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Book Review


Babcock, Michael A. The Night Attila Died: Solving the Murder of Attila the Hun (New York: Berkley Books, 2005). 324 pp, $23. 95.

     Most, if not all, historians view themselves as detectives of sorts. After all, we comb through manuscripts and documents searching for clues to better understand what happened in the past. However, while historians always have research questions, rarely do they have a murder mystery to solve. In The Night Attila Died, Michael A. Babcock attempts to solve a mystery from antiquity—who killed Attila the Hun. 1
     Babcock, a philologist at Liberty University, suggests that the time-honored account of Attila's death written by Priscust is not accurate. Babcock argues that rather than dying from a nosebleed on his wedding night, instead Attila fell victim to an assassination plot hatched in Constantinople. At first glance, it would be easy to dismiss this as simply another conspiracy story with a catchy title to sell books. Yet Babcock's methodology in uncovering and presenting this plot is impressive; and impressive it should be when challenging an account accepted since the 'Scourge of God' died in 453. The author weaves a narrative that is quite convincing and slowly builds his case point by point. 2
      The book consists of an introduction, eight chapters, the endnotes, and two indices—a biographical and a topical index. The introduction reveals how the author first became interested in Attila during his days as a philology graduate student. The chapters themselves are an intriguing blend of research and historiography, developed through Babcock's conversational writing style. Inserted between the analysis of sources and narrative are his own personal reflections. These range from moments in his classroom as a professor to his earlier days as a graduate student. Thus Babcock's writing style gives the reader an intimate atmosphere—one feels almost as if Babcock is in the room discussing it—and also draws the reader deeper into the mystery. 

     Nonetheless, The Night Attila Died remains a serious academic discussion. It is not widely known, but the Eastern Roman Empire failed in an earlier attempt to assassinate Attila. Babcock explores the personalities involved in this plot as well as developing the case for a second alleged assassination plot. In each chapter, Babcock provides a few exhibits and systematically goes through each one to establish its validity. It is tempting to reveal all of the pieces of evidence, but that would be like giving away the end of a movie. However, revealing a few pieces might tempt readers to peruse the book. The first is that the accepted version of Attila's death comes from a single source, and in Babcock's view, it suffers from "textual corruption." Another exhibit is the seeming contradiction that Attila died from a nosebleed after drinking excessively, but that in all other reports on life of Attila, he was a model of temperance. 4
     Babcock constructs a convincing case drawing on a myriad of sources and using a careful and systematic analysis of these texts. His discussion covers Attila's entire career and clearly reveals the power of the scribe—how the scriveners of the past influenced commonly held views on events through the medium of the written word. Yet, Babcock's case is not air-tight. While he raises several well-reasoned and insightful points, ultimately he is undone by his own passion for philology. While arguing that none of the sources indicate that Attila drank excessively, except for Priscus's, Babcock does not take into account factors outside of the sources, such as pastoral nomadic culture. 
     Attila, as a Hun, lived in a pastoral nomadic culture. Even if he no longer practiced seasonal migration, the culture of the Huns was similar to virtually all other steppe nomads that existed in the Eurasian steppes. One aspect of this culture was the consumption of kumiss (fermented mare's milk). While its alcoholic properties are not high, one can become intoxicated. Furthermore, in virtually all accounts of festivities among the steppe nomads, heavy drinking was almost an obligation. Jack Weatherford's Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World illustrates this point quite well. In addition, Babcock ignores a basic element of human interaction. During times of celebration, such as Attila's fateful wedding night, it should not be surprising that the groom and everyone else were exuberant in their merry-making. Who has not seen normally reserved people loosening their demeanor at weddings, parties, and similar occasions? Thus while Babcock argues a good case, the original verdict has yet to be overturned.
     Nonetheless, The Night Attila Died is a wonderful and enlightening read. The intended audience is the educated public, but it would also work well as a classroom supplement for world history classes or for historical methods courses. Instructors will also find it extremely useful for their own background knowledge, as Babcock paints a vibrant image of life in the declining Roman Empire. Graduate students, particularly at the Master's level, will benefit from understanding the nuances and problems of working with pre-modern sources. Furthermore, it could lead to a discussion of a wide variety of issues, from interpreting sources to the intricacies of diplomacy in the ancient world. Regardless of who reads the book, they will find it intriguing and enjoyable. 
Timothy May
North Georgia College and State University

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