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Authors: Ross Laidlaw

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Chapter 31

‘King Chlodio'. Chlodio was the great-grandfather of Clovis (Chlodovec), whose reign was of seminal importance for two reasons: (i) under Clovis, the Franks became the dominant power in Gaul, henceforth to be known as Francia – France; (ii) Clovis' marriage to a Catholic princess led to his, and his people's, conversion from Arianism, which helped to unite Gallo-Romans and Germans in his kingdom.

‘a mighty
'. The warrior society of the early Germans shows remarkable parallels to that of the Highland clans or Border reivers in Scotland, where a successful war-leader would attract a retinue of armed followers who adopted his surname. (The word ‘surname' was coined in the Borders.)

Chapter 32

‘Eratosthenes . . . was said to be able . . . to measure its circumference'. His method was brilliantly simple. By comparison of the sun's relative position at two separate points on the earth's surface (north–south), the angle subtended by the measured distance between these points was calculated. 360 degrees was then divided by this angle and the result multiplied by the distance. This gave a measurement astonishingly close to the modern estimate of 24,000 miles. Pure geometry – pure genius.

Chapter 36

‘To Aegidius, consul for the third time'. Perhaps from the similarity of the names, Gildas is confusing Aegidius with Aetius, to whom the appeal was actually sent. Aegidius at the time was serving under Aetius in Gaul, as was Majorian, the future
emperor. Aegidius was destined to become ‘Master of Soldiers throughout the Gauls'.

‘as the patrol neared Anderida'. Pevensey – Anderida to the Romans – held out until 491. The entry for that year in
The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle
says: ‘In this year Aelle and Cissa besieged Andredesceaster and slew all the inhabitants; there was not even one Briton left alive.'

Chapter 37

‘Constantine rose to the occasion'. As did the emperor – in the only way he knew how. Theodosius led a penitential procession of ten thousand, barefoot, with hymns, icons and relics, to the Hebdomon palace for a great service of supplication.

‘a massively solid, finished piece of work'. And still standing: a tribute to Roman engineering genius – and the terror inspired by Attila. They held firm against all attacks for another thousand years, until finally falling to the Turks in 1453. A contemporary inscription on the Walls commemorates Constantine: ‘
Constantinus ovans haec moenia firma locavit
[Triumphantly, Constantine raised these stout ramparts].' An ambitious reconstruction scheme has recently restored part of the Walls to their original glory.

Chapter 38

‘Attila must surely hesitate before again taking on a Roman army'. The Battle of the Utus was in fact the last occasion when the Huns defeated a Roman army.

Chapter 39

‘a strip of territory south of the Danubius . . . to be ceded to the Huns'. Probably Attila's aim was not to occupy this strip but to create a ‘cleared zone' to facilitate any future re-invasion of Roman territory.

Chapter 40

‘Constantius was bribed to kill me'. For full details of the conspiracy masterminded by Chrysaphius, see Gibbon,
The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire
, Chapter 34.

Chapter 42

‘regiment of
'. Based in Constantinople, the imperial
bodyguard consisted of seven élite cavalry regiments known as
. A select group of forty chosen from their number and known as
, formed the Emperor's personal retinue. Individuals from the
often served as imperial agents, carrying out missions in the provinces.

‘a mountainous plateau between the Pontus Euxinus and the Mare Caspium'. Armenia was the interface for the Roman world's equivalent of ‘the Great Game'. For Afghanistan, read Armenia; for Britain, Rome; for Russia, Persia. After being occupied by other powers for nearly two millennia, from Rome and Persia to Turkey and the Soviet Union, Armenia has at last regained its autonomy.

‘Take your pick'. In the fifth century, it was dawning on the Roman world, especially Constantinople, that theirs was but one state among many: a perception which contrasted with the fourth-century view that Rome comprised the entire civilized world. The weakening of West Rome and its growing divergence from its Eastern partner, the re-emergence of Persia as a formidable power under the Sassanids, the sudden rise of Attila's vast empire: all contributed to the shattering of this comfortable illusion. The new reality is illustrated by the diplomatic missions, in the mid-fifth century, of Olympiodorus of Thebes (in Egypt) to Rome, to Nubia, to the Dnieper – accompanied by a parrot speaking pure Attic Greek.

the conference takes place'. As the Council of Chalcedon, it duly did take place the following year, 451, when the Persian invasion of Armenia also occurred.

‘In the tradition of your Regulus'. Regulus was a Roman consul who, despite knowing the likely consequences to himself, conveyed to the Carthaginians (during the First Punic War) the Senate's rejection of their offers of peace. According to legend, he was then executed after being hideously tortured.

‘Perhaps the time had come for a final trial of strength'. That time did come, though not for many years. The ‘final solution' of the centuries-old conflict between Rome and Persia was to be as cataclysmic as it was unexpected. Early in the seventh century, a ferocious Persian general, Shahrvaraz, overran the southern provinces of the East Roman Empire; but in a series of brilliant campaigns the territory was all recovered by the heroic Emperor Heraclius. Then, without warning, fanatical
Arab armies inspired by the teachings of Muhammad, swarmed out of the south in the 630s, and in a few short years had swallowed up Persia and reduced the East Roman Empire to an Anatolian rump.
Roman Christianity in Africa, Egypt, Palestine, and Syria was permanently replaced by Islam.

Chapter 49

‘On the left flank, the Romans waited'. This was the last great field battle fought by the Roman army in the West. (The Roman troops of Majorian, by the time he became emperor, and – after the collapse of the Western Empire in 476 – those of Syagrius, were virtually private armies.) But even after the end of empire, vestiges of Rome's army lingered on. In 482 a Danubian unit sent to Italy for its final pay instalment; and Procopius writes of soldiers in Frankish service clinging nostalgically to their old legionary structure, complete with standards and traditional Roman uniform. This in the 550s, a century after the Catalaunian Plains. Even in Britain, abandoned by the legions
. 407, units of the
struggled on, until the last of them was wiped out by the Saxon invaders in 491.

Chapter 50

‘we shall establish our supremacy in the most telling manner possible'. It has been said that the Council of Chalcedon (October 451), ‘the accursed Council' to the monophysites, split the East Roman Empire irreparably, ultimately facilitating the Muslim conquest of Egypt, Palestine, and Syria in the seventh century. This is a fallacy. The imperial administration, coupled with the heroic struggle against Attila (and later that of Heraclius against an aggressive Persia), forged a strong, unified, and patriotic state, in which the Emperor, from Marcian onwards, came to be seen as the ‘little father' of his people, and a conscientious arbiter in theological disputes. Although the findings of the Council undoubtedly created strains within the empire, they were never serious enough to harm its fabric.

‘the saint's right arm . . . now rested across the withered chest'. Some places seem to have the property not only of arresting the
process of decay in a corpse, but of preserving the flexibility of muscles and ligaments. A notable example of this is to be found in St Michan's Church, Dublin, where the corpses of (reputed) crusaders have been preserved, their limbs still perfectly pliable, by the moisture-absorbing magnesium limestone of the vault.

Chapter 51

‘news of the King's death'. Following Attila's demise in 453, his German subjects successfully rebelled, and his empire, without Attila's huge personality to hold it together, rapidly disintegrated, leaving no mark on posterity except a memory of slaughter and destruction on an epic scale.

Chapter 52

‘Valentinian approached the apparatus'. For a description of a séance using the type of apparatus described in this chapter, see Ammianus Marcellinus,
The Histories
, Book Two. It bears an uncanny resemblance to a modern séance using a ouija board, or alternatively a circular table with letters of the alphabet round the edge, and a wineglass or tumbler in the centre.

‘the imprisoning of a popular charioteer'. This was carried out by the army commander at Thessalonica, who was then lynched by the mob. As punishment, Theodosius I had seven thousand citizens massacred. In consequence, Ambrose, Archbishop of Milan, refused to admit the Emperor to Mass until he had done penance. A spectacular demonstration of the growing power of the Church, and a harbinger of the medieval doctrine of ‘the Two Swords'. Theodosius kneeling before Ambrose: the image has an eerie parallel to that of Emperor Henry IV of Germany at Canossa, barefoot in the snow before Pope Gregory VII.

Chapter 54

‘a few great villas on the Caelian . . . made to serve as hospices'. One such was the House of the Valerii, which remained derelict and unsaleable for some years after the sack of Rome.

‘the twelve centuries assigned to the lifetime of his city'. 753
is the date generally accepted for the founding of Rome. The twelfth century would then elapse in
447. The Western Empire actually fell in 476. Allowing for some latitude in dating
such a distant event as the founding of the city, the prophecy is uncannily accurate.


‘not only did he save Europe from Asiatic domination'. The consequences of a Hunnish conquest would have been potentially both devastating and permanent. Gibbon cites instances where whole tracts of Central Asia were reduced in a few years to uninhabitable deserts by invading nomads, whose destruction of forests, irrigation, and infrastructure had effects which lasted for centuries if not permanently.

‘From it developed European medieval civilization'. The building-blocks of medieval Christendom were already in process of formation by the time of the late empire. Feudalism: protection in return for service – was concomitant with a breakdown of security, with powerful landlords recruiting bands of armed retainers, or
, and peasant labour from
fleeing barbarians or rapacious Roman tax officials. The Germans' sense of honour, love of fighting, and respect for women, provided the germ from which the medieval Code of Chivalry would one day develop. And the Church Militant, with its doctrine of the Two Swords, was beginning to flex its muscles under Theodosius the Great – himself forced to kneel in supplication before Ambrose, and do penance for his sins. Shades of England's Henry II after Becket's murder.


The Balkans had already been virtually lost to the Avars, a warrior people from the Steppes.

BOOK: Attila
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