Read Attila Online

Authors: Ross Laidlaw

Attila (10 page)

BOOK: Attila
2.15Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

‘God your Heavenly Father loves you, and would warn you through me, His unworthy servant, of the perils you incur by partaking of this holiday. Because you are blinded by its pomp and glitter, deafened by the noise of its seductive music, you cannot see the cockatrice beneath the stone, nor hear the serpent's angry hiss. With all my heart I urge you to turn aside from the temptations of this profane festival. Think instead of God's love, and ask yourselves: “Will I deny that love, and place my soul at risk?” For, by celebrating this sinful feast, that is what you do.'

Augustine paused, suddenly aware that, carried away by the power of his own eloquence, he had forgotten his audience, the time and place, everything except the urgent need to impart his warning. He glanced at the sun: it was past its meridian. He had begun speaking at the fourth hour, so he must have been speaking for . . . over two hours! He looked at his listeners. Constrained by respect for his authority, they had not drifted away, but they had become restless and inattentive. Many seemed puzzled or anxious; more looked bored and sullen, resentful of this intrusion into their merrymaking. Realist enough to recognize that he had failed to win them over, that if he continued he would merely antagonize them further, Augustine prepared to wind down his address. ‘And so, friends, I would conclude by saying—'

‘Oh, spare us, please – you've said enough already.' The interruption came from a stocky, plump young man whom Augustine vaguely recognized. Macrobius was the author, he seemed to remember, of a treatise on the Saturnalia, and a
at the
university, the very institution where Augustine himself had won the prize for rhetoric. Appalled, the bishop heard a titter greet the young scholar's sally. The crowd, sensing conflict, perked up. Augustine fought to retrieve the situation.

‘If, among these poor words of mine you remember but one thing, let – let it be this . . .' Augustine floundered to a halt, aware that he sounded weak, apologetic. It would never do to end thus. He began again. ‘Bear only this in mind, my friends. Without God's Grace we are helpless. By ourselves, we can—'

‘Do nothing?' Macrobius turned Augustine's statement into a query. ‘Most Reverend' – the formally correct mode of address was tinged with subtle irony – ‘you keep stressing the Grace of God. But what about the will of man? Are you suggesting that we cannot help ourselves?'

implying that man, by his own unaided free will, can achieve goodness without help from God?' countered the bishop hotly. Self-control, he urged himself, self-control; give way to anger in an argument, and you were lost.

‘Not at all,' replied the other easily. ‘Since it appears you're unwilling to answer my question, I shall answer it for you. God's Grace may well exist; I don't deny it. But only as a form of divine assistance. Heaven helps those who help themselves.'

Augustine was horrified. To deny the supremacy of God's will was tantamount to heresy. The man was dangerous, clearly a disciple of that misguided Scottish monk Pelagius, who insisted that salvation could be attained through individual endeavour.

‘In fact, your theory of Grace and Predestination leads to some very bleak conclusions,' Macrobius went on. ‘According to your philosophy whatever happens is predetermined anyway, so we should let the barbarians overrun the Roman Empire – your Earthly City – without lifting a finger to stop them.'

A muted growl of approval swept through the audience. Though nominally Christian, most still retained a pagan, worldly cast of mind; as a guarantee of personal security, the survival of the empire was to them a matter of no small concern.

‘The Roman Empire and the Earthly City are
the same,' protested Augustine, unhappily aware that he was being forced on to the defensive, even being made to appear unpatriotic. He felt a stab of something very like panic as his grip on the situation seemed to slip. Desperately, he glanced around. Where were
, the Church's guards, who had the power to arrest religious agitators? Nowhere to be seen, of course, he thought bitterly; on this day of public rejoicing, any attempted arrest might easily stir up mob violence.

‘The Earthly City is the realm of the unrighteous – fallen angels, the souls of the wicked, sinners alive in the world,' he heard himself shout, knowing as he did so that his words were falling on deaf ears. With a shock, he realized that, for the first time in his life, he had lost his audience.

The forum darkened as sudden storm-clouds raced across the sky: a typical north-west winter squall. Hailstones bounced on paving-stones and tiled roofs, scattering the crowd. Macrobius waved an ironic farewell to Augustine and called out cheerily, ‘A timely intervention, Bishop – by the Grace of God?'

Shaken and humiliated, Augustine returned to the bishop's palace, thankful that the streets had emptied. He had failed. But that, he vowed, would not stop him continuing the fight. God's enemies were powerful and ever-present. They must always be engaged and, God willing, defeated.


Acts are judged by their ends

St Augustine,
. 400

To the growing file labelled ‘
', Aetius added the latest report from Africa, just brought in by one of his
agentes in rebus
, couriers-cum-spies who kept him apprised of the rapidly developing political situation in that diocese. In his private journal, the general wrote: ‘The net begins to close round Boniface. By acting on the advice contained in my letter, he was guilty only of disobeying an imperial summons – a serious enough offence, but not, in his case, a capital one. Though I have caused him to believe otherwise, Placidia would never have had her erstwhile hero put to death for that alone. Now, however, by repelling with arms the force sent to arrest him, he has crossed the Rubicon and declared himself an enemy of the state.'

A pity that a fine man must be destroyed to serve the greater good, Aetius thought with genuine regret, as he retied the thongs securing the codex, a set of thin waxed boards between exquisitely carved ivory covers: a gift from Placidia ‘to a faithful friend'. His choice of medium for recording these private thoughts was deliberate. ‘Always write on wax' had been the advice of his father – like himself a Master of Horse, and an adroit political survivor; ‘ink is the executioner's ally.' Aetius had been assiduous in following that advice. True, there were his contradictory letters to Boniface and Placidia, but they fell almost into the category of state secrets, and as such were virtually proof against investigation. His file on Boniface consisted of dry and factual reports, hardly evidence of malicious intent. As for anything recorded on those waxed tablets, it could instantly be erased by the blunt end of the stylus. As long as he continued to be careful, his hands would remain clean – at least in the eyes of the world. And that was all that mattered; wasn't it? After all, had not Augustine himself adopted a teleological position
regarding the morality of how one acted? ‘Acts are judged by their ends,' the bishop had reassured his friend Consentius, when the latter confessed to lying in order to save an otherwise blameless official guilty of a single act of peculation.

His plans were maturing well, rather like Falernian wine laid down for a year in a cool cellar, Aetius reflected wryly, thanks largely to the fact that Boniface, being a good and uncomplicated man, had put his trust in Aetius, thereby becoming the agent of his own destruction. By his most recent action, Boniface had made himself guilty of treason. As any forces he could muster were quite inadequate to repel a full-scale imperial invasion, it was only a matter of time before he was brought back to Ravenna in chains. There would follow a brief trial, then the Count of Africa would be marched outside the city walls, to bend his neck to the executioner's sword. Time now to clinch matters by sending another message to the beleaguered general, applauding his defiance and urging him to stand firm. Even as he felt exhilaration at the thought of his rival rising to the bait, Aetius experienced a prick of shame at engineering his downfall.

In a state of mind approaching desperation, Boniface paced the garden of his headquarters back in Carthage. It had increasingly become a refuge, a sanctuary where he could marshal his distracted thoughts and try to form a plan to cope with the burgeoning crisis that threatened to overwhelm him.

A gerbil scampered from its burrow and, darting in front of the general, sat up expectantly. Smiling, Boniface tossed the creature its usual dole, a handful of wheat grains. ‘You at least, my little friend, are on my side,' he murmured.

He was grateful to Aetius for the approval and moral support shown in his last letter. But Aetius was a thousand miles away, and unable to offer material help. The grim truth was, that, unless Boniface could secure the backing of a powerful ally, he was doomed. But there
no potential allies.

Or were there? The Count stopped pacing as, unbidden, a siren thought slid into his mind. Immediately, all his instincts and training rose up against the idea, urging him to reject it. It was crazy; it was disloyal . . . It was his only hope. In a mood of sombre fatalism, he returned to his tent and called for his secretary.


Of medium height, lame from a fall off his horse, he had a deep mind and was sparing of speech; luxury he despised, but his anger was uncontrollable and he was covetous

Description of Gaiseric: Jordanes,
Gothic History
, 551

The encirclement of the village was almost complete. Ringed about with steep rocky eminences, along whose crest the Vandal cordon was moving into position, its only remaining exit was the harbour mouth – and that would shortly be stopped up by Roman galleys captured at Carthago Nova,
and now waiting in the next cove.

A greyness shimmered briefly in the east, then vanished; the false dawn. But already the sun was rising above the Baleares; soon the ridges surrounding the village flamed in its early rays. Light swept down the slopes, disclosing the raiders' objective: a scatter of stone houses surrounding a square, one side of which was bounded by a church. As the cocks began to crow, the prow of the first galley emerged round the nearest headland. Gaiseric raised a rams-horn trumpet to his lips.

Gaiseric, half-brother of Gunderic, King of the Vandals, was angry, bitter, and frustrated. Not that there was anything extraordinary in that; he was angry, bitter, and frustrated almost all the time. But this morning, he felt those emotions even more keenly than usual. The immediate reasons for his ill-humour were that the village, which his scouts had hinted was wealthy and populous, looked as if it could scarcely keep a cat; that he had been seasick on the short voyage along the southern coast of Hispania; and that his fine Roman vessel had been damaged on rocks just before dropping anchor. (The steersman had paid for his clumsiness by having his right hand stricken off, which had alleviated Gaiseric's anger a little.)

The underlying causes of his choleric temperament were more deep-seated and complex. He was short and lame, whereas his brother was tall and sound of limb. He was illegitimate, while his brother had been born in wedlock, his royal blood fully recognized. Above all, despite his superior intelligence and gift of leadership he was nothing, whereas his nonentity of a brother was king. All this rankled deeply with Gaiseric, permanently souring him.

He had been a child when, twenty-one years ago, his people, along with the Suevi, Alans, and Burgundians, had crossed the frozen Rhenus and swept into Gaul.
Together with the Suevi, the Vandals had pushed on into Hispania, and, after defeating a Roman army sent to suppress them, had settled in the south of the peninsula, subsisting largely on plunder and piracy. Surrounded by a hostile population, and living with the constant threat of renewed punitive expeditions, the tribe's position was, to say the least, precarious.

As the horn-blast echoed round the crags, the waiting Vandals emerged from hiding and surged down the slopes to converge on the doomed village. Barring a trio of women at the well, and a boy driving some cows to pasture, no one was astir. As ordered to, the warriors fanned out into the houses, forcing outside the sleepy and terrified inhabitants; some, not having had time to fling on any clothes, tried to cover their nakedness with their hands. Totalling some three hundred, they were herded into the square, where their olive colouring contrasted with the fair skins and blue eyes of their captors. Apart from the crying of some babes-in-arms, there was silence; the silence of fear and foreboding.

The silence stretched out as the shadow of the church began to ebb back across the square, while a detail proceeded to ransack the buildings. The looters re-entered the square and cast their findings on to a blanket spread before Gaiseric: a pitiful hoard consisting of a few rings, coins, cloak-pins, brooches, and kitchen utensils. Most articles were of bronze or iron; only a few jewellery items were of gold or silver. A Vandal emerged from the church carrying a missorium and chalice, which flashed in the morning rays. ‘Silver,' he announced proudly, adding them to the pile.

‘Poor man's silver,' growled Gaiseric, his eyes glinting with
fury and disappointment. ‘It's pewter, you fool.'

He glared balefully at the assembled Hispano-Romans. ‘Which of you is the priest?' he asked in broken Latin, speaking in a slow, measured voice which, although husky and low-pitched, carried to every corner of the square.

Silence, punctuated by muffled sobs and wailing of children.

Gaiseric nodded to two of his henchmen, who plucked a man at random from the crowd. In an almost casual movement, one of the Vandals drew a dagger across the man's throat. He gave a choking gurgle then fell, blood sheeting from his severed gorge. A gasp of horror arose from the villagers.

BOOK: Attila
2.15Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

Other books

The House on the Strand by Daphne Du Maurier
El Sol brilla luminoso by Isaac Asimov
Cold Blooded by Bernard Lee DeLeo
The Jewel That Was Ours by Colin Dexter
Suspended by Taryn Elliott
True Crime: Box Set by Lorrence Williams
Taming the Hunted by Larisa Anderson