Like most of the good rulers of history, I told her, he had not been raised to be a ruler, but was widely mocked for having a limp, a stutter and a bookish nature.
“He was the nerd of the family,” she said.
Exactly, I told her – but after the Praetorian guards turned on the mad emperor Caligula and killed everyone around him, Claudius was found hiding behind a curtain and proclaimed the new emperor.
“That day certainly ended differently than he expected,” she said.
And he turned out to be a pretty reasonable, I told her. He expanded Roman rule into Britain with relatively little bloodshed – they did fight the Celtic warlord Caractacus, but they also reached out to other tribes in an alliance, inviting them to join the empire. Boudica’s tribe was one of these – in exchange for pledging allegiance to the emperor, they gained imperial protection and trade. By all accounts they were treated respectfully, and unlike most emperors, Claudius went there to meet with the Celtic lords himself.
So Britons like Boudica and her tribe became willing members of the Roman Empire, learned to read and write, and ended up corresponding with other Romans, like the philosopher Seneca.
“She and Seneca were pen pals?” The Girl asked.
Absolutely, I said – I believe Seneca even loaned her family money.
“So what happened to make her rebel?” she asked.
Well, the good times under Claudius didn’t last, I said. He died – some say poisoned – and was replaced by Nero.
“Uh-oh,” she said.
Exactly, I told her. Once in power, Nero killed Seneca, began demanding money from the Britons, and his troops attacked many Britons, including Boudica’s family.
She remembered what happened next – an enraged Boudica leading an army of Celtic warriors that rampaged across Britain for years, sacking their fortress in Londinium. Even now, I told her, when people dig in London – which is of course what Londinium became – they sometimes come across a black charcoal layer where Boudica burned everything to the ground.
“You do not mess with the Celts,” she said. “Especially the women.”
“Is it because of all that infighting that the barbarians could take over?” she asked.
That was probably a factor, I said – and Rome’s terrible rulers made barbarians or rebels more attractive to most people than the emperors. Still, all things decline eventually, and no one ever admits they’re declining, so no one ever plans for it to happen in an orderly fashion. Do you remember our lesson on Attila the Hun, I asked her? What was his story?
“I’m sure he had more than one,” she said.
Well, who were the Huns?
“Well, the Huns were a lot of different tribes put together.”
Exactly, I said – his people were basically gangsters, and they would beat up the tribes around them. And then they would tell the men they’d beaten up – who were probably forced to fight for their local tribal leader – ‘You know, you don’t really want to die for that guy; he’s a loser. Fight for us, and you can not only live, but get rich taking other people’s stuff.’
Like most gangsters, I said, he found that while he could kill people, it was easier to just intimidate them or get them to join him. To quote The Godfather, blood’s expensive. It worked really well – the more tribes went to his side, the bigger his army grew, and the more he could conquer.
“A positive feedback loop,” she said.
Exactly, I told her, but we don’t actually know that much about him – even ‘Attila’ is a nickname, meaning ‘Big Daddy.’ Do you remember what happened between him and the Romans?
“Sure,” she said. “The emperor’s sister was supposed to marry someone she didn’t like, so she sent her ring to Attila, asking her to rescue her. And he thought it was a marriage proposal.”
That’s right – the emperor had hired the Huns to help them fight off the Visigoths, but once Attila got Honoria’s ring, he had to hire the Visigoths to fight off the Huns. Do you remember who finally stopped Attila?
Yep, I said – he rode out to Attila’s camp unarmed and talked to him, and we don’t know what they talked about, but Attila left.
“By that time he must have had a huge army,” she said.
Well, there were a lot of tribes migrating around Europe at this time, I said, as the Roman Empire crumbled, and they took turns taking pieces of it. Visigoths, Ostrogoths, Vandals, Alans --
“The Alans?” she said. “They were all named Alan? That kept everything simple.”
Yes, I said, it was a barbarian tribe made up of Alan Cummings, Alan Davies, Alan Bennett, Alan Parsons and others.
“Now I’m picturing these men in black eyeliner and fishnet hose – goths – and vandals as these gang members with mohawks, and an army of nerds named Alan,” she said. “I’m picturing all these armies teaming up to fight a common enemy, like something out of Lord of the Rings mixed with The Breakfast Club.”
How do you know about The Breakfast Club? I asked. You’ve never seen it.
“It’s a famous movie, Daddy,” she said. “Can I see it?”
You’re 12 and I’m taking you to Hamlet, so I think you’re old enough, I said. Why are the Alans nerds?
“It just sounds like a nerdy name,” she said. “Like Nigel.”
She continued with her vision. “And Attila riding in front of his assembled armies, like Aragorn in Lord of the Rings ..."
"'GOTHS! Are you with me!'" she continued in her best Aragorn. "And they all are like ‘Uh-Huh,” in this sullen voice."
"VANDALS! Are you with me? he would shout. ‘Yeeah!’ they shout, pumping their fists."
“ALANS! Are you with me!?”
“’Yes, Mr. Attila,’” they say, in a squeaky voice."
A day may come when the cliques of adolescence fail, I said, but it is not this day.