Saturday, March 1, 2014

Attila and the Great Wall

One might say that time is a river and that its banks are human memory; time is always ungraspably mobile; memory is static. To mark when one era begins, we fix on some event and establish its date. When did the Middle Ages start and end? The markers on the solid ground of memory are 476 for its beginning. In that year a Germanic soldier, Flavius Odoacer, seized Ravenna; that city was then the capital of the Western Roman Empire. He deposed a teen-aged emperor (long story), aged around 16, named Romulus Augustus. Odoacer then formed a short-lived Kingdom of Italy; it lasted 17 years. The first date is chosen because, in 476, the Western Roman Empire came to an end, not with a bang but a whimper. That still left the Eastern Roman Empire, also known as the Byzantine Empire, named after Byzantium, its capital, which later became Constantinople. The end of the Middle Ages, in a similar (and thus arbitrary) manner, is marked by the more decisive end of the Byzantine rule. In 1453, Ottoman forces stormed and took Constantinople and renamed it Istanbul.

Now the Middle Ages endure, based on these datings, for 977 years. But since the arbitrary setting of memory-markers is obviously permissible, we could redress this rather ugly number by dating the Middle Ages from 453; that would give us a 1000 year duration; but what would make that year memorable enough to serve our purposes? Well, Attila the Hun died that year. And we could relate it back to Ravenna ourselves; in 452, during Attila’s last campaign, he attempted to take that city but fell short. Then he died. And very soon after that the Hunnish empire, which was then centered in Hungary—and Attila lived quite near to Budapest except when off on his usual business of conquest—ended.

The Middle Ages, to be sure, are remembered for barbaric invasions (or migrations). You know. The Goths and the Vandals. The Huns are not usually mentioned because—well, the Middle Ages hadn’t started yet, officially, until after Attila’s flood had once again retreated. But a more disorderly but true picture, time’s picture rather than memory’s, emerges when we contemplate that barbaric migrations or people’s migrations, the Völkerwanderungen in German, had not only far pre-dated the Roman Empire’s demise; they also caused Attila’s arrival. Which is the subject here. Germanic tribes had begun incursions from the Nordic reaches of Europe southward in BC times—moving along coasts or rivers. They had many names of which Celts, Angles, Saxons, Franks, Goths, and Vandals survive. Gaius Marius (in 102-100 BC) and Julius Caesar (some 50 years later) battled such incursions—to name but two of many other Roman generals who spent time controlling the Völkerwanderungen. While the Empire was strong, these thrusts were deflected. When it weakened, they penetrated. And these movements were on a large scale extending far to the east. The Goths, for instance, occupied what is Hungary today when Attila arrived.

The graphic I show here depicts these migrations during the middle ages. Here you see barbarians essentially covering Europe with lines of advance as far as Africa. The scissors represent decisive battle in which the advance was stopped. Note that the Hunnish line, in green, is but one of many and, on this map extending over 500 years, seemingly simultaneous. But the truth is that most of these lines were formed in the last 200 years. No doubt they would have formed, Attila or no Attila. But Attila’s advance acted as a major stimulus—by displacing peoples and demonstrating to them the effectiveness of such incursions into a dying empire’s corpse.

The picture also—as all abbreviations tend to do—distorts what actually happened. The invaders did not displace the populations they ruled for brief or for extended times. They overlaid them and produced a new ruling class in the process—much as the Norman invasion of England did in much later times. They both overlaid and they were absorbed. They assimilated the Christian cultures, caused the languages to blend, and learned the arts, absent in their skill-set, of producing lasting institutions.

But what about Attila himself? He was, after all—based on our current conceptions—a European. He was born in what is now Hungary around about 406 by common consensus. The Huns had already invaded the regions of the lower Danube and displaced the Goths. His own personal conquests were the Balkans—and excursions into France—as far as Orléans—repelled by the Battle of Chalons (451). The triumphal entry into Europe was the work of his uncles, Octar and Rugila; the Huns were ruled by a diarchy; Attila himself, when he took power in 434, initially ruled with his brother, Bleda. Bleda died around 445—or he was murdered by Attila, which is the popular version. But then our sources are Attila’s opponents.

In those days, of course, and certainly among the not-yet-civilized, you were a member of a tribe above all. The place where you were born was incidental. Attila was a Hun, not a Pannonian (to use the old name for that territory). But how did he come to be there. The memory marker for that is the year 89 and its place Mongolia.

The Xiongnu (or Hiung-nu), as the Chinese called a large empire of the Huns centered on Mongolia—they were horse people, so-called (e.g., Tolkien’s Rohirrim) living on the Eurasian Steppe—had initially caused, in defense against their devastating raids to the south, China to build and then to extend its Great Wall. This threat eventually concentrated the Han Dynasty (206 BC-220 AD) enough, in its late stages, to mount a major attack on the Huns in Mongolia; China effectively ejected them from their steppes; they moved south  and West (as shown in the inset map). The decisive battle fought took place in 89 AD. One large element of Huns moved directly west and settled along the Ural River which runs through Kazakhstan. And from there elements of the Hunnish population began to move further west around 158 AD; and it was this element that carried Attila’s genes into the valley of the Danube.

My last map for this session on the Middle Ages (may it become a series) shows the path of the Hunnish advance across territory which we now call Kazakhstan, Russia, and the Ukraine.

The map is in German but should not present too many problems. An additional arrow, pointing down from the last strand, which ends in Orléans in France, could be put it indicating Attila’s brief incursion into Italy, aimed at Ravenna but not quite reaching it.

That yellow snake, originating somewhere in the year 158, shows the force—set in motion by the Chinese about 70 years before—that genuinely energized the Völkerwanderungen in Europe; and those migrations, in turn, gave birth to the Middle ages in 453 the year Attila had died. Between that time and the end of the Middle Ages, three other call them Hunnish-type invasions visited Europe: the Avars, Genghis Khan, and the Ottomans. Of these only the last managed to establish a stable empire. It takes a very long time for a horse-people living on endless steppes to learn the arts of institution building. The Ottomans knew how to do that. The earlier attempts all failed—except to provide stimulus for the development of Christendom.
Picture credits: Invasions of the Roman Empire, Wikipedia (link);  Map of Hunnish Invasions, Timeline of World History (link); and Map of Hun Migration, Wikipedia (link).

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