Attila the Hun is a household name- a byword for barbarism and violence –but to most of us the man himself, his world and his place in history have remained elusive. So reads the blurb on the back of John Man’s book on Attila the Hun. Yet does the book actually give us a greater idea of the personality and life of the infamous barbarian warlord?
At first glance it might seem not, but as the book develops Man creates a brilliant picture of Attila and his Huns, as well as their Roman victims. We are treated to a brief overview of the political situation facing the Western Roman Empire during the early fifth century, before the author quickly turns his attention to other topics.
The section that follows describes the life and trials, not of the fifth century Hun king, but of Lajos Kassai a 21st century Hungarian sportsman. This section might put off a few readers as it seems irrelevant to the book’s content, as well as being rather out of place considering the earlier historical section. Those who persist on the other hand might be fascinated by Mr. Kassai’s attempts to remake the world of the Hunnic horse archer. Kassai first got interested in the Huns after reading an epic novel about Attila when he was a child. This spurred him on to try and recreate the lives of their warriors, despite not knowing how to ride a horse or shoot a bow.
After four years of failed attempts, including a long spell in hospital after falling off a horse, Lajos finally got a hang of the basics. For the last 20 years his obsession has grown, and he is now an adept horseman and archer. He also runs his own school where he teaches others to ride and shoot like the ancient Huns. A quick search on Youtube will show you a wonderful demonstration of his skills, and will no doubt give you an impression of why the Romans feared the Huns so much. His ability to hit every small target that is thrown in the air - even when riding at full gallop - is breathtaking.
Those who’d rather skip Mr. Kassai’s exploits should turn to the second section of the book, which really gets into destructive world of the mid-fifth century. Here we learn of Attila’s rise to power, his relationship with his brother, as well as his early campaigns in the Balkans. We also learn of the origins of the Huns themselves. Man asks if we can really trust the old story about the Huns being the descendants of the Hsiung-Nu of the Chinese annals. He follows in their footsteps, visiting many ancient Hsiung-Nu graves where he finds a remarkable similarity between the weapons and tools of the two peoples. He leaves it up to the reader to consider if they were related, or if the Huns were largely a mixture of Germanic tribes led by Asiatic warlords.
The greater part of the book describes the account given by Priscus of Attila’s court and the Byzantine machinations that took place there. Priscus’s writings are the most vivid source from this period. He was a diplomat sent from Constantinople who was given the order by Theodosius II to have Attila assassinated. Priscus and Maximus’s attempts at getting Edeco - Attila’s right hand man - in on the deal are fascinating to read, and Man’s writing paints an evocative picture of the dread and paranoia in Attila’s court. Here he presents an image of the King as a man prone to violent mood swings, as well as terrifying silences and piercing stares. Attila, he reminds us, did not act in such a way because he was a mad man, instead his every move was calculated to ooze menace, and his actions in front of the diplomats were obviously theatrical.
The book’s pace quickens when Man describes Attila’s invasion of Western Europe. He destroys the myth about the Huns being a fast moving cavalry horde and shows us that their large baggage train slowed their advance. It was the contents of this baggage train that terrified the Romans – for the Huns were the only barbarian people to make use of siege engines. This allowed Attila to crush Roman fortifications and storm towns and cities, where he gained a fearsome reputation for slaughter.
The author also sets out on a personal quest for the location of the battlefield of Chalons, where Attila met Flavius Aetius in an epic battle in June, AD 451. His search involves visiting museums and travelling across the countryside of central France. The discovery of a grave of what appears to be a Visigoth warlord near a French farm convinces Man that the battle must have been fought near there. He even considers the grave to belong to that of Theoderic, the Gothic King who was killed in the battle.
The last section of the book looks at Attila’s failed invasion of Italy as well as his final year and mysterious death. He devotes a chapter to the creation of the Attila myth, and whether the Hun deserves a reputation as one of the most bloodthirsty figures in history. This chapter is a very enlightening look at the historiography of the Huns, including the creation of bizarre tales surrounding the adventures of Attila, and his image in contemporary popular culture.
John Man’s book is not as groundbreaking as E. A Thompson’s work on the Huns, and it’s not as original as Michael A. Babcock’s. What it is on the other hand is a readable and well-written introduction to the world of the Huns. I can’t think of a better introductory title to give to those who’d want to start learning about this fearsome warlord and his brutal world.
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