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Attila, the scourge of television

It seems unfair in a way. Here, almost every child has heard of Attila. But except for mounting a formidable attack on the Western Roman Empire in the fifth century, holding the Western World in terror and having 23 wives, what did he do? Short and squat, he would have won no beauty contests, and he was certainly no Christian. But was that it? An ugly pagan invader from the East wins a few battles, and there he is in all the history books?

Of course Attila earned himself some gory pages in Gibbon’s “Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire” and, in his time, was considered the greatest threat to the Christian faith. But people don’t seem to remember the gore, choosing instead to recall his more glamorous side. “Attila the Hun.” It has a certain ring to it.

And now USA television has brought us, in two two-hour segments, a rather prettified version of this scourge of the Middle Ages. The film has mass horseback charges, beautiful landscapes (Lithuania) and, of course, beautiful women. Although how a military conqueror approached the lady who was to be his 23rd wife, I’m not too clear on.

Attila’s throne was surrounded by six valiant sons and, from their dutiful study of Roman jurisprudence, they acquired the theory, at least, of law and justice. The harmonious sense of Virgil has preserved for us a rather softened version of these people’s customs and manners. The Queen of the Suevi — one of the two sisters given as a wife to the eldest son of the Vandal king — unfortunately didn’t have long to wait to witness these people’s rougher mores as her new husband was soon massacred by his brother.

Her father in law, not exactly the trusting sort, suspected that his son’s wife had conspired to poison him — this supposed crime was punished by the amputation of her nose and her ears. She was returned to Toulouse, from whence she had come, in this deformed condition, as a lesson of sorts. But rich gifts and pressing solicitations inflamed once again the ambition of Attila, who gave up any idea of vengeance — because he had other profitable schemes on his mind, no doubt.

The Merovingian princes were carried about on a buckler, a symbol of military command, and the royal fashion of long hair was the symbol of their birth and dignity. Their golden locks, which they combed and dressed with singular care, hung down in flowing ringlets on their back and shoulders, while the rest of the nation was obliged to shave the rear parts of the head, and to comb their hair over their foreheads.

Their bodies were protected by a large shield. They carried a weighty sword. And they were trained from earliest youth to run, to leap, to swim, to throw the javelin and the battle axe with unerring aim and to advance against a superior force to maintain — whether in life or in death — the invincible reputation of their ancestors.

Attila’s hordes invaded and laid waste to all of Europe, from the Volga to the Loire, yet he dressed very simply — no gold or jewels — ate only meat, and from off wooden plates and cups.

From one of those confusions common in ancient history, the present day Hungarians (Magyars) are convinced they are descended from the Huns. In reality, a gap of 400 years separated their arrivals in Europe.

The other great people who have read themselves into the Attila saga are the Germans of northern Europe — Germany’s Nibelungen Lied having become a celebrated vehicle for Attila, who, for reasons of their own, the Germans call “Etzel.” Go figure.