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We return today to take up Tom Lee's exploration of the origins of Christianity in its first 500 years. Many today reach a point of disenchantment with what the institution has been telling us. Tom's response was to go off and explore for himself the origins of his faith. In today's extract from his manuscript he examines the confrontation between Leo the Great and Attila the Hun over Rome.
Papal Bravery and German Domination Part 26.1
Attila confronts Leo...
In spite of Chalcedon, the view represented by Alexandria continued to spread, further fragmenting the unity of the Catholic Church and threatening that of the Roman Empire, within which whatever unity the Catholic Church possessed had been achieved. The Empire was already suffering from the disintegration that was to become permanent in the next century.
Attila, frustrated in the East, turned on the West in order to revitalize his coffers with looting. He was given a pretext to invade when the wayward sister of Emperor Valentinian III appealed to Attila to rescue her from an arranged marriage with a man whom she did not like. Attila had probably known the lady from his teen years, or else had met her during one of his diplomatic visits to the empire. With his exotic looks and macho exuberance he may well have excited her libidinous inclinations. When a guest in Christendom he had enough polish to recognize that a guest is honor bound to observe the rules of the house. Modesty being unknown to him, Attila chose to view her letter as a proposal of marriage to himself. When his demand for a dowry consisting of half the western empire was rebuffed he marched on Gaul in 451, as the contentious bishops were battling in Chalcedon.
Gaiseric, king of the Vandals concluded a deal with Attila. He would harry the southern flank of the empire while Attila attacked from the north. Attila, who became known in the west as the Scourge of God, was as fine a man as ever robbed the helpless. His warriors were fighting cocks, spending much of their time crowing and preening themselves, perpetually adrift on a swift flowing current, totally absorbed in the innocent cruelty of their struggle to survive in the wilds; animated by the male hunting instinct, and warming themselves with bouts of athletic sex, with available victims, quantity winning more kudos than quality. They held life at the point of a knife and took the best it could give them, regardless of the consequences. It would never have occurred to them to dam the flood of life or the freedom of their natural instincts. Lust was their only panacea, their sperm the only inheritance of many children. Their victims were thwarted from running away by their servile circumstances. Like the birds of omen they worshipped, the Huns were as free as the air.
When they entered Gaul they openly sowed and reaped like a poisoned crop. Like the fly at the nudist camp they hardly knew where to begin. A malaise of self-indulgent lethargy, mechanical lust and aimless violence at last overcame them. They advanced up the valley of the Danube and crossed Germany. In quick succession they took Worms, Windisch, Spires, Mayence, Basle, Strasbourg, Colmar, Besancon, Troyes, Arras, Metz, Rheims, Laon and St. Quentin. Fantastically superstitious, the Huns, having overrun Rheims were put to flight by a loud sound emanating from the cathedral. Troyes was spared a thorough sacking because the bishop was named Lupus, meaning wolf, and the wolf was a deathly totemic symbol to the Huns.
At Orleans they halted and began to retreat. At first reluctant to oppose the Huns, the Vandals were persuaded to join with General Aetius in expelling the invaders, and Attila, as soon as he learnt of the alliance, prudently began to retrace his steps. Recrossing the Seine he set up camp on the plains of Chalon where his cavalry would be unhindered. The stirrup had not yet been invented and fighting from horseback was a chancy business.
The Huns were soundly defeated, the only battle that Attila ever lost in his life. He retreated to Etzelburg where he reorganized, employing Roman mercenary tacticians and trainers. The wild and wooly hordes were drilled and disciplined in military formation and tactics. The fur clothing of his warriors was replaced with armor, and they learned how to use siege weapons.
The decision was taken to march on Rome. They invaded Italy and by early 452 had thoroughly destroyed Aquileia, taken Padua, Verona, Bergamo, Brescia, Cremona, and Mantua. Milan and Pavia submitted and handed over their wealth to save the cities from destruction. Fleeing citizens hiding-out on marshy islands at the head of the Adriatic were effectively the founders of what would become Venice.
The Huns camped north of the river Po to prepare for the siege of Rome. Theodosius, king of the Vandals had been killed in the battle at Chalon, and Aetius could not muster another imperial army to send against the Huns. Attila had sworn an oath to destroy Rome. The quaking emperor Valentinian, while under siege in Ravenna, sent a message to the Pope, "Do what you can. God help you all." He soon after fled by boat.
Flexing his neglected muscles the fifty-six year-old Leo set out, in the stifling summer heat, marching north from Ravenna to confront the Devil who appeared likely to swamp civilization. Dressed in the white robes of a bishop, riding a mule, preceded by a black-garbed cleric carrying a cross, flanked by two acolytes with incense burners, and followed by a procession of monks singing psalms, the papal procession reached the southern bank of the Po on a late afternoon. The clerical group was accompanied by the highest-ranking member of the Senate, and the Praetorian prefect of Italy.
On the other shore Attila's men, many of them cheekily repellent youths, jeered and leered; a presence of potent malevolence, for whom bloodshed was still fun. Squat and odd-looking to the Europeans, the mahogany-faced, beardless men, bristling in fur and oddments of stolen armor, scampered on their small longhaired ponies, brandishing lances decorated with rotting human heads, or tauntingly pointing their bows at the unarmed negotiators.
The stoop-shouldered Pope turned his mule into the sluggish and shallow stream, looking like a gaunt hunched heron; knowing that if he was to survive, he had to curb his brusqueness and impatience. To Attila watching from the northern shore he must have seemed a huge crag of a man, with a white beard, an outcrop for a nose and bushy eyebrows shading penetrating black eyes. Here was probity incarnate and implacable.
Attila himself had so much presence he gave other people absence, but in Leo he had met his match. A year older than the pope; suffering the anguish of diminished manhood; trying to quell the panic that sets in as the years start to go faster; Attila drew on his veneer of sophistication and malicious charm and rode out to meet the priest mid-stream. Lust and etiquette held an uneasy truce. With glittering malevolence in his sunken eyes he met the steady gaze of the prelate and barked: "Your name?"
That is all of their conversation that has been preserved. We don't know whether they conversed in Latin or Greek. Each was fluent in both. We do know that as a result of Leo's conversation, negotiation, and advice, greed was bolstered to suppress ruthlessness. Attila, still determined to add the princess Honoria to his harem, was encouraged to accept wealth, not territory as a dowry. With admirable commonsense, under the circumstances, the pope convinced the Hun that he would not be able to feed his people if he remained in Italy, due to famine and pestilence, besides which he might be trapped in the peninsula by a combined army of Aetius from the west, and the emperor Marcian from the east.
Attila was wise enough to recognize good sense when exposed to it, if not always wise enough to conjure it for himself. He must too have had, at least, grudging admiration for the sheer unblemished gall of this incredible old man and his whole preposterous performance.
When Attila packed his tents and retreated to his camp on the Danube, it was swiftly recognized that Leo had, in saving Rome, carried the whole church and its many passengers with him. Later generations would enlarge the scene to include apparitions of both Peter and Paul to threaten the heathen leader, without realizing that the reality was the greater miracle.
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©2009 Tom Lee