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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Attila through the Looking-Glass?, 28 Dec 2012
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Christopher Kelly's book entitled 'The End of Empire: Attila the Hun & the Fall of Rome'(2009) is well written with an excellent section for Notes & Further Reading at the back. I couldn't decide whether it would provide an excellent introduction or was better suited to the more knowledgeable reader. I would place myself in the latter category and could easily follow the shifts in perspective and date which confronts the reader. It's all there - assessment of evidence, lengthy quotations from sources, worthwhile maps - but you need a firm grip on the saddle before you mount this pony.
Kelly dissects the traditional view of the Huns. He quotes Ammianus' description at length (PP 23-25) before demolishing whole sections of it, excusing it partly as the normal distortions produced by 'civilised' writers when describing 'barbarians' outside their control. He could have added the European Imperialist commentaries on the peoples of Africa etc. He rejects the identification of the Huns with the Xiongnu who plagued China in the 1st century CE - he doesn't mention 'White Huns' who are sometimes muddled into that mix of central Asian peoples whose activities brought such headaches to their neighbours over millenia. He rejects the classification of Huns as purely nomadic, arguing they established themselves on the Hungarian Plain in the 4th century CE. He insists that small groups of Huns were actively involved in the affairs of the Roman Empire during the century preceding the rise of Attila, producing authoritative references to support his argument.
What singles out Attila is his unification of Hunnish effort, just as Genghis Khan united the Mongol clans c. 1200 into a fearsome military force. Unlike the Mongols the Huns retained their empire for not much more than a generation - although the rapid decay of the Ilkhans compared to the Yuen Dynasty in China might suggest a similar reason for failure, the existence of effective competition.
The centre-piece of the book is the embassy sent in 449 to Attila, of which an extensive (but savagely doctored) account by Priscus, planning to produce a 'History of Attila', survives .I have long known about the embassy but I never knew that it was a mask for a plot to secure Attila's assassination. From the start, the plot was betrayed and Attila played with the embassy for his own benefit. Kelly uses what survives to stress how much the Huns were not the barbarian monsters described by Ammianus but had a degree of civilisation and, in some ways, a higher ethical standard than the Romans. What Kelly overlooks is that Ammianus Marcellinus (c. 325- c.390) was writing at least fifty years before the events described here. The Huns had been in close contact with Rome for almost three generations and there must have been considerable changes in the way of life. Even so, the account of the embassy is tense and highly descriptive and by itself would recommend the work. Of course, many details, especially much of the outcome, is unknown due to lack of resources and open to speculation. Kelly is well prepared to offer such, usually with sound reasoning and exploitation of what sources do remain.
It is clear that, throughout the book, Kelly would line up with Jordanes in stating: 'Beneath his great savagery Attila was a subtle man, and fought with diplomacy before he went to war' (quoted P. 237). This may be true as Attila was a great opportunist, with the ability to apply pressure as and when he wished. Consequently, one might ask how would he have dealt with Rome under a ruler like Trajan and not one mired in muddle and decay, beset by the threat formerly called the Volkerwanderung - note Kelly's thesis of GRADUAL Hun intervention undermines that traditional picture? For Kelly Attila is the hero (and Aetius the villain) and one senses his disappointment that: 'Attila the Hun, one of the most enemies in the history of the Roman empire, collapsed drunk in bed and died of a nosebleed.'
Of course, some critics might question the space given to Roman struggles vs. the Vandals (Africa) or the Parthians in the East but, as Kelly insists, these distractions added to the impact of the Huns. Similarly Gibbon put down a major cause of Rome's ruin as Christianity and reading about the influence of monks, 'perpetual virgins' and other hangers-on in the fifth century, one can see his point. Centuries of luxury, corruption and internecine strife had changed Rome from the society that had successfully defied Hannibal six hundred years before.
What criticisms reduce this excellent book to 4 stars? Kelly doesn't give sufficient attention to Attila's last years.Minor irritations are the anachronisms of 'France' and 'England' instead of Gaul and Britannia. Also Kelly occasionally enjoys sentences like, "In the golden throne room of the Great Palace in Constantinople, Theodosius sat in sullen silence' (P. 127). Those are the words of the novelist not the historian. Some might object to an intrusion of speculation rather than fact on some occasions. A chart of Emperors, certain family trees and a glossary of specialist terms would have been useful. Perhaps more direct references to the Notes so they become End Notes would have helped. I missed a review of some of stories appearing in past accounts - Aetius's period as a hostage of the Huns, Attila's friendship with Aetius for many years and St. Leo's meeting with Attila gets short shrift. These tales may border on the ridiculous but why do they appear in older accounts? Even so all these criticisms are but pin-pricks in an excellent view of the 'Scourge of God'.
Kelly states that 'history should continually seek to challenge our assumptions. It should prompt us to look differently at the world and make us less self-assured about our own ideals and belief." He certainly does that in this book. He describes the collapse of Hunnish power as so rapid that the reader wonders whether it really was just a question of smoke and mirrors. To underline that impression Kelly describes how Attila, wrongly in his opinion, has been used as the barbaric image to civilisation throughout the centuries. He questions how far Roman and barbarian really were divided in the fifth century. Perhaps, in the end, his picture of Attila is that produced for everyman by a mirror - with suitable distortion of course!
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0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars great book, 24 July 2013
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This review is from: The End of Empire - Attila the Hun and the Fall of Rome (Paperback)
Bought this item as a present for my dad, very pleased with the book.
deliverd on time and easy to order.
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The End of Empire - Attila the Hun and the Fall of Rome
The End of Empire - Attila the Hun and the Fall of Rome by Christopher Kelly (Paperback - 5 Aug 2014)
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