Sunday, September 03, 2006

Book "review"

The Huns by E. A. Thompson, edited by Peter Heather, is a revised reissue of the 1948 book A History of Attila and the Huns. Heather minimally revised the book based on the wishes of Professor Thompson, who died at a very advanced age during the time of revision. Hence the book shows some old-fashioned characteristics, for example a concentration on the (fragmentary) literary sources at the expense of archaeology. In 1948 there was next to no archaeology to illuminate the Huns. Today this is no longer true, but Heather chose minimal revision rather than complete revision, and points the reader to new sources in his very extensive Afterword.

One of the objectives of the book is to show that Attila was not a genius, certainly not a military genius, and that the Hun empire existed before Attila, and could have existed thereafter (as did the empire of Genghis Khan). Attila died prematurely, however, leaving many sons, and the Hun empire soon fell apart.

Reading a book this detailed is not generally necessary for games as broad as Britannia and its ilk. I do learn many details that aren't so clear in books of broader scope. For example, I knew that Aetius, the patrician who defended (and dominated) the West Roman Empire for more than two decades, was a friend of the Huns, and used the Huns to prop up the empire despite the crippling loss of Africa to the Vandals in 429. I had not realized that he was a more or less lifelong enemy of the Visigoths, who had settled in southwestern France after sacking Rome in 410. The biggest criticism of Attila is that he managed to fight his friend Aetius, and force Aetius into alliance with his lifelong enemy the Visigoths, at the Catalaunian Fields in 451. While exactly what happened during the battle is unknown, the Huns withdrew afterward.

Thompson and Heather don't spend much time on the Huns before or after Attila's death, but there's more detail here, again, then I've had from broader histories. The Huns didn't just disappear, even after their defeat in 454 by the Gepids. "Huns" were in the Balkans for many decades thereafter (one can trace partial histories of some of Attila's sons), though one of the problems we have is that the word "Huns" became a generic word for steppe barbarians.

The Peoples of Europe series, Blackwell, 1999. I bought a used copy through Amazon.

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