What the Librarian Saw

The Fall of Rome is one of those rare event that demonstrates that even when history is written by the losers the truth can be in short supply. For a man whose name can still inspire visions of terror Attila the Hun is poorly understood. When he's depicted as a barbarian (see most histories of the Roman Empire written before 1850) Attila seems more Neanderthal Frat Boy than brilliant military leader. When he's shown as a worthy adversary to the crumbling Empire, Attila seems more like Alexander the Great without the fancy tutors.

Christopher Kelly aims to show us Attila as he was - the leader of a civilization that the Romans dismissed out of arrogance, ready to play power politics with Roman, Constantinople, and Persia. This is genuine popular history that draws on the latest archaeological research to show us a society with laws, elites, fools, geniuses, and above all pride. Kelly places the old stories about the Huns in the context of their times, explaining what all that hyperbolic language really meant. He doesn't glorify the Huns any more or less than the Romans or Byzantines. He shows them all acting with honor, lying, conniving, breaking treaties, and upholding right as they understand it.

Best of all, Kelly has a sense of humor and he knows a good story. The story of the Roman librarian on a diplomatic mission is half farce, half James Bond and wholly entertaining. Where else are you going to find scheming eunuchs, Dudley DoRight-esque Roman soldiers, gossipy librarians, stuttering love-sick con men and day long dinner parties? Attila did not bring about the collapse of the western half of the Roman Empire but his story exposes the weaknesses, corruption and rot that did.

Highly recommended for anyone interested in ancient/Roman history.

Kindle note: photographs not included even though they are (annoyingly) referenced in the text.

No comments: