To say that the battle of the Catalaunian
plains is iconic would be an understatement. But it is equally controversial, as the sources
describing the battle are conflicted, many details are unknown, and it seems that we
will never get a clear picture of the events. Add to that two larger than life figures in
Attila and Aetius, the Great Migration, the agony of the Roman world and the birth of
new kingdoms, and it is clear that we had no other choice but to cover it. We know very little about the Huns before
their arrival to the Eurasian steppes in the second half of the IV century. In 370s they
defeated the Alans and Goths, who lived to the north of the Black Sea and this probably
caused a cascade of events known as the Great Migration, as many tribes were forced to flee
to the west and enter the territory of the Roman Empire either as the allied-foederati
or the invaders. Eastern Roman army was crushed at Adrianople by the western branch of the
Goths – the Visigoths in 378, while Vandals, Suebi first entered Gaul, and then occupied
part of Spain. In 410 Visigoths of Alaric sacked Rome. Visigoths were then allowed to
form a kingdom in southern France with a capital in Toulouse in exchange for the military service
against the Vandals and Suebi. Meanwhile, the Huns subjugated the Gepids,
Alemanni, the Eastern Goths – Ostrogoths and other minor Germanic, Slavic and Sarmatian
tribes. Between 395 and 399 they attacked both the Eastern Roman and the Sassanid empires,
raiding the Balkans, Caucasus, Northern Iran and Eastern Anatolia. As the Hunnic realm
was extremely decentralized, many of their warriors served as mercenaries both for the
Western Romans and the Goths. Still the raids into the Eastern Roman Empire continued, and
the Empire was forced to pay annual tribute in 422.
Western empire was also having problems, as civil wars, rebellions and further invasions
weakened it. Enter Flavius Aetius. This Roman general of either Gothic or Scythian origins,
spent his childhood as a hostage in the Visigothic and Hunnic courts, learning much about their
fighting styles and gaining valuable allies among the Huns. In 423 it allowed him to recruit
a sizeable Hunnic force and move to Italy to support Joannes to the throne. However,
by the time Aetius reached the capital Ravenna, another pretender – Valentinian was crowned.
To curb his ambitions, Aetius was paid a hefty sum and was appointed the commander in Gaul.
Despite some setbacks, he managed to bring back the Roman rule to most of Gaul mostly
relying on the Hun mercenaries. He settled the Alans around Orleans to weaken the rebellion
in Brittany, destroyed the Burgundian kingdom and resettled it to the south and weakened
Visigoths and Franks, basically creating his semi-independent kingdom in the region.
Back East, the first ruler of the centralized Hun state – Rua passed away and was succeeded
by the nephews Attila and Bleda in 433. The new rulers renegotiated the treaty with the
Eastern Romans in 435, receiving promises not to enter into an anti-Hunnic alliance
and 700 pounds of gold annually. However, this peace was short-lived. In 439 Carthage
was captured by the Vandals. Following year, the Eastern Roman Empire sent an expedition
to reclaim Africa. Meanwhile, the Sassanids attacked the Romans in the East, and all that
allowed the Huns to raid and pillage the Balkans between 441 and 443, and this time they even
reached Constantinople. Emperor Theodosius was forced to agree to pay 6,000 pounds annually.
In 445 Bleda dies, possibly murdered by Attila, who becomes the ruler of the Hunnic realm.
We don’t know why, but in 447 Attila invades the Eastern Romans yet again. He destroyed
the Roman forces at the battle of the Utus, raided the Balkans and compelled the emperor
to sign another peace, this time promising to leave the Danube region as a buffer.
It was around that time, the relationship between Attila and Aetius soured, and different
sources present different reasons: The Huns were prohibited from serving as mercenaries,
which weakened Aetius. At the same time, the Vandals, who had animosity with the Visigoths
and one of the Frankish heirs invited Attila to invade Gaul to deal with their enemies.
The sister of the Western Roman Emperor Honoria sent her ring to Attila asking for his help,
and he took this as a promise of marriage and allegedly demanded half of the empire
as a dowry. Attila was also displeased that the Huns received no lands within the Roman
empire, unlike other allies. Surprisingly, the war against the Western Roman Empire became
inevitable, when the Eastern Romans refused to send tribute in 450 – Attila needed that
income to pay his troops, and as he knew that the Balkans were devastated and had little
hope of taking Constantinople, he decided to invade Gaul instead. In the spring of 451,
Attila joined by the Ostrogoths, Gepids, Alemanni and others crossed the Rhine.
At that point, Aetius was in Italy, and as he couldn’t rely on his usual Hunnic units,
he was forced to enter an alliance with his rival – the king of the Visigoths Theodoric,
ask the Burgundians and Franks for help and rush to Gaul. We know very little about the
route of Attila’s troops and which towns were sacked by them, but by the early June,
his horse-heavy army reached Orleans. The sources are conflicting here: Some claim that
Attila besieged the city and as Aetius arrived in the area soon, he was forced to abandon
the siege, others think that Aetius was near Orleans before the Huns and that didn’t
allow Attila to blockade the city. We also don’t know if the Alani leader Sangiban
was planning to side with the Huns or the Romans or was waiting to see which side is
stronger. In any case, as the area wasn’t favorable for the cavalry, the Huns retreated,
and Alani joined Aetius, who also received contingents of Visigoths, Franks, Burgundians,
and Saxons. The Roman general then moved to pursue Attila.
The exact location of the battle that we usually call the battle of the Catalaunian plains
is unknown, but some modern historians concluded that it happened in the place called Maurica,
close to Troyes, some 200 kilometers from Orleans, and not near Chalons, as was assumed
previously. Another hotly debated topic is the number of troops, but it is possible that
both sides had around 40,000 thousand warriors. The Hunnic army was cavalry heavy with elite
horse archers as its core, while the Romans had more infantry than their opponents.
Aetius chased Attila for two weeks. On June 19 his Frankish vanguard skirmished with the
Attila’s Gepid rearguard, but the Gepids soon retreated, as Attila’s goal was to
bring the Romans to the battlefield of his choosing that was advantageous for his cavalry.
Two paths were leading to Maurica divided by the forest, and although the Romans had
to split their forces in two to move around this forest, Attila did not attempt to stop
them at the chokepoints, probably rightly considering his infantry inferior to that
of the enemy. Still a small cavalry detachment was left on the Montgueux ridge. On the early
morning of 20th of June, the Visigothic column met this detachment on the hill. Attila wasn’t
planning to defend this position, hoping to fight the Romans on the open field to the
East, but he still sent some cavalry reinforcement to the ridge. Both the original unit and the
reinforcements slowly retreated, shooting a few volleys.
By the afternoon the Visigoths were in control of the ridge, and although both sides had
a good defensible position, they needed a decisive battle, so the armies started to
deploy. Aetius placed a small cavalry detachment under Theodoric’s son Thorismund on the
ridge, so the summit would hide them, and formed up his army with his right flank protected
by the said ridge, and his rear and the left by the forests, which gave Attila no opportunity
to attack the Romans from the sides or the back.
Theodoric and the Visigoths held the right wing and dismounted forming a shield wall
with archers in the second line. Alan cavalry took the center, while the left side was held
by the Romans, Franks, Burgundians, and Saxons with infantry in the first line in a shield
wall with another group of missile infantry behind them and the cavalry in the rear.
Attila and his Huns, all cavalry took the formed the center, while the Ostrogoth cavalry
led by Valamir manned the left with other Germanic infantry behind them. On the right,
Attila placed the Frank infantry and the Gepid cavalry under Ardaric, with more Germanic
infantry in the second line. The Hun leader gave a speech in front of his
line and then formed up his horse archers in the center into a wedge. The Huns then
galloped forward sending the volleys into the Alans, who answered similarly, but as
the Huns had numerical superiority, Sangiban’s horsemen had to retreat. According to their
usual fighting style, the Hun wedge then split down the middle towards the left and the right,
sending arrows towards the Romans and the Visigoths, but these volleys were less effective
as they were met with the shield wall. On the contrary, the missile units in the second
lines managed to wound and kill many lightly armored Huns.
Still, this attack covered the advance of the Ostrogoths against their Visigoth cousins,
while the Gepids moved against the Romans. Initially, both shield walls were pushed back,
but as the cavalry momentum was lost, the shield walls restored their composure, and
the archers in the second line continued to send the arrows above the shields.
However, the Huns turned towards the center once again and attempted to enter the hole
left by the Alan retreat. That threatened the Visigoth shield wall from the flank and
the rear. The king of the Visigoths Theodoric was killed while trying to encourage his troops
and it seemed that the battle is turning in Attila’s favor.
Still, Aetius managed to turn some of the Alans back and ordered them, along with the
cavalry reserves to plug the center, which stemmed the tide. Feeling that victory is
close Attila’s second line infantry joined the battle. At the same time, Thorismund learned
of his father’s death and finally descended from the ridge, charging enemy’s left from
the flank and rear. It seems that the Hunnic left was encircled and destroyed. Seeing that
his cavalry was bogged down and his right was having no gains against the Romans, Attila
ordered a retreat to the camp. By the nightfall, the battle stopped completely.
The Huns seemingly were on the backfoot, so it is a mystery why Aetius did not attack
the next day. Some sources are claiming that the Visigoths and Franks declined to fight,
while the others assert that it was Aetius himself who wasn’t eager to destroy the
Huns, as they were a perfect balance against the Germanic tribes. A later Frankish source
maintains that Aetius received a payment from Attila. Regardless, the Hun army left the
area on the next day and moved towards Pannonia. We will probably never learn the number of
casualties, but even if they were heavy, in 452 Attila invaded the Roman empire yet again,
this time via Italy, and sacked Aquileia and Milan, also inadvertently forcing the foundation
of Venice. Once again, we don’t know why, but according to the sources, he turned back
after talking to the Pope Leo. In 453 Attila dies, either from an illness
or killed by his young wife. Thorismund was murdered by his brother soon after. A year
later, Attila’s sons were defeated by the Gepids of Ardaric at the battle of Nedao,
and that resulted in the collapse of the Hun empire. In the same year, Aetius is murdered
by emperor Valentinian, who in turn is killed by the bodyguards of Aetius in 455. Just 20
years later the Western Roman Empire ceases to exist… This video was made possible by our Patreon
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