Print this pageHistorical Text Archive © 1990 - 2015
This is a draft of an article that was published in a slightly different form in MHQ: The Quarterly Journal of Military History. All citations should be to the published version and not to this draft. This edition first published in 1991 by Don Mabry on what is now the Historical Text Archive.
Attila the Hun and the Battle of Chalons
by Arther Ferrill
No one represents the unbridled fury and savagery of barbarism as much as Attila the Hun. Even in the twentieth century one of the worst names that could be found for the Germans was to call them Huns. Attila, as the greatest Hun leader, is the stereotypical sacker of cities and killer of babies. In his own day he and his Huns were known as the "Scourge of God," and the devastation they caused in Gaul before the great Battle of Chalons in 451 AD became a part of medieval folklore and tradition.
The clash at Chalons was one of those rare monumental conflicts, pitting against one another two of the towering figures of Late Antiquity, the fierce and passionate Attila and the noble Aetius, sometimes called "the last of the Romans." By 451 Aetius had been the foremost general in the Roman Empire for many years, and he was also the chief political adviser to the Emperor of the West, Valentinian III. In the previous forty years the once great Empire had suffered staggering setbacks, especially in the West. Aetius had done more than anyone else to keep what remained of the Roman world strong and prosperous.
Despite Aetius' efforts, when Attila crossed the Rhine with the Huns in 451, he threatened a tottering relic of power. The Western Roman Empire had already been ravaged by Visigoths, Vandals, Suebi, Alamanni, Burgundians and other barbarian tribes. Visigoths had an independent kingdom in Aquitaine, and Vandals occupied North Africa with a capital at Carthage. Roman rule in many parts of Gaul and Spain was merely nominal. Although Aetius had waged his own personal fight against the tide of the times, he had not been able to hold back the wave of invasions that had rolled over the West ever since Alaric and the Visigoths had sacked the city of Rome in 410.
One of the most fascinating features of the story of Attila and the Huns is that the background to their potent penetration of Roman Gaul and the decisive Battle of Chalons is every bit as spellbinding as the actual combat itself. Although parts of the story are nearly incredible, the evidence for it is reasonably good--as good, at least, as evidence ever is for the fifth century AD. It is a tale of lust for sex and power, for money and land, and the principal actors are as colorful as any who ever lived.
The Huns themselves were a people of mystery and terror. Arriving on the fringes of the Roman Empire in the late fourth century, riding their war horses out of the great steppes of Asia, they struck fear into Germanic barbarians and Romans alike. Some scholars believe that they had earlier moved against the Chinese Empire but were turned away and swept towards Rome instead. As they approached the Black Sea and conquered the Ostrogoths, they also drove the Visigoths across the Danube into the Roman Empire and caused the crisis that led to the astounding defeat of the Roman army under the Emperor Valens at Adrianople in 378 AD.
Those early Huns, using the traditional tactics of mounted archers, seemed like monsters from the darkness to their more civilized contemporaries. The Roman historian Ammianus Marcellinus, writing at the end of the fourth century, described their savage customs and elaborated on their military tactics:
The nation of the Huns...surpasses all other barbarians in wildness of life....And though [the Huns] do just bear the likeness of men (of a very ugly pattern), they are so little advanced in civilization that they make no use of fire, nor any kind of relish, in the preparation of their food, but feed upon the roots which they find in the fields, and the half-raw flesh of any sort of animal. I say half-raw, because they give it a kind of cooking by placing it between their own thighs and the backs of their horses.... When attacked, they will sometimes engage in regular battle. Then, going into the fight in order of columns, they fill the air with varied and discordant cries. More often, however, they fight in no regular order of battle, but by being extremely swift and sudden in their movements, they disperse, and then rapidly come together again in loose array, spread havoc over vast plains, and flying over the rampart, they pillage the camp of their enemy almost before he has become aware of their approach. It must be owned that they are the most terrible of warriors because they fight at a distance with missile weapons having sharpened bones admirably fastened to the shaft. When in close combat with swords, they fight without regard to their own safety, and while their enemy is intent upon parrying the thrust of the swords, they throw a net over him and so entangle his limbs that he loses all power of walking or riding.
Obviously, when the Huns first appeared on the edges of the Roman Empire, they made a strong impression, but after their initial threats they settled down along the Danube, particularly in the Great Hungarian Plain, and for almost fifty years they served the Romans as allies more often than they attacked them as enemies. In return, the Eastern Emperor, beginning in the 420's, paid them an annual subsidy. On the whole, this uneasy relationship worked well although there were times when the Huns threatened to intervene directly in imperial affairs.
The decisive turn of events came with the accession of Attila as King of the Huns. The new ruler was much more aggressive and ambitious than his predecessors had been, and arrogance sometimes made him unpredictable. There is a story that he claimed to own the actual sword of Mars, and that other barbarian chiefs could not look the King of the Huns directly in the eyes without flinching. Attila was a striking figure, and Edward Gibbon in The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire offered a famous description of the personality and appearance of the Hun, based on an ancient account:
His features, according to the observation of a Gothic historian, bore the stamp of his national origin...a large head, a swarthy complexion, small, deep-seated eyes, a flat nose, a few hairs in the place of a beard, broad shoulders, and a short square body, of a nervous strength, though of a disproportioned form. The haughty step and demeanour of the king of the Huns expressed the consciousness of his superiority above the rest of mankind; and he had a custom of fiercely rolling his eyes, as if he wished to enjoy the terror which he inspired....He delighted in war; but, after he had ascended the throne in a mature age, his head, rather than his hand, achieved the conquest of the North; and the fame of an adventurous soldier was usefully exchanged for that of a prudent and successful general.
At the outset of his reign (sometime after 435) Attila demanded more money, and the Eastern Emperor, Theodosius II, obligingly doubled the annual subsidy. For various reasons, however, the new king began in the late 440's to look to the West as the main area of opportunity for the Huns. For the next decade and a half after his accession Attila was the most powerful foreign potentate in the affairs of the Western Roman Empire. His Huns had become a sedentary nation and were no longer the horse nomads of the earlier days. The Great Hungarian Plain did not offer as much room as the steppes of Asia for grazing horses, and the Huns were forced to develop an infantry to supplement their now much smaller cavalry. As one leading authority has recently said, "When the Huns first appeared on the steppe north of the Black Sea, they were nomads and most of them may have been mounted warriors. In Europe, however, they could graze only a fraction of their former horsepower, and their chiefs soon fielded armies which resembled the sedentary forces of Rome." By the time of Attila the army of the Huns had become like that of most barbarian nations in Europe. It was, however, very large, as we shall see, and capable of conducting siege operations, which most other barbarian armies could not do effectively. In any event the Hunnic invasion of Gaul was a huge undertaking. The Huns had a reputation for cruelty that was not undeserved. In the 440's one of Attila's attacks against the East in the Balkans aimed at a city in the Danubian provinces, Naissus (441-42). It was located about a hundred miles south of the Danube on the Nischava River. The Huns so devastated the place that when Roman ambassadors passed through to meet with Attila several years later, they had to camp outside the city on the river. The river banks were still filled with human bones, and the stench of death was so great that no one could enter the city. Many cities of Gaul would soon suffer the same fate.
After securing a strong position on the Roman side of the Danube the Huns were checked by the famous Eastern Roman general, Aspar, as they raided Thrace (442). Then, in 447, Attila descended into the Balkans in another great war against the East. The Huns marched as far as Thermopylae and stopped only when the Eastern Emperor, Thodosius II, begged for terms. Attila accepted payment of all tribute in arrears and a new annual tribute of 2,100 pounds of gold. The Huns were also given considerable territory south of the Danube. One source says of this campaign, "There was so much killing and bloodletting that no one could number the dead. The Huns pillaged the churches and monasteries, and slew the monks and virgins....They so devastated Thrace that it will never rise again and be as it was before." This strong victory in the East left Attila free to plan the attack on the West that culminated in the invasion of Gaul.
Another of the great barbaric chieftains of the age, Gaiseric, King of the Vandals, played a role in the prelude to Chalons. He urged Attila to attack the Visigoths in the West because of the hostility between Vandals and Visigoths. A generation earlier Gaiseric's son had married the daughter of Theodoric I, King of the Visigoths, but in 442 the Roman Emperor Valentinian III agreed to the betrothal of his daughter to Gaiseric's son, and the Visigothic princess was returned to her people with her nose and ears inhumanly mutilated. From that time on the enmity of Vandals and Visigoths was great, and when Attila did cross the Rhine, the Visigoths joined Aetius against the Huns, but the Vandals stayed out of the war.
Two other considerations proved especially important. One was the death of the Eastern Emperor Theodosius II, who fell from his horse and died in 450. His successor, Marcian (450-7), took a hard line on barbarian encroachment in the Balkans and refused to pay Attila the usual subsidy. The fury of the Hun was monstrous, but he decided to take out his wrath on the West, because it was weaker than the East,and because one of history's most peculiar scandals gave Attila a justification for war with the Western Emperor. Honoria, Emperor Valentinian's sister, had been discovered in 449 in an affair with her steward. The unfortunate lover was executed, and Honoria, who was probably pregnant, was kept in seclusion. In a rage she smuggled a ring and a message to the King of the Huns and asked Attila to become her champion. He treated this as a marriage proposal and asked for half of the Western Empire as her dowry. So when he crossed the Rhine, he could claim that he merely sought by force what was his by right of betrothal to Honoria.
After massive preparations Attila invaded the Rhine with a large army of Huns and allied barbarian tribes. In his force was a sizable body of Ostrogoths and other Germanic warriors, including Burgundians and Alans who lived on the barbarian side of the frontier. The Franks were split between pro- and anti-Roman factions. As early as April Attila took Metz, and fear swept through Gaul. Ancient accounts give figures that range between 300,000 and 700,000 for the army of the Huns. Whatever the size, it was clearly enormous for the fifth century AD. Some of the greatest cities of Europe were sacked and put to the torch: Rheims, Mainz, Strasbourg, Cologne, Worms and Trier. Paris fortunately had the advantage of having a saint in the city and was spared because of the ministrations of St. Genvieve.
After he secured the Rhine, Attila moved into central Gaul and put Orleans under siege. Had he gained his objective, he would have been in a strong position to subdue the Visigoths in Aquitaine, but Aetius had put together a formidable coalition against the Hun. Working frenetically, the Roman leader had built a powerful alliance of Visigoths, Alans and Burgundians, uniting them with their traditional enemy, the Romans, for the defense of Gaul. Even though all parties to the protection of the Western Roman Empire had a common hatred of the Huns, it was still a remarkable achievement on Aetius' part to have drawn them into an effective military relationship.
Attila had not expected such vigorous action on the part of the Romans, and he was too wise to let his army be trapped around the walls of Orleans, so he abandoned the siege, according to one source, on June 14. This gave the Romans and their allies the advantage in morale as the Huns withdrew into the open country of the modern Champagne district of France. There on the Catalaunian Plains (some believe closer to Troyes than to Chalons) a great battle was fought, probably about June 20. Attila seems to have been shaken by his sudden reversal of fortune. Uncertain of victory and in the confusion of retreat, on the day of the battle he stayed behind his lines in the wagon laager until afternoon. It is likely that he planned to begin fighting late enough in the day to fall back under darkness of night should that prove necessary. He did finally move up his army in battle order.
On the right wing of the Hunnic army Attila stationed the bulk of his Germanic allies. The Ostrogoths fought on the left, and in the center Attila took position with his best troops, the Huns. On the other side Aetius decide to put his least reliable troops, the Alans, in the center to take whatever assault Attila directed towards them. The Visigoths were placed on the Roman right, and the Romans themselves took the left. Aetius clearly hoped to execute a double envelopment, hitting hard against the two weak flanks of Attila's army while fighting a defensive, holding action in the center. When the Romans on the left were able to seize some high ground on the flank of the Hunnic right wing during an initial skirmish, they gained a considerable advantage.
Thus began one of the Western world's greatest and most decisive battles. All the sources agree that it was a costly one in human lives: cadavera vero innumera ("truly countless bodies"), is the way one ancient author puts it. Attila struck hard against the Alans in the Roman center. As he drove them back the Romans on his right moved down in a sharp attack. The forward momentum of the Huns in the center exposed their flank to an attack by Theodoric, King of the Visigoths, and as night fell, the Huns had taken a beating though losses on both sides were extraordinary. Attila retreated to the safety of his laager, and the archers of the Huns kept the Romans at bay. Theodoric had lost his life in the battle.
In fact at this point the battle was over. Some on the Roman side wanted Aetius to resume the fighting the next day, but he chose not to. Perhaps he wanted to leave Attila with his forces, though battered, still intact in order to keep the barbarians of Gaul united behind Rome. In any event, he encouraged the new King of the Visigoths to hurry back to Aquitaine to secure his accession to the throne. Attila began his withdrawal back across the Rhine and was able to effect it easily. Many have criticized Aetius for making things too easy for the Huns, for not destroying their army, but it is not necessary to introduce political considerations to explain the Roman commander's motives. Militarily he did the right thing. The sources make it clear that the Roman alliance also took heavy losses at Chalons, and Attila was merely a wounded tiger. He continued to have considerable military power. Although the Hun had been beaten in a bloody battle, it was probably wise for Aetius to allow his savage foe a line of retreat. To have driven Attila the Hun out of the Empire was satisfaction enough. It is true that in the following year Attila invaded Italy and caused much suffering before he withdrew, but if he had launched a successful counterattack in Gaul the whole course of Western history might have been changed. Unlike most other barbarians of the age, the Huns were not Christians, and their respect for the Graeco-Roman Christian civilization of the Late Empire was much more limited even than that of Visigoth and Vandal.
For various reasons twentieth century "scientific" historians have minimized and even ridiculed the concept of "decisive battles". There is a widespread belief that human events are rarely determined on the battlefield. In the nineteenth century Edward Creasy's book, The Fifteen Decisive Battles of the World (originally published in 1851) became a best seller and exercised considerable influence. (Incidentally Creasy included the Battle of Chalons on his list.) But the early twentieth century saw a change. Hans Delbruck totally ignored Chalons in his monumental History of the Art of War Within the Framework of Political History (1920-21), and one of the foremost authorities on the Late Roman Empire, J.B. Bury, refused, as some others have done, even to call it by its traditional name:
The Battle of Maurica [Chalons] was a battle of nations, but its significance has been enormously exaggerated in conventional history. It cannot in any reasonable sense be designated as one of the critical battles of the world....The danger did not mean so much as has been commonly assumed. If Attila had been victorious...there is no reason to suppose that the course of history would have been seriously altered.
To be sure, the exact location of the battle has been disputed and is in doubt. In that general area of modern France it has been a favorite occupation of retired colonels to spend their weekends looking for evidence of the battlefield. But there are many extremely important ancient battles whose exact locations are uncertain: Plataea, Issus, Cannae, Zama, and Pharsalus, to name but a few. Considering the paucity of ancient evidence uncertainty of that sort is to be expected, and it can hardly be used as evidence that the battles were not important. As to exaggerating the danger of Attila and the Huns, why were they less dangerous than Hannibal and the Carthaginians or Alaric and the Visigoths?
It is true that the threat of the Huns to Rome had not been entirely removed by Aetius' victory at Chalons. Though beaten and forced to retreat across the Rhine, Attila still had a powerful force, and he had not learned his lesson. The next year (452) he crossed over the Alps and moved down into Italy, launching another great invasion that terrorized the inhabitants of the Western Roman Empire. In some ways this second invasion of the West was even more savage than the first. The city of Aquileia at the tip of the Adriatic was wiped off the face of the earth. The fugitives from that pitiful city are supposed to have fled into the lagoons of the Adriatic and to have founded the new city of Venice. Much of the Po Valley--Milan, Verona, and Padua--was devastated and depopulated. The Hun had pillaged and destroyed Northern Italy! Aetius found it much more difficult to persuade Visigoths and Alans to help in the defense of Italy than he had a year earlier in organizing them to protect Gaul.
For awhile it appeared that Italy would be lost to the invaders, but actually Attila's position was weaker than the Romans realized, undoubtedly because of the serious losses he had suffered the previous year at Chalons. There is a famous tradition that Pope Leo I met Attila in Northern Italy at the confluence of the Minicio and the Po and persuaded him to leave Italy with a display of eloquence and a show of elaborate sacerdotal robes. There occurred, according to legend, one of the most famous miracles in the history of Christianity--St. Peter and St. Paul appeared to Attila threatening him with instant death if he ignored the urgings of Leo.
In an act that added immeasurably to the influence of the fledgling papacy, an obliging Attila led his army out of Italy. It was probably not so much the influence of Leo as the fact that his troops were short of supplies that motivated the great barbarian leader. There had been a famine in Italy in 450-51, and logistical support had never been a strong point for barbarian armies. Also a plague swept through the army of the Huns, and the Eastern Emperor Marcian sent an army across the Danube to strike into the heartland of the Huns' territory. When these factors are added to the disastrous loses the year earlier at Chalons, it is obvious why Attila was able to see merit in the humanitarian arguments of Pope Leo.
In any event, the great Hun spared Rome and withdrew from Italy. Twice in successive years, at Chalons and in Northern Italy, the menace of the Huns had proved incapable of bringing the Western Empire to its knees. 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. Aetius had been blamed by many Italians for not having destroyed Attila and the Huns in Gaul, but "the last of the Romans" had contributed substantially to the ruin of the once proud barbarian nation. Its place in the pages of history was over.
In the next year after the retreat from Italy, Attila died an appropriately barbarian death. He took a new, young, beautiful bride, a damsel named Ildico, though he already had a coterie of wives. The wedding day was spent in heavy drinking and partying, and the King of the Huns took his new bride to bed that night in drunken lust. The next morning it was discovered that he had died--drowned in his drunkenness in his own nosebleed. The new bride was found quivering in fear in the great man's bedquarters. The empire of the Huns dissipated nearly as quickly as its most famous leader. In 454 the Ostrogoths and other Germanic tribes revolted against the Huns, and the sons of Attila, who had quarreled among themselves, could not deal with the crisis. In the words of Bury, the Huns were "scattered to the winds."
Even in the last days of the Roman Empire in the West it was still possible for the imperial general Aetius to mobilize a major military force in defense of Gaul. During his ascendancy in the 430's, 40s and early 50s Rome had lost much, particularly to the Vandals in North Africa, yet had remained powerful enough to thwart the ambitions of Attila the Hun. Naturally, there was jealousy and rivalry between Aetius and his superior, the Emperor Valentinian III. The General's success against the Huns and his effective treatment of the Visigoths in Gaul actually helped to make him unnecessary any longer, and in 454 Valentinian killed him personally with the imperial sword. One of the Emperor's advisers said, "You have cut off your right hand with your left." The next year two of Aetius' followers killed the Emperor, and within a generation, by 476, there would no longer be a Roman Emperor in the West. Aetius was truly "the last of the Romans."
There are many excellent books on the Late Roman Empire and on the Huns. I list several of the most important ones here, but their bibliographies contain many more specialized works.
J.B. Bury, History of the Later Roman Empire, 2 vols., London and New York (reprint of 1923 ed.).
Arther Ferrill, The Fall of the Roman Empire: The Military Explanation, London and New York 1986
Edward Gibbon, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, with Introduction, Notes and Appendices by J.B. Bury, 7 vols., London 1909-14.
Thomas Hodgkin, Italy and Her Invaders, 2 vols., 2nd ed., Oxford 1892.
A.H.M. Jones, The Later Roman Empire 284-602, 4 vols., Oxford 1964.
Otto J. Maenchen-Helfen, The World of the Huns, Berkeley 1973.
E.A. Thompson, A History of Attila and the Huns, Oxford 1948.