March 21, 2004

Attila, Honoria and nominal inflections

Hugh Reilly writes, in a piece entitled "May the Latin language requiescat in pace":

As a quidnunc schoolboy, I am delighted with the demise of Latin. No longer will kids have to grasp more cases than a Heathrow airport baggage-handler. Forget decadence; the reason for the collapse of the Roman Empire was that while Marcus et al had their heads up their anuses dealing with datives, ablatives and nominatives, Attila rode in and implemented the rather nihilist diktats of the Hun town-planning department.

I hate to puncture a joke with mere facts, but there are three problems with this passage: first, if Hunnic was Turkic or at least Altaic, it probably had about as many noun cases as Latin did; second, when Attila invaded the Latin-speaking western Roman empire, the fighting on both sides was done by alliances of dozens of tribes, mostly Germanic, who also spoke languages with roughly the same number of cases as Latin; third, Attila's first invasion ended in his defeat, and the second one ended in his death, and in neither invasion did he flatten many Latin-speaking cities.

On the positive side, the whole Attila thing is a great story, though not one in which case endings play much of a role.

Here are a few links: Priscus on Attila's court; Jordanes on Attila in person; Gibbon on the Huns, and on Attila's invasions of Gaul and Italy; Arther Ferrill's essay " Attilla the Hun and the Battle of Chalons".

From Gibbon's description of Attila's invasion of Gaul in 450 A.D., giving a sense of the Battle of Chalons as World War minus I, more or less:

The kings and nations of Germany and Scythia, from the Volga perhaps to the Danube, obeyed the warlike summons of Attila. From the royal village in the plains of Hungary his standard moved towards the West and after a march of seven or eight hundred miles he reached the conflux of the Rhine and the Neckar, where he was joined by the Franks who adhered to his ally, the elder of the sons of Clodion...

Theodoric ... declared that as the faithful ally of Aetius and the Romans he was ready to expose his life and kingdom for the common safety of Gaul. The Visigoths, who at that time were in the mature vigour of their fame and power, obeyed with alacrity the signal of war, prepared their arms and horses, and assembled under the standard of their aged king.... The example of the Goths determined several tribes or nations that seemed to fluctuate between the Huns and the Romans.... the troops of Gaul and Germany, who had formerly acknowledged themselves the subjects or soldiers of the republic, but who now claimed the rewards of voluntary service and the rank of independent allies; the Laeti, the Armoricans, the Breones, the Saxons, the Burgundians, the Sarmatians or Alani, the Ripuarians, and the Franks who followed Meroveus as their lawful prince....

The nations from the Volga to the Atlantic were assembled on the plain of Chalons; but many of these nations had been divided by faction, or conquest, or emigration; and the appearance of similar arms and ensigns, which threatened each other, presented the image of a civil war.

That was a battle that Attila's forces lost.

The Roman princess Honoria played a curious role in Attila's invasions of the western Roman empire -- I'm surprised that no movie has yet been made about her. Here is how Gibbon describes her initial role in the drama:

When Attila declared his resolution of supporting the cause of his allies the Vandals and the Franks, at the same time, and almost in the spirit of romantic chivalry, the savage monarch professed himself the lover and the champion of the princess Honoria. The sister of Valentinian was educated in the palace of Ravenna; and as her marriage might be productive of some danger to the state, she was raised, by the title of Augusta, above the hopes of the most presumptuous subject. But the fair Honoria had no sooner attained the sixteenth year of her age than she detested the importunate greatness which must for ever exclude her from the comforts of honourable love: in the midst of vain and unsatisfactory pomp Honoria sighed, yielded to the impulse of nature, and threw herself into the arms of her chamberlain Eugenius. Her guilt and shame (such is the absurd language of imperious man) were soon betrayed by the appearances of pregnancy: but the disgrace of the royal family was published to the world by the imprudence of the empress Placidia, who dismissed her daughter, after a strict and shameful confinement, to a remote exile at Constantinople. The unhappy princess passed twelve or fourteen years in the irksome society of the sisters of Theodosius and their chosen virgins, to whose crown Honoria could no longer aspire, and whose monastic assiduity of prayer, fasting, and vigils she reluctantly imitated. Her impatience of long and hopeless celibacy urged her to embrace a strange and desperate resolution. The name of Attila was familiar and formidable at Constantinople, and his frequent embassies entertained a perpetual intercourse between his camp and the Imperial palace. In the pursuit of love, or rather of revenge, the daughter of Placidia sacrificed every duty and every prejudice, and offered to deliver her person into the arms of a barbarian of whose language she was ignorant, whose figure was scarcely human, and whose religion and manners she abhorred. By the ministry of a faithful eunuch she transmitted to Attila a ring, the pledge of her affection, and earnestly conjured him to claim her as a lawful spouse to whom he had been secretly betrothed.

After Attila's defeat in Gaul, he regrouped and invaded Italy in 452:

The Italians, who had long since renounced the exercise of arms, were surprised, after forty years' peace, by the approach of a formidable barbarian, whom they abhorred as the enemy of their religion as well as of their republic. Amidst the general consternation, Aetius alone was incapable of fear; but it was impossible that he should achieve alone and unassisted any military exploits worthy of his former renown. The barbarians who had defended Gaul refused to march to the relief of Italy; and the succours promised by the Eastern emperor were distant and doubtful.

So the Romans decided to agree to let Honoria marry Attila:

The Western emperor, with the senate and people of Rome, embraced the more salutary resolution of deprecating, by a solemn and suppliant embassy, the wrath of Attila. ... The Roman ambassadors were introduced to the tent of Attila, as he lay encamped at the place where the slow-winding Mincius is lost in the foaming waves of the lake Benacus, and trampled, with his Scythian cavalry, the farms of Catullus and Virgil. The barbarian monarch listened with favourable, and even respectful, attention; and the deliverance of Italy was purchased by the immense ransom or dowry of the princess Honoria. The state of his army might facilitate the treaty and hasten his retreat. Their martial spirit was relaxed by the wealth and indolence of a warm climate. The shepherds of the North, whose ordinary food consisted of milk and raw flesh, indulged themselves too freely in the use of bread, of wine, and of meat prepared and seasoned by the arts of cookery; and the progress of disease revenged in some measure the injuries of the Italians.

However, Attila didn't live to hook up with Honoria:

Before the king of the Huns evacuated Italy, he threatened to return more dreadful, and more implacable, if his bride, the princess Honoria, were not delivered to his ambassadors within the term stipulated by the treaty. Yet, in the meanwhile, Attila relieved his tender anxiety, by adding a beautiful maid, whose name was Ildico, to the list of his innumerable wives. Their marriage was celebrated with barbaric pomp and festivity, at his wooden palace beyond the Danube; and the monarch, oppressed with wine and sleep, retired at a late hour from the banquet to the nuptial bed. His attendants continued to respect his pleasures or his repose the greatest part of the ensuing day, till the unusual silence alarmed their fears and suspicions; and, after attempting to awaken Attila by loud and repeated cries, they at length broke into the royal apartment. They found the trembling bride sitting by the bedside, hiding her face with her veil, and lamenting her own danger, as well as the death of the king, who had expired during the night. An artery had suddenly burst: and as Attila lay in a supine posture, he was suffocated by a torrent of blood, which, instead of finding a passage through the nostrils, regurgitated into the lungs and stomach.

[Reilly article via Classics in Contemporary Culture]

[Update: David Pesetsky emailed to point out that in fact a movie has been made about Attila and Honoria. David says that it's "not too good, but not impossibly terrible, either." (That's a poster blurb you don't see too often -- "Not impossibly terrible!") He explains that "[t]he movie is about Attila, technically, but a somewhat messed-up version of the Honoria/Attila story is the movie's main event. "]

Posted by Mark Liberman at March 21, 2004 12:10 AM