Chalons: The Battle That Broke Attila
The Hunnic Hordes
Every great army has an aura of invincibility. Their enemies are beaten before they even engage in battle, and they know that their leader can find victory for them. Once that aura is broken the army collapses, they lose battles, refuse to campaign, and become less eager to engage in combat. There are many ways for the army to lose heart, from losing their leader to a lack of supplies.
Attila the Hun led an army that was considered invincible. Hunnic hordes swept across Europe forcing the Germanic tribes to flee in front of them. Attila forged a massive empire with many client states of German and Slavic people. After receiving a marriage offer from Honoria, a sister of the Roman Emperor who had her own designs, Attila marched in to the Western Roman Empire to claim his dowry of half the Empire, and force the Emperor to give him his bride.
By 451 Attila had crossed the Rhine in to Roman Gaul, but it was much less Roman than when Caesar had conquered it. Gaul had been the most profitable province in the Western Roman Empire, but it had largely fallen under the control of German federates by the time of Attila's invasion. Roman cities were mostly found along the Mediterranean coast and in southern Gaul.
German allies set up vassal states inside Gaul. Northern Gaul was under the sway of the Frankish Confederation. South western Gaul was dominated by the Visigothic kingdom of Tolosa. Alans settled along the Rhine in modern Orleans. These German states were nominally vassals of the Roman Empire, but the Empire had no capability to enforce it's claims, and the Germans for their part did as they pleased.
When Attila advanced he did not lead an army simply composed of Huns. Through conquest, politics, and fear he had assembled an army of allied Germanic states. Gepids from the Baltic coast, Ostrogoths and Heruli from Dalmatia, and the central German Alamanni and Thuringians all joined Attila on his march west.
To meet Attila's Huns and allies the Roman empire needed a general that was both skilled and politically savvy. Luckily for the western world they had Flavius Aetius, one of the last true Romans. Aetius recognized the threat posed by Attila and marched a Roman army to Gaul to meet Attila. Along the way he recruited the Visigoths, Alans, and Franks, who all feared Attila more than they hated the Romans and each other.
Germanic Kingdoms in Gaul
- Forgotten Kingdoms: The Visigoths
The Visigothic kingdom of Tolosa was once the most powerful kingdom in Europe. This is their story.
- The Terror of Gaul: The Franks!
The Franks were the most successful of the barbarian peoples that invaded the Roman Empire, and they left a lasting mark on European history.
The Battle of Chalons
There is scant reliable information on the Battle of Chalons. What we know of the battle comes from sources that were biased, or written after the event. Much of what we have determined about Chalons has been estimated or assumed, but the effects of the battle are undeniable.
Attila and his Germanic allies met Aetius and his Germanic allies at the Catalaunian Plains, a plain cornered by a large sloped hill. Aetius did not trust his Alanic federates so he placed them in the center, with the Visigoths on his right, and the Franks and Romans on the left. Attila positioned his Huns in the center, with the Ostrogoths on his right and his other Germanic allies on the left.
After a battle over control of the crest of the slope the Huns were driven back by the wings of the Roman army, with the Visigoths in pursuit. Before the Huns could be overrun the Ostrogoths were able to slow the Visigoth advance, and that is where King Theodoric I of the Visigoths died. Attila managed to reach his baggage train and used the wagons to fortify his position. Night was falling on the battlefield, and confusion reigned leaving both armies floundering. Scattered combat continued throughout the night, but the real battle had ended.
The Battle of Chalons had multiple consequences. Most importantly the aura of invincibility that surrounded the Huns was shattered. Chalons changed the balance of power in Gaul in favor of the Franks. Lastly the battle gave great prestige to Aetius.
Attila quickly recovered from the Battle of Chalons. His armies were replenished and he invaded Italy within a year of the battle, but his army never regained it's former stature. Attila ravaged Italy, but Italy was weak to begin with. Attila was not even able to take Rome which had very few soldiers to even defend it. Upon Attila's death his Germanic clients revolted and crushed the Huns at the Battle of Nedao.
Gaul was drastically altered by Chalons. The Alans had taken the brunt of the Huns attack and after the battle their kingdom was absorbed by the Visigoths. For their part the Visigoths suffered from the sudden death of Theodoric I, but they were able to recover. The Frankish Confederation was able to absorb all of northern Gaul, unify with their kinsmen across the Rhine, and they were best able to prepare for conflict with the Visigoths. Shortly after Chalons Clovis I led his Franks to victory over the Visigoths at the Battle of Voulle and secured Frankish domination of Europe.
Aetius was able to take the greater part of the booty from the battle because the Germanic allies had to attend to succession questions. This boosted his reputation and made him a greater threat to the Roman Emperor. Emperor Valentinian had him assassinated, and robbed the Roman world of it's greatest general. Valentinian himself was assassinated shortly after, and Rome saw a series of weak rulers limp on until the end of the Empire.
Ford, Michael Curtis. The Sword of Attilla: A Novel of the Last Years of Rome. New York: St. Martins Paperbacks, 2006.
Macdowall, Simon. Catalaunian Fields AD 451: Romes Last Great Battle. Oxford: Osprey, 2015.