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Besenyos, Ogur and Oguz Avar Ethnonym
Slavs and slaves
In Memory Of Avar Khagan
Alan Dateline
Avar Dateline
Besenyo Dateline
Bulgar Dateline
Huns Dateline
Kipchak Dateline
Kyrgyz Dateline
Sabir Dateline

Otto J. Maenchen-Helfen
The World Of The Huns
University of California Press, Berkeley, 1973

Selected Quotation





In the 440's, the East Romans paid the Huns about 13,000 pounds of gold (~5, 902 kg), more than 900,000 solidi. This was, from whatever angle one may look at it, a great sum. In particular, the payment of 6,000 pounds of gold (~2,724 kg) in 447 must have been a heavy blow to the imperial treasury. But did it really spell the complete financial ruin of the prosperous East. For a proper evaluation of the "subsidies" paid to the Hun "federates," a brief survey of comparable public and private expenditures in the fifth and sixth centuries may be helpful.

In 408, Alaric blackmailed the West Romans to pay him 4,000 pounds of gold (~1,816 kg); in the same year, he blockaded Rome, and the senate bought him off with 5,000 pounds of gold (~2,270 kg), 30,000 pounds of silver (~13,620 kg), and other gifts in kind. These figures, coming from Olympiodorus, may not be entirely trustworthy. But there is no reason to doubt Malchus' statement that in 473 Theoderic Strabo, leader of the Gothic federates, got an annual payment of 2,000 pounds of gold (~908 kg). The sums offered or actually paid to the Goths varied considerably according to the circumstances. The subsidy paid to Valamir was only 300 pounds of gold per annum (~136 kg). In 479, his nephew Theoderic, the later great king, was offered an annual subsidy of 10,000 solidi, that is about 140 pounds (~63 kg) of gold, but immediate payment of 1,000 pounds (~450 kg) of gold and 40,000 pounds (~18,160 kg) of silver. In 570, Emperor Tiberius offered the Lombards 3,000 pounds (~1,362 kg) of gold if they would stop their raids in Italy. This was the same year in which Bayan, the cagantis (i.e. Kagan) of the Avars, was paid his annual subsidy of 80,000 solidi, or more than 1,000 pounds (~500 kg) of gold. In 532, Emperor Justinian concluded the "endless peace'' with Chosroes; one of its conditions was the payment of twenty annual contributions to the maintenance of the fortifications in the Caucasus for which the Romans were in arrears, amounting to 11,000 pounds (~5,000 kg) of gold. In 540, the Persians received again 5,000 pounds (~2,270 kg); in 545, 2,000 pounds (~908 kg); in 551, 2,600 pounds  (~1,180 kg); and in 561, 3,000 pounds (~1,362 kg). From 484 to 492, Zeno paid the gangs of robbers in the Isaurian highland a yearly subsidy of 1,400 pounds of gold (~635 kg).

In order to put the tribute paid to the Huns in the proper perspective, it should not only be compared with the payments to the "allies". Measured by the expenditures made by high-ranking people on worthy and sometimes not so worthy causes, it was not so exorbitant. To give a few examples: Empress Eudocia contributed 200 pounds (~90 kg) of gold to the restoration of the public baths in Antioch; Empress Eudoxia gave the same sum for the building of a church in Gaza. When Paul, ex-consul of 498, was in financial trouble, Emperor Anastasius helped him out with 2,000 pounds (~908 kg) of gold. In 514, Anastasius ransomed Hypatius from Vitalian for 5,000 pounds (~2,270 kg) of gold. In 526 and 527, Emperor Justin sent 4,500 pounds  (~2,040 kg) of gold to Antioch, which had been heavily damaged by an earthquake. To celebrate his consulship in 521, Emperor Justinian spent 4,000 pounds (~1,816 kg) of gold on the games and for distribution among the populace; in 532, he gave 4,000 pounds (~1,816 kg) of gold for the building of Saint Sophia. The sums spent in the vicious ecclesiastical fights were enormous. In the 430's, Bishop Cyril of Alexandria bribed court officials with more than 2,000 pounds (~908 kg) of gold. Between 444 and 450, Nomus, magisier officiorum, consul in 445, and patricius, extorted from Anastasius and Paul, Cyril's nephews, 1,400 pounds of gold (~635 kg).

In the fifth century, the revenue of the Eastern empire has been estimated as being on the average 270,000  (~122,000 kg) pounds of gold a year, of which approximately 45,000  (~20,000 kg) were spent on the army. The 6,000 pounds (~2,724 kg) of gold paid to Attila in 447 were a little more than 2.2 percent of the money the treasury received in a year, and the highest annual tribute was about 4.7 percent of what the army required. Still, had this gone on for a number of years, it would have been a great, though still not an unbearable strain. But Attila was paid the tribute only in 448, 449, and, possibly, in 450. in the following three years he was at war with both the East and West and consequently received nothing.

A passage in John Lydus shows how far from the alleged bankruptcy the East was. When Leo followed Marcian to the throne in 457, he found in the treasury more than 100,000 pounds  (~45,400 kg) of gold, "which Attila, the enemy of the world, had wanted to take." Of all the Byzantine emperors after Marcian, only Anastasius left a larger reserve at his death. The tribute was not the only so-to-speak legitimate source of the gold income of the Huns. Before, and for some time while, they received annual subsidies, the Hun leaders were paid in gold for the auxiliaries they lent the Romans. Aetius, in particular, must have paid large sums for the contingents of horsemen he obtained in the 430's. Whether by the middle of the 440's Attila blackmailed the Western Romans into sending him gold for keeping the peace is not certain, but in 449 he drew a salary as Master of the Soldiers, which, as Priscus said, was a pretext for concealing the tribute.

The Huns probably insisted that part of the tribute should be handed over to them in ingots. They must have known as well as the Romans that many clipped, debased, and counterfeit solidi were in circulation. In 366, the tax gatherers were ordered to reduce the solidi "to a firm and solid mass of gold"; a year later, the edict was repeated: "Whenever solidi must be paid to the account of the sacred largesses, the actual solidi shall not be delivered, because adulterated coins are often substituted for such solidi. The solidi shall be reduced to a mass.... Whenever a definite sum of solidi is due under a title of any kind, and a mass of gold is transmitted, a pound of gold shall be credited for seventy-two solidi." As the sixteen ingots found in 1887 at Krasna in Transylvania show, the Visigoths were likewise on their guard against such attempts at deception. The Huns hardly put more trust in the honesty of the Romans. Besides, not all solidi were of the same weight, though the deviation from the standard was, as a rule, insignificant. It is, therefore, all the more remarkable that just in a barbarian hoard from Kirileny in the Moldavian SSR, hidden about 400 A.D., there was a solidus which, instead of the standard 4.54 grams, weighed only 3.90 grams. The barbarian had been cheated. As the Huns had no mints, they obviously demanded only that amount of gold in ingots which they intended to use for ornaments; for commercial transactions at the fairs, and otherwise, they needed coins.

The Persian kings often lifted the siege of a city as soon as the beleaguered raised the money demanded from them, in 540, Edessa, for example, paid Chosroes 200 pounds  (~90 kg) of gold and four years later 500 pounds (~230 kg). There is no evidence that Attila or the kings before him made a town an offer to save it at a price. They obviously thought it more profitable to storm a place at the cost of a few hundred men, mostly expendable foot soldiers, to loot it, and to carry away the captives to be sold or ransomed.

After their victory at Adrianople, the Goths offered so many ten thousands of captives for sale; the Huns, temporarily allied with the Goths, certainly had their share in the lucrative business. St. Ambrose did what he could to ransom the Christian prisoners. In De Officiis he wrote:

"The highest kind of liberality is to redeem captives, to save them from the hand of the enemies, to snatch men from death, and most of all, to restore children to their parents, parents to their children, and to give back a citizen to his country. This was recognized when Thrace and Illyria were so terribly devastated. How many captives were then for sale all over the world? Could one put them all together, their number would have surpassed that of a whole province. It is then a special quality of liberality to redeem captives, especially from barbarian enemies, who are moved by no spark of human feeling to show mercy except so far as avarice has preserved it with a view of redemption. ... I once brought odium on myself because I broke up the sacred vessels to redeem captives, a fact that could displease the Arians. Who can be so hard, cruel, ironhearted, as to be displeased because a man is redeemed from death, or a woman from barbarian impurities, things that are worse than death, boys and girls and infants from the pollution of idols, where through fear of death they were defiled?"

In 395, the Huns took thousands of prisoners in the Asiatic provinces and the Caucasus. Far away from their homes, these unfortunates were not ransomed and most of them were sold at the slave markets on the Danube. Although the tribute was paid to the Hun kings, the prisoners were sold by the men who took them, who apparently received also the ransom for Roman soldiers who fell into their hands, 8 solidi a head before 435 and 12 thereafter. How much gold flowed into Hunnia in this way is difficult to say; it seems to have been rather considerable. The ransom for civilian captives could be quite high. When Attila wanted to show his generosity, he asked only 500 solidi (~3 kg) for the widow of a wealthy citizen. The ransom for Bigilas was 50 pounds (~23 kg) of gold, that is, 3,600 solidi, but this was a special case.

How much gold unminted and in coins the Huns brought back from their raids and looting expeditions cannot even be guessed. After their victory over the Ostrogoths they did not press the attack on the Visigoths "because they were loaded down with booty", certainly not cooking pots and wooden benches but gold, silver, and precious weapons. The same happened in upper Italy in 452.

In addition to the tribute, the Romans had to send "gifts" to the Huns. This was, in itself, nothing unusual. Even if the treaties between the Romans and the barbarian rulers provided only the payment of a certain sum, it was customary to give the latter presents, among them objects of precious metal. The Huns did not expect gifts, they demanded them. When in 450 the Roman ambassadors whom Attila refused even to see would not hand over the gifts they had brought with them, the king threatened to kill them.

On their departure from Constantinople, foreign envoys were given presents. It was an act of courtesy for distinguished guests. The sums involved could be huge. Procopius estimated the total lavished by Justinian on a Persian ambassador at 1,000 pounds (~450 kg) of gold. Attila made a lucrative business out of this custom. Under the flimsiest of pretexts he would send embassy after embassy to the imperial court. To keep the savage in good humor, they all were given rich presents for which, on their return, they had to give account to the king.

Another, probably very considerable, source of income in gold was the sale of horses to the Romans. Besides slaves and, possibly, furs, there was not much else the Huns could offer the Roman traders. A passage in Vegetius' Mulomedidna shows that at times the export of horses from Hunnia was a flourishing business. It probably shrank in the later 440's, after the Huns in two sanguine wars lost not only many men but many horses.

A little-noticed passage in Priscus indicates that in Hunnia gold coins were, though probably only to a modest extent, in circulation as a medium of exchange. In 449, Attila forbade the Roman envoys "to buy any Roman prisoner or barbarian slave or horses or anything else except things necessary for food until the disputes between the Romans and the Huns had been resolved." The king had a good reason for this prohibition; he wanted to catch Bigilas with the 50 pounds of gold to be paid to Edecon for killing his lord. When later Bigilas was led before Attila and asked why he was bringing so much gold, he was unable to explain away the 3,600 solidi he was carrying with him. The passage shows that not only at the frontier but also deep in Hunnia, slaves, horses, and food could be bought and sold for Roman gold coins. Whether in Attila's time the Huns used solidi as currency only in their contacts with the Romans or also among themselves we do not know. The latter possibility cannot be ruled out entirely.