- James Houser
June 20, 451 - Attila the Hun & the Battle of the Catalaunian Fields
Updated: Jun 12, 2021
June 20, 451 A.D. The tribal confederation of Attila the Hun, the “Scourge of God,” spills into France intent on plunder, destruction and domination. All that stands against him are the Goths and their long-time enemy, Flavius Aetius – the last general of the Roman Empire. Can these two enemies defeat civilization’s greatest nemesis? Does the Roman Empire still have one last fight in it?
Rome was dead – it just didn’t know it yet. Following the great barbarian invasions of 405 and 406 AD, much of the Western Roman Empire had been overrun by peoples known as the Vandals, the Suebi, and the Alemanni. Many provinces had fallen – Britain, Spain, Africa. The Western Roman Emperors were weak and ineffectual, and even the best generals were able to do little but stop the bleeding. They commanded smaller and smaller armies, and even those armies were usually made up of the very peoples they were fighting – Germans, Vandals, and Goths. All the Emperor’s generals and men could not put Humpty Dumpty back together again…Humpty Dumpty, of course, being the Roman Empire.
Still, the Empire clung to life against all odds. Ever since the Gothic sack of Rome in 410, the capital had been moved to the more defensible city of Ravenna deep in the swamps of eastern Italy. There, the last few Roman Emperors lived in irrelevance while strongmen with the rank of Magister Militum did whatever they could to keep the Empire from crumbling into ash. It wasn’t an easy job.
In 433, a general named Flavius Aetius rose to power in Ravenna. Aetius was an excellent general, and for the next two decades he was the most powerful man in what was left of Rome. He managed to reconquer most of Gaul – the lands now known as France and Belgium. In 436, he beat the Burgundian Germans so bad that it became the basis for ancient German mythos. For the next several years he warred against the Goths, who had occupied Spain and southern France; soon he was the second most feared enemy of every barbarian tribe in Western Europe.
I said second. They had an enemy they feared more: the Huns.
The Huns may be the same as the Xionggnu, a nomadic people that the Chinese had fought in previous centuries and one reason for the building of the Great Wall (and whose defeat is the origin of the Hua Mulan story, which became Disney’s Mulan.) Whether or not these are the same people, the Huns migrated west from the vast steppes of Central Asia, and by the 370s AD they had emerged into what is now Russia. The migration of the fierce, violent and powerful Huns forced out every other tribe in the steppe-lands, so it was this migration that began to push the “barbarians” into the Roman Empire. The Goths, Alemanni, Vandals and Burgundians all crossed the Roman border out of fear of the Huns.
The Huns were so terrifying because they were, and are, virtual unknowns. Very little is known to this day about their culture and very few archaeological items have been conclusively linked to them. They appeared demonic and inhuman to their foes, primarily because they practiced ritual head-binding from an early age that deformed the human skull into a longer and oblong shape. While they practiced typical nomadic horse-archery, they were extremely adaptable and intelligent – the forerunners of the Mongols.
The Huns, scary and violent as they were, were almost completely disunited into the rise of their king Hua in the 420s and 430s. Hua terrorized the entirety of Eastern Europe until his death in 433, leaving the Hunnic Empire in the hands of his nephews Bleda and Attila. Unwilling to share power, Attila murdered his brother, and took up the reins of the Hunnic Empire.
From that time on, Attila the Hun was the most dreaded figure in the known world. His armies raided from Italy to Afghanistan, plundering and pillaging any city they took. In 441, he launched a blitz through the Eastern Roman Empire, leading his army up to the gates of Constantinople before demanding an enormous tribute. He defeated Roman armies so often that few would stand against him. Soon, the Eastern Empire was paying Attila 2100 pounds of gold annually just to keep him from attacking them again. It didn’t always work; Attila kept raiding to get the Eastern Empire to increase the tribute. Soon, Attila looked west: there were new prizes to be won.
The Western Empire made the Eastern Empire look like a utopia, of course. While the Eastern Empire had its vast lands and large populations in Greece, Egypt, Syria and Turkey to fall back on, the Western Empire had lost most of its land and was essentially in its final stage of life. Aetius had been holding it together for twenty years, but he had to fight tooth and dagger to keep what he had – let alone retaking Spain and Africa, which were virtually lost to the Goths and Vandals. Aetius had been at war with Theoderic, King of the Goths, for the last several years when he learned that Attila was looking west.
Aetius was in a strange position: he knew Attila personally. As a boy, he had been taken hostage and kept at the Hunnic court for a part of his teenage years. He had known Attila as a boy, and had been sent back as a young Roman officer to recruit mercenaries among the Huns for one of the many wars against the Vandals. Aetius was not just familiar with Attila himself, but also the Hunnic way of war.
During one of the many Roman power struggles, Honoria (the sister of Valentinian III, the weak and dull Emperor that Aetius served) asked Attila for assistance in her claim to power. Attila decided to interpret this as a marriage proposal, and that meant – he claimed – he was owed a dowry as a result. This dowry, of course, amounted to half of the Western Roman Empire. Attila probably hoped that his old friend Aetius would not put up a serious fight against him. Attila’s army was also greatly enlarged by the absorption of many other tribes that he had conquered – including the Gepids and the Ostrogoths, cousins to Theoderic’s Visigoths. (There were two branches of the Goths: the Visigoths, or West Goths, led by Theoderic that had settled in France and Spain, and the Ostrogoths, the East Goths, that remained in modern Poland.) By 451 AD, Attila the Hun had assembled a gigantic force of almost 100,000 men that was bearing down on Gaul.
That spring, Attila crossed the Rhine and plowed into modern France, aiming for Paris. His Huns and allied peoples sacked and burned wherever they went, looting and destroying any city they managed to take. Paris was saved, according to legend, only by the prayers of a young girl who motivated the soldiers to stay strong. This girl was later blessed as Saint Genevieve. Attila soon laid siege to Orleans, and was on the verge of taking it. (1000 years later, it was Joan of Arc who would come to save Orleans from the English.)
Aetius had very little to work with. For his last 30 years of campaigning, he had relied on hired foreign troops to do most of his fighting, including Vandals, Goths and Huns. Many of these had defected to join Attila, and the citizens of Italy and France largely refused to join the fight for an Empire they knew was already dead. But someone had to stop Attila. Aetius marched north with whatever he could scrape together, but he knew this was nowhere near enough. He succumbed to the inevitable. Even as Attila surrounded Orleans, Aetius sent a message to Theoderic, King of the Goths, his old nemesis.
Theoderic’s barbarian Goths had fought Aetius and Rome for almost a century, but even they realized that Attila posed the greater threat. When Theoderic joined Aetius, that was the signal for many of the German peoples who had invaded the Empire – Armoricans, Franks, Saxons, and Burgundians – to join in as well. All these people had been at war for decades, but they collectively realized that Attila’s Huns were a threat to all of them. Even with all this, they could only muster up about 50,000 men – half of Attila’s numbers.
So it was that for the last time, a Roman general led an army made up of his former enemies to stop one of civilization’s greatest threats. It was the Western Roman Empire’s last gasp.
When the Roman-Gothic-German army approached, Attila raised his siege of Orleans and withdrew to face Aetius on the Marne River. The ancient sources are not specific about the site of the battle, only identifying it as the “Catalaunian Plain”, which is close to the city of Chalons-sur-Marne in Champagne, the large farming region east of Paris. On June 20, 451, Aetius and Theoderic came forward to confront Attila the Hun.
The ancient sources tell us only a little about the great Battle of the Catalaunian Plains. It became so wrapped in drama and shrouded in mystery that to this day its details are fuzzy. We know that Aetius deployed his forces facing Attila, and put Theoderic’s Visigoths on the western flank facing his Ostrogoth cousins, while Aetius commanded the eastern flank of Franks, Burgundians, and Roman troops. The unreliable Alan mercenaries remained in the center.
At the outset of the battle, the two Gothic forces charged each other, and the heavily armed Germanic tribes clashed over a small hill. Theoderic’s son Thorismund led the Visigoths to victory, just as Attila led his Huns in a furious charge against the Roman-German center. To everyone’s surprise, the mercenary Alans and few Roman units fought well, even as Theoderic and his Visigoths smashed through their cousins and turned to attack Attila.
Aetius, too, defeated the troops in front of him, and soon both sides of the Roman-German line were pressing on Attila’s center. Facing defeat for the first time in his life, Attila withdrew to his camp, the Huns’ skilled archers keeping their foes away. The sun went down with neither side really understanding what had happened on the Catalaunian Plain.
At dawn, it was immediately apparent that the carnage had been immense. The Goths mourned; their King Theoderic, the nemesis of the Romans who had nevertheless joined them at the moment of crisis, had fallen in battle, and Thorismund was proclaimed the new King of the Visigoths. By the same token, the Huns had also lost many men, and neither side was eager to renew the battle.
The Goths, Germans and Romans surrounded the Huns’ camp and began to prepare for a siege, but Aetius soon had second thoughts. Thorismund, the new King of the Goths, was a young, aggressive fighter commanding a well-organized tribal army flush with victory, especially compared to the haphazard and improvised army Aetius led. Now that they had beaten Attila, Aetius looked at Thorismund less as an ally and more like a potential threat. Aetius persuaded the new and uncertain king to return home and protect his throne from possible usurpers.
As soon as he was gone, Aetius hashed out a deal with Attila: allowing him to return home in exchange for a payment and a mutually beneficial agreement. This was the constant dance Roman generals had to do in the last years of the Empire: when confronted with forces beyond their ability to destroy outright, they had to play them off. Aetius was a master of this skill. He used the Goths to defeat the Huns, but found a way to get ride of the Goths, and by reforging his old friendship with Attila kept the Huns around as a counterweight if he needed it.
Yeah, not very epic or movie-worthy. But you have to admire the finesse if nothing else.
Attila was beaten but not broken. In 452, after recocking and rebuilding his army, he invaded Roman territory again – this time invading Italy itself. Aetius was unable to build an army large enough to stop him, and Attila ravaged northern Italy until someone else stopped him. This time, it was not an army – but a man. A man of God.
Leo I, Bishop of Rome, was sent to negotiate with Attila. Despite the fearsome Hun’s vast army and long string of successes, Leo pointed out the obvious: his forces were being ravaged by disease, his horses were short of fodder due to his own destructive antics, and winter was coming. Aetius was gathering an army. Attila was not as strong as he’d been a year before, due to his defeat on the Catalaunian Plains. Wouldn’t it be better for everyone if he just left?
Attila left. Although he didn’t know it – and neither did anyone else – it would be his last invasion. Even though he was planning a new campaign, in 453 he arranged another marriage (the Huns were polygamists.) In the midst of the celebrations, where everyone got rip-roaring drunk, he suffered a severe nosebleed and choked to death on his own bodily fluids in a tent. So died Attila the Hun, Scourge of God, most feared man in the world. Of getting too drunk. I’m pretty sure he and Alexander the Great would have some things to talk about. Without Attila, the Hunnic Empire collapsed into infighting and civil war, and soon the Germans had united enough to defeat Attila without anyone’s help.
The fact that Attila had been stopped when he was, though, changed the course of history. If Aetius and his allies had not stopped Attila when they did, he could have overwhelmed and dominated Western Europe. The Roman Empire was going to die no matter what, but the Germanic cultures that formed the future Kingdoms of France, Spain and England would have died as well. It was Germanic society that built the Middle Ages, and without the defeat of Attila the world as we know it would be forever altered.
It also mattered WHO had stopped Attila. When Leo I, Bishop of Rome, persuaded Attila to turn back, it virtually founded the power of the Bishop of Rome – soon to be known as Pope – as the leader of the Christian Church, and secured for many the idea that the Pope was God’s miracle-worker on Earth. The place of Paris’s Saint Genevieve calling on God for deliverance also played an enormous part. The defeat of Attila, then, had a lot to do with the rise of the Catholic Church.
Flavius Aetius died only a year after Attila when he was assassinated by his own Emperor and his court rival in Ravenna. 22 years later, the Western Roman Empire finally collapsed – the end of an era. But thanks to Aetius, they went out with something like a bang rather than a whimper. What else can an Empire ask for?