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Authors: Ross Laidlaw

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BOOK: Attila
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Supremely skilled equestrians, whose marksmanship was unrivalled, Aetius' Huns vastly outnumbered the Eastern cavalry. But, unlike Aspar's tightly disciplined troops, they hardly constituted an army in the strict sense. None of the tribes making up the force owned allegiance to any of the others. And each warrior fought very much as an individual, totally lacking in loyalty to his fellow tribesmen and motivated solely by plunder and reward. Nevertheless, the Huns made terrible opponents. Nearly fifty years before, they had fallen on the Goths, one of the most warlike of the German tribes, forcing them to seek refuge within the Roman Empire.

After receiving Titus' report on the strength and movement of the Eastern army, Aetius, then camped a few miles from Ravenna, decided to offer battle to Aspar. Realizing the futility of trying to fight a pitched battle in the swamps surrounding the city, he had moved north-west to less waterlogged terrain.

Accompanied by a knot of officers and tribunes, and, as always, wearing his dented cuirass and carelessly tied scarf, Aetius emerged from the command tent and joined Titus' group of dispatch riders, scouts, and junior officers. A young man of middle height, the general radiated energy and confidence. He squinted at the sun, which was a quarter of the way through its arc, and shook his head wryly.

‘I'd like to hold things off until the ninth hour at least,' he declared.
1
‘We'd have the sun behind us and those lobsters over there would be frying in their armour. But I'd never hold the Huns back that long.' Smiling, he looked round the circle of faces. ‘So, gentlemen, unless anyone's got a better plan I suggest we open the games. Bucinator, sound the advance.'

The trumpeter put his lips to the mouthpiece of his circular instrument and blew a series of sonorous blasts. The Hun horsemen trotted forwards: squat, powerfully built men with flat Asiatic faces, dressed in filthy skins and mounted on ugly but tough-looking brutes; each man carried a short recurved bow and densely packed quiver. Titus watched in awe as they flowed round the hillock on which the Romans stood, and rolled across the ground between the armies in an accelerating tide which seemed to extend to the horizon on either hand.

Despite their lack of formal organization, the Huns behaved as though animated by a collective will. In a precise cavalry manoeuvre which equalled anything a crack Roman
ala
could perform, the riders in the van broke right and left when a hundred paces from the East Roman front, then galloped parallel to the enemy, discharging dense clouds of arrows. Their place was immediately taken by the next wave of archers, so that the scene resolved itself into two vast whirlpools of horsemen revolving in front of the static ranks of Aspar's cavalry. The expression ‘the sky darkened with arrows' Titus had previously dismissed as exaggeration. Now he saw that it was true.

After about an hour, the Huns withdrew out of bowshot to breathe their horses, and the results of the encounter could be observed. They were unimpressive. Judging from the windrows of shafts scattered to their fore, the Hun arrows had bounced harmlessly off the armour of the Eastern heavy cavalry. Elsewhere, the barrage seemed to have been mainly absorbed by the centre's bucklers, which now resembled giant hedgehogs. On Aspar's side, casualties were light: here and there a fallen horse or rider, with a trickle of wounded filtering back to the field hospital. Lacking armour or shields, the Huns had come
off worse, the row of corpses marking the line of their attacking van testimony to the efficacy of the Eastern horse archers. Now, at the start of May, it was still too early in the year for the Huns' grass-fed horses to be in peak condition, especially as the wetlands of the Po basin yielded scant pasture for fodder. The East Romans, on the other hand, had enough grain in their supply wagons to keep their horses fit and in the field for a long period.

‘This is no good,' said Aetius, sounding remarkably unperturbed. ‘As long as Aspar holds that formation, we could keep on charging him all day and get nowhere.' He raised his hands in mock supplication. ‘Ideas, gentlemen. Give me ideas. Well, come on – I'm waiting.'

‘Surely sir,' volunteered a grizzled duke, ‘if we kept on attacking, we'd wear them down eventually, even if it meant heavy losses on our side. The Huns being so many, you'd scarcely feel the difference.'

‘Brilliant, Marcus, quite brilliant,' responded Aetius with affectionate sarcasm. He clapped the veteran on the shoulder. ‘Huns aren't Romans, you old dunderhead. You can't tell them what to do. They want immediate results, and if they don't get them they pretty soon lose interest. And then handling them becomes a major problem. We Romans may think of them as
ballista
-fodder, but I suspect your average Hun takes a rather different view. Their horses are in poor condition, remember. I don't know how many charges they've got left in them; not a lot, I should guess.' He looked round the group expectantly. ‘Any other suggestions?'

There was a silence, which began to stretch out uncomfortably, when Titus suddenly found himself speaking. ‘If there were only some way to take them in the rear, sir. I know those marshes on their flanks
look
impenetrable, but if we could find a way through . . .?' He broke off self-consciously, realizing that, as possibly the most junior person present, he might be speaking out of turn. ‘My father pulled off something on those lines at Pollentia,' he pressed on gamely, ‘against Alaric's Goths.'

‘And saved the day for Flavius Stilicho, as I recall,' added Aetius approvingly. ‘Full marks, young Titus. I was about to make the same suggestion. The Huns are at their deadliest when they can outflank an enemy, so it's definitely worth a try. Right, we'll make
a reconnaissance. Groom, saddle Bucephalus. Titus, Victorinus, mount up. Marcus, keep the Huns in leash till I get back.'

‘Right, let's head for home,' Aetius said to his two companions. He dashed sweat from his face. ‘At least we tried.'

Making a wide circuit to the enemy's right flank, they had managed, with considerable difficulty, to pick a passage through the mosquito-ridden hell of the swamp, eventually emerging on firmer ground several miles to the rear of Aspar's lines. What had been just feasible for a tiny party was clearly impossible for a large body of horsemen.

‘Sir, look!' exclaimed Victor, a normally phlegmatic Batavian youth. He pointed to four horsemen in the distance, probably an Eastern scouting-party. Three, judging by their javelins and small round shields, were light horse, while the fourth had no shield and so was probably a heavy cavalrymen to stiffen the patrol. Spotting the West Romans, the four immediately spurred to intercept them.

‘Run for it, lads,' ordered Aetius.

As the three urged their mounts to a gallop, they were presented with a dilemma. They could only hope to outdistance their pursuers by keeping to the firm ground away from the marsh. But this course must eventually bring them dangerously close to Aspar's lines. The problem was resolved unexpectedly.

The chase had continued for some time, with the West Romans beginning to draw away, when a cry from Victor in the rear made the other two pull up. Encountering a swampy patch, he had become mired. He had dismounted and was tugging desperately at the bridle, but the horse had sunk almost to the hocks and was stuck fast.

‘Leave it!' shouted Aetius, racing back accompanied by Titus. Reining in close to the edge of the bright green surface of the bog, he leapt to the ground and extended a hand towards Victor, now himself in some difficulty.

‘Ride on, sir,' urged Victor. ‘Don't put yourself at risk. I'll give myself up.'

‘Don't be a fool,' snapped the general. ‘They'll kill you; cavalry never take prisoners.'

Victor struggled to the edge of the morass, grasped the general's hand and was hauled clear.

‘Get up behind me,' ordered Aetius, grabbing his horse's mane and swinging himself into the saddle. But as the young Batavian reached for a rear saddle-horn, a javelin came arcing through the air and struck him in the back. He gave a choked cry, blood gushed from his mouth, and he crumpled to the ground.

The delay had allowed the pursuit to close. The leading three were only yards away, the fourth, the heavy cavalryman, some distance behind.

‘Take the one on the right!' Aetius shouted to Titus, wheeling Bucephalus and charging the other two leaders.

Suddenly, time seemed to slow for Titus. As in a dream, inconsequent details registered on his mind: his opponent's arm still upraised from hurling the missile that had killed Victor; the helmet with its tall crest, nose-guard and huge cheek-pieces giving the man an ancient, almost Homeric appearance; the pair of rampant wolves painted on his shield; his horse's hoofs lifting and falling no faster than a galley's oars.

Then time came back to normal. The two horsemen hurtled towards each other, Titus drawing his sword, a long, cutting
spatha
, while the other plucked another javelin from the leather bucket at his saddle-bow. They passed in a blur of confused movement; Titus hacked, his blade biting air, while the other's javelin flew wide. They wheeled to face each other again, paused briefly to take stock and ready themselves.

Titus, an experienced horseman, noticed signs of restiveness in the enemy's mount: it was shying and fighting the bit. At some stage, horse or rider had lost his nerve, he decided. Probably the rider, whose lack of confidence transferred itself to the animal. The Eastern cavalry had recently seen hard action on the Persian front; some units, if exposed to constant attack by the superb Persian horsemen, would have become demoralized. Trusting that the horse would flinch and spoil its rider's aim, Titus bent low over his own horse's neck and rode straight at his opponent.

Things transpired as he had hoped. Daunted by Titus' direct charge, the enemy's horse reared as its rider flung his weapon – Titus felt the wind of its passage past his cheek as he drove his sword-point into the exposed armpit. A jarring shock travelled up his arm as steel struck bone; then the blade slid deep into yielding flesh. Wrenching his
spatha
free, Titus wheeled, preparing for another clash. No need. Blood spurting from a severed artery,
his adversary swayed in the saddle and slid to the ground. His legs kicked spasmodically, then he lay still.

Turning towards Aetius, Titus saw with dismay that the general was hard pressed. He had dispatched one of his opponents, and was engaged in a sword duel with the other, the closeness of the combat precluding a javelin-throw. The pressing danger came from the fourth cavalryman the armoured
catafractarius
, who was galloping to his comrade's assistance.

With no time to think, scarcely enough to react, Titus spurred towards the monstrous figure bearing down on his commander. The
catafractarius
presented an appalling sight. Every part of his body was covered in metal: limbs encased in laminated bands; hands, feet, and body protected by articulated plates reinforced with chain mail; the spherical helmet completely concealed the face and head, giving the wearer an inhuman appearance. The horse, too, was armoured, its head and chest covered by moulded plates, its body by a housing of metal scales. Couched in the attack position the
catafractarius
held a heavy
kontos
, the deadly twelve-foot spear which could transfix a man like a rabbit on a spit.

Converging on this apparently unstoppable killing-machine, Titus saw that the
catafractarius
was vulnerable in only one place: the narrow gap between helmet and body armour. Knowing that he would have only one chance, he slashed at the gap with all his might. The other's impetus prevented him from swerving to avoid the blow, which landed true. The
spatha
was nearly torn from Titus' grip as the
catafractarius
thundered past, blood jetting from his neck in a crimson spray.

Abandoning valour in favour of discretion, the surviving trooper broke off his fight with Aetius and fled. Meanwhile, the
catafractarius'
horse charged on, then slowed and finally came to a halt, its lifeless rider still upright in the saddle.

‘I owe you my life.' The general grasped Titus by the arm. ‘This I will not forget.'

Titus's mind flashed back eighteen months to when it had all begun . . .

 

1
The ninth hour was mid-afternoon. The Roman day – from sunrise to sunset – was divided into twelve hours, which varied in length according to the season. Midday corresponded to the sixth hour.

ONE

Ill-smelling seven-foot giants with tow hair

Sidonius Apollinaris,
Letters
,
c
. 460

Although it was only October, the wind from the Alpine passes that ruffled the leaden surface of Lacus Brigantinus
1
and roared around the barrack blocks of Spolicinum was bitterly cold and held a hint of snow. The Roman sentries pacing the walkway of the fort's crumbling walls shivered beneath their cloaks and blew on reddened hands gripping spear-shafts. Unlike the tough German mercenaries whose cantonment lay a few hundred yards off beside the lake, not all these men would survive the coming winter. For the Roman element in the increasingly Germanized army tended these days to be drawn from the sweepings of the great estates:
coloni
too puny or infirm to work their farms profitably, and so handed over by their landlords for arrears of rent.

In his tiny office, Titus Valerius Rufinus, the fort's senior clerk, made a swift calculation on his abacus and entered the latest consignment, a cartload of iron pigs and mouflon horn for bow laths, in the codex tagged ‘
Supply
'. Before replacing the bulky record, he removed from its hiding-place at the back of the shelf a scroll bearing the label ‘
Liber Rufinorum
'. He unrolled a foot or two of blank papyrus, weighting it down on his desk with a bronze inkwell and an oil lamp. Then, after checking through the window that the duty tribune wasn't on the prowl, he dipped a reed pen and began to write:

BOOK: Attila
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