Civis Romanus Sum: Vol. II + A Further Consideration of the Barbarian
“When a certain shepherd beheld one heifer of his flock limping and could find no cause for this wound, he anxiously followed the trail of blood and at length came to a sword it had unwittingly trampled while nibbling the grass. He dug it up and took it straight to Attila. He rejoiced at this gift and, being ambitious, thought he had been appointed ruler of the whole world, and that through the sword of Mars supremacy in all wars was assured to him.”-Priscus of Panium
C.R. Whittaker argues that Roman borders were in practice far from fixed, though this seems to me to be a claim firmly rooted in the distortions of critical theory. The empire’s aggressive expansionist policy necessitated a flexible definition of what it meant to be “Roman,” while recognizing that every amendment had to remain tethered to the rigid notion of inherent Roman superiority over other peoples and cultures. Whittaker continues:
At the same time as barbarians were being pilloried as a chronic menace to Romanitas, emperors were praised for allowing cultores barbari to pass the frontier and become farmers and soldiers. Barbaritas and Romanitas were not fixed, objective territorial definitions but shifting cultural concepts…Above all, and not withstanding the ideology of an imperial barrier separating off barbarian gentes ‘that have sprouted up’ around the provinces…the reality was different. Despite the rhetoric of barbarians ‘howling around the empire on all sides’, or the frontiers bristling with defensive controls…the image of the impermeable dam was constantly and visibly being confused…The frontiers became less and less distinct culturally and physically.
Whittaker is confusing the terminal late stages of the empire with its entire chronology of existence, but there is something to C.R. Whittaker’s discussion of the popular portrayal of barbarians pounding on Rome’s gates; the use of barbarians—and, more broadly, the Other—can be a profoundly effective tool for social control, certainly, but it was with Rome and is still the case that massing armies seek to destroy our way of life and would conquer and colonize just as many other groups have done before. The specter of the Other, a menace beyond the borders, is a perpetual threat that does not simply cease to be just because of a period of prosperity, though citizens of prosperity often in their comfort become estranged from the idea that there is always real danger lurking just around the corner, or just beyond the border, as the case may be. There is a reason we have borders, not least of which is that they ensure security for clearly demarcated territory. “Us and them” is more often than not not an artificial construct but a real feeling among humans unified by specific ties.
The barbarian is antagonistic toward civilization, but we can gain great insights into who we are by considering the barbarian in his three-dimensional form. Attila the Hun, for example, was an individual responsible for tremendous upheaval, and while this analysis of Attila the Hun is accurate, his presence first on the historical scene, and later as a one–dimensional figure of propaganda has necessitated a closer look at the myth. Attila, like the majority of history’s characters, is a myriad of components based on fact, fiction, and interpretation, often all three at once. Attila is a de-stabilizer, an engine of destruction. His presence calls direct attention to what have previously been the neglected fringes of both the empire in a literal sense and of ideological discourse. Attila is, in fact, capable of allowing (or leading) the margins to come crashing in—again, as both a historical figure and as a literary character and vehicle.
In the classical texts of historians such as Livy, Herodotus, and Tacitus, as well as the poet Juvenal, donning our Leftist lens for a second will allow us to sense “proto-racist” overtones, but also discern the seeds of what was to become post-colonial thought by investigating these “extra-cultural” viewpoints—those of disparate “barbarian” tribes, for instance. That this “proto-racism” is really more a highlighting of the barbarian as a legitimate source of interest, a consideration of the Other simply imbued with Roman cultural and ethnic confidence and used as a source of critique and instruction regarding Rome herself, does not pass muster for the Left. In Eric Adler’s formulation:
One can often glean a connection between Roman authors’ xenophobic sentiments and their support for imperial expansion. As such, the application of postcolonial theory to the Roman world has been a fruitful enterprise.
It certainly has as a sustained project to cripple the West’s inheritance. This analysis misses something very crucial, though. The lynch-pin of the Hunnic narrative is the journey of Priscus to the frontier as part of a diplomatic envoy to meet Attila the Hun. Priscus’s account is the only known historical document detailing the Roman perspective on Attila. As an actual source, then, Priscus is vital, since he presents to readers an Attila that is decidedly more complex than most Roman and subsequent Western depictions otherwise suggest. The reason for this is that people understand concepts better when they are neatly packaged, often in allegory or in singular figures who exhibit specific traits and are thus considered to be “defintive.” In this fashion, Attila, along with Genghis Khan, is really two people—an actual historical figure and a repository of the barbarian, a mere abstraction.
Attila—the Scourge of God—and his nomadic Huns have become synonymous with barbarism in Western ideology. Since classical antiquity, “The further away from the Mediterranean [one is], the stranger the inhabitants [appear], the more inexplicable their customs, the more chaotic their societies.” The Huns, characterized by Roman historians as emerging seemingly from nowhere beginning in the 370s, would have appeared even stranger to the Romans, since they practiced a kind of cranial modification whereby an infant’s head would be bound with a wooden board, producing an elongated skull and flattened facial features. For Roman historian Ammanius Marcellinus, who was already drawing on received notions of nomades from Greek sources such as Herodotus, the Huns were “so hideously ugly and distorted that they could be mistaken for two-legged beasts.” Adopting the tonal quality of Ammanius’s Romano-centric worldview, speculating on what might lie out on the Asian steppes beyond Rome’s ring of influence became a timeless tradition of sorts in Europe; the Huns were the latest and most savage iteration to that point of the nomadic tribes that “in many ways…were a disquieting inversion of the Greeks [and Romans].”
For Adrian Goldsworthy, “Attila is one of the few names from antiquity that still prompt instant recognition…Attila has become the barbarian of the ancient world.” Owing perhaps to their sudden appearance, and certainly their unmatched successes against the empire both in the Balkans in the East and on the mountainous fringes of the West—as well as their alien appearance, customs, and military tactics—the Huns and Attila became civilization’s greatest fear. Mike Dash elaborates:
Ancient artists placed great stress on [Attila’s] inhumanity…Then as now, he seemed the epitome of an Asian steppe nomad: ugly, squat and fearsome, lethal with a bow, interested chiefly in looting and in rape.
Since propelling massive population movements ahead of their conquests, arriving on the fringes of the Roman world in the fourth century, the Huns and their most accomplished leader, Attila, have remained situated in the millennia-old tradition of the sub-human barbarian, with Attila representative of an entire race. “An 1894 engraving of Attila from Charles Horne’s Great Men and Famous Women, adapted from an antique medal, depict(s) Attila with horns and goatish physiognomy.” Twenty years later, at the onset of World War I, British propaganda would depict the nation’s German adversaries as Huns, emphasizing their “barbaric” qualities. Certain members of the Western allies in World War II expressed acute anxiety about the advancing Red Army, likening it to an “Asiatic” horde with dull eyes and strangely-shaped heads. For the renowned Roman historian Edward Gibbon, Rome was “exposed to the rapacious cruelty of the Huns,” while Attila himself was a “savage destroyer” possessed with “ferocious pride.”
It is important for the reader to understand the historical context of Attila and the Huns’ depictions, for it is this exact historical narrative that European society’s been engaging with for centuries. Shifting the focus from Rome out toward the edge of the empire, where Attila’s army sits camped, awaiting Priscus of Panium’s diplomatic envoy, gold tribute, and the return of several political enemies, as both archetypes and real people Priscus and Attila are both equal parts lens, plot vehicle, primary source, and abstraction. Indeed, even with the historical figure of Priscus, it is exceptionally difficult to parse the man and his experiences from the gifted story-teller. As Christopher Kelly says:
Like Ammanius, Priscus wished to present himself as a reliable historian as well as parade his extensive knowledge of classical literature. In the description of the ceremonies before [Attila’s] burial…the killing of the faithful retainers at the graveside of a powerful leader was a reminder that the Huns were nomades. Those who knew their Herodotus would remember that the Scythians buried their dead kings alongside the bodies of their strangled servants…Priscus’s description could be based on an eyewitness account as well as shaped by his references to classical texts…It is not always possible to separate hard fact from clever literary fiction.
Through Priscus we begin to see the deterioration of civilization, a loosening that begins well before he reaches the frontier. Priscus is Byzantine (though he concluded his career in Rome) and wrote in Greek, however the origin of his diplomatic envoy (Constantinople) is less important than the reverberations that both preceded and followed the Huns’ emergence on the edges of the empire. Once at the frontier, Priscus confronts numerous other paradoxes that complicate and compromise any hope of making a “clean” distinction between civilized man and barbarian. The dramatization of such self-complication is explored elsewhere, both within and beyond the Roman super-structure, and it serves to show in stark relief what the lack of firm, set borders looks like.
 C.R. Whittaker, Rome and Its Frontiers: The Dynamics of Empire (London: Routledge, 2004). p. 204.
 Ibid, p. 175.
 Christopher Kelly, Attila the Hun: Barbarian Terror and the Fall of the Roman Empire (London: Bodley Head, 2008), p. 21.
 Nic Fields and Christa Hook, The Hun: Scourge of God AD 375-565 (Oxford: Osprey, 2006), p. 28.
 Kelly, p. 22.
 Ibid, pp. 19-22.
 Adrian Goldsworthy, The Fall of the West (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2009).
 Mike Dash, “Nice Things to Say About Attila the Hun”, Smithsonian Magazine (3 Feb. 2012) www.smithsonianmag.com/history/nice-things-to-say-about-attila-the-hun-87559701/?no-ist.
 Emmet Scott that has a terrific article that talks about these “refugees”: http://gatesofvienna.net/2016/11/the-barbarians-who-sacked-rome-came-into-the-empire-as-refugees/
 Dash, “Attila.”
 Anne Applebaum, Iron Curtain (London: Penguin Books, 2012).
 Edward Gibbon, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Volume Two (New York: Modern Library, 1995, originally published 1781), pp. 344-45.
 Kelly, Attila the Hun, p. 34.