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January 13th, 2003

  A Barbarian's Barbarian


Knowing my fondness for what Hollywood calls "sword'n'sandal" epics, and also my penchant for pointing up the advantages of civilization by comparing it to the opposite thing, Santa left for me under the Christmas tree a DVD of the recent movie Attila, directed by Dick Lowry (no relation to our gracious editor). I finally got around to watching it yesterday. This is not a movie review, and I don't really have a lot to say about the movie, which wasn't very good. What I do have to say, I'll stick in a couple of paragraphs at the end of this piece. I mainly just want to give the aforementioned penchant a workout.

The Attila story is one of the most gripping in the entire history of the West. English-language readers can find it all in Chapters 34 and 35 of Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. In the 200 years since Gibbon wrote, historians and archeologists have added a few facts Gibbon did not know and exploded a few he thought he did. The fifth century is a dark period, though, with little reliable documentation, all of which was available to Gibbon, and the main events stand as he described them. Any unattributed quotes in what follows are from Gibbon. After I had read his account, back in the 1970s, I was so fascinated I sought out everything else then in print about the Huns. There wasn't much, and what there was added very little — though Maenchen-Helfen has some nice photographs of Hun artwork.

The story climaxed in the tremendous battle of Châlons, fought on the plains east of Paris, the plains between the rivers Seine and Marne, one summer's day — a likely date is Wednesday, June 20th — in A.D. 451. Creasy included Châlons among his fifteen decisive battles of world history, a judgment it is hard to argue with. The main result of the battle was to stop the advance of Attila, who penetrated the furthest west into Europe of any of the Asiatic nomad conquerors. Christendom was saved from a Hunnish conquest that, while it would probably have been brief, would surely have been very devastating.

The order of battle was much more complicated than just Christian Romans versus heathen Asiatics, though. Both sides included allies and confederates from all over Europe and beyond. The Roman legions were in a sad state of depletion at this point, two-thirds of the way from the first sack of Rome by Alaric in 410 to the final wrapping-up of the Western Empire in 476. The youth of Italy, says Gibbon, "trembled at the sound of the trumpet," and in strength and numbers, the Romans "scarcely deserved the name of an army." Probably the strongest force on the side of the West was the Visigothic army of Alaric's son Theodoric. (Who was killed in the battle. He was not the same person as Theodoric the Ostrogoth, who conquered Italy forty years later.) The Visigoths were one of the first Germanic peoples to have established a nation for themselves in post-Roman Europe. They had carved out a nice little state in southern France and had no desire to see it overrun by Attila's hordes. Another of those early nations, the Franks, occupying what is now Belgium, were in the middle of a dynastic squabble: one faction fought alongside the Romans at Châlons, the other was allied with Attila. As for Asiatics: the center of the Roman line was held by a contingent of Alans, whose original home was in northern Iran. Gibbon: "The nations from the Volga to the Atlantic were assembled on the plain of Châlons." It was fought on a scale and with a ferocity to match its importance, lasting all day and into the night, to the utter exhaustion of both sides. The number of dead is not known with any accuracy, but it was certainly well into six digits.

Though the battle was a tie, it robbed the Huns of their momentum, and they went back to their stockades on the Danube. The following year they raided northern Italy, laying waste to the rich old cities of the Po valley. The noblest and wealthiest of those cities, Aquileia, was destroyed so thoroughly that, according to Gibbon, "the succeeding generation could scarcely discover the ruins." A later wave of nomadic invaders, the 13th-century Mongols of Genghis Khan, liked to boast that when they had finished with a city, you could ride straight over the place where it had stood without your horse stumbling. Attila's lads worked on the same principle. These swarms of wild horsemen were the ICBMs of the medieval world.

Now Attila was threatening the Imperial capital at Ravenna. (Rome had been abandoned before the sack of 410.) Pope Leo the Great came up from Rome to beg Attila to turn back, and there occurred that famous encounter between the Vicar of Christ and the Scourge of God, portrayed in a magnificent fresco by Raphael and in an emotional finale by Verdi. The legend is that Saints Peter and Paul appeared in the sky over Leo, terrifying the Hun king. In fact, Attila's army had been weakened by plague and he had very likely made up his mind to abandon the Italian campaign anyway. He died soon after, choking on a nosebleed when drunk in bed with a blonde, and his empire fell apart immediately.

(The encounter with Leo probably took place near the modern town of Peschiera on Lake Garda. Verdi was born and raised less than 50 miles away, on the other side of the Po. I wonder if, as a child, he heard legends or folk tales about the terrible ravaging of his home region 1,400 years earlier?)

As I said, it's a terrific story, filled with strange subplots and colorful characters. Read, for example, the hilarious account in Gibbon of the Emperor's wayward sister, Honoria. Impregnated by a household servant at age sixteen, she was hustled off to Constantinople in disgrace. Bored with life at the Eastern court, she secretly sent her ring to Attila, offering to marry him if he'd get her out of the place. When this was discovered, she was hustled back to Italy in disgrace …

Then there is Attila himself, of course, grave and frugal, a study in barbarian nobility, full of coarse grandeur and capricious magnanimity. He did have a human side, showing tenderness towards his youngest son, Irnac. Yet on campaign he was pitiless, massacring and enslaving entire populations. He must have had great charisma and political skill, to assemble such a vast empire from such unpromising material. Gibbon: "It is a saying worthy of the ferocious pride of Attila, that the grass never grew on the spot where his horse had trod." Clearly he was a great natural leader — a barbarian's barbarian.

Possibly the most fascinating character of all — much more interesting than Attila, for my money — was his Roman opposite number, the general Flavius Aetius ("Ezio" in Verdi's opera). Sometimes called "the last Roman," Aetius had just the right talents and personality to rise to the top and stay there in the extremely challenging environment of Imperial disintegration. In a career spanning decades he somehow managed to keep his footing among the scheming courtiers, ambitious generals, thundering bishops and fickle allies of the collapsing late Roman Empire. Gibbon speaks of his "haughty and perfidious soul." Certainly Aetius was a very ruthless and duplicitous man. Earlier in his career, twenty years before Châlons, he had secretly persuaded the Empress Regent to recall his rival general, Boniface, from his command in north Africa. Then he had secretly sent word to Boniface (who was a friend of Saint Augustine, by the way) to disobey the summons, telling him the Empress planned to have him executed on his return. And then, of course, he had told the Empress that Boniface's disobedience was a sign he was about to revolt …

Aetius was in his mid-fifties when he faced Attila across the battlefield at Châlons, and at the height of his powers, both military and political. He died three years later, by the actual hand of the sensual and worthless emperor Valentinian III. It is hard to like Aetius, but there is no doubt that he was one of the few great men to shine in this dismal period. Nor that he was, though often from very dubious motives, one of the greatest champions that Western civilization ever had. Without an Attila to unite them or an Aetius to defend them, the Romans were doomed, and the western Empire was lucky to hang on for another twenty years.

Yet when you look closely at these events, the line between civilization and barbarism fades and blurs in places. Certainly the Huns were barbarous. They were, for instance, completely illiterate, and we know next to nothing about their language. (It seems to have been kin to Turkish, to judge from the personal names we know.) They were also heathens, practicing a rough Shamanism. Their customs were primitive, with, as is always the case with primitive peoples, much emphasis on elaborate rituals of hospitality. We have a good account of an embassy sent to Attila's court from the Eastern capital at Constantinople, headed by "a respectable courtier" named Maximin. Crossing Hunnish territory, the ambassadors were politely offered temporary wives by local people when they rested for the night.

The Huns were very conscious of their cultural inferiority, and used what they could of Roman technology — rather like Osama bin Laden mouthing his barbarian hatreds into an American-bought video camera. One of Attila's generals, finding that there was a noted architect among his captives from the last raid, set him to building a Roman-style bath-house — a major cultural leap forward, given what we can surmise about Hunnish hygiene. The Huns even seem to have been a bit ashamed of their own language: Gibbon says they "were ambitious of conversing in Latin, the military idiom even of the Eastern empire."

Contrariwise, while the Romans certainly thought the Huns very uncouth, they had no objection to learning from them when there was learning to be done. Aetius himself, in fact, had studied some of the arts of war among the Huns — he had spent long periods in his childhood as a hostage in the Hunnish camp, the mutual exchange of well-born child hostages being a common clause in peace treaties of that period. It is not unlikely that he and Attila were childhood friends. After the Boniface episode in A.D. 432, which ended with Aetius losing a battle, he temporarily retired "to the tents of his faithful Huns." He sent his son, Carpilio, to be educated in Attila's camp. Gibbon: "The two famous antagonists appear to have been connected by a personal and military friendship."

The Roman Empire, both east and west, was in fact in such an advanced state of decay that some Romans preferred life among the barbarians to the arbitrary justice, extortionate taxes and gross inequality of late-Roman life. Those ambassadors from Constantinople were accosted by a Hunnish noble who spoke to them in Greek. He was a citizen of the eastern Empire who had been captured and enslaved when the Huns sacked one of the Balkan cities. After doing good service for his masters, however, they had freed him, and he had risen to wealth and power among them. Gibbon:

The freedman … exposed, in true and lively colours, the vices of a declining empire of which he had so long been the victim; the cruel absurdity of the Roman princes, unable to protect their subjects against the public enemy, unwilling to trust them with arms for their own defence; the intolerable weight of taxes, rendered still more oppressive by the intricate or arbitrary modes of collection; the obscurity of numerous and contradictory laws; the tedious and expensive forms of judicial proceedings; the partial administration of justice; and the universal corruption which increased the influence of the rich and aggravated the misfortunes of the poor …

The Attila story is all the more appealing to our sense of wonder for being so remote in time and so ill-documented. There is so much we shall never know about these distant people and their world-shaking passions and intrigues. The historian's despair is, though, the story-teller's opportunity. There have been a number of historical novels about the period, at least three Attila movies, and even a management-fad book titled Leadership Secrets of Attila the Hun. Of the movies I have seen only one prior to this latest effort. That was the 1954 spaghetti epic with Anthony Quinn and Sophia Loren, about which the less said, the better.

This latest effort has its good points. Powers Boothe steals the show as Aetius, with just the right mix of charm and menace. Both Roman Emperors (there were two at the time, remember, one east, one west) are good, and Theodoric (Liam Cunningham) is a very credible Visigoth. Great pains have been taken with the sets: I knew, without having to think too much about it, whether I was in Rome or Constantinople. The noble-savage stuff, inevitable in a sentimental age like ours, is not grossly over-done: when a raid brings in more prisoners than Attila can use, the surplus get their throats cut on-screen. The Hunnish villages are much more convincing than their inhabitants, a mix of local extras (Attila was filmed in Lithuania) and West Coast gym rats with the odd tooth blackened out. If you are going to make a movie featuring barbarians, you should try to make them look nasty.

The main problems are with the story-line, and the funding. To take the second first: to do a movie like this properly, you really need to spend money on a Lord of the Rings scale. Lowry of course couldn't, and so the stupendous battle of Châlons ends up looking like a medium-sized gang rumble. Worse yet is the script, which leaves out too much of the fun stuff. The full absurdity of the Honoria business, and Attila's skillful use of his claim to the fidgety princess, are not brought out. There is no mention of the Maximin embassy, which is a fascinating story by itself (the interpreter had secret orders to assassinate Attila). The poor clueless blonde — her name was Ildico — found trembling beside Attila's corpse is turned into an implausible subplot about a woman bent on vengeance.

One of the highest moments of drama in Gibbon's account occurs when a lookout on the walls of Orleans spots the dust cloud of Aetius's army riding to the city's relief just as Attila is breaking in. This is omitted — in fact Orleans gets a thorough sacking in the movie. The meeting with Leo is also left out — even the spaghetti version included that. The razzia into northern Italy is not covered at all, in fact. Having sucked out all that good narrative protein, the script-writer has substituted for it a lot of sappy boy-girl nonsense built around the highly improbable idea that Attila was consumed with romantic love.

I'll give this Attila high marks for surface effects — costumes, furnishings, sets, and, within their budget constraints, battle scenes. (Including some very nice work with siege engines. But did the Huns use siege engines?) The dialogue is no worse than usual for the genre: I see that barbarians still haven't mastered the apostrophe, saying "cannot" and "will not" instead of "can't" and "won't" like honest Romans. I'd love to see Powers Boothe in some movie with a really good script. All in all, not bad. Attila didn't put me to sleep, and I am of course always grateful to Santa for the stuff he leaves me under the tree, but if anyone wants a once-viewed DVD of Attila and is willing to pay the postage, drop me a line at National Review.