Know Your Enemy

In the time of the Roman Empire, when the Romans came up against a tribe that they could not beat, they would make a truce.  As part of the truce they would exchange hostages, specifically the young sons of kings, nobles or leaders, for a period of years.  It was understood that if one side broke the truce, the other side would kill the hostages.

But for the Romans, there was more to it.  They took the enemy hostages to Rome and gave them a life of luxury in order to soften and debauch them before they returned to their homelands.  This would weaken the enemy when they took up their leadership role.  And on the other side, the young Roman hostages who were handed over to the enemy tribes had been briefed to learn everything about the enemy that they could, in order to understand their strengths and their weaknesses.

In the late 4th century AD, the Huns had moved into Europe with fast moving cavalry, living off what they could pillage and tributes they could exact from weaker peoples.  They soon became an issue for the Roman Empire that had by then split into an Eastern Empire based in Constantinople, and a Western Empire based in Rome, which then moved to Ravenna when Rome was sacked by the Vandals.

In the early fifth century, a powerful Hun leader emerged whom we now refer to as Attila the Hun.  Attila’s edge was that he had been a hostage in Rome, and had understood what the Romans were trying to do.  He resisted the life of luxury, and instead learned everything he could about the Romans.  He soon became the scourge of the Roman Empire, defeating its armies and exacting huge payments in gold in return for peace.

Attila only ever lost one battle against the Romans.  He had invaded Gaul (France) and was met by an army commanded by the Roman general Flavius Aetius.  It became known as the Battle of the Catalaunian Plains and took place in what is now the Champagne region of France.  The thing about Aetius was that he had been the exchange hostage going the other way, and spent time with the Huns as a teenager, understanding their ways.

In Aetius the Romans had someone who knew how to beat the Huns.  But the western emperor Valentinian III was jealous and fearful of Aetius’ growing reputation, and at a meeting with Aetius and the emperor’s advisers, Valentinian drew his sword and stabbed the unarmed Aetius, with the advisers then joining in.  Rome thereby lost its best chance of defeating the threat from the Huns.  Sic transit imperium – thus empires are lost…

Source: “Attila the Hun” – John Man; Wikipedia.

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