936: Attila by John Man

by Gerard


936.03092: Man, John. Attila: The Barbarian King Who Challenged Rome. New York: Thomas Dunne Books, 2005. 311 pp. ISBN 978-0-312-53939-9.

Dewey Breakdown:

  • 900: History and Geography
  • 930: History of the ancient world to 499 CE
  • 936: Europe north and west of the Italian Peninsula to 499 CE
  • 03: 200 BCE to 499 CE
  • +092: Biography

We learn from early history classes in school that Attila the Hun was a brutish, savage leader, bent on beating down the mighty Roman empire. Attila sprang from the dark recesses of northern Europe to lay siege to the civilized people of the Mediterranean. But this story is decidedly one-sided and lacking in nuance. In John Man’s Attila, he tries to gives flesh and blood to the skeleton of the tale. Man attempts to give this historical ghost a context and finds much more than we expected.

While Attila’s birthdate is unknown, by about 434 CE he had become the leader of the Huns and an empire that stretched from the Ural Sea to the Baltic, and from the Rhine River to the Danube. Man’s history gives a fair amount of space to the pre-Attila relationships between the Roman Empire, the Goths, and the Huns. This is necessary because of the intricate and delicate political bonds throughout Europe at the time. From then until his death in 453, Attila cements his place in history by gaining the loyalty of millions and repeatedly challenging the might of the Roman Empire. Apparently, the only thing that could stop Attila was his rather anti-climactic death (from possibly a peptic ulcer that drowned his lungs in blood).

Man relies heavily on Mierow’s 1915 translation of Jordanes’ 6th century History of the Goths. He couples this with both the histories of Procopius and the contemporaneous writings of Priscus. These works have their flaws and biases, but it’s really all we have to work with. New archaeological finds and secondary sources also help to flesh out the tale. I did find the lack of direct footnotes a bit worrying, but the biography is about as detailed and intriguing as it can get. While scholars will look elsewhere, the casual enthusiast of ancient European history or the Roman Empire will find a lot to enjoy here. A rich and adventurous read.