Helena, Julian and Attila: The Twilight of Rome in 20th-century Fiction

Edmund Racher

Modern European literature and film frequently depict Rome at its height: the rise and apotheosis of Julius Caesar (100-44 BC), the triumph of Octavian/Augustus (63 BC–AD 14) and the passions and intrigues of those who would succeed him. We see a Rome of might: the Rome that conquered Carthage in 146 BC, the Rome that allied itself with King Herod the Great (72 BC–AD 1) and appointed Pontius Pilate as Prefect of Judaea (AD 26–36). John Milius’ television series for HBO entitled simply Rome (2005–7) deals with the Rome of Pompey (106–48 BC), Cleopatra (69–30) and Mark Antony (83–30), not the archaic Rome of King Tarquinius Superbus (died 495 BC) or the declining empire of Septimius Severus (AD 145–211). Later Rome can seem a messy subject; popular histories tend to dismiss it in sweeping statements about migration and decay.

The spines of a 20th-century reprint (Limited Editions Club, New York, 1946) of Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776–88).

Some high-profile literary treatments of the late Roman Empire in the West emerged in the second half of the 20th century: in 1950, Evelyn Waugh (1903–66) published Helena, a fictional biography of Saint Helena (AD c.246–330), the mother of the Emperor Constantine the Great (272–337); in 1964, Gore Vidal (1925–2012) published Julian, on the Emperor Julian the Apostate (AD 331–63); and in 1989, Anthony Burgess (1917–93) published a novella entitled Hun, centring round Attila the Hun (fl. 406–53). What was the attraction of these subjects for these writers?

Vidal was raised as an Episcopalian; Waugh was a Catholic convert; Burgess was a lapsed Catholic. Each wrote frequently about religion. Vidal’s 1954 novel Messiah deals satirically with the eclipse of Christianity in America by ‘Cavism’. For Burgess, witness the tormented poet Enderby, in Inside Mr Enderby (1963), Enderby Outside (1968), The Clockwork Testament (1974), and Enderby’s Dark Lady (1984). There is also Burgess’ screenplay for Franco Zeffirelli’s 1977 television series Jesus of Nazareth, and the Catholic-raised spy Hillier in Tremor of Intent: An Eschatological Spy Novel (1966), and the discussions of Augustinianism and Pelagianism in the first half of Burgess’ 1978 novel 1985 (commenting on his own Clockwork Orange). Brideshead Revisited (1945) is the most famous exploration of Waugh’s Catholicism, but by no means the only one: see, for example, his Sword of Honour trilogy (1952–61).

Tthe Huns approach Rome, Ulpiano Checa, 1887 (Museo Ulpiano Checa, Madrid, Spain).

Waugh’s Helena

The Empress Saint Helena is thought to have lived between AD 246 and 330. Waugh is not known for the length of his stories; the Penguin ‘20th Century Classics’ paperback of Helena comes to only 159 pages. The novel diverges, at least in subject matter, from Waugh’s reputation as a crueller version of P.G. Wodehouse – but it is worth noting that he was always willing to employ the unfamiliar or to write in settings outside 1930s Britain.

Waugh’s Helena, unlike the Helena of contemporary chronicles (and later historians, who have concluded that she was born in the Balkans), is British. In a conceit dating to Geoffrey of Monmouth (c.1095–1155) she is made to be the daughter of King Coel of Colchester, the legendary “Old King Cole” of the nursery rhyme (there is a comic reference to three strings and a piper). Waugh’s preface to the novel makes clear that he is aware of what modern historians say, but he has “often chosen the picturesque in preference to the plausible”.

St Helena finding the True Cross, a 9th-century illustration from a compendium of canon law from Northern Italy (Vercelli, Biblioteca Capitolare, MS CLXV, written c.825).

Helena’s Britishness extends beyond this: the Roman client Coel is treated as a kind of Edwardian country squire, in contrast to the visiting Roman Constantius Chlorus (AD 250–306; one of the junior ‘tetrarchs’ of the Empire 293–305; senior co-Emperor May 305–July 306). A young Helena rides to hounds and reacts thus to a feast for the visiting Chlorus: “What a spread! What a blowout!” This conspicuous Anglicisation colours the language of the novel throughout: there are Staff Officers, District Commanders, Corporal-Majors and Generals rather than Centurions, Legates and Proconsuls. By this device, Waugh allows the reader easily to draw contemporary parallels.

Helena marries Constantius Chlorus, moves away from Colchester, and bears Constantius’ son Constantine – who eventually becomes Emperor himself (306–37; sole emperor from 324). She is not always at her husband’s side (he is a social climber who eventually divorces her); nor does she witness Constantine carry the day at the Battle of the Milvian Bridge (28 October 312). An outsider to the military life of Constantius, she is also an outsider (albeit a uniquely privileged one) at the court of the victorious Constantine.

Gold medallion of Constantine the Great, his sons, and Victoria and Virtus, from around AD 330, (found as part of the Szilágysomlyo Treasure in 1797 at Şimleu Silvaniei, Romania, and now in the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, Austria).

Helena converts to Christianity independently of her son, and eventually journeys to Judea on pilgrimage, where she unearths the True Cross. Her willingness to dig into the truth of the Crucifixion is portrayed as a strength: she turns aside from the mystery cults of her peers and looks toward the modest but sound claims of the Gospels.

Waugh is not precious about history. Sly jokes about the Donation of Constantine (an 8th-century forgery of an imperial decree purporting to show that Constantine transferred authority over Rome and the Western Empire to Pope Saint Sylvester I) work their way into the novel; Constantine himself is depicted as grandiose, delusional, and eager to establish his own legend. In Jerusalem, Helena herself begins to take on aspects of the comedic persona of a wealthy and stubborn dowager, with her high-handed treatment of local bishops and historians. Still, despite a prophecy of forged relics and strife between Christians, Waugh makes her achievement clear in the novel’s final lines.

Evelyn Waugh in 1940.

Vidal’s Julian

Published in 1964, Julian is the longest of the three novels under discussion (532 pages in the 1993 Abacus paperback edition). The historical Julian was born just after the death of Helena in AD 331, and died on campaign in Persia in 363. Vidal wanted to work with plenty of material: in imitation of Robert Graves in Claudius the God (1935), he provides an ample bibliography of primary and secondary sources.

Julian purports to be a memoir by the Emperor, with additional commentary by (and correspondence between) his former tutors Libanius (314–92, author of a Funeral Oration to Julian) and Priscus of Epirus (305–95), who are trying to publish the text to strike a blow against the rising Church.

The two scholars bicker amusingly over personal remarks, interpretations of events, and the question of who should pay for copying the manuscript. To ensure the memoir’s publication, the men agree to amend Julian’s habitual references to Christians as ‘Galileans’, and churches as ‘charnel-houses’ (on account of the relics) – but, as it was never published, Vidal the author retains such terms throughout. Vidal chose to write about Julian the Apostate for a reason, and is quite explicit in his introduction about his own distaste for monotheism.

Julian the Apostate presiding at conference of sectarians, Edward Armitage, 1875 (Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool, UK).

The plot of Julian is simple enough: much like Graves’s Emperor Claudius, Julian is an unlikely heir to the imperial title, who grows up amidst personal cruelty and state intrigue, preferring scholarship to power and politics. He is nonetheless drawn in, and ends up being compelled to claim the throne as a matter of survival. The self-serving nature of such a memoir is made clear by Priscus and Libanius, particularly when they consider what they witnessed of Julian’s life.

Julian’s love of scholarship leads him to reject the Christianity he has been raised with, and towards his attempted Hellenistic revival. This is both tragic and comic in the novel’s telling: Vidal’s Julian writes of ruined temples and impoverished priests, and is moved by the Eleusinian Mysteries – but his doomed attempt to revive the scattered and reduced cults of Hellenism brings him into contact with frauds, and ends in bathos.

The commentaries of Priscus and Libanius occupy most of the novel’s latter sections, as Julian’s memoir dwindles into brief notes taken while on campaign; then, eventually, he dies in battle. The last gloomy word is given to Libanius and an encounter with his former star pupil Saint John Chrysostom (347–407), now a prominent Christian preacher.

Gore Vidal in 1972.

Burgess’ Hun

The novella Hun occupies 118 pages in Burgess’ only collection of short stories, The Devil’s Mode (1989). Hun itself appears to have been based on material Burgess put together when writing scripts for a television series on Attila the Hun earlier in the decade. This origin accounts for certain literary peculiarities, as when Attila declares ‘War’ and his adversary the Emperor Theodosius II (401–50) reacts to his returning envoys by asking “War?” – all in the space of four lines, without so much a paragraph break, like a sudden cut in film editing.

Hun is presented as the account of the elderly, disgraced ex-Archbishop of Constantinople Nestorius (386–451), living on as a teacher in a remote Egyptian town, having been ejected from Constantinople for what would later be known as the ‘Nestorian heresy’. He is not much of a teacher and the boys in his lessons effortlessly distract him into telling them about Attila. Thus the text is regularly broken up into sections much like episodes of a television series; each day ends with lines like: “Tomorrow I shall tell you of a brother’s murder.”

Attila the Hun invading Italy, Eugène Delacroix, 1843–7 (detail of a fresco in the Palais Bourbon, Paris, France).

For all Nestorius’ intrusions into the narrative, Hun is of course focussed on the life of Attila the Hun. Attila visits Rome in his youth, meets his rival, the formidable statesman and general Aetius (390–454), is mistreated, and returns home to inherit the throne. He unites Central Asian tribes under his vision of an empire to the east of Europe, and even visits the Middle Kingdom (China) as an ostensible peer of the Chinese Emperor’s. He kills his useless brother Bleda and uncovers ‘the Sword of Mars’.

Through diplomacy and military pressure he manages to amass power and wealth along the borders of the Eastern Roman Empire. Soon he deals such a military blow to Constantinople that he begins to think about marching on Rome. The Emperors of the East and West both oppose him in this, as does Aetius. He encounters Saint Geneviève (AD 419/422–c.502) outside Paris, and is fought to a standstill, meeting stout resistance at the Catalaunian fields at Chalons. The next year, he crosses the Alps to devastate Italy, but is finally turned away from Rome by Pope Saint Leo the Great (400–61). He dies the next year at a wedding feast; and Nestorius moves on with his lessons.

The meeting of Attilia the Hun and Pope St Leo the Great, Raphael, 1514 (fresco in the Stanze di Eliodoro, Vatican Palace, Vatican).

Burgess’ Attila is an ambitious creature, using the trappings of the Roman world where it suits him and speaking an ‘over-grammatical Greek’. His court and army are cosmopolitan, with Greeks and Gauls alongside Gepids. He is attempting to create a great Eurasian empire, and seems capable of doing so. Of course, he is more of a user than an appreciator: he can acquire Roman goods without necessarily enjoying them. However much he devastates the cities and armies of the Western Empire, he fails to break its spirit.

Burgess is too sophisticated a writer to portray Attila’s being turned back purely by a conversation with the Pope; but this scene reveals the depths of his problems with the armies, and his overall lack of understanding. Having become the Scourge of God, he is, by the end, little more than a pest.

Anthony Burgess in 1988.

Questions of Belief

Helena, Julian and Hun highlight the religious debates of the Late Roman Empire. Mention of councils or religious argument is contrasted with stereotypical Roman (or Byzantine) decadent excess, depicted in displays of avarice or gluttony, along with the appearance of lascivious eunuchs. Wars, either civil or foreign, are a constant presence, but rarely change the overall shape of the map. Real changes are left to vigorous barbarians, who have been wholly or partially absorbed by Rome. But religious questions are more pressing in these books.

Helena and Julian contrast quite radically with one another. They focus in different ways on belief, as can be seen in how Waugh and Vidal each treat the matter of why people have faith in God or their gods.

To Helena, it is a mark in favour of Christianity against the ancient mystery cults that when she asks a Christian where she can see his God, he may reply:

“as a man he died two hundred and seventy-eight years ago in the town now called Aelia Capitolina in Palestine.”

Responding to Constantine’s plans for a new city, she says:

“You can’t just send for Peace and Wisdom… and build houses for them and shut them in. Why, they don’t exist at all except in people, do they? Give me real bones every time.”

Reliquary containing the skull of St Helena in the treasury of Trier Cathedral, Germany.

Helena’s approval of what Vidal’s Julian would call ‘charnel-houses’ tells us something about the gulf between Waugh’s views on Christianity and Vidal’s. Julian himself unsurprisingly holds quite the opposite view to Helena, referring to

“us [fellow Hellenists] who have worshipped not men who were executed in time but symbolic figures like Mithras and Osiris and Adonis whose literal existence does not matter but whose mysterious legend and revelation are everything.”

What Vidal and Waugh make of the age to come after the fall of Rome is a natural point of division. Julian himself cannot provide a conclusion, so the final words are left to Libanius:

“With Julian, the light went, and now nothing remains but to let the darkness come, and hope for a new sun and another day, born of time’s mystery and man’s love of light.”

St Helena of Constantinople, Cima da Conegliano, 1495 (National Gallery of Art, Washington DC, USA).

Helena, unsurprisingly, has a more hopeful view, even if the future will not be not without risk and peril:

“The Holy Places have been alternately honoured and desecrated, lost and won, bought and bargained for, throughout the centuries. But the wood has endured. In splinters and shavings, gorgeously enchased, it has travelled the world over and found a joyous welcome among every race. For it states a fact.”

This aligns with Waugh’s own beliefs: in an interview (Paris Review 30, Summer/Autumn 1963) he claims to revere the Catholic Church “because it is true, not because it is established or an institution.” Vidal’s Julian, by contrast, notes that “multiplicity is the nature of life” and that “the search is the whole point to philosophy and the religious experience”.

For Waugh, the gift of Helena has remained underappreciated: “Britain for a time became Christian,” reads part of the novel’s conclusion. Yet Christian belief and custom remain part of Western Europe’s lasting cultural inheritance. The very un-Christian Vidal says much the same thing in his introduction to Julian: “For better or worse, we are today very much the result of what they were then.”

The death of Julian the Apostate, engraving by Auguste Trichon, 1865 (from Edmond Alonnier & Joseph Décembre’s Dictionnaire populaire illustré d’histoire, de géographie, de biographie, de technologie, de mythologie, d’antiquités, des beaux-arts et de littérature, Paris, 1865).

Late Antiquity and the Modern World

Burgess’ Attila fails in his attempt to create a Eurasian Empire. At their encounter, St Leo tells him:

“Take Rome if you can, if you wish. Rome will be remembered as a great work in which time and eternity meet and kiss. Attila will be remembered as a tiresome snotnosed brat with a bit of the devil in him.”

Nestorius’ tale of Attila is itself being told for the entertainment of “snotnosed brats”, of course. Attila’s great adversary Aetius is described as “the last of the Romans”, expanding the contrast between the Eternal City and the diabolical conqueror – which is the moral Nestorius quite explicitly wishes to pass on.

Attila sacking Aquileia, illustration from the early 1370s in the Chronicon Pictum Vindobonense (National Széchényi Library, Buda Castle, Budapest, Hungary, B 68.211, f.14r).

Attila’s attempt to establish an enduring empire, his devastation of Europe (and preservation of Paris) – even his death shortly after marriage – may put the reader in mind of Hitler, with his series of treaties preceding outright warfare, his territorial ambitions, and his supposed ‘Thousand Year Reich’ (that barely lasted a dozen years). The choice of the term ‘Hun’ as the title recalls the propaganda directed at Wilhelmine Germany during the First World War (1914–18), and revived in the Second World War (1939–45). The division between an aged Rome and a sparklingly prosperous new Constantinople has something in it of the relationship between Britain and America. In such a reading, the dogged Aetius becomes Churchill; though of course after Attila’s demise, he suffers a fate rather more gruesome than merely losing an election.

It is commonplace to remark that historical or speculative fiction reflects the time in which it was written. Helena comes in Waugh’s bibliography between Scott-King’s Modern Europe (1947) and his last great work, his Sword of Honour trilogy (1952–61). If the story of Scott-King prefigures Sword of Honour as a farcical description of post-war Europe, then Helena prefigures it as fable.

Statue of Constantine the Great outside York Minster, erected in 1988 (York, UK).

In Waugh’s view, if ever any people badly needed to return to the memory of the True Cross, post-war Britons and Europeans, with socialism at home, communism (and commercial Americans) abroad, and privations everywhere, were those people. Vidal, in his 1993 introduction to Julian, draws pointed (if implicit) parallels between the McCarthyism of the period during which he wrote the novel and the various mobs of 3rd-century Christians and their disorganised and ineffectual opponents. Waugh, Vidal and Burgess all hoped to draw connections between the later Roman Empire and their own time. A society past its prime, assailed by foes within and without, in the ruins of what had gone before it: such was the vision of the contemporary Anglo-American world after 1945 in the eyes of the elderly Burgess, a prematurely old man like Waugh, and (with variations) a young malcontent like Vidal.

Edmund Racher is an editor and writer currently based in Cambridge. Despite an MA in Medieval and Early Modern Studies, he has nursed an interest in the Classics from an early age.