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Decisive Battles of History: Catalaunian Plains

Andrew is an avid reader who enjoys researching and discussing history with others.

The Decline of Rome

For centuries the Roman Empire dominated Europe, but like all great empires of history, the glory days of the Eternal City eventually came to an end also. The Empire nearly collapsed altogether during the Third Century Crisis, but the iron will of Emperor Aurelian led to the reunification of the Empire between 270 and 275 AD.

The military successes of Aurelian followed up the administrative reforms of Diocletian and Constantine the Great, thanks to whom the Empire received a new lifeline. From the reign of Aurelian until the disastrous Battle of Adrianople, the Romans remained the dominant force in their clashes with the Germanic tribes of Europe. Still, their decisive defeat at Adrianople changed the status quo.

Despite the best efforts of Emperor Theodosius, the Romans were unable to decisively defeat the Goths. When in the end, the two sides came to an agreement in 382, the Romans were forced to allow the Goths to settle in the Empire as a semi-autonomous people. This went totally against the way the Romans previously treated other groups who settled within the borders of the Empire, who were usually broken up and settled in different corners of the Empire.

Theodosius later used the Goths as auxiliaries in his army when he clashed with the Western Empire, and, by all accounts, the Goths served the emperor well. However, the Goths received unworthy treatment from Theodosius, who used them as little better than cannon fodder at the Battle of the Frigidus River. The Goths then rebelled after the death of Theodosius, and when civil wars ravaged the Empire under the rule of the weak Honorius, they settled down in Aquitane.

The Goths were not the only barbarians who pushed through the Roman defences either, as the Vandals, Alans and Suebi broke through the Rhine in 406. They first looted their way through Gaul before crossing into Hispania and later North Africa.

By 440, several barbarian groups were living inside the borders of the Western Roman Empire: the Visigoths lived in Aquitaine, the Burgundians, Alans and a group of Franks in Gaul (these were nominally Roman subjects; however, in reality, Western magister militum Flavius Aetius fought against these groups during the 430s and 440s).

While the Suevi controlled a part of Hispania, the Vandals and their allies conquered North Africa from Rome. Furthermore, even the Romanised population was turning away from the centre, as the bagaude (local Roman commanders and peasants seceding) became more and more widespread, like in Northern Gaul and parts of Spain.

The Huns

If the barbarians inside the empire's borders were not threatening enough, we can add to the picture the Huns, the people who, according to most historians, caused the whole domino effect of migrations to begin in the first place.

The origins of the Huns are shrouded in mystery and despite some people believing them to be the descendants of the ancient nomadic Xiongnu confederation, many others dismiss these claims. However, whatever the truth of their background may be, it is little relevant, as historians are pretty much in agreement that the Huns arrived on the steppes of Europe in the 370s. Their attacks drove the Goths into the Roman Empire and indirectly led to the Roman disaster of Adrianople.

At first, the Huns remained at the steppes of Russia and Ukraine, but eventually, they moved their base westward towards the Carpathian Basis to modern-day Hungary. Historian Peter Heather believes that this migration may have occurred during the 400s and most probably between 405 and 408. It was the Hunnic thrust to the Carpathian Basin that led to the migration of the Vandals, Alans and Suebi, who penetrated the Rhine frontier of the Western Roman Empire.

At first, the Huns were highly decentralized and had several rival kings ruling over the Hunnic people, but the rival kings were subdued between the 370s and 430s. Eventually, a single leader emerged, Rua, who was followed on the throne by his nephews Attila and Bleda.

Heather believes that it was the proximity of the Huns to the wealthy Roman lands that led to the emergence of this centralization, as the most successful Hunnic warlords were able to extract previously unimagined wealth by loot and tribute, and thus they acquired the wealth to subdue their rivals.

The Huns and the Romans

During the 430s and 440s, the Western Roman Empire was dominated by one man, Flavius Aetius. Aetius spent a few years of his youth as a hostage of the Huns and, during his early career, made good use of the Huns. The Huns served as his mercenaries against other Roman commanders and the barbarian tribes settled in Gaul.

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Initially, Attila and his brother Bleda left the Western Roman Empire alone and waged their wars only against the Eastern Roman Empire, whose Balkan provinces were looted yearly. Several peace agreements were reached in this period, but as the Huns kept demanding more and more tribute to not attack the Romans, these eventually all broke down and led to further confrontations.

Bleda died sometime during the 440s or was killed by Attila, which left the latter as the sole ruler of the Huns. Attila usually had the better of the Eastern Romans in his campaigns, and unlike previous barbarian invaders, his army was even capable of capturing well-fortified towns. Still, not even he was ambitious enough to launch an assault on Constantinople.

When the new Eastern Roman Emperor Marcian refused to pay any tribute, Attila found himself in a difficult position. He could choose to attack the Eastern Empire, but the Balkans were already ravaged during the 440s, so the loot he could get from here was not very promising. Furthermore, thanks to the Roman naval superiority, he had no hope of transporting his troops into Asia Minor to attack the rich eastern provinces. He also had the option of turning west and attacking the Western Empire.

Attila received just the perfect excuse to attack the West also in 450 when the sister of Emperor Valentinian sent the Hunnic king a ring and implored him to save her from her confinement. Attila interpreted the offer as a marriage proposal and demanded her wife and half the empire as her dowry. His demand was, of course, rejected, and the war became inevitable.

Attila’s Campaign in Gaul

Attila gathered a large host of Huns and all the tribes subdued by the Huns and invaded Gaul in 451. His vast army attacked and looted through Northern Gaul until they arrived under the walls of Orleans.

Historians are undecided about just what happened in Orleans. The first version would be that Attila attacked Orleans, but the dogged determination of the defenders lead to a stalemate, and Attila lifted the siege when the relieving army of Aetius was approaching Orleans. According to a second version of events, Aetius was already under the walls of Orleans when Attila was heading there, and the Hunnic leader retreated without a fight.

Whichever scenario is true in reality makes little difference, as what followed Orleans is pretty much certain. Attila was retreating from Gaul, with Aetius hot on his hills. The Hunnic king retreated until he arrived at the ground which suited his army and decided to give battle.

According to chronicler Jordanes, the battleground was dominated on one side by a ridge, and the heaviest fighting was around this place.

The Romans and the Huns both deployed their armies in three parts. Aetius used his Visigothic allies to guard the ridge, put his Alan allies in the centre and used the rest of his army to make up his other flank which he commanded in person. Attila used his allies two make up his two wings, and used his Hunnic core in the centre.

What happened during the battle is also a matter of intense debate. Historians are divided what the actual outcome of the battle was, however, the majority believe it was a victory for Aetius. According to this interpretation, the fighting was very brutal and Attila’s Huns broke the centre of their enemies, but reserves and some rallied Alans stopped the Hunnic advance in the centre, while the Visigoths defeated the Hunnic allied Goths and pushed back on the flank of the Hunnic army. Seeing this, Attila ordered a retreat and was besieged in his camp, but for disputed reasons Aetius let him go instead of destroying his enemy.

Other interpretations of the battle claim that it was inconclusive or even a Hunnic victory, and claim that the description of the battle was a simple copy of other ancient battle descriptions like Marathon or Platae, just with changed names. The fact that Attila was able to invade Italy the very next year may serve as a proof of this, however, it is also true that casualties in the pre-gunpowder era were often smaller if the percentage of fighting men is taken into account, and even if Attila was defeated, it is hardly likely that he suffered crippling casualties.

The Historical Significance of the Battle

For a long time, the Battle of the Catalaunian Plains was held as one of the most crucial battles of European history, however, modern historians tend to downplay its overall significance.

Unlike the earlier historians, the modern ones consider that Attila never intended to topple the Western Emperor, and his 451 campaign in reality was a giant raid. But even if he wanted to dethrone Valentinian III and would have succeeded, seeing how his empire collapsed after his death, it probably would have collapsed the same way even if he had succeeded in conquering further territories in Italy and Gaul.

Sources

Goldsworthy, Adrian. (2010). How Rome Fell: Death of a Superpower. Yale UP.

Heather, Peter. (2006). The Fall of Rome: A New History. Pan Books.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2022 Andrew Szekler

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