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Was Attila the Hun a Military Genius?

Review of E.A. Thompson's The Huns


The Huns

The Huns


The Huns
By E. A. Thompson
Blackwell: 1999
256 pages
ISBN: 0631214437

In 1948, when E.A. Thompson wrote The Huns, he took two idiosyncratic stances: One, that he would not take sides in the debate over the possible Chinese origins of the nomadic people commonly associated with the Fall of Rome. Two, that Attila was a diplomatic bungler and military leader whose victories only came when there was no real opposition.

We have only limited information about the Huns, whose period of importance spanned a century from A.D. 370-470, but we do have fragments from one eye witness, Priscus. Surprisingly, in the first chapter of The Huns, which is a summary of available resources, Thompson presents not Priscus, but Ammianus Marcellinus (A.D. 390) as the most credible early source.

Although the sources spin fabulous tales of the superhuman monsters known as Huns, Thompson distills the hyperbole to portray them as poor, hungry, small bands of equestrians. What clothing the women pieced together from animal skins was never removed until it fell to pieces. Contrary to contemporary standards, Hunnish women mingled freely with strangers and widows even acted as leaders of local bands. Hardly a great nation, they battled amongst themselves as often as with outsiders, and were as likely to fight for as against an enemy -- since such employment offered unaccustomed luxury.

A major societal shift occurred when Attila emerged as leader of the entire empire of Huns. But that's a far cry from calling him capable. Instead, Thompson shows him as a:

"diplomatic bungler who, when invading the West in 451, managed to cause a whole series of initially disunited enemies to combine against him. More than that, most of his military victories came when there was no opposition worth talking about."

Peter Heather's afterword summarizes the half-century of research since the 1948 edition of this classic. Controversies have not been resolved. Despite Thompson's iconoclasm, Attila is still enshrined in popular imagination as a conqueror in the same league with Genghis Khan.

Full of data and examples, The Huns shows the barbarian scourge from a sympathetic, non-Roman perspective. In the end, even if you still believe Attila was a military and diplomatic genius, you'll understand how a century of Hunnish progress paved the way.

The Huns

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Attila and Review of The Huns by E.A. Thompson
This feature is copyright © 1999-2009 N.S. Gill.

Forum Comment on Attila the Hun Movie

"Well, I did it again - I rented a stupid history movie based solely on the blurbs on the box. When you see Attila on the shelf down at your local Hollywood Video, don't even think of renting it. It was truly awful, in every sense of the word. The city of Rome scenery looked just like a bunch of flats made by a high school stage crew for West Side Story. The acting was on about the same level. A total unknown who looked like Fabio with black hair played Attila, and he never missed an opportunity to undress. The orgy scenes (yes, there were orgy scenes) were exactly what your average junior high kid would imagine. And, regardless of what you may think about the Pope's role in saving the city and the empire, neither the Pope or even the Church are mentioned anytime during the movie."

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