AD 439: The Roman Empire is on the brink of collapse. With terrifying speed a Vandal army has swept through the Roman provinces of Spain and North Africa, conquering Carthage and threatening Roman control of the Mediterranean. But a far greater threat lies to the east, a barbarian force born in the harsh steppelands of central Asia, warriors of unparalleled savagery who will sweep all before them in their thirst for conquest - the army of Attila the Hun.
For a small group of Roman soldiers and a mysterious British monk, the only defense is to rise above the corruption and weakness of the Roman emperors and hark back to the glory days of the army centuries before, to find strength in history. Led by Flavius, a young tribune, and his trusty centurion Macrobius, they fight a last-ditch battle against the Vandals in North Africa before falling back to Rome, where they regroup and prepare for the onslaught to come. Flavius learns that the British monk who had fled with them from Carthage is more than he seems, and he is drawn into a shady world of intelligence and intrigue under the aegis of Flavius' uncle Aetius, commander-in-chief of the Roman armies in the west, the man who alone has the power to rally Rome and her allies and save the western empire from annihilation.
Aetius is desperate to buy time until his army is strong enough to confront the Huns on the field of battle, and meanwhile will do anything to undermine their strength. Together they devise a plan of astonishing audacity that will take Flavius and Macrobius across the frontier and far up the river Danube to the heart of darkness itself, to the stronghold of the most feared warrior-emperor the world has ever known – and into alliance with the emperor's daughter, a warrior-princess who has sworn vengeance against her father for the death of her mother. In the showdown to come, in the greatest battle the Romans have ever fought, victory will go to those who can hold high the most potent symbol of war ever wrought by man - the sacred sword of Attila.
About the Author
DAVID GIBBINS is the New York Times bestselling author of seven previous historical adventure novels that have sold almost three million copies and are published in thirty languages. After taking a PhD at Cambridge University, he spent almost a decade teaching archaeology, ancient history and art history as an academic in England, before giving up teaching to write fiction full-time. He is a passionate diver and has led numerous underwater archaeology expeditions, some of which have resulted in extraordinary discoveries of ancient shipwrecks and prehistoric artefacts. David divides his time between England and Canada, where he does most of his writing.
Read an Excerpt
The Sword of Attila
By David Gibbins
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2015 David Gibbins
All rights reserved.
A dog howled, a strange, unearthly sound that pierced the still air of the morning and echoed down the barren valley between the desert and the sea. The man on the parapet stood up, his cloak wrapped around him against the cold, thankful for his sheepskin boots and the woollen trousers and tunic that he wore under his chainmail, and listened hard. Sound travelled far across the treeless African hills, but this was close, no more than an hour's march away. He glanced at the men trying to sleep in the trench behind him, restless, uneasy, as if the dog were entering their dreams, and for a moment he wondered whether he too were in a kind of netherworld, his senses numbed by cold and lack of sleep. But then the howling began again, not just one dog but several, an eerie crescendo that rose and wavered like a gust of wind, and then died away again. This time he knew it was real. He felt a sudden chill down his spine, not of cold but of something else, and quickly clapped his hands together and stamped his feet. He knew that many of the men would be awake now, their bleary eyes watching him, the night sentries spaced down the line looking to him for orders. He must keep his nerve. He must not show his fear.
'Pass the word along. The cities of Africa Proconsularis to the west have fallen. Bishop Augustine is dead. The army of the Vandals is coming.'
The soldier who had brought the message paused to catch his breath, his face pinched with cold and his eyes bloodshot and exhausted beneath the rim of his helmet. Flavius stopped clapping his hands and stared at him, his mind struggling to take the news in, and then nodded, watching as the man stumbled over the forms of men still sleeping in the trench towards the next sentry, repeating his message in a hoarse whisper. The western cities have fallen. Flavius clapped his hands again, trying to control his shivering. The daylight hours were tolerably warm, but the African night in early spring was still bitterly cold, keeping him awake for the brief time he had allowed himself to lie down and try to get some sleep. He climbed the rough earthen side of the parapet they had piled up the evening before and stared out to the west. Hippo Regius had been the last bastion on the African shore before Carthage, the ancient city whose western walls loomed out of the mist less than a mile behind him. For almost six hundred years Carthage had been in Roman hands, the centre of the wealthiest province in the western empire. And now even Bishop Augustine had forsaken them. Eight years ago, when the Vandals had taken his bishopric of Hippo Regius and made it their stronghold, there had been rumours that he had starved to death during the siege, but his fate had never been confirmed; now they knew it was true, that he had finally abandoned his earthly city for the City of God, the only place where he could find protection against the coming onslaught.
Above him the sky was reddening, streaked with the sunlight that was just appearing over the horny-tipped mountain to the east of Carthage. The air still smelled like the night, damp, humic, on one side suffused with the tang of the sea, on the other side with the gritty reek of the desert. Polybius more than five hundred years before had written of the taste in the air before Carthage, a taste like blood, and Flavius thought he could sense it now, an acrid coppery odour that seemed to rise with the dust above the hills. They were wedged between the two worlds, between the sea and the desert, defending a narrow corridor in which would soon flow a torrent of death, as if the floodwaters of a great river were building up in the hills and ravines to the west, about to come rushing down upon them, unassailable, impossible to resist.
He picked up his sword, buckled it on under his cloak and then raised his helmet, seeing where the gold leaf of a tribune's rank that he had ordered in the workshop in Milan had already become dislodged and soiled, even before he had seen any action. He stooped over, spat on it and began rubbing it with a corner of his cloak, and then looked around as someone came up from the direction of the cooking fire behind the ridge. 'You don't want to do that, Flavius Aetius,' the man said, speaking Latin with the rough accent of the Danube frontier. 'Unless, that is, you want to make yourself conspicuous for the first barbarian spear-thrust.'
'The men should see my rank and know who to follow,' Flavius replied, trying to sound stern.
The other man snorted. 'In this man's army, everyone leads from the front,' he said. 'It's not like the army of your revered ancestors of the time of Scipio and Caesar, full of feathered helmets and polished breastplates like those you see in the sculptures in the forum of Rome. In this man's army, if a tribune wants the respect of his men, he leads primus inter pares – first among many. That way, if he gets killed his unit doesn't falter, as those around him fill the gap and another takes his place. And if you want to show your men who to respect, you should smear that gold leaf with dirt and sweat from digging the trenches and then with sticky gore from the bowels of your enemies. I bet they didn't teach you that in the schola militarum in Rome. Think about it, and then get some food. I'm going to inspect the men's weapons.'
Flavius looked thoughtfully at his helmet, and then at the other man as he left. Macrobius Vipsanius was heavily muscled, shorter than the usual Illyrian, the almond shape of his eyes betraying some distant lineage from beyond the Scythian steppes. As a centurion he seemed as Roman as they came, yet in his blood he was a barbarian. Flavius himself was hardly much different, being descended on his mother's side from the ancient gens Julia, but on his father's side from a Goth warlord. Many of the soldiers were like that now, a result of integration and intermarriage, of appeasement and land settlement inside the frontiers, of the need to recruit more and more barbarian warriors to keep the Roman army up to strength. Barbarian chieftains such as Flavius' grandfather had admired the Roman martial tradition and sent their sons to military school in Milan and Rome, but there was always something that set those men apart, some kind of edge, something that Flavius had seen in his father and uncle and hoped he had himself. It was a restlessness that had driven other barbarians who had not sent their sons to Rome, who had not admired her ways, to burn and ravage their way across the empire, to do what some thought impossible and make the sea voyage across the Pillars of Hercules from Spain to Africa, transforming and adapting like some great shape-shifting beast, to begin their relentless march along the African shore towards Carthage. And everyone knew that the march of the Vandals was merely a portent of things to come, that for every tribe that Rome appeased, for every warrior band integrated, there was another more belligerent force lurking behind in the forests and on the steppes; and that behind them was a power like nothing ever seen before, a warrior army bent solely on destruction that threatened to eclipse Rome not by settlement and treaty, but by fire and the sword.
Flavius had first met Macrobius only three weeks before when he had disembarked at Carthage with the other new tribunes and been put in charge of the reconnaissance numerus of the city garrison, his first field command. Half of the officer candidates who had gone through the schola militarum in Rome with him had been veterans like Macrobius, men who had risen from the ranks and been recommended by the comes of their frontier force or the dux of their field army. The military council of the emperor had deliberately sited the schola in the old city not just to remind the cadets of the past glories of the empire, but to keep them away from the imperial courts at Ravenna and Milan where the privileged younger cadets like Flavius might draw on patronage to ease their way through the training programme and gain favours. Macrobius himself would have scorned the schola and been wasted in it. He was a born centurion, superb at making a fighting unit out of the eighty-odd men of a frontier numerus but preferring to leave the life-and-death decisions to a tribune he respected. He relished his ancient rank – one derived from the fact that his parent unit was the famous Twentieth Legion Valeria Victrix, once the pride of the Roman garrison in Britannia, but with the withdrawal from that province thirty years before, now reduced to a unit of the African frontier army. His soldiers joked that he was the last centurion of ancient Rome. Given the likely outcome of today's events, they might well be proved right.
In the weeks before Flavius had arrived, Macrobius had been given the task of scratching together the reconnaissance unit from among the frontier troops of the desert who had come streaming into Carthage with the threat from the west, their forts abandoned and the frontier contracted to the defensive perimeter they were now occupying within sight of the walls of Carthage itself. The numbers in the city garrison were desperate: fewer than a thousand men of the depleted Twentieth Legion along with the equivalent of three numeri of frontier limitanei, a little under three hundred additional men all told. Even within the city the garrison was stretched hopelessly thin, with large sectors of the city wall manned only by sentries, scarcely enough to alert the garrison commander of an approaching enemy let alone mount any kind of serious response. With no hope of further reinforcements, the defence of Carthage was now a matter of upholding Roman prestige and honour, of fighting to the death, and of suicidal bravery and doing enough against the odds to ensure that history did not remember the end of Roman North Africa as an ignominious rout and a massacre.
Flavius put these thoughts from his mind and focused on his men. Unlike the volunteer legionaries of the past, they were almost all conscripts, with the exception of the Illyrians from the Danube, who represented the nearest that Rome still had to a professional cadre motivated by a martial tradition. Yet Macrobius had shown him that even the least promising no-hoper could be knocked into some kind of shape, that there was always some strength to be found somewhere. The greatest strength of this army of Christian Rome lay in the compact size of its units, for they were less complex to manage than the old legions and better suited to dispersed deployment and small engagements. Flavius had paid the soldiers a bonus in gold solidi out of his own pocket, always a good start for a new commander, and with Macrobius to guide him, he had tried to build up their esprit de corps, telling them of the old generals and wars, of Scipio Africanus and the Roman capture of Carthage; he had told them that there was no reason why they should not be as good as the soldiers of the Caesars, and that even then it had been the frontier auxiliaries, like the modern limitanei, who had done the brunt of the soldiering.
In the three weeks before their forward deployment to this ridge Flavius had joined with the men as a common soldier while Macrobius had trained them, relentlessly marching them in the African sun, leading them on practice reconnaissance missions miles into the wasteland to the south of Carthage; they had used Numidian guides to teach them how to find water and a semblance of warmth at night, something Flavius himself had signally failed to do over the past few hours. He remembered all the training, all of the exercises, and slapped his hands together again for warmth, looking along the crest of the ridge where they were dug in. Beyond the dip it was cut through by the road to Carthage, the route an attacker would have to take from the west. Half of his men were dug in on one side and half on the other, and behind them he could just make out the shallow ravine with the water hole and the cooking fire, the wispy smoke from breakfast preparations curling above the rise. The smaller the unit the easier it was to keep an eye on the men, he thought wryly to himself, and the easier they were to feed; there was something to be said for the size of his command.
He watched as Macrobius worked his way towards him beside the trench, running his finger along the men's sword blades, licking his finger when it drew blood, leaving the blade unsheathed to be sharpened when it did not. Despite Flavius' inexperience, he knew that Macrobius respected him for volunteering for the forward unit when none of the other officers in the garrison would do so, and in turn Flavius respected Macrobius for seeming to care nothing that Flavius' uncle Aetius was magister militum of the western Roman empire, second in power only to the emperor Valentinian himself. Out here, on the front line, old-fashioned patronage and family connections were of no consequence, and all that mattered was whether a soldier had the courage to stand his ground and fight to the death for the man beside him. Flavius had begun to understand that nurturing this quality among his men was more important than all of the tactics and strategy he had learned in the schola militarum in Rome, and that his success as the leader of a small unit like this in the little time he had would depend on listening to Macrobius and heeding his advice.
Macrobius returned to him, wiping his hand on his jerkin and blowing his nose into the dirt with his fingers. 'If this was a training exercise, I'd crucify them,' he grumbled. 'More than half of their swords had spots of rust on the blades. If the edge is dull, they may as well use the flat of the blade for all the good it will do them.'
'All of the remaining oil had to be used for cooking last night, and without a good oiling the blades rust in hours,' Flavius said. 'Where's the farrier?'
'With the optio at the fire. He's setting up the grinding stone now. I'll see that the men sharpen their blades when they go for breakfast.'
Flavius jerked his head towards the southern end of the parapet, where he could see the messenger returning. 'Have you heard the news?'
Macrobius nodded grimly. 'A straggler first brought it in about an hour ago, while you were asleep. They've been coming in from the west over the past few hours, mostly Numidian slaves who can barely string two words of Latin together and are too shocked and exhausted to tell us much. We need to find someone with authority who can give us good intelligence.'
Flavius put on his helmet, stepped up to the highest point of the parapet and stared over the ridge. Refugees had been trickling in from the west ever since the numerus had deployed to this place, survivors of the towns and cities that had fallen to the Vandal army all the way from the Pillars of Hercules. Macrobius came up beside him, his grey stubble glinting in the dawn light and his Pannonian felt cap compressed in the shape of his helmet, solidified from years of wearing it beneath. Together they scanned the horizon to the west, the folds and valleys still obscured by the early-morning shadows. Macrobius squinted and pointed. 'Over there, about two miles away, to the southwest. Coming from that direction marks them out from the other refugees, as anyone wanting to evade capture would have swung south from the western cities and made their way east towards us along the edge of the desert – harsh terrain where they'd be less likely to be pursued. They might be escaped citizens rather than spared slaves like those Numidians. Three, maybe four people, and two animals.'
Flavius followed his gaze, seeing nothing. 'Your eyesight is better than mine, centurion.'
'I've served for twenty-two years in the limitanei frontier army, ten of them out here in Africa on the edge of the great desert. You get good at spotting distant smudges in the dust.'
A half-asleep-sounding voice grumbled from among the recumbent forms lying behind them in the trench, most of them now awake, 'Join the limitanei, they said. See the frontiers of the empire, they said. Eat boar and venison every day, take your choice of local women and select a hundred iugera of prime land as a retirement present. Never have to raise your spear in anger. Meet fascinating barbarian tribesmen.'
'Too right,' another growled. 'Fascinating, that is, in the few moments you get to see them in a blur of warpaint and screaming as they hurtle out of the forest towards you. Then, if you're lucky enough to survive, you get shipped to the other side of the empire to this place and told to dig a trench and wait for the same thing to happen again.'
'And meanwhile, the comitatenses field army are skulking in the towns and around the emperor, growing fat and rich at our expense.'
Macrobius cocked an eye at Flavius. 'Have you heard that one before?'
'About the comitatenses? It's all I ever hear,' Flavius said.
'The comitatenses say the same thing about the limitanei. Each one thinks the other is second-rate. If it isn't a grumble about that, it'd be something else. It's the same with soldiers the world over. Gripe, gripe, gripe.' He turned to the men, speaking more loudly. 'And looking at you lot, I might just agree with the comitatenses.'
'And we never get paid,' the first man added, blearily getting up.
'We haven't been paid since my father's day,' the other one complained. 'If it wasn't for the bounties given by the emperors or the odd generous-minded commander wanting us actually to fight for them, we'd be no better off than slaves.'
'You'll get yours, Maximus Cunobelinus,' Flavius said. 'I was true to my word and gave you each a bonus of five solidi when you passed inspection as a unit, and you or your families will get five more when this is over. That's equal to two years' pay. I sent instructions to the chief accountant of my uncle Aetius in Milan to receive entreaties from any woman or child whose name accords with the list that I sent him two weeks ago from Carthage. Your families will be well looked after.'
'What about yours, tribune? Who gets your bounty?'
Flavius cleared his throat. They knew perfectly well that he received no pay, that his income came from the wealth of his family. 'A tenth of my gold goes to the Basilica of St Peter in Rome, for the glory of God.'
Excerpted from The Sword of Attila by David Gibbins. Copyright © 2015 David Gibbins. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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Table of Contents
PART ONE: CARTHAGE, NORTH AFRICA,
PART TWO: ROME, ITALY,
PART THREE: THE RIVER DANUBE,
PART FOUR: THE CATALAUNIAN FIELDS, GAUL,
Sources for the Novel,
About the Author,