Dinner with Attila
Attila the Hun
One of the joys of historical research is connecting with people whose words were written centuries or millennia ago. I experienced this just the other day when I came across the writings of a fifth century Roman chronicler called Priscus. I discovered a story that you simply could not make up. A plot to assassinate Attila the Hun. I was gripped.
The story goes like this.
The year was AD 449. A dashing young army officer, Maximinus, was leading an embassy across the lands south of the Danube, devastated by the Huns, to their camp in the wilds of the Hungarian plains. Little did he know that he’d been set up. He hadn’t been told their Hunnic escort had been bribed to kill Attila. Travelling with him was his friend, Priscus, the future Roman chronicler.
When they reached Attila’s camp in the Hungarian plains, the Hunnic escort showed his loyalty to Attila by revealing the treacherous Roman plot. Attila could have had the Romans impaled on the spot, but when he was told the army officer and his friend were innocent decoys, he took a liking to them. Not only did he spare them, but he was courteous and let them spend a couple of weeks at the Hunnic court, as he went about the business of ruling the Hunnic empire. They were invited to dinners and official functions, and even offered attractive women for the night, which they politely refused. When Priscus got home, he wrote the story of their journey. It instantly became a bestseller. And what he said about Attila was truly fascinating. For he described a charismatic leader who commanded the complete loyalty of his subjects. In one famous passage, he described a dinner in which Attila appeared not as the bloodthirsty tyrant of legend but as a modest and empathetic leader who despised ostentation. “For the other barbarians and for us lavish meals had been prepared, placed on silver trays, but for Attila there was nothing more than meat on a wooden platter. He showed himself moderate in everything else, too. Gold and silver goblets were given to the feasters, but his own cup was wooden. His clothing, too, was frugal, since it cultivated no quality except cleanliness.”
Attila also showed respect for his followers.
“Once everyone was sitting in order, a cupbearer came in and gave Attila a wooden cup of wine. He took it and welcomed the man first in order. After Attila so honoured him, the man rose, and it was not right for him to sit until he sipped from the wooden cup or drank it down and gave it back to the cupbearer. Attila greeted us in like manner.”
Attila also had the last laugh over Theodosius. He sent two Hunnic ambassadors to Constantinople to rebuke the treacherous emperor. They marched into the imperial throne room in front of hundreds of Roman dignitaries. Instead of falling to their feet and crawling to kiss the hem of the emperor’s purple robe as normally required, they walked up to him and threw the bag of gold intended for the would-be assassin at his feet. One of them told Theodosius that this was no way for a slave to treat his master. Then they turned and left. No Roman dared touch them.
Theodosius’ humiliation must have been a spectacle to behold and I’m sure Maximinus and Priscus were there, struggling not to laugh.