Attila by August Strindberg
With the demise of Constantine the Great, Greece, Rome, and
Palestine had ceased to exist. Civilisation had passed Eastward, for
Constantinople was the metropolis of Europe; and from the East, Rome,
Spain, Gaul, and Germany were governed by satraps with various titles.
It seemed as though the vitality of Europe had been quenched, and as
though Rome had been buried, but it was only apparently so. History did
not proceed in a straight line, but took circuitous paths, and
therefore development seemed to be in disorder and astray. But it was
not really so.
Christianity, which was about to penetrate the West, had sprung from
the East, and so ancient Byzantium formed a transition stage. In Rome,
which had been left to itself, for its governors dwelt in Milan and
Ravenna, a new spiritual world-power was springing up, which was
silently forging a new imperial crown, in order to give it to the
worthiest when the time was fulfilled. The advent of this heir had
already been announced by Tacitus—a new race from the North, healthy,
honest, good-humoured. These were the Germans, who were to hold the
Empire for a thousand years from 800 to 1815. Already, at the
commencement of the fifth century, the West Goths had captured Rome,
but again withdrawn; other German races had overrun Spain, Gaul, and
Britain, but none of them had taken firm root in Italy. Then an
entirely new race appeared upon the scene, whose origin was unknown,
and the promise of possessing the land which had been given to the
Germans seemed to have been revoked, for the Huns finally settled in
Hungary, and exacted tribute from all the nations in the world. Round a
wooden castle and a few barracks on the river Theiss, there collected a
crowd of Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, and Germans of all kinds to do
homage before a throne on which sat a savage who resembled a lump of
In the year 453 A.D. this King, after many adventures, wished to
celebrate one of his numerous marriages. He had summoned the chief men
of all Europe—summoned—for a King does not invite. So they came
riding from North, South, East, and West.
From the west, along the bank of the Danube, just below the place
where the river makes a curve at the modern Gran, came two men riding
at the head of a caravan. For several days they had followed the
picturesque banks of the green river, with its bulrushes and willows,
and its swarms of wild duck and herons. Now they were about to leave
the cool shades of the forest region, and turn eastward towards the
salt desert, which stretched to the banks of the yellow Theiss.
One leader of the caravan was a well-known Roman, called Orestes;
the other was Rugier, also called Edeko. He was a chief from the shores
of the Baltic Sea, and had been compelled to follow Attila.
The two leaders had hitherto spoken little together, for they
mistrusted each other. But as they emerged on the wide plain, which
opened out as clear and bright as the surface of the sea, they seemed
themselves to grow cheerful, and to lay aside all mistrust.
“Why are you going to the marriage?” asked Orestes.
“Because I cannot remain away,” answered Edeko.
“Just like myself.”
“And the Bride—the Burgundian did not dare to say 'no' either?”
“She? Yes, she would have dared to.”
“Then she loved this savage?”
“I did not say that.”
“Perhaps she hates him, then? A new Judith for this Holofernes?”
“Who knows? The Burgundians do not love the Huns since they pillaged
Worms in their last raid.”
“Still it is incomprehensible how he recovered from his defeat on
the Catalaunian Plain.”
“Everything is incomprehensible that has to do with this man, if he
is a man at all.”
“You are right. He is said to have succeeded his father's brother,
Rua, of whom we know nothing; he has murdered his brother Bleda. For
twenty years we have had him held over us like an iron rod, and yet
lately, when he was before Rome, he turned back.”
“But he has promised his soldiers to give them Rome some day.”
“Why did he spare Rome?”
“No one knows. No one knows anything about this man, and he himself
seems to be ignorant about himself. He comes from the East, he says;
that is all. People say the Huns are the offspring of witches and
demons in the wilderness. If anyone asks Attila what he wants, and who
he is, he answers, 'The Scourge of God.' He founds no kingdom, builds
no city, but rules over all kingdoms and destroys all cities.”
“To return to his bride: she is called Ildico; is she then a
“What does Attila care? He has no religion.”
“He must have one if he calls himself 'the Scourge of God,' and
declares that he has found the War-God's sword.”
“But he is indifferent as regards forms of religion. His chief
minister, Onegesius, is a Greek and a Christian.”
“What an extraordinary man he is to settle down here in a salt-plain
instead of taking up his abode in Byzantium or in Rome.”
“That is because it resembles his far Eastern plains—the same soil,
the same plants and birds; he feels at home here.”
They became silent, as the sun rose and the heat increased. The
low-growing tamarisk, wormwood, and soda-bushes afforded no shade. Wild
fowl and larks were the only creatures that inhabited the waste. The
herds of cattle, goats, and swine had disappeared, for Attila's army of
half a million had eaten them up, and his horses had not left a single
edible blade of grass.
At noon the caravan came suddenly to a halt, for on the eastern
horizon there was visible a town with towers and pinnacles, on the
other side of a blue lake. “Are we there?” asked Edeko. “Impossible; it
is still twenty miles, or three days' journey.”
But the city was in sight, and the caravan quickened its pace. After
half an hour the town appeared no nearer, but seemed, on the contrary,
to grow more distant, to dwindle in size, and to sink out of sight.
After another half hour, it had disappeared, and the blue lake also.
“They can practise enchantment,” said the Roman, “but that goes
“It is the Fata Morgana, or the mirage,” explained the guide.
As the evening came on, the caravan halted in order to rest for the
* * * * *
On the stretch of land between Bodrog and Theiss, Attila had his
standing camp, for it could not be called a town. The palace was of
wood, painted in glaring colours, and resembled an enormous tent, whose
style was probably borrowed from China, the land of silk. The women's
house, which was set up near it, had a somewhat different form, which
might have been brought by the Goths from the North, or even from
Byzantium, for the house was ornamented with round wooden arches. The
fittings seemed to have been stolen from all nations and lands; there
were quantities of gold and silver, silk and satin curtains, Roman
furniture and Grecian vessels, weapons from Gaul, and Gothic textile
fabrics. It resembled a robber's abode, and such in fact it was.
Behind the palace enclosure began the camp, with its smoke-grimed
tents. A vast number of horse-dealers and horse-thieves swarmed in the
streets, and there were as many horses as men there. Without the camp
there grazed herds of swine, sheep, goats, and cattle—living provision
for this enormous horde of men, who could only devour and destroy, but
could not produce anything.
Now, on the morning of Attila's wedding day, there were moving about
in this camp thousands of little men with crooked legs and broad
shoulders, clothed in rat-skins and with rags tied round their calves.
They looked out of their tents with curiosity, when strangers who had
been invited to the marriage feast came riding up from the plain.
In the first street of tents, Attila's son and successor, Ellak, met
the principal guests; he bade them welcome through an interpreter, and
led them into the guest-house.
“Is that a prince, and are those men?” said Orestes to Edeko.
“That is a horse-dealer, and the rest are rats,” answered Edeko.
“They are monsters and demons, vampires, created from dreams of
intoxication. They have no faces; their eyes are holes; their voice is
a rattle; their nose is that of a death's-head; and their ears are
“You speak truly, and it is from these half-naked savages, who have
no armour and no shield, that the Roman legions have fled. They are
goblins, who have been able to 'materialise' themselves.”
“They will not conquer the world.”
“At any rate not in this year.”
Then they followed Prince Ellak, who had heard and understood every
word, although he pretended not to know their language.
* * * * *
In the women's house sat Attila's favourite, Cercas, and sewed the
bridal veil. Ildico, the beautiful Burgundian, stood at the window lost
in thought and absent-minded. She had seen in Worms the hero before
whom the world trembled, and she had really been captivated by the
little man's majestic bearing. Herself fond of power, and self-willed,
she had been enticed by the prospect of sharing power with the man
before whom all and everything bowed; therefore she had given him her
But she had had no correct comprehension of the manners and customs
of the Huns, and had therefore imagined that her position as wife and
Queen would be quite otherwise than it proved to be. Only this morning
she had learnt that she could not appear at all at the marriage feast,
nor share the throne, but would simply remain shut up with the other
women in the women's house.
Cercas, the favourite, had explained all this with malicious joy to
her rival, and the haughty Ildico was on the point of forming a
resolution. She had no friends in the palace, and could not approach
the foreign princes.
Cercas was sewing, and accompanied her work with a melancholy song
from her home in the far East. Ildico seemed to have collected her
thoughts: “Can you lend me a needle?” she said, “I want to sew.”
Cercas gave her a needle, but it was too small; she asked for a
larger one, and chose the largest of all. She hid it in her bosom, and
did not sew.
At that moment there appeared in the doorway a creature so
abominably ugly and of such a malicious aspect, that Ildico thought he
was a demon. He was as jet-black as a negro from tropical Africa, and
his head seemed to rest on his stomach, for he had no chest. He was a
dwarf and humpback; his name was Hamilcar, and he was Attila's
In those days the court-fool was generally not a wit, but a naive
blockhead, who believed all that was said, and was therefore a butt for
jests. He only placed a letter in Cercas' hand, and disappeared. When
Cercas had read the letter, she changed colour and seemed to become a
different being. Overcome with rage, she could not speak, but sang,
“The tiger follows the lion's trail.”
“Ildico, you have found a friend,” she said at last. “You have a
friend here in the room, here at the window, here on your breast.” And
she threw herself on the Burgundian maiden's breast, weeping and
laughing alternately. “Give me your needle—your fine beautiful needle;
I will thread it. No! I will sharpen it on steel; no, I will dip it in
my perfume-flask, my own special little perfume flask, and then
together we will sew up the Tiger's mouth, so that he can bite no
“Let me read your letter,” Ildico interrupted.
“You cannot. I will tell you what it says. He, our master, woos
again for the hand of the daughter of the Emperor Valens—Honoria, and
this time he has vowed to burn us all;—that he calls giving us an
Ildico reached out her hand as an answer, “Very well, to-night. A
single needle-prick will deprive the world of its ruler!”
* * * * *
Edeko and Orestes had thoroughly rested from their journey in the
guest-house. At noon, when they wished to go out, they found the door
“Are we prisoners? Have we fallen into a trap?” asked the Roman.
“We have not had any food either,” answered Edeko.
Then two voices were heard without: “We will strangle them; that is
the simplest way.”
“I think we had better set the house on fire; the tall one is
“And they thought we did not understand their language.”
The two prisoners, whose consciences were uneasy, were alarmed, and
believed that their end was near. Then a small trap-door opened in the
wall, and the fool Hamilcar showed his hideous head.
“Whether you are the devil or not,” exclaimed the Roman, “answer us
“Speak, sirs,” said the negro.
“Are we prisoners, or why cannot we see your King?”
Prince Ellak's head appeared at the trap-door.
“You will first see the King this evening at the feast,” said the
Prince, with a malicious grimace.
“Are we to fast till then?”
“We call it so, and do it always when we have a feast before us, in
order to be able to eat more.”
“Cannot we at any rate go out?”
“No,” answered the Prince with the horse-dealerlike face. “One must
conform to the custom of the country.” So saying, he closed the
“Do you think we shall get away alive?” asked Edeko.
“Who knows? Attila is composed of treachery. You do not know that
once he wrote two letters, one to Dieterich, King of the West Goths,
asking for an alliance against the Romans as the common enemy; and on
the same day he wrote a similar letter to the Romans, in which he
proposed an alliance against the West Goths. The deceit was discovered,
and Attila fell between two stools.”
“He seems to be immortal, otherwise he would have been killed in
battle, as he always goes at the head of his army.”
Until evening the travelling companions remained incarcerated. At
last the door was opened, and a master of the ceremonies led them into
the hall where the great feast was to take place. Here there were
countless seats and tables covered with the most costly cloths and
drinking vessels of gold and silver. The guests were assembled, but the
two travellers saw no faces that they knew; they looked in vain for the
bridegroom and the bride. As they were conducted to their places, a low
murmur broke out among the guests, who talked in an undertone, and
asked where the great King would show himself.
Orestes and Edeko cast their eyes over the walls and ceiling without
being able to see where the wonder would happen, for the childish and
cunning Huns used to amuse their guests with surprises and practical
Suddenly the whole assembly stood up. The curtain which covered the
wall in the background was drawn aside, and on a platform sat a little
insignificant-looking man, with a table before him and a sofa beside
him. On the table stood a wooden goblet. He sat quite motionless,
without even moving his eyelids. Somewhat lower than he stood his chief
Minister, the Greek Onegesius. He kept his eyes unwaveringly fixed on
his master, who seemed to be able to converse with him through his
Attila remained in the same attitude, his legs crossed, and his
right hand on the table. He gave no greeting, neither did he answer
“He does not see us! He only shows himself!” whispered Orestes. “He
Onegesius received a command from the despot's eye, and lifted his
staff. A poet stepped forward with an instrument that resembled a harp
and a drum combined. After he had struck the strings, and beaten the
drum, he began to recite. It was a song celebrating all Attila's feats
in terms of strong exaggeration, and it would have been endless, if the
assembly had not taken up the refrain and struck with their short
swords on the table. The poet represented Attila's defeat on the
Catalaunian Plain as an honourable but indecisive battle. After the
guests had for some time contemplated the insignificant-looking hero in
his simple brown leather dress, they both felt the same irresistible
reverence that all did who saw him.
There was something more than vanity in this self-conscious calm;
this visible contempt for all and everything. He kept his side-face
turned to the guests, and only his Minister could catch his eye.
When the panegyric was at an end, Attila raised his goblet, and,
without drinking to anyone, sipped it. That was, however, the signal
for a drinking orgy, and the wine was poured into gold and silver
goblets, which had to be emptied at a draught, for Attila liked to see
those around him intoxicated, while he remained sober.
After they had drunk for a while, the negro Hamilcar came forward
and performed feats of jugglery. Then the great King rose, turned his
back to the assembly, and laid down on the sofa. But in each of his
movements there was majesty, and as he lay there thinking, his knees
drawn up, his hands under his neck, and his eyes directed towards the
ceiling, he was still imposing.
“But what about the bride and the marriage?” Orestes asked one of
“We do not even mention our wives,” he answered, “how, then, should
we show them?”
The drinking continued, but no food was placed before the guests. At
intervals the whole assembly sang, and beat upon the tables.
While the noise and excitement were at their height, the hall
suddenly filled with smoke, and the building was in flames. All started
up, shouted and sought to flee, but Attila's Minister struck with his
staff on the table, and the assembly broke into laughter. It was a jest
for the occasion, and only some waggon-loads of hay had been kindled
outside. When quiet had been restored, Attila was no more to be seen,
for he had left the hall by a secret door. And now began the feast,
which lasted till morning.
* * * * *
When the sun rose, Orestes was still sitting and drinking with an
Avar chief. The condition of the hall was indescribable, and most of
the guests were dancing outside round the fire.
“This is a wedding-feast indeed!” said Orestes. “We shall not
quickly forget it. But I would gladly have spoken with the wonderful
man. Can one not do that?”
“No,” answered the Avar; “he only speaks in case of need. 'What is
the use of standing,' he asks, 'and deceiving one another?' He is a
wise man, and not without traces of kindness and humanity. He allows no
unnecessary bloodshed, does not avenge himself on a defeated foe, and
is ready to forgive.”
“Has he any religion? Does he fear death?”
“He believes on his sword and his mission, and death is for him only
the door to his real home. Therefore he lives here below, as though he
were a guest or traveller.”
“Quite like the Christians, then?”
“It is remarkable that in Rome he received respect from Pope Leo
—What's the matter now?”
Outside there was a shouting which at first seemed to issue from the
palace, but soon spread itself over the camp. Half a million of men
were howling, and it sounded like weeping.
The guests hurried out, and saw all the Huns dancing, cutting their
faces with knives, and shouting unintelligible words. Edeko came up and
pulled Orestes away through the crowds. “Attila is dead! May Jesus
Christ be praised!”
“Dead? That is Ildico's doing!”
“No! she sat by the corpse, veiled and weeping.”
“Yes, it is she.”
“Yes, but these savages are too proud to believe that Attila could
be killed by a human being!”
“How fortunate for us!” “Quick to Rome with the news. The fortune of
the man who first brings it is made.”
Orestes and Edeko departed the same morning. They never forgot this
wedding which had brought them together.
Later on they renewed their acquaintance, under other and still more
striking circumstances. For the son of Edeko was Odovacer, who defeated
the son of Orestes, who was no other than the last Emperor Romulus
Augustus. Strangely enough his name was Romulus, as was that of Rome's
first King, and Augustus, as was that of the first Emperor. After his
deposition, he closed his life with a pension of six thousand gold
pieces, in a Campanian villa, which had formerly belonged to Lucullus.