers, handles of wooden tools, bits of saddles and whips, bows and pots. Further finds have raised the total to over 200 pieces, mostly small, amounting to a kilogram of gold. From the boot clasps, archaeologists know that these items belonged to one or more members of the Hun elite. Experts like István Bóna and Peter Tomka agree: this was a funeral offering, and it was – crucially – not part of a burial. No bones were found in the Balints’ field, no ashes, no trace of any washed-away burial mound.

The bowl, by the way, is now back together again, and in the National Museum in Budapest, the centre-piece of a trove on which Kurti is expert. A copy stands in the Szeged museum. Similar finds in Persia show that the holes once held decorations of glass or semiprecious stones, which suggests it would have been used for toasts at formal dinners like the one described by Priscus. It is, frankly, a pretty coarse piece of work. But it is intriguing to think that this object may come down to us from that place, that man, that particular occasion when Attila was at the height of his power, just four years before the bowl became a funeral offering.

Meanwhile, there would have been the mournful funeral procession, and a secret burial ‘in the earth’. There is no mention of a burial mound. If the burial was in line with Xiongnu royal burials, there might have been a deep pit, a wooden room and a wooden tomb, into which the coffin would have been placed, the hole then being refilled.

The word ‘secret’ is important. Genghis Khan was buried in secret, and so were his heirs. The secrecy had a double purpose. The obvious one was to foil grave-robbers (both knew the dangers, the Mongols from the Noyan Uul burial mounds in the hills of their homeland and the Huns from the attentions of the Bishop of Margus a few years before Attila’s death). The second one was to preserve the sanctity of the site, and thus protect the divine aura that surrounded the emperor. In the case of the Mongol rulers, their attendants had a problem, in that everyone knew roughly where the burials were – on the sacred mountain of Burkhan Khaldun, now known as Khan Khenti, in northern Mongolia. To solve the problem, the Mongols disguised the graves thoroughly by churning the ground with galloping horses, placed guards around the whole area, and then allowed trees and grass to camouflage the place. After a generation, no-one could find the exact sites, which remain secret to this day.

Attila’s case was rather different. There would, it seems, have been traditional rites to honour the passing of the leader of a tribe of wandering pastoral nomads. But the Huns, wanderers no more, had been in Hungary for only a couple of generations. There was no traditional sacred site that would have been suitable as a burial-ground for Hun chiefs, and, even if there were some distant folk memory of their (unproven) Xiongnu ancestry, no mountains around that would act as a bridge between earth and heaven. There was not much option except a simple earth burial.

That is what Hungarians believe, with a slight twist added by Gárdonyi. Where was the king to be buried?

Old Kama answered, following the heavenly council. ‘The River Tisza is full of tiny islands. Divert the waters from the narrower branch in one of the places where the river divides. Dig the grave there very deep in the exposed bed, and then widen that bed so that it will be the greater. After the king has been buried, let the waters flow back again.’

As a result, in Hungary today many believe, and state as a fact, that Attila was buried in the River Tisza.

However the burial was made, it would have had to be in a place kept secret, something of a problem in Hungary’s gently rolling or dead-flat puszta. Priscus, according to Jordanes, tells us how this was supposed to have been achieved. ‘That so great riches might be preserved from human curiosity, they slaughtered those appointed to the work – a dreadful reward, which engulfed in sudden death both buriers and buried.’

This is worth a closer look. It was common practice across all Eurasia to mark the death of a king with the ritual slaughter of animals and slaves. In Anyang, China, tourists can now view a remarkable burial-site, in which a small army was buried along with its royal commander, leaving human skeletons, horse skeletons and a score of chariots. Not that it was a universal custom, for slaves and soldiers were valued assets, and so increasingly models were used instead: hence the famous terracotta army of Xian.

Now to the business of killing grave-diggers to preserve secrecy. As far as I know, Jordanes’ is the first mention of such an idea. Perhaps this should not be surprising, considering that usually the burial of a great king involved a rather obvious memorial, in the form of a burial mound, of which there are hundreds across Hungary, the Ukraine and southern Russia, all the way over Asia to the royal tombs of the Xiongnu in Mongolia. Secrecy had never been an issue. It became so again only with the burial of Genghis Khan, which, perhaps not by coincidence, spawned a similar idea: that, to preserve the secret of the great khan’s death, all living creatures along the route of the funeral cortège were killed. Marco Polo was told this about the burial of Genghis’s grandson, Mönkhe, and it soon became a truism applied to the cortège of Genghis himself. In the case of the Mongols, it simply doesn’t make practical sense. Nothing could be better designed to make the route of a cortège visible than a trail of dead bodies and grieving families.

But in Attila’s case perhaps it was different. This was a unique circumstance. Never before had a barbarian ruler achieved so much. There was no precedent to draw on. A night-time burial, no mound – that sounds real to me. If Priscus had made up the whole thing, or if he had responded only to his own classical models, he would surely have gone on about lamentations and the death of victims and burial mounds.

So how do you keep the secret? Maenchen-Helfen, again, is somewhat snooty about the idea. ‘To kill the labourers who buried the king was an inefficient means to prevent the robbing of the tomb, for thousands must have known of it. Besides, who killed the killers?’ I’m not so sure. It would not have been all that hard to organize, because the Huns had an expendable labour force of slaves taken in a dozen campaigns, from among the Germanic tribes, from the Balkans, from Gaul, from Italy. Priscus had seen some of them on his trip, and contrasted the successful Greek businessman with the other grim-faced and depressed prisoners employed around Attila’s headquarters. The Huns had no compunction about killing (remember the two princely refugees punished by impaling). It is as easy to kill a man as a sheep – easier, actually, because with a sheep you have a slight extra worry about the quality of the meat. It would not have been a great leap from self-inflicted cuts to cutting the throats of house-servants.

I can imagine a crowd of prisoners, about 50 of them, led off to dig a burial-pit, utterly unaware of their coming fate, because the plan was known only to a few logades; then the approaching procession, and the crowd of mourning Huns, thousands of them, being told to return to their homes by the small group of logades; the slow advance with a guard of 50 or so Hun soldiers and pall-bearers, the reverential entombment, the slow work of filling in the grave and the careful raking of the spot, perhaps even an area that would be soon covered by the spring-time floods of the River Tisza; then the prisoners formed up, the march off into the darkness; and then, with the first glimmer of dawn in the eastern sky, the separation of the prisoners into groups, and the quick cutting of throats, with each Hun guard performing one or two executions, all over in a minute. Of course, there would be Huns who knew the secret, but they would be the guardians of a sacred trust. The secret was safe with them, until the passing seasons and the Tisza’s annual floods had disguised the spot for ever.

1 Jordanes, or Priscus, says that the Huns called the rite a strava, which, as the only single surviving word that could perhaps be Hunnish, has been the cause of much hopeful speculation. Scholars arguing for over a century agree on one thing: Turkish it isn’t, which means almost certainly that it was not after all Hunnish. According to several experts, it is a late-medieval Czech and Polish word for ‘food’ in the sense of a ‘funeral feast’, though whether the Huns had adopted it 1,000 years earlier, or whether Priscus’ informant used the term in passing, is a mystery.

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