The 1500 Year Old Murder Mystery: An Interview with Historian Michael Babcock

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Attila the Hun from a nineteenth-century drawing by Raymond Delamarre.

Recently History Behind Game of Thrones ran a series of articles speculating about the real historical basis behind Game of Thrones‘ Purple Wedding (in which Joffrey dies). Although George RR Martin has stated the wedding is based on the Anarchy-era death of Prince Eustace, thanks to this theory by Emily Yoshida, we suspect there are other historical influences he is not mentioning. There are far too many parallels between Joffrey’s death and Attila the Hun’s murder for it to be a coincidence. Is the similarity to Attila the Hun’s murder a historical spoiler George RR Martin wants to keep hidden?

Historical accounts portray Attila as dying from natural causes at his own wedding. Both the Romans — whom he extorted and massacred  — and his brother’s own family wanted Attila dead. Attila’s death, however, made far too many people happy for it just to be a coincidence.

In the interest of exploring history — and perhaps learning a bit more about what’s next in Game of Thrones — we interviewed Liberty University historian and philologist Dr. Michael Babcock about his astonishing book The Night Attila Died: Solving the Murder of Attila the Hun.

Using mere scraps of ancient contradictory texts from as far afield as Iceland, Dr. Babcock spent over twenty years painstakingly reconstructing the death of Attila the Hun. His findings are so remarkable that the National Geographic Channel featured Dr. Babcock in an episode of “Bloody Tales” devoted to Attila the Hun. Please welcome Dr. Michael Babcock.

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attila-woodcut

A woodcut of Attila the Hun

[Jamie Adair:] Attila the Hun comes across as a surprisingly charismatic figure — notwithstanding his brutality. Despite massacring many cities in his quest for gold, Attila dressed modestly and ate out of wooden bowls. He was decisive and taciturn,  yet simple in his demands.  I found myself admiring Attila, almost like we might love and loathe the polite, but lethal, Hannibal Lecter in Silence of the Lambs. Am I merely being seduced by the words of Attila’s chronicler, the fifth-century historian Priscus, or is there anything to admire with this “Scourge of God”? What’s your assessment of Attila’s character? Was Attila merely playing the hand he was dealt as Hunnic royalty?

[Dr. Michael Babcock:] There is no doubt that Attila is a commanding presence in the historical record, just as he was in the politics of the fifth-century. He’s something of a unicum, however, in that we just don’t have portraits like this of other “barbarian” leaders. The eyewitness account of Priscus survived quite by accident, as the larger history that Priscus wrote was extracted into an anthology of diplomatic records kept at Constantinople. The Romans studied the character of their friends and enemies, and so reports like this would have had a lot of value to them.

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A miniature of Attila the Hun on Horseback from Wikimedia Commons.

I am always reminded, however, that even when we have an eyewitness report like this, we have something filtered through a narrative lens – and that always distorts things. Nevertheless, we can manage to catch an accurate glimpse, I think, of a man who posed and played the role of a despot (what 19th-century historians would quaintly, and somewhat offensively, call an “Oriental despot,” as though we haven’t produced them in spades in the West!). Attila seems to have cultivated an image of austerity, and this is most apparent at the amazing dinner scene. This, for my money, is the most human, the most credible, of all the setpieces we see in Priscus. Only when Attila’s youngest son comes to the table do we see a glimmer of emotion in Attila, as he tenderly strokes his cheek. This is simply not made up, because it would have served no propagandistic function whatsoever. The Roman strategy was always to demonize their barbarian enemies; and yet Attila is strangely sympathetic in this portrait.

Attila does not seem to have been especially bloodthirsty, by which I mean he wasn’t a psychopath. But he could kill ruthlessly, crucifying traitors at strategic crossroads for maximum publicity, if he felt he needed to project his power. In this sense, “yes” he was “playing the hand he was dealt.”

Was he a complex figure? Not really, I think. Not in a Shakespearean or Wagnerian sense. He was definitely a man of his times, a man who had tremendous power and was not afraid to use it for his own short-term goals. On balance, I don’t find him to be a “great man” in the Carlyle sense of that term. I don’t see him as a shaper and molder of historical events. Even though I have studied his life and legacy for years, I don’t think I’m suffering from Stockholm syndrome! Perhaps I’m still hopelessly western in my orientation, but I do see a profound contrast between the Hunnic and Roman views of history. Attila made a career out of successful, opportunistic raids. He was a short-term thinker. The Romans, by contrast, had a genius for long-term thinking – as in centuries-long thinking. The Romans had a deep-seated civilizational instinct, something which the nomadic tribes that oppressed them clearly lacked. With this in mind, the central contrast for me in the fifth-century lies between Attila and Aetius, the Roman general who knew Attila personally and faced him in decisive battle at Châlons in 451. Aetius was one of those noble Romans dubbed “the last of the Romans.” There is something tragic in his figure; I see nothing tragic or particularly ennobling about Attila.

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The Huns invaded Italy in 451 CE. Image: Attila, the Scourge of God, by Ulpiano Checa, as reproduced in Beacon Lights of History, Volume IV by John Lo via Wikimedia Commons.

[Jamie Adair:]  Where did you get the idea that Attila’s death might not be from natural causes at 47 years old? Was there a smoking gun or “dripping dagger” (to borrow an apt phrase)?

[Dr. Michael Babcock:] I had a classic “a-ha” moment when I was reading two early medieval Latin texts simultaneously. Three centuries and a lot of geography separated these two texts, but they were both about Attila. Nowadays we can analyze millions of words of text in a fraction of a second; but back then, in the 80’s, we did things the old-fashioned way: we read texts line by line!

In that sense, my discovery was completely serendipitous. I noticed a cluster, a constellation of Latin words in both texts, occurring together in the same sequence – but used in different ways. Could this be a case of textual dependency? Are the texts related in some way? Those are classic philological questions, the kind familiar to biblical scholars as they reconstruct the deep history of the biblical texts. This question ultimately led me to conclude that the original historical accounts of Attila’s death had been rewritten over time – that there had been, in effect, a textual “cover up” of the circumstances surrounding his death. This led me on a wide-ranging investigation through Byzantine Greek and Latin chronicles, as well as the old Germanic stories that would later fire the imagination of Richard Wagner. The German myths did, in fact, preserve an ancient “rumor” that Attila had been murdered by his new bride on his wedding night. The story of his murder was very ancient – but the truth, I came to believe, was quite different.

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Attila’s Gallic campaign ended disastrously. After burning a path through modern-day France and Germany, Attila was defeated by his friend, the Roman general Aetius at Battle of the Catalaunian Plains. Image: Wikimedia Commons

[Jamie Adair:] From the sounds of it, Attila was “on the ropes” (or starting to fail) by 453. In your book, you describe how Hunnic rulers paid their followers through booty, so they had to keep raiding and plundering — or they would lose their followers. Attila’s 451 campaign in Gaul was a disaster. In 452, he invaded Italy but malaria, plague, and famine left his warriors too weak to continue and he had to accept Pope Leo’s offer to withdraw. Was it just a question of time before Attila’s men turned against him? Would he have just lost followers, or would he have eventually lost his life?

[Dr. Michael Babcock:] Well, it’s always easier to hypothesize about these things after the fact; but it does seem evident that Attila’s fortunes were waning. It was also probably known, throughout the intelligence network that spanned the western and eastern empires, that Attila was in a greatly weakened position. His marriage in 453 to Ildico, the German princess, has widely been interpreted as an attempt to shore up alliances with the Goths. All the indications of weakness were there, which is why striking him with a fresh assassination attempt would have made sense. Attila’s lieutenants may have sensed that their futures lay elsewhere, and they could therefore have been induced to turn against him. The illusion of invincibility had been shattered by two disastrous years of military campaigns. In some respects, Attila’s death was almost anti-climactic, as he had already been defeated twice.

[Jamie Adair:]  What made you investigate Attila’s death as a conspiracy – rather than trying to prove just one party did it (which I think would be the natural instinct)?

[Dr. Michael Babcock:] Of course, everybody in the Roman Empire, both East and West, wanted Attila dead. Everybody had a sufficient motive. But a conspiracy began to make a lot of sense for several reasons. First, the historical narrative of Priscus clearly reveals that a prior conspiracy against Attila had originated in the eastern court at Constantinople. This conspiracy involved some of Attila’s inner circle, who subsequently got cold feet and revealed the plot to Attila. Clearly, the machinery of a conspiracy was in place. Attila’s court was multicultural: he had members of his high command who were Roman, Greek, Hunnic, and Germanic (Goths).

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A latter day depiction of Attila the Hun’s court (at a feast).

There were divided loyalties among these men, long-term grievances, and many political axes to grind. For a plot to succeed, the conspirators would need protection; they would need a legitimate political prospect following Attila’s death. The conspiracy, therefore, could not be a lone act of passion, but had to be a calculated strategem, in which the parties involved would benefit. We actually see this playing out in history when we notice that the sons of two of the alleged conspirators end up in 476 in the final drama of the western empire. Odoacer, the son of Edeco (one of Attila’s Germanic lieutenants), deposes the last of the western emperors, Romulus Augulustus, who was the son of another one of Attila’s lieutenants, the Roman Orestes. Is this coincidence? I don’t think so. I believe that the good political fortunes of these two sons was the direct payoff for their fathers’ participation in the conspiracy. All this is circumstantial evidence, of course, but that’s all the philologist ever has to work with!

[Jamie Adair:]  Was Attila’s new bride Ildico completely innocent of his murder? There are accounts and legends that link Attila’s death to his wife’s hand or to a woman– are these simply based on Ildico being in the wrong place at the wrong time?

Yes, I believe so. She emerges in Germanic legend, and Wagnerian opera, as an impressive, castrating bitch – but she was likely a highly submissive child-bride, married for political purposes. It is entirely natural that a rumor would develop linking her to the death; but she was a prop, the occasion for the actual murder by poison, as I allege. Sex and death are so closely linked in the human imagination, as Freud taught us, that it not surprising in the least that she should become identified with his death. But this is historically insupportable, I believe.

Flavius-Aetius

Flavius Aetius

[Jamie Adair:]  I was fascinated by your description of the relationship between Attila and his nemesis the Western Roman general Aetius. After living as a diplomatic hostage in the Visigoth Alaric’s court, Aetius became a hostage in the Hunnic court and may have even been friends with Attila. It seems like their relationship evolved from being mutually beneficial (when Aetius hired Attila’s men as mercenaries) to acrimonious or non-existent later on. It’s interesting that Aetius, the most influential man in the Western roman empire, was raised as a diplomatic hostage with the man who was the scourge of that same empire. Was there an element of corruption in their relationship? Why do you think their relationship changed?

[Dr. Michael Babcock:] I find Aetius to be one of the most engaging and intriguing figures of the fifth century. He was a man born out of time, the “last of the Romans” who understood what it meant, what it used to mean, to be a Roman. He might have been the emperor – and he would have done much better than those who occupied the throne in the last century of Rome’s decline. It’s probably a stretch to say that Aetius and Attila were friends; but they certainly knew each other personally as young men. This brings an added dimension of tragedy to the story of the great battle of Châlons. It should be emphasized that Attila lost this decisive battle in the heart of Gaul, modern-day France. At great cost, Aetius was the victor. In this battle, Aetius no doubt used his detailed knowledge of Attila and the Huns to great advantage. If I were to guess, based on the textual evidence we have, I would imagine that both men admired and respected each other. They were worthy adversaries who would probably have chosen to let the other man live. Once again, I come back to the character of Aetius. He strikes me as a man whose understanding of the times rose above the petty politics of the moment. He should have lived in the time of Julius Caesar – and he seems to have known that he was born in the wrong century. What’s not to like about a man like this? He is the true hero of this wasteland of a century; he’s the one who bestrode the world stage. In the end, he was assassinated by a pathetic little weasel of a man, the emperor Valentinian III. Why this man, Aetius, has not received more attention from playwrights and poets I will never know. No doubt it’s the misfortune of living when he did.

[Jamie Adair:] Originally, Attila and his brother Bleda were corulers of the Huns. Eventually, they clashed over diplomatic policy. Attila probably assassinated his brother to gain the throne for himself. It seems quite likely, however, that one of Bleda’s men, Edecon, wanted vengeance for Bleda’s death. In 449, Edecon probably plotted with Theodossius II and his eunuch Chrysaphius to assassinate Attila. How is it that Edecon could have revealed the first assassination plot to Attila and lived to tell the tale?

[Dr. Michael Babcock:] This question goes to the heart of Attila’s character. Edecon must have been taking a great risk to reveal the plot to Attila; but I assume that he framed the plot in particularly self-serving ways … “I was playing along with Emperor Theodosius just to gain his confidence,” etc. Attila was extraordinarily pragmatic as well. As long as Edecon served his purposes, he was willing to trust him. As an ambassador, Edecon had direct access to the eastern court, and he was well connected to provide political intelligence to Attila. Most likely, Attila thought that Edecon would never pose a threat in the future, having already come clean on one plot. My argument, of course, is that this was a grave miscalculation on Attila’s part.

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Brothers and co-rulers: Bleda and Attila. Image: A modern-day recreation by Tulipán Tamás via Wikimedia Commons

[Jamie Adair:] It seems like marriage is frequently a catalyst – sometimes for doom – among the fifth-century Roman nobility (not to mention Attila). For example, Attila is murdered when he attempts to form a marriage pact with (presumably) a German princess, Honoria may have proposed marriage to Attila and the Western Roman Emperor, Valentinian likely executed her as a result, and Aetius assumes he is secure after marrying his son to Valentinian’s daughter. Even Botticelli, centuries later, immortalized a scene from The Decameron associating marriage with violence. Could marriage alliances trigger anxiety or violence?

[Dr. Michael Babcock:] Of course, marriage at this high level of political gamesmanship was entirely strategic. Marriages were ways to forge alliances. They functioned much as the Cold War concept of “tripwire troops” once functioned in a divided Berlin. NATO kept a contingent of troops in West Berlin not to effectively defend the city, but to act as a trigger, a “tripwire” in case of Soviet invasion, necessitating a military response. If both sides knew that war would be inevitable, then the tripwire would be avoided. Political marriages, similar to the exchanging of noble hostages like Aetius, acted in this way to stabilize the political landscape.

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Botticelli’s painting, The Banquet in the Pine Forest, depicts a scene from the Decameron during which dogs hunt down a reluctant bride. Art historians have noted that such scenes would not have been shocking to Renaissance contemporaries since violence was often associated with aristocratic weddings — a tense time due to tough dowry negotiations and the resulting changes in balances of political power.

[Jamie Adair:] I was fascinated by your philological method of reinterpreting and reconstructing historical texts. But, when I read your comments about Priscus, and about rhetoricians in general, I felt like rhetoric was the enemy of the philologist. In fact, as somebody with a rhetoric degree, I detected perhaps a subtle rivalry between the discipline of rhetoric and the discipline of philology. Am I reading too much between the lines?

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Friedrich Nietzsche via Wikimedia Commons.

[Dr. Michael Babcock:] Nietzsche, who was himself trained as a philologist, famously defined philology as “slow reading.” The whole method is built on slowing down long enough to take meticulous stock of the smallest detail – the missing explanation, the suspicious “lacuna” (i.e., gap) in the manuscript tradition, etc. The philological method brings historical research down to the word-by-word level, asking why “this” word was chosen over “that.” It’s a kind of verbal archaeology, and it can yield real results, as I hope I tried to demonstrate in my book.
Philology and rhetoric are not necessarily opposed. They simply operate in different spheres. Rhetoric is the domain of persuasion; philology is pure analysis and reconstruction. Philology does provide the tools, however, to unmask the techniques of rhetoric. When information is deliberately suppressed or altered for persuasive effect, this constitutes a “conspiracy” that philology can uncover. Priscus is a very convincing writer, as I would expect him to be as a teacher of rhetoric. But this skill with words is exactly what makes him fair game for the philologist!

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Gudrun was a common figure in early Germanic literature. Kriemhild (Gudrun) shows Gunther in prison Wagner’s the
“Nibelungen Ring.” Image: Johann_Heinrich_Füssli via Wikimedia Commons

[Jamie Adair:] In the 1650s a bishop found 45 pages of Icelandic poems, now known as Codex Regius, dating back to second half of the thirteenth. The manuscript contained two gruesome poems likely from the Norse settlement on southern Greenland about “Atli” (likely Attila). In one poem, as Atli and his warriors feast, a woman named Gudrun commands Atli’s sons be slaughtered, their hearts roasted in honey, and taken up to the high table to be served as “ale morsels.” If I understood the poem, Gudrun then tells Atli – after he has digested the ale morsels– that he has actually eaten his sons’ hearts. Gudrun then completes her revenge by killing the unarmed Atli.
Is Gudrun’s vengeance related to Priscus meeting Bleda’s widow in his travels? Did Bleda’s widow have a hand in Attila’s death?

[Dr. Michael Babcock:] You said somewhat sheepishly “If I understood the poem….” No need to qualify your statement! I have spent many years studying Old Icelandic, and I don’t understand the poem! It’s quite mystifying; it’s violent, passionate, savage, cannibalistic. And it’s not even a cable series on TV! Quite amazing. I think you’re definitely putting your finger on something when you suggest that the kernel of this brutal story may lie in ancient historical events. Still, I don’t think that Bleda’s widow could have had a hand in the murder of Attila (she would not have had the clout, I think); but that’s not going to stop a poet, especially one living in a stark outpost like Greenland, from making that connection!

[Jamie Adair:] What role did Attila’s death play in the death of the Western Roman Empire?

Very little. If not Attila, then someone else. In the West, the Roman Empire was teetering. Its army was composed primarily of Germanic mercenaries. The borders were shrinking. The emperors were impotent idiots. The fall of Rome was inevitable. Attila was partly a creation, I believe, of opportunity. Had Rome been strong – as it was in the 2nd century, for example, during the reigns of Hadrian, Trajan, Marcus Aurelius – then Attila would not have had a chance. His success owed everything to the weakness of the western empire.

Thank you to Dr. Michael Babcock for this interview.


Dr. Michael Babcock is an Associate Professor of Humanities at Liberty University, where he has taught humanities and English courses for for 18 years. The National Geographic Channel episode of “Bloody Tales,” in which he was featured, aired on April 1, 2013. Dr. Babcock is passionate about teaching students to think critically and to impact the world.

Buy The Night Attila Died: Solving the Murder of Attila the Hun (Amazon US)

Buy The Night Attila Died: Solving the Murder of Attila the Hun (Amazon UK)

Jamie Adair is the editor of History Behind Game of Thrones, a website about the history behind George RR Martin's "A Song of Ice and Fire" novels and the hit TV show, "Game of Thrones."

6 Comments

  • Reply May 25, 2014

    Jun

    Intriguing murder mystery. Slightly off topic – Your mention of the Icelandic poem reminds me of the connection between ASOIAF and Nordic history and mythology. Even though I’m nearly completely ignorant of Nordic mythology, I couldn’t help but notice some similarity to the Nibelungen saga. There are so many familiar elements to Wagner’s Ring cycle, including brother-sister incest and wife burning husband’s body in a pyre, etc.

    • Reply May 25, 2014

      Jamie Adair

      I’m hoping that Michael Babcock comments on this – maybe we’ll get lucky 🙂 – because I don’t know anything about Wagner and I believe he knows a lot. The Icelandic poem in his book is amazing – brutal, vicious, sneaky, vindictive. It has a very dark mood. You really get a sense of the oral tradition (originally Norse or northern Germanic I believe). You can almost picture them in their firelit great hall. It’s intriguing because you wonder about the psychology / culture of the people who created it. All those dark winter months, depression, ferocity, starvation. My inner Canadian can relate well with the dark depressing endless winter.

  • Reply May 27, 2014

    John Henry Clay

    Thanks for a great interview! I couldn’t agree more about Aetius – one of the few great figures of his time, unfortunately born into circumstances that even Caesar would have struggled to cope with. If only Aetius (or at least his son) had become emperor, things might have worked out very differently for the empire.

  • Reply May 28, 2014

    Watcher on the Couch

    I think I shall have to call back to this site and read this article again – there is just so much to take in. I read an online article somewhere (unfortunately I can’t find it offhand) where someone had compared the Song of Ice and Fire with certain Nordic myths. For example he had compared the binding of the Fenris Wolf (where the wolf demands one of the gods puts their hand it its mouth as surety) to the part of Song of Ice and Fire where a person loses a hand. It doesn’t play out in the legend quite how it does in the books (or the show which is slightly different to the books) because the god Tyr (who gave his name to Tuesday, I believe) stuck his hand in the wolf’s mouth but as soon as the wolf realised he had been duped he bit off Tyr’s hand. Returning to the article, it is fascinating to think that the story of Attila might have travelled and formed the basis of a Nordic poem. I know the Orpheus and Eurydice myth is thought to be at the root of a Shetland ballad King Orfeo http://www.sacred-texts.com/neu/eng/child/ch019.htm If I remember correctly The Shetland islands were much influenced by Scandinavia in the past.

    • Reply May 28, 2014

      Jun

      I totally agree! Will have to come back and read various articles on this site again. Martin has dragged me on a journey of European history and mythology while showing all the interconnectedness. I feel dizzy and disoriented by the sheer scale …

      I wish Martin would one day (AFTER he’s finished the novels, of course) write an annotated version of ASOIAF and provide the historical and mythological sources that inspired each plot point in the novel.

  • Reply May 28, 2014

    Jamie Adair

    I agree about the layers. Michael Babcock’s book is really rich and there are many levels and aspects of Attila’s story. I didn’t know very much about the Romans or Attila before I began working on the series, but it is really quite fascinating once you learn the players.

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