Sunday, February 13, 2011

Attila the Hun

John Man is one of the more readable historians around today. Most historials will at least make an attempt to put you to sleep at one point during a book, but some have a talent for keeping the reader engaged and interested in the subject matter. I read his Atlas of the Year 1000, and Alpha Beta years ago, and so had no hesitation in picking up Attila the Hun.

Most people's knowledge of Attila the Hun is basically: "Barbarian guy, smashed up a bunch of stuff, killed a pile of people". My knowledge prior to reading this book wasn't a lot more than that. In fact, there isn't a great deal of historical evidence about the guy apart from the devastating incursions into Roman territory in the mid 400s AD. John Man acknowledges this, and is quite forthcoming in explaining which parts of his biography are based on historical sources and which are his conjecture. He also is clear about how much he trusts each of his sources, and why. So it's solid history, just without an excess of footnotes - he actually manages to be engaging and interesting when talking about how reliable a given historical source is.

So, it's a biography of Attila. After a bit of historical background (teaching the controversy: are the Huns the same as the Hsiung-Nu who threatened China in the 1st century BC?), and explaining the brief bit of history known regarding Attila's rise to the throne, it really begins when Attila struggles with his brother for the sole command of the Huns. It is at this point really that the man starts to emerge into history, and we start to see details about his negotiations with the Eastern and Western Roman Empires. The Huns build (more by conquest than diplomacy) a huge tribal confederacy across north-eastern Europe, and proceed to try to conquer parts of the Roman world. They manage to devastate the Balkan area of the Eastern Roman Empire, and attempt unsuccessfully to capture Gaul. After this, quite anticlimactically, Attila dies in his sleep, and his empire, more fragile than it appeared at its height, falls apart.

I've long been a fan of Roman history, and it is always interesting to read the histories from the other side of the fence - histories of the peoples Rome conquered, engulfed, or interacted with. Most of the evidence still comes from the Roman side (they were the ones bothering to write histories), but a keen eye like Man's can see through some of the the bias, and build a realistic portrait of the outsider. Attila has always been, to me, one of the barbarian leaders who carved up the near-dead hulk of the empire in its final days; one of the uncivilized men who closed the curtains on the Pax Romana and ushered in the thousand years of uncivilized brutality known as the middle ages. This book shows him to be a little more than that. Not a lot more, but at least a little.

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