One of the most famous historical figures – “Attila the Hun” – left an indelible mark on the mid-fifth-century Roman Empire, both in the East and the West. Attila and his Huns wreaked havoc within the imperial territories, striking fear in the hearts of the powerless emperors and their armies. In the East, the impregnable walls of Constantinople and a hefty yearly tribute halted constant Hunnic raids. The Huns then turned their attention to the West, crossing the Rhine and advancing deep into Roman Gaul, sacking its major cities. Finally, Attila’s advance was stopped by an ad-hoc Roman-Germanic collation arranged by the most brilliant Roman commander of the time: Flavius Aetius.
In 451 CE, at the Battle of Châlons (also known as the Battle of the Catalaunian Plains), the two commanders met in the field. Not only Gaul, but the very survival of the Roman West was at stake. Rome won the day, but Châlons turned into a pyrrhic victory. Two decades later, Western Roman Empire would be no more. Nor would there be Attila, who died a year after Châlons. But the myth of Attila, “The Scourge of God,” would persist up to the present day.
The Road to the Battle of Châlons: The Western Roman Empire
By the mid-5th century CE, the Roman Empire was divided into two parts. While the East, ruled by the emperor in Constantinople, continued to flourish, the Western half was only a shadow of its former self. Decades of internal struggles paired with breaches of the Rhenian limes resulted in the weakening of the imperial armies.
This, in turn, led to the loss of much of the Empire’s territory. The newly founded barbarian kingdoms partly controlled the Roman provinces of Gaul and Spain. Britain was lost to Romans for already several decades, while Northern Africa was steadily slipping out of the imperial grasp. Luckily, the boy-emperor in Ravenna, Valentinian III, had a brilliant general in his service – Flavius Aetius.
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It was Aetius, who held the real power in the Roman West, being the emperor in all but name. For years, the general had fought the barbarians in Gaul, keeping this important province under Roman control. Unlike the legions of the Empire’s heyday, Aetius’ army was partly composed of barbarian soldiers and officers. However, those men considered themselves Romans, seeing military service as an opportunity to gain higher status and wealth. As Aetius was the one holding the reins of both the military and the government, it should not come as a surprise that most Roman soldiers were loyal not to the emperor in the distant capital but to the commander who led them into battle. In fact, this was a trend that started already at the end of the fourth century.
Except for the devotion of his small but professional Roman army, Aetius had another powerful asset at his disposal. During the Gallic campaigns, Aetius’ soldiers were assisted by a ferocious and fearless ally – the formidable steppe warriors known as The Huns. It was with the Hunnic help that Aetius defeated his rivals, becoming the most powerful man in the Western Roman Empire. Ironically, his greatest ally would also facilitate both Aetius’ and Empire’s downfall.
The Huns Arrive
More than half a century before the Battle of Châlons, Rome made the first contact with the Huns. In the 370s, the Roman troops stationed at the Danubian limes reported a new threat on the horizon. The threat would soon be known as the Huns – a fierce nomadic people who in their move westwards expelled the Goths from their lands, forcing them to cross the river, and move into the Roman territory. The eastern Roman emperor, Valens, was delighted by the arrival of those skilled warriors who could join his army. Little did he know that his plan would soon backfire, causing the greatest crisis in Rome’s history.
In 378, angered by the Roman mistreatment, the Goths revolted. Instead of defeating them, the eastern Roman army was annihilated at Adrianople, and emperor Valens perished in the battle. While the Romans were trying to restore control in the Balkans and turn the Goths into their allies, the Huns reached the Empire’s boundary. Their arrival caused another exodus of more barbarian tribes, who moved into the imperial territory, this time in the West. The Roman army, weakened by the recent civil wars, could do little but allow those people to slowly carve their kingdoms in Gaul and Spain.
It did not take long for the Romans to recognize the Huns as a valuable ally against the emerging barbarian kingdoms. During the first half of the fifth century, the nomadic warriors served as Roman light cavalry. Uldin, the first Hun known by name, aided both the Western and Eastern Roman Empire in fighting the barbarians. But it would be Aetius who used the Huns in a significant number, to gain the supreme position in the Roman West. As a reward for their services, Aetius gave them parts of Pannonia (the area occupied by present-day Hungary), which became a core of their vast but short-lasting empire.
Attila: The Enemy of Rome
While the Huns were helping Aetius to restore Roman control over Gaul, a seismic shift occurred in the Hunnic territory. In 445, one of the Hunnic leaders, Attila, killed his brother Bleda, becoming the sole ruler of this mighty warrior nation. The fratricide changed the Hunnic policy in the Roman West. From Aetius’ most valuable ally, the Huns turned into its worst nightmare.
Even before assuming sole leadership, Attila led the Huns against the Eastern Roman Empire. Each time the Huns defeated the imperial troops, penetrating deep into the imperial territory. In 443, Attila reached Constantinople itself, and only the city’s imposing walls prevented a disaster. In 447, the Huns went as far as Greece. Unable to mount an effective counteroffensive, the Romans paid a hefty tribute to prevent further attacks.
Having extorted as much as he could from the East, Attila now turned his attention towards the Western Empire. All he needed was a cause for war. He got one in the form of Honoria, the sister of Emperor Valentinian III. According to our sources, in 450, to escape her betrothal to a Roman senator, Honoria sent the Hunnish king a plea for help and her engagement ring. Honoria’s motives are not fully clear, but Attila acted swiftly. An emissary left for Ravenna to ask for her hand. Unsurprisingly, Attila’s demand was flatly refused, setting the stage for the Hunnic invasion and the battle of Châlons.
In the spring of 451, the Huns and their numerous subjects crossed the Rhine and entered Gaul. Meeting little opposition, Attila’s warriors began sacking major Gallic cities. While Attila was ravaging the region, Aetius was on a vital diplomatic mission. The Roman general knew well that the Huns were a formidable enemy. For most of his career, Aetius fought alongside them. He also spent a brief time in the Hunnic camp during his exile in 433. With the Roman army unable to stop Attila, Aetius had to ask for help in an unlikely place. For decades, the Romans fought against the Germanic barbarians for control over Gaul. Now, the former enemies – Visigoths, Franks, Burgundians, and Alans – became Aetius’ crucial allies.
The Battle of Châlons
With a powerful army under his command, all Aetius needed was to force Attila to a pitched battle. The opportunity presented itself during Attila’s siege of Aurelianum (modern-day Orleans). Aetius and his Roman-led coalition surprised the Huns, forcing them to lift the siege and face the Roman-led army in the Battle of Châlons. On June 20, 451, the opposing forces met on the Catalaunian Plains, to the north of the town nowadays known as Troyes. Attila had chosen the area deliberately since flat ground suited his cavalry. The only high ground in the vicinity was a hill that dominated Attila’s left flank.
Aetius drew up his army first. The Roman general deployed the Alans in the center, while the Visigoth king Theodoric and his forces occupied the right flank. The Romans and the rest of the Germanic troops took the left flank. On the opposite side, Attila placed himself in the center of the line, deploying his allies and detachments of Hunnic cavalry on the flanks.
According to the sixth-century historian Jordanes, the battle of Châlons began at midday. The primary aim of both armies was the hill, where the Visigoths confronted a detachment of the Huns. Despite heavy casualties, the Visigoths took control of the key location, giving Aetius a strategic advantage. Meanwhile, the main battle lines had closed. Details of the battle are unclear, but it seems that Attila enjoyed initial success, swiftly overwhelming the Alans in the center. However, this left the Huns exposed to the counterattack of the Visigoth heavy cavalry, which forced Attila to withdraw. In the battle of Châlons, King Theodoric lost his life. However, this only further inspired his warriors, who pushed the Huns back.
Aetius: The Politician
Interestingly, none of the sources mention the details of the battle on Aetius’ Roman-held flank. It is possible that the general deliberately left his allies to take the brunt of the Hunnic charge, trying to preserve the limited Roman troops. It is also possible that in the Battle of Châlons, Aetius saw a twofold opportunity: to defeat Attila and to weaken his potential future enemy. After all, the Visigoths had been the principal Roman antagonist in Gaul for decades, and the alliance was only a temporary arrangement.
The events that transpired give us more insight into Aetius’ planning. The numbers involved in the fighting are unclear, but the eyewitnesses reported high casualties on both sides – thousands of bodies piled up across the plain. More importantly, Aetius’ enemy was in a precarious situation. Besieged in their camp, Attila and his army had no prospect of escaping.
Instead of finishing off Attila’s forces, Aetius allowed them to withdraw. Such a decision caused consternation among Roman allies, with Theodoric’s son Thorismund (now the king of the Visigoths) openly opposing Aetius. But Aetius, a skilled politician, convinced the young monarch to return home in order to consolidate his position against his brothers, potential rivals. The Visigoths withdrew from the battlefield while Attila and his forces crossed the Rhine, defeated but with their power still intact.
The Battle of Châlons was not a decisive victory, but for Flavius Aetius, it was a great success. He not only defeated and humiliated Attila. Through clever planning, Aetius also drained the military might of his barbarian allies, which allowed the Roman army to consolidate its positions in Gaul. Further, by keeping the Roman forces out of the battle, Aetius preserved the only existing Roman army in the region. The brilliant Roman general bought his Empire some badly needed respite. But Attila was not done yet.
The Battle of Châlons: The Aftermath
Despite the defeat at Châlons, Attila returned in force the following year. This time, the Huns attacked the Empire’s heartland, striking deep into northern Italy. Attila besieged and razed Aquileia and pillaged the old imperial capital Milan. While the Huns bypassed the well-protected Ravenna, only the diplomacy by Pope Leo I spared Rome. Although the historians presented Attila’s acceptance of terms and subsequent departure for Pannonia as a miracle, there is a more practical reason for such a decision. Attila’s army, laden by booty and decimated by disease, used Aetius’ terms (presented by the Pope) as a welcome excuse for a safe withdrawal.
This was to be Attila’s last victory. A year later, in 453, the fearsome Hun leader died of a brain hemorrhage on his wedding night. Attila was buried, if the story is to be believed – in an elaborate triple coffin made of iron, silver, and gold. The slaves who dug his grave were executed, and his final resting place remained secret up to the present day. Without Attila’s leadership, the Hunnic empire soon collapsed.
Attila’s main opponent Aetius did not live long enough to enjoy the demise of his rival. In 454, while he explained important state matters to the court, emperor Valentinian III killed his general in a fit of rage. The same year, Valentinian suffered the same fate, being killed by Aetius’ former bodyguards. The emperor’s successors would unsuccessfully try to prevent the disintegration of the Empire but ultimately fail. Twenty-five years after the Battle of Châlons, the Western Roman Empire was no more.