Friday, December 02, 2011

Attila, According To History Books

Attila, King of the Huns born in approximately 406 AD. Twenty-two years later a second barbarian king was born, Genseric, and he was the next charismatic leader of the Vandals. Both rose to power in their bands and both led tens of thousands to the gates of Rome and shook the Roman Empire to its very core. Of course both of their tribes were thrown into the same historical bucket: Barbarians. The definition of Barbarian means a fierce, brutish, primitive person. Barbarians are uncultured boors. Of course the moniker also refers to people who lived near the major civilized civilizations but not in them and therefore considered considerably less civilized.

“History is written by the victors,” said Winston Churchill. He knew of course because he was a historian who wrote prodigiously. His history of World War II is definitive and insightful and I would think, mostly accurate. However, a different history altogether would be taught if Germany had won the war. There would have been a large treatise recalling the degradation of the Germans at the hands of the politicians who authored the Treaty of Versailles. We would know that Germany was impoverished and had 25% unemployment that largely depressed the nation. Hopelessness can imprecate an entire generation, one that was punished for what the previous generation did on a battlefield. If Germany had won the war other parts of the historical record may have been left out. Concentration camps would probably have been repainted as generous communal projects there to protect Germany’s citizens. If Germany had won World War II, the Warsaw Uprising would have received the same copious attention the Nanking Massacre receives in China. When I attended elementary classes, Manifest Destiny was taught as a philosophy, but it was mitigated as a philosophy, not a political maneuver to convince Americans that God wanted us to have this land – not the Indians. Indeed, few high school students can tell you exactly what happened to the Indians. They get a better understanding watching Dances With Wolves than they do from reading textbooks.

These same high school students are fed the very hagiography about Barbarians that the Romans wrote 2000 years ago.

Evidence tells us that the Romans were tremendous engineers. They built aqueducts that carried 85 million gallons of water into central Rome around 100 AD. They built buildings that are still standing; they transformed architecture, and recorded history for all posterity.

But the fact is they were an imperial, paranoid, militaristic power that created much wealth and beauty and law and scholarly work. Consider this, after the Third Punic War, the Roman army destroyed Carthage. Burned it to the ground, scratched off iconography and writing on walls, and killed everyone, man woman and child. That said, who gets to tell their story now? Well, as it turns out, the Romans do. The Romans destroyed the Temple of the Jews and razed Judea. Fortunately they couldn’t completely wipe out the Jews but damn they tried. A long running culture of academia and study endowed the Jews in Rome with enough scribes to pen their history on their own. Other nations, some considerably smaller than Rome were completely wiped off the map.

The fact is there were Barbarian people who had more complex astronomy than the Romans, they had better material science, they had better math, and they had incredibly fine craftsmanship. They did not all smell and paint themselves blue and run into battle naked as a Jaybird. The Visigoths had a more equitable and moral legal system than the Romans. The Barbarians were considered barbaric because Roman historians always disparaged them. Worse, they erased their opponents.

It’s ironic that the further we go into the future the more we know about the past. New archeological discoveries have brought to light the facts that the Parthians were just and people had rights. The Huns had craftsmen and jewelers and a sort of competitive, ostentatious society. The Celts made better metal weapons than the Romans and had a fairly amazing astronomy science. The Celts could have overrun Rome if they had been unified. The idea that the Celts were a form of Occupy Wall Street hippies is a myth perpetrated by another Roman historian you have heard of: Julius Caesar.

When barbarian tribes inundated the lands north of the Rhine, they were escaping the endless raids and brutal attacks of the Huns. The Goths were among the first to wait until the Rhine froze over and moved en masse into Roman territory. Like the Visigoths, the Goths just simply wanted a place to live. The Romans had assimilated the Goths and Visigoths into their army as auxiliaries, all in return for land. This was an established policy before even the Huns began running tribes out of Central Asia and Northern Europe. Attila’s expert mounted horsemen and berserker like intensity frightened the other barbarians to the bones and the Roman Empire to its core.

The Huns were not all brutal. They were people with law and art and government. This last expansionist generation mostly followed the lead of their fearless leader. Sixteen years after Attila died, the Hunnish Empire crumbled. This tells me that Attila was truly an exceptional charismatic warrior king whose reputation would not be outdone by later Huns. I might argue that it would not be until the 20th century before another Hun would ran roughshod over Europe and Central Asia. Attila, like Hitler, moved quickly, in a kind of ancient blitzkrieg. There were no tanks, but there were tens of thousands of lethal mounted soldiers who moved with blinding speed, and killed and burned and gave no quarter to the enemy. Barbarian and Roman alike were helpless at this new army. They wore strange armor. They looked different. The dressed in strange clothing. They frightened everyone.

Attila plunged into Roman territory and took it with impunity. First Singidunum (Belgrade), Marianople, almost completely sacked Constantinople; he took all of the Balkans. The Romans were reeling. Citizens were panicked. Roman consuls were soon paying Attila off to the tune of 150,000 gold coins a year. He played one against the other with fake alliances, and increased his tribute until Rome could scarce afford to raise an opposing army on its own. Of course Attila needed it, because as brave and loyal as his hordes were, most of them this far west were pay-to-fight mercenaries. He needed to pay his soldiers and frankly the Romans were probably the richest people in the world. Who better to have by the gonads but the most bountiful western empire? Attila made numerous deal with local Roman leaders, especially the ones he defeated, extracting tributes from each one. The Huns ransomed off the Roman soldiers they defeated, often raising the price per head at the last second. Attila routinely plundered conquered territories for profit, allowing his warriors to keep what they took on occasion. So for the Huns, imperialism was incredibly lucrative.

In a tortuous series of events, Attila came to his demise. Honoria, Valentinians sister, a Roman aristocrat had an affair with a male servant and became pregnant. She was whisked off to exile away from the plush lifestyle back in Rome. So she sent a ring to Attila and asked him to save her. He took it at face value and asked her hand. The Romans argued that she did not ask for his hand, only to save her. Attila looked at the ring and believed that her deserved her hand. He came to take it. He also asked for half the Roman Empire for a dowry. The Romans fought back and this marriage never happened.

Yes, Attila ate meat off of a wooden platter while guests of the Hun court ate fine foods off of silver platters and fine wines out of silver chalices. He did not want to be Roman. Then again, he was no recluse sitting in his tent brooding over his wins. He was an aggressive politician who conquered territory, occupied it, took its resources and inserted himself into local politics. When he didn’t get what he wanted through politics, and negotiating, he sacked towns and took more. He invaded Italy in 452 and sacked Aquileia. Other than references in history, there is not a single trace of this place left.

Two years after his “betrothal” he was attacked by a Roman Visigoth alliance at the Battle of the Catalaunian Plains. In between campaigns Attila retreated to his castle on the Danube. He learned in 451 AD that Italy had a famine and resources just weren’t there. So he headed back home in 453 he married a young Goth and after celebrations, had some kind of internal bleeding and died on his wedding night. Some say Gudrun, his wife killed him.

The term Barbarian doesn’t describe Attila. It undescribes him. It masks who he was and what he did. It removes his intelligence and leave only his sociopathic violent bend. If anything Attila was super intelligent. Less Barbarian warrior, more like Hannibal Lecter.