Battle of Châlons Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

The Battle of Châlons, also known as the Battle of the Catalaunian Plain, stopped the advance of the Huns into Europe and was the last effective act of the Roman Empire in the west.

Summary of Event

The Huns appear to have been related to the Xiongnu (Hsiung-Nu), a Turkish-Mongolian people who appear in Chinese records of the early centuries c.e. They eventually made their way across Central Asia and acquired a fearsome reputation as savage warriors who lived out their lives on horseback. They defeated and absorbed one barbarian group after another, and in the process, they created a nomad horde. Pressure from the Huns forced other barbarian groups into the Roman Empire and has even been blamed for the so-called barbarian invasions. Attila Theodosius II Honoria Valentinian III Aetius Sangibanus Theodoric I Thorismund

In the 370’s c.e., the Huns halted their advance north of the Danube River. For a time, their relations with the Romans were like those of other barbarians, and they often served as auxiliaries in the Roman army. In the fifth century, however, they once again grew restive. In the early 420’s, the Hun king Rua had to be bought off by the Romans with a subsidy of 350 pounds (160 kilograms) of gold per year. This created an unfortunate precedent, for the barbarian taste for gold obtained in this manner could never be satiated.

In the late 430’s c.e., the brothers Attila and Bleda, sons of Rua, succeeded to the throne. Sometime around 445, Attila murdered his brother and became sole king. He imposed increasingly severe terms on the Eastern Roman emperor Theodosius II, raising the yearly subsidy first to 700 pounds (320 kilograms) of gold, and then to 2,100 pounds (950 kilograms). In 447, the Romans even agreed to evacuate a strip south of the Danube five-days’ march wide.

Subsequently, Attila’s interests seem to have turned toward the west and to the Princess Honoria, elder sister of Emperor Valentinian III. Around 449 c.e., she had been apprehended in an illicit love affair and exiled to Constantinople. She then sent her ring to Attila and appealed to him for help. At this, Theodosius II, who already had enough problems with the Huns, immediately dispatched her back to Italy—with the recommendation that Valentinian turn her over to Attila.

Valentinian refused, and what happened next is described by the historian Priscus, who had visited Attila’s camp in 448 c.e. According to Priscus, Attila

sent men to the ruler of the western Romans to argue that Honoria, whom he had pledged to himself in marriage, should in no way be harmed. . . . He sent also to the eastern Romans concerning the appointed tribute, but his ambassadors returned from both missions with nothing accomplished. . . . Attila was of two minds and at a loss which he should attack first, but finally it seemed better to him to enter on the greater war and to march against the west, since his fight there would be not only against the Italians but also against the Goths and Franks. . . . He sent certain men of his court to Italy that the Romans might surrender Honoria. . . . He also said that Valentinian should withdraw from half of the empire. . . . When the western Romans held their former opinion, he devoted himself eagerly to preparation for war.

Meanwhile, in the western part of the empire, things were not going well. Britain, Africa, and much of Gaul (modern-day France) had been lost to the barbarians. By mid-century, only a shadow of the Western Roman Empire was held together by the patrician and master of soldiers (field marshal) Flavius Aetius, a hostage of Attila in his youth, who for twenty-five years had skillfully played one barbarian group against another.

When Attila led the Huns and their subject peoples across the Rhine into Gaul in 451 c.e., the situation looked bleak for the Romans. The Roman army consisted of little more than barbarian mercenaries in the personal service of Aetius. The other powers in western Europe, the Visigoths in Aquitania and the Franks in the Rhineland, could be expected only to use to their own advantage a further weakening of the Romans. As things turned out, however, the western barbarians decided they had more to fear from the Huns than the Romans, and Aetius became the leader of an unlikely coalition of what remained of the Roman army, Visigoths, and Franks.

Scholars have pieced together the progress of the invasion from several sources. The Gallic chronicler Prosper, writing only a few years later, noted, “Once the Rhine had been crossed, many Gallic cities experienced Attila’s most savage attacks.” The Spaniard Hydatius, writing in the 460’s c.e., reported, “Having broken the peace, the nation of the Huns ravaged the provinces of Gaul; many cities were destroyed”; he names Metz in particular. In the next century, Gregory of Tours related that after destroying Metz, the Huns “ravaged a great number of other cities” before finally attacking Orléans. Other reports from about the same time tell of an attack on Rheims and an approach toward Paris. It would seem, therefore, that the Huns crossed the Roohine near Strasbourg, traveled west by way of Metz and Rheims, but then turned south before reaching Paris and so came to Orléans.

At that time, Orléans was under the protection of a group of barbarian Alani in Roman service. The mid-sixth century c.e. historian Jordanes, a Goth himself, reports, “Sangibanus, the king of the Alani, terrified by fear of the future, promised to surrender himself to Attila and to betray into his power the Gallic city of Orléans, where he then was stationed.” In the meantime, however, Anianus, bishop of Orléans, had gone south to seek the aid of Aetius, and the imperial coalition arrived in the nick of time, apparently after a breach had already been made in the walls.

Unable to take the now strongly defended city and not having expected to be resisted in force, Attila began a strategic retreat northward. In July, it seems, between Troyes and Châlons-sur-Marne (ancient Catalauni), Attila was brought to battle. The actual location of the battle, which traditionally has been referred to as the Battle of Châlons, is in some doubt. Jordanes says, “They came together in the Catalaunian Plain, which also is called Mauriac. It is one hundred leagues in length and seventy in breadth.” This is a large area, about 150 by 105 miles (240 by 170 kilometers), which demonstrates even Jordanes’s uncertainty about the location of the battle. Among other sources, the Spaniard Hydatius says the battle took place “in the Catalaunian fields,” but the Gallic sources all agree that it occurred “at Troyes in the place called Mauriac.” Modern scholars have favored the French view that the battle took place on the Mauriac Plain (modern Mery-sur-Seine), about 20 miles (32 kilometers) northwest of Troyes, 35 miles (58 kilometers) south of Châlons, and next to the Catalaunian fields.

The only detailed account of the ensuing “battle of the nations” comes, again, from Jordanes. He reports that on the night before the general engagement, the Franks, perhaps under king Merovech, and Gepids fell on each other, and that fifteen thousand were slain. On the next day, the Roman battle line consisted of the Visigoths under their king, Theodoric I, on the right wing and the Romans under Aetius on the left, with the unreliable Alani under Sangibanus in the center. The location of the Franks is unspecified, suggesting that they may have received the worst of the fighting the night before. Perhaps they were stationed behind the Alani. On the other side, the Huns took the center, with the wings occupied by the Ostrogoths, under Valamer, on the left, and the remaining Gepids, under Ardaric, on the right. The rest of the “crowd of kings,” says Jordanes, “attended to Attila’s whims like lackeys.”

The battle proper began rather late, at the “ninth hour” (that is, at about 5:00 p.m.), with a skirmish for the possession of a strategic ridge of high ground. The Romans, led by the Visigothic prince Thorismund, reached the summit first, and were able to repel the Huns as they came up the slope. Stung by this initial reverse, Attila gave his soldiers a brief pep talk, concluding, “I shall hurl the first spear against the enemy, and if any man thinks to take his leisure while Attila fights, he is a dead man.”

Next, there ensued “a battle ghastly, confused, ferocious, and unrelenting, the like of which history has never recounted.” The streams, it was said, ran red with blood. Initially, the motley Roman forces retained their line. The Visigoths were able to drive back the Ostrogoths, although in the course of this fighting the aged Visigothic king Theodoric was thrown from his horse and trampled to death by his own men. The Visigoths then separated from the Alani on their left and fell on the left flank of the Huns themselves. In the ensuing melee, Attila was nearly slain, and the Huns then retreated to their camp, which had been fortified by their encircled wagons. As darkness fell, the Visigoths made an attack on the Hun camp but were repulsed. On the Roman right, meanwhile, Aetius and his forces seem to have broken through the weakened Gepids; Aetius himself became separated from his men and only after wandering through enemy lines did he return safely to camp.

The next day, neither side felt strong enough to resume the battle—it was later said that 165,000 men had been slain. While the members of the Roman coalition debated what to do next, Attila himself, it was said, stood atop a funeral pyre threatening to immolate himself rather than be taken captive. According to Jordanes, Aetius, fearful that if the Huns were destroyed totally, the Visigoths would be left with a free hand in Gaul, advised Thorismund, the new Visigothic king, to return home to consolidate his own place on the throne. Gregory of Tours reports that Aetius also persuaded the Franks to leave—so that he could claim all the booty. Perhaps a more realistic reconstruction is that both the Visigoths and Franks, weakened themselves, departed because they believed that their job was complete. Attila had been weakened to the point where he no longer posed a threat, and to continue to fight would only be to serve Roman interests.

Neither Attila nor Aetius was in any condition to carry on the fight. Attila withdrew back across the Rhine to fight another day. Indeed, in the next year, he returned and passed through the inexplicably undefended Alps into Italy. Aquileia was destroyed, and Milan was captured. Then, according to a pious legend, the Huns were induced to withdraw by an embassy of Pope Leo I, who was assisted in his efforts by apparitions of Saints Peter and Paul. Disease, starvation, and the rumored arrival of reinforcements from the east also would have influenced the decision. In 453 c.e., Attila died on his wedding night, and in 454, the subject peoples of the Huns revolted, inflicting a disastrous defeat on their erstwhile masters at the Battle of the Nedao River. The Huns never again posed a serious threat to the Roman Empire.

Significance

The Battle of Châlons subsequently assumed a prodigious place in the popular imagination. A fifteenth century writer, for example, listed Rheims, Cambrai, Trier, Tetz, Arras, Tongres, Tournai, Therouanne, Cologne, Amiens, Beauvais, and Paris, not to mention Worms, Strasbourg, and Langres, as having been destroyed by Attila. Attila himself subsequently obtained a reputation as a barbarian par excellence. Christian moralists referred to him as the “scourge of God” for his perceived role in punishing sinful Christians. In modern times, it has been suggested that a victory by the Huns would have caused irreparable damage to the future of Western civilization. The battle has been portrayed as a victory of civilization over barbarism, and a major turning point in history.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gordon, C. D. The Age of Attila: Fifth Century Byzantium and the Barbarians. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1966. This classic work on Attila provides the commentary of Priscus.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gregory of Tours. The History of the Franks. Translated by L. Thorpe. London: Penguin, 1974. A modern translation of the history of the battle as written by Gregory of Tours.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Howarth, Patrick. Attila, King of the Huns: Man and Myth. New York: Carroll and Graf, 2001. A biographical treatment of Attila. Bibliography and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Jordanes. The Origin and Deeds of the Goths. Translated by C. C. Mierow. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1915. A translation of Jordanes’s account of the battle.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Thompson, E. A. The Huns. London: Blackwell, 1996. A reissue of the author’s 1948 classic, A History of Attila and the Huns, this revised edition is one of the best sources in English on the history of both the Huns as a people and Attila as a leader.
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Attila. Châlons, Battle of (451 c.e.)

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