sexta-feira, 26 de julho de 2013

Post nº 75

"Legend is the poetry of history"          

Attila in front of his troops on the eve of the battle of Chalons - Scene of the famous
opera "Attila" by Giuseppe Verdi

I don’t know in History any coincidence more amazing than the relationship between Attila and Aetius: two men of the same age, from completely different nations and civilizations; who albeit separated by hundreds of miles lived for long periods in each other’s houses; who were friends from youth; who became leaders of their respective people and in a decisive moment for the survival of their peoples and civilizations became ferocious enemies on the battlefield, playing the most dangerous, bloody and decisive game in the history of the Western Roman Empire.

The one who won the game would impose his civilization all over Europe. Therefore, if Attila had won Europe would be now a pagan primitive Asiatic Civilization instead of a Christian advanced Roman one. The fact was that even after becoming enemies Aetius and Attila always maintained the most profound respect for each other’s military skills, and this respect was transmitted to their respective followers and Armies. This doesn’t mean that both men were good fellows, God forbid, for both of them were capable of the most terrible deeds to reach their respective goals; for instance: Attila killed his only brother to occupy the Royal throne alone, only three years after both of them had begun to reign together; Aetius killed his most dangerous rival when he discovered that his enemy and followers were planning a plot to destroy his position in the Roman Army and in the Imperial Court.

They were brave and skilled warriors, sharing the same personal abilities in individual fighting, for Aetius, as said by Gregorius De Tours, was ‘eques promptissimus sagittarum jactu peritus’ (the most speedy riding his horse and expert shooting his bow), and Attila was the same according to history. They were ruthless, cold and dangerous in political and military matters, but they were also kind and generous to their friends once assured that they weren’t a risk to their political or military power. They could perceive a false friend or a scoundrel from afar, but they could also recognize the worth qualities of a man and, what was still more important: respect these qualities even if he was an enemy.

However, there were also important differences in the character of both men in political and military aspects, for Attila and so the Huns used to play clean and fair: loyalty and trust was his trademark, but not Aetius’ and even less the Romans’.

The motto for Attila seemed to be: ‘If you want to kill a man, be harsh and challenge him to a single combat face to face; violence is the best way to solve problems and must always be used to impose fear and respect’. For Aetius it seemed to be quite the opposite: ‘If you want to kill a man, be kind and polite and do it as smoothly and diplomatically as possible; violence is the last resort to solve problems and must be used only when strictly necessary’.

But this doesn’t mean that Aetius was in want of courage; in fact courage was one of his most remarkable attributes, as Merobaldus said in his Panegyric: ‘lorica non tam munimen quam vestimentum’ (for you, armour wasn’t a protection, but an ornament).

Aetius talks to one of his generals in the famous opera "Attila" by Giuseppe Verdi
However, the two men’s differences of character were due more to their cultural environments than to their personalities. Attila had been raised riding horses on the open plains with his friends without any sort of sophistication, luxuries or intellectual concerns. For those men, the foremost virtues were conspicuous bravery, brutality and unconditional loyalty, which involve trust and love of truth; simulation, disguise and falsehood were capital sins for them. On the other hand, Aetius had been raised in the most sophisticated, hypocritical, luxurious, and intellectualised civilization of all. In this society open brutality, conspicuous bravery and unconditional loyalty were the fast track to failure and self-destruction. Bravery and brutality should be disguised so as not to provoke fear or suspicion in other countrymen and loyalty was pretence or a commodity for trading. You couldn’t trust anyone and truth was only a matter of convenience. The educated Roman used to learn by his own experience or by the accurate study of the best analytical and enlightened historians that simulation and falsehood were the capital virtues for a successful social or political career in his society.

Aetius, as a Roman statesman, was an unscrupulous politician but he could also have and maintain a true friendship although always an interested one. This friendship, albeit true, had to be with one who could be useful in case of need without representing any kind of risks. This was Aetius’ way to have things done: charming and friendly behaviour disguising the coldest political calculation and the most ultimate dissimulation disguising his ruthlessness when necessary in some appropriate cases. Nevertheless, it was the roman way and I would like to ask specialists in Politics if this kind of behaviour isn’t appropriate for a true statesman in a developed and sophisticated society, for I think that it certainly is.

His highly skilled political behaviour not only won great prizes in his brilliant career and several dedicated friends, but also distrust, suspicion and enemies, especially in the Imperial Court and in the High Echelons of the army usually formed by generals chosen by the Empress, and Aetius’ enemies, as a counterbalance to his power in the low military ranks where his popularity was enormous.

The relationship and the game between Aetius and Empress Galla Placídia were great mysteries of the time and most historians, all of them pious clergymen who hated “pagan” Aetius because he had killed their idol, “devout catholic” Bonifatius, say that, despite being close political allies, the general and the empress were friendly enemies. According to them, she distrusted him and despised his falsehood and bad character!

Image of Gala Placidia in a golden tray - Roman-bizantyne art 5º Century AD

But their bias against Aetius and their dishonest judgment is made evident when they talk about Attila's invasion of the West in 452. These same pious historians and critics of his "bad character" say that there were at the time among the Romans a complete discouragement and a strong desire to negotiate with Attila no matter what the costs or consequences. Nevertheless, they add that in the middle of the rampat cowardice only Aetius stood his ground refusing any deal with Attila and almost without official support restlessly organised an alliance between the Romans and the Germanic tribes of the West, which produced the important victory of Chalons.

This means that despite his former friendship with the Huns and being the only Roman able to negotiate with them, in the decisive moment he opted for his country instead of his Hun friends. Attila, who was very well informed by his spies about what was happening among the Romans felt his respect for Aetius growing and, considering the facts, what we can say is that the calumnies against Aetius are so absurd that it is better to ignore them altogether. With all his defects, which actually are the statesman’s virtues, he was not only the noblest Roman citizen and gifted general of his time, but also the last.
Returning to our comparison between Aetius and Attila we have already seen how different human relationships were in the Hun and Roman societies. In fact, Aetius and Attila had already perceived the gap but differently: staying in Roman cities several times, Attila knew the Roman way of life and despised it altogether. He perceived the corruption and the falsehood of its social and political spectrum, taking careful notes about what from his point of view was wrong in its decadent society. For him, this kind of civilization wasn’t worthwhile surviving.

Attila in the famous opera "Ezio" by Haendell

When Attila realised that his friend Aetius in whose house he was a dear guest was also a perfect product of that despicable society, in spite of his being a nice guy and a truly great warrior, he began to behave and deal with Aetius very carefully. Nevertheless, his respect for the warrior qualities of his friend remained intact. While time passed, Attila continued to take careful notes of Aetius’ military achievements and his respect for him grew stronger.

Aetius had seen things from a different angle typical of a civilised man. For him, although healthy, the Huns’ society was also a very primitive one: it represented an old era in mankind’s history, surpassed a long time ago; so it wasn’t the Roman civilization that should recede to its barbarian stage, but the still barbaric Huns that should advance towards a more modern way of life adopting the Roman culture.

Both cultures were completely different and incompatible; they could not coexist face to face as great military powers so one should be absorbed by the other and disappear, for they could not coexist forever. To sum up: Aetius was a modern prince who knew that the first duty for a prince was to preserve the safety of his principality at any cost without ethical or moral worries. To keep his position safe was a second duty, only a result of the first accomplishment. On the other hand, Attila was a primitive prince who cared only about his position because nations or states were things beyond his understanding. The truth was that the world was in the verge of an enormous clash of civilizations and in Chalons the West fortunately prevailed over the East.

Aetius performed by Todd Thomas in Handel's opera "Ezio" (Aetius in italian)
Like his rival, Aetius also kept in high account Attila’s military skills and achievements. This kind of mutual respect led to an episode that many say to be true and many others say to be a legend, pure creation of the imagination of some flatterers, because they were also present on the occasion and they say that they didn’t see the scene. However, we have to keep in mind that legends are also an important source of history because they always have its origins in real facts. Legend is the way that in oral tradition fact is transmitted mouth-to-mouth by creative storytellers and registered in the imaginative people’s minds. If you want a more erudite definition of what legend is I dare say that legend is the poetry of history.

Anyway, truth or legend here is the story. Reliable military witnesses told that in the aftermath of the huge and terrible Battle of Chalons, when after an agonic night the Huns conceded the costly victory to the Romans and withdrew at dawn, Aetius was on horseback, immobile, watching their retreat from a nearby hill accompanied by all his general staff and could see clearly Attila moving nervously on horseback back and forth, commanding the retreat. Suddenly, Attila realised that Aetius illuminated by the first rays of the rising sun was watching and following his movements carefully from the top of the hill.

Attila turned his horse and galloped in Aetius’ direction for a few dozen yards, raised his right arm and very seriously made a long farewell gesture. Aetius replied in the same style and Attila, turning his horse again to his men, who were also watching the amazing, chivalrous scene, went away slowly.

Note: The "Battle of Challons" is also called the "Battle of the Catalunian Fields".

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