In 448/449 AD Priscus of Panium, an Eastern Roman envoy and historian, was sent to the Hunnic Empire with a diplomatic mission to the court of Attila, the Scourge of God himself. Later in his life, Priscus recorded his travels through the barbarian country and his meeting with Attila and other uncanny characters he came across in those savage lands. One of them was a Greek who adopted the lifestyle of the Scythians and chose to live among the Huns, telling Priscus that life in the Hunnic Empire was far better than in the Roman Empire, which was corrupt and unjust. But the most unusual and seemingly out-of-place character Priscus encountered in Attila’s Empire was a deformed Moorish midget called Zercon. Short and mangled, hunchbacked and disfigured with a “flat nose revealed only by the two nostrils”, Zercon was also twisted of the feet, which rendered him limp. He was afflicted by stammering and lisping as well, and because of his unfortunate appearance coupled with his speech impediments, Zercon was a great source of amusement and laughter.
It was a Roman general named Aspar who first owned Zercon the Moor, receiving him as a gift while campaigning in North Africa against the Vandals. After a few years, when Aspar was needed in Thrace to fight the Huns, Zercon was captured by the invaders and taken by Bleda, brother of Attila and co-ruler of the Huns. Bleda seems to have been quite fond of the midget, making him his personal jester and even crafting a special armor for him to wear and mimic a soldier. Attila on the other hand did not like Zercon at all, and much to his relief the midget disappeared at one point, attempting to escape with a group of runaway slaves. However, they were all captured and while the others were punished, Zercon was forgiven. Bleda asked him why he had run off, to which the midget replied that he simply wanted to find a wife. Upon hearing this, Bleda just laughed and married Zercon to a noblewoman as (what he thought to be) a hilarious prank.
Zercon’s new life as a married man would not last, however, as soon afterwards his patron died and Attila, who was repulsed and annoyed by the deformed midget, quickly had him sent as a gift to Flavius Aetius, the most influential man in the Western Roman Empire at the time. In turn, Aetius sent Zercon to none other than Aspar, the midget’s original owner. It is uncertain what happened next, but Zercon returned to Attila’s court at the same time when Priscus and his fellow diplomats were there. According to Priscus’ account, Zercon presented himself in front of Attila to reclaim his wife. The Scourge of God was not amused nor moved by the midget’s sincere and simple plea, and infuriated with his return denied his request.
Priscus, who witnessed this scene, tells us that:
Zerkon, the Moorish dwarf, entered. He had been sent by Attila as a gift to Aetius, and Edecon had persuaded him to come to Attila in order to recover his wife, whom he had left behind him in Scythia; the lady was a Scythian whom he had obtained in marriage through the influence of his patron Bleda. He did not succeed in recovering her, for Attila was angry with him for returning. On the occasion of the banquet he made his appearance, and threw all except Attila into fits of unquenchable laughter by his appearance, his dress, his voice, and his words, which were a confused jumble of Latin, Hunnic, and Gothic. Attila, however, remained immovable and of unchanging countenance nor by word or act did he betray anything approaching to a smile of merriment . . .
Whatever happened next and what became of Zercon is lost to history; Priscus does not mention him again after this passage and no other source relating to Zercon is known.
Consulted Works and Sources:
- Maenchen-Helfen, O. (1973). The World of the Huns: Studies in Their History and Culture. University of California Press.
- Halsall, G. (2004). Humour, History and Politics in Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages. Cambridge University Press.
- Gillett, A. (2003). Envoys and Political Communication in the Late Antique West, 411–533. Cambridge University Press.
- Kim, H. J. (2013). The Huns, Rome and the Birth of Europe. Cambridge University Press.
- Given, J. (2014). The Fragmentary History of Priscus: Attila, the Huns and the Roman Empire, AD 430-476 (Christian Roman Empire). Arx Pub.