Thursday, March 23, 2017

"Romans are easily killed in war because they rely on others for safety" ~ Priscus and the notion of Romans voluntarily becoming Huns

The Roman Embassy to Attila by Cecilia Lawrence.
Priscus is one of the men in the background.
Yesterday, an interesting article appeared in the Daily Mail with a slightly revisionist take on Attila and his Huns, carrying the headline: How Roman farmers deserted the Empire's modern charms for the simple life of the cone-headed Huns. A similar article also appeared in the Washington Post yesterday entitled: Ancient Romans depicted Huns as barbarians. Their bones tell a different story.

The premise presented in the article is that some Roman frontier farmers voluntarily gave up their status as Roman citizens to join the Huns because of "a more relaxed lifestyle and tastier diet." The article cites Dr. Susanne Hakenbeck from Cambridge University’s Department of Archaeology who says: "Far from being a clash of cultures, alternating between lifestyles may have been an insurance policy in unstable political times."

I don't doubt that Dr. Hakenbeck's opinion has been simplified for publication in the Daily Mail and WaPo and admittedly, I have not yet read her article in PLOS. But what is not explained in the news articles is that those living in the frontier provinces of Pannonia, Illyricum and Thrace in the 4th through 6th centuries AD were a mish-mash of Romans, Greeks, native Thracians, and various fully and semi-civilized former barbarians including Goths, Alans, Heruls, and others. All of these Germanic tribes were very familiar with the Huns, having been pushed by them out of the central Asian steppe in the mid-4th century AD. Indeed, much of Atilla's patchwork empire was peopled by these subject tribes. Thus, it would not be surprising that a Gothic farmer from Thrace (particularly a young man) might become tired of the settled Roman system with its laws and taxes and opt for the "ravage and relax / plunder and party" system favored by the Huns and, incidentally, by the Gothic tribes living outside of the empire at the time.

Later in the article, Dr. Hakenbeck hypothesizes about the possibility that "citizens at the edge of Rome’s empire were drawn to the Hun lifestyle, just as some nomads took to a more settled way of life." She blames the lack of documentary evidence to support this hypothesis on the "bad press" that the Huns received from their more civilized neighbors. While that sounds dangerously like drawing assumptions from a lack of evidence, in fact, Dr. Hakenbeck cites a tantalizing bit of documentation for this trend. She describes an eye-witness account recorded by the 5th century Roman historian, Priscus, with a Roman citizen who lived among the Huns.
"The merchant was freed, but he was enjoying his life there and didn’t want to go back. The Roman emissary tried to persuade him to go back, but the guy said: ‘Why, I don’t have to pay taxes, and I’ve a nice life.’ The merchant also said of the Huns, ‘they live in inactivity, enjoying what they have got, and not at all, or very little, harassed."
Click for more info.
This anecdote is drawn directly from The Fragmentary History of Priscus, a lost ancient history that has been pieced back together centuries later from long quotations that have come down to us in other sources. But perhaps more intriguing than the above statement from this Roman-turned-Hun is the list of grievances that he launches at Priscus with regard to his former country. If one closes his eyes while reading this, these words from 1,600 years ago sound hauntingly like a condemnation of the modern post-Christian West:
"Romans are easily killed because they rely on others for safety. Because of their tyrants, not everyone carries arms, and those who do bear arms are in still more peril due to the cowardice of generals who undermine war efforts. What happens in peace is even more painful than wartime troubles because of the burdensome tribute [tax] collection and unprincipled men’s abuses, since laws are not established equally. If a criminal belongs to the upper class, he does not pay the penalty for injustice; but if he is poor, with no experience in legal affairs, he awaits his penalty under law—unless he loses his life prior to the decision." [Taken from The Fragmentary History of Priscus, pg. 63]
Also left out of the Daily Mail article is how this fascinating conversation wrapped up. Priscus remonstrated with the Roman-turned-Hun and gives an able defense of the Roman system. The man's response to Priscus's words is surprising:
“In tears he said that the laws [of the Romans] were noble and the Roman constitution good, but the rulers, since they do not think like rulers of old, had corrupted it.” [Taken from The Fragmentary History of Priscus, pg. 65]
The tears make this poor fellow sound very much like a victim of Stockholm Syndrome who, as a former captive of the Huns, is now trying to make the best of a bad situation. Priscus tells us that the man was originally a wealthy merchant, but when his city of Viminakion on the Danube came under the control of the Huns, he was stripped of his possessions and given to one of the Hun chieftains as spoils. So this man, at least, didn't migrate to Atilla's empire of his own volition. He was one of the tens or hundreds of thousands of Roman civilians who were swept up by Hun raiding parties as slaves when the Roman defenses along the Danube collapsed in the mid-5th century. Earlier in his history, Priscus describes the scene of Naissos [modern day Niš in Serbia], a large town in Illyricum that was devastated by the Huns in the invasion of AD 441:
"Arriving near Naissos, we found the city bereft of people because it had been overturned by the enemy, though there were some people in the sacred lodgings who were suffering from diseases. We camped a little upriver in a clearing, since the bank was everywhere covered with the bones of war casualties." [Taken from The Fragmentary History of Priscus, pg. 49]
It should be kept in mind that Naissos was just one of the many cities in the Roman Danuban provinces destroyed by Attila. For a full account of the utter annihilation wrought by Attila and his Huns, read The Fragmentary History of Priscus as translated by John Given -- a truly fascinating ancient document.

I salute Dr. Hakenbeck for calling attention to this intriguing and often neglected period of history.

Roman villa in Gaul sacked by the Huns by Georges Rochegrosse (1910)


Evan Schultheis said...

This is a good reply to the author, and it should be remembered that Priscus was often making political or moral commentary on his own time. Much of the dialogue with the merchant may have even been invented.

Evan S.

Florentius said...

That's a fair point and it is true that classicizing historians in antiquity did make up set speeches and put them into the mouths of the great leaders in their histories to make moral points. However, this anecdote from Priscus is different. First, he is not only a first-hand witness to the conversation, he is a participant. Second, he gives the man's background. Third, he supplies a level of detail in the conversation that simply rings true. Granted, it's possible, if not likely, that he embellished the conversation, but to say he made it up out of thin air would put him in a whole new level of dishonest reporting.