The Scourge of God

The TV movie Attila was on again tonight. As always, any story of “barbarians” attacking Rome catches my interest, especially when I’ve done research on the subject and know generally where the movie differs from what we know of reality. Why the “Scourge of God” title? Attila and his army nearly conquered the entire European continent (barring eastern Germany/Poland, where the Germanic tribes were so tough Rome never really conquered them), was less than a day’s ride from destroying Rome itself, and seemed unstoppable.

Of course, this all happened long after Constantine converted the Empire to Christianity, so when Pope Leo (then just a priest, not yet Pope) rode out to meet Attila and “convinced” him to turn back it went down in the history books as a miracle. And, the church (as the church is wont to do) grabbed the opportunity to gain a bit more control over the Emperor via convincing the general populace that God stopped the heathen barbarians from destroying Rome.

What bullshit. In reality, Leo probably just pointed out the current situation to the Great King Attila: winter was coming on quickly and their supply trains would be hindered. Ancient wars rarely, if ever, extended into the winter months for just that reason. Even garrisoned Legions hunkered down during the cold months, because the supply trains were nearly stopped and they needed to stay close to base to survive. Attila went home, deep into his safe territory , to wait out the coldest months.

In truth, Attila was perhaps the most charismatic leader in quite some time, and also a canny tactician. He alone managed to unite the Hun tribes toward something greater than survival, his expanding empire stretched from Constantinople (which paid him yearly tribute, a fitting turn of the Wheel of Fate, Rome paying tribute instead of collecting it) to quite far into Western Europe.

I find it funny that historians (the History Channel is putting this on as “movies in time” and alternating the film with snippets of history in commercial breaks) so quickly dismiss the fiction of the story. The fact is no one knows much about the way Attila grew up, no one knows a hell of a lot until AFTER he became king. Then we have records, written Roman records, from emissaries sent to Attila’s court. By all accounts, said emissaries were quite impressed by the barbarian king’s manners, strong sense of justice and fairness, intelligence and honor.

The question remains, what would’ve happened if Attila hadn’t died on his wedding night to Ildico? What if he’d lived on to whittle away at the Empire and gain Hun strength? Would his children have been able to continue his successes? They weren’t able to after his wedding night, but perhaps they were too young, the Huns still held together more by mysticism and charisma, less by law. Yet it seemed Attila was on his way to creating a code of laws, of justice, of a government capable of sustaining a kingdom after the king dies. The film ends with Ildico poisoning Attila on their wedding night, causing him to bleed to death internally. The history books recorded his death as a bloody nose. The movie may be wrong, but that fiction makes much more sense than history, which was (of course) written by the victors. Would the Roman historian writing about this moment in time really admit the much feared King of the Huns was assassinated because Rome couldn’t beat him in open battle? If Attila had lived and continued to conquer would the Church still have so much power? Would Italian, French, and Spanish have more Hungarian linguistic roots instead of Latin? Who knows?

Makes a nifty idea for an alternative history, though, doesn’t it…

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