11. Beyond the River

Priscus’ embassy to Atilla.

448 CE

In the spring, a diplomatic mission set out from Constantinople for discussions with Atilla the Hun. One of the men on the trip later wrote out his experience in one of the most detailed accounts of life among the Huns. This episode condenses the writing of Priscus of Panion, diplomat and historian.

To my dear friend Olybrius, Greetings.

Thank you for your last letter, I read with great interest your accounting of Patrician 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 experience of the last several months. You will remember our mutual acquaintance Maximinus, who I believe you served beside during the last Persian wars. 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, Atilla, 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.

    We left the city on a fine morning in April, and made our way along the Via Ignatia and the Via Militaris. Our party was a mix of our own Roman party and of barbarians who were returning to Atilla from their own embassy to the emperor, may God bless and preserve him. Our mission was to carry a letter to Atilla, in response to the letter that had been carried by these. 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 Scythian to recommend him. It is very difficult to find any among our countrymen who can form the sounds of their language, as you know. Though we did, in the course of our travels, meet another man who could speak the foreign tongue, Rusticius by name, who was traveling on his own mission sent by our brother court in Ravenna.

    Among the barbarians that accompanied us there were two that are worth mentioning. The first was called Edeko, who claimed to be a man of great power among his people. He told us that Atilla’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 Atilla, 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, this Orestes went and sought his fortune with them and won a high position and the trust of their king.

    As I said, these two men had delivered a message to our 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 that had not been returned, and 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 Atilla with renewed war against us. The Barbarian had offered to travel to Serdica 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.

    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 Atila himself. There were also gifts for one called Onegesius, who we understood to be second to Atilla 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 Atilla on our behalf. Thus did Maximinus and I understand our mission, and I did not find out until just a week ago 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, traveled 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, the walls damaged, 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 Atilla, 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 Atila 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 he went on to say that he was glad that Maximinus had not made the mistake of his masters. It seemed that back in Constantinople, Edeko had dined privately with Chrysaphius the Eunuch, and Orestes was insulted to be passed over. 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. He then took his own leave, rather hurriedly I thought.

    Our path soon carried us beyond the frontier that Atilla 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 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 infirmities, 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 be given as much provision 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 that had died in the last battle. Instead we had to move up the riverbank 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 somber 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, were so confusing that one morning, some of our company cried out in alarm, for they believed that sun rose in the west! Of course they had simply lost all sense of direction on those twisting pathways.

On the second day from Naissus we were met by a new party of barbarians, who led us the remaining distance to the Istrus. They said that Atilla 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 that in former times held back the barbarians. Now we were born 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 traveled about 70 stadia we stopped and camped for the night. The Scythians among us were becoming more cheerful, while we Romans were becoming less. Bigilas in particular was even more peevish than usual, and snapped at his grooms with little provocation at all.

The next morning Edeko, Orestes, and a part of their retainers went ahead to find Atilla’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 Hun’s 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 Atilla, 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, 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 Atilla, and no other.  You both have traveled 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 Atilla alone. You know this, as that is how your own ambassadors are treated when we receive them.”

Maximinus continued, “We shall speak with Atilla, 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 our men that they begin unpacking our camp, saying to me that we should not behave as if we were in the wrong under in sight of the barbarians. 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 said, “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 Atilla, 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 Atilla. 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 made a friend of Atilla when I served in Anatolius’ embassy, 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. We were stopped from doing so by the arrival of another group of Scythians, who told us that Atilla 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 invent some further pretext to speak with Atilla. 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 for me. 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 has worked before with great effect among barbarian peoples: I doubted whether he possessed sufficient influence with Atilla to arrange such a meeting.  At this Skotta became angry, declared that he would put my doubts to rest, and went to speak to Atilla. 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 bring silks for Skotta’s reward.

Skotta returned in less than an hour, and with no preamble told us to follow him to Atilla’s tent, Maximinus, myself, and 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 Atilla 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 in 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 and presented the emperor’s letter, and proclaimed that the emperor prayed that Atilla 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. 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 that 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, Atilla 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 can not 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. 

Atilla allowed us to present our gifts to him, and dictated a letter in reply to the emperor. Once that was done we also withdrew and returned to our own tent.  Bigilas was there waiting for us, who spoke as soon as we came in. “I do not understand, Atilla 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 Atilla’s hostility. Edeko arrived at that moment and took Bigilas aside to speak privately.  We questioned Bigilas when he returned, but Bigilas said only that Edeko had only reiterated Atilla’s orders that he be gone immediately.  The rest of us would stay. He only added that Atilla 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 Atilla’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 bring another Scythian people called the Akateri, on whom Atilla wished to force his own choice of king and prevent them from making an alliance with us. Since friendship to Onegesius was the only part 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 Atilla 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 Atilla’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, or 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 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 provision, God’s grace had seen that all of us were unharmed, and some 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 Atilla’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, these 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 are 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 Atilla to pass ahead of us.  We discovered that in the same place an embassy from the west was staying, sent by Flavius Aetius, and we agreed that we would all travel together. In this party were the honored governor of Noricum, both the father and father-in-law of Orestes, as well as one Constantius, who Aetius had sent as a favor to Atilla 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, good for navigation and trade.

At last we came upon the place where Atilla made his capital. It was the largest settlement we’d seen since we left Naissus, with Atilla’s house at it’s 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.  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 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 within his palisade.

The next day Atilla entered the city – I cannot find a better word for the place, though it was not a city like we would understand it. He was welcomed by the maidens that were present, 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 Onegeisus 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 surprised when a man who I had taken for a Hun of high rank greeted me in perfect Greek. The Huns spoke only their own language, or sometimes the Gothic tongue, Greek I had only heard from the mouths of prisoners and slaves, and this man was clearly not one 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. 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 Onegeisus personally, as well as to his whole nation. Onegesius was a shrewd man, and 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 Atilla’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 Atilla 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 circumstance. 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 Atilla’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 Atilla’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 Atilla on a couch. There was a seat next to Atilla’s, which was a place of great honor, this was occupied by Onegesius. On the left sat a captain called Berichus, we were seated to the left of him. In front of Atilla 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 Atilla, who rose, and turning to his left, toasted Berichus before tasting the wine and handing it to him.  Berichus in turn gave honor to Atilla, 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 Atilla, 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 Atilla 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.

Once the food was cleared away and it began to get dark, torches were lit and singers came in, who sang songs in the Hun’s 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 Atilla, 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 Atilla’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 that Atilla’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 Atilla 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 Oneneigius to say that we felt we were wasting our time and to ask for Atilla’s permission to depart.  This was granted, and we were presented with gifts and each of Atilla’s captains was ordered to provide us a horse. A new letter to the emperor from Atilla 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, they were crucified. We heard that was a favorite punishment of Atilla’s.  No trial or hearing was offered to these men, the chief of their village declared their guilt, and the punishment was administered. May God grant them his peace. And yet Atilla was known among his people as less bloodthirsty and more generous of spirit than his predecessors.

After we had crossed into Roman territory, Berichus, who had been an agreeable companion up til then, changed in his demeanor.  He demanded 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 Atilla’s main camp. We wondered at his boldness, but he could not be dissuaded.

And so we returned safely to the City, thanks to God’s good will and grace. 

Now, I said at the beginning of my tale that there was a hidden motivation that underlay our trip that neither Maximinus or I was aware of.  I have been told by persons in the palace that I trust that our mission was only a pretext for this secret one. When he had been visiting Constantinople, Edeko had dined alone with Chrysaphius the Eunuch and in this meeting, with Bigilas present, Edeko had been induced to murder Atilla in return for great considerations from the emperor. Edeko agreed to this proposal, and Bigilas was sent along to smooth the way for this design in whatever way he could. But once we were in Scythia, Edeko rode ahead and informed Atilla of the whole plot. That was the reason for Atilla’s ill feeling towards Bigilas, and the strange statements he’d made in our first meeting. Bigilas, being somewhat dense, had no notion that he had been betrayed, and when Edeko told him that 50 pounds of gold was needed for the scheme, Bigilas left Atilla’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 Maximus 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 was in his thirties when he undertook his journey to the lands of the Huns.  We don’t know his exact date of birth or where he died.  He was from a town called Panion, on the north shore of the Sea of Marmara, but any other details I might add would be pure speculation. We don’t know anything about his parents, his social status, or even his religious inclination. What we do know is that he wrote a history of the relationship between Huns and Romans, and included in it an extensive and fascinating personal narrative of his journey. For this episode I simply boiled that account down and paraphrased it to put it into this letter format. Olybrius, as you may have already guessed, since you’re smart people, is my own invention, as are direct quotations. Priscus’s complete work does not exist, though, and has to be cobbled together from quotations and references in other works, including our old friend Jordanes. A few authors have done the yeoman’s work of compiling and translating those fragments, for this project I was helped by John Given’s The Fragmentary History of Priscus, which pulls from eleven different sources and provides helpful annotations along the way. 

    Priscus was a classicist historian, meaning he consciously wrote in imitation of Herodotus, which is why he used the classical word “scythians” in his work to refer to the Huns. I did the same most of the time. We can’t know exactly where to look for Atilla’s capital, alas. Priscus’ geography is vague, and the rivers he named don’t appear elsewhere, so can’t be matched with any modern names. Also he neglects to note in what direction he was traveling at any point.

    Though a lot is missing, there’s obviously enough of Priscus to make it a valuable source. Priscus wrote it about thirty years after the trip to Atilla, and was able to tell us what happened next.

    Bigilas was immediately arrested on his return to Atilla’s camp, and the 50 pounds of gold found in his belongings.  He was hauled in front of Atilla who asked why he was carrying so much – if we use the metric we’ve used before, 50 pounds of gold would have paid the yearly salary of 600 soldiers. Bigilas had his answer though: it was cash for buying provisions and replacing horses along the way. That was ridiculous, of course, it was far too much money for that. And Atilla had specifically forbidden him from purchasing anything beyond requirements.

Bigilas’s son was also seized, and Atilla threatened to stab the boy unless Bigilas told him the truth. That did the trick, and Bigilas spilled the whole thing. The details of his confession matched what Edeko had already revealed, of course.  But Bigilas was not executed. Atilla 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 Atilla’s and Theodosius II’s fathers had been noble men (doubtful), but only Atilla had retained that nobility. Theodosius was Atilla’s slave, having paid tribute to him, and this comically ham-fisted attempt at assassination deserrved the same shame as a slave who attacked his master. Atillla would forgive the emperor, though, if he would give up Chrysaphius for punishment.

In 450, the next set of ambassadors that approached Atilla were considerably more successful than Maximinus and Priscus had been.  They delivered the 50 pounds of gold and secured Bigilas’ release, along with a payment from Chrysaphius personally to remove the threat to his life. On top of that, they secured the release without ransom of all Roman prisoners still held by the Huns. They convinced Atilla to withdraw from the strip of territory along the Danube that had been surrendered to him, to drop the issue of fugitives, and pledge to maintain the peace that had held since 448. It was a complete diplomatic victory, which makes Priscus’ mission seem bungled beyond belief, but the fact was that Priscus’ journey was more the norm for Roman diplomacy at the time. Between Atilla and the loss of Carthage, both halves of the empire remained stretched, and for most of the fifth century Roman diplomats were forced to negotiate from positions of weakness.

The second ambassadors had an advantage that they were unaware of: by 450 Atilla had probably made up his mind to turn westward. To give a push to the Atlantic his full attention, he needed to secure his southern frontier, and that could be done relatively cheaply by then. Atilla received a gift from fate in July of that year as well, when Theodosius II fell from his horse and 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 Atilla’s ambition. Next time, we’ll be back to where we left off at the end of episode five, and see how things worked out when the Huns finally came west.



“The Britons” by Kevin MacLeod (incomptech.com)
Licensed under Creative Commons: By Attribution 3.0

Sound effects from freesound.com and zapsplat.com

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