Sunday, October 18, 2009

Peter Heather, The Fall fo the Roman Empire: Chapter 7, "Attila the Hun"

Heather starts out with the Huns' attacks under the leadership of Attila and his (soon-to-be-traduced) brother Bleda in 441. The big shock was the Huns' mastery of siege warfare -- unlike earlier barbarians, they were able to overcome Roman fortifications. The origin of this skill, like most else about the Huns, remains obscure -- our best source, Priscus, survives only in chronologically scrambled fragments from a topical tenth century digest, so even the narrative of the invasion must be reconstructed from other sources.

The main source for the chronology of the Hunnic invasion is the Byzantine chronicler Theophanes. Heather's discussion of the criticism of Theophanes lacks coherence, however. According to Heather, Theophanes says that there were two invasions of the Balkans after 441-442, in 443 and 447. But then Heather says that Maenchen-Helfen's work shows that Theophanes put all of the doings of the Huns in the 440s into an entry for the years 449-450. It's not clear to me what to even make of this criticism. Has it been previously misunderstood what years Theophanes was talking about? Moreover, on the basis of the criticism, Heather claims that we are able to deduce that there was only one invasion -- the one in 447 -- without it at all being clear how he arrives at this conclusion.

In any case, Attila's Huns defeated two Roman armies in 447, and exacted an onerous peace from the Eastern Empire.

Heather turns his attention at this point to the nature of Hunnic society and the sources of its transformation into a military force rivaling Rome. He starts with the figure of Attila, the king of the Huns' empire. Looking through the lens of Priscus' description of his ambassadorial mission to Attila in 449, we get a picture of a shrewd leader: he carefully cultivated his image and exercised power with a deliberate and studied balance of aggression, brutality, and diplomacy.

One key political change in Hunnic society was the very existence of a single king like Attila. Heather points out that evidence from earlier contacts with the Huns, such as Olympiodorus' embassy in 411, shows that such centralization was a break from tradition -- the Huns of previous times had a ranked series of kings. Moreover, he notes, the anthropology of nomadic societies generally leads us to expect dispersed power, since the population is rarely concentrated in one place. Heather argues that winnowing the ranks of kings must have been accomplished largely through violence, as was the case with Attila's killing of his own brother Bleda. Moreover, he notes that the issue of refugee Huns in the Roman Empire that was such a major preoccupation for Attila sheds light on this process, for these refugees seem to have been the survivors of other royal lines.

In addition to eliminating rivals, however, Heather argues that the newly exclusive Hunnic kingship demanded a way to win the loyalty of the rivals' former followers. Heather speculates that this loyalty was essentially bought with the proceeds from an increasingly predatory relationship with the Roman Empire.

The other key transformation Heather points out in the Hunnic Empire was its Germanization. By the time of Attila, the Empire was certainly linguistically heavily Germanized -- even the names of Attila and his key lieutenants seem to have been Germanic. Furthermore, descriptions of Hunnic military campaigns make it clear that they had always included large number of Germanic or other non-Hunnic warriors. Moreover, the archaeological evidence from the area of Hunnic domination shows a much larger number of rich burials that were characteristically Germanic than Hunnic. Heather argues that all this was due to the incorporation into Hunnic control of a great proportion of the Germanic tribes who had not already invaded the Roman Empire. This massively increased the military manpower at the disposal of the Huns.

In 451 and 452, Attila turned this force on the Western Empire. Heather isn't able to do much to clarify the motive for the attacks. None of the grievances noted in the sources appear to be more than pretexts. Moreover, he kept alive a number of similar disputes with the Eastern Empire until settling them just before the invasion, apparently to secure his flank.

A Roman-Gothic coalition led by Aetius beat back Attila's invasion of Gaul in 451. Attila's invasion of Italy in 452 fizzled out under the stress of repeated sieges, harassment from Aetius' forces, and a flank attack into Hunnish territory by Marcian, the new Eastern Roman Emperor. Heather suggests that both campaigns were hindered by common logistic problems. The Huns lacked the wherewithal to supply large armies so far -- in the neighborhood of a thousand kilometers -- from their base in Central Europe. Hunger, disease, and the dispersal of forces to seek food and forage greatly diminished the Huns as a fighting force when they ventured so far afield.

Heather concludes that the Huns' invasions did not directly damage the Western Empire seriously enough to cause its fall, but they did prevent Aetius from containing the barbarians already within the Empire. North Africa, Spain, and Britain all slipped to barbarian control. Combined with the damage that had been done to the remaining provinces in Gaul and Italy, this perilously reduced the revenue of the Western Empire.

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