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Attila the Hun’s legendary triple coffin
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Clear your history. We know more about him than we do about other barbarian leaders, and from more reliable sources.
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He was born some time in the s, one of the first generation of Hunnic nobles to grow up entirely on the Roman frontier, without any personal experience of nomadism. Though Hun warriors still fought as cavalry, that was by now an ideological choice and not a by-product of a life lived on the move.
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The Hun empire was as much glorified protection racket as organised state, but the Huns were more than typically effective in that role. We can be sure of this, for though it had always been normal for barbarian princelings to receive their education as hostages at the imperial court, a novelty of the fifth century was that the Huns held noble Roman youths in a reciprocal position.
Attila grew up alongside these young aristocrats and throughout his career exhibited a fine intuition into the best way to impose on Roman sensibilities. It was his good fortune, moreover, to face a fatally divided empire. Throughout Roman history, imperial disunity produced restiveness on the frontiers. The present period of division, which would prove final, had lasted since , after which one emperor reigned at Rome or Ravenna, and another at Constantinople.
Valentinian was installed on his throne in the West by an imperial mother, with the backing of an Eastern army, but he reigned at the pleasure of the great marshal Aetius. Aetius was a friend of the Huns because of the mercenaries they provided him: he was constantly at war with the semi-independent barbarians and provincial grandees of the West, and always willing to turn his soldiers against the imperial court when it crossed him.
He and his brother Bleda succeeded their uncle Rua as the main Hun chieftains in , though it took them half a decade to secure their hold on power.
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Money was short and the Hun refugees were manpower for imperial armies. Knowing all this, Bleda and Attila tightened the screw. In , they besieged and sacked cities along the Danube frontier and beyond, even seizing Sirmium, the jewel of the Balkan provinces, and enslaving its inhabitants. For the next five years, the rich cities of the Balkans were the playthings of Hun armies. A meaningful frontier had ceased to exist and only an annual ransom of pounds of gold could keep back the seasonal devastation.
As he bled the Eastern government of cash, Attila moved to reinforce his own position, doing away with Bleda, probably in He was thus elevated to the select order of power players, barbarian and provincial, who secured formal recognition from one half of the empire while engaging in hostilities against the other half.
Not content to be an imperial general, Attila revealed a divine imprimatur as well. In that same year, and not for the first time, the pass at Thermopylae kept an invader out of Greece. The de facto disappearance of the frontier had been formalised. Long fragments of his work survive and his tale has often been retold, but rarely as well as by Christopher Kelly here. Full of intrigue and local colour, Priscus reveals among much else the sedentary character of the fifth-century Huns, their distance from their nomadic roots, and the extent to which they had developed a sub-Roman court culture in the heart of central Europe.
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Attila comes across as harsh and inflexible, so sure of his position that he could ostentatiously ignore the embassies of both Eastern and Western empires, making them trail in his wake for days on end before admitting them to his presence — and even then, only after he had first seen the envoys of some petty barbarian king. But in Constantinople won a reprieve.
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Attila had discovered a more tempting target in the West. It may be that Eastern resources had been so thoroughly depleted by Hunnic demands that they could no longer sustain the scale of treasure and loot Attila needed to keep his followers in check. The West looked a better prospect, and Attila had already settled on a specious pretext — some stolen gold plate — when intrigue at the court of Valentinian presented him with something much better: the signet ring of a princess, sent by the lady herself.
It is hard to resist the image of the princess in the tower, pining for her barbarian saviour, but the reality is rather different. The women of the Theodosian house never shrank from the public eye, no doubt encouraged by the various incapacities of their male relations. Bed-hopping and coup-plotting were often the same thing at the higher levels of imperial society and they may have been so here.
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Determined to embarrass her fraternal tormentor, she sent for Attila. She was, in effect, issuing an invitation to usurpation. That he happened to be a Hun made no difference: Valentinian and Honoria had had a half-brother, dead before they were born, whose father was a barbarian general. With Attila as consort, Honoria might well rule the West.
After all, when Theodosius II died without heir in his imperial sister succeeded him, choosing a consort who suited her and exercising a great deal of power in her own right. At worst he would destroy Aetius and take his place; at best, he would claim the Western empire as his own.