Gruppo Archeologico Aquileiese, Attila e gli Unni. Mostra itinerante. Rome: "L'Erma" di Bretschneider, 1995. Pp. 149, incl. 17 colour illustrations and numerous halftones, line drawings and maps. ISBN 88-7062-874-4. Price not supplied.
Department of Ancient Classics, National University of Ireland, Maynooth
This volume comprises a series of essays related to the exhibition organized by the Gruppo Archeologico Aquileiese to coincide with their 1990 international conference on 'Attila: Flagellum Dei?' (the proceedings of which were also published by "L'Erma" di Bretschneider) together with catalogue entries for the exhibits themselves. It comprises four major sections. First comes a general historical framework (pp. 15-75), comprising essays on general Hunnic history and a series of analyses of the Huns' impact on a number of north Italian cities. This is followed by a short summary of the archaeological material relating to the Huns (pp. 76-94), which includes a discussion of one of the more chilling aspects of Hunnic culture, the deliberate binding of the head to produce deformed skulls with elongated crania (pp. 92f.). The third and fourth sections cover different aspects of the one phenomenon: Attila's reputation in literary and popular culture during the medieval and modern periods (pp. 95-112), and his depiction in art (pp. 113-49). The quality of the contributions by a diverse band of writers is, on the whole, good: names such as those of Marco Sannazaro and Sergio Tavano are enough to guarantee that.
As the identity of the project's progenitors will suggest, Attila's sack of the northern Adriatic city of Aquileia in AD 452 looms large in the contents. Yet this focus might not merely be another example of that campanilismo which explains so many local history endeavours in Italy. Attila's capture of Aquileia was genuinely significant. Here was a city which, so Ammianus recorded in the fourth century, 'had often been besieged, but had never surrendered or been destroyed' (Amm. Marc. 21.12.1). How terrifying it must have been, then, for the city to succumb not to the forces of a Roman emperor, nor even those of a usurper, but to a barbarian horde. Yet Attila proved himself to be a leader who could well match the Romans in terms of strategic ability, and his capture of Aquileia was achieved through the use of sophisticated siege engines (Jordanes, Getica 42.220). Unsurprisingly, then, Aquileia's capitulation sent a wave of shock throughout the Roman world, as numerous attestations of the event in contemporary (or near contemporary) chroniclers suggests. The reverberations of Aquileia's fall were not limited, however, to the immediate aftermath. Much of Attila's subsequent reputation -- not least as the Flagellum Dei, the Scourge of God -- was sealed by such events. It is in large measure the function of this volume to examine the place of the siege of Aquileia in that process.
That task, one might think, might easily be done in much less than 149 pages, and, to be sure, the volume goes off on several detours along the way. The analyses of the late antique archaeology of various north Italian cities (pp. 32-75) provide a good case in point. It is apparent throughout these sections that, in many cases, there is little or no secure archaeological data that can be linked to Attila's attacks. Indeed, in some cases the evidence for even the whole of the fifth century is sketchy at best. Thus, while the excavations at the monastic complex of San Salvatore and Santa Giulia in Brescia (described here at pp. 61-63) have yielded important data about the nature of urban settlement in fifth- century Italy, other centres are rather less eloquent about their history at this period. What we get instead, therefore, is extensive regurgitation of the well-known histories of many of these centres. I for one was mystified as to the precise relevance of, for example, the chronological outline of Aquileian history from the second century BC onwards at pp. 32- 34 or the detailed 'Note sulla chiese aquileiese nel IV-V secolo' at pp. 39-46.[]
What strengths the volume possesses lie elsewhere. The well-illustrated and up-to-date presentation of Hunnic archaeological material describes a number of burials and artefacts excavated in Eastern Europe. In particular, the jewellery provides a reminder that, for all their characterisation in the popular imagination as wild and uncivilised barbarians, the Huns had a liking for fine craftsmanship. It is only to be regretted that the editors of the volume have preferred to illustrate reproductions -- often incorporating reconstructions -- rather than the actual artefacts themselves.[] Equally intriguing are the sections on Attila's image in later ages. In particular, the contributors make good use of the astonishing series of Renaissance medals and sculptures that depict Attila with the horns, ears, and beard of a satyr, thereby depicting in potent terms the Hunnic king's wildness, and underlining his role as an enemy of urban civilisation.
Yet, in spite of these useful contributions, the whole of Attila e gli Unni strikes one as a curate's egg. A mixed bag of useful summaries and intriguing oddities, it never really manages to form a coherent whole.
[] Readers already familiar with the similar entries in the impressive Da Aquileia a Venezia (Milan 1980) Milano capitale dell'impero romano (286-402d.C.) (Milan 1990) might find little here to reward them.
[] Also unfortunate is the decision to illustrate the discussion of cranial deformation with a frontal view of such a skull (p. 92). Lateral views show the results of the practice altogether more vividly: cf. the example shown in E. A. Thompson (ed. P. Heather), The Huns (Oxford 1996) 58, pl. 4.