By the mid-fifth century AD, Rome was in sharp decline. Taxes were high, corruption was rampant, and Roman princes, unable to secure the empire’s borders from barbarian invaders, neither commanded respect nor held themselves to any standard of personal integrity. This degeneracy was embodied in the dynamic between the Eastern Roman Emperor Theodosius II and Attila the Hun, which led to a field in Roman Gaul and the decisive Battle of Châlons.
Before The Battle Of Châlons: Rome And The Huns
Attila had been wreaking havoc on the frontiers of the empire for too long. And in 446 AD, Theodosius signed a treaty with him in an attempt to end the carnage. The Emperor, who ironically styled himself the “Invincible Augustus,” accepted the embarrassing terms of Attila’s embassy. He agreed to increase Rome’s payment to the Huns from 700 to 2,100 pounds of gold annually. Additionally, he forfeited an enormous swath of territory to the Asian barbarian—it encompassed all the land from Belgrade to Thrace—such that the Hunnic Empire now extended to the doorstep of Constantinople.
And finally, Attila demanded that all Hunnic prisoners be restored to him while Roman escapees from his captivity were to send a set price in gold to retroactively buy their freedom.
Theodosius acquiesced to everything, sacrificing any honor he retained in exchange for a short reprieve from Attila’s belligerence. And from that time on, similar situations played out again and again disgracing both the Eastern and Western Empires.
It was in this state of decay that one of the last great and noble displays of Roman military valor unexpectedly occurred. On a field in France, the Battle of Châlons delivered a much needed victory for Rome and repelled the incursion of the dreaded Huns.
The Huns Invade Roman Gaul
Theodosius II died four years after his shameful embassy with Attila. And his sister, Pulcheria, the first Roman Empress and an important saint in both the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches ruled for less than one year after him.
Her husband and successor, Marcian, resolved to take a harder line with the conqueror in 450 AD. In contrast with the appeasement policy of Theodosius, he warned the Huns that any further aggression toward Constantinople would be met with a Roman military retaliation of equal force.
It might have been an empty threat, but it worked nonetheless. And to avoid the annoyance of a prolonged conflict with Marcian, Attila set his course for Roman Gaul—the domain of Valentinian III, Augustus of the Western Empire, or, more accurately, that of his general, Flavius Aetius.
In the administration of the empire, Aetius compensated for Valentinian’s lackings. The profligate king ruled, in theory, from the luxury of his palace in Ravenna. Aetius, however, had full command of the military and was seldom stationary. His biography was a lesson in omnipotence: always on-the-go, the general many times had held the empire together by a thread and in so doing embodied the valor of ancient Rome’s noble forefathers. Would Aetius stand up to his fame at the battle of Châlons?
Similar to the state of the East, the territories of the Western Empire were in shambles. Dozens of barbarian tribes had established themselves across pockets of Roman Gaul. But Aetius was adept at building strategic alliances with them.
He signed a treaty with the Vandals to secure Italy from invasion; he restored imperial authority in both Roman Gaul and Spain, and he was generally afforded respect by the host of other tribes living throughout the mired empire.
But Attila’s entry into Gaul generated a novel problem for Aetius. For one, the Hunnic force was larger and fiercer than any other in the world. And to complicate things, Aetius and Attila had a history. The general had spent time as a captive in the camp of the Hun and maintained a personal friendship with him.
But these facts couldn’t stop the oncoming bloodbath in the Catalaunian Plains: the famous Battle of Châlons.
Attila justified his Gallic invasion on two phony pretexts: (1) he took sides in a family dispute between two Frankish princes, one of whom had a claim to the Merovingian throne that wasn’t recognized by Rome, and (2) he demanded that Princess Honoria, a rather pitiable character and sister to the Emperor Valentinian, be handed over to him in marriage. Along with her hand, he expected to inherit her titles, lands, and salaries—an egregious demand which was meant as nothing more than an affront to the majesty of Rome.
Needless to say, the Romans rejected his proposal. In reality, Attila wanted to control the fertile lands of Roman Gaul and would use any excuse at his disposal to justify snatching them. So in 451 AD, a menacing horde of Huns entered Roman Gaul for the first time. And their scorched earth campaign style was felt by the unsuspecting inhabitants of the Roman city of Metz shortly thereafter.
Scorched Earth: Attila’s Reign of Terror
Unlike Gallic barbarians, the Huns weren’t Christian: no one and nothing was spared from their wrath. Metz, nearby the eastern frontier of Gaul, was completely decimated, and all of its inhabitants were slaughtered by Attila’s forces. Women, children, and Catholic clergy were put to death in the same fashion as the city’s defenders.
The Huns ignited a conflagration that burned until every building in Metz, but for a singular chapel, was razed to the ground. And then the horde continued westward, torching towns and cities in the heart of France, until it reached the walls of Orléans.
Attila immediately laid siege to the city. And, unprepared for a confrontation with the Huns, the defenses of Orléans could hardly withstand it. The city’s hinterlands quickly fell to the invaders. And its walls would have succumbed to their battering rams had the Roman and Visigoth forces not arrived.
In their darkest hour, the people of Orléans were lying “prostrate in prayer,” writes Edward Gibbon, author of Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, calling on God to deliver them from a fate similar to that of Metz.
And their prayers were answered in the persons of Flavius Aetius and Theodoric, King of the Visigoths, leading an enormous host of combined Roman and barbarian allied forces to confront the Huns at the Battle of Châlons.
Both Sides Prepare For A Decisive Battle
This alliance was yet another of Aetius’s clever diplomacies. He’d gotten the better of the Visigoths, who had long been a thorn in the side of Rome. In fact, 40 years prior, Theodoric’s father, Alaric, had even managed to sack the eternal city.
Aetius had blocked Theodoric from his attempts to capture Arles, an important Roman stronghold in southern Gaul, in 425 and then again in 430. And then he treated with him at the Visigothic capital of Toulouse when both of their legacies were threatened. The old barbarian king and the Roman general came together as lukewarm friends to repel a common enemy, the Huns, from Gaul and to defend Christianity and their shared culture.
Aetius also rallied other tribes of Gallic barbarians, including the Laeti, the Armoricans, the Breones, the Saxons, the Burgundians, the Ripurians, the Merovingian Franks, and the fickle Alani.
Attila knew a lost cause when he saw one. The oncoming host approaching from the south would have crushed the Huns outside the walls of Orléans. So their shrewd commander called off the siege and retreated with his horde to the plains east of the Seine, which were a more favorable terrain for the Hunnic cavalry.
The Battle of Châlons (Battle of The Catalaunian Plains): June 20, 451 AD
The Catalaunian fields comprise an area of roughly 100 square miles in the heartland of France, near the vicinity of Châlons-en-Champagne. It was this location that served as the strategic terminus of Attila’s retreat—a region that, by no coincidence, resembles the ancestral homeland of the Huns in its flatness.
The Roman and barbarian allies tracked the Huns during their retreat, and a total of 15,000 were killed in combat en route. But now, the horde of Attila was on the offensive.
In addition to his enormous Hunnic force, he commanded Ostrogoth, Rugian, Heruli, and Thuringian troops. These barbarians had bet their futures on the nomadic conquerors from the Eurasian Steppe over the degenerate Romans.
The Hunnic host attempted to make a camp on the only visible elevation in the Catalaunian fields, but they were repelled by Torismond, son of Theodoric, and his contingent of Visigoth warriors. Disadvantaged and insecure, Attila allowed superstition to get the better of him. He consulted a haruspex—a diviner who, in the tradition of the ancient Etruscans, would interpret omens from the organs of sacrificial animals.
The haruspex prophesied that the Battle of Châlons would result in the death of a king. Whether it be Attila or one within the ranks of his enemies was unclear. But despite these two setbacks, Attila roused his men for combat in a fiery speech and then led the charge into battle.
From the west, the Roman and Visigoth host opposed him. Each contingent flanked a different side of the Alani tribe, a tactic to discourage its unpredictable leader from mutiny. Then the infamous Hunnic archers blocked out the sun with their arrows. And the cavalry and infantry on both sides clashed in the open field. The Huns swept the battlefield, cutting through the Alani forces at the host’s center. This disoriented the Romans and Goths.
After the Alani had been vanquished, the Huns concentrated their efforts on the Visigoths. Attila regarded them as a greater adversary than the degenerate Romans. And it’s also possible, though purely conjecture, that he wanted to ensure the king prophesied to die on the field would be Theodoric and not himself. In any case, the prophecy did come to fruition when an Ostrogoth javelin pierced Theodoric and sent him tumbling off his horse to his death.
The allied forces went into a frenzy. And the remaining Alani defected while the ranks of leaderless Visigoths were broken by the Huns.
Attila was nearing victory when the forces of Torismond charged into battle from their high ground. The Visigoths and Romans reorganized themselves, and the battle, yet again, turned in favor of the allies.
The Huns were eventually called to a retreat. And Attila, who Gibbon compared to a “lion encompassed in his den,” surrounded his caravan with enough flammables sufficient to kill himself if needed. He’d been outmatched on foreign territory, and suicide was preferable to enslavement.
In the aftermath of the Battle of Châlons, the allies celebrated funeral rites for Theodoric, and Torismond was promoted to king of the Goths. Fresh off the heat of battle, he rallied his troops to invade Attila’s encampment and finish off the Hun once and for all. But Aetius, suddenly morphing from a valiant general into an opportunistic politician, convinced him against it.
It was in the best interest of Rome for Attila to be driven out of Gaul. But if the Huns were altogether vanquished, there was a concern that the Visigoths might grow too powerful. To a great extent, the barbarian factions kept one another in check, and this was invaluable to the Romans.
So Torismond’s forces returned to Toulouse. And Attila woke up one morning to the sound of birds chirping above an otherwise silent, blood-stained field. The Huns were defeated in the Battle of Châlons, but it would not be a deterrent to the terror they were still yet to inflict on the world. Attila crossed back over the Rhine with his sights set on Italy.
According to first-hand accounts of Gothic warriors, the Battle of Châlons resulted in the deaths of somewhere between 160,000 and 300,000 men. The Battle of Châlons would be the last battle in which the Romans of the Western Empire would ever declare victory.