Monday, 15 September 2008

Attila the Hun by Christopher Kelly

Bodley Head

IN 378 AD the Huns attacked the city of Constantinople, which was then the centre of the Roman Empire.
The Romans had brought in some mercenaries to fight off the Huns and the Goths who'd joined them. These mercenaries were Saracens recruited from Arab tribes.
One of these rode at the Goths. "With a chilling yell he slit the throat of one of the Goths and, leaning down from his horse, drank the blood that spurted warm from the wound."
The Huns hurriedly withdrew. But not for long. A few decades later they would overrun the whole of the Roman empire, devastating it from Romania to Belgium.
Historian Christopher Kelly's book should be read by anyone who worries that the Roman Empire in its dying stages bore similarities to western civilisation.
It is flocked with fascinating characters and events (Olympiodorus, a diplomat with a performing parakeet, anyone? Attila, about to abandon a siege, seeing that a stork has carried her chicks away from their nest, and deciding that "since birds can see into the future", he's going to win, sacking the city?)
It's thronged with on-the-spot facts - about the physical look of eunuchs and their place in Roman society, about the real value of the huge protection money paid to Attila and his boys to leave the Romans alone.
It's full of double-dealing and dastardly deeds, told in a breathless tone that makes it as immediate as Watergate.
It's funny, it's dashing, it's tragic, it's violent, and it's horribly reminiscent of the modern West and its neighbours.

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