20 June 451

An illustration of the Hun leader, Attila, featured in the Nuremberg Chronicle of 1493. Written by Hartmann Schedel in Latin, it was one of the first printed books. In popular legend Attila remained the ‘scourge’ of Christendom.

One of the most famous battles of antiquity occurred at an unknown site in northeastern France in June 451 between a mixed Roman–Gothic force and the raiding army of Attila, commander and king of the fearsome Huns, a nomadic people from Central Asia. Their reputation for ferocity has echoed down the ages, and ‘Hun’ was the pejorative term chosen by the Allies to describe the Germans in the First World War as an indication of how savage and barbarous their war-making was considered to be. In the late Roman period, the approach of the Huns struck terror into peoples who had become accustomed to the regular incursions of other nomadic invaders. The Huns were seen as an unstoppable force and their menace almost apocalyptic. The victory over Attila – it was in truth closer to a draw – showed that, in the right circumstances, no force is unstoppable. However, the army that gathered at the Catalaunian Fields to oppose him did not know that. They needed a double courage to confront the Huns and the terrible reputation that preceded them.

In 451, Attila, after campaigns in the Eastern Roman Empire, decided to launch a large raid into Roman Gaul from his base in modern Hungary, there to seek further booty. His advance caused consternation, and later Christian chroniclers saw him as the scourge of God, sent to punish Christian communities for their lack of faith. Attila sacked Metz and Rheims (their murdered bishops became instant martyrs, and later saints) and laid siege to Orléans. His army, according to the Byzantine historian Jordanes, writing a century later, numbered half a million. It was almost certainly a fraction of this figure, but nevertheless a formidable host composed not only of Hun tribes but also eastern Goths under three brothers, Valamar, Thiudimer and Vidimer.

An illustration from the Histoire Populaire de la France (1860) shows the Hun camp at Châlons-sur-Marne after the Battle of the Catalaunian Fields in 451 CE. Following Attila’s defeat, the Huns retreated to their enclosed encampment where they allegedly built a pyre of their saddles, ready to burn them if the camp was stormed.

However, besieging a large, well-defended city was not a Hun speciality, and when news arrived that a large Roman army was approaching from the south, Attila broke off the siege, apparently anxious to avoid a major confrontation. The Huns began to withdraw, but were caught by their enemy at some point on the plain of Champagne between Rheims, Châlons (from which the battle has generally taken its name) and Troyes.

The presence of a Roman army was not accidental. The westward march of the Huns clearly made the loss of Gaul, a major territory in the Western Roman Empire, a possibility. This danger alerted the Roman general Flavius Aetius, who had at one time allied with Hun tribes for his own purposes, to the defence of Gaul. The common threat also brought the local king of the Visigoths, Theodoric, together with his eldest son Thorismund, into alliance, along with the Burgundians and Bagandae from eastern Gaul, who had already suffered at the hands of the Huns, and the Alans from the west. The allied armies numbered perhaps 30–50,000, though the exact numbers are not known. Attila’s host has been estimated at around the same size, but both figures are largely guesses. The Huns fought with their traditional cavalry armed with bows and swords and lassos, but also fought on foot with swords and axes. The Roman–Visigothic army had heavy cavalry, light cavalry, traditional Roman infantry with sword and javelin, and more lightly armed troops from the non-Roman allies. Aetius, who as a hostage with the Huns many years before had developed a shrewd understanding of their battle tactics, opted for a formation that put his weaker forces in the centre and his stronger forces on the wings. Attila adopted the contrary pattern, with his stronger veterans in the centre, but more vulnerable forces on either side.

It is thought that the battle began in the early afternoon and went on to a bloody crescendo at dusk. The combat hinged around a low ridge overlooking a sloping plain. The Roman army attacked it from the right, the Huns from the left, but the fight for the crest of the ridge fell to the Roman side, aided by a flanking attack from the Visigothic cavalry. The Huns were pushed back on their flanks and finally broke back down the slope. Attila is supposed to have admonished them to stand and fight: ‘For what is war to you but a way of life?’ They charged back up the slope but were always at a disadvantage. Bitter hand-to-hand fighting followed. The gore-soaked ground was supposed to have turned a small river running across the fields red with blood. Theodoric was killed in the mêlée. At the end of the battle Aetius was unable to find his camp, so he stayed with his Gothic allies overnight. But the clear result was the retreat of the Huns, worn down by the long battle, who returned to their camp of encircled wagons and waited to see what the following day would bring.

This was indeed a historic moment and it was achieved by a mixed army of men whose individual motives and fears explained their courageous stand against the waves of Hun cavalry and foot soldiers. They showed that the Huns were not invincible, though it had been an unfamiliar contest for Attila, who preferred weaker opponents or a battle on the run rather than one against a large, disciplined army. The memory of that victory lingered on in European folklore as the moment when Europe was saved again from the domination of Asia. In truth, Attila was followed over the centuries by waves of other nomadic invaders from the east, but nothing has stayed in the collective consciousness of the West so firmly as the turning of the tide against the Huns.

Over the days that followed the battle, the Visigoths and Romans broke camp and left, allowing Attila the opportunity to take his battered army swiftly back to Hungary. According to the best-known account, he died two years later from a nosebleed that choked him to death after a night of heavy drinking. As so often in the ancient world, Aetius was not thanked for his pains. Three years later he was suspected of attempting to usurp the imperial throne, and was slain at court in Ravenna by the emperor Valentinian himself, wielding a meat-cleaver. Savagery was not a Hun monopoly.