On June 20, 451 on a broad plain in the Champagne region of France, Attila the Hun engaged in his greatest battle. The fate of western civilization lay in the balance.
The Huns and their greatest leader, Attila, have come to be remembered as the epitome of the savage barbarian; a “barbarian’s barbarian”, if you will. From the late 4th century till the break-up of their empire in the mid-5th, the Huns were the terror of Europe and their leader “the scourge of God”; thought by the Catholic Church to have been sent by the Creator to punish his people for their wickedness.
The origin of these fierce nomadic warriors is something of a mystery.
In Chinese history, the Huns are tentatively identified with the people known in their histories as the Hsiung Nu (“Fierce Slaves”). In the Second Century A.D., the Chinese Han Empire drove the Huns away from their borders in a series of campaigns. The Huns then began their long migration westward, ever searching for fresh pastures for their sheep and new peoples to plunder and subjugate.
Modern scholarship theorizes that the Huns were not ethnically one people, but a confederation of Mongolian and Turkic nomadic clans. By the time they entered European history in the 4th century, these peoples had fused into one cultural group.
The Huns were first-and-foremost mounted horse archers. From infancy male children were taught to ride by being placed on the backs of sheep, to prepare them for a life in the saddle. They practiced daily with their primary weapon, the powerful and deadly composite bow. To make themselves appear more ferocious and terrifying to their enemies, their cheeks were slashed with knives and allowed to scar.
19th century depiction of the Huns; showing them as nearly sub-human barbarians!
Like all nomadic horsemen of the Asiatic steppes, the Huns’ concept of war was the grand hunt writ large. Spreading out over hundreds of miles, columns of fast-riding raiders would scour the lands of an enemy, plundering outlying farms and driving refugees before them. Their victims were lassoed like sheep or cattle; to be yoked and sold as slaves. In the course of their raids, the Huns were particularly known for their sadistic brutality. Like the later Mongols, they seem to have used terror as a weapon.
Mounted on swift and hardy steppe ponies, the Huns used their superior mobility to keep just out of reach of slower, heavier opponents; all the while wearing them down with a storm of arrows. Only when an enemy force was sufficiently weakened by archery would the Hun warriors close in with lance, lasso, and sword to finish them off. Like many nomadic armies of the steppes, the Hunnic nobles fought as heavily armored cavalry lancers. These were a force of last resort, used to deliver the final, decisive charge when the enemy was deemed weakened and on the point of breaking.
Hun light horseman preparing to lasso Alan warriors; 4th century.
Legend has it that the Huns first encountered European societies in the 4th century; when in pursuit of stray sheep, their herdsmen crossed the swampy lands around the mouth of the Volga River. There, on the western side of the river, they entered the lands of the Goths.
Under their great king, Ermanaric, the Goths had established a large Kingdom in southern Russia. The Goths were a warrior people, who had raided the Roman Empire for centuries. But upon meeting the Huns, the Goths (and the other Germanic tribes of Europe whom they subsequently encountered) found that they had no adequate response to their former’s mobile skirmish tactics. (The Medieval Russian principalities would have the same problem in dealing with an identical threat posed by the Mongols, who, like the Huns, relied on raiding and mobile skirmish tactics to wear down their opponents.) The Huns, appearing like demons from some previously unknown dimension of hell, shattered Ermaneric’s kingdom and sent the Goths fleeing before them.
It was this invasion of their homeland by the Huns that forced the Visigoths, the western branch of the Gothic people, to enter the Balkans seeking refuge in the Eastern Roman Empire. This, in turn, would lead to the Battle of Adrianople, a demoralizing defeat for Roman arms and the death of the Emperor Valens with much of his Army. Ultimately, this movement of the Goths into the Balkans would destabilize the entire Roman Empire, leading to the fall of the Western portion.
Those Goths unable to flee were subjugated, and became part of the Hunnic Empire. This was a pattern that continued with every tribe and nation in their path as they advanced westward into central Europe.
In the generation after Adrianople, the Huns settled in the devastated Roman province of Pannonia (modern Austria and Slovenia), and in the lost province of Dacia (modern Hungary and Romania). They had come a long way from their original home, north of the Great Wall of China.
From this base of operations along the Roman border, the Huns conducted large scale raids into the Balkans and into lower Germany. Eventually, the Romans found it more expedient to simply bribe the Huns to leave them alone, by payment of an annual tribute. The southern German tribes were not so fortunate. Most of these were incorporated into the Hunnic Empire as subject nations, forced to send their best warriors to serve as “canon fodder” for their Hunnic masters; and to furnish the beds of Hunnic lords with young women.
The Romans found the Huns to be effective mercenaries. During the early decades of the 5th century, one particular Western Roman commander used his personal connections with the Hunnic court to fill the ranks of his Household Bucellarii with Hun warriors: Flavius Aëtius . Aëtius had been sent to the Huns as a diplomatic hostage early in his life. There he had made friends with many influential Hunnic lords. When later in his life he rose to prominence as a soldier he used these friendships to recruit the deadly Hun horsemen into his bodyguard and into the ranks of the Roman army as foederati.
Flavius Aëtius and Huns of his personal guard, or bucellarii
Aëtius’ Hunnic retainers and mercenary soldiers gave him an effective fighting force with which to battle Rome’s chief enemies at that time: the Visigoths, the Vandals, and the Franks. These Germanic “barbarians” had invaded the Western Roman Empire in the first decade of the 5th century, settling in large portions of North Africa, Gaul and Spain. The Western Roman government was often engaged in low-intensity border conflicts with these interlopers. It was in just such skirmishes that Aëtius’ Huns were most effective.
When Attila assumed the Hunnic throne in 432 A.D., he began making things more difficult for the Eastern Roman Empire. Tributes were raised and large-scale raids were conducted into the Balkans, devastating wide swathes and leaving once prosperous towns sacked and burned in their wake. But Attila also cooperated with the Western Roman government, where the general Aëtius had become the power behind the throne of the ineffectual Emperor Valentinian III. Attila was even granted the honorary title of Magister Militum, or “Master of Soldiers”, the late Romans term for a high-ranking general.
But in 450, Attila overreached. He announced his intent to make war upon the Visigoth Kingdom of Theodoric, based around the Roman city of Toulouse in southern Gaul. He also demanded the hand in marriage Honoria, the Emperor Valentinian’s older sister; who, in an ill-advised piece of political intrigue, had corresponded with the Attila, inviting his marriage suit. Aetius and the Western Empire had no love for the Visigoths, and would have liked to see them expelled from the empire altogether. But the prospect of Gaul falling under the control of the powerful King of the Huns was even less palatable.
When Attila’s polyglot army of Huns and German subject-nations invaded Gaul the following year, they spread rapine and murder. Many towns were sacked, and Christian churches were particularly targeted. The Hun king was seen as divine punishment on a sinful empire, sent to torment test the faithful. For this Attila was called “the Scourge of God”.
At Aurelianum (Orleans), in the territory occupied by the Alans, Attila was expecting the city to open its gates; as promised by Sangiban, the Alan King, with whom he had negotiated safe passage. However, the Bishop of the city organized its defense, and the Roman townsmen prepared to withstand siege. The Huns were in the process of storming the city when Attila got word that Aëtius was approaching from the south with an army.
Aëtius had reacted swiftly to the Hunnic invasion, hastily patching together an alliance of convenience with the equally threatened Theodoric and the Visigoth Kingdom of Toulouse in the south of Gaul. Deprived of his usual Hunnic auxiliaries, Aëtius and the Romans’ only chance of defeating the Hunnic horde lay in an alliance with the numerous and warlike Visigoths. He also arranged a temporary alliance with the Franks to the north, and even Sangiband of the Alans (who seems to have been playing a double game).
Modern reenactors, representing late Roman horsemen.
Atilla lifted the siege of Orleans, and moved eastward to await Aëtius on ground more to his liking: the broad Catalaunian Fields, a great, open plain near the town of Chalons.
The battle that resulted was, perhaps, among the most decisive in history.
THE BATTLE OF CHALONS
The decisive battle for Gaul, and with it perhaps the future of Western Civilization, has been called the Battle of Chalons by western historians since at least the 18th century. It has also been referred to as the Battle of Campus Mauriacus, or the Battle of the Catalaunian Plains (or Fields). The exact site of the battle has never been determined, but it is thought that the Catalaunian Fields were somewhere between the city of Troyes and the town of Châlons-en-Champagne.
The ridge of Montgueux, 17 km from Troyes. Could this be the hill taken by Thorismund that dominated the battlefield, as described in Jordanes account?
Plain around Troyes, south of Chalons, possible site of the battle. Perfect cavalry terrain, one can see why Attila may have picked such a place to fight.
Much of our information on the battle comes from Jordanes, the 6th century Roman historian. In his account on the night before the main battle a band of Aëtius’ allied Franks engaged a band of Attila’s Gepids in a preliminary skirmish. Jordanes’ states that 15,000 were killed on either side. It was a particularly bloody prelude to a most sanguine battle.
In ancient battles, it was customary for to take the auguries before battle. The morning of the battle, the diviners examined the entrails of the sacrifice in Atilla’s camp. What they saw left them dismayed: they foretold disaster for the Huns. However, they also foretold that one of the enemy leaders would be killed. While this story, recorded in the following century, may well be apocryphal, benefiting from hindsight, if true these auguries were remarkably prescient.
Aetius and Burgundian bodyguard attacked by Hun during battle
The superstitious Attila was perplexed by this augury of defeat. Battle was imminent, and he could not avoid it and maintain a siege in his lightly defended camp. He decided to delay battle until the mid-afternoon, so that should the coming struggle go poorly, his troops could flee into the gathering darkness.
As for Aëtius, his battle plan is unknown, and can only be deduced from his deployment and the manner in which the battle unfolded. The Roman commander drew up his forces with his steady, professional Roman troops and his Frankish allies on the left wing. The Visigoths, who had the most to lose in the advent of a Hunnic victory, were posted on his right wing (which, as the place of honor in ancient battles, would have satisfied their touchy pride). Finally, he placed Sangiban‘s Alans in the center.
It is often stated that Aëtius placed the Alans in the center of his line because he questioned their steadiness and loyalty; and that in the center they would have difficulty fleeing, with Roman and Visigoth troops on either flank. This is of course nonsense. In the height of a battle, in which both his own Romans on the left and the Visigoths on the right would be fully committed, their hands full in their own sectors of the battle, they would be unable to keep the Alans in check as well. It would have been both unpreventable and disastrous if the Alans in his center had either turned-tail or, worse, gone over to Attila. Aëtius was too seasoned a general to leave so much to chance.
Instead, we can deduce that he had another plan.
Hun horse archer slaying Roman auxilia infantryman
The Alans were a Sarmatian people, their army composed of armored cavalry armed with both bow and lance, backed-up by lighter skirmish cavalry armed only with bow or javelin. Aëtius placed them in the center, opposite Attila’s own Huns, who were mostly elusive light cavalry. He did so for a very specific reason: defeating Attila decisively would require crushing the Hun contingent on the field (and perhaps killing or capturing the Hunnic king himself). But to do that, he would have to fix them in place, without the ability to fall-back or flee. So, considering the course of the battle, it is entirely possible that Sangiban’s Alans had orders to engage the Huns in the center in a prolonged skirmish battle; and slowly give ground, as though losing the engagement.
This would pull the Huns forward, deep into the allied center. Meanwhile, on either flank, the hard-fighting Visigoths on the right and his own Romans and the Frankish allies would close with and defeat Attila’s less reliable subject tribesmen on either flank. Once this was accomplished, the allied wings would turn inward, enveloping and trapping Attila and his Huns in a vast pocket, from which they would be unable to flee. At close quarters, the Hun light cavalry would be at a disadvantage against the heavier Visigoth, Roman, and Frankish forces. Attila’s Huns could be crushed decisively, once-and-for all.
Germanic warriors (above) , Frankish warrior (below). The Franks chief tactic was to charge in a dense infantry column, weakening the enemy as they came with a shower of throwing axes and spears. This warrior carries their distinctive throwing ax, the “francisca”, capable of splitting or encumbering an enemy shield.
Attila deployed his forces with his Huns holding the center (as indicated above), his Ostrogoth subjects opposite their Visigoth cousins on his left, and the Gepids and other miscellaneous subject German peoples on his right facing Aëtius’ Romans and the Franks. His battle plans are also unknown. But it appears that he was going to attempt to erode and break through the allied center with his Huns, after a prolonged skirmish fight, and exploit this if possible. Or, if not, to survive into night and withdraw should events in the battle “go south”.
Aetius directs the battle from behind a wall of Roman infantry
Numbers are disputed, with historians giving wildly different estimates. It is likely that somewhere between 40,000-50,000 troops were arrayed on either side. The actual “Roman” contingent must have been a very small force, likely not more than 12,000. The Roman army, deprived of much of its recruiting grounds and revenues by Germanic conquests of the early 5th century, had withered to a shadow of its former self. Aëtius main strike force was likely the heavy cavalry of his own bucellarius; supported by what remained of the old comitatensis (mobile field army) of Gaul and local garrisons.
According to Jordanes, the Catalaunian plain rose sharply on one side to a hill. This geographical feature dominated the battlefield and became the focal point of the battle. It was seized early in the day by Thorismund, son of the Visigoth king, from where he was able to attack downhill into the Ostrogoth (left) wing of the Hunnic army.
Attila’s Ostrogoth subjects assault their Visigoth cousins
In the center, the Huns routed the Alans (or, perhaps as suggested above, the Alans gave ground deliberately) and pushed into the center. However, Aëtius’ wing pushed back the Gepids, while the Ostrogoths were driven back by their Visigoth kinsmen. Jordanes relates that King Theodoric, whilst leading his own men forward, was struck by a thrown javelin and toppled off his horse; where he was then trampled to death by his own charging horsemen.
Jordanes claims that Thorismund’s Visigoths fell upon Attila’s own Hunnic household unit. The Hunnic center gave way (horse archers prefer to keep their distance, and what began as a tactical withdrawal may have turned to near rout) and the Huns fled back to Attila’s camp. Thorismund pursued too closely, following the fleeing Ostrogoths into Attila’s encampment. There he was wounded in the ensuing mêlée before his followers could rescue him.
Darkness fell, and the battle ended in some confusion. Separated from his own men, Aëtius spent the night with his Gothic allies, unaware of whether the battle was won or lost.
On the following day, finding the battlefield was “piled high with bodies and the Huns did not venture forth”, the Visigoths and Romans besieged Attila camp, knowing he must be low on provisions. His situation now growing desperate, and vowing not to be taken alive, Attila “heaped up a funeral pyre of horse saddles”. The Hun king was determined to cast himself into the flames should the camp fall to the enemy, “that none might have the joy of wounding him and that the lord of so many races might not fall into the hands of his foes”.
While Attila was trapped in his camp, the Visigoths searched the battlefield and found Theodoric’s corpse beneath a mound of bodies. They bore their king away with heroic songs in sight of the enemy. Upon learning of his father’s death, Prince Thorismund wished to call upon his followers to assault Attila’s camp, and avenge their king. But Aëtius dissuaded him.
According to Jordanes, Aëtius feared that if the Huns were completely destroyed, the Visigoths would break off their allegiance to the Roman Empire and become an even graver threat. While this was no doubt true (and in fact came to pass in the following years), Aëtius was also no doubt concerned about regaining the services of the Huns as mercenaries in Roman service.
The Roman commander therefore entered into negotiations with Attila, whom he allowed safe withdrawal from Gaul, back across the Rhine. He also convinced Thorismund that his best move was to return south and secure the throne for himself, before his brothers could. The Visigoth army withdrew, returning to Tolosa, where as the hero of Chalons Thorismund was proclaimed king.
Thus the battle to save Gaul ended with a whimper, not a bang.
Attila invaded Italy the following year, but stopped short of Rome and withdrew before taking the city. This was largely due to a plague then raging in Italy; though the Christians considered it because of the saintliness of Pope Leo, who met with Attila outside the city to attempt to dissuade him. Attila died shortly afterwards, on his wedding night, in his capital in Pannonia.
Aetius was himself murdered soon after, victim of his Emperor’s jealousy. He had long been the power behind Valentinian III. His victory perhaps made him too great a threat to the jealous and insecure ruler. Rome would soon miss his excellent leadership and military skills: the Vandals, based in Africa around Carthage, would land near Rome and viciously sack the city just a year after his death.
The Battle of the Catalaunian Plains was more than just another bloody battle in an age of blood. Had the Huns prevailed, the Dark Ages that followed would have been much, MUCH darker than that which actually began within a century of the battle. The Huns were not “Romanized”, as were the Goths and (to lesser extent) the Franks who actually inherited most of the Western Roman Empire after its collapse, a generation later. The pagan Huns would have done a poor job of keeping the flame of Hellenic/Western civilization alive after Rome.
Historian John Julius Norwich says of the Battle of Chalons:
“It should never be forgotten that in the summer of 451 and again in 452, the whole fate of western civilization hung in the balance. Had the Hunnish army not been halted in these two successive campaigns, had its leader toppled Valentinian from his throne and set up his own capital at Ravenna or Rome, there is little doubt that both Gaul and Italy would have been reduced to spiritual and cultural deserts.”
- Those Goths that fled westward to avoid the Huns became the Visigoth nation. Those who remained behind to become subjects of the Huns became the Ostrogoths.
- For the Germanic invasion of the Western Roman Empire in the first decade of the 5th century, see the first chapter of the author’s AGE OF ARTHUR series.
- Jordanes, De origine actibusque Getarum (“The Origin and Deeds of the Getae/Goths”)