Skip to content
IUScholarWorks Journals
15.08.13, Gordon, The Age of Attila, Revised Edition

15.08.13, Gordon, The Age of Attila, Revised Edition

David S. Potter has breathed new life into Colin Gordon's The Age of Attila: Fifth-century Byzantium and the Barbarians, originally published in 1960.

Not long after Gordon's book came out, there was some criticism levelled against him: his choice of primary sources, the fact that he did not use any Latin authors, and that there was no real inclusion of religious or social history. As the title of the book indicates however, The Age of Attila is primarily a narrative history of fifth-century Byzantium/Eastern Roman Empire's political and military dealings with barbarian peoples. Gordon's own preface explains his reasons for using the sources that he did: "the choice of authors I have translated is fairly obvious considering the custom of that age of one historian continuing the work of his predecessor" (xii). A simple code is given in order for us, the reader, to differentiate between the ancient authorities Gordon used to form his narrative: P (Priscus); M (Malchus); O (Olympiodorus); C (Candidus); and J. A. (Johannes Antiochenus (xiv). Just before the central narrative gets underway with chapter 1, there is a chronological table of events described in the book (xviii-xix), and a genealogical table detailing the members of the Houses of Theodosius and Leo (xx).

Chapter 1, "Imperial Government," is a brief survey by Gordon of the workings of the Late Roman political system. His narrative is supported with excerpts from Olympiodorus and Priscus.

Chapter 2, "The Dynasty of Theodosius I and the Barbarians in the West," covers the period from the death of Theodosius I in 395 to the assassination of Valentinian III in 453. Some notable individuals and events materialize: the western magister militum Stilicho, the main power behind the emperor Honorius' throne for over a decade; the Visigothic leader Alaric's and his capture and sack of Rome in 410; Honorius' half-sister Galla Placidia, the great survivor of her age, her capture by Alaric and marriage to the Visigoth Athaulf (spelled Adaulphus by Gordon), and her eventual repatriation to Roman territory and subsequent marriage to Constantius III. It was this second marriage which produced the future emperor Valentinian III. The Vandal migration from Spain into North Africa in the late 420/30s is described, as is the story of one of the greatest Late Roman generals, Aёtius, whose military and political efforts to stem the barbarian advance were frequently thwarted by the machinations of his rivals at court. It is Johannes Antiochenus' almost farcical account of Aёtius' murder by Valentinian (50-53) which sums up what Gordon called the "blind degeneration" (50) of the western imperial court in its final decades. Antiochenus did not confine his criticism to just one emperor; take for instance his particularly negative portrayal of Theodosius II as a lacklustre, cowardly individual (27-28).

Chapter 3, "The Huns," is by far the most interesting, and longest, section of the book. Priscus is our central source here for the story of Attila and his Huns' relationship with Rome. We are presented with a fascinating account of Priscus' journey from Roman into Hunnic territory which relates much about Hunnic customs and society. After much travails along the way, Priscus eventually meets Attila (94-99), and we are given an intimate insight of the Hunnic leader's personality and of how he maintained his power. For my part, what makes Priscus' narrative all the more exciting is the fact that there was a parallel Roman embassy travelling to Attila's court alongside Priscus' group. This other delegation, however, had a covert objective; the assassination of Attila (71-73). With this in mind, Priscus' account brims with nervous tension. There is mutual distrust between the Roman and Huns in Priscus' passages, and more than once, there are incidents which could easily spiral out of control into violence against Priscus and his party. At the back of your mind however, the very real possibility exists that the assassins might be discovered, in which case, Priscus could well have been implicated in the treachery, and his life would probably have been forfeit as a consequence. If this had occurred, then we probably would not possess Priscus' story at all. As it happened, when the secret mission was discovered by Attila, Priscus had safely arrived back at Constantinople, and thankfully, therefore, we possess much of his valuable narrative.

Chapter 4, "The Vandals and the Collapse of the West," deals with the Vandal conquest of the North African provinces. The importance of the annona (grain and oil tribute) to the Roman West is emphasised. For centuries Rome had depended upon the North African and Egyptian annonarian supply to feed the Italian urban populations. After the Egyptian annona was diverted from the West by Constantine I to feed the populace of his new eastern capital, later called Constantinople, the West increasingly had to rely upon North African cereal production for sustenance. It is telling that, in just one generation after the loss of the North African annona, what was left of the western imperial government in Italy could no longer sustain its towns and cities, until finally, the Roman West was extinguished. What emerges from this chapter is a sense of too little too late. Despite the best efforts of capable persons such as the emperor Majorian (116-117) and the magister militum Marcellinus (117-119) to resist the barbarians, the Western Empire was doomed. Its strength and security had been irrevocably damaged through a long series of crises: weak government, civil war, political intrigue, and so on. Instead of a late-fifth century Roman resurgence, Gordon's primary sources depict German generals openly wielding power and control across the fading Roman West, and appointing their own puppet emperors. The East, meanwhile, attempted vainly to effect events in the West, but to no avail.

Chapter 5, "The East, 450-91," is a complicated, confused section, with an even more bewildering array of characters. Civil war is the predominant feature of this section of the book. The history of the late-fifth century Roman East is overshadowed with widespread brutality employed its emperors in order to maintain their positions and suppress dissent. The Byzantine historian Malchus, whose work Gordon uses for much of this chapter, cast most of the eastern emperors in extremely disparaging terms. Greed and extortion, according to Malchus, were these rulers' primary concerns above all else. The cruelty of the emperor Zeno, for example, is vividly conveyed through his savage persecution of a rebellion, during which one of his own executioners went insane after decapitating several victims (154-156). The chapter concludes with the Ostrogoths, under Theodoric being dispatched westward by Constantinople to Italy in 488 to suppress the barbarian Odovacer ruling there and restore some semblance of imperial rule (155).

Chapter 6, "The Ostrogoths," drawing heavily on Malchus, but also using Priscus and Johannes Antiochenus to a lesser extent, focuses on how the Ostrogoths established themselves in Italy under Theoderic the Great.

Immediately following the main body of the book, Potter inserts a new appendix, "The Historians and Their Sources" (185-188), replacing Gordon's original two appendices. This new appendix gives a brief biography of each ancient author used in the book. Potter also includes a helpful concordance in tabular form (189-193) that gives the page numbers of other editions and translations of the primary authors used in The Age of Attila. This is to assist interested readers in cross-referencing between the various translations. Gordon and Potter's combined notes comprise forty-seven pages, with Potter adding recent scholarship to the notes so as to reflect changes and developments in thinking on the Late Antique Roman and barbarian relations. There is an updated bibliography featuring some of the foremost research on Late Antiquity of the last half-century.

Overall, the picture painted by Gordon, through his selected sources, is that of a stressed Roman Empire, mismanaged by weak emperors and corrupt officials, beset by civil unrest, and completely at the mercy of strong, aggressive barbarian leaders such as Alaric, Attila, and Theoderic who were all eager to capitalize on Roman misfortune.

Maenchen-Helfen called The Age of Attila a "book of limited use" in his 1961 review of the work. I disagree, for although Gordon possibly could have incorporated translations of other authors--Zosimus' Historia Nova springs to mind--The Age of Attila is nonetheless an informative, captivating, and moving political and military history of the fifth-century Roman Empire's interaction with the barbarian peoples it encountered.

This revised edition by Potter of The Age of Attila must surely become required reading (or "collateral reading" as Glanville Downey remarked in his review of the book) on any Classics/Early Medieval History undergraduate (or postgraduate for that matter) bibliography. I, for one, have never seen it on an undergraduate reading list, but I expect that that may change in time. Indeed, Potter himself says that it was The Age of Attila which caught his interest in fifth-century Roman history for him (xv). By revising Colin Gordon's book, David Potter may well be setting in motion an interest among scholars in performing similar revisions of other definitive works.