BOOKS: by Michael Daniel (reviewer)News Weekly
ATTILA THE HUN: Barbarian Terror and the Fall of the Roman Empire, by Christopher Kelly
, March 7, 2009
The scourge of Roman civilisationATTILA THE HUN:
Barbarian Terror and the Fall of the Roman Empire
by Christopher Kelly
(London: Bodley Head)
Hardcover: 304 pages
Rec. price: AUD$36.00Attila the Hun is one of the most infamous figures of Western history. In many left-wing circles, the ultimate insult is to describe someone as "to the right of Attila the Hun".
Christopher Kelly examines not only Attila the Hun's career but also his importance in the fall of the western Roman empire. His narrative unfolds largely chronologically, commencing with the first contact the Romans had with the Huns in the late 4th century AD.
Various barbarian tribes, fleeing westward from the Hun incursions into their territories, sought sanctuary across the Danube in the 370s. Roman mistreatment of the Goths sparked a series of events which led to the battle of Adrianople in 379 in which a Roman army was not only defeated but massacred.Gaining foothold
This battle revealed to the Goths, in particular, that the Roman empire was not as strong as they had hitherto believed. It emboldened them to gain a foothold into Roman territory. Henceforth, Rome either fought, or allied itself with, the Goths.
This battle is seen by many historians as the start of the process of the disintegration of the western Roman empire. In the succeeding decades, a combination of poor decisions and eastern Roman emperors prioritising the defence of the eastern empire at the expense of the western empire saw the gradual loss of Roman territories to the Vandals and the Goths.
The Romans had a low opinion of the various barbarian tribes, but regarded the Huns as being their most bloodthirsty adversaries. The Huns in their frequent military campaigns were willing to slaughter their victims and plunder their assets.
By the fifth century, the Huns had settled in what is now modern-day Hungary. A belligerent tribe, they came to pose a threat not only to the two Roman empires, but to the Gothic kingdoms as well.
Their most famous leader, Attila, alternated between alliances with Rome, in return for large amounts of annual tribute, and attacks on Roman territory. A negotiated peace with the Romans bought the eastern emperor Theodosius II time to reinforce the defences of Constantinople.
However, Attila's invasion of the Roman empire in 440 enabled the Vandals under Geiseric to capture northern Africa, as the empire was channelling its resources into repelling Attila.
In the following years, the Huns won a number of victories in the eastern empire; however, Attila failed to penetrate the defences of Constantinople.
Attila then turned his attentions towards the Visigothic kingdom of Toulouse. The western empire, although it initially supported such an invasion, as it would weaken one of their enemies, ended up allying itself with the Visigoths against Attila. This was because of Attila's hatred of the western emperor Valentinian III who refused to recognise a promise his sister Honoria had made to marry Attila.
A combined army of Goths and Romans defeated Attila at the Battle of the Catalaunian Plains in 451. However, the Roman commander Aetius, the de facto power-broker in the western empire since the 430s, did not capitalise on it by pursuing Attila.
He probably feared that eliminating Attila would have given the Goths greater opportunity to solidify their kingdom at Rome's expense. However, Kelly makes the point that the significance of the Roman alliance with the Visigoths was that, for the first time, Rome recognised the Visigothic kingdom, thereby diminishing Rome's chances of regaining territory that it believed had been usurped by invaders.
The following year, when Attila attacked northern Italy, the famous intervention of Pope Leo prevented further bloodshed. Attila's career of almost continual bloody campaigns ended only with his sudden death in 453. With no strong and clear successor, the Hun empire soon dissolved.
In his final chapter, Kelly argues that the Hun incursions played a significant role in the fall of the western empire. They not only depleted Rome's resources in battle but diverted Rome from repelling other barbarian tribes, particularly the Vandals and the Goths, who had seized former Roman provinces.
However, Kelly notes that by the time of Attila's demise a successful campaign by Rome against a barbarian kingdom such as that of the Visigoths would only have created a vacuum that would have enabled another barbarian group to seize that territory.
Two decades after Attila's death, the barbarians gained control of Italy, and forced the last western emperor to abdicate, no longer regarding his office as holding any significance.
Ironically, whilst the western empire was by this stage divided among barbarian kingdoms, Rome's influence was to remain, one tangible sign being the Romance languages of Spanish, French and Italian, all of which are derivatives of Latin, not Gothic or Frankish languages.
Kelly ends his assessment of Attila by observing that, while Attila's campaigns were bloody, he probably killed no more soldiers and civilians in his 30 years than Julius Caesar did in Gaul in just under 10 years.