William Napier: Attila

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William Napier Attila
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William Napier


Characters marked with an asterisk were real historical figures. The rest might have been.

Aetius* (pronounced Eye-EE-shuss) – born 15 August, 398. The son of Gaudentius, Master-General of Cavalry, in the frontier town of Silestria, in modern-day Bulgaria

Attila* – born 15 August, 398. The son of Mundzuk, the son of Uldin, King of the Huns

Beric* – a Vandal prince

Bleda* (pronounced BLAY-da) – the older brother of Attila

Cadoc – the son of Lucius

Claudian* – Claudius Claudianus, an Egyptian, born in Alexandria. A favourite in the court of Honorius, and regarded by some as the last of the great Roman poets

Eumolpus* – a palace eunuch

Galla Placidia* (pronounced Galla Pla-SID-ia) – born 388. The daughter of the Emperor Theodosius, sister of the Emperor Honorius, and mother of the Emperor Valentinian

Gamaliel – wanderer, wise man, holy fool

Genseric* – a Vandal prince

Heraclian* – Master-General of the Roman Army in the West after the death of Stilicho

Honorius* – born 390. The son of the Emperor Theodosius, and himself Emperor of Rome 395-423

Little Bird – a Hun shaman

Lucius – an ordinary Roman officer, British by birth

Marco – a Roman centurion

Mundzuk* – the elder son of Uldin, and briefly King of the Huns

Olympian* – a palace eunuch

Orestes* – a Greek by birth, and the lifelong companion of Attila

Priscus of Panium* – a humble and unremarked scribe

Ruga* – the younger son of Uldin, and King of the Huns from 408-441

Serena* – wife of Stilicho

Stilicho* (pronounced STIL-i-ko) – half-barbarian by birth, and Master-General of the Roman Army in the West until his murder in 408

Uldin* – King of the Huns until 408


The Monastery of St Severinus, near Neapolis, ad 488

My father always told me that there are two things you need to be a great historian. ‘You need to be able to write,’ he said, ‘and you need to have things to write about.’ His words sound ironic to me now. Yes, father: I have things to write about. Things you would hardly believe.

I have the greatest and most terrible of stories to tell. And in these dark ages, when the skills of the historian are rare to find, I may very well be the last man on earth who can tell it.

My name is Priscus of Panium, and I am nearly ninety years old. I have lived through some of the most calamitous times in the history of Rome, and now that story is ended, and Rome is done. Titus Livy wrote about the Founders of Rome. It falls to me to write of the Last Defenders; and of the Destroyers. It is a story for bitter winter nights; it is a story of horror and atrocity, shot through with saving gleams of courage and nobility. It is in many ways an appalling story, but it is not, I think, a dull one. And although I am very old, and my palsied hand shakes as it holds the pen over these vellum pages, nevertheless I believe I have the strength remaining in me to tell the final chapters of the tale. Strange as it may seem, I know that when I have written the last word of my tale my time on earth will be done. Like St Severinus, I know the day of my own death.

St Severinus? He is being buried, even as I write, in the chapel of this monastery where I scratch out my last days. He lived as a missionary, a holy man and a servant of the poor, in the province of Noricum, beyond the Alps, and he played an unexpected role in the last days of Rome. He died some six years ago, but only now have his devoted followers been able to bring his body back over the high Alpine passes, and down through Italy, miracles attending his progress every step of the way. Who am I to question such miracles? We live in mysterious times.

This monastery where I now live, on the sun-warmed coast near Neapolis, cared for so kindly by monks whose faith, I confess, I hardly share, this monastery itself, now dedicated to St Severinus and to the religion of Christ, has a strange and instructive history. Once it was the luxurious seaside villa of Lucullus, one of the great heroes of republican Rome, in the first century before Christ; in the time of Cicero, Caesar, Pompey and the rest. (There were giants on the earth in those days.) Lucullus was celebrated above all else for his brilliant victory over Mithridates, King of Pontus; although epicures have always joked that, as achievements go, they much more admire his introduction into Italy of the cherry.

After Lucullus’ death, the villa passed through various hands, until finally, by one of the many strange ironies that so delight Clio, the muse of history, it became, after his forced abdication, the residence of the last Emperor of Rome: little, golden-haired, six-year-old Romulus Augustulus.

Today it is home to over a hundred monks, who are now standing round the coffin containing the mortal remains of their beloved St Severinus, their voices rising to heaven in their sad, melodious chanting, amid the smoke of incense and the glitter of sacred gold. It was Severinus who told Odoacer the Ostrogoth that his destiny lay in the sunlit lands to the south. It was Odoacer who deposed the last emperor, Romulus Augustulus, disbanded the Senate, and declared himself the first barbarian King of Italy.

There is little else you need to know about me. I live a simple life in my quiet cell, or hunched in the chill scriptorium, with only my vellum and my pen and my eighty years of memories for company. I am but a recorder, a scribe. A story-teller. When people are gathered round the fire on a cold winter’s evening, they listen to the story-teller’s words, but they do not mark his face. They do not look at him as they listen. They look into the fire. They do not see him; they see what he tells them. He, as it were, does not exist. Only his words exist.

Plato said there are three types of people in life, as at the games. There are the heroes, who take part, and enjoy the glories of victory. There are the spectators, who stand and observe. And there are the pickpockets. I am no hero, it is true. But I am no pickpocket, either.

The sun is going down, far out over the tired Tyrrhenian Sea, where the great grain-ships used to ply their way through the salt furrows from North Africa to Ostia, to feed the million mouths of Rome. Now they sail no more. North Africa is a hostile Vandal kingdom, the grain-fields are lost, and the Vandals have looted and taken back with them to Africa any treasures the Goths had not already taken – even the priceless treasures of the temple in Jerusalem, which Titus brought to Rome in triumph four centuries ago. What has become of those treasures? The golden Ark of the Covenant, which contained the commandments of God Himself, they say? Melted down into Vandal coin long since. Likewise, the Column of Trajan today stands bare of the great bronze statue of the soldier-emperor that once stood atop its height, and the bronze itself is melted down in the smoking backstreet smithies, and turned into belt buckles and bracelets and barbarous shield-bosses.

Rome is a shadow of the city she once was, and not immortal after all. No more immortal than the men who built her, though we once believed it when we cried, ‘Ave, Roma immortalis! at the triumphs and the games. No, not an immortal goddess, only a city like any other; like an old and tired woman, ravaged and abused and cast aside, deserted by her lovers and weeping sore in the night, like Jerusalem before her, and Troy, and timeless Thebes. Sacked by the Goths, ransacked by the Vandals, captured by the Ostrogoths – but the most damage was done by a people more terrible and yet more invisible than any of these: a people called the Huns.

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