Battle of Châlons
The Battle of Châlons (also known as the Battle of the Catalaunian Plains) in the summer of 451 resulted in the defeat of the Huns and their withdrawal from Western Europe, quite probably saving Western civilization. The nomadic Huns originated in Asia. Over a period of several centuries they migrated west, defeating all peoples with whom they came into contact. The Huns crossed the Don River in 375, driving east the Alans, the Goths, and others. In the early fifth century the Huns conquered the territory north of the Danube River. They also raided south to Constantinople. After losing an army to them, Emperor Theodosius II of the Eastern Roman Empire agreed to pay the Huns an annual tribute in gold.
Rua, the first recognized ruler of Huns, died in 433 and was succeeded by his two nephews, Bleda and Attila. In 441 Attila led a raid into Southeastern Europe, sacking cities and destroying the countryside. Theodosius was forced to increase his annual tribute to 2,100 pounds of gold.
In 445 Attila murdered his brother and assumed sole leadership of the Huns, then invaded Gaul and the Italian peninsula. Western Europe was disunited; what remained of the Western Roman Empire under Valentinian III was being pressed both by Gaiseric, king of the Vandals in North Africa, and Theodoric, ruler of the Visigoths, who controlled southern Gaul (present-day France). Gaiseric and Theodoric were at odds, with Gaiseric having repudiated his marriage to Theodoric’s daughter. The Franks were also in disarray, with the two sons of Frankish king Chlodian vying for the throne. Attila expected to play these groups against one another. Using as his excuse an appeal he had received some years earlier from Valentinian’s sister Honoria, who had sought assistance against her brother, Attila claimed that this constituted a marriage proposal and that he was owed half of the Western Roman Empire as a dowry.
In the spring of 451 Attila, known in the West as the “Scourge of God,” led a force of at least 100,000 Huns and allied Ostrogoths, Scirians, Heruls, Gepids, and others across the Rhine River into Gaul. The Huns crossed on a wide front in the vicinity of Strasbourg and made their way west, devastating the countryside and attacking and destroying every city they encountered. They turned south before they reached Paris. According to popular belief, the city was saved by the prayers of a young girl who motivated the citizenry. She was later beatified by the Catholic Church as Saint Genevieve.
Arriving at Orléans in May, Attila put that city under siege. Its ruler, Sangiban, king of the Alans, sent word to Attila that he would surrender Orléans. Learning of this, Aetius, commander of the army of the Western Roman Empire, marched his forces north. To oppose Attila, Aetius had perhaps 50,000 German mercenaries.
Aetius also worked out a loose alliance with the Franks in the Rhineland and with the Visigoths in Aquitania. These peoples had no love for the Romans, but they regarded the Huns as the greater threat and agreed to join Aetius in a coalition against Attila. Sangiban reluctantly went back on his promise to Attila and joined the coalition against the Huns.
The Huns were on the verge of taking Orléans when the coalition forces appeared. Attila, whose forces were widely scattered, withdrew northward and sent word to the scattered wings of his army to re-form on the main body. Crossing the Seine, Attila left a Gepid force to cover his withdrawal, but Aetius destroyed Attila’s rear guard in a night attack, inflicting a reputed 15,000 casualties.
The main battle took place the next day, though the exact date is in dispute. Possibilities range from late June to late September 451. The place is also in dispute, but most historians believe that it occurred on the Mauriac Plain (present-day Mery-sur-Seine), about 20 miles northwest of Troyes and 35 miles south of Châlons-sur-Marne.
Attila’s army faced north. Ardaric led the Gepids on the right wing, Attila and the Huns were in the center, and Valamer led the Ostrogoths on the left wing. Aetius positioned his Roman forces on the left wing. He placed Sangiban and the Alans in the center of the coalition line, apparently so they could be kept under surveillance and preventing from bolting or switching sides. King Theodoric and his Visigoths held the coalition’s right wing, facing their Ostrogothic kinsmen. The position of the Franks is unknown. They may have sustained such heavy casualties the day before that they did not participate, or they may have been in reserve.
The battle commenced late, perhaps about 5:00 p.m., in a struggle for possession of an important ridge line. Prince Thorismund and the Visigoths reached the ridge first and repelled the advancing Huns. The two sides then closed in bloody combat. The Alans gave good account of themselves before having to withdraw under intense pressure. Aetius and his Germans had little success on his end of the battle line, but the Visigoths held against the Ostrogoths, although old King Theodoric fell from his horse and was trampled to death by his own men. The Visigoths then turned and rolled up the left flank of the Huns, with Attila narrowly escaping death or capture.
In the meantime, Aetius and his men broke through the Gepid line. Attila ordered the Huns to stage a fighting retreat to their camp, which was fortified in the sense that it was encircled with wagons. As darkness fell the Visigoths attempted to storm the camp but were repulsed.Casualties were such that neither side sought to resume the battle the next day. Contemporary estimates of the dead in the battle range from 165,000 to 300,000, although even the smaller figure is thought to be a gross exaggeration.
Aetius and Thorismund at first decided to besiege the Hunnish camp, but Aetius had second thoughts. Apparently he feared that if the Huns were destroyed completely the Visigoths would have a free hand in Gaul, so he advised Thorismund, who became king on the death of Theodoric, to return home and consolidate his rule. The Franks also withdrew.
The Huns, so weakened as to no longer pose a serious threat to the West, withdrew back across the Rhine. The coalition victory at Châlons probably prevented Attila and the Huns from dominating Western Europe. Attila was not finished, however. In 452 he renewed his vow to marry Honoria and invaded the Italian peninsula. Aetius could not gather sufficient forces to challenge him, and Valentinian sent Pope Leo I to negotiate with the Hun leader. The two men met at the Mincio River, and Attila agreed to depart Italy, probably because he had learned that Marcian, the new emperor of the Eastern Roman Empire, had sent an army to attack Attila’s capital. Attila planned to renew his effort in the West but died in 453, and his sons fell to fighting among themselves. The subject peoples broke free, and the Hunnic Empire soon collapsed.
Fuller, J. F. C. A Military History of the Western World, Vol. 1. New York: Funk and Wagnalls, 1954.
Gregory of Tours. History of the Franks. Translated by Ernest Brehaut. New York: Columbia University Press, 1916.
Thompson, E. A. A History of Attila and the Huns. Oxford, UK: Clarendon, 1948.