“The Sword of Attila: A Novel of the Last Years of Rome,” by Michael Curtis Ford
Sword of Attila is the fourth of five novels set in the ancient world by American author Michael Curtis Ford, depicting the final years of the Western Roman Empire through the combined stories of the last great Roman general Flavius Aetius and Attila the Hun leading up to the decisive Battle of Châlons in 451.
The first half of the novel travels back several decades from 451 when the Huns and Romans are in one of the typical alliances that were so common at the end of the empire. Flavius Aetius has ascended to be the effective leader of the Western Roman Empire as its best general, and he must deal with an utterly useless emperor, Valentinian III, and all the problems and conspiracies of court life care of Honoria while running an empire under increasing threat from invaders. Meanwhile, Attila has risen to the top of the ruthless Hun tribes and has brought them deep into Roman territory, pacified by the offer of land and an agreement to defend Rome’s borders from minor “barbarians”. These early chapters narrate their once good friendship as Aetius juggles his various roles in keeping relations with Attila in the east, Theodoric of the Visigoths and Merovech of the Franks in Gaul.
But all is not to be, and their alliance with each other begins to crumble as Attila gets ambitious and launches a campaign to attack the Visigoths, infamously crossing the frozen Rhine in 451. Attila cuts a path of destruction across Germania and Gaul while Aetius tries to assemble and allied army of Romans, Goths, Franks to have any chance of defeating Attila. The Battle of Châlons is well described as Ford cuts back and forth from the two different perspectives until the Romans claim victory – in reality there were so many dead bodies strewn over such a confined area there was no room to move – finishing with Attila, injured, escapes.
I had enjoyed the other of his novels that I had read, The Last King, but there were many things that just annoyed me about Sword of Attila. Mainly, plenty of historical details were blatantly ignored to overly dramatise the narrative. For one thing there were not over a million men at Châlons, it was more like 50,000 for either side at the most, and two second Google check would tell anyone that. This is compounded even further by the way the massive amount of soldiers on hand at Châlons is talked up in the narrative, as if Ford is attempting to make the battle seem more important than what it really is. Why do that? The Battle of Châlons is one of the important moments in human history – the Hunnic advance into far western Europe was checked and they soon faded from history, the Visigoths lost their King and as a result this allowed the Franks to eventually push them out of Gaul and into Hispania, and the damage to the Western Roman Empire was terminal enough to end within twenty years. That more than did its part in shaping Europe and the next 1,300 years of history. It is simple enough to accomplish that as a writer, I would think, without the need to invent a strength size of over a million.
Secondly, Ford describes the legionaries wearing uniforms similar to what Mark Antony and his lot would have worn when in reality the Roman war uniform of the 5th century was more or less the same as any early Middle Ages “barbarian” warrior – woollen trousers, undershirt, leather breastplate, mail (if they could afford it), and helmet. Raw recruited soldiers at the time of Châlons did not wear gold plated armour with leather trimming and they did not wear brand new gold helmets with lavish dyed red plumes. In reality most of the Roman soldiers (most of which were Goths and Franks anyway) would have been dressed almost the same as their Hun opponents. This sort of lazy research really does annoy me as even the most basic book on Roman history for school children would make it quite obvious that the army of Rome in 450 was not the army of Rome in 50BCE.
Aside from that, Ford’s writing style really can grate at times. He has a tendency to over-describe something, especially the unimportant. From the colours of the walls in a room to a pattern on a plate, it just screamed that it needed thorough editing. At 432 pages I would hazard a guess and say that a proper edit could trim close to a hundred pages out of Sword of Attila, such is the frequency of pointless narrative, and improve the novel considerably.
But I should not be too harsh on the book as it was enjoyable for the most part providing the obvious inaccuracies are ignored. The story of the relationship between Aetius and Attila is a good one, and told in an easy to understand and relatively flowing manner when Ford wasn’t spending a page describing a ribbon colour. Where the novel does succeed, however, is the way the story of the Roman-Hun alliance descending into war unfolds. One particularly memorable passage is during one of the final meetings between Aetius and Attila, where Aetius mentions that a Hun victory over some marauding Germans (early Saxons, probably) will bring glory to Rome again, and Attila angrily throws Aetius out by telling him the Huns do not live to serve Rome, and so forth. This, by an Aetius biographer, supposedly happened a couple of years before Châlons and Ford really did an excellent job capturing the tense situation between the two.
I find it hard to recommend to anyone to go out and buy Sword of Attila. There are better novels about Attila out there – see William Napier, for example – so the only recommendation I can give for Sword of Attila is that if you see in the library and feel like something easy to read, this is okay.