Skip to content

Under Attila’s Gaze

In the ninth instalment of ‘The So-Called Dark Ages,’ Herbert Bushman describes a Roman diplomat’s famous fifth-century journey into the heart of Hunnic territory.

· 28 min read
Feast of Attila, by Hungarian painter Mór Than (1828–99).
Feast of Attila, by Hungarian painter Mór Than (1828–99). Priscus of Priam is depicted in the bottom right corner, sitting alongside the older Maximinus. Onegesius, in grey hair and beard, appears at the foot of Attila’s throne. The child with Attila is his youngest son, Ernac.

The article that follows forms part of The So-Called Dark Ages, a serialized Quillette history of Late Antiquity, adapted from Herbert Bushman’s ongoing Dark Ages podcast. This instalment is the fourth dedicated to the Huns. To read previous instalments, tracing the history of the Goths, click here.

Priscus of Panium was an Eastern Roman government official based in Constantinople, and was in his thirties when he undertook his famous journey to the lands of the Huns. We don’t know Priscus’ exact date of birth, though it is believed to have been between 410 and 420 C.E. He came from a Thracian town called Panion, on the north shore of the Sea of Marmara. But most of his other biographical details—including his family background, his social status, his religious inclination—are unknown.

What we do know is that Priscus wrote a history of the relationship between Romans and Huns (or “Scythians,” as they are sometimes referred to below)—in which he included an extensive and fascinating personal narrative about his 448 C.E. diplomatic mission to the court of Attila, on behalf of the Eastern Roman Emperor, Theodosius II (r. 402–50). That work, alas, did not survive as a complete manuscript, but rather comes down to us in the form of quotations and references contained in eleven other identified works.

And yet, even if this fragmented form, Priscus’ account provides historians with a unique resource. As noted earlier in this series, the Huns were a nomadic and illiterate people who left no body of writing that would allow us to understand the inner workings of Hunnic society. And so it is only thanks to glancing accounts from outsiders—Priscus foremost among them—that we know what little we do about the world governed by Attila.

From out of the Steppes, a ‘Whirlwind of Nations’
In the sixth instalment of ‘The So-Called Dark Ages,’ Herbert Bushman describes the rise of the Huns, who struck terror into the hearts of Goths and Romans alike.

For this instalment, I’ve compiled these scattered excerpts from Priscus’ work into a coherent narrative, presented in the form of a letter from Priscus to one of his fifth-century contemporaries (a certain “Olybrius,” who has just sent Priscus the latest news from the western half of the Roman Empire). In this project, I’ve relied greatly on The Fragmentary History of Priscus, by East Carolina University classics scholar John Given, who translated the original texts from Latin and Greek, and provided helpful annotations. While the letter is a fictional device of my own invention, all of the information contained in it does faithfully reflect Priscus’ own documented observations.

To my dear friend Olybrius—

Greetings. Thank you for your last letter. I read with great interest your accounting of Patrician [Flavius] Aetius’ successes against the Franks, and with great relief of your safety, thanks be to God for his protection of you. Since you have been so kind as to write with such detail and insight, I have taken up my own pen to relate some of my own experiences of the last several months.

You will remember our mutual acquaintance Maximinus, whom I believe you served during the recent battles against the Persians. He has since become a trusted official in the court of our Emperor, Theodosius, God save him. At the beginning of this year, just as spring was arriving, Maximinus was chosen to lead a diplomatic mission into Pannonia, to the king of the barbarian Scythians, Attila, to whom the Lord has seen fit to grant victories in punishment of our sins. I had the good fortune to accompany Maximinus on this mission, and will relate what I saw to you.

A Wikipedia-published map, annotated in Polish, indicating the Via Egnatia (red) and Via Militaris (blue). Constantinople, rendered here as Konstantynopol, appears in the bottom right corner.

We left Constantinople on a fine morning in April [448 C.E.], and made our way along the Via Egnatia and the Via Militaris. We were a mix of our own Roman party and of barbarians who were returning to Attila from their own embassy to Theodosius, may God bless and preserve him. Our mission was to carry a letter to Attila, in response to the letter that had been carried by these barbarian ambassadors.

Besides myself and Maximinus, in the Roman party there was a man called Bigilas, who acted as our translator when we spoke with the barbarians, and would interpret for us when we came into the King’s presence. He is an uncouth man, little suited to diplomacy, with only his skill in the language of the Scythians to recommend him.

(It is very difficult to find any among our countrymen who can form the sounds of their language. However, in the course of our travels, we did meet another man who could speak the foreign tongue, Rusticius by name, who was travelling on his own mission sent by our brother court in Ravenna.)

Among the barbarians who accompanied us there were two worth mentioning. The first was called Edeko, who claimed to be a man of great power among his people. He told us that Attila’s safety was his responsibility, and that he personally guarded the King under arms for a portion of the day, which was a great honor and sacred trust.

The second man was also a lieutenant of Attila, though he was, to my surprise, of Roman birth. His name was Orestes, born of a good family in Pannonia. When that country was given over to the Scythians by Aetius [the military commander of the western half of the Roman Empire], this Orestes went and sought his fortune with the Huns and won a high position and the trust of their King.

As I said, these two men had delivered a message to our own Blessed Emperor. In that letter, Attila had complained that the conditions that had been agreed by previous embassies had not been fulfilled. He named fugitives from his rule who had not been returned to him, and said that the territories that were to be abandoned to his use had not been emptied to his satisfaction. He had also demanded that only men of the highest rank should be sent to him as ambassadors. Failure to abide by these agreements would be met by Attila with renewed war against us.

The Barbarian King had offered to travel to Serdica [the modern Bulgarian capital of Sofia] to meet our party and hear the Emperor’s answer. But, fearing that this was merely a pretense to bring his army into our lands for attack, we determined that we would visit him in his own lands, beyond the Istrus [Danube River].

We carried, in addition to our answer to these demands, the usual array of gifts to distribute to those useful persons we might meet along the way to ease our journey, as well as many fine presents for Attila himself. There were also gifts for a Hun called Onegesius, whom we understood to be second to Attila in power.

The Emperor and his advisors thought to turn Onegesius into a friend of the Romans, so that he could use his influence with Attila on our behalf. Thus did Maximinus and I understand our mission, and I did not find out until long after our return that there were other motives afoot, which I will relate at the end of my story.

The two halves of our party, the Roman and the Scythian, travelled separately in the main. That is to say, there was not much conversation between them, though Bigilas could often be observed speaking with Edeko in low tones. On the ninth day, we met Rusticius and he joined us, and on the thirteenth day we reached Serdica.

The city, as you know, was laid waste by the barbarians in the most recent war. And within we found only a small and wretched remnant of its old inhabitants. On the sight of this, many of our men and servants could be seen muttering amongst themselves, and this was noted by the barbarian men. Maximinus, in his wisdom, suggested that we should acquire meat and put on a banquet for both Romans and Scythians to ease the feelings of all. We bought cattle and sheep from the locals, who were grateful for the commerce, slaughtered them, and invited all to our tent for dinner.

Maximinus’ generosity did much to improve everyone’s spirits, until Bigilas allowed his poor manners to interfere. The Scythians raised a cup in toast to their King Attila, and Maximinus proposed that the toast should also be to our lord Theodosius. At this, Bigilas spoke out, saying that it was not right that a god and a man should be compared in such a way. By this, of course, he meant Theodosius as a god and Attila as merely a man. The barbarians became very agitated at this, as well they might, and were on the verge of withdrawing from the banquet. Maximinus, displaying the good humor that we both know so well, was able to brush the comment aside, and the Scythians were placated, but it was a near thing. Bigilas appeared very red in the face, having drunk much more deeply than was prudent so early in the evening. When he saw me staring at him, he returned my gaze with great insolence and haughtiness, and gave no sign of regretting his mistake.

Another curious incident followed the banquet. Maximinus and I were approached by Orestes, who complimented us on our tact. We thought he referred to Bigilas’ unpleasantness, but that was not what he referred to. It seemed that back in Constantinople, Edeko had dined privately with Chrysaphius the Eunuch [a powerful figure within Theodosius’ court], and Orestes was insulted to have received no invitation. Of course, we had no knowledge of this, having had nothing to do with the Scythians’ earlier meetings. We asked him to explain further, but he declined and took his leave. Maximinus and I were at a loss at this behavior, and inquired of Bigilas if he could give some insight. He said curtly that Orestes had no right to be offended, since Edeko, by his Scythian birth, would always be of higher rank within Hunnic society. He then took his own leave, rather hurriedly I thought.

Our path soon carried us beyond the frontier that Attila had specified, and we saw everywhere empty farms and villages. Many were falling into disrepair. A few remained occupied, whether out of defiance or ignorance, who can say? I said a prayer that they would not suffer too greatly at the hands of the barbarians. The city of Naissus [modern Niš, in Serbia] is the first in that abandoned territory, and we found it even more desolate than Serdica. The only remaining souls in the city were those in a few infirmaries, who were too ill to be moved, and the holy men and women who tended to them in danger of their own lives.

Maximinus ordered that these people be given as much provisions as we could spare from our own stores. We did not stay in the city nor camp outside its walls. There was no appropriate lodging within, and outside the ground was strewn all about with the bones of those who had died in the last battle. Instead, we had to move up the [Nišava] river nearly two miles until we could find a place to pitch our tents. Maximinus and I both prayed for the fallen that night, and we were sombre as we left Naissus.

We were now in territory controlled by the barbarians, and found the travel more difficult. The roads were still of good Roman construction, and solid in their fabric, but the grasses and foliage had begun to creep between paving stones, as the Scythians did nothing to maintain them. The ground itself became the enemy of our progress, as our road passed into a jumble of broken and deeply gullied hills. They were so confusing that one morning, some of our company cried out in alarm, for they believed that the sun had risen in the west! Of course, they had simply lost all sense of direction on those twisting pathways, and folly upended their senses.

On the second day out of Naissus, we were met by a new party of barbarians, who led us the remaining distance to the Istrus. They said that Attila was preparing a hunting expedition into his new territories, which we took to be a pretense in preparation for war, though we did not say so. These barbarians brought us to the bank of the great river [Danube] that in former times held back the barbarians. Now we were borne across it by those same barbarians in long boats they had carved from tree trunks for the purpose. The ground on the far side of the Istrus was less hilly, and after we travelled about 70 stadia [approximately 10 km], we stopped and camped for the night. The Scythians among us were becoming more cheerful, while we Romans were becoming less. For his part, Bigilas was even more peevish than usual, and snapped at his grooms with little provocation.

The next morning, Edeko, Orestes, and a part of their retainers went ahead to find Attila’s camp and announce our presence. That same day, during our evening meal, two Scythians we had not seen before rode up to our camp and announced that we should prepare ourselves to meet their king on the following day. We invited them to share our food and camp for the night. They accepted, and were agreeable guests. The next day, they led us to the Huns’ camp. About the ninth hour of the day, we reached the top of a hill, and beheld below it a cloud of tents that filled the valley. As it was already late, we prepared to pitch our own tents where we stood, but our guides stopped us, saying it would be improper for us to camp higher than their lord, so we followed them down to the edge of the barbarians’ settlement.

Before we were ready to set up our own encampment, Edeko and Orestes came to us, accompanied by some other lieutenants of Attila, and in harsh tones they demanded that we explain the purpose of our embassy. We were bewildered by the question. Maximinus and I looked at each other, and I recall that I shrugged my shoulders unhelpfully. Maximinus managed to ask, “What is the meaning of such a senseless question? Our Emperor has sent us to speak with your chief, Attila, and no other. You both [Edecko and Orestes] have travelled with us our whole journey, and know this well. When he pleases, I shall tell my purpose to your lord, and no other.”

One of the men, whose name was Skotta, replied, “It is our chief that ordered us to come to you and find out your purpose. None of us are men to meddle in affairs that are not our business.”

I found my voice and said, “It is not customary for ambassadors to be questioned by intermediaries. We shall deliver our message to Attila alone. You know this, as that is how your own ambassadors are treated when we receive them.”

Maximinus continued: “We shall speak with Attila, or we shall depart.” He stood up straight and held the Scythians’ gaze with admirable firmness.

The Scythians conferred amongst themselves a moment, and then departed. Maximinus ordered that our men begin unpacking our camp, saying to me that we should not behave as if we were in the wrong. As it happened, though, less than an hour passed before the same group approached us again, though this time Edeko was not among them. Skotta again spoke, and revealed that he somehow already knew our mission:

First, you came here to tell our chief that seventeen of the fugitives he sought have been returned to him, and there are no more among you that are known to you. Second, that the removal of Romans from the territories near Naissus is underway and nearly completed. Therefore, there is no cause for war between us and the Romans. Finally, you were instructed to tell our lord that he should not make demands about the nature of the Emperor’s ambassadors, that apparently any random soldier is good enough to speak to our lord. Lastly, you bear gifts for Onegesius in addition to Attila, but he is not here with us at this time. Now, if you have anything further to add to this message, speak now. Otherwise, turn around and return to your own lands.

We were dumbfounded at this, since he had indeed described the contents of our message, even the private message that was not written in the Emperor’s letter. But Maximinus showed his mettle again, as he refused to say whether this report was true or not, and continued to insist that he must speak to Attila. Skotta said nothing further, but Orestes repeated the order to depart.

Once they had left, Bigilas turned on Maximinus and said, “It would have been better to be caught in a lie than return to Constantinople in failure. I once made a friend of Attila, and if I could have spoken to him, I would have been able to convince him to abandon his quarrel. Now that is impossible because of your stubbornness.”

He was agitated and sweating profusely, though the cool of the evening was upon us. Maximinus told Bigilas to be silent and say nothing until called to do so. He decided it would be best to leave that day in spite of the late hour. However, we were stopped from doing so by the arrival of another group of Scythians, who told us that Attila had granted permission for us to remain the night, and further had provided an ox and some fish for our supper. We thanked them and hoped this was a sign of better treatment to come. But it was not to be, for dawn saw the return of those who had brought the food, and they told us that unless we had anything further to say, we should be gone.

Maximinus had fallen into melancholy over these events. His honor would not allow him to be dishonest in his dealings, but Bigilas’ words had found their way into his mind, and he dreaded returning to the capital with nothing to report. Bigilas made it worse, as he continued to press him that they should dishonestly invent some further pretext to speak with Attila. Maximinus would not be moved, though, and we continued our preparations to leave.

Seeing my friend’s mood, I asked Rusticius to accompany me and translate. I approached the man named Skotta, and promised that he would receive rich gifts if he could gain access to his chief for us. I poured out every benefit of peace I could think of, both for him personally and his people as a whole. Lastly, I used a stratagem that had worked before with great effect among barbarian peoples: I doubted whether he possessed sufficient influence with Attila to arrange such a meeting. At this, Skotta became angry, and declared that he would put my doubts to rest, and went to speak to Attila.

I will not pretend that I did not feel some pride at this accomplishment, and I went to Maximinus and explained what I had done. Both he and Bigilas jumped to their feet and praised me, and we all offered a prayer of thanksgiving that I should be so inspired. Maximinus shouted to his servants to unload the pack horses again, and to bring silks for Skotta’s reward.

Skotta returned in less than an hour, and with no preamble told us to follow him to Attila’s tent—Maximinus, myself, Bigilas, and Rusticius. Attila’s tent lay at the center of the barbarian camp, and was the largest of them by a large degree. It was surrounded all around by armed men, but we passed through this multitude without challenge, as we were accompanied by Skotta.

Inside the tent, we beheld Attila for the first time. He sat on a wooden chair in the middle of the tent, dressed in a clean white linen tunic with a simple design stitched at the collar. His face was broad and deeply scarred, with a thin beard and small sharp eyes that took in everything at a glance. My servant and I stood at the edge of the tent and were quiet while Maximinus approached the chair, Bigilas beside him to translate. He greeted the barbarian, presented the Emperor’s letter, and proclaimed that the Emperor prayed that Attila and his family were safe and well. Attila said in a dark tone that the Romans would receive that which they sought to give. He then turned his attention and spoke to Bigilas directly (Rusiticius translated his words for me).

“You shameless beast,” Attila said. “Why should you wish to come here when you knew well that I would receive no more ambassadors until all the fugitives I have named were returned to me?”

Bigilas stammered in response, “There are no Scythian fugitives remaining among the Romans, my lord. All who were there have been surrendered.”

“You lying wretch—I should have you crucified and fed to the birds,” Attila replied. “You are alive only thanks to the sacred law that protects ambassadors. Otherwise, I would flay you where you stand. There are many enemies of mine who remain among the Romans, as you know. Their names are known to us, and recorded.”

He shouted to his secretaries to read out the names of the fugitives he still sought. They did so, while Bigilas stood and winced whenever a name he knew was read out. When all had been read out, Attila said to Bigilas, “Now get out of my sight, and do not return to me until every one of those named has been returned to me, unless you and the Romans are prepared to wage war on their behalf. Do not bring that down upon yourselves for such a reason, for they cannot help you. What city has ever stood before me?”

He then turned to Maximinus, and said, “Stay a moment, and you shall have my answer to your Emperor.” He turned his glance on Bigilas again, and his gaze bore down on him until Bigilas left the tent.

Attila allowed us to present our gifts to him, and dictated a letter in reply to the Emperor. Once that was done, we withdrew and returned to our own tent. Bigilas was there waiting for us, and spoke as soon as we came in: “I do not understand. Attila was gentle as a lamb to me the last time I was here. I can’t imagine why he should be so against me this time.” We agreed that his anger did seem disproportionate, and wondered if he could have heard about the comment Bigilas had made back in Serdica, when he had complained about the toasts. Bigilas did not think so, but could give no other reason for Attila’s hostility.

Edeko arrived at that moment and took Bigilas aside to speak privately. We questioned Bigilas when he returned, but Bigilas said that Edeko had only reiterated Attila’s orders that he be gone immediately. The rest of us would stay. He added that Attila had decreed that we should buy nothing but necessary provisions while we were in his lands.

We agreed that we would stay and wait for Onegesius to return, so that we could give him our gifts and perhaps find a way to improve Attila’s mood toward us. Attila was preparing to move northward in two days’ time, deeper into his own lands, and so we made ourselves ready to accompany him.

Onegesius was abroad on an errand to another Scythian people called the Akateri, on whom Attila wished to force his own choice of king, and prevent them from making an alliance with us. Since forming a friendship with Onegesius was now the only part of our mission that did not seem impossible, we resolved to follow the main body of the Scythians so as to be present when Onegesius returned.

We were provided with guides to show us the way to the place Attila intended to stay for a while. We did not travel in his train, for he wished to attend a wedding in another direction first. So we set off. Along the way, we crossed several rivers, some on rafts, some on canoes. The Scythians carry these canoes along with them, for use when they encounter the stagnant marshlands that make up large parts of their country.

We were well supplied, as we came upon villages almost every day, and Attila’s escort ensured our good treatment. The barbarians in these villages were not the same stock as the Scythians, but were instead tribes of Goths or Sarmatians, with a Hun headman imposed upon them. The Huns do not till the land, and depend instead on the grain and fodder they can extract from the people of the lands they conquer. They gave us millet rather than wheat, which is not so toothsome but adequate enough. Instead of wine, they gave us a drink they called medos, which is sweet and powerful, or sometimes beer made from barley.

After a week or so on this road, while we camped near a clear pond, a great storm arose suddenly in the night. The wind raged freely across the open plain, overturned our tent and scattered our belongings; those that weren’t lost were spoiled by rain. We ran about in the dark, calling to each other, but the night was so black and we were so terrified by the thunderbolts that fell around us that we became separated, and by the time the weather calmed, we were scattered across a wide area.

I managed to catch one of the horses we had lost in the storm, and knowing that the next village was some distance to the east, I moved in that direction, looking for any sign of my companions. I was heartened when I reached the village after only an hour, and further cheered to see that Maximinus and a few others had reached it before me. Gradually, the others arrived, in ones and twos, and we found that though we had lost much of our provisions, God’s grace had seen that all of us were unharmed, and a quick-thinking servant had held fast to the donkeys that bore the valuables we were carrying as gifts.

By then, our commotion had roused the village, and the people came out with reed lights to see who we were and what was happening. This village was a bit larger than the others, and was the home of a Scythian noblewoman, the widow of Attila’s late brother Bleda. She welcomed us into her house, which was a large well-built cabin rather than a tent, and provided us with food and shelter and warmth. She also offered us two women of her household to provide for our carnal needs, which we declined as politely as we could. (This is custom among the Scythians, I am told, but God-fearing men shun such practices.) Upon leaving, we presented our hostess with three silver goblets and some furs, as well as some pepper and a quantity of dates, the latter being prized by the Scythians above gold, for their normal diet does not admit much in the way of savor.

We moved on for another week without much to interest us, when we were told to halt at a village to allow the host of Attila to pass ahead of us. We discovered that in the same place, an embassy from the west [the Western Roman Empire] was staying, sent by Flavius Aetius, and we agreed that we would all travel together. In this party were the honored governor of Noricum [roughly corresponding to modern Austria], both the father and father-in-law of Orestes, as well as one Constantius, whom Aetius had sent as a favor to Attila to act as his Latin secretary.

In this company, we rode for another week. Our road had broken out onto the great plain of Scythia, where there was no tree, hill, or even large stone to be seen in any direction. The only features of interest were the great rivers we crossed, which were broad and sluggish, and so good for navigation and trade.

At last we came upon the place where Attila made his capital. It was the largest settlement we’d seen since we left Naissus, with Attila’s house at its center. It was built of closely-fitted, smooth planed boards, as were the outbuildings, and surrounded by a log palisade, with towers all around it. These were not for defense, only decorative purposes. Approaching it, the road passed through another palisade, with another large house at its center, though without towers. This, we were told, was the house of Onegesius.

The timber for these houses had been carried over a great distance, for there was none anywhere nearby. All the other houses around were of mud brick and thatched with straw, or were the hide tents that the Huns used when on the move. We were even more surprised to see among the buildings of Onegesius’ compound a structure of carefully cut stone. It was, in fact, a bathhouse, built in the Roman style at great expense and difficulty.

We later met the unfortunate man who had built this wonder. He was a Roman prisoner, an experienced builder, and he’d hoped to win freedom and favor from Onegesius by building the baths. But when it was finished, Onegesius made him an attendant in his own bathhouse, and his position improved not at all.

We learned that Onegesius had returned from his mission, and we set up our camp. The next day, Attila entered the city. I cannot find a better word for the place, though it was not a city as we would understand it.

He was welcomed by maidens, who stretched white linen over his path and sang songs and followed him as he passed under it. When he came to Onegesius’ house, he was greeted by the man’s wife, who served him wine and small delicacies. He honored her by drinking and eating these in her presence, before passing on to hear Onegesius accounting of his mission to the Akateri.

In the morning of the next day, Maximinus sent me to present our gifts to Onegesius and find out when he would receive the ambassador. I was obliged to wait for a time outside the doors, and while there I was approached by a Hun of high rank. He surprised me by greeting me in perfect Greek.

The Huns speak only their own language, or sometimes the Gothic tongue. Greek was a language I had heard only from the mouths of prisoners and slaves, and this man was clearly neither of those. He could see that I was taken aback, and explained that he had been such a prisoner, but by diligent work and brave service had made for himself a life better than any he could have made in his native Thessaly [in the northeastern part of modern Greece]. We spoke and debated for a long time, as he strove to convince me of the superior life of the Scythians, while I defended the Roman virtues. Eventually, I was called inside and received by Onegesius.

The great man accepted our gifts with grace, and agreed to accompany me to meet with Maximinus immediately. Maximinus invited him to Constantinople in the name of the Emperor, to discuss all the issues outstanding between the Romans and Scythians. A settlement would be of great advantage to Onegesius personally, as well as to his whole nation.

Onegesius was a shrewd man. Blunt as any German, he said,

What good would that be? Do you think I could be so cajoled by your officials that I would work against my master, and against my own kin and children? Even if that were not the case, for me to make such a journey without my lord Attila’s leave would bring suspicion down on me, and I will lose influence with him. It is better for both of us that I stay here, for many times I have calmed him when he was in a rage and ready to unleash war upon you Romans. I have saved you more times than I could mention. It would be better to be a slave to Attila than a rich Roman with no honor.

He agreed to speak with me further to understand what we wanted from the Scythians, but he would not travel to Constantinople under any circumstances. He added, “There have already been enough intrigues in that city,” though I did not understand what he meant by that at the time. The loyalty of Attila’s captains was like stone.

The next evening, there was a banquet, and we and the western party were invited to attend. We arrived at the door of Attila’s house at the ninth hour and were shown inside. As is customary among the Scythians, we were each handed a cup of wine before we were shown to our seats. The room was wide, with chairs along each wall, while at the center sat Attila on a couch. There was a seat next to Attila’s, which was a place of great honor occupied by Onegesius. On the left sat a captain called Berichus. We were seated to the left of him. In front of Attila sat his sons, who faced him and kept their eyes lowered. They lived in fear of their father.

Once we were all seated, wine-bearers entered and brought a goblet to Attila, who rose, and turning to his left, toasted Berichus before tasting the wine and handing it to him. Berichus in turn, gave honor to Attila, sipped and passed the cup to his left. In this manner, the goblet made its way around the whole room, as each man who tasted the wine gave praise to Attila, including ourselves.

Once this was done, tables were brought in, loaded with meat, bread, and other dishes and confections, served on silver platters—undoubtedly, the spoils from some Roman city or other. We all agreed that the feast was well-laid, but I noticed that Attila himself ate only the meat and bread from a wooden plate, and drank his wine from a wooden cup, while all the others were gold or silver. His clothes, too, bore no sign of his rank, except they were of fine quality and perfect cleanliness, while all his captains wore ornaments of gold and jewels on their shoes, belts, fingers, and anywhere else there was space. He spoke little through the whole meal, and his face remained hard and stern.

We all agreed that the feast was well-laid, but I noticed that Attila himself ate only the meat and bread from a wooden plate, and drank his wine from a wooden cup, while all the others were gold or silver. His clothes, too, bore no sign of his rank. He spoke little through the whole meal, and his face remained hard and stern.

Once the food was cleared away and it began to get dark, torches were lit and singers came in, who sang songs in the Huns’ language. These were songs of praise for the chief and stories of his victories in battle. The banqueters gazed at them, some rejoiced at the songs, others became excited at the memories of the wars, but others broke into tears—those who were weakened by time and were now compelled to remain at rest. The entertainment continued when a madman was brought in, whose ravings in three languages brought the whole room to laughter except Attila, who remained hard-eyed and unsmiling.

The only time I saw his expression change was when his youngest son entered, to happy shouts of greeting. Then Attila’s eyes softened, he caressed his son’s cheek, and spoke to him softly. This was so different from his attitude toward his other sons that I asked a Scythian seated near me, who was able to speak some Latin, about it. He explained with some difficulty that Attila’s diviners had told him that his sons would bring his family to ruin, but that his youngest son, Ernac, would restore them. And so Attila scorned all his children except Ernac.

We excused ourselves not long after this conversation, as we felt we could not possibly drink any more without completely losing our wits and dignity. The banquet continued until dawn.

The rest of our stay is not really worth telling, I fear. We lingered for a while and distributed our gifts where it seemed best, but after three days Maximinus went to Onegesius to say that we felt we were wasting our time and to ask for Attila’s permission to depart. This was granted, and we were presented with gifts and each of Attila’s captains was ordered to provide us a horse. A new letter to the Emperor from Attila was given to Maximinus and we set out, accompanied on our return trip by Berichus.

Along the way were two instances where we could observe Scythian justice. In one village was a Scythian man accused of being a spy for Rome. He was to be impaled. A little bit further on, we found two men held captive. They were servants who had killed their master, and were crucified. We heard that this was a favorite punishment of Attila’s. No trial or hearing was offered to these men. The chiefs of their villages simply declared their guilt, and the punishments were administered. (And yet, Attila was known among his people as less bloodthirsty and more generous of spirit than his predecessors.) May God grant them his peace.

After we had crossed into Roman territory, Berichus, who had been an agreeable companion up till then, changed in his demeanor. He demanded that the horse he had contributed be returned to him, and refused to ride next to us, but instead stayed behind with his own party. I never discovered the reason for this change. We also, along the way, met Bigilas, accompanied by his young son, returning to Attila’s main camp. We wondered at his boldness, but he could not be dissuaded.

And so we returned safely to the City [Constantinople], thanks to God’s goodwill and grace.

Now, I said at the beginning of my tale that there was a hidden motivation that underlay our trip—one that neither Maximinus nor I were aware of. I’ve been told by persons in the palace whom I trust that our formal mission was only a pretext for this secret one.

When he’d been visiting Constantinople, Edeko had dined alone with Chrysaphius the Eunuch (thus angering Orestes, who’d received no invitation, as already stated). In this meeting, with Bigilas present, Edeko had been induced to murder Attila in return for great considerations from the Emperor. Edeko agreed to this proposal, and Bigilas was sent along with him on our trip to smooth the way for this design in whatever way he could. But once we were in Scythia, Edeko rode ahead and informed Attila of the whole plot. That was the reason for Attila’s ill feeling toward Bigilas, and the strange statements he’d made in our first meeting.

Bigilas, being somewhat thick-headed, had no notion that he’d been betrayed, and when Edeko told him that 50 pounds of gold was needed for the scheme, Bigilas left Attila’s camp to obtain those funds. He was on his way back from that errand when we met him, carrying the gold without our knowledge. I do not know what Maximinus thought when he learned that he had been so used, for he is a man of honor and I imagine would object to such an undertaking, but I have not spoken to him of it as yet.

As for Bigilas, I have heard nothing. I pray for him, but his manner and lack of sense lead me to dread on his behalf. I shall write again if I hear anything more. God bless you and keep you, friend Olybrius, and your family and people. Write to me again when you find a moment to do so, for your news is so often diverting and more candid than other sources.

— Your friend and brother in Christ, Priscus.

Priscus was a classicist historian, meaning that he consciously wrote in imitation of Herodotus. This is why he used the classical word “Scythians” in his work to refer to the Huns—a tendency that I (mostly) copied.

We can’t know exactly where to look for Attila’s capital, alas. Priscus’ geography is vague, and various rivers he identified don’t appear elsewhere by the same names. (Also, he neglected to note in what direction he was travelling at most points.)

Priscus was able to provide an epilogue: Bigilas was immediately arrested on his return to Attila’s camp, and the 50 pounds of gold were found in his belongings. He was hauled in front of Attila, who asked why he was carrying such valuable cargo. (Fifty pounds of gold would have paid the annual salary of about 600 soldiers.) Bigilas said it was for buying provisions and replacing horses along the way. That was ridiculous, of course, as it was far too much money for such purposes. And Attila had specifically forbidden these visitors from purchasing anything beyond their immediate requirements.

Bigilas’ son was seized, and Attila threatened to stab the boy unless Bigilas told him the truth. That did the trick, and Bigilas spilled the whole plot, the details of which matched what Edeko had already revealed.

But Bigilas was not executed. Attila ordered him to return to Constantinople, escorted by Orestes, and bring back another 50 pounds of gold. Orestes was to tell the Emperor that both Attila’s and Theodosius II’s fathers had been noble men, but only Attila had retained that nobility. Theodosius was Attila’s slave, having paid tribute to him, and this comically ham-fisted attempt at assassination deserved the same shame as a slave who attacked his master. Attila would forgive the Emperor, though, if he would give up Chrysaphius for punishment.

In 450 C.E., the next set of ambassadors who visited Attila were considerably more successful than Maximinus and Priscus had been. They delivered the 50 pounds of gold and secured Bigilas’ release, along with a further payment in lieu of Chrysaphius. On top of that, they secured the release without ransom of all Roman prisoners still held by the Huns, and convinced Attila to withdraw from the strip of territory along the Danube that had been surrendered to him, to drop the issue of fugitives, and to pledge to maintain the peace. It was a complete diplomatic victory, making Priscus’ mission seem bungled by comparison.

But in fact, it was Priscus’ journey that was more typical of Roman diplomacy during this period. Both halves of the Empire were strained, and so for most of the fifth century, Roman diplomats were forced to negotiate from positions of weakness.

These latter ambassadors had an advantage they were unaware of: By 450 C.E., Attila had probably made up his mind to march toward the Atlantic. To give this push his full attention, he needed to secure his southern frontier, and that could be done relatively cheaply by then.

Attila received a gift from fate in July of that year, when Theodosius II fell from his horse and fatally broke his back. The Emperor of the Roman East was dead, and the question of succession would keep Constantinople conveniently distracted. All of Aetius’s careful maneuvering was no match for Attila’s ambition. And next time, we’ll see how things worked out when the Huns finally turned west.

Latest Podcast

Join the newsletter to receive the latest updates in your inbox.


On Instagram @quillette