The Huns also called Xiongnu, a nomadic pastoral people who invaded southeastern Europe c. 370 CE and during the next seven decades built up an enormous empire there and in central Europe. Appearing from beyond the Volga River some years after the middle of the 4th century, they first overran the Alani, who occupied the plains between the Volga and the Don rivers, and then quickly overthrew the empire of the Ostrogoths between the Don and the Dniester. About 376 they defeated the Visigoths living in what is now approximately Romania.
The Early Medieval period (approximately A.D. 400–800) has traditionally been referred to as the Dark Ages or the Migration Period, yet the objects of personal adornment and everyday use from this era, from elaborate weapon fittings and ornate buckles to intricate jewelry, reveal a considerably more complex picture.
406 AD, and the Roman Empire totters on the edge of the abyss. Already divided into two, the Imperium is looking dangerously vulnerable to her European rivals. The huge barbarian tribes of the Vandals and Visigoths sense that their time is upon them. But, unbeknownst to all these great players, a new power is rising in the East. A strange nation of primitive horse-warriors has been striking terror on border peoples for fifty years. But few realize what is about to happen.
In the fourth century AD, an offshoot of the Xiongnu (Hun-nu) nation moved west onto the Pontic-Caspian Steppe. The Xiongnu (Chinese: 匈奴, Hsiung-nu in Wade-Giles romanization) were a tribal confederation of nomadic peoples who, according to ancient Chinese sources, inhabited the eastern Eurasian Steppe from the 3rd century BC to the late 1st century AD.
At the end of the 3rd century BCE formed a great tribal league that was able to dominate much of Central Asia for more than 500 years. China’s wars against the Xiongnu, who were a constant threat to the country’s northern frontier throughout this period, led to the Chinese exploration and conquest of much of Central Asia.
It is this Xiongnu faction, that is known to the Romans as the Huns, defeated the Alani and conquered the populous Gothic realms in Eastern Europe. In the process, they caused a significant refugee movement into Europe, which destabilized the Roman Empire. Over the following century, the Huns launched devastating attacks on Roman territory that destroyed frontier defenses and eventually caused the downfall of the Western Roman Empire (AD 476).
This westward movement of Xiongnu people occurred in a period of Chinese history known as the Sixteen Kingdom Era (AD 304–439).
As the Huns emerged from somewhere north of the Caspian to approach the Black Sea in the mid-fourth century, they were, in Roman eyes, at the very limit of the known world. But with spotlights borrowed from anthropologists and archaeologists it is possible to highlight a few of their defining traits. As visitors to the Huns found later, they had beards, grew crops, were perfectly capable of building houses. Their bulkiest possessions were huge cooking-pots, cumbersome bell-shaped things with hefty handles, up to a metre in height and weighing 16-18 kilos: cauldrons big enough to boil up clan-sized casseroles, dozens of them have been found mostly in E.Europe although we know that the Huns invaded all the way into W.Germany. To any good metal-caster, these would seem amateurish, not a patch on Chinese bronze pots or those made by the Xiongnu.
But these were people on the move, which makes the cauldrons interesting. Hun metalworkers had the tools to melt copper (it takes a furnace to create a temperature of 1,000°C) and some large, heavy stone moulds. The cauldrons alone - leaving aside the decorated saddles and horse harnesses - disprove the idea that these were just primitive herders who knew nothing but fighting and ate raw meat. It takes a large, well organized group and surplus food to support and transport metalworkers, the tools of their trade and their products. I once participated at an archeological dig in Unterlengenhardt (S.Germany) one of the places in W.Germany where evidence of a ‘Hun presence’ was found.
What the Huns believed, exactly, and how they worshipped are entirely unknown, but there can be no doubt that they had religious beliefs, and were animists. Tenger turns up all across Asia, from the Tengri desert of Inner Mongolia to an eighth-century bas-relief in eastern Bulgaria. In Mongol, as in many other languages, tenger means simply `sky' in its mundane as well as its divine aspect. The Mongols' Blue Sky - Khokh Tenger - is a deity as well as a nice day. And it is at least evidenced that like the Romans, the Huns practiced forms of divination.
As an example it should further be noted that the idea of one god is supposed to have evolved from polytheism as a higher form of religion. But for example when American missionaries when they arrived in the Ecuadorean rainforests reported about the primitive Waengongi, that they had a cosmology, with an afterlife - a heaven where people swung in hammocks and hunted for ever, a limbo for those who returned to this world in animal form, and an underworld of the `mouthless ones' - and spirits both good and evil, and a myth of creation, overseen by the creator.
What interested me in the context of a history of Globalizations, however is what set the Huns in motion? Why would a small tribe in the depths of Asia suddenly explode onto the world stage?
Once, it was fashionable to ascribe large migrations and nomadic assaults to climate change and the pressure of population, as if the `heartland' were in fact a vast heart beating to some hidden ecological rhythm, pumping out an arterial flow of peoples westwards. But climate alone is not a sufficient explanation, for to a lesser tribe it might have been as fatal as a drought to impoverished Ethiopians.
Yet the history of China, is a series of dynastic heartbeats that has continued, with each beat lasting anything from decades to centuries, for over 2,000 years. The emergence and collapse of dynasties over such a period is unique in some four millennia, and many historians have spent their lives trying to spot an underlying pattern in this remarkable sequence. If there is one, it seems to have something to do with the idea of unified rule, in pursuit of which dynasties have followed each other, their life-histories driven by complex interactions involving - among other elements - agriculture, rivers, canals, walls, peasant uprisings, the raising f armies, barbarian incursions, taxation, civil service, power politics, corruption, revolution, collapse and the emergence o some new challenger from outside the established order. For us right now, the point is that sometimes nomad rulers entered the Chinese heart and sometimes the Chinese core took over the barbarian frontier. Every pulse would shake up the borderlands, and send another tribe or two westwards. usually out of time, out of history. As it happened, the fourth and early fifth centuries in north China were chaotic, a time labelled by some historians the Sixteen Kingdoms of the Fire Barbarians, the chaos diminishing somewhat when a Turkish group, the T'o-pa, established a kingdom known as Northern Wei in 396. Did the chaos, much of it unrecorded, send shock waves of refugees westward, forcing the Huns to move?
A cold snap in central Asia or an invasion by this or that group of nomadic refugees cannot explain why the Huns were inspired to conquer, and the others weren't. Why the difference? Their success owes nothing to climate or the historical process, and everything to their fighting skills.
Let's speculate about their reasons for moving on the basis of what they lacked and what they had: They lacked luxuries. They had the power to rob.
Pastoral nomads produce more than enough for the necessities of life, but always lack luxuries, if you ado the standards of the upper echelons of settled societies. Herds must be led to new pastures. tents put down and up, pack animals and wagons loaded. Possessions threaten mobility, and thus survival. Life on these terms is a life without trimmings. You can see the results in Mongolia today, out in the countryside no more than two or three hours from the capital.
Tourists easily buy into this latter-day version of the noble savage, who drives his herds between known pastures, living in an ageold seasonal rhythm. But strip away the wind-powered generator, the motorbike and the TV; set aside the school in the nearest town, where children can stay; return in winter, go back in your imagination a century or two, imagine a life without fresh fruit or vegetables (a problem even today in remote areas), and you will see how nasty and brutish this life can be. Winters are lethal. An ice storm that seals up the grass kills horses and sheep by the thousand. Not long ago, such a catastrophe would leave families starving, without milk, meat or dung-fuel. At one level, suffering and its corollaries - fortitude, strength, sturdy independence - were a source of pride; at another, of envy. No wonder pastoral nomads looked outwards.
In fact, looking outwards was built into the way of life. Pastoral nomads were self-sufficient for a few months, a year perhaps, but not in the long term. The evidence is there today in Mongolia, as it was in the thirteenth century, as it had been in the rise and fall of every nomad kingdom since before the Xiongnu. To survive on the steppe, you need a tent, and to support a tent you need wooden lattice walls and wooden roof supports. Wood comes from trees, and trees come from forests and hills, not rolling grasslands. In addition, if you could afford one, a two-wheeled wagon came in handy to carry the young and the old, the tents and cauldrons and other possessions. Wagons, too, were made of wood. For both tents and wagons, steppe herdsmen needed forests. To get wood you need axes, which means iron, either made by local blacksmiths or acquired by trade. And that is just for survival. In addition, nomads, being as human as the rest of us, want refinements unavailable on the grasslands, like tea, rice, sugar, soft and varied fabrics, especially silk: in brief, the goods produced by farmers and more complex, urban societies.
Apply all this to the area from which the Huns came, the Pontic and Caspian steppes. It was a cauldron, a slow-motion seething of intermixed and successive peoples. Imagine, then, our small group of Huns, buffeted from established pastures by a few bad years or the ambitions of long-forgotten neighbours. They move into new pastures, unwelcome as gypsies, despised, a threat to and threatened by new and suspicious neighbours, lacking both a homeland and the soft textiles, the carpets, the exotic drinking cups and the jewellery that ease and enliven nomadic life. Strip away the hospitality that acts as a security blanket for nomadic travellers and the reassuring knowledge of local pastures.
The Huns were refugees wanting a base, a regular source of food, a renewed sense of identity and pride in themselves. These were lacks that could be satisfied in only three ways: by finding unoccupied land (no chance); or by some new arrangement with established groups (tricky, with little to offer in return); or by force. The future life they faced would be very different from that of the traditional pastoral nomad, for once on the move, with no pastures to call their own, trying to muscle in on the territories and trading arrangements of others, with force as the only means of doing so, they were seated on a juggernaut that would never find rest. For now, with every kilometre westward, they would find pasturage increasingly reduced by settled communities. They would, inevitably, become dependent on the possessions of others. These might have been acquired by trade; but the Huns were less sophisticated than their new neighbours. With little to offer other than wool, felt and domestic animals, their only remaining option would have been theft. They would turn from pastoral nomads into a robber band, for whom violence would be as much a way of life as it became for wandering Vikings.
The Huns were on the move westward, away from the grasslands of Kazakhstan and the plains north of the Aral Sea, wanderers who faced a choice between sinking into oblivion or climbing to new heights by conquest. Conquest demanded unity and direction, and for that we come at last to the final element in their rise to fame and fortune: leadership. It was leadership that had been lacking before; leadership that eventually released the Huns' pent-up power. Some time in the fourth century the Huns acquired their first named leader, the first to bring himself and his people to the attention of the outside world. His name was something like Balamber or Balamur, and hardly anything at all is known about him except his name. It was he who inspired his people, focused their fighting potential to attack tribe after tribe, each of whom had their own strengths, and each some weakness. For the first time, a great leader released the tactical skills and established a tradition of leadership that would, in the end. produce Attila.
The technical key to Hun success however, was the Hun bow. Now, the bow certainly looks different, because it is asymmetrical, like its Xiongnu prototype; that is, when strung its upper limb is longer than its lower limb. Whether or not the Huns inherited the design from the Xiongnu, the design had been in existence for several centuries; it also spread eastwards, to Japan. Oddly, asymmetry does nothing at all to the power, range or accuracy of the bow; so its purpose remains controversial. Perhaps the length of the bottom limb was reduced to ease handling, as it would when you whip it over the horse's neck to fire to the right (or, if you are a real master, to fire lefthanded). Perhaps it was easier to fire when kneeling; but when would you need to kneel? Kassai, playing the mystic, wonders if, when drawn, the bow became a symbol of the Hun tent, or the overarching deity, Heaven above, but it doesn't really add up. I prefer to think of it as a matter of identity, for the details of common objects often contain elements that emerge randomly or for trivial reasons, and endure simply because they become traditional and there is no good reason to change them. Perhaps Hun bows were asymmetrical because they always had been, from the time when a stave newly cut from the tree was more likely to be asymmetrical than symmetrical. Perhaps if you'd dared to ask Attila why Hun bows were bigger at the top, he would have said through his interpreter: That's the way we Huns make bows.
But Hun bows were also different in two other respects, adding up to a third that really did matter: they were bigger; they had a more pronounced recurve; and finally, crucially, their size plus their shape gave them more power. The design evolved in response to the changing environment of steppe warfare. The little Scythian bow served well enough for 2,000 years until, in the third century BC, the Scythians' eastern neighbours, the Sarmatians, developed a defence against Scythian arrows. They covered their warriors and horses with armour and taught them to fight in close formation. There were various possible ways to counter this - with swords, lances, javelins, heavy cavalry. But the most effective was a bow that could punch arrows through armour. This was the bow the Huns brought with them from the east - as we know from those found in Xiongnu graves: a bow with a little `wing' of horn, some 3 centimetres long, which curved away from the archer. It was this, not the wooden frame of the bow itself, that held the bowstring. The `wings' provided the weak ends with a rigidity that wood on its own cannot match, as fingernails do things that bare fingers could not. They also extended the length of the bow by a crucial few percentage points; and the extra length increased leverage. This allows the archer to bend a heavier bow with less effort, because the curving ear acts as if it were part of a large-diameter wheel. As the archer draws the bow the ear unrolls, in effect lengthening the bowstring. On release, the ear rolls up again, in effect shortening the bowstring, increasing the acceleration of the arrow without the need for a longer arrow and a longer draw. It was an invention that foreshadowed the system of pulleys used in modern compound bows. In effect, it gave the Hun archer longer arms, allowing him to shoot with slightly more penetration, or a slightly greater range: a few metres only, but a few crucial metres, enabling Hun arrows to be fatal while those of their enemies died.
This beautiful and complex instrument had another advantage. Making one demanded a level of expertise amounting to artistry. This was no Kalashnikov, which could be churned out by some Central Asian bow-factory. Recurved bows of any sort take a year or more to make, but in addition the Hun bowyer had to be a master in carving and applying the horn ears. Each bow was a minor masterpiece, and no other group had the expertise to produce its match.
A superior bow, however, was only one element in the Huns' dominance. It would be vital for the lone warrior or the small raiding party; but, to an advancing horde, small-scale victories were no more use than no victories at all. The Huns needed to become a machine for massive and overwhelming destruction. One factor in their favour was their nomadic lifestyle, which gave them the ability to fight year-round, unlike western armies, which camped in the winter and fought in the summer. Frozen ground and frozen rivers made good going for strong men on strong horses. Their other major advantage was that they learned to fight as one, and on a large scale. In their sojourn in the wilderness or their drift westwards, they evolved tactics to suit their new weapon. If Scythians could strike like the wind, the Huns learned how to strike like the whirlwind.
In AD 350 the Huns crossed the Volga. A few small, violent bunches of mounted archers led their wagons and winding columns of horses and cattle into the grassland country which survived little changed until Anton Chekhov saw it as a boy in the 1870s, when he described the view that stretched out before the Huns, the 800-kilometre sweep of grassland from the Volga to the Crimea in, The Steppe.
In the mid-fourth century this grassland was dominated by the Sarmatians, a loose confederation of Iranian people who had taken it over from the Scythians more than 500 years before. Much is known about the Sarmatians, because some of their art treasures were found in western Siberia and handed over to Peter the Great of Russia. They liked to make plaques of coloured enamels set in metal showing fighting animals - griffins or tigers against horses or yaks: a style that spread westward to the Goths and other Germanic tribes. The Sarmatians specialized in fighting with lances, their warriors protected by conical caps and mailed coats; no match for the Hun tornado.
One group of Sarmatians were the Alans, a wide-ranging sub-federation known as As to the Persians. (It is from their name, by the way, that `Aryan' is derived, l shifting to r in some Iranian languages; thus the tribe so admired by Hitler turns out not to be Germanic at all.) Now we are getting into a region and a tribe that became known to the Romans. Seneca, Lucan and Martial mention them in the first century AD. Martial, a sharp-tongued master of epigrams, skewered a certain Caelia and her wide-ranging sexual habits by asking how a Roman girl could give herself to Parthians, Germans, Dacians, Cilicians, Cappadocians, Pharians, Indians from the Red Sea, the circumcised members of the Jewish race and `the Alan with his Sarmatian mount', yet cannot `find pleasure in the members of the Roman race'. The Alans raided south into Cappadocia (today in north-eastern Turkey), where the Greekhistorian and general Arrian fought them in the second century, noting the Alan cavalry's favourite tactic of the feigned retreat (to be perfected later by Hun archers). Ammianus says they were cattle-herding nomads who lived in wagons roofed with bark and worshipped a sword stuck in the ground, a belief which Attila himself would adopt. They were terrific riders on their tough little horses. The Alans, more European than Asian, with full beards and blue eyes, were lovers of war, experts with the sword and the lasso, issuing terrifying yells in battle, reviling old men because they had not died fighting. They were said to flay their slain enemies and turn their skins into horse-trappings. Theirs was an extensive culture - their tombs have been found by the hundred in southern Russia, many of them commemorating women warriors (hence, perhaps, the Greek legends of Amazons). It was also a flexible one, happy to assimilate captives and to be assimilated. Indeed, perhaps adaptability was their main problem in the mid-fourth century: for they lacked the unity to counter the Hun style of mounted archery.
The Huns blew them apart, clan by clan. The Alans would soon form fragments of the explosion of peoples which usually goes by its German name, the Volkerwanderung, the Migration of the Tribes. However, while good assimilators, they also had a talent for retaining their own identity. In the slurry of wandering peoples, the Alans were like grit, widely mixed, but always abrasive. Within a couple of generations, different clans would become useful recruits for the Huns, and also allies of Rome. Their remnants in the Caucasus would transmute into the Ossetians of southern Russia and Georgia: the first two syllables of this name recall their Persian appellation, As, with a Mongol-style plural -ut (so the current name of the little Russian enclave known as North Ossetia-Alania doubly emphasizes their roots). At the other end of the empire, they would join both the Goths on their Visigothic ruler as `king', he objected: a king ruled with authority, he said, but a judge ruled with wisdom. Rome, having given up thoughts of direct rule, treated the Visigoths as trade partners, valuing the supply of slaves, grain, cloth, wine and coins. Some of them were Christian. A generation before the Huns arrived, a Greek bishop, Ulfilas, had devised an alphabet for Gothic and translated the Bible. But Christianity never won over the `judge' or the other aristocrats, who were keen to preserve their own beliefs - the very essence of their own sense of identity - in the face of the new cultural imperialism flowing from Constantinople. After Valens acknowledged Visigothic independence under Athanaric in 369, it seemed both would benefit: their agreement established a mutual trade link, mutual respect, a buffer state for Rome against the barbarian hordes of Inner Asia, freedom for Athanaric to do whatever he wanted without fear of great-power intervention. What he wanted was an end to Christianity. This he achieved by means of a sinister ritual reimposing the old Gothic religion, which (as the historian Tacitus implies) was centred on an earth-mother goddess, Nerthus. Athanaric's officials wheeled a wooden statue of the goddess to the tents of Christian converts and ordered them to renounce their faith by worshipping the statue, on pain of death. Most chose to live, apparently, except a fanatic named Saba, who was set on martyrdom. When he was declared a fool and thrown out of his village, he taunted his fellow tribesmen until they threw him in a river and drowned him by pressing him down with a piece of wood. He became, as he would have wished, the first Gothic saint.
Rome and Christianity could be resisted, then; but not the advancing Huns. Athanaric tried, setting up a line of defence along the Dniester, but it was easily bypassed when the Huns ignored the Gothic army, crossed the river by night and made a surprise assault on the Goths from the rear. After a hasty retreat across present-day Moldova, the Goths started to build a rampart along the Moldovan border, the River Prut. It was at this point that Gothic morale collapsed, driving them across the Danube into Thrace and starting the train of events that led to the battle at Adrianople.
Behind them, advancing from the Ukrainian lowlands, came Attila's immediate forebears, on a 75-kilometre march over the Carpathians, winding uphill along the road that now leads from Kolomyya through the Carpathian National Nature Park. It was the regular route for invaders, one used again almost 1,000 years later by the Mongols. You climb easily to 931 metres (3,072 feet) over the Yablunytsia Pass (good skiing in winter, pretty alpine walks in summer), then drop to the Romanian border, and, leaving the Transylvanian highlands on your left, follow the snaking, narrow road along the River Theiss onto the Hungarian grasslands.
For at least a generation they have been on the move, living well off the proceeds of warfare. They are hooked on pillage, not just for luxuries, but for sheer survival. It is all they know. Now, suddenly, they are hemmed in. To the east lie highlands - Transylvania and the Carpathians, through which they came a few years before. There's nothing back that way for them. To the south and west lies the Danube, the Roman frontier, with its armies and fortress-towns; to the north and west, German tribes who may one day be vassals, but are not exactly rich. It will take a little time to assess which way to turn. For newly arrived nomads, the future is full of complexities and unknowns.
After Adrianople the empire struggled, and failed, to remake the peace within and without. The Balkans remained in turmoil, with Goth bands raiding freely, until the western emperor, Gratian, and his eastern co-ruler, Theodosius the Great, made peace with them all individually in 380-2, bribing them with tax exemptions, land grants and employment in the armed forces. It was Theodosius who, at two vital moments, held this tottering enterprise together by sending armies to back Christianity against paganism and his family's claim to the West against rebels. It was he who managed to buy time by converting the Goths into allies, even if their version of Christianity was heretical. It was he who imposed the Nicene version of Christianity empire-wide before his own death in 395. With him fell a bastion against disorder and the infection of barbarism. His heirs were two feeble sons, Arcadius (aged eighteen, ruler of the East) and Honorius (eleven, of the West).
The empire became a cocktail of cultures, interfused, each dependent on others. Some barbarians settled; others kept on the move, notably the Visigoths. A new chief, Alaric, took them raiding across the Balkans so successfully that he was made a provincial governor, but that was just a steppingstone to a better homeland for his people within the empire. In both parts of the empire, Goths and other barbarians - even individual Huns - became senior officers. In the West, the power behind the throne, Stilicho, a Vandal by descent, was married to a niece of Theodosius. Goths served en masse, as contingents, with the danger that their loyalty was to their own commanders rather than to the emperor. Barbarians were fast becoming the arbiters of imperial destiny. In 401 Alaric led his Visigoths into Italy, forcing the emperor to move his court to Ravenna, where it stayed for a century.
In 405-7 two barbarian armies - ragbags of Goths, Alans, Vandals, Swabians, Alemanni and Burgundians - swept into Gaul and Italy. Stilicho favoured collaboration, provoking an anti-barbarian backlash in which he was purged and executed, with no impact on the advance of the barbarians. In 410 Alaric seized Rome. It was the first time the Eternal City had seen enemies within its walls for 800 years - an event so shocking to Christians that it inspired the North African bishop Augustine of Hippo to write one of the most influential books of the age, Concerning the City of God. Alaric died that year, and his rootless army, still in search of a homeland, drifted back to Gaul, then on into Spain, finally swinging round again to settle north of the Pyrenees in what is now Aquitaine. In 418 their new capital, Toulouse, became the centre of a semi-autonomous region, a nation in all but name, supplying troops to the empire in exchange for regular supplies of grain. Barbarian and Roman were intertwined, in geography, arms, society and politics, a process exemplified by the fate of the daughter of Theodosius and sister of Emperor Honorius, the 20-year-old Galla Placidia, who had been dragged off to become the unwilling wife of a barbarian - Alaric's heir, Athaulf.
But fate allowed Galla Placidia a remarkable comeback. When Athaulf died, she was married (against her will, again) back into Roman stock, to a husband befitting her status, the patrician and general Constantius, co-emperor for just seven months in 421. It was this marriage that catapulted her into power, which she preserved through many dramatic twists, turning herself into one of the most formidable women of her age. When Constantius died, she was accused of intrigue against her own brother and fled to Constantinople with her baby daughter Honoria and her four-year-old son Valentinian, heir to the western part of the empire. In Constantinople, the ruler in the East was Arcadius' son, another Theodosius, who in 423 became, briefly, the sole ruler of the entire empire, at the age of 22. Nevertheless, he chose to back Galla Placidia when she demanded the western throne for young Valentinian. As a result, when the same year the court in Ravenna chose to crown a non-family official, John, Theodosius sent an army to crush the usurper, and placed Valentinian, now six, on the throne (thus returning the boy's mother Placidia to Italy, along with the infant Honoria, who is destined to play a peculiarly dramatic role).
This, then, was how things stood when Attila was reaching maturity in the 420s: the empire divided, both parts riven by religious and political rivalry, half a dozen barbarian groups as immigrant communities, the northern frontiers in chaos, both armies staffed in part by the very people they opposed. To an ambitious chieftain north of the Danube, it all looked quite promising.
Nstorius the ex-Bishop of Constantinople had wrestled with the central problem that divided Christianity in its early days - Was Christ god, or man, or a bit of both? - and discovered what he considered - no, knew - to be the truth: that, although Christ had been both god and man, he possessed two distinct persons, because quite obviously the god part of him could never have been a human baby. Therefore Mary could not have been the Mother of God, since that would suggest that a mortal woman could produce a god, which was a contradiction. Therefore, he, Nestorius, was right, and all Christians who disagreed with him - namely, those who accepted the tenets laid down at the Council of Nicaea in 325 and all other, antiNicaean, heretics - were wrong.
The world had not appreciated his insight. His great rival, Cyril of Alexandria, had had him condemned and banished to Oasis, in the southern reaches of Egypt. There, as the 430s wore on, he railed against the injustice done to him. He would be revenged upon the lot of them - or, rather, God would on his behalf. Indeed, divine vengeance had already started. How else to explain the rise of the Huns? Once they were divided among themselves, and were no more than robbers. Now, suddenly, they were united, and likely to rival Rome itself. This was surely the Christian world's punishment for its `transgression against the true faith'.
Nestorius might have been shaky on the causes, but he was right in the grand sweep of the problem. The Huns had indeed risen. Petty pillagers no longer, by the late 430s they had become pillagers on a grand scale. In fact, this had nothing to do with God backing Nestorius, and everything to do with the rise of our hero and anti-hero, Attila.
For a decade after Ruga's death in about 435, Attila's hands were tied by joint rule with his elder brother Bleda. For those ten years the two would work together to consolidate their kingdom, with Attila the junior, and increasingly resentful, partner.
How and why they came to power is a mystery. Of their childhood in the early years of the fifth century nothing is known, and their names, both fairly common in Germanic, are not much help. Bleda is a shortened version of something like Bladardus/Blatgildus. Attila derives from atta, `father' in both Turkish and Gothic, plus a diminutive -ila; it means `Little Father'. The name even spread across the Channel, into Anglo-Saxon. A Bishop of Dorchester bore it, and so did the local bigwig recalled by the villages of Attleborough and Attlebridge in Norfolk. It may not even have been our Attila's original name at all, but a term of affection and respect conferred on his accession, a Hun version of the pseudo-cosy dedyshka ('Granddad') by which Russians once referred to Lenin and Stalin.
At first all seemed set fair for the two princes. They were at peace with western Rome, and settled down to bind in local groups and focus on bleeding the East. Not that all was sweetness. Ruga's death must have unleashed some nasty squabbling between the brothers, who for the moment divided the kingdom between them, Attila taking the downriver area in today's Romania, while Bleda governed in Hungary, the forward territory with easier access to the rich west. Both must have demanded commitment from their relatives and subsidiary chiefs, and done so with menaces, because two royal cousins fled south, rejecting their own people to seek refuge among their supposed enemies.
The year of Ruga's death, Attila and Bleda together completed the peace agreed between their uncle and the empire, riding south to the border fortress of Constantia, opposite Margus, guarding the mouth of the Morava river where it joins the Danube 50 kilometres east of Belgrade, just inside today's Romanian border. Here they were met by Constantinople's ambassador, Plintha - a good choice, according to Priscus, for Plintha was himself a 'Scythian', a term that was used for any barbarian or, as in this case, exbarbarian. Plintha and his number two, Epigenes, chosen for his experience and wisdom, no doubt came prepared with a few wagons loaded with tents and scribes and cooks and a lavish banquet, ready to flatter with formality. The Huns, rough and ready and proud of it, were disdainful. As Priscus writes, `The barbarians do not think it proper to confer dismounted, so that the Romans [i.e. those from the New Rome, Constantinople], mindful of their own dignity, chose to meet the Scythians [i.e. Huns] in the same fashion.'
There was no doubt who was in control. Attila and Bleda dictated the agenda; Plintha's scribes took down the terms. All Hun fugitives would be sent back north of the Danube, including the two treacherous princes. All Roman prisoners who had escaped were to be returned, unless each were ransomed for 8 solidi, one-ninth of a pound of gold (given that a Byzantine pound was slightly less than a modern one, this was about $600 in 2004 gold prices), payable to the captors - a good way of ensuring a direct flow of funds to the top Huns. Trade would be opened, and the annual trade fair held on the Danube made safe for all. The sum due to the Huns to keep the peace was doubled, from 350 to 700 pounds of gold per year (about $4.5 million in current terms), the peace to last as long as the Romans kept up payments.
As proof of their good faith, the eastern Romans later handed over the two royal refugees, Mamas and Atakam (`Father Shaman'). The manner of their reception suggests both the vicious rivalry seething beneath the surface of Attila's co-operation with his brother and the brutality of the times. The princes were delivered on the lower Danube, at a place called Carsium (today the Romanian town of Harsova in the Danube delta), straight into Attila's hands. There was no hope, apparently, of winning their loyalty, to punish and make an example of them, he had them killed.
It is clear from the terms imposed by the Huns what they were after. Though they liked to melt down gold coins for jewellery, they were also developing a cash economy based on Roman currency, and there was no easier way to get the cash than by extortion. They could offer horses, furs and slaves at the trade fair on the Danube, but that would not bring real wealth - not enough to acquire the silks and wines that would make life pleasant, or to pay for foreign artisans who could construct the heavy-duty weapons upon which their longterm security would depend. Besides, it was only by matching Roman wealth that they could avoid being ripped off. According to St Ambrose, it was perfectly OK for Christians to bleed barbarians dry with loans: `On him whom you cannot easily conquer in war, you can quickly take vengeance with the hundredth [i.e. a percentage]. Where there is the right of war, there is also the right of usury.' When Attila and Bleda returned to their own domains, they had what they wanted in the short term - some gold, some breathing-space; but peace did not serve their long-term interests. They neede war, and events elsewhere soon gave them opportunity.
During this decade, disaster loomed on several fronts for both parts of the empire. Aetius was fire-fighting in Gaul. quelling the Franks in 432, then the Bacaudae (435-7). an obscure and disorderly band who fought a guerrilla war from their forest bases, and finally the Goths, who almost tool: Narbonne in 437. In 439 Carthage itself, the old capital of Rome's North African estates, fell to the Vandal chief Gaiseric. After 40 years of wandering - over the Rhine, across France and Spain, over the Straits of Gibraltar - the Vandals had seized present-day Libya only fourteen years previously. Carthage, with its aqueduct, temples and theatres (one of which, named the Odeon, served as a venue for concerts), was vandalized, in every sense. The invaders found their new homeland, though fertile enough, rather a tight fit between the Sahara and the Mediterranean, and quickly learned a new skill: shipbuilding. Carthage was wonderfully located to dominate the 200-kilometre channel dividing Africa fro._ Sicily, and became a base for piracy, and then for a navy. In 440 Gaiseric prepared an invasion fleet, landed in Sicily. did some vandalizing, and crossed to the Italian mainland. intending no-one knew what. From the East, Theodosius II sent an army to help repel the invaders, but he was too late: the Vandals had headed home with their spoils before the easterners arrived.
Attila and Bleda took advantage of these desperate times. In the West they had a wonderful opportunity for pillage. thanks to their alliance with Aetius, who needed them to bolster his campaign against those unruly barbarians inside Gaul. There were Huns helping to fight the Franks, and the Bacaudae, and most memorably the Burgundians/Nibelungs. This was the tribe that had crossed the Rhine almost en masse 30 years before, leaving behind a remnant that successfully resisted the Hun attack. They had settled, with Rome's unwilling agreement, on the Roman side of the middle Rhine, taking over several towns, with Worms as their capital. Under their king, Gundahar, better known to history and folklore as Gunther, they remained a restless bunch, trying to take more land. An invasion westwards through the Ardennes in 435 drew the attention of Aetius and his mercenary Huns, who had a score of their own to settle after their defeat a few years previously. The results were devastating, though no details of the assault survive. Thousands of Burgundians died (though probably not the 20,000 mentioned in one source), Gunther among them, in a slaughter that would be transformed into folklore, notably in the great medieval epic the Nibelungenlied and in more recent times by Wagner in his Ring cycle. Along the way, folk memory made the assumption that Attila himself was behind the destruction of the Burgundians. That doesn't fit. He had his hands full back home. But there is an underlying truth to the legend, for there could have been no slaughter without an understanding between Aetius and the Huns. Now they had their reward: vengeance, and booty. The few surviving Burgundians were chased on west and south, their name clinging to the area around Lyon and its vineyards long after the tribe itself and the later kingdom had vanished.
Already, Attila and Bleda needed more, if not from other barbarians, then from the eastern empire. They had their pretexts ready. Tribute had not been paid. Refugees who had fled across the Danube had not been returned. And, to cap it all, the Bishop of Margus had sent men across the river to plunder royal tombs. (Priscus says they were Hun graves, but the Huns made no burial mounds; they must have been ancient kurgans, which had always been ransacked as if they were little mountains to be mined at will.) The bishop should at once be surrendered, came the order, or there would be war.
No bishop was handed over, and Attila and Bleda made their move. Some time around 440, at the trade fair in Constantia, Huns suddenly turned on the Roman merchants and troops, and killed a number. Then, crossing the Danube, a Hun army attacked Viminacium, Margus' immediate neighbour to the east, subjecting the town to an appalling fate. No-one recorded why it was so vulnerable, but the townspeople seemed to know what was in store, because its officials had time to bury the contents of their treasury, over 100,000 coins which were found by archaeologists in the 1930s. The survivors were led away into captivity, among them an unnamed businessman whom we shall meet again in rather different and much improved circumstances. The city was then flattened, and not rebuilt for a century. It is now the village of Kostolac.
Then the Huns turned on Margus itself. The grave-robbing bishop, terrified that he would be handed over by his own people to ensure their safety, slipped out of the city, crossed the Danube, and told the Huns that he would arrange for the gates of his town to be opened for them if they promised to treat him well. Promises were made, hands shaken. The Huns gathered by night on the far bank of the Danube, while somehow the bishop persuaded those on watch to open the gates for him. Right behind were the Huns, and Margus too fell, and burned. It was never rebuilt.
What happened then is unclear. Sources and interpretations vary so dramatically that no-one is certain whether there was one war or two, or how long it, or they, lasted, estimates varying from two to five years. Two or three seems to fit best. It was all mixed up with the Vandals invading Sicily and the eastern army being sent to help the West. There was much destruction in the Belgrade region. In any event, the Huns were now in possession of Margus and its sister town, Constantia, on the Danube's northern bank, and could dominate the Morava valley, along which ran the main road into Thrace. Two other cities fell, Singidunum (Belgrade) and Sirmium (now the village of Sremska Mitrovica, 60 kilometres west of Belgrade up the River Sava), where the bishop handed over some golden bowls that would, a few years later, become the cause of a nasty dispute.
Then something seems to have stopped the Huns in their tracks - trouble at home, perhaps, or a rapid offer of gold from Theodosius. Attila and Bleda pulled their troops out, leaving the borderland of Pannonia and Moesia in smoking ruins. There was another peace treaty, agreed by Anatolius, commander-in-chief of the eastern empire's army and friend of the emperor.
It was perhaps as part of this renewed peace that the Huns picked up another item of booty: a black dwarf from Libya who adds a bizarre element to our story. Zercon was already a living legend. He owed his presence in Hun lands to one of the greatest of Roman generals, Aspar, who was in command. of the Danube frontier for a few years until 431, when he was sent to North Africa in a vain attempt to quell the Vandals. It was Aspar who captured Zercon and took him back to Thrace. Here he was either seized by the Huns or perhaps handed over by Aspar. Zercon was not a prepossessing sight. He hobbled on deformed feet, had a nose so flat it looked as if it wasn't there at all, just two holes where a nose should be, and he stuttered and lisped. He had had the sense to turn these deficiencies into assets, and became a great court jester, specializing in parodies of Latin and Hunnish. Attila couldn't stand him, so he became his brother's property. Bleda thought Zercon was hilarious - The way he moved! His lisp! His stutter! - and treated him like a pet monster, providing him with a suit of armour and taking him along on campaigns. Zercon, however, did not fully appreciate Bleda's sadistic sense of humour, and escaped with some Roman prisoners. Bleda was so furious that he ordered those sent in pursuit to ignore all the fugitives but Zercon and to bring him back in chains. So it was. At the sight of him, Bleda asked why he had fled from such a kindly master. Zercon, speaking in his appalling mixture of Latin and newly learned Hunnish, apologized profusely, but protested that his master should understand there was a good reason for his flight: he had not been given a wife. At this, Bledaa became helpless with laughter, and allocated him a poor girl who had once been an attendant on his own senior wife.
For a couple of years the Danube front remained quiet, Attila having discovered the benefits of diplomatic exchanges. As Priscus tells it, Attila sends letters to Theodosius - letters which must have been in Greek or Latin; the illiterate Attila must already have had at least one scribe and translator, if not a small secretariat. He demands the fugitives who have not been delivered and the tribute which has not been paid. He puts a diplomatic gloss on what is little more than a gangster's threat. He is a patient man. He is willing to receive envoys to discuss terms. He also portrays himself as a man with a problem, namely his impatient chiefs. If there is a hint of a delay or any sign that Constantinople is preparing for war, he will not be able to hold back his hordes.
It seems that Attila did indeed have a problem with some of his own people. Since peace was cheaper than war, and ambassadors cheaper than armies, Theodosius sent an envoy, an ex-consul named Senator. The land route was apparently too dangerous, for Thrace was still a prey to freebooting Huns who had not yet been brought under Attila's control, the `fugitives' he wanted returned by the terms of the Treaty of Margus. So Senator opted to make the first part of his journey by ship, sailing up the coast of the Black Sea to Varna, where a Roman contingent was able to provide him with an escort inland. Senator duly arrived, impressing Attila, who would later cite him as a model envoy, but nothing else seems to have been achieved.
Perhaps something was promised, for Attila rather took to the idea of exchanging envoys. His reason for sending embassies had nothing to do with diplomacy and fugitives. This was a gravy train for his top people, and a way to win time. It was not the issue that was the issue, but the generous reception his ambassadors received, which was something along these lines: My dear chaps, how wonderful to see you! Fugitives? Tribute? All in good time. We'll talk after supper. Let us show you to your rooms. Yes, the carpets and the silks are nice, aren't they - nothing but the best. A glass of wine, perhaps? You like the glass? It's yours. Oh, and after supper, there are the dancing girls. You've had a long journey. These girls are chosen specially to restore the spirits of great warriors such as your good selves. Priscus noted all this in rather staider terms: `The barbarian [Attila] seeing clearly the Romans' liberality, which they exercised through caution lest the treaty be broken, sent to them those of his retinue he wished to benefit.' Four times in the mid-440s this happened, and each time a retinue returned happy, with trinkets and cash as diplomatic gifts.
Neither side believed in the peace. Constantinople was nervous - or so scholars surmise on the scanty evidence of two laws rushed into effect in the summer and autumn of 444. Landowners had long been required to supply recruits from their tenantry, or pay cash in lieu. But senior officials, most of them also landowners, were exempt; that was a perk of their high office. Now, by one of the new laws, they too had to provide troops, or pay a fine. The second law was a 4 per cent tax on all sales. Clearly, the city needed more men in arms and the money to pay them. And, according to one of Theodosius' edicts, the Danube fleet was being reinforced and the bases along the river being rebuilt.
The emperor was in fact quite right to expect trouble, because he was about to give the Huns cause for complaint. He had no intention of losing more money to the barbarians. In the succinct words of Otto Maenchen-Helfen, one of the greatest of experts on the Huns, `To get rid of the savages, Theodosius paid them off. Once they were back, he tore up the peace treaty,' and simply cut the payments dead.
Perhaps it was this crisis that inspired Attila to make his move for absolute power. He would by now have had his own power base, in the form of an elite referred to by Greek writers as logades (we will meet half a dozen of them in person later, in the company of the Greek diplomat Priscus), and the inner circle would already have been in place, or Attila would not have been able to grab supreme power. Among them were his deputy, Onegesius; Onegesius' brother Scottas; some relatives (we know of two uncles, Aybars and Laudaric); and Edika, the leader of a tribe immediately to the north, the Skirians, now in alliance with Attila's Huns, whose foot soldiers would henceforth form the heart of the Hun infantry. They were all bound to Attila by something more than fear of his brutality, for they must have equalled him in that. This was the man who would best serve their interests, and those of the Huns as a whole. They were a substantial group, these logades. Historians have debated whether they are best seen as local governors, policemen, tribute collectors, priests, wise men, shamans, military commanders, clan leaders, nobles or diplomats. Probably, each played several roles. The implication is there in Liddell and Scott's Greek-English Lexicon: logades is the plural of Togas,`picked, chosen'. Lowdes means `picked men': the elite. As farmer's wife named Jozo Erzsebet - Elizabeth Jozo - was tending her turkeys when she saw that they had scratched up something glittery from the subsoil. She stooped down, scratched a little more, and found a mass of gold coins: 1,440 to be exact, together weighing 64 kilos. Her son cannily took one of them to the National Museum in Budapest and offered to sell it. They gave him 1,500 forints, the equivalent of about two months' wages. Next day, he turned up again with another two coins. At this point the museum curators realized that Mrs Jozo's turkeys needed expert attention. The treasure was whisked off to the museum, pictures were taken of Mrs Jozo in her headscarf and the shallow pit - the picture is still there in the Szeged museum - and the family was left richer by 70,000 forints, enough to buy two houses.
The coins are Byzantine, minted by Theodosius II, and a good proportion of them are dated 443, right when Attila and Bleda started sending their ambassadors on their gravytrain missions to Constantinople. Finds like this are an invitation to imagine. Why would someone bury coins like this in a field, with no other goods? Here is a possible scenario. Attila has just made his move. Bleda is dead. He too had his logades. Most of them are also dead now, but one has escaped. Like the unfortunate royal cousins whose skeletons for years graced the sharpened stakes downriver, he thinks his chances will be better if he flees across the Danube. He gathers his share of the latest payment to arrive from Constantinople and heads south. But then, all of a sudden, he sees horsemen ahead of him, and behind. He's surrounded. He doesn't give much for his chances if he's caught with the cash on him. Hastily, he buries it. He will take shelter with peasants, and hope to fade into the landscape until things calm down, when he will retrieve his loot and build himself a better life somewhere else. Does he survive? I doubt it, because he never returns, and the hoard lies hidden for 1,500 years, until scratched up by Mrs Jozo's turkeys.
Today we know about Atilla primarily because of Priscus' Byzantine History. Priscus was the only one to have met Atilla in person, and his story starts with the arrival of Attila's envoys at the court of Theodosius II in Constantinople in the spring of 449. The eminent team is led by Edika, the ex-Skirian leader and now Attila's loyal ally, who has performed outstanding deeds of war. Orestes, a Roman from the strip of land south of the Danube now under Hun control, is the second senior member of the party, with a small retinue of his own, perhaps two or three assistants. Orestes, though rich and influential, is one of Attila's team of administrators. He is always being sidelined by Edika and resents it.
Orestes reads the letters he took at Attila's dictation, and Vigilas, the court interpreter, translates. In summary, Attila tells the emperor what he should do to secure peace. He should cease harbouring Hun refugees, who are cultivating the no-man's-land that he, Attila, now owns. Envoys should be sent, and not just ordinary men, but officials of the highest rank, as befits Attila's status. If they are nervous, the King of the Huns will even cross the Danube to meet them.
In the end Atilla is bought of for cash on a scale never seen before. Attila withdraws from the lands south of the Danube. And now Attila is free to turn his attention to a softer target than Constantinople - the decaying empire of Rome. And although Rome itself was too tough a nut to challenge head-on - its northern province, Gaul, was a softer target.
In 418 it acquired its own local administration, the Council of the Seven Provinces, asserting Roman-ness and Christianity from its new capital, Aries (still today a city rich in Roman remains), dominating the Rhone delta. It was here that Aetius had based himself as Gaul's defender from 424 onwards, standing as firmly as possible first against the Visigoths, but also against the Germans on the Rhine frontier. Of course, to do so he employed some of the very barbarians he was opposing - as he also did in his own cause: when Aetius, the defender of Gaul against Franks and Huns, was fired by the regent Galla Placidia in 432, he led a rebellious army of Frank and Hun mercenaries to force his reinstatement. In 450 Aetius was still playing the same role, his power spreading along Rome's network of roads to garrison towns like Trier guarding the Moselle valley, and Orleans, holding the Loire against Visigoths to the south, and the wild Britons and Bacaudae of the north-west. This was, however, a province on the retreat, guarding its core. The Rhine, the old frontier, had its line of forts, but they were beyond the Ardennes, and hard to reinforce in an emergency.
Military force and Aetius formed only half the equation. For the other half, the cultural bit, we may turn to Avitus, statesman, art lover and future emperor. He was to be found 15 kilometres south-west of Clermont-Ferrand, in the steep volcanic hills of the Massif Central, beside a lake formed when a prehistoric lava flow blocked a little river. Romans called the lake Aidacum. In undertaking the invasion of the West, the Huns faced a problem similar to that which faced the Germans as they prepared to invade France in 1914, and again in 1939. Approached from the Rhine, France has fine natural defences in the form of the Vosges mountains, giving way to the Eifel and Ardennes in the north. Practically the only way through is up the Moselle, through what is now Luxembourg, and then out onto the plains of Champagne. But it was no good making a thrust through the mountains into the heart of France (or Gaul) if the army could be threatened from the north - from Belgium or, in this case, the region occupied by the Franks.
Early in 451 Attila's main army advanced up the Danube along frontier tracks, spreading out on either side, crossing tributaries over fords or pontoons of logs cut from the surrounding forests. One wing seems to have swung south and then up the Rhine, via Basel, Strasbourg, Speyer, Worms, Frankfurt and Mainz, then meeting the main force, which followed the old frontier from the Danube to the Rhine.
Next, Attila's troops would have entered Troyes. It was too good a source of supplies to ignore. No doubt looting had already started, inspiring a legend in which fact and fiction are hopelessly mixed, but which is often presented as history. According to Lupus' official biography, he saved his city and his people by confronting Attila, a meeting that involved one of the supposed origins of a famous phrase. Assuming the meeting took place, how Lupus introduced himself is not recorded, but it presumably included something like: I am Lupus, a man of God. At this, Attila came up with a smart one-liner, in impeccable Latin: “Ego sum Attila, flagellum Dei' - `I am Attila, the Scourge of God.”
This was, of course, a Christian interpolation, made because Attila's success demanded explanation. It would have been inconceivable that a pagan could prevail over God's own empire, against God's will. Therefore, pagan or not, he must have had God's backing, the only possible explanation being that Christendom had not lived up to divine expectations and was being punished for its lapses.
The battle of the Catalaunian Plains that followed, was not a Stalingrad, a turning point that stopped a barbaric invader in his tracks, instead, it was more of a Hunnish Dunkirk, at which a great army escaped to fight on. Orleans had been the turning point, as Attila had seen when he avoided action and turned around; but it led to no definitive conclusion. Thereafter, for a couple of weeks, he was working to keep his army intact. The Catalaunian Plains was a rearguard action, forced upon Attila when he was already in retreat.
By autumn 451 Attila was back in his Hungarian headquarters, with its wooden palace, its stockaded houses, Onegesius' bath-house, and its encircling tents and wagons. Would he then have been happy to sit there, enjoying the loot brought back from the campaign in Gaul? A different character might have been. He might have learned his lesson, settled down to consolidate an empire that, if nurtured, would have created a lasting counterpart to Rome and Constantinople, trading with both. But Attila was no Genghis Khan, willing to plan for stability.
Thus he soon would making another deeper trust into the Roman empire, only to die, on his (next) wedding night. 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. Atilla died from a hearth attack, plus an overdose of wine no doubt.
His 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 analysis, even some 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. The description continues with a ritual lamentation, a sort of wake, a display of both grief and celebration of a life well lived. 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.
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 previously was widely accepted here in Hungary - partly due to the account in Geza Gardonyi's novel, The Invisible Man, no doubt.
However 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 bath-house. And, if they had it, is it really conceivable that they would do anything so dumb as to bury it all?
In fact the director of Szeged's museum, now named after him, the Mora Ferenc Museum, 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.
Within the next ten years later, those Huns that remained (survived), merged with other tribes or scattered slowly eastwards, dissipating like dust after an explosion, sinking back into the dreamtime from which they had emerged a century before.
Then again, in the last two decades of the fourteenth century and the beginning of the fifteenth, now the Mongols, blazed through Asia and E.Europe. Cities were razed to the ground, inhabitants tortured or/and decapitated.
If you ever go to Mongolia, watch what you say about Genghis Kahn. Among Muslims, and European Christians, he was a marauding savage, but to the people of Mongolia he is a visionary leader who created international law, abolished torture, granted religious freedom and developed the first and a highly efficient international postal system.
On the right a hotel in today’s Mongolia, on the left
one of the views