The Huns practised ritual deformation, and their skulls were deliberately misshapen at birth. Infant Huns would have their heads tightly bound so the grew into these uncanny and elongated Mekon shapes. And on these deformed heads of theirs, the Huns would balance spectacular crowns of unimaginable preciousness. Led by their intelligent, multi-lingual leader Attila the Hun.

Deformed Hunnic skull

So, the big question is, where did the Huns get all of their gold? They were nomads, not miners, and although they were busy tradesmen, you’d need to trade an awful lot of goatskins for the amount of gold left behind by the Huns.

They didn’t trade for it. The Huns got the gold more directly. Straight from the Romans. Because their bows were so lethal and their horseman so skilled, the Huns were soon operating a protection racket across most of the Roman Empire.

Protection money of the Hunnic Empire
Protection Money

What they’d do is invade somewhere, or threaten to invade somewhere, and then demand a large quantities of gold to go away again.

Hunnic Protection Scheme

The Romans, cowardly diplomats that they were, preferred to pay them than to fight them. And by the time the Hunnic Empire was at its largest extent, the Huns were receiving 2,500 pounds of gold coins from the Romans every year.

While a few tribes of nomads raiding along these Roman borders could never have pressurised the Romans into giving up these ENORMOUS quantities of gold. So, we need to forget this image of the Huns as a tribal horde sweeping across Europe, because they were something much more sophisticated than that.

Map of the Hunnic Empire
Hunnic Empire Map

This is a map of the Hunnic Empire under Attila. It’s the bits in orange. And just look at the size of it! This wasn’t a bunch of nomads on the make, this was a rival Empire. The new superpower of the Dark Ages turned up to take on the Romans.

Attila the Hun

I’ve kept Attila back, because the moment you mention him, the story of the Huns takes on a satanic glint. All the Huns were demonised by history, but Attila was demonised most of all.

The exciting thing is we actually know a lot about him. A Roman diplomat called Priscus was sent on one of these diplomatic missions to negotiate with the Huns, and he has left behind a vivid account of his journey. And this gentleman here is building a replica of Attila’s palace on the actual site of which he thinks it actually stood.

Janos Kocsi

So, Janos, when did you first become interested in Attila?

Attila Palce with Janos Kocsi

Janos Kocsi “I bought this land 20 years ago to breed horses. That was when we came across the history of the site. Priscus, the Byzantine ambassador, visited Attila in 450 A.D. and describes how he found his way here. And he definitely identified this place as the site of Attila’s palace. That’s why we’d like to erect a memorial to him here, by constructing a wooden palace.”

Janos will create his palace in timber, exactly as Priscus describes.

Priscus described the palace as a giant nomad tent. The tent would have has two wooden towers at the front. Priscus tells us that when he arrived, he was treated to an enormous banquet, served on silver plates.

And a procession of young women dressed in white veils came out to sing for him. Attila himself was simply dressed and ate nothing but meat on a wooden platter. While the guests were given goblets of gold and silver.

Janos Kocsi Hungarian
Janos Kocsi

What does Attila mean to the Hungarian people? Because, for a lot of people in Europe, he has a very bad reputation, but not here. In Hungary, he seems to be thought of more as a hero.

Attila the Barbarian

Janos Kocsi “When people say Attila was a barbarian, that’s something I reject. It’s not something I believe. He spoke eight languages by the age of 15 and laid Europe at his feet. Someone unintelligent – a barbarian – could not have done the things that Attila did. Only someone blessed with special talents.”

Did Attila’s palace really look like this? I very much doubt it. But neither do I think Janos’s fantasy is more misleading than all the other Hun fantasies about satanic hordes sweeping through Europe.

Furthermore, by the time Attila became their ruler, the Huns had created a complex political system. Their huge empire was actually a federation of many nations. A kind of barbarian EU, opposed to the Romans, with Goths and Burgundians, Alans, even a few Greeks, all linked together and ruled by Attila.

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Total War: Huns (PC DVD)
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Hungarian Art: Confrontation and Revival

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So I’m here at the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna. There’s something really spectacular I just have to show you.

Gold Dinner Service
36 piece Gold Dinner Service

During an excavation on the Russian border in 1799. A fantastic find of a gold dinner service. The personal dinner service of Attila the Hun. You can see why they thought that. Just look at how splendid this is. 23 golden vessels. Nearly ten kilos of pure gold.

Flamboyant Hunnic Art

Today, no-one thinks this was Attila’s dinner service. The Avars were a mysterious tribe that emerged from the confederation of the Huns. And, it id believed that the Avars left these artworks behind.

However, they obviously had that special relationship with nature, too. Powerful, natural magic can be wrought in gold. A wonderful example is this bull-headed bowl.

Ornate bull-headed bowl
Ornate bull-headed bowl

Furthermore, this is what the Dark Ages were capable of. This is what makes these times so exciting. That bull bowl has a power to it. An animal energy that you just don’t get later on when art loses this connection to the basic stuff of life.

Power of the Dark Ages

The Empire of the Huns didn’t last long. For a few decades, it rivalled the Romans. And, with the death of the Hunnic leader, it was gone. Their leader, the glue that held it all together, had a taste for young brides.

But on his final wedding night, he drank himself into a stupor, took his latest blade to bed, and promptly died of a heart attack. They found him the next morning with blood streaming down his nose. What we would call these days “a rock star’s death”.

However, the vast empire of Attila the Hun was no more. Torn apart by feuds and incompetence.But, the Huns had done their job. They had punched a hole in the invincible reputation of the Romans. Now, all manner of barbarian was queueing up to pour through it. Furthermore, he left a legacy of fantastic Hunnic Art.

Attila the Hun – Wikipedia Page

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