Thursday, August 7, 2014


C. D. Gordon, The Age of Attila: Fifth-Century Byzantium and the Barbarians. Revised edition, with a new introduction and notes by David S. Potter. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2013. Pp. xx, 263. ISBN 9780472035786. $24.95 (pb).

Reviewed by Conor Whately, University of Winnipeg (

Version at BMCR home site

The fifth century was a momentous one for the Roman Empire. At its start, though one emperor ruled the eastern half and another the western half, it had not been that long since one emperor alone had ruled the whole (Theodosius I). Even a quarter of the way through the fifth century, it was not certain that this unity would soon be undermined.1 By its end, not only had this division of the Empire become inexorable, also those states that emerged in the former Empire's ashes were also well on their way to becoming something else entirely (western medieval kingdoms, eastern Byzantine Empire, and so on), or so many would argue. The volume under review here, a revised edition of C.D. Gordon's sourcebook, The Age of Attila: Fifth-Century Byzantium and the Barbarians (originally published in 1960), provides a narrative of some of the key events of the fifth century. The emphasis, as the title implies, is on political and military matters, and it is the fragmentary historians of the fifth century, Candidus, Malchus, Olympiodorus, and Priscus, who provide the bulk of the selections, though so too John of Antioch. This revised edition contains new notes, additional bibliography, a list of concordances between Gordon and other editions of those historians, and a new overview of those historians, all provided by David Potter.

Most of this new edition contains material reprinted from the original. Thus, most of the page numbers are the same (Gordon/Potter use endnotes, and Potter's new material is, with a few exceptions, added to the end), the majority of the translations are the same, and the chapters that form the core of this book are the same. That means we find the original six core chapters, the titles of which are a bit misleading. What they give us is less the thematic treatment that their titles imply and more an extended political and military narrative of events involving Romans and assorted "barbarian" groups, with the exception of chapter one, "Imperial Government". Chapter two, "The Dynasty of Theodosius I and the Barbarians in the West", ranges from the siege of Rome in AD 410 and the machinations of Stilicho to the political manoeuvrings of Placidia. Chapter three, "The Huns", the longest chapter in the book, runs from the mythical origins of the Huns, through the spellbinding journey of Priscus to the camp of Attila, to the Battle of the Catalaunian Plains and the later death of Attila. The short chapter four, "The Vandals and the Collapse of the West", is concerned primarily with the Vandal invasion of Africa from the perspective of the Western Roman Empire, and covers aspects of the reign of Majorian and the political dealings of Ricimer. Chapter five, "The East, 450-91", shifts the focus to the east, and so we find discussions of, for example, Zeno and Basiliscus. The final chapter, six, "the Ostrogoths", is concerned primarily with the rivalry between Theoderic the Great and Theoderic Strabo (Theoderic spelled Theodoric in this book).

Each of the chapters presents the material in roughly chronological order, and contains the fragments in translation. For most, but not all, fragments some sort of discussion of the context is included, sometimes at the start, sometimes at the end, and sometimes even interspersed throughout the translated passage. The text of the translations and the texts of the commentary are distinguished by the presence of italics: the translations are in italics, while the commentary is not—here the font matches exactly that found in the original edition. Where Potter has made changes to the original translation—the revised edition uses larger pages, so providing space for the inclusion of this revised material and so obviating any necessity for changing page numbers—a different font is used.2 Although the fragments of these fifth century sources are patchy, Gordon's decision to present them by theme and not by author meant that he was able to create a fairly fluid narrative, no mean feat given we are dealing with the assorted summaries and citations of the Constantinian Excerpta, Photius, and the Suda. Indeed, as presented they read seductively well, and one could easily forget the fragmentary nature of what we have. This, on its own, should make the book appeal to some readers.

When the book was originally published, although the reviews were generally positive, some significant criticisms were raised. The bibliography was not as thorough as it ought to have been, and some authors, such as Jordanes, whose works might have been used with profit to illuminate some of the issues raised, were omitted. Gordon also wrote the book before some significant pieces of scholarship were published, such as Peter Brown's The World of Late Antiquity, not to mention A. H. M. Jones' The Later Roman Empire, which is more relevant to Gordon's volume. In Gordon's day, one of the great challenges posed to students of the fifth century, at least those approaching things from a Roman perspective, was the apparent lack of the usual evidence for political and military events. It is for this reason that the fifth century was often lumped together with the third by those who consider those two of the most poorly documented of Roman centuries.3 Thankfully, scholarship has moved forward, and in the last few decades in particular we have seen the publication of some important new works——some too late to be included by Potter4— and reinterpretations of the some of the most important aspects of the fifth century. Theodosius II is given much more credit than many had thought he deserved, some have argued that the Huns have had a greater lasting impact than is usually assumed, and the alleged devastation of the fifth century might have had more to do with civil war than with the famed barbarian invasions on the basis of more recent evaluations of the material evidence.5 At the same time, there has been much less decrying the sorts of evidence that survives from the fifth century and a much greater appreciation of what we do have. Attention, then, has shifted to asking questions of the rich body of evidence that we have, and it is not inconsiderable, from the ecclesiastical histories of Theodoret, Socrates, and Sozomen, to the acts of the Council of Chalcedon and the Theodosian Code.6 Where, then, does that leave this book, and what has Potter done to address some of these concerns and changes in historiography?

For one thing, as noted above, Potter has included a list of concordances (pp. 189-193) to other editions of these historians including, particularly, the edition, translation, and commentary of Blockley.7 That list is preceded by a succinct overview of the historians included and of the nature of the fragments. The bibliography has been updated, though it is still rather short, and one might quibble about the inclusions and exclusions.8 The most important change, however, is the inclusion of Potter's notes. They cover the gamut from references to the careers of named individuals (often by means of the PLRE) and some of the updated bibliography, to problems in the textual tradition (p. 197, n. 10 for example) and quotations from complementary sources (pp. 205-206, n. 16, for example). In some instances, Potter has highlighted and included intriguing parallels, though he has not developed them as much as he could have. Note 7, page 196, for instance, includes a quotation from Herodotus (3.1) about the incident between Cambyses, Amasis, and his daughter. This incident parallels fragment 33 from Priscus, which involves Kunchas, Perozes, and his sister. While the note, as it stands, and the quotation might be sufficient for the learned reader, for the beginner, unfamiliar with the impact of rhetorical models on late antique authors and the tendencies of classicizing historians, it might not be clear what the parallel means or why he has drawn attention to it. In others, Potter wears his learning lightly, and his commentary does exactly what it should. Thus, a few pages after the Herodotus parallel we find note 13 on pages 198-199, which discusses the relationship between the Huns of Attila and the Hsiung-nu/Xiongnu in light of the thinking of both Gordon's day and our own, the origins of the Huns (whether central Asia or European Russia), and the precise meaning of the term "Hun" and the role of its famed light cavalry. Then there are those notes which provide important correctives to Gordon's original points, such as note 22 on pages 212-213 concerning Roman payments to the Huns, which Gordon calculated was equal to £1,000,000 in 1923. Potter contextualizes the 2100lbs of gold, which made up the yearly tribute (between 443 and 450) Priscus alleges was paid to the Huns, in terms of payments to other groups in late antiquity.9 Finally, while the omitted authors have not been incorporated into the body of the book, we do find extensive quotations in the notes. Note 7 on page 204, for example, includes a quotation from Jordanes' Getica (30(157)) about Alaric's arrival in southern Italy, used to complement Olympius fragment 15 on that Gothic leader's death (p. 35).

Ultimately, is the revised edition worthwhile? While some of the comments in the notes might provoke criticism, the bibliography may be a bit short, and the use of italics for translations is still hard to follow, the truth is this is the most accessible edition, in English, of much of the extant fragments of fifth-century classicizing historians. Priscus' account of his expedition to meet with Attila is, to my mind, one of the best and most interesting pieces of extended narrative from any period of antiquity. Where else can we read about abandoned Danubian cities paired with the remnants of the region's Roman institutions, the machinations of Attila's court, and a philosophically inspired dialogue between an eminent Roman historian and a Greek immigrant living amongst the Huns? Thus, a readable and affordable version of Priscus' account, not to mention the select fragments from the other historians, makes this worthwhile; moreover, Potter's notes will be useful to student and scholar alike. Thus, with the growing scholarly interest in the fifth century, the reissuing of Gordon's book is timely. All in all, this revised edition of Gordon's classic sourcebook should reach a new audience.


1.   Cf. Giusto Traina, 428 AD. An Ordinary Year at the End of the Roman Empire (Princeton, 2009). (BMCR 2009.10.31).
2.   See, for example, page 69.
3.   Note Gordon's own comments at p. 183.
4.   For example, Meaghan McEvoy, Child Emperor Rule in the Late Roman West, AD 367-455 (OUP, 2013). (BMCR 2014.03.20).
5.   For Theodosius II, see Chris Kelly, ed., Theodosius II. Rethinkng the Roman Empire in Late Antiquity (CUP, 2013). (BMCR 2014.05.45); for the Huns, Hyun Jin Kim, The Huns, Rome and the Birth of Europe (CUP, 2013). (BMCR 2014.03.40); and for the barbarian invasions Michael Kulikowski, "The Archaeology of War and the Fifth Century Invasions" in Sarantis and Christie, eds., War and Warfare in Late Antiquity: Current Perspectives (Brill, 2013), p. 683ff.
6.   Cf. the reviews of Fergus Millar, A Greek Roman Empire (and Millar's comments at p. xv) (California University Press, 2006) in BMCR 2006.12.35, and of Peter Van Nuffelen, Un héritage de paix et de piété. Étude sur les histoires ecclésiastiques de Socrate et Sozomène (Peeters, 2008) in BMCR 2006.12.05.
7.   Roger Blockley, The Fragmentary Classicising Historians of the Later Roman Empire, 2 volumes (Francis Cairns, 1983).
8.   For instance, Guy Halsall, Barbarian Migrations and the Roman West, 376-568 (CUP, 2007).
9.   Potter is justified in doing this, though I wonder whether many readers might not get some value out of seeing Roman monetary values and units of measurements put into modern equivalents.

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