When Emperor Valens was informed by a messenger in ad 376 that the Danube River, the eastern frontier of the Western Roman Empire, was being threatened by swarms of Goths, it must have come as a shock. This was not a normal invading force, but a whole nation on the move–refugees with their families and possessions piled into wagons. These fearsome warriors were themselves under attack, fleeing pell-mell from the dreaded Huns, who had erupted out of Central Asia into the fertile lands of Eastern Europe. The mighty Ostrogothic domain–lying between the Dnieper and Don rivers, and stretching from the Black Sea to the Baltic–had been swept aside, and in their retreat the Ostrogoths had bumped into the Visigoths. This mass of Goths was now piling up against the Danube, and since there were hardly enough legionaries available to restrain them, the refugees were permitted to cross into the Western Empire.
Despite the Western Roman Empire’s weakness, memories of past glories made the Roman authorities arrogant, and instead of welcoming the newcomers as a valuable source of vigorous manpower, they treated the still-powerful Goths badly. A quarrel between a group of Roman soldiers and some Visigoth warriors sparked a revolt, and for the next two years the Goths rampaged through Rome’s Balkan provinces. Attempts to pacify them came to nothing. In 378 Valens raised an army to put down the uprising and marched out at its head. On August 9, however, the emperor and two-thirds of his army were killed outside Adrianople, in a battle that heralded the eclipse of the traditional foot soldier under the thundering hooves of Gothic cavalry.
Hardly had the crisis of Adrianople passed when the new emperor, Theodosius II, was welcomed into office with reports of savage horsemen ravaging the heart of the territory south of the Black Sea. These were some of the most prosperous lands within the empire and made tempting targets for the Huns, who had appeared from east of the Caucasus and were wreaking havoc among the Romans and their neighbors, the Persians. What had been nothing more than a looting expedition finally withdrew, unmolested and weighed down with prisoners and plunder.
For the Romans, the hit-and-run tactics of the Hunnic armies, all of them mounted, was a shock. They seemed to appear everywhere at once thanks to their unparalleled speed of movement. Such mobility gave rise to reports of enormous numbers of these horsemen, usually exaggerated. By ad 400, the ranks of the Huns north of the Black Sea had swelled to such proportions that they began to overflow into the spacious plains of Pannonia (now Hungary) in a torrent of violence and warfare. The various Germanic tribes living there were swept aside, either absorbed into the Hunnic empire as vassals, as were the Gepids, or falling back against the imperial Roman borders. One group, the Vandals, tried to invade Italy, but after being barred by Roman armies they moved on to the west. Sweeping through Iberia, they were finally able to cross the Strait of Gibraltar. By 431 some of Rome’s richest provinces in Africa were virtually independent, and the Vandals’ chieftain, Gaiseric, had captured Carthage and set up a kingdom for himself. From there he would launch piratical raids against Mediterranean shipping, seizing Sicily in 440 and finally sacking Rome itself in 455. Other major groups, the Franks and Burgundians, drove into Gaul, where they were allowed to settle by Roman authorities who had no way of ejecting them.
Foreseeing the Hunnic threat and entering Roman territory ahead of the other Germanic tribes were the Visigoths, under their King Alaric. He swept into Italy, and in 410 he entered the ancient capital of Rome itself, exposing the Western Roman Empire as a spent force, teetering on its feet as it waited for the knockout blow that would end its 1,000-year mastery over the Western world.
Prior to the raid that followed the Battle of Adrianople, the Romans had had little direct contact with the Huns. Ironically, Hunnic mercenaries had fought in the Roman armies that tried to resist the Gothic invasions. These in turn were brought about by pressure from the expanding Hunnic empire. In 408 a small raiding party of Huns swept through Thrace on a pillaging expedition, and although they soon withdrew, the threat was all too apparent. The walls of Constantinople were strengthened. At the same time, the Roman army was evolving into a very different form from the army that had been so severely mauled at Adrianople 30 years earlier. The foot soldier as the key military arm was being increasingly supplemented by mounted troops to counter the new enemies of the 5th century.
Upon their arrival in Pannonia, the Huns began to mingle with those Germans who had remained, mainly Gepids and Ostrogoths. Cities of Hunnic tents began to spring up as the steppe nomad blended into the more settled, pastoral Gothic lifestyle. The Hunnic empire swelled until it soon reached from the Rhine and Danube frontiers to the Baltic Sea in the north and the great plains of Russia in the east.
Now the time had come for the showdown between the avaricious Huns and the crippled Roman Empire. In terms of available manpower, Rome’s resources far outstripped those available to the Huns. However, the Huns had the advantage of speed of maneuver and the ability to attack at any chosen spot. They also refused to accept battle other than on terms favorable to themselves. As a result, the Romans had little answer to the Hunnic incursions. From 420 a Hunnic dynasty had begun to emerge, led first by a chieftain known as Oktar, who began to weld the disparate Hunnic tribes into a cohesive whole with a common purpose. Oktar was succeeded by his brother Rua, after whose death the tribes fell under the joint rule of his two nephews, Attila and Bleda. Bleda, a simple fellow, was soon murdered by the scheming Attila, who then emerged as the unchallenged lord of the Huns.
The Roman historian Renatus Profuturus Frigeridus described Attila as follows: ‘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 a skilful archer, he was indefatigable with the spear. A born warrior, he was renowned for the arts of peace, without avarice and little swayed by desire, endowed with the gifts of the mind, not swerving from his purpose for any kind of evil instigation. He bore wrongs with the utmost patience and loved labor. Undaunted by danger, he was excelled by none in the endurance of hunger, thirst and vigil.’
According to contemporary historians, Attila himself was not greedy for plunder. In fact his tastes were simple. Even at the height of his power, when Roman emissaries came to him to plead for peace, he still imbibed from a simple wooden drinking bowl, as might the lowliest of his followers. His passion for power, however, required him to provide for the wants of those who would follow him. And the Hunnic warrior’s motivation was plunder. So long as Attila could supply that, he would have the loyalty of the entire Hunnic nation. With that in mind, from the moment he came to power, Attila’s energies were directed at extracting as much booty as possible from the still wealthy provinces of the Roman Empire.
The Huns’ first major raid under Attila was launched across the Danube in 440 against the Eastern Empire. Whether by coincidence or design, it coincided with the Vandals’ siege of Carthage. Roman troops that had been dispatched to forestall the Carthage threat had to be recalled by Emperor Theodosius to defend the capital. As a result, Carthage and Africa were lost. Attila’s warriors sacked Belgrade and numerous other centers–70 according to historian Edward Gibbon–defeating Roman armies three times in succession and penetrating as far as the outskirts of Constantinople itself. Thrace and Macedonia were ravaged, but in spite of an earthquake that leveled part of its mighty land walls, the Eastern capital itself was left untouched.
For now, the Huns settled for returning to the Pannonian plains with thousands of captives and wagonloads of booty. Theodosius was forced to sue for peace on unfavorable terms, but they were not all fulfilled by the Romans, giving Attila an excuse to launch a second raid in 442. Once again cities were sacked and Roman armies defeated, and again Constantinople was only saved by its impenetrable walls. The victorious Huns withdrew once more, weighed down with plunder.
In keeping with his policy of preserving his followers’ loyalty through pillage, Attila launched a third raid in 447, with the same results as the previous two. To make matters worse, the entire region was hit by a massive earthquake (a natural disaster repeated in 1999). Previously impregnable walls were leveled, and the cities they protected were sacked by Attila’s hordes. Constantinople was only saved by the efforts of every able-bodied citizen to rebuild its damaged walls. To buy time for that operation to be completed, another Roman army marched forth to face the seemingly invincible Huns along the Vid River. Although the Romans suffered another defeat, they had learned enough of Hunnic warfare by then to manage to inflict massive losses on the men from the steppes. The battle broke the back of the Hunnic effort, and after looting as far south as Greece, the invasion petered out.
For the Eastern Empire, this was a critical time. Constantinople’s armies were gone, its treasury empty and its source of revenue–taxes–dried up by the devastation of the Hunnic raids. In 449 a delegation set out from Rome to sue for a lasting treaty with the seminomadic barbarian warriors of Pannonia. Attila was surprisingly accommodating, and in return for a huge cash payment he agreed to desist from further raids on the Eastern Empire. The shrewd warrior realized that the East was now exhausted, with little prospect left for plunder in the near future. The peace would leave him with a secure rear for his next project–an invasion of the virtually untouched Western Roman Empire.
In the West, the patrician Flavius Aetius was trying to hold a crumbling empire together, with the child emperor Valentinian III and his mother and regent, Aelia Galla Placidia, serving mostly as figureheads.
Recent wars between Aetius and Theodoric the Visigoth, his theoretical vassal who had been allowed to settle within the empire, gave Attila confidence that the Western Empire’s strength would be drained and unable to resist his onslaught. In addition, he was sure that rather than unite with Aetius, Theodoric would use the opportunity of Attila’s invasion to assert his own independence. And so the Hunnic leader confidently crossed the Rhine into Gaul with a host consisting of not only Huns but also numerous German subjects, including Ostrogoths, Gepids, Franks, Rugians, Sciri, Burgundians and Thuringians. Advancing in three columns through modern-day Belgium, the Huns spread terror and destruction. Town after town was destroyed, including Metz, Cambrai, Strasbourg, Rheims, Amiens and Worms. Paris was saved only because the Huns considered it too small to be worth the trouble of a siege.
All the while, Aetius was marching to intercept Attila. In spite of Aetius’ entreaties, Theodoric at first refused to commit himself to an alliance against the Huns, just as Attila predicted. Eventually, however, he decided that the threat of Hunnic devastation was more serious than that of Roman domination, and summoning his warriors, he set out north to join Aetius.
Another barbarian tribe that Aetius had allowed to settle in the empire, the Alans, was settled around the town of Orlans, but they and their king, Sangiban, were of doubtful loyalty. As it transpired, it was at Orlans that the Hunnic host converged and also where Aetius and Theodoric met up. The allies arrived just in time to prevent Sangiban from opening the city’s gates to admit Attila. The Huns were already in the suburbs when Aetius arrived. Without hesitation the Romans fell on the scattered Huns, inflicting heavy casualties in the town, where the mounted Huns were at a severe disadvantage. As night fell, Attila withdrew his forces, heading east for the more open terrain around Châlons, which better suited his style of fighting. The Romans and Visigoths followed the retreating Huns closely, overtaking and annihilating their rear guard.
By that stage, with his warriors heavily laden with plunder, Attila would have been content to withdraw to Pannonia. Aetius, however, was determined to bring him to battle. The place chosen by the Huns to turn and fight was known as the Catalaunian Plains. Historians disagree on the exact site of the battle, but it is generally believed to lie somewhere between Troyes and Châlons. The terrain there was a virtually flat, featureless open plain, the only landmark being a hill that dominated Attila’s left flank.
Aetius and Theodoric drew up their army first, Attila remaining in his laager of wagons. Aetius deployed Sangiban and his Alans in the center, where both he and Theodoric could ensure that he stayed loyal. Theodoric and his Visigoths deployed on the right, with Theodoric commanding the main Gothic force, and his son Thorismund leading a smaller contingent on the extreme right opposite the hill. Aetius took the left with a mixed force of Romans and Germans. Attila was slow to emerge from his wagons, only doing so after midday. A fight rapidly developed for the hill, with Thorismund contesting the position against a detachment of Huns. Attila placed himself in the center of the army, deploying his Gepids on his right. The Ostrogoths under Walamir, together with various other German tribesmen, were deployed on his left.
In the fierce preliminary battle for the hill, both sides took heavy casualties, but Thorismund’s heavily armored cavalry finally prevailed and took possession of that key terrain feature. By then the main lines had closed. Details of the battle’s progress are unclear, but Attila seems to have swiftly overwhelmed the Alans in the center, driving them off the field. That left Theodoric’s Visigoths in a very exposed position, with Walamir’s Ostrogoths to their front and Attila’s victorious Huns attacking their left flank. There was a moment of panic in the Visigoth line, but Theodoric quickly checked it. Potential disaster struck soon afterward when, in the thick of the fight, the old Visigoth king was knocked off his horse and crushed under thousands of flying hooves. Far from causing his followers to lose heart, however, Theodoric’s death seemed to inspire them. They held off the Huns and pushed the Ostrogoths back.
None of the sources mention the progress of fighting on Aetius’ flank. Quite possibly he was anxious to preserve the only existing Roman army and refused to commit his legionaries against the outnumbered Gepids to his front. It is also likely that the Romans, who had been hastily assembled, were of doubtful quality, and Aetius was nervous about committing them to a fight. Whatever the facts, they had little impact on the battle’s outcome.
Back on the right of the allies’ line, the Visigoth–Ostrogoth fight continued. Then Thorismund, having regrouped his forces on the hill, launched a decisive charge into the flank of the Hunnic army, and the Ostrogoths fled. The mobile Huns managed to extricate themselves, and Attila, realizing that the battle was lost, quickly withdrew into his wagon laager as night fell.
The following dawn revealed the ferocity of the conflict and Attila’s precarious situation. Eyewitnesses reported thousands of bodies piled up across the plain. Attila’s army was besieged within its camp, with no prospect of succor or escape, and it seemed as if the allies needed only to sit and wait for his surrender. But this proud Hun warrior would never yield. He prepared an enormous funeral pyre for himself should capture be inevitable.
Aetius the general had won the battle. Now Aetius the consummate politician emerged to exploit the victory. Still fearing the strength of the Visigoths within the empire, he was concerned lest a total defeat of the Huns would see Visigoth power swell. Anxious to preserve some sort of balance of power, he decided to let Attila withdraw. Thorismund, now king of the Visigoths, opposed that plan, but the wily Aetius convinced the young monarch of a pressing need for him to return to Toulouse to consolidate his position against his jealous brothers. The Visigoths withdrew from the Châlons battlefield, and Attila was allowed to slink back over the Rhine, defeated and humiliated, but with his power still intact.
The Battle of Châlons has often been described as critical in the history of the Western world in that it saw the old Rome and the new Gothic people, both settled cultures, defeat the raiding nomads of Central Asia, thereby saving Western Europe from Hunnic domination. Perhaps, however, historians have given the battle too much stature. Attila had defeated Roman armies repeatedly on each of his three invasions of the Eastern Empire, leaving it virtually defenseless. But the Huns had never stayed in the regions they devastated, unlike the Mongols who invaded Europe 750 years later. They were not equipped to take large, well-fortified cities, and their purpose was not conquest but rather large-scale looting. There is no reason to think that the long-term effect on Western Europe would have been any different had Attila triumphed at Châlons. Certainly the West would have faced ravaging on a larger scale than it previously had, but otherwise the Huns’ stay would have been relatively short. Possibly the Western Empire would have collapsed a little earlier than it did, but as it was, Rome’s period of influence had already waned–the last Western Roman emperor would be deposed within 25 years of the battle.
Attila utilized the strength Aetius’ lenient terms left him to invade the Western Empire again only a year after Châlons. This time the Huns crossed the Alps to ravage northwest Italy, including the cities of Aquileia, Padua, Verona and Mediolanum (Milan). Powerless to stop Attila at that time, Aetius sent a famous deputation headed by Pope Leo I (the Great) that met the Hunnic leader at Mantua. Legend has it that the mighty Attila was turned back by the sheer aura surrounding the pope as God’s earthly representative. More likely, perhaps, Attila’s army was already laden with booty and had also suffered heavy losses to disease. Whatever the real reason, Attila accepted Aetius’ terms as presented by the pope and so ended the last Hunnic invasion of Rome’s disintegrating empire.
Within a year Attila was dying of a nasal hemorrage in the arms of his new and very young wife. His empire did not long outlive him. As his sons quarreled over the spoils, their German subjects rose up in revolt against their divided, weakened erstwhile overlords and defeated them over the next several years. Driven from the Pannonian plains, the Huns receded into the vast spaces of Central Asia from which they had emerged.
This article was written by Richard Gordon and originally published in the December 2003 issue of Military History.
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