Anyone who reads this blog has watched my daughter grow up; she’s an adolescent now, and while she is still only 11, she looks about 16 and acts more mature still. I’ve been using her pugnacious teenaged energy to put her to work, mowing the lawn or taking a sledgehammer to our old shed.
I don’t post about her as often as I used to; when she was ten I decided I would start asking her permission before repeating any of our conversations. I’m not fond of the way the Internet destroys our sense of privacy, and the way young people these days grow up online, the details of their formative years there for everyone to see – for governments to monitor, predators to find, and marketers to manipulate. I didn’t show her face or say her name, or exactly where we lived, but when she was small I repeated our adorable conversations on this blog; once she was older, I wanted to make the decision hers.
Partly, though, it’s because we’re always busy. On the weekends our days have been filled with our new favourite activity, “medieval camp,” in which she and other students are taught archery, sword-play, horse riding and so on. Starting next weekend, they will take part in archery tournaments and re-enactment events, and I will be going along as chaperone and, this weekend, playing a suit of armour.
In the evenings I come home on the bus from my day job in Dublin, ride my bike from the bus stop home, and hug my daughter. After dinner we do one of my home-schooling lessons – “after-schooling,” technically, since she goes to regular Catholic school in the village during the day.
The purpose of my lessons is not to replace what she learns in regular school, but to teach her the things that conventional schooling will not. Some days we do history, and we’ve covered foragers through pharaohs, Paris to Periander, Cleisthenes to Claudius. Some nights we do natural history, from archaea to anapsids and gompotheres to glyptodonts. Some nights we covered systems theory; the Red Queen, the Prisoner’s Dilemma and negative feedback.
I try to teach them together to show how they fit; talking about the Prisoner’s Dilemma around the same time as the uprising of Spartacus, to show why more slaves didn’t revolt.
We’ve been wrapping up the Roman Era; we’ve covered the republic, from Aeneas to Romulus to Tarquin and Horatius, from the Celtic burning of Rome to the Punic wars against Hannibal, from the abortive dictatorships of Sulla and Caesar, to the lasting empire of Octavian. We covered the mad emperors, interrupted by the almost accidental reign of Claudius and the philosopher-emperor Marcus Aurelius. We re-read the Gospels, talked about the early Christians up to Constantine, and finally the ending of slavery in the Roman Empire as Christianity took hold. We talked about the rebel-queens against Rome – Boudica and Zenobia.
Then, last night, I started talking about the decline and fall of empires.
“We talked about this a long time ago,” she said, “about Sumeria, Assyria and the others.”
We did, I said – do you remember what makes an empire rise and fall?
“Well, they usually grow by using a resource,” The Girl said. “Either a new crop, or a new technology, or just by enslaving the peoples around them, as the Romans did.”
Right – and when that resource is tapped out, empires often start to decline and fall …
“Like the bacteria in the bottle,” she said. “And then there’s a die-off.” We had often talked about how bacteria multiply exponentially in a closed system until their food is gone and their waste products fill the system, and then they die off – yeast in my beer vat, for example. Humans, though, aren’t yeast – we’re much more complicated. As empires decline, people who were doing well aren’t any more, and sometimes they overthrow the government for something else, like Plato’s cycle of governments. Remember what those were?
“Oh …” she said. “Democracy, tyranny and … um … rule by a few people.”
Oligarchy, I said – you’re right. And sometimes different parts of the empire go into civil war – Rome in its later years had seen France break off, Queen Zenobia’s rebellion, lots of patches split off – and finally they split into West and East.
And sometimes they fall to barbarians from outside – the Chinese to Mongols, the Hittites to Sea Peoples, and the Romans to various barbarians from the north and east. Which brings me to Attila the Hun.
The Girl perked up.
To be clear, I said, there weren’t exactly Huns -- not like a nation with cities and roads filled with people who called themselves Huns. Rather, I said, he became head of a tribe, and attacked or made aliances with the tribes around him, or both …
“Both?” she said. “Attacked and then made alliances with?”
It’s more common than you might think, I said. He was basically a gangster – most leaders are. He wasn’t evil for the sake of being evil, he just wanted more power or protection money. He would defeat other tribes and then tell them things like, Now I could destroy your peoples, but I’ll leave them alone if you come fight for me. And the more people he conquered, the more he could conquer …
“Postitive feedback loop,” The Girl said.
Exactly! Well done, I said. So once he became leader of his barbarian tribe – actually he and his brother, but he murdered his brother pretty fast – he started growing in power, until his empire stretched from France to Russia, as big as the Roman Empire. He talked many other armies into fighting with him, and the “Huns” became the general term for this group of many tribes following Attila, all speaking different languages.
The Roman Emperor, Valentian, tried to hire him at one point to help them defeat the Goths, but then he turned on the Romans.
“Did the Goths go into battle really mopey and with black eyeliner?” she asked.
I’m loving that image, I said. They were the ancestors of Germans, so they might have been a bit melodramatic. Anyway, the plot thickened when, back in Rome, Emperor Valentian was marrying off his sister to someone she didn’t like – remember how people would marry to form political alliances?
“Sure,” she said, “like Octavian marrying that one lady.”
Right -- Clodia, Fulvia's daughter. Well, I told her, Valentian’s sister, the princess Honoria, decided she didn’t want to marry the person she was supposed to, so she sent a message asking for someone to rescue her. Guess who she sent the message to?
“Um…” she thought about it. “The emperor of the Eastern half?”
That might have been more sensible, I said, but no. She sent a message to Attila the Hun to rescue her.
My daughter slapped her forehead. “What a muppet!” she said. “What did she think was going to happen?”
Who knows? I said. But even worse, she sent her ring as a sign that the message was genuine, but Attila thought she was asking him to marry her.
“This just gets worse,” The Girl said. “What did Attila do?”
He told Valentian he wanted her hand in marriage, and he wasn’t asking, I said. The princess eventually married the person she was supposed to – I imagine her brother gave her a good talking to – but in the meantime Attila had an excuse to march on the emperor.
Attila had so many tribes on his side, I said, that some people say the army was half a million men. It was so great that the Romans had to get help from some Goths to fight off Attila …
“Wait a minute,” The Girl said. “Hadn’t they just hired Attila to help them fight off Goths?”
Right, and now they were hiring Goths to help fight of Attila. You can tell the Romans were getting desperate, and running out of friends.
The two armies met at the Battle of Catalaunian, where the Romans formed their usual line, and Attila sent all his men to rush it right in the middle. It was one of the greatest battles of the ancient world, with many thousands on both sides fighting all through the day and long into the night. Even after nightfall, they say, everyone kept on fighting blindly in the darkness. But when the dawn broke the next morning, the Roman line had held.
“Was that the end of it?” she asked.
No, soon Attila invaded Italy, pillaging everything as he went. It took all the legions of Rome to stop him even temporarily, and they weren’t sure they, or anyone, could do it again. Remember Pyrrhus, in the days of the Roman Republic? This was the Romans’ Pyrrhic victory, and they never recovered; the civilisation that had lasted a thousand years was gone in two decades.
But then one person went out, alone and unarmed, to meet Attila’s entire army, and talk with him. Guess who that was?
“The princess?” No, I said. “The emperor? We haven’t named anyone else in the story.”
Believe it or not, it was the Pope, I said.
“The Pope?” she asked incredulously.
Sure, I said – this is in the Christian Era, so there was a pope. He rode to Attila’s camp, and Attila saw him, and no one has any idea what either of them said. We do know, however, that Attila stopped, and agreed to withdraw.
“That pope was amazing.” she said. You have to be pretty amazing if you’re going to be Pope, I said.
“Did Attila just go home?” she asked, “or convert?”
No, but a year later he was dead – he died on his wedding night.
“Was he killed?” she asked. We’re not sure I said. Maybe his new, Celtic bride killed him intentionally, or just gave him a heart attack.
“On his wedding night?” she said. “That’s quite a coincidence.”
Um, yes, I said … it is.
“So Rome fell pretty quickly after that?” She asked.
It had been collapsing for centuries, I said – most people lived their whole lives during the slow collapse of Rome and never knew it. There was no moment when everyone said, ‘Everything will be different now’ – there almost never is. And remember that some people were better off – people who had been slaves.
“Why do we call it a fall, then?”
The population declined, and most people became preoccupied with survival, I said, and most probably lost the ability to read and write. We lost most of the Greek and Roman books – when I read to you from Aristophanes or Epicurus, keep in mind we have just a tiny fraction of all the material they wrote. We lost all the writings in the Library of Alexandria. We lost all the music ever written. Greece and Rome at their height had underfloor heating and taxi metres, sculpture and plays, and philosophy that we can still use today. And we only have a sliver of it left – but it’s what we built our culture on. You remember who preserved all that through the Dark Ages?
“Monks,” she said.
Yep – we’re done with the ancient world. We’re into medieval times.
“Woo-hoo!” she said, pumping her fist in the air.
What’s more, I said, we see around us in Ireland things that were built around the time we’re talking about; it was St. Bridget who built the abbey in Kildare, and her life overlapped with Attila the Hun. People were already building monasteries and abbeys here to preserve the knowledge of the world while the empire collapsed. We’re now to the history we can see all around us.
Top photo: The monastery at Glendalough, built within a century or so of Rome's fall.
Bottom photo: My daughter a few years ago, in the Wicklow Mountains.