THE SWORD OF ATTILA
Michael Curtis Ford

 


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St Martin’s Press, 2005
Reviewed by Joy Calderwood
 
Southeastern Europe, 409 to 451 A.D.
 
The Roman Empire, East and West, seems ripe to fall. Complacent and self-indulgent after 1200 years, the Empires depend on the “barbarian” tribes to make up their armies. Many of those tribes do not accept their subjugation willingly. When Huns invade Europe, offering the tribes terror in one hand and alliance in the other, some choose to break from Rome, which is incapable of protecting them. In the fifth century, Attila and his horde, a million strong, crushed resistance all the way to France. The Battle of Châlons is considered by some historians to have been the deciding event, the moment when all of Western civilization could have been broken down to rubble. THE SWORD OF ATTILA tells the story of the people who determined the outcome of the battle.
 
Rome takes hostages from all subject tribes. It is one of the many reasons Rome is not popular. True, it creates personal relationships among heirs of the various tribes and Rome, and that is a good thing -- when the hostages are happy getting a Roman education with their peers. Attila is not happy. His nomadic people value horses, not booklearning. He has not learned the art of social attack, with which his fellow students retaliate when he easily defeats them in fights. He does not appreciate being treated as a boy again, when he has been a man among his own people.
 
In Attila’s case, the hostage-taking is a trade. His opposite, Flavius Aetius, gets much the better of the deal when he goes to the Hunnish camps. Aetius is trained in Hunnish weapons, instructed in Hunnish battle tactics, and given a Hunnish command. When Attila comes back he finds Aetius perfectly adapted, the only other man in the camp versed in both cultures. They are natural friends and allies. Together they fight and bring under Hunnish sway each plains tribe encountered by the horde.
 
Attila’s uncle King Rugila would gladly have kept Aetius with him as a commander, but Aetius is ultimately a Roman. When he returns he is given the military governorship of Roman Gaul. Even the corrupt and irresponsible Imperial court is forced to value Aetius’ accomplishments. When Attila comes to be king, with an ambition to dominate the whole world, it is Aetius he will have to face across Europe.
 
Author Michael Curtis Ford ably balances his attentions between Attila and Aetius, showing these two outstanding men as the humans they were. They confront very different political situations but with equal skill. In the inevitable standoff, there is no doubt where our loyalties lie, but our admiration for each one must be strong because Ford takes us inside each man’s personality with such power.
 
THE SWORD OF ATTILA is written with a rich layer of connotation that embodies the cultural issues of Europe in these two men. In fact, Ford can, when he chooses, make us aware of  those same issues in the retreat of a decimated army, the rebellion of a princess, or the loyalty of a halfwit. He blends the large and small pictures, increasing our understanding of this time so far from us but so essentially a part of our roots.
 
Ford says in his Postscript to THE SWORD OF ATTILA that he has taken literary license to omit or change some historical events, to improve the story line. One of the important omissions is Attila’s campaign into Italy a year after the events of this book. The Huns did not tear Italy apart stone from stone, nor did they slaughter every living opponent, as they are described as doing in THE SWORD OF ATTILA. This throws doubt on the theory that if Attila had won at Châlons, European civilization would have been wiped out. It doesn’t diminish the excitement of the contest between Attila and Aetius.
 
Michael Curtis Ford has been receiving glowing reviews since the publication of his first historical novel THE TEN THOUSAND, the novelization of an ancient Greek history written by Xenophon. Since then he has studied the rebel Roman Emperor Julian in GODS AND LEGIONS, and Mithridates the Great, the Roman Republic’s resilient opponent, in THE LAST KING. Each has required research into a new period of history. The result is rousing, in-depth adventure and psychological drama.
 
March 2005 Review

 

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