Posted by: ken98 | April 19, 2010

Thracian Fascination, The Little Town That Could, and Huns, Huns, Everywhere

Day 220 – Ken here (M)(4-19-2010)
(DEF II, v.3, ch.34 pp.300-310)(pages read: 1400)

Very tired today – but happy to be deep in Gibbon-ville.

We continue chapter 34, and the long, long digression into Attila the Hun and the Huns in general. Gibbon found a (possibly/probably mistaken) correlation between the two great European-Steppes conflicts of the Eurasian peninsula in the last 1500 years – the Huns (450’s) and the Mongols (1350’s) (versus the barbarians/civilizations of the West). Both the Huns and the Mongols seemed to Europeans to have suddenly come out of nowhere – emerging from the vast ocean of grass and rolling hills that is Central Asia – and ended up utterly changing the course of history for Europe and the Mediterranean basin.

There is no denying that Europe has always been the loser in any invasion by the nations of the Central Asian Steppes. In fact it’s only been in the last 300 years or so that this cycle of European cultural build-up, and Central Asian cultural destruction/replacement has slowed and stopped completely. Before this it was a regular conveyor belt of pillaging, raping and complete social overturn, every 1000 years or so. Note: this is NOT about horse-riding Mongols/Huns/etc alone – the blue-eyed, blond-haired Greeks, Romans, Persians, etc were ALL Indo-European invaders/Steppes Nations who entered Europe/Fertile Crescent and destroyed the resident civilizations they found there – re-building Europe/Middle East in their own image. And that’s only in the last 3000 years or so. The conveyor belt goes back a lot further than that.


so on we go, with Huns, Huns, and more Huns.

The Story
Huns – Previous Adventures
  • The Huns (during time of Arcadius) took the back way around the Caspian Sea and into Asia Minor (Turkey) menacing Antioch, Egypt, etc
  • Once sent an expedition over the Northern Route and into Persia – meeting a Persian army – but were repulsed
  • Sent embassies much farther East

    Huns Attack Thrace, Egged on by the Vandals in Africa who were about to be Invaded by the Eastern Empire from Bases in Sicily
  • Genseric in Africa, worried about the massive troop buildup (By the Eastern Empire in Sicily) – gets Attila and the Huns to attack the East (441)(actually the East is becoming the “policeman” of the Mediterranean world – still functioning basically as “The Roman Empire” as the West gives up any pretensions to political control)
  • Huns use excuse of Christians disrespecting them to start a war – you can always find a decent reason to start a war if you have to
  • Huns invade and destroy the 70 cities of Thrace, Illyria (among which: Sirmium, Singidunum, Rataria, Marcianapolis, Naissus, etc) – a mark of their success – this area really never recovers – how prosperous are the Balkans, etc considered in the ensuing 1500 years? Not incredibly
  • The armies of the Eastern Empire are drawn from all frontiers – NOW WE ARE DRAINING THE EAST – A BAD IDEA – Sicily is emptied – leaving Genseric and the Vandals free to roam about, Persia is emptied – but luckily we are in the middle of an 80 year truce so the Middle East and Egypt are safe for now – VERY LUCKY FOR ROME
  • Rome has become the punching bag of the Mediterranean – and yet it is still FABULOUSLY RICH and FABULOUSLY CORRUPT
  • Three successive battles destroy the accumulated troops of the Eastern Empire – Theodosius retreats before the impregnable walls of Constantinople
  • An earthquake destroys quite a lot of the East, throwing down 58 towers on the Theodosian Walls of Constantinople – they reconstruct them in a matter of weeks. Its funny how fast and efficient the empire is when the rich people behind the walls of the capital (Constantinople) are directly threatened – and how ineffectual the armies thrown up against Attila were
  • Rome is utterly defeated – admits it can no longer hold/defend its own territory from Attila’s invasions

    A Curious Digression into the Tartars – Genghis Khan and the Mongol Invasions of the 1300’s
  • Gibbon makes a leap of a 1000 years and begins a digression into Genghis Khan (from the 1300’s) and the Mongol Invasions of Europe
  • Granted, the Mongol Invasions were for Gibbon a recent event (as recent as early 1700’s American history is to us) – AND Europe was still battling Islam directly in the form of the Turks in the late 1700’s – so the idea of Asian Steppe Nations was a very current idea during Enlightenment Europe
  • Small tangent on Tamerlane’s absolute destruction of Afghan cities – Gibbon examples of the utter destruction of Steppes Peoples when they come into contact with Europeans

    Character of the Nation of the Huns – A Comparison with Rome – The Interesting Testimony of the Roman-Hun Priscus
  • No landed property, little use for law
  • Respected physicians, and had some use for Engineers
  • Some use for Theologians
  • Priscus – a Roman – is taken captive and gradually works his way up Hunnish society from slave to free to citizen
  • He writes about his experiences, and writes about the differences between Roman life and the Steppes life he lives now with his wife and kids
  • see Priscus below

    Description of Attila’s Dictated New Treaty with Rome – Absolute Denigration
  • Change annual Tribute to 250 Million Dollars (2100 lbs gold) (still a wealthy Senator (from 50 years ago) could make 500 Million a year)
  • One Time Penalty of 750 Million Dollars (6000 lbs gold)
  • King of Huns has absolute authority over all Huns – in empire and without – INTERESTING – A RACIAL rather than LOCATION-oriented nationhood
  • Runaway Slave Law – any Roman captive who had escaped from Hunnish POW camps had to pay the Huns 17,000 dollars (12 pcs gold) – 1/2 years income – quite a lot of money
  • Rome loses a vague 100-200 mile swath or so of territory along the Danube
  • This is the beginning of the End – Rome is consistently “bled” of its wealth by successive invasions until it is destitute – of course a lot of this tribute finds its way back down south into Roman territory as the barbarians buy luxury goods/arms/etc from Roman cities/markets – so its not probably a complete circulation loss – in fact it might be a kind of release of capital – in a violent, pretty un-constructive way

    A Gibbon Tangent: the town of Azimus – O, That All Romans Were Thus…
  • Azimuntium takes on Attila all by itself – as the Eastern Roman Empire in Constantinople refuses to bargain for a few shepherds – see below


    Priscus of Panium (with the gray beard - holding the incorrectly spelled Greek book - History) - Detail from Mor Than's Feast of Attila.  Priscus lived among the Huns and made a life for himself there - and leaves us the rare opportunity of seeing Hunnish culture through Late Roman eyes

    Priscus of Panium (with the gray beard - holding the incorrectly spelled Greek book - History) - Detail from Mor Than's Feast of Attila. Priscus lived among the Huns and made a life for himself there - and leaves us the rare opportunity of seeing Hunnish culture through Late Roman eyes


    A Brief Description of What It Was Like Being A Roman Citizen At This Point – 450’s – Invasion, Division, Chaos, Corruption, Impossible Taxes, Corrupt Justice, Breakdown of Rule of Law, and a Stubborn Myopia that Prevented the Roman Nation from Actually Seeing it All Happen


    This from Gibbon and what it was like being a Roman of the 400’s (quoting Priscus):
    (an exercise in comparitive Sociology)

    The Huns might be provoked to insult the misery of their slaves, over whom they exercised a despotic command; but their manners were not susceptible of a refined system of oppression, and the efforts of courage and diligence were often recompensed by the gift of freedom

    The historian Priscus, whose embassy is a source of curious instruction, was accosted in the camp of Attila by a stranger, who saluted him in the Greek language, but whose dress and figure displayed the appearance of a wealthy Scythian. In the siege of Viminiacum he had lost, according to his own account, his fortune and liberty: he became the slave of Onegesius but his faithful services against the Romans and the Acatzires had gradually raised him to the rank of the native Huns, to whom he was attached by the domestic pledges of a new wife and several children.

    The spoils of war had restored and improved his private property; he was admitted to the table of his former lord and the apostate Greek blessed the hour of his captivity, since it had been the introduction to a happy and independent state, which he held by the honourable tenure of military service.

    This reflection naturally produced a dispute on the advantages and defects of the Roman government, which was severely arraigned by the apostate, and defended by Priscus in a prolix and feeble declamation. The freedman of Onegesius exposed, in true and lively colours, the vices of a declining empire of which he had so long been the victim; the cruel absurdity of the Roman princes, unable to protect their subjects against the public enemy, unwilling to trust them with arms for their own defence; the intolerable weight of taxes, rendered still more oppressive by the intricate or arbitrary modes of collection; the obscurity of numerous and contradictory laws; the tedious and expensive forms of judicial proceedings; the partial administration of justice; and the universal corruption which increased the influence of the rich and aggravated the misfortunes of the poor A sentiment of patriotic sympathy was at length revived in the breast of the fortunate exile, and he lamented with a flood of tears the guilt or weakness of those magistrates who had perverted the wisest and most salutary institutions.

    (DEF II, v.3, p.307-308)

    Map of Roman provinces - Thrace is the purple one, lower right.  Constantinople is on the little finger of Thrace on the extreme right of the province.  Thrace, although it was right next to the capital, was continually being overrun by invaders and usurpers and so became militarily and politically important in the Eastern Empire - with 82 forts in Late Roman times.  No one could've predicted Thrace's future importance even 200 years earlier during the Crisis of the 200's - it was a backwater back then - the rustic Appalachians of Europe

    Map of Roman provinces - Thrace is the purple one, lower right. Constantinople is on the little finger of Thrace on the extreme right of the province. Thrace, although it was right next to the capital, was continually being overrun by invaders and usurpers and so became militarily and politically important in the Eastern Empire - with 82 forts in Late Roman times. No one could've predicted Thrace's future importance even 200 years earlier during the Crisis of the 200's - it was a backwater back then - the rustic Appalachians of Europe


    News of the Weird and Strange…


    Why Suddenly a Fascination with Thrace?

    It’s always instructive (and is actually the sole reason in studying history) to find differences and change. For the longest time, the Roman Empire was about the limes (frontiers) of Germany, Gaul, Hungary, Middle Europe, etc. Now we hear less and less of those areas – not surprisingly in the middle 400’s because they are fast becoming proto-Frankish/Gothic kingdoms. History is now (curiously) concentrating on Thrace and the Upper Balkan peninsula – why? Because…

  • The last place you need to take if your’e a barbarian or an aspiring usurping general is the capital – Constantinople – and that city is right next to Thrace

  • Thrace – is right next to where all the action is on the Danubian frontier with Huns, Goths, etc – absolutely overrun by barbarians who are farming and living on the land given them (and now taken by them) which was abandoned by Romans decades ago (they were probably all slaughtered/enslaved/taxed to death in the previous century) (just a note – Tea Party advocates have NO IDEA what real excessive taxes are about – they should examine Late Roman practices and revise their worldviews)

  • Thrace was on the border (well, Illyricum – Albania became the border in the 440’s) between the 2 sides of the Roman Empire – East and West – and so was a natural crossroads

    So… that’s why Gibbon notes (quoting Procopius) (DEF II, v.3, p.390, fn. 36) the 82 forts or castles of Thrace. It was heavily fortified because it was suddenly very important place in the world-scheme of things – a fact that would have been very, very, very surprising to “European” military/political leaders of the past like Pericles, Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, or Marcus Aurelius (who would’ve thought Thrace a backwater at best – and a throw-away province/kingdom at worst).

    An interesting turn of events (well, at least to me) and an interesting sign that, yes, again, we have crossed a threshold and entered a new age and a new time. In the future – in the bad old 800’s when the Eastern Roman Empire is re-organizing, its central core of strength will become – you guessed it – this very same place – Thrace, Upper Balkans, the hinterlands of Greece.


    Last Word…


    The Tiny Town that Could – Belligerent, Disdainful, Scrappy Azimus (Azimuntium – in Bulgaria)

    During the Attilan invasion/war of 443-446 the Eastern Empire basically collapsed, and after three lost battles ceded effective control of the European hinterland (Thrace, Macedonia, etc outside of the walls of Constantinople) to Attila. This forced individual towns to either 1) give in completely to Attila (the empire sure wasn’t going to come to the rescue anymore, or 2) treat individually with Attila, fight individually with Attila, etc. One would think an army of 500,000 would have a great deal of heft when dealing with individual towns – but no – the “army” was more a mercenary army of looting than occupation (something like the random mercenary bands of French, English, and Germans roaming about Renaissance Italy 1000 years in our future), and firm resistance coupled with guerrilla warfare did wonders to protect a specific region/town from depredations and allowed positions of strength when bargaining for captives and nailing down terms.

    Although the East surrendered in 446, the little town of Azimus (Azimuntium – or Esimontou) – a rough and ready fortress town in rural Illyria (in the thick of all the fighting of the last 3 years) managed to bargain INDIVIDUALLY for exchange of captives, etc with Attila after the (very) ignominious Peace Treaty of 446 between Theodosius II and Attila had been signed.

    This from Gibbon:
    (its a little incoherent – very un-Gibbonian actually – but the essential story is there)

    Spirit of Azimuntines
    The firmness of a single town, so obscure that except on this occasion it has never been mentioned by any historian or geographer, exposed the disgrace of the emperor and empire. Azimus, or Azimuntium, a small city of Thrace on the Illyrian borders,(37) had been distinguished by the martial spirit of its youth, the skill and reputation of the leaders whom they had chosen, and their daring exploits against the innumerable host of the barbarians. Instead of tamely expecting their approach, the Azimuntines attacked, in frequent and successful sallies, the troops of the Huns, who gradually declined the dangerous neighbourhood, rescued from their hands the spoil and the captives, and recruited their domestic force by the voluntary association of fugitives and deserters.

    After the conclusion of the treaty Attila still menaced the empire with implacable war, unless the Azimuntines were persuaded or compelled to comply with the conditions which their sovereign had accepted. The ministers of Theodosius confessed, with shame and with truth, that they no longer possessed any authority over a society of men who so bravely asserted their natural independence; and the king of the Huns condescended to negotiate an equal exchange with the citizens of Azimus.

    They demanded the restitution of some shepherds, who with their cattle had been accidentally surprised. A strict though fruitless inquiry was allowed; but the Huns were obliged to swear that they did not detain any prisoners belonging to the city before they could recover two surviving countrymen whom the Azimuntines had reserved as pledges for the safety of their lost companions.

    Attila, on his side, was satisfied and deceived by their solemn asseveration that the rest of the captives had been put to the sword and that it was their constant practice immediately to dismiss the Romans and the deserters who had obtained the security of the public faith.

    This prudent and officious dissimulation may be condemned or excused by the casuists as they incline to the rigid decree of St. Augustin, or the milder sentiment of St. Jerom and St. Chrysostom: but every soldier, every statesman, must acknowledge that, if the race of the Azimuntines had been encouraged and multiplied, the barbarians would have ceased to trample on the majesty of the empire.

    and this from the footnote:

    Note 037
    Priscus, p. 35, 36 [p. 143, 144, ed. Bonn]. Among the hundred and eighty-two forts or castles of Thrace enumerated by Procopius (de Aedificiis, 1. iv. c. xi. tom. ii. p. 92, edit. Paris [tom. iii. p. 306, ed. Bonn]), there is one of the name of ‘Esimontou’, whose position is doubtfully marked, in the neighbourhood of Anchialus and the Euxine Sea. The name and walls of Azimuntium might subsist till the reign of Justinian; but the race of its brave defenders had been carefully extirpated by the jealousy of the Roman princes.

    (DEF II, v.3, ch.34, p.309-310, fn. 36)

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