Thursday, September 01, 2005
Review by Thomas R. Martin
This is a unique book. Michael Babcock has written what amounts to a minutely detailed crime scene investigation of the mysterious death of Attila the Hun, using the arcane scholarly discipline of philology as his investigative tool kit to create a vivid dramatization of the circumstances of Attila?s bloody demise.
Philology, as Babcock says, has been called ?the art of reading slowly,? which means analyzing the language of texts with the most thorough rigor imaginable. Usually philology appears in books aimed only at specialists, but Babcock has created a tour de force, presenting philological research in a colloquial style that makes his conclusions easy to read. Moreover, he enlivens his detective story with light-hearted stories of his training in graduate school and his encounters with famously curmudgeonly scholarly giants in the field.
Who killed Attila?
Babcock applies his philological detecting to the ancient texts describing the death of Attila, who had led his army deep into the territory of the western Roman empire. The accepted story is that Attila drank so much wine at the banquet for his marriage to a young bride that he died in his sleep on his wedding night from a massive cerebral hemorrhage that sent blood pouring out of his face. Babcock presents his deductions for a different judgment chapter by chapter, as if exhibits in a court case. He argues Attila was murdered, citing suspicious circumstances such as Attila?s reputation for self-disciplined drinking in public and the bride never calling for help throughout the whole night.
Babcock puts most weight, however, on his extremely close analysis of the main ancient sources, Jordanes and Priscus. He concludes that Attila was poisoned on the orders of Marcian, the eastern Roman emperor, who covered up the murder. Marcian?s motives were political?to save the eastern Roman Empire from attacks by the Huns?and theological?to show that God protected the Empire and punished transgressors like Attila.
A persuasive argument
Relentless in his examination of the evidence and imaginative in his reconstruction of events, Babcock presents a powerful case. If I were his opponent in court, I would focus on one major objection to his reconstruction of the alleged crime: why would Marcian want to hide his part in the assassination if he had successfully engineered a plot to protect his empire from the most feared conqueror of the age? Why wouldn?t he have boasted about this success? Babcock?s answer is that, if Marcian had claimed the credit for Attila?s death, he would have undermined the claim that God had punished Attila. But, I would reply, it would have been completely in keeping with the political and theological principles of the time for the emperor to proclaim his role as God?s agent in inflicting a righteous death on the blood enemy of the Christian kingdom of Rome.
Readers will have a fine time deciding if Babcock has won his case, which also includes fascinating background information of all sorts about the leading personalities of this exciting period in Roman imperial history. Philology has never been more intriguing as a tool for crime detection.