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The Battle of Chalons: Attila’s Stinging Defeat

Military History

The Battle of Chalons: Attila’s Stinging Defeat

When the Attila and his huns came into Gaul in AD 451 they met a force of Romans and Visigoths that refused to back down.

When the Attila and his huns came into Gaul in AD 451 they met a force of Romans and Visigoths that refused to back down.

By John Walker

In AD 451, Attila the Hun, by then known to terrified Western Christians as the “scourge of God,” crossed the Rhine River in command of a multi-ethnic army. Attila’s army comprised thousands of his own fearsome Hun horse archers backed by Ostrogoths, Gepids, and other Germanic tribal auxiliaries, marching in three massive columns through Belgic Gaul. Their goal was to plunder the rich, nominally Roman province of Aquitaine Gaul beyond the Loire River.

By that time, Attila already had carried out several bloody incursions against the Eastern Roman Empire and had turned his attentions toward the west. If Attila overran the relatively weakly defended province of Gaul, now home in great part to settlements of Franks and Visigoths, all of Western Europe would be ripe for conquest. There remained in Western Europe only one individual—the magister militum, or commander-in-chief of all Roman forces—who possessed the considerable strategic, political, and tactical acumen needed to find a way to halt, or at least blunt, this historic first Hun invasion of the Western Roman Empire. That man was the brilliant, fiercely loyal, and vastly experienced general and politician Flavius Aetius, known to history as the “last of the true Romans.”

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Assembling an Effective Gallo-Roman Army

Flavius Aetius, elected consul on three different occasions, was often referred to as “the man behind the throne” as he toiled tirelessly in his position as the most trusted adviser to Emperor Valentinian III and the emperor’s mother and regent, Galla Placidia. He spent three decades leading Roman forces into battle along Rome’s northwest frontier against Franks, Goths, and other barbarians in an effort to forestall the seemingly inevitable collapse of the once proud, but now teetering, Western Roman Empire as it crumbled under the weight of persistent Germanic migrations. The imperial capital of Rome, indeed, was but a shadow of its former self; after Rome was sacked by Visigoths in ad 410, the capital was moved first to Milan and finally to Ravenna on the Adriatic Sea.

By the mid-5th century, the glory days of Augustus and the mighty Roman legions of antiquity—heavy columns of highly trained infantrymen whose iron discipline outmatched any opponent they faced—were a distant memory. The Roman Army was now made up almost entirely of lightly armed and armored Germanic conscripts and mercenaries, known as Gallo-Romans, and was unable to maintain control of Rome’s tenuous borders. Aetius’s only remaining army, consisting of the forces at that time deployed in Italy and Gaul, was far too small and inexperienced to have any chance against the pagan Attila’s coalition.

Yet, as Attila’s columns began looting and burning city after city after crossing the Rhine, including Rheims, Mainz, Strasbourg, Worms, and Triers, the astute Aetius managed to rapidly piece together his own sizable, formidable coalition army, tactfully bringing together various tribes that were historically opposed to Roman domination—Visigoths, Alans, Salian Franks, and Burgundians—to join forces with the Romans against their common enemy. The task before them was a great one as the dreaded Hun ruler had not yet tasted defeat in two decades of empire building. The Visigoths and Salian Franks would be defending their own homes, which they had no intention of allowing the Huns to despoil.

Rivalry Between Vandals and Visigoths

Attila had been encouraged to attack Roman Gaul as a result of the machinations of Gaiseric, the king of the Vandals. The arrival of the Visigoths in Hispania (present-day Spain) at an earlier point had compelled Gaiseric in ad 428 to lead his entire nation of 80,000 souls into North Africa. Driven from Hispania, Gaiseric had become an arch enemy of Theodoric I and his Visigoths. Gaiseric repeatedly encouraged Attila to invade Gaul and destroy the Visigoths. Ironically, once Attila had launched his historic campaign and the actual Battle of Chalons took place, Gaiseric and his Vandals played no part.

After leaving a swath of devastation behind them in Belgic Gaul, the Huns wheeled to the south and converged on Aurelianum (present-day Orleans). Aurelianum was a city of critical importance to any army then or since as it guarded an important crossing of the Loire River and was one of the primary gateways for an invading army approaching from the north to gain access to Aquitaine Gaul. Aetius’s united army, the strongest contingent of which was by far the Visigothic infantry and cavalry forces serving under King Theodoric I, arrived in full force at Aurelianum on June 14, ad 451.

Realizing his horse archers were at a disadvantage within the city’s confines and not wanting to give battle before uniting his separated columns, Attila rapidly withdrew his forces about 100 miles to the northeast, shadowed closely by Aetius’s army. Attila consolidated his entire force inside a fortified circle of wagons known as a laager, which was likely further strengthened by the digging of an outer circle of entrenchments, and awaited battle. On the afternoon of June 19, the day before the Battle of Chalons erupted in earnest, Attila’s large rear guard, a force of 15,000 Gepid archers and foot soldiers, fought a bloody battle with Aetius’s vanguard, a force of Frankish warriors. In heavy fighting, some 15,000 casualties were suffered by the two sides combined.

On June 20, ad 451, on a vast plain in a region known as the Catalaunian Plains, which lay between the cities of Troyes and Chalons-sur-Marne in what is now the Champagne region of modern-day France, the two coalition armies met. One of these armies was entirely Christian, and the other was predominantly pagan. Both numbered at least 50,000, and they were composed of infantry, light and heavy cavalry, and archers. It would take all of Aetius’s considerable skills as a battlefield tactician and perhaps a bit of good fortune to find a way to defeat the mighty Huns’ imposing coalition. Although Aetius did not know it, Attila feared that he might not prevail in the coming conflagration.

The Fall of Western Rome, the Rise of the Huns

At its zenith in the 2nd century ad, the Roman Empire held sway over as many as 60 million people—one fifth of the world’s population—in Europe, Asia, and Africa, reaching up to northern Britain, across Western Europe along the Rhine and Danube Rivers, and down through Syria, Egypt, and North Africa. In ad 313, Emperor Constantine issued an edict approving religious tolerance, and after he converted to Christianity the empire was soon Christian as well. Wanting to create a “new Rome,” the emperor moved the capital east to Byzantium, and by the end of the 4th century that region had become the Eastern Roman Empire. While the empire’s eastern half flourished, the western half disintegrated and didn’t survive the 5th century, staggering under unremitting migrations of Germanic tribes, such as the Goths, Vandals, Burgundians, Franks, and Saxons. In ad 476, the last Western emperor was unseated and the imperial regalia shipped east to Constantinople.

The Huns, about a generation before the birth of Attila, first fought their way into recorded history in the decade of ad 370 when reports began reaching Roman soldiers guarding the Danube frontier of the appearance of a savage race of people in the region north of the Black Sea. These Asiatic, nomadic steppe dwellers were led by fierce warriors on horseback, while their families and their possessions followed in covered wagons.

The Huns had moved slowly westward across the Asian steppes, sowing terror and destruction before arriving on the edges of Europe; this wasn’t an organized migration but rather travels by separate small bands of Huns led by different chieftains to maximize grazing lands for their horses. The Huns laid waste to entire regions, and massacred the respective inhabitants of those regions reasoning that they would be leaving in their path no population capable of resistance to fall upon their supply lines or interfere with their withdrawals.

After first attacking and absorbing the Alans, another Asiatic tribe who lived on the plains between the Don and Volga Rivers, the Huns then encountered and displaced the Goths, first the Greuthungi, later known as the Ostrogoths, who inhabited the lands between the Don and Dnieper Rivers, and then the Tervengi, later known as the Visigoths, who lived between the Dnieper and the Danube Rivers.

Attila’s fanatical cavalry charges the enemy in Alphonse de Neuville’s 19th-century illustration, The Huns at the Battle of Chalons.

Attila personally directed his troops at Chalons. When his left and center wavered, he ordered a general retreat to the safety of a protective camp established before the battle.

The Battle of Adrianople: One of Rome’s Worst Defeats

Pressing hard against the Roman frontier, 40,000 Visigothic men, women, and children in ad 376 insisted they had nowhere to go and asked to be allowed to cross the Danube into Roman territory. Short on manpower, Emperor Flavius Valens granted their request; the Visigoths, he reasoned, could be used as a buffer against future threats from other Goths or the Huns, and their young men could be conscripted into the Roman Army or employed as mercenaries.

By early ad 377 the Visigoth refugee encampment was in danger of slipping out of Roman control due to the actions of greedy, incompetent, and arrogant local Roman officials. Using troops drawn from understrength garrisons along the Danube, the Romans began escorting the Visigoths 50 miles south to Marcianople in Thracia; in their absence, a new host of 40,000 Ostrogoths crossed the Danube and rapidly moved south to join the Visigoths outside Marcianople. After renewed hostilities arose between the refugees and haughty Roman authorities and soldiers, the combined Gothic forces wiped out the Roman transport army and began a two-year revolt.

After the Gothic commander, Fritigern, reinforced his army with 2,000 Hun mercenaries in August ad 378, he engineered one of the worst defeats ever inflicted on a Roman army at the Battle of Adrianople, during which Emperor Valens and at least half his 30,000-man army were slain. The battle was a major turning point and marked the eclipse of the traditional foot soldier under the hooves of waves of Gothic cavalry.

Flavius Aetius: De Facto Ruler of Rome

The event marked a shift from the dominance of infantry to that of cavalry for more than a millennium. Aetius was familiar with both the Visigoths and Huns after spending several of his early years with both tribes as a royal hostage. The years he spent among those militaristic peoples gave Aetius a martial vigor not common in Roman generals at the time. A Roman army commanded by Aetius, indeed, employing thousands of Hun mercenaries—possibly including Attila himself—slaughtered 20,000 Burgundians in ad 437.

Aetius epitomized the marshal spirit of the Western Romans, and his breeding, demeanor, and skill at warfare paid them just homage. “Of middle height, he was manly in appearance and well made, neither too frail nor too heavy; he was quick of wit and agile of limb, a very practiced horseman and skilled archer; he was indefatigable with the spear,” wrote Renatus Frigeridus, a 5th-century historian, adding, “A born warrior, he was renowned for the arts of peace…. Undaunted in danger, he was excelled by none in the endurance of hunger, thirst, and vigil.”

In ad 450, Emperor Valentinian III and his mother and former regent, Galla Placidia, ruled the fragmented remnants of the Western Empire from Ravenna, counseled by the patrician Aetius, described by some contemporaries as the de facto ruler. By ad 410, no Roman legions remained in Britain, and large areas of Gaul and Italy were ruled by local tribal leaders and were inhabited in large part by barbarian settlers. Much of North Africa had been lost to the Vandals and Gaul to the Franks and Visigoths. Hispania was invaded in 409 by Vandals, Suebi, and Alans, and after 416 was ruled by the Visigoths, who held some territory in southern Italy as well.

“The Cruelty of Wild Beasts”

The first devastating incursion into Eastern Europe by the Huns took place in ad 395, when they crossed the Danube and ravaged the regions of Dalmatia and Thrace. While this was occurring, other Hunnic forces were pouring through the defiles in the Caucasus Mountains, sweeping through Armenia, and pushing into Syria and Mesopotamia.

The peoples of Europe were terrified of the Huns and believed that they were the offspring of sorceresses and unclean spirits, according to Jordanes, a 6th-century Gothic monk and historian. To the Goths, the Huns were a “savage race, which dwelt at first in the swamps, a stunted, foul, and puny tribe, scarcely human and having no language save one which bore but slight resemblance to the human race,” wrote Jordanes.

Attila’s fanatical cavalry charges the enemy in Alphonse de Neuville’s 19th-century illustration, The Huns at the Battle of Chalons.

Attila’s fanatical cavalry charges the enemy in Alphonse de Neuville’s 19th-century illustration, The Huns at the Battle of Chalons.

Arriving on the fringes of the Roman Empire in the late 4th century, riding their war horses across the great steppes of Asia, they struck fear into Germanic barbarians and Romans alike. This wasn’t an organized migration, for each Hun tribe had its own chieftains. As the grazing and pillaging in an area declined, they simply moved on to fresh fields farther west.

The swarthy appearance of the Huns sparked fear and terror in the Western Europeans. Although the Romans and Goths may have ridiculed the Huns’ origins, they had complete respect for their warlike attributes. “They are short in stature, quick in bodily movement, alert horsemen, broad-shouldered, ready in the use of bow and arrow, and their firm-set necks are ever erect in pride,” wrote Jordanes. He added, “Though they live in the form of men, they have the cruelty of wild beasts.”

Weapons of the Huns: Speed and Surprise

Like the Scythians before them and the Magyars and Mongols after them, the Huns were  nomadic horsemen, and their skill with the bow and arrow was legendary. Hunnic military activity consisted mostly of raiding Roman and German settlements. Because of their inherent risk, battles were avoided, while sieges, because of the length of time involved, were largely avoided as well.

With rested horses always in reserve, attacking Hun armies used surprise as a military tool; messengers couldn’t reach nearby towns to warn people faster than the Huns could descend en masse. “They are very quick in their operations, of exceeding speed, and fond of surprising their enemies,” wrote Ammianus Marcellinus, a 4th-century Roman historian. “With a view to this, they suddenly disperse, then reunite, and again, after having inflicted vast loss upon the enemy, scatter themselves over the whole plain in irregular formations, always avoiding the fort or an entrenchment.”

Of their incursions into other regions outside Europe, the Latin priest and historian Jerome recorded how their fast-moving formations prevented resistance and how they showed mercy to none. The Huns “filled the whole earth with slaughter and panic alike as they flitted hither and thither on their swift horses,” wrote Jerome. “They were at hand everywhere before they were expected; by their speed they outstripped rumor, and they took pity neither on religion nor rank nor age nor wailing childhood.”

Using reflex bows, which drew back 20 to 30 centimeters, the Huns had developed a powerfully effective weapon. Their arrows could travel 200 yards and kill an enemy at 150 yards. The Huns’ bows were composite, made from separate sections of wood, sinew, and bone glued together. They were larger and more powerful than contemporary bows, giving the Huns a tactical edge by allowing them to engage from 150 to 200 yards away from their foe.

Loosing clouds of arrows that darkened the skies, the Huns would break up the enemy’s cohesion. Then they would close with swords, javelins, lassos, and more arrows. The skillful use of lassos or “plaits of twisted cloth” was just one of the many unconventional tactics the Huns used to counter static formations of heavily armed infantrymen.

Attila the Hun: A Humble Leader With Boundless Ambition

By ad 430, the Huns were no longer a loose conglomeration of family groups on the steppes of southwestern Europe, but rather a confederacy that had become united under a single ruler, Ruas. In his own right, Ruas was powerful enough to persuade Roman Emperor Theodosius II to pay him an annual tribute of 350 pounds of gold. During this time the Huns alternated between attacking the Eastern Romans and serving them as mercenaries. In 432, Theodosius made Ruas a general in the Roman Army. When he died in 433, Ruas was succeeded by his two nephews, Attila and Bleda, who become joint rulers of the Hunnic confederacy. During their tenure as joint rulers, the Huns solidified their control over Scythia, Media, and Persia.

Attila was short with small, bead-like eyes, had a snub nose, and swarthy skin, according to Priscus, a 5th-century Greek historian. His head was large, with a scrappy beard and the hair on top of his head was sprinkled with gray. His personality was that of a covetous, vain, superstitious, cunning, arrogant, and cruel man.

In contrast to Roman emperors or barbarian kings, he was a simple man who shunned pomp and knew nothing about nor desired lavish circumstances. While “guests drank from cups of gold and silver, Attila had only a wooden cup; his clothes were only distinguished from the other barbarians because they were of one color, and were without ornaments; his sword, the cords of his shoes, the reins of his horse, were not like those of other Scythians, decorated with plates of gold or precious stones,” wrote Priscus.

As for Attila’s ambition, it knew no bounds; his desire was to rule the known world. In ad 445, Attila murdered Bleda and became ruler of the Huns. Attila then became the sole ruler of an area that stretched from the Volga River to the Danube and from the Baltic to the Caucasus. He  proved himself early on to be a natural tactician; however, his strategic faculties were somewhat lacking, at least initially.

Attila’s Wars in the Balkans

Attila and his followers excelled in cruelty. In one of Attila’s attacks in the Balkans aimed at Naissus, a city in the Danubian provinces, the Huns so devastated the place that when Roman ambassadors passed through to meet with Attila a few days later they had to camp outside the city. The river’s banks were still filled with human bones, and the stench of death remained so great that no one could enter the city.

Fast-moving Huns set fire to a village in Germany before moving on. When Attila became sole leader of the Hunnic confederacy in ad 445, he ruled an area that stretched from the Volga to the Danube.

Fast-moving Huns set fire to a village in Germany before moving on. When Attila became sole leader of the Hunnic confederacy in ad 445, he ruled an area that stretched from the Volga to the Danube.

With Constantinople in his sights, in 447 Attila began a new campaign in which he terrorized the region north of the city. “The barbarian nation of the Huns, which was in Thrace, became so great that more than 100 cities were captured,” wrote Callinicus, an ecclesiastical scholar. “There were so many blood lettings that the dead could not be numbered…. They took captive the churches and monasteries and slew the monks and maidens in great quantities.”

At the Battle of Utus in ad 447, Attila was deflected toward Greece by an Eastern Roman army that prevented him from reaching the imperial city. When Attila camped outside the fortifications of Thermopylae, Theodosius found time to negotiate a shaky peace with Attila. In the resulting agreement, Theodosius agreed to not only pay three times the previous tribute but also give up a major swath of the central Balkans to the bloodthirsty leader of the Huns. On July 26, ad 450, Theodosius was thrown from his horse. He died two days later. The new Eastern Roman emperor, Marcian, refused to continue the tribute, but by that time Attila was refocusing his energies westward thanks to Vandal intrigues.

War With the Western Empire

Theodoric I of the Visigoths and Gaiseric of the Vandals loathed one another. In ad 429,  Theodoric had allied himself with Gaiseric by marrying one of his own daughters to the Vandal king’s son and heir, Humeric. To dissolve this menacing alliance, Aetius in 442 proposed that the already married Humeric marry one of Emperor Valentinian’s daughters. In a naked grab for more power and using the absurd pretext that his daughter-in-law was trying to poison him, Gaiseric in 442 cruelly cut her ears and nose off, repudiated the 13-year marriage, and sent the horribly maimed woman home to Theodoric and her family. The proposed marriage never took place, and virulent hostility between the two tribes—Vandals and Visigoths—became the rule.

In ad 450, while Gaiseric was fervently encouraging Attila to invade Gaul and annihilate the Visigoths, Valentinian’s troublesome and promiscuous sister, Honoria, had the temerity to send Attila a ring and a message asking his help in winning her freedom from house confinement. Sensing a perfect pretext for an invasion, Attila demanded Honoria’s hand in matrimony (considering the ring an offer of marriage) and half the Western Empire as her dowry. Recent, intermittent fighting between the forces of Aetius and Theodoric I convinced Attila that Theodoric would use the opportunity of a Hun invasion to assert his own independence and certainly couldn’t be expected to join with Aetius in resisting any Hun incursion.

After Valentinian III rejected his outrageous demands, Attila crossed the Rhine River in early ad 451. The Scourge of God had the help of Ripaurian Franks, who lived in Gaul and were embroiled in a civil war with Salian Franks allied with Aetius. Attila’s massive army included Huns, northern Burgundians, Thuringians, Gepids (under their King Ardaric), Rugians, Sciri, and a large contingent of Attila’s longtime allies, the Ostrogoths, led by their king Valamir and his brothers Theodemir and Videmir.

Attila’s army swept through Belgic Gaul in three separate columns on a wide front. Its right moved through Arras, its center through Metz, and its left through Paris. True to their awful reputation, the Huns sacked and burned towns and villages and raped and murdered people of all ages and occupations in the lands through which they passed.

As legend has it, the nascent city of Paris, at that time nothing more than a cluster of buildings on an island in the Seine River, was saved by a small girl named Geneviève from a neighboring village who urged the townspeople not to flee but to place their faith in God and pray with all their might that they would be spared. Their prayers gave them the fortitude to remain in place, and the child later was canonized as Saint Geneviève.

As they swept into Gaul, the Huns sacked and burned towns and villages, and they raped and murdered people of all ages and occupations.

As they swept into Gaul, the Huns sacked and burned towns and villages, and they raped and murdered people of all ages and occupations.

Besieging the Alans

Arrayed against them was Aetius’s Roman army backed by Visigoths, Alans, Salian Franks, Saxons, Armoricans, southern Burgundians, and other Germanic auxiliaries known as federates. Some accounts of the campaign portray Attila’s central column besieging Aurelianum, home to the Alans—the Huns being one of few barbarian tribes to achieve the ability to wage siege warfare—after the city’s citizens closed its gates and withdrew when they realized Aetius and his forces were approaching.

Others contend that the Huns and their allies had just arrived and had begun sacking the city’s outskirts when Aetius arrived, after which heavy fighting broke out, with the Hun horsemen getting the worst of it due to their lack of mobility within the city’s confines. It is believed the Alan king Sangiban, whose foederati realm included Aurelianum, was on the verge of surrendering the city (and thereby joining his forces with those of Attila) when the Roman-Gothic army arrived. At this critical moment, however, he not only allied himself with Aetius, but also supplied him with a large force of Alans, the majority of them horse archers. Sangiban is almost always referred to in most accounts as unreliable and a coward; at any rate, the thousands of Alan fighters who eventually took part in the battle fought fiercely in the cause of the Romans and suffered terrible losses.

Two-Thirds Cavalry, One-Third Infantry

The size of Attila’s massive host has been estimated at between 300,000 and 700,000 men, a vast force for that time. Other accounts of the historic battle at Chalons put the numbers involved at over a half million men. No contemporary observer, unfortunately, recorded exactly what took place on Attila’s right flank, where his Gepid allies faced off against Aetius’s Romans and federates. Thus, we can’t know with any degree of certainty the exact size of either army, nor the number of casualties sustained, although all sources agree the losses were horrendous on both sides.

Given the amount of food and fodder necessary to feed the two armies’ soldiers and horses, the huge numbers seem implausible, especially with both armies being predominantly cavalry (Hun fighters owned as many as eight horses). In all likelihood the number of soldiers on each side was at least 50,000 men but probably not more than 100,000, with Attila holding a slight numerical edge.

Both armies’ strength lay in their cavalry arms, though both included numerous infantry and dismounted missile units as well. Although the Huns’ strength still remained their legendary mounted archers, by ad 451 they had undergone a minor evolution in tactics, probably through a combination of contact with and against Western armies and a lack of grazing land in Europe that thinned their horse herds. They now fielded sizable infantry units as well. Many of the tribes the Huns had assimilated fielded only foot soldiers, and these troops had been incorporated into the Hun ranks.

The Huns’ Ostrogoth allies consisted mostly of foot archers and small units of heavy cavalry, while the other Germanic tribes on both sides consisted mostly of light infantrymen carrying spears, swords, axes, and javelins backed by dismounted archers and some cavalry units. Theodoric’s Visigoths were predominantly cavalry, both light and heavy, with some infantry units. The Asiatic Alans were nomadic horse people, and their military was made up mostly of cavalry units, while Aetius’s Roman army was primarily heavy infantry. Both sides, then, arrived at Chalons numbering about two-thirds cavalry and one-third infantry. Following the conventions of the day, both armies drew up in three divisions.

The Battle of Chalons Begins

On the morning of June 20, ad 451, in common with the usual Hun practice of the time, Attila put his seers and diviners to work while his forces remained encamped within their laager. Following the sacrifice of an animal, Attila’s holy men scraped and then read the burned bones to foresee the events of the coming day. Their predictions were not good. Although a mighty leader of the anti-Hun forces (Attila assumed it would be his counterpart Aetius) would be killed in the fighting, the Hun forces themselves would be defeated in battle. Nonetheless, Attila decided to stand and fight, and that afternoon the Battle of Chalons erupted in earnest.

“Hand to hand they clashed in battle, and the fight grew fierce, confused, monstrous, unrelenting—a fight whose like no ancient time has ever recorded. There were such deeds done that a brave man who missed this marvelous spectacle could not hope to see anything so wonderful all his life long.”

“Hand to hand they clashed in battle, and the fight grew fierce, confused, monstrous, unrelenting—a fight whose like no ancient time has ever recorded. There were such deeds done that a brave man who missed this marvelous spectacle could not hope to see anything so wonderful all his life long.”

The battlefield was a vast plain sloping slightly upward on the left flank of Attila’s laager where a ridge of high ground dominated the field. Aetius deployed his Visigothic allies on his right flank, Sangiban’s unreliable Alans in the center, where he and Theodoric could monitor the Alan king’s actions, and personally took command of the left wing with his Roman/federate force. Theodoric’s son and heir, Thorismund, commanded a small force of heavy cavalry deployed on the far right of his father’s line.

The ruler of the Huns kept his forces within his laager until early afternoon, making the Romans wait in battle formation for hours before finally marching out and forming his army for battle. He apparently wanted to allow darkness to screen his army’s retreat in case of a reverse. Attila deployed the strongest element of his army, his own Hun cavalry, in the center. He directed the Ostrogoths to deploy on the left opposite the Visigoths, and King Ardaric and his Gepids to take up a position on the right. Rather than lead his army from the rear, Attila planned to take personal command of his kinsmen in the center.

Attila’s aggressive tactics were simple: a massive attack by his Hun horsemen would rapidly destroy the center of his enemy’s formation, which happened to be the weakest sector of the Roman line, and a quick victory would be won after the remaining Roman and Gothic forces were disposed of. Aetius opted for defensive tactics: his weakest force, the Alans, would fight a holding action in the center, after which Roman/federate and Visigoth forces on the flanks would achieve a double envelopment and cut off Attila’s line of retreat to his laager.

“Attack the Alans, Smite the Visigoths!”

While the armies were being marshaled, a vicious skirmish took place when both sides tried to gain control of the high ground on Attila’s left. The Hun commander sent some of his best Hun fighters to aid the Ostrogoths in the battle for the ridge crest, but Prince Thorismund’s cavalry threw this advanced guard back in confusion. Disconcerted by this reverse, which seemed to unsettle some of his Gothic allies, Attila pointed toward the enemy center and addressed his troops: “You know how slight a matter the Roman attack is. While they are still gathering in order and forming in one line with locked shields, they are checked I will not say by the first wound, but even by the first dust of battle. Despise this union of discordant races. To defend oneself by alliance is proof of cowardice. Attack the Alans, smite the Visigoths! Seek swift victory in the spot where the battle rages, let your courage rise and your own fury burst forth!”

The battle quickly escalated as the Huns and Ostrogoths now charged forward. Jordanes described it in stark terms: “Hand to hand they clashed in battle, and the fight grew fierce, confused, monstrous, unrelenting—a fight whose like no ancient time has ever recorded. There were such deeds done that a brave man who missed this marvelous spectacle could not hope to see anything so wonderful all his life long. For if we may believe our elders a brook flowing between low banks through the plain was greatly increased by blood from the wounds of the slain. Those whose wounds drove them to slake their parching thirst drank water mingled with gore. In their wretched plight they were forced to drink what was the blood they had poured out from their own wounds.”

After several hours of vicious, close combat the Huns were able to slowly drive back but not break the Alan line. Believing he was on the verge of victory, Attila swung his entire Hun force to the left and struck the Visigoths in their left flank. Tragedy struck the Roman/Gothic forces when Theodoric, riding along the lines exhorting his troops, was wounded (legend has it he was struck down by a javelin thrown by an Ostrogoth nobleman, Andages), fell from his horse, and was trampled to death. The Visigoths had already been thrown into some confusion when they saw the Alani forces being pushed from the field (and possibly fleeing). The death of an important commander seemed to have fulfilled the ambiguous prophecy of the Hun haruspices. At this critical moment, however, Prince Thorismund brought his heavy cavalry thundering down from the high ground into the fray. His example aroused the beleaguered Visigoth fighters, who not only restored their lines but finally drove both the Huns and Ostrogoths before them in heavy fighting. Thorismund’s charge seemed to have fulfilled the second part of the prophecy; night was falling, Aetius had brought his forces in on Attila’s other flank, and in the confusion and bloodshed Attila, his left routed and his center under pressure from both flanks, called for a retreat to the laager. Attila was suffering the bitter taste of his first defeat in battle.

Flavius Aetius, the Roman commander at Chalons, epitomized the marshal spirit of the Western Romans and is remembered as the “last of the true Romans.”

Flavius Aetius, the Roman commander at Chalons, epitomized the marshal spirit of the Western Romans and is remembered as the “last of the true Romans.”

70 Percent Casualties For the Alans

The retreat of the Huns was recognition in itself that Attila had been defeated. The fierce Huns, who had laid waste to Scythia and Germany, were saved from total destruction by the approach of night. They withdrew to their laager. At that point, dismounted squadrons girded themselves for a defensive fight, to which they were hardly accustomed.

The supposedly unreliable Alans had fought extremely hard in the center, making the Huns pay dearly for every bit of ground they captured. Very little fighting took place on the Roman left flank between Aetius’s forces and the depleted Gepids to their front. Waiting to order his forces into the fight until it was almost decided may have been a political tactic on Aetius’s part, trying to conserve his inexperienced army, the only sizable “Roman” force that remained in the Western Empire. His detractors claim that Aetius, the consummate politician, callously allowed his Visigothic and Alan allies to absorb the worst of the terrible blows while selfishly protecting his own forces. The Alans suffered possibly as high as 70 percent casualties, while the Visigoths suffered some 30 percent. Aetius’s losses are not known. The Hun confederation suffered at least 40 percent losses and possibly higher.

As it turned out, Aetius didn’t have the numbers necessary to complete his hoped for encirclement. Both armies had exhausted themselves; as darkness fell, sporadic fighting continued and units became intermingled in the continuing chaos. Thorismund, who wanted to press the pursuit of the retreating enemy, was separated with his personal guard from his main force, wandered into the Hun camp, and had to fight his way out. Aetius lost contact with his own troops as well and spent the night among his Gothic allies.

Attila’s Retreat

The next morning, both armies gazed at an almost indescribable scene of carnage—thousands of bodies piled across the plain—and neither was eager to renew the battle. One contemporary described it as “cadavera vero innumera,” or “truly countless bodies.” Aetius, the loyal field general, had once again delivered at a moment of crisis despite the limited resources at his disposal. The damage to the Roman communities in the Hun line of march had been enormous, but Attila’s first invasion into the West had been halted. For two days a stalemate ensued. After the death of his father was confirmed, Thorismund was proclaimed the new king of the Visigoths. Though he wanted to attack the relatively strong Hun position, he and Aetius agreed to a siege. In the Hun camp there were occasional intimations of a renewed attack, but these were little more than attempts at psychological warfare. Attila’s army had suffered unprecedented losses in the previous day’s combat.

Aetius now reconsidered the idea of a siege, contemplating the potential threat the young Thorismund posed. The new king had distinguished himself in battle and was commanding a well-organized field army flush with victory, while Aetius commanded a haphazard force of mixed ethnic and tribal makeup.

Possibly to preserve somewhat of a balance of forces within the empire, then, Aetius suggested to Thorismund that he return home to Toulouse in southern Gaul to consolidate his claim to the throne from any brothers who might claim it. This Thorismund did, leaving a gap in the siege lines. Believing this might be a feigned retreat, Attila decided not to attack the breach in the lines, but to retreat instead. His aura of invincibility damaged and his army gravely depleted, Attila led his forces unmolested back across the Rhine.

Another Failed Campaign For Attila

The stakes at Chalons had been extremely high. If Attila had smashed the Romans and Visigoths, it most likely would have meant the end, once and for all, of the surviving Roman civilization and also the Christian religion in Western Europe. Further, it might have even brought about a permanent settlement of Western Europe by Asian people.

The following year, Attila crossed the Alps and launched a second invasion of the West. The first area to suffer devastation was Aquileia, at the top of the Adriatic Sea. Fearing for their lives and property, the residents of Venetia sought refuge on islands off the coast. One by one the regions of northeastern Italy fell to the Huns.

For a while it appeared that all of Italy would be lost to the invaders, but Attila’s position was weaker than the Romans realized. He had suffered serious losses the previous year at Chalons, he was short of supplies, illness had swept through the Hun army as a result of famine and pestilence raging in Italy, and the Eastern emperor, Marcian, had launched a limited offensive into Hun territory.

A Western Roman mission, led by Pope Leo I, traveled to Attila’s camp and parleyed with him, beseeching the Scourge of God to end his attack on the core of the Western Roman Empire. As a result of the negotiations, Attila agreed to withdraw, thereby sparing Rome.

Attila may have been compelled by several different reasons to leave Rome untouched. The most likely reason is that he received tribute from the Romans. Another plausible reason is that Attila was concerned about his lines of communication. If one prefers to believe tradition, the superstitious leader of the Huns was awed by the demeanor of the pontiff, and for this reason alone he departed in peace.

Attila, depicted in a 15th-century Germanic portrait, sought to rule the known world.

Attila, depicted in a 15th-century Germanic portrait, sought to rule the known world.

Twice the Huns had proved incapable of bringing the Western Roman Empire to its knees. Aetius has been blamed for not finishing the destruction of the Huns in Gaul, but “the last of the true Romans” had helped ruin the once proud barbarian nation. Its place in the pages of history was over. Perhaps Rome’s last great service to the West was to serve as a buffer between the Asiatic Huns and the Germanic barbarians, whose destiny was to lay the medieval foundations of the modern Western nations.

The Fall of Two Leaders

Attila’s defeat helped the Roman Catholic Church to become the dominant political as well as religious force in Europe. People came to believe that Attila had been virtually banished by Pope Leo, thereafter referred to as Leo the Great, though it had been Aetius that defeated him. For his loyal service, Aetius was rewarded in a brutal manner. Emperor Valentinian honored Aetius by betrothing his daughter to Aetius’s son. Members of the imperial court, threatened by Aetius’s preeminence, successfully turned the emperor against the patrician by spreading rumors that Aetius planned to place his son on the throne.

On September 21, ad 454, while he was giving a financial report to the court at Ravenna, Valentinian stabbed Aetius to death. A Roman diplomat observed to the emperor, “I am ignorant, sir, of your motives or provocations; I only know that you have acted like a man who has cut off his right hand with his left.” Six months later, Valentinian was himself murdered by two Hun retainers, still loyal to Aetius.

As for the Scourge of God, he died in early ad 453 when, after taking a young wife, he suffered a nasal hemorrhage following a night of heavy drinking. With his death, his sons fought to succeed him, resulting in revolts among the Huns’ subject peoples. By ad 460 the Hun empire had begun to fade into history.

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