The Dark Ages - Age of Light
Waldemar Januszczak

Attila the Hun

An intelligent, multi-lingual leader

The Dark Ages: Age of Light

Deformed Hun Skull
Deformed Hun Skull

The Huns practised ritual deformation, and their skulls were deliberately misshapen at birth. Infant Huns would have their heads tightly bound so the grew into these uncanny and elongated Mekon shapes. And on these deformed heads of theirs, the Huns would balance spectacular crowns of unimaginable preciousness.

So the big question is, where did the Huns get all of their gold? They were nomads, not miners, and although they were busy tradesmen, you'd need to trade an awful lot of goatskins for the amount of gold left behind by the Huns.


They didn't trade for it. The Huns got the gold more directly. Straight from the Romans. Because their bows were so lethal and their horseman so skilled, the Huns were soon operating a protection racket across most of the Roman Empire. What they'd do is invade somewhere, or threaten to invade somewhere, and then demand a large quantities of gold to go away again.

The Romans, cowardly diplomats that they were, preferred to pay them than to fight them. And by the time the Hunnic Empire was at its largest extent, the Huns were receiving 2,500 pounds of gold coins from the Romans every year.

Protection Money
Protection Money

2,500 pounds of gold… every year, to melt down and turn into art.

A few tribes of nomads raiding along these Roman borders could never have pressurised the Romans into giving up these ENORMOUS quantities of gold. So we need to forget this image of the Huns as a tribal horde sweeping across Europe, because they were something much more sophisticated than that.

Hunnic Empire
Hunnic Empire

This is a map of the Hunnic Empire under Attila. It's the bits in orange. And just look at the size of it! This wasn't a bunch of nomads on the make, this was a rival Empire. The new superpower of the Dark Ages turned up to take on the Romans.

I've kept Attila back, because the moment you mention him, the story of the Huns takes on a satanic glint. All the Huns were demonised by history, but Attila was demonised most of all.

The exciting thing is we actually know a lot about him. A Roman diplomat called Priscus was sent on one of these diplomatic missions to negotiate with the Huns, and he has left behind a vivid account of his journey. And this gentleman here is building a replica of Attila's palace on the actual site of which he thinks it actually stood.

Attila Palace
Attila Palace

So, Janos, when did you first become interested in Attila?

Janos Kocsi
Janos Kocsi

Janos Kocsi "I bought this land 20 years ago to breed horses. That was when we came across the history of the site. Priscus, the Byzantine ambassador, visited Attila and 450 A.D. and describes how he found his way here. And he definitely identified this place as the site of Attila's palace. That's why we'd like to erect a memorial to him here, by constructing a wooden palace."

Janos's palace will be created in timber, exactly as Priscus describes. It's shaped like a giant nomads tent, a kind of glorified yurt with two wooden towers rising cockily at the front. Priscus tells us that when he arrived, he was treated to an enormous banquet, served on silver plates.

And a procession of young women dressed in white veils came out to sing for him. Attila himself was simply dressed and ate nothing but meat on a wooden platter. While the guests were given goblets of gold and silver.

What does Attila mean to the Hungarian people? Because, for a lot of people in Europe, he has a very bad reputation, but not here. In Hungary, he seems to be thought of more as a hero.

Janos Kocsi "When people say Attila was a barbarian, that's something I reject. It's not something I believe. He spoke eight languages by the age of 15 and laid Europe at his feet. Someone unintelligent – a barbarian – could not have done the things that Attila did. Only someone blessed with special talents."

Did Attila's palace really look like this? I very much doubt it. But neither do I think Janos's fantasy is more misleading than all the other Hun fantasies about satanic hordes sweeping through Europe.

By the time Attila became their ruler, the Huns had created a complex political system. Their huge empire was actually a federation of many nations. A kind of barbarian EU, opposed to the Romans, with Goths and Burgundians, Alans, even a few Greeks, all linked together and ruled by Attila.

23-piece Gold Dinner Service
23-piece Gold Dinner Service

So I'm here at the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna. There's something really spectacular I just have to show you.

When this was dug out of the ground on the Romanian border in 1799, it was thought to be Attila the Hun's personal dinner service. You can see why they thought that. Just look at how splendid this is. 23 golden vessels. Nearly ten kilos of pure gold.

Magnificent Bull-Headed Bowl
Magnificent Bull-Headed Bowl

Today, no-one thinks this was Attila's dinner service. The most recent thinking is that it was left behind by the Avars, one of those mysterious tribes that emerged from the confederation of the Huns. They obviously had that special relationship with nature, too. This magnificent bull-headed bowl is another example of powerful, natural magic channelled into gold.

This is what the Dark Ages were capable of. This is what makes these times so exciting. That bull bowl has a power to it. An animal energy that you just don't get later on when art loses this connection to the basic stuff of life.

The Empire of the Huns didn't last long. For a few decades, it rivalled the Romans. And then it was gone. Attila, the glue that held it all together, had a taste for young brides. But on his final wedding night, he drank himself into a stupor, took his latest blade to bed, and promptly died of a heart attack. They found him the next morning with blood streaming down his nose. What we would call these days "a rock star's death".

Within a few years, Attila's empire was gone. Torn apart by feuds and incompetence. But the Huns had done their job. They had punched a hole in the invincible reputation of the Romans. Now, all manner of barbarian was queueing up to pour through it.