Attila the Hun: Scourge of God

Episode 12: Attila the Hun: Scourge of God

Barbarian Empires of the Steppes (2014)

Dr Kenneth Harl

Film Review

Harl devotes this lecture to one of the most skilled military leaders of all time Attila (434-453 AD). At the time of his death, Attila the Hun controlled a tribal empire consisting of Huns, Ostrogoths, Alans and Bulgars. Harl credits his large diverse empire for the linguistic shift on the steppes from Persian to Turkic languages. For many historians, the latter signals the start of the Middle Ages.

Like many prior nomadic chieftains, Attila maintained control of his federation via the loot he pilfered (which he used to pay vassal chieftains) from the Balkan provinces of the Eastern Roman Empire. In addition to gold and luxuries, he also captured Roman engineers to build bath houses and build military technology to overwhelm Roman defenses.

Initially Attila’s main objective was to break down the Danube defenses of the Western Roman Empire, allowing him easy access to the Germanic provinces. In 447 AD, Rome signed a treaty with Attila that effectively stopped his military raids on Gaul. In addition to paying him 2,100 pounds of gold, Rome promised to demilitarize a 200-mile area to the south and west of the Danube (effectively allowing Hun raiders free access to the former Roman provinces).

The same year, Attila virtually destroyed Constantinople’s Theodosian walls (see How the Rise of the Huns Transformed Europe. Over the next year, Theodosius II put the entire population to work restoring the walls to protect against Hun raids.

In the spring of 450 AD, the half-sister of Roman emperor Valentinian III sent Attila a ring begging him to rescue her from an unpleasant arranged marriage. Taking this as a marriage proposal, Attila accepted, requesting Gaul and Spain as her dowry. When Valentinian declined, Attila declared war on Rome. Assembling assembling an infantry of 100,000 mounted warriors and infantry, sacked 10 major cities of Gaul.*  Enlisting assistance from the Visigoths, Franks and lesser nomadic tribes, Valentinian’s generals confronted Attila at the Marne River in the 451 AD Battle of the Catalonia Plains. It ended in a stalemate and Attila withdrew to the Danube.

When Attila invaded Northern Italy a year later, Pope Leo I met him at the Po River and persuaded him to withdraw.

A short time later, Attila died in a drunken stupor. Suspected of poisoning him, his wife was put to death. She emerges as the heroine Gudrun** in Norse mythology.

*Paris was one of the few cities that didn’t fall.

**In Norse mythology, Gudrun was the wife of the great hero Sigurd. After Sigurd’s death, she became the wife of Atli, king of the Huns.

Film can be viewed free with a library card on Kanopy.

The Role of Sarmatian Nomads in Rome’s Military Success

Episode 7: The Romans and the Sarmations

Barbarian Empires of the Steppes (2014)

Dr Kenneth Harl

Film Review

The Sarmations were an Iranian-speaking culture (reflecting early interactions with China) that originated from a region east of the Ural mountains and north of the Caspian Sea. Around 300 BC they began to migrate west to the south Russian steppes. An extremely wealthy culture, they eventually controlled all trade along the Russian rivers to the Baltic Sea. This included the trade in amber,* which was highly prized in Greece and Rome. Their warriors were even more highly prized than Scythian soldiers. Intermarriage of Sarmation mercenaries with Greek populations promoted a taste in Sarmatia for Mediterranean products. The Sarmatians also sold and transported slaves and horses (the main source of horses for Roman cavalry).

As they moved further west they came into contact with Celtic and Germanic tribes, from whom they learned metal technology.

In addition to their mounted archers, they employed a heavy cavalry wearing metallic body armor. In the second century AD, the Romans adopted the Sarmation model of heavy cavalry. Under emperor Marcus Aurelius, Sarmation mercenaries were sent to Britain to subdue rebellious natives.

The Sarmations carried dragon banners into battle adapted from the Chinese. The Romans adopted Sarmation dragon symbology, subsequently absorbed into medieval European culture.

Their alliances with Rome led to the construction of Roman cities and fortresses on the Danube to 1) regulate trade into Rome’s northern European provinces and 2) permanent settlement of Sarmation nomads on (provincial) Roman pasture land. To reduce migration pressure, the Romans also captured thousands of Sarmations and resettled them in their northern provinces.

According to Harl, the Sarmations never built an effective confederation because Rome, a dictatorship, had no princesses to intermarry with Sarmations princes (and introduce them to the bureaucratic skills needed to develop centralized political power).

In the second century AD, the Goths left their homeland in Scandinavia and traveled down the Sarmation trade routes, enslaving Sarmations and attacking the Roman provinces. They learned military horsemanship from the Sarmations and set up a series of Goth confederations. They were driven back in the 3rd century AD and remained a loose confederation until the Huns arrived in Europe in 375 AD.

Film can be viewed free with a library card on Kanopy.

*Amber is fossilized tree resin that takes a fine polish and is used in ornamental jewelry

When England Was Connected to the European Continent

When Doggerland Sank Beneath the Waves: Europe’s Lost World

Directed by Pete Kelly (2020)

Film Review

This documentary concerns the continental shelf that connected Ireland, the UK and Europe during the last Ice Age. The filmmakers date the start of the Paleolithic or Stone Age (ie the first human use of stone tools) to 3.3 million years ago.

In Britain the oldest human remains date from 400,000 – 500,000 years ago. For the most part,  they derive the species Homo neanderthalensis. Neanderthals lived during a period when when several human species roamed planet earth. They became extinct around 35,000 BC.

The first British evidence of modern humans (homo sapiens) dates from 31,000 BC. There’s good evidence these early hunter gatherers traveled hundreds of miles, across the Doggerland* land bridge, following herds of woolly mammoth. They would be forced to retreat to more southern areas of Europe when the last ice sheet covered Britain from 31,000 – 11,000 BC.
As northern Europe began to warm in 3,000 BC, tundra throughout Europe gradually changed to savanna and forestland featuring lions, hyenas, saber tooth tigers, bears, hares, badgers and primitive horses. During the period Doggerland connected Britain to the continent, the Thames flowed into the Seine and Danube Rivers.
Between 8,000 – 6,200 BC, rising sea levels steadily shrank the size of Doggerland. By 7,500 BC, Ireland was a separate island and by 7,000 BC, most of Doggerland were so marshy people could only travel to Europe by boat. The Doggerland Hills remained until 6,200 BC, when evidence suggests they were submerged by a mega-tsunami triggered by a landslide off the Norwegian coast.

*The name Doggerland derives from the Dogger Banks, a shallow region off East Anglia, renowned for abundant fish catches. Dogger is the Dutch word for fisherman.