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Attila the Hun

The Ostrogoths were originally a subject allied tribe of the Huns and participated in the initial wrecking of the Roman Empire during the Hun invasions.

The Ostrogoths under the Huns--The three royal brothers--Attila king of the Huns--He menaces the Eastern Empire--He strikes at Gaul--Battle of the Catalaunian plains--Invasion of Italy--Destruction of Aquileia--Death of Attila and disruption of his Empire--Settlement of the Ostrogoths in Pannonia.


For eighty years the power of the Ostrogoths suffered eclipse under the shadow of Hunnish barbarism. As to this period we have little historical information that is of any value. We hear of resistance to the Hunnish supremacy vainly attempted and sullenly abandoned. The son and the grandson of Hermanric figure as the shadowy heroes of this vain resistance. After the death of the latter (King Thorismund) a strange story is told us of the nation mourning his decease for forty years, during all which time they refused to elect any other king to replace him whom they had lost. There can be little doubt that this legend veils the prosaic fact that the nation, depressed and dispirited under the yoke of the conquering Huns, had not energy or patriotism enough to choose a king; since almost invariably among the Teutons of that age, kingship and national unity flourished or faded together.

At length, towards the middle of the fifth century after Christ, the darkness is partially dispelled, and we find the Ostrogothic nation owning the sovereignty of three brothers sprung from the Amal race, but not direct descendants of Hermanric, whose names are Walamir, Theudemir, and Widemir. "Beautiful it was", says the Gothic historian, "to behold the mutual affection of these three brothers, when the admirable Theudemir served like a common soldier under the orders of Walamir; when Walamir adorned him with the crown at the same time that he conveyed to him his orders; when Widemir gladly rendered his services to both of his brothers".[9] Theudemir, the second in this royal brotherhood, was the father of our hero, Theodoric.

[Footnote 9: This is a partly paraphrastic and conjectural translation of a very obscure sentence of Jordanes.]

The three Ostrogothic brethren, kings towards their own countrymen, were subjects--almost, we might say, servants--of the wide-ruling king of the Huns, who was now no longer one of those forgotten chiefs by whom the conquering tribe had been first led into Europe, but ATTILA, a name of fear to his contemporaries and long remembered in the Roman world. He, with his brother Bleda, mounted the barbarian throne in the year 433, and after twelve years the death of Bleda (who was perhaps murdered by order of his brother) left Attila sole wielder of the forces which made him the terror of the world. He dwelt in rude magnificence in a village not far from the Danube, and his own special dominions seem to have pretty nearly corresponded with the modern kingdom of Hungary. But he held in leash a vast confederacy of nations--Teutonic, Sclavonic, and what we now call Turanian,--whose territories stretched from the Rhine to the Caucasus, and he is said to have made "the isles of the Ocean", which expression probably denotes the islands and peninsulas of Scandinavia, subject to his sway. Neither, however, over the Ostrogoths nor over any of the other subject nations included in this vast dominion are we to think of Attila's rule as an organised, all-permeating, assimilating influence, such as was the rule of a Roman Emperor. It was rather the influence of one great robber-chief over his freebooting companions. The kings of the Ostrogoths and Gepidæ came at certain times to share the revelries of their lord in his great log-palace on the Danubian plain; they received his orders to put their subjects in array when he would ride forth to war, and woe was unto them if they failed to stand by his side on the day of battle; but these things being done, they probably ruled their own peoples with little interference from their over-lord. The Teutonic members of the confederacy, notably the Ostrogoths and the kindred tribe of Gepidæ seem to have exercised upon the court and the councils of Attila an influence not unlike that wielded by German statesmen at the court of Russia during the last century. The Huns, during their eighty years of contact with Europe, had lost a little of that utter savageness which they brought with them from the Tartar deserts. If they were not yet in any sense civilised, they could in some degree appreciate the higher civilisation of their Teutonic subjects. A Pagan himself, with scarcely any religion except some rude cult of the sword of the war-god, Attila seems never to have interfered in the slightest degree with the religious practices of the Gepidæ or the Ostrogoths, the large majority of whom were by this time Christians, holding the Arian form of faith. And not only did he not discourage the finer civilisation which he saw prevailing among these German subjects of his, but he seems to have had statesmanship enough to value and respect a culture which he did not share, and especially to have prized the temperate wisdom of their chiefs, when they helped him to array his great host of barbarians for war against the Empire.

From his position in Central Europe, Attila, like Alaric before him, was able to threaten either the Eastern or the Western Empire at pleasure. For almost ten years (440-450) he seemed to be bent on picking a quarrel with Theodosius II., the feeble and unwarlike prince who reigned at Constantinople. He laid waste the provinces south of the Danube with his desolating raids; he worried the Imperial Court with incessant embassies, each more exacting and greedy than the last (for the favour of the rude Hunnish envoy had to be purchased by large gifts from the Imperial Treasury); he himself insisted on the payment of yearly stipendia by the Emperor; he constantly demanded that these payments should be doubled; he openly stated that they were nothing else than tribute, and that the Roman Augustus who paid them was his slave.

These practices were continued until, in the year 450 the gentle Theodosius died. He was succeeded by his sister Pulcheria and her husband Marcian, who soon gave a manlier tone to the counsels of the Eastern Empire. Attila marked the change and turned his harassing attentions to the Western State, with which he had always a sufficient number of pretexts for war ready for use. In fact he had made up his mind for war, and no concessions, however humiliating, on the part of Valentinian III., the then Emperor of the West, would have availed to stay his progress. Not Italy however, to some extent protected by the barrier of the Alps, but the rich cities and comparatively unwasted plains of Gaul attracted the royal freebooter. Having summoned his vast and heterogeneous army from every quarter of Central and North-eastern Europe, and surrounded himself by a crowd of subject kings, the captains of his host, he set forward in the spring of 451 for the lands of the Rhine. The trees which his soldiers felled in the great Hercynian forest of Central Germany were fashioned into rude rafts or canoes, on which they crossed the Rhine; and soon the terrible Hun and his "horde of many-nationed spoilers" were passing over the regions which we now call Belgium and Lorraine in a desolating stream. The Huns, not only barbarians, but heathens, seem in this invasion to have been animated by an especial hatred to Christianity. Many a fair church of Gallia Belgica was laid in ashes: many a priest was slain before the altar, whose sanctity was vain for his protection. The real cruelties thus committed are wildly exaggerated by the mythical fancy of the Middle Ages, and upon the slenderest foundations of historical fact arose stately edifices of fable, like the story of the Cornish Princess Ursula, who with her eleven thousand virgin companions was fabled to have suffered death at the hands of the Huns in the city of Cologne.

The barbarian tide was at length arrested by the strong walls of Orleans, whose stubborn defence saved all that part of Gaul which lies within the protecting curve of the Loire from the horrors of their invasion. At midsummer Attila and his host were retiring from the untaken city, and beginning their retreat towards the Rhine, a retreat which they were not to accomplish unhindered. The extremity of the danger from these utterly savage foes had welded together the old Empire and the new Gothic kingdom, the civilised and the half-civilised power, in one great confederacy, for the defence of all that was worth saving in human society. The tidings of the approach of the Gothic king had hastened the departure of Attila from the environs of Orleans, and, perhaps about a fortnight later, the allied armies of Romans and Goths came up with the retreating Huns in "the Catalaunian plains" not far from the city of Troyes. The general of the Imperial army was Aëtius; the general and king of the Visigoths was Theodoric, a namesake of our hero. Both were capable and valiant soldiers. On the other side, conspicuous among the subject kings who formed the staff of Attila, were the three Ostrogothic brethren, and Ardaric, king of the Gepidæ. The loyalty of Walamir, the firm grasp with which he kept his master's secrets, and Ardaric's resourcefulness in counsel were especially prized by Attila. And truly he had need of all their help, for, though it is difficult to ascertain with any degree of accuracy the numbers actually engaged (162,000 are said to have fallen on both sides), it is clear that this was a collision of nations rather than of armies, and that it required greater skill than any that the rude Hunnish leader possessed, to win the victory for his enormous host. After "a battle ruthless, manifold, gigantic, obstinate, such as antiquity never described when she told of warlike deeds, such as no man who missed the sight of that marvel might ever hope to have another chance of beholding",[10] night fell upon the virtually defeated Huns. The Gothic king had lost his life, but Attila had lost the victory. All night long the Huns kept up a barbarous dissonance to prevent the enemy from attacking them, but their king's thoughts were of suicide. He had prepared a huge funeral pyre, on which, if the enemy next day successfully attacked his camp, he was determined to slay himself amid the kindled flames, in order that neither living nor dead the mighty Attila might fall into the hands of his enemies. These desperate expedients, however, were not required. The death of Theodoric, the caution of Aëtius, some jealousy perhaps between the Roman and the Goth, some anxiety on the part of the eldest Gothic prince as to the succession to his father's throne,--all these causes combined to procure for Attila a safe but closely watched return into his own land.

[Footnote 10: These are the words of the Gothic historian, Jordanes.]

The battle of the Catalaunian plains (usually but not quite correctly called the battle of Châlons) was a memorable event in the history of the Gothic race, of Europe, and of the world. It was a sad necessity which on this one occasion arrayed the two great branches of the Gothic people, the Visigoths under Theodoric, and the Ostrogoths under Walamir, in fratricidal strife against each other. For Europe the alliance between Roman and Goth, between the grandson of Theodosius, Emperor of Rome, and the successor of Alaric, the besieger of Rome, was of priceless value and showed that the great and statesmanlike thought of Ataulfus was ripening in the minds of those who came after him. For the world, yes even for us in the nineteenth century, and for the great undiscovered continents beyond the sea, the repulse of the squalid and unprogressive Turanian from the seats of the old historic civilisation, was essential to the preservation of whatever makes human life worth living. Had Attila conquered on the Catalaunian plains, an endless succession of Jenghiz Khans and Tamerlanes would probably have swept over the desolated plains of Europe; Paris and Florence would have been even as Khiva and Bokhara, and the island of Britain would not have yet attained to the degree of civilisation reached by the peninsula of Corea.

In the year after the fruitless invasion of Gaul, Attila crossed the Julian Alps and entered Italy, intending (452) doubtless to rival the fame of Alaric by his capture of Rome, an operation which would have been attended with infinitely greater ruin to

"the seven-hilled city's pride",

than any which she had sustained at the hands of the Visigothic leader. But the Huns, unskilful in siege work, were long detained before the walls of Aquileia, that great and flourishing frontier city, hitherto deemed impregnable, which gathered in the wealth of the Venetian province, and guarded the north-eastern approaches to Italy. At length by a sudden assault they made themselves masters of the city, which they destroyed with utter destruction, putting all the inhabitants to the sword, and then wrapping in fire and smoke the stately palaces, the wharves, the mint, the forum, the theatres of the fourth city of Italy. The terror of this brutal destruction took from the other cities of Venetia all heart for resistance to the terrible invader. From Concordia, Altino, Padua, crowds of trembling fugitives walked, waded, or sailed with their hastily gathered and most precious possessions to the islands, surrounded by shallow lagoons, which fringed the Adriatic coast, near the mouths of the Brenta and Adige. There at Torcello, Burano, Rialto, Malamocco, and their sister islets, they laid the humble foundations of that which was one day to be the gorgeous and wide-ruling Republic of Venice.

Attila meanwhile marched on through the valley of the Po ravaging and plundering, but a little slackening in the work of mere destruction, as the remembrance of the stubborn defence of Aquileia faded from his memory. Entering Milan as a conqueror, and seeing there a picture representing the Emperors of the Romans sitting on golden thrones, and the Scythian barbarians crouching at their feet, he sought out a Milanese painter, and bade the trembling artist represent him, Attila, sitting on the throne, and the two Roman Emperors staggering under sacks full of gold coin, which they bore upon their shoulders, and pouring out their precious contents at his feet.

This little incident helps us to understand the next strange act in the drama of Attila's invasion. To enjoy the luxury of humbling the great Empire, and of trampling on the pride of her statesmen, seems to have been the sweetest pleasure of his life. This mere gratification of his pride, the pride of an upstart barbarian, at the expense of the inheritors of a mighty name and the representatives of venerable traditions, was the object which took him into Italy, rather than any carefully prepared scheme of worldwide conquest. Accordingly when that august body, the Senate of Rome, sent a consul, a prefect, and more than all a pope, the majestic and fitly-named Leo, to plead humbly in the name of the Roman people for peace, and to promise acquiescence at some future day in the most unreasonable of his demands, Attila granted the ambassadors an interview by the banks of the Mincio, listened with haughty tranquillity to their petition, allowed himself to be soothed and, as it were, magnetised by the words and gestures of the venerable pontiff, accepted the rich presents which were doubtless laid at his feet, and turning his face homewards recrossed the Julian Alps, leaving the Apennines untraversed and Rome unvisited.

Even in the act of granting peace Attila used words which showed that it would be only a truce, and that (452) if there were any failure to abide by any one of his conditions, he would return and work yet greater mischief to Italy than any which she had yet suffered at his hands. But he had missed the fateful moment, and the delight of standing on the conquered Palatine, and seeing the smoke ascend from the ruined City of the World, was never to be his. In the year after his invasion of Italy he died suddenly at night, apparently the victim of the drunken debauch with which the polygamous barbarian had celebrated the latest addition to the numerous company of his wives.

With Attila's death the might of the Hunnish Empire was broken. The great robber-camp needed the ascendancy of one strong chief-robber to hold it together, and that ascendancy no one of the multitudinous sons who emerged from the chambers of his harem was able to exert. Unable to agree as to the succession of the throne, they talked of dividing the Hunnish dominions between them, and in the discussions which ensued they showed too plainly that they looked upon the subject nations as their slaves, to be partitioned as a large household of such domestics would be partitioned among the heirs of their dead master. The pride of the Teutons was touched, and they determined to strike a blow for the recovery of their lost freedom. Ardaric, king of the Gepidæ, so long the trusty counsellor of Attila, was prime mover in the revolt against his sons. A battle was fought by the banks of the river Nedao[11] between the Huns (with those subject allies who still remained faithful to them) and the revolted nations.

[Footnote 11: Situation unknown, except that it was in Pannonia, that is, probably in Hungary, somewhere between the Save and the Danube.]

Among these revolted nations there can be but little doubt that the Ostrogoths held a high place, though the matter is not so clearly stated as we should have expected, by the Gothic historian, and even on his showing the glory of the struggle for independence was mainly Ardaric's. After a terrible battle the Gepidæ were victorious, and Ellak, eldest son of Attila, with, it is said, thirty thousand of his soldiers, lay dead upon the field. "He had wrought a great slaughter of his enemies, and so glorious was his end", says Jordanes, "that his father might well have envied him his manner of dying".

The battle of Nedao, whatever may have been the share of the Ostrogoths in the actual fighting, certainly brought them freedom. From this time the great Hunnish Empire was at an end, and there was a general resettlement of territory among the nations which had been subject to its yoke. While the Huns themselves, abandoning their former habitations, moved, for the most part, down the Danube, and became the humble servants of the Eastern Empire, the Gepidæ, perhaps marching southward occupied the great Hungarian plains on the left bank of the Danube, which had been the home of Attila and his Huns; and the Ostrogoths going westwards (perhaps with some dim notion of following their Visigothic kindred) took up their abode in that which had once been the Roman province of Pannonia, now doubtless known to be hopelessly lost to the Empire.

Pannonia, the new home of the Ostrogoths, was the name of a region, rectangular in shape, about two hundred miles from north to south and one hundred and sixty miles from east to west, whose northern and eastern sides were washed by the river Danube, and whose north-eastern corner was formed by the sudden bend to the south which that river makes, a little above Buda-Pest. This region includes Vienna and the eastern part of the Archduchy of Austria, Grätz, and the eastern part of the Duchy of Styria, but it is chiefly composed of the great corn-growing plain of Western Hungary, and contains the two considerable lakes of Balaton and Neusiedler See. Here then the three Ostrogothic brethren took up their abode, and of this province they made a kind of rude partition between them, while still treating it as one kingdom, of which Walamir was the head. The precise details of this division of territory cannot now be recovered,[12] nor are they of much importance, as the settlement was of short duration. We can only say that Walamir and Theudemir occupied the two ends of the territory, and Widemir dwelt between them. What is most interesting to us is the fact that Theudemir's territory included Lake Balaton (or Platten See), and that his palace may very possibly have stood upon the shores of that noble piece of water, which is forty-seven miles in length and varies from three to nine miles in width. To the neighbourhood of this lake, in the absence of more precise information, we may with some probability assign the birth-place and the childish home of Theodoric.[13]

[Illustration: Graphic element.]

[Footnote 12: Jordanes (Getica) says: "Valamer inter Scarniungam et Aquam Nigram fluvios, Thiudimer juxta lacum Pelsois, Vidimer inter utrosque manebat". It seems to be hopeless to determine what rivers are denoted by "Scarniunga" and "Aqua Nigra".]

[Footnote 13: Of course the location of Theudemir's palace on the actual shore of Lake Balaton can only be treated as a conjecture, but the pointed way in which Jordanes, in the passage last quoted, speaks of him as "juxta lacuna Pelsois", seems to make the conjecture a probable one. Some geographers have identified Pelso Lacus with the Neusiedler See, but apparently on insufficient grounds.]






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