Attila and Osama

I have finished Christopher Kelly’s intriguing and riveting book The End of Empire: Attila the Hun and the Fall of Rome.   It is a superb read for anyone interested in the fall of Rome, and a period of history where the West slipped into chaotic localism after over 600 years of Roman dominance and peace.

In the second half of the book the Empire falls and we get a much closer look at Attila.

In 447 an earthquake did major damage to the Theodosian walls.  57 towers were destroyed, and much of its defensive ability was gone.    Constantinople was vulnerable to a Hun attack.    Attila did attack, and the Roman forces lost every battle in an effort to slow down the progress.  They didn’t try to come together and decisively win, fearing that if they lost, Attila would rush to Constantinople and take the city.  They had to buy time – and did.  In an heroic effort to rebuild the walls in 60 days all of the citizens came together and formed work teams.   Attila got within 20 miles, and then negotiated a peace.  He got chunks of territory along the Danube and a large yearly pay off not to attack.

The result was that by 450 the Roman empire had become a shell of what it was.  The western Empire had lost Great Britain, much of Spain, northern Africa and even Sicily.  The Eastern Empire fared better.  Persia was keeping the peace.   By this point, the Emperors were scrambling to keep their empires in tact.  Theodosius would die in 450, just before Attila would make a bold dash into France in 451.  The Goths and Romans would together defeat the Huns, but only after Attila pushed nearly to the coast and did considerable damage.

They thought that Attila would regroup back on the Hungarian plains, but instead in he attacked Italy in 452, taking Milan and threatening Rome itself.  Attila’s forces had cut into the Western Empire in both France and Italy, and had a few times gotten deep into the East near Constantinople.  However, in 453 he died.   He had taken a new wife and in the celebration after the wedding he died.   His sons couldn’t hold the empire and the people they had conquered rebelled and within a few years the Huns were no longer a force in Europe.

Still, the Vandals, Goths and others were too much for the West.  In 476 the last western Emperor was deposed.  The Eastern Empire, which would morph into what would be known as the Byzantine Empire, would survive until 1453, but only with a shell of the former Roman glory.   A great Empire had fallen.

As noted in the previous post, Rome had been built on brutality – on the same kind of cold willingness to kill that so offended the Romans when it came from the Huns.   Caesar’s conquests destroyed human life at a pace and scope not to be met until the Spaniards would invade Latin America.   A Christian Roman Empire had a different set of values than the pagan Roman Empire.

Thus the Empire did not keep its military science moving forward, culture stagnated, and the number of troops available and the taxes to arm them started to diminish.   Instead of taking from those they conquered they started to pay off others so that they would not conquer them.

To the Romans the Huns were savages, lacking Christian values or even the basics of civilization.   The Roman historian Ammianus describes them (this quote taken from Christopher Kelly’s The End of Empire, pp. 23-25 — get the book to read more, I’m cutting a lot out):

“The Huns exceed any definition of savagery.  They have compact, sturdy limbs and thick necks.  They are so hideously ugly and distorted that they could be mistaken for two legged beasts…they are so wild in their way of life that they have no need of fire or pleasant tasting foods, but eat the roots of uncultivated plants and the half raw flesh of all sorts of animals.  This they place between their thighs and the backs of their horses to warm it up a little.

…They wear garments made of linen or stitched together from the pelts of mice found in the wild; they have the same clothes for indoors and out…Once they have put on a tunic (that is drab colored) it is not changed or even taken off until it has been reduced to tatters by a long process of decay and falls apart bit by bit.

…  Like refugees, all without permanent settlements, homes, law or a fixed way of life – they are always on the move with their wagons…in their wagons their wives weave for them the horrid clothes that they wear.

…In agreeing truces they are faithless and fickle, swaying from side to side in every breeze as new possibilities present themselves, subordinating everything to their impulsive desires.  Like unthinking animals they are completely ignorant of the difference between right and wrong. They burn with an unquenchable lust for gold, and are so capricious and quick to anger that often without any provocation they quarrel with their allies…Fired with an overwhelming desire for seizing the property of others, these swift moving and ungovernable people make their destructive away amid the pillage and slaughter of those who live around them.”

The Romans contrasted their advanced culture and civilization – and Christianity – with these godless semi-human beasts.    Yet almost all of that was propaganda, reflecting traditional Roman views of non-Romans.   Ammianus may have believed it, but he was going on hearsay and bias.

In that same book, Kelly tells of another history of the Huns, written later by Priscus.  Priscus could speak Hunnish, so he was sent along on a diplomatic mission from Constantinople to meet Attila.    Priscus and the Roman envoy Maximillan stayed in Attila’s city for almost two months.  Priscus knew this was the opportunity of a lifetime, and acting like a social scientist he observed and analyzed Hun culture.  (The whole story is fascinating, get Kelly’s book to read it in detail!)

The Huns had homes, dressed well and liked fancy clothes.   Their food was good and well cooked.  They had rituals, customs, treated each other and their guests with respect, enjoyed Roman delights like dried fruits, and were curious about Roman culture.   One ex-Roman he met – a farmer who had been attacked by the Huns and ultimately joined them and took a Hun wife – said that Hun culture had the virtue and strength Rome had lost.  Priscus puts forth a defense of Roman civilization in his recounting of this encounter, but leaves with the farmer saying that Rome has lost much of what Priscus describes.  Priscus does not respond, suggesting that he may agree.

Priscus point is simple: though he doesn’t condone Hun destruction of whole towns and the slaughter of innocents, the caricatured view of the Huns as savages with no regard for the value of human life is absolutely false.

There are parallels between the above example and how some Americans look at Arabs or Muslims.  Describing and attacking whole groups as having weird and even inhumane (e.g., ‘they don’t value life as we do’) traits is a common way to portray an enemy.  This fed into Roman notions that they were defending Christian civilization from barbarism and paganism.  That’s how many have portrayed the US ‘war on terror.’

One could compare Attila and Osama Bin Laden.  Bin Laden has been portrayed as the inhumane essence of evil.  But like Attila, he was shrewd, even brilliant, and rationally pursued his goal.  For Attila it was to build the most profitable protection racket he could; for Osama it was to try to get western influence out of the Muslim world.   Neither had moral qualms about killing innocents.   For Attila this was to instill fear so people would pay; for Osama it was to use the little power he had to weaken and potentially manipulate a great power.

I hopes that there is yet another similarity.   After Attila died, the Huns became a non-factor, fighting amongst themselves as the people they once subjugated rose up and crushed the Hun Empire.   Osama Bin Laden is now dead; hopefully his movement will also dissipate and the Arab spring will crush violent extremism.

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  1. #1 by Jeff Lees on July 21, 2011 - 04:15

    I think you are right that we demonize our enemies and their actions while we exalt our culture and how we conduct ourselves. But I ask: What is the moral difference between an IED attack and the Drone bombings we do in Pakistan? We see ourselves has better then our supposed enemies, yet we are no better, often worse then the “barbarians” we fight.

  2. #2 by classicliberal2 on July 22, 2011 - 00:29

    A subject historical most near and dear, and one subject to more popular misunderstandings than perhaps any other (except, perhaps, the French Revolution). What you’re discussing, here, isn’t really the end of Rome; it’s just the picking over of the already-dead corpse by invaders. Rome died in pieces, destroyed over an extended period. Among a wide array of things that did it in, the rise of Christianity was obviously the most toxic, which makes it particularly odd that, after all this time, the popular version of “the fall of Rome” has it collapsing from internal rot brought about by things like deviation from strict Puritanical morality, and toleration of same. Rome’s big “immoral” periods (the immorality of which is absurdly overblown and sensationalized in popular representations) actually coincides with the height of its power. It fell apart after Christianity took the rei(g)ns.

    That’s not to single out Christianity for abuse, but I am a believer in Acton’s overly-quoted maxim, and Christianity is responsible for a lot of our misunderstanding about Rome. People, for example, think of Rome as the great persecutor of Christianity, when, in reality, it was one of the most religiously tolerant human societies that had existed up to that time. Persecutions of Christians did sometimes occur, but only the Diocletian persecutions were systematic, widespread, and claimed any appreciable number of lives. The same can’t be said for Christian Rome, which made official policy of brutally persecuting everyone of even suspected dissenting religious persuasions (including other Christians).

    On the other hand, the cultural chauvinism of the Romans with regard to the Huns is definitely a holdover from pre-Christian Rome. The Romans could rarely be accused of being particularly reverent of other cultures. Historically speaking, that chauvinism is a common feature among “advanced” peoples, though (or, more precisely, among those peoples who think themselves particularly advanced). A depressing constant in human history, where fascination with and respect and reverence for other cultures is definitely the exception, rather than the rule.

    Poisonous ideology hasn’t yet moved the U.S. to an internal collapse mirroring that of Rome, but its easy to draw parallels, whether they’re particularly exact or not. Everything that made the U.S. the power it became is being systematically pillaged for short-term profit (to cite but one, nearly 30% of the U.S. workforce, 52 years ago, was employed at manufacturing–the comparable figure for last year was around 6%).

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