The breakthrough of the Huns in Europe shook the foundations of the Roman Empire, which did not hesitate to nickname its chief the Scourge of God for the audacity of trying to conquer Constantinople and Rome itself. The irony is that, since the Hun people were fundamentally nomadic, the primary sources for knowing those facts are Roman and one of the most important is the one Priscus of Panium wrote, who also had the privilege of knowing Attila personally by being part of an embassy sent to parliament with him.
The Huns did not constitute a single people but a confederation of them, some coming from the Xiongnu of the Asian steppes and others assimilated from the conquered Balkan areas. They began to expand towards the west in the second half of the 4th century, pushing the other barbarians like domino tiles: gepids, heruli, escires, ostrogoths, Visigoths… King Ruglia dared to attack the dominions of Theodosius II in 422 A.D., forcing him to pay a tribute, looting several Roman cities in the Balkan area and taking possession of the whole area.
Attila, Ruglia’s nephew, rose to power in 434, initially sharing the throne with his brother Bleda but then alone, after his death -perhaps murder-. In 447, Theodosius was unable to collect the tribute due to the revolts suffered by some incidents in the racetrack, which led to the destruction of much of Constantinople; the riots were aggravated by an epidemic.
Faced with the interruption of payment, Attila resumed his campaign against the Romans, defeating the army of the Gothic magister militum Arnegiscio on the river Vid and entering Greek territory until he reached the legendary Thermopylae without anyone being able to stop him. Constantinople, threatened, was liberated thanks to the fact that the enemy lacked siege machinery to overcome its formidable walls but the Huns were in practice owners of the whole region, so it was necessary to renegotiate.
That’s where the figure of Priscus appears. He was born between 410-420 A.D. in Panium, a Thracian city that today corresponds to the Turkish village of Rumelifeneri (practically a suburb of Istanbul). We know nothing about him before the episode he starred in in the context of the Huns invasion. Only that he had a comfortable position, which allowed him to participate in political life to the point of holding an office. Which one? Because of the access he seems to have to official documents there are those who consider that he could have been magister scrinii dispositonum (the scrinia were the archives of the four imperial offices ab epistolis, a libellis, a cognitionibus and a memoria).
Moreover, the handling of this documentation facilitated his other occupation, since he dedicated himself to history and philosophy, ascribing it to the sophistic branch. This wisdom surely opened the doors for him to join the retinue of Ambassador Maximinus, a friend of him, given that in the Lower Empire it was customary to include in the diplomatic missions anyone who had training and was a good orator. The negotiations between Theodosius and Attila lasted three years and some of them were directed by the aforementioned embassy, which traveled to meet the Hun king in 448 A.D. and accompanied him in the displacements he made through his domains without materializing the secret plan of some of its members to assassinate Attila.
Priscus left a narrative of that experience – and a detailed vision of the Huns – in an eight-volume work in Greek, of which only fragments or quotations from the works of other chroniclers remain. In fact, we do not even know what its original title was and it is usually given the title of Byzantine History. It narrates the approximately four decades that elapsed between the rise to power of Attila and Bleda and that of Emperor Zenon in A.D. 475. Its importance is such that many of the later authors use it as a source for their own works, such as Casiodoro (Historia Gothorum), Jordanes (De origine actibusque Getarum), Constantino VII Porfirogeneta (Excerpta historica Constantiniana), Evagrio Scholastic (Historia ecclesiastica) or even the anonymous writer of that unusual encyclopaedia, the Byzantine Suda.
Although Priscus was a Christian in a pagan court like that of the Huns and therefore felt culturally superior to them, experts consider that his Byzantine history is quite reliable and does not adopt a religious point of view but merely descriptive, which gives it a double value. There are, of course, pitfalls, such as ignoring military information (perhaps because he did not dominate it), erring in geographical matters or being confused by not translating certain terms, although all this is explained because he followed the literary uses of the moment.
In that encounter of such different mentalities, developed not in one but in many sessions, there was a special moment: the banquet to which Priscus and Maximinus were invited by Attila in his camp in Pannonia (a Roman province located south of the Danube that encompassed parts of present-day Hungary, Serbia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia, Slovenia and Slovakia). The event took place in a wooden building, decorated and devoid of defensive measures, where the royal family lived; in fact, Priscus mentions that his bed was right there, with embroidered sheets and blankets, something that astonished him by the prejudices he had towards a wild nomad.
The Romans gave gifts to Kreka, the wife of the Hun king, and his three children, and then they were placed at the end of the table (there were several ones, long and parallel to the walls), to the left (a place of minor importance), far from the main post to highlight its superiority over its guests, as Priscus himself thought. Something underlined by the fact that Onegesius, his advisor, a Greek whom he enslaved in the previous campaign but who dazzled him with his knowledge, gift of languages and diplomatic skill, sat to Attila’s right. Even a Scythian nobleman had been placed in a better position than them, which could be considered a gesture of contempt.
Of course, the Romans were not in a position to protest; after all, they were there to try to achieve conditions of peace that were not too onerous, so they followed the established protocol. In addition, the Hun’s own children stood at the table on the other side of the room, facing their father, to whom they showed reverential respect by never looking him in the eye.
Before sitting down it was customary to drink a glass of wine and greet the host personally cheering to his health. So they did and then the dishes began to arrive. First meat, then other typical foods, bread… All served in gold and silver dishes, although Attila preferred to eat from a wooden bowl and did not dress with luxury but with the usual simplicity in his own. This is how Jordanes relates it based on Priscus’ testimony:
A luxurious meal, served on silverware, had been prepared for us and our barbarian guests, but Attila ate nothing but meat on a wooden plate. His cup was made of wood, while the rest of our guests were offered chalices of gold and silver. His dress, likewise, was very simple, boasting only of cleanliness. The sword he wore at his side, the ribbons of his Scythian shoes, and the bridle of his horse lacked adornment, unlike the other Scythians, who wore gold or gems or anything else precious.
Before the next consignment of food arrived, they cheered again; then they continued to eat and the atmosphere became cheerful, with songs by some diners exalting Attila’s warrior virtues. Something that surprised Priscus because it was exactly the same as in the Roman evenings, although he was more surprised that the king did not show any special emotion when he heard the adulation. In reality, he also remained impassive in front of the jokes of a somewhat crazy Scythian who used to be a buffoon and only changed the gesture to a smile when Ernas, his youngest son, came to greet him. Priscus is puzzled by this, as it was difficult for a Roman to imagine a barbarian showing feelings.
But in this case there was more because Attila hardly paid attention to her firstborn. Another guest who sat near Priscus and with whom he engaged in conversation because he spoke Latin clarified things for him (although historians doubt his real existence and believe he may have been a character invented by him to represent a comparative debate between the Hun and Roman customs). He was a Greek liberto, an ex-eslave of Onegesius captured eight years earlier in Viminacium (now Belgrade), who had decided to stay with the Huns by establishing himself among them as a merchant. This man explained that a prophecy had predicted to Attila that the future of his dynasty was in Ernas, hence he adored that child.
The presumed talk with the Greek continued for a long time because he told him many things about the daily life of the Huns and the Scythians that Priscus later put on paper. Finally, as it was an advanced hour, the feast ended and the Romans left the place. Priscus returned to Rome and later traveled to Anatolia, returning through Alexandria and Thebaida (Egypt), where he was immersed in the monophysite controversy, to finally stay in Constantinople working under the orders of Euphemius, the magister officiorum (chancellor) of the emperor Marcian, between 450 and 457 AD; he ended his days devoted to the teaching of philosophy.
As for the outcome of the negotiations, it was that Theodosius II should pay a tribute (the sources do not specify the amount but it was higher than the previous one, which amounted to 2,100 pounds of gold annually), as well as free a strip of land whose width ranged from 300 miles east from Sigindunum (another part of Belgrade) to 100 miles south of the Danube. After the agreement, Attila marched to Gaul to seize the Visigothic kingdom, in alliance with the holder of the Western Roman Empire, Valentinian III. He felt strong and predestined because shortly before, according to Priscus himself, an old sword had been discovered by chance, whose ownership was attributed to Mars, the Roman god of war, and was handed over to him, considered invincible ever since.
The story from then on would be long to tell and a little bit off the figure of that historian who died in the year 472 but had the opportunity to share the table and tablecloth with the very Scourge of God.
This article was first published on our Spanish Edition on July 30, 2018. Puedes leer la versión en español en Prisco de Panio, el historiador romano que asistió a un banquete con Atila
La civilización romana (Pilar Fernández Uriel e Irene Mañas Romero)/Breve historia de Atila y los hunos (Ana Martos Rubio)/The fragmentary history of Priscus. Attila, the huns and the Roman Empire, AD 430-476 (John Given)/The historians of late Antiquity (David Rohrbacher)/Wikipedia