Rome's Greatest Adversary: Attila

By: Christian D. Landers

Of all the warrior kings and conquerors who swept out of the steppes of Central Asia, two names stand out in European memory-Genghis Khan and Attila the Hun. Though both are remembered for violence and devastation, Attila's notoriety in history stemmed from his ability to turn a barbarian nuisance into a deadly peril for the eastern and western empires of Rome. When the fifth century began, the Roman Empire, though under two rulers, controlled an entire area from Yorkshire to the upper Nile and from Portugal to the Caucasus. By 447 A.D., Attila, ruler of the "Black Huns," threatened the empire's boundaries and Rome's way of life. Undeniably, the theme that dominates the secular history of this time period is the struggle of the Roman Empire against the Teutonic or "barbarian" tribes. Possibly the greatest menace to the eastern and western Roman Empire during this period was the Huns, united under the rule of Rome's most formidable adversary, Attila, King of the Huns.

After becoming sole ruler of the "Black" Huns in 445 A.D., Attila won the leadership of a confederacy of barbarian tribes, allowing him to conduct a ruthless military campaign that terrified the Roman world. Attila led his armies across the Danube to the walls of Constantinople. He conquered surrounding Roman provinces and attempted to invade Italy, only to be defeated in Gaul by the Roman general Aetius. Contributing to Attila's success, however, was the incredible weakness of the imperial governments of the Roman Empire during this time. Weak and incompetent rulers such as Valentinian III and Theodosius, consumed by corruption and preoccupied with plots of assassination, were unable to enact useful and effective policies to deal with Attila's encroachment. With this in mind, it is reasonable to assert that when looking at the history and success of Attila the Hun one is also looking at the failure and weakness of the Roman Empire.

Film writer Robert Cochran brings together the history of Attila the Hun and this tumultuous time in Roman history in his made for T.V. movie Attila, released by USA films. Using a mixture of fact and fiction, Cochran begins the film with the circumstances in which the orphaned Attila and his elder brother become the adopted sons of Rua, Attila's uncle and king of the Huns. The viewer follows Attila's accession to the throne after the death of his uncle Rua and his first military campaigns to threaten the Eastern Roman Empire.

At the same time, the viewer is introduced to Flavius Aetius, Rome's most powerful general, given the task of halting Attila's aggression by the immature Emperor Valentinian III and his mother Placidia. The bulk of the film's three hours devotes itself to the unusual relationship between Attila and Aetius, as well as Aetius', Emperor Theodosius's, and Emperor Valentinian's inability to differentiate between successful and ruinous policies in regards to Attila, amidst treachery and plots of murder. During this time, the viewer follows Attila's violent and ruthless conquest into Germany and Gaul after his decision to invade the Western Roman Empire in Italy.

Attila's subsequent defeat on the Catalaunium Plain near Orleans in Gaul at the hands of Aetius and Theodoric, King of the Visigoths, marks the beginning of the end of the film. A triumphant Aetius returns to Rome only to be murdered by Emperor Valentinian and his mother Placidia. Attila becomes the victim of a similar fate. Shortly after his return from Gaul, Attila is murdered by his new bride Ildico. The film concludes with Attila's ceremonial burial in A.D. 453.

Documentary evidence of the history of the fifth century consists mostly of fragments of information preserved by writers of the later Byzantium age. Those fragments of historical writings, the main part of which has been lost, unfortunately, came from the chronicles of ecclesiastical historians who devoted most of their efforts to the study of church and religion. The most studied aspect of the fifth century concerned itself with church affairs . It was only by chance that Roman historians, such as Priscus, Olympiodorus, and Joannes Antiochenus, mentioned secular affairs, like Rome's conflict with Attila, in their chronicles. However, the little history handed down intact to western civilization, by Priscus, gives modern historians valuable insight into the people and events surrounding Attila's campaign against Rome. Indeed, it seems to have helped film writer Robert Cochran in accurately portraying the main characters in the movie Attila.

Cochran's cinematic version of Attila's siege of Orleans accurately portrays Attila as a fierce warrior with tremendous strategic military skill. His character's insistence in the movie that he would "live as a Hun and die as a Hun," successfully conveys the extent to which Attila clung to the simple nomadic ways of his ancestors in real life. His character's distrust of Roman officials and his dislike for many aspects of Roman life, such as Roman chariot racing and athletes, correctly depict Attila's real life aversion to urban civilization.

The conniving and deceitful nature of Aetius's and Empress Placidia's characters, as well as the immature and naive nature of Emperor Valentinian's character, portrayed in the film, is also precise and true to fact. From the historian Joannes Antiochenus's account of Aetius' jealous plot to win control of Libya by turning Placidia, who had given Libya to a rival Roman General named Boniface, against Boniface, modern historians have come to understand the manipulative nature of General Aetius. In this film, his character's attempt to come into the favor of Emperor Valentinian, by warning him of a false plot contrived by his mother to have him killed, mimics precisely the fraudulent nature of the historical Flavius Aetius. A similar account handed down by Antiochenus reveals the same duplicity within the real Empress Placidia. Her character's plan to have Aetius murdered, once he had put down the Huns and his services as general were no longer needed, accurately reflects Placidia's duplicity. The young Emperor Valentinian, in the film, possessed a naive gullibility and childish immaturity that make his efforts as emperor futile. Cochran presents Emperor Valentinian as a useless administrator more concerned with wealth and indulging in his sexual fantasies than with running an empire. Judging by the chronicles of Olympiodorus, another historian that lived during this period, Cochran's presentation is accurate. Olympiodorus described Emperor Valentinian III as a mere pawn who was unable to make any executive decision without first seeking the guidance of his mother, Placidia. Though there were some fictional aspects of these characters presented in the film for the purpose of entertainment, on the whole, the manner in which Attila, Flavius Aetius, Empress Placidia, and Emperor Valentinian are presented in the film is true to the facts.

Equally impressive in the writer's portrayal of these famous figures is director Dick Lowry's depiction of Hun nomadic life and Roman culture during the fifth century. The small tent fortifications with Chinese style watchtowers that Attila and his people are shown to inhabit in the film accurately represent the fine fortification inspired by Chinese methods that the peoples of Central Asia erected in the fifth century.

Of all Central Asian weapons, the bow remained paramount. The importance of the bow and arrow to the Huns is evident in several scenes in the movie including the scene in which Attila and his brother Bleda duel for the kingship of the Huns using bow and arrow, and a scene early on the in the film in which Attila's father explains to a young Attila the proper way to make a bow. Even the compound curve or reflex shape of the bows portrayed in the film is historically credible. The importance of the horse to the nomad Huns is accurately conveyed in the film as well. In all the battle scenes in the film, Attila and his men fight on horseback, and only when forced, fight on foot. The Huns' preference for using Turkish horses, with their exceptional climbing and jumping ability in battle has been well documented. Historians familiar wit the religious practices of the Huns will be delighted with the film's presentation of Gaylon the Witch and Attila's worship of a "War God." Gaylon's character speaks of visions and prophecies in the film, which was typical of Central Asian Shamanism practiced by the Huns in the fifth century. The worship of "War Gods" was also a prominent feature of Indo-European religion.

The director devotes the same attention to historical detail in his depiction of Roman life and Roman culture in the fifth century. Numerous scenes showing Roman men and women succumbing to the pleasures of wine, food, and sex accurately reflect Roman acceptance of bisexuality and Roman love for luxury. The film also illustrates Roman attitude toward sex and sexual promiscuity. Roman architecture, including the Roman bath and the Roman villa, is truthfully adapted to the screen in this film. Lowry makes sure to include the small garden, water fountain, and courtyard that characterized Roman villa architecture during the fifth century in his portrayal of Aetius's villa in Rome. The film's version of the Roman bath, including its beautiful marble and Doric columns as well as its pipes and furnace that heated the water, would withstand any historian's scrutiny. Even more impressive, the film does an excellent job of distinguishing the Eastern Roman Empire from the Western Roman Empire. Emperor Theodosius is presented correctly in the film wearing the typical Eastern Roman dress that resembled a Greek tunic, while Emperor Valentinian is appropriately dressed in the typical Western Roman toga. Overall, the film's efforts to paint an accurate picture of Hun and Roman culture and customs are done very well.

Those viewers who know little about Attila the Hun and the impact he had on the Roman Empire's policy towards the barbarian tribes threatening its borders in the fifth century will benefit from watching the film. Though much of the film is dramatized and many of the facts are embellished, the viewer can walk away from the film with some detailed knowledge of Attila's short-lived empire and the effect his death had on the various tribal nations that surrounded the empire. The viewer can also better understand the effect the Roman General Aetius's death had on the Roman Empire. No great leader emerged to unite the tribal nations outside Roman after the death of Attila. If Attila had survived it is reasonable to assume that the Roman Empire would have fallen long before A.D. 476. In the same respect, no Roman general was able to defend Roman against barbarian offensives after the murder of Flavius Aetius. Therefore, it is reasonable to assume Rome would have survived long after 476 A.D. if he had lived as supreme commander of the Roman army. The film's ability to convey this idea and its suggestion that if either one of these men had survived then the course of western civilization would have changed dramatically, makes this movie a must see.

For more information on this topic, the fifth century historical chronicles of Olympiodorus, Priscus, and Joannes Antiochenus, complied by C.D. Gordon in the book The Age of Attila, remain the best source for detailed information on the hostile relationships between Attila and the Roman Empire. Other useful sources of information of Attila and the Huns include, Attila and the Nomad Hordes, a short book describing the origins and customs of the Huns and The World of the Huns by Otto J. Maenchen-Helefen. Finally, E.A. Thompson provides a thorough and detailed account of the history of the Huns and their relations with the Roman Empire in his book The Huns.