The Battle of Catalaunian Fields

In 451 Attila decided on a complete change of direction. For reasons that we do not completely understand, he chose to leave the Eastern Empire alone and turn his attention to the West. The change demonstrates that Attila was more than a successful barbarian warrior: he, or his advisers (we know he employed Roman secretaries) had a firm grasp of the political rivalries and intrigues in both Eastern and Western Empires in this turbulent period. From his headquarters in the Middle Danube area, he was ideally placed to strike east or west, depending on where he could see opportunities. Attila’s old friend and mentor, Aetius, was now, briefly, in control of the Western Empire, based at Ravenna under the titular control of Valentinian III (425-55) who, although vain, spiteful and debauched, was still the successor of Augustus. Aetius now represented imperial authority, rather than being the freelance military leader in Gaul, and as far as Attila was concerned, he became the enemy.

As part of the complex diplomacy of the previous years, Attila had been granted the formal title of magister militum (master of the soldiers) or chief of the Western Roman army: This may seem bizarre, given Attila’s reputation as the great destroyer of the Empire, but it reflects again the complicated interaction between Romans and barbarians which characterized the period: while barbarians had close links with the Empire and employed Roman civil servants to write Latin letters, many of the ‘Roman’ soldiers were themselves of Gothic origin and may have spoken no Latin at all. It may be that Attila now wanted to convert his appointment into reality and set himself up in Aetius’ place, as chief military supporter of the Empire. It must all have been very confusing to the unfortunate peasants and citizens who were forced to pay for, and provide food for, all these rival armies.

As well as these realpolitik considerations, there was a curious tale of intrigue. To add to the unexpected image of Attila as the consummate politician, we also have Attila as the great lover (at least in the imagination of one lonely Roman princess). The emperor’s sister Honoria, who had her own palace at Ravenna, had been rash enough to have an affair with her steward Eugenius. When this was discovered, there was a great scandal, the gossip reaching as far as Constantinople. The unfortunate steward was executed and Honoria forcibly betrothed to an elderly and entirely respectable senator called Herculanus. Honoria, who was clearly a woman of spirit, was not at all pleased with this arrangement. She despatched one of her eunuchs, Hyacinth by name, to Attila with her ring, begging him to come and rescue her from her dreary fate. She may well have imagined herself ruling the Empire as Attila’s consort, which raises the intriguing possibility of Attila as Roman emperor. However, being one of Honoria’s trusted servants was not a recipe for a long life: Hyacinth was arrested, tortured and made to reveal the plot before he was beheaded. Honoria was handed over to the custody of her doughty mother, Galla Placidia, and is never heard of again. Needless to say, Attila could now assert that he was invading to claim his rightful bride.

Armed with these excuses, Attila began his most famous expeditions. In the spring of 451 he led his troops west across the Rhine and into Gaul: Metz fell on 7 April and his forces were set to cut a fearsome swathe through northern France. In this emergency, Aetius managed to persuade the Visigothic king of Toulouse, Theodoric, who had long been his enemy, to co-operate in the defence of Gaul. When Attila approached Orleans, the allies advanced north to relieve the city. They arrived just in time to prevent it falling to the enemy and Attila was obliged to retreat. He now seems to have lost momentum and been concerned that he might be trapped in Gaul, an unfamiliar country whose agricultural landscapes were unsuitable for the nomad style of warfare.

As he retreated east, Aetius and his men pursued the Huns until they caught up with them in the open country around Chalons-sur-Marne. This open land, the so-called Catalaunian Plains, was the setting for a major battle. On about 20 June the two armies met at a site which cannot now be identified with any precision. From the viewpoint of the military historian the battle is important as it is the only major encounter involving the Huns when led by Attila of which we have any detailed account. Unfortunately our main source, Jordanes, was writing at a later date and does not give a clear outline of events. Attila’s army, which probably numbered about 30,000, were not all Huns. There were subject tribesmen, Gepids and Ostrogoths, whose loyalty and expertise could hardly be entirely relied upon. The ‘Roman’ army too, included many Visigoths and Alans (another nomad tribe) whose commitment to the cause was equally doubtful. According to Jordanes, ‘There was a unyielding and long-drawn-out battle’, but that does not tell us very much. Attila fought in the centre of his own line, rather than standing back from the conflict as some later nomad rulers did. It began badly for the Huns when Thorismond, the son of the Gothic king, was able to seize a hill which lay in the middle of the battlefield. What is cl. ear, however, is that Aetius and his Gothic allies fought the Huns to a standstill. By nightfall Attila was forced to take defensive measures and surrounded his camp with wagons to await the next day’s assault. It is said that he piled up a heap of saddles, intending to set fire to them and jump into the flames if he was in danger of being taken prisoner. The attack never came. The Visigothic king, Theodoric, had been killed in the conflict and his son, advised by Aetius, left the camp to secure his position in his capital, Toulouse. The probability is that Aetius, who had long been a friend and ally of the Huns, had no wish to see them exterminated and find himself at the mercy of the victorious Visigoths: a balance of power among the barbarians was his main objective.

Attila had saved the bulk of his forces but apparently his experience on the Catalaunian Plains had convinced him that the invasion of Gaul was too risky a project to be worth trying again. Instead, the next year he decided to invade Italy. Taking both Aetius and the Roman forces off their guard, he marched from his base on the Danube over the Julian Alps to north-eastern Italy. Here he began to besiege the city of Aquileia, then the most important city of the area. The assault did not prove to be an easy undertaking. Aquileia held out against him and he was on the verge of abandoning the siege as he had done at Orleans the previous year. According to one of those stories which historians feel obliged to repeat because there are no reliable details to recount, Attila saw a stork leaving the city with its young and, knowing how attached these birds were to their homes, he concluded that the situation inside must be desperate and renewed the assault, this time with success. The city was given over to a relentless sack from which it never fully recovered. It was in the aftermath of this and other calamities that the surviving inhabitants sought refuge in the islands of the lagoon that were to develop into the city of Venice. It is a curious thought that without Attila, the Venetian republic might never have been born.

As usual the sack of one city persuaded others to open their doors with alacrity. The cities of northern Italy, including Milan, surrendered and were, in the main, able to escape the horrors of a major sack. It was natural that Attila should now turn his attention to Rome. He never made it. Pope Leo I led a delegation to appease him and the embassy persuaded him to retreat north and lead his army back to his homelands. This was not, however, just a triumph of papal diplomacy. The years 451 and 452 were marked by widespread famine: the Huns may have been frugal, but the army had to eat something. More sinister for Attila were the first outbreaks of plague. For centuries, plague did more to protect Italy from northern invasions than any of her armies and Attila was one of the first to suffer. He fully understood that the safety of the Hunnic army was the key to his survival. After the losses of the Catalaunian Plains, he could not risk any further losses. Defeated not by battle but by bacteria, he returned to Hungary, no doubt to decide in which direction to launch an attack the next year.

It was never to be. Attila’s death was natural rather than the result of assassination or warfare, but it was in keeping with his flamboyant lifestyle. Attila had many wives, for the custom of the Huns seems to have put no limit on this, but he still wanted new partners. According to the generally accepted story, he married a girl called Ildico who was, as girls always are in these stories, extremely beautiful. On his wedding night he feasted, eating and drinking lavishly before retiring with his new bride. In the morning, his guards were, naturally, reluctant to disturb him. It was not until later in the day that they became concerned about his absence. Eventually they summoned up the courage to break down the door and found the unfortunate Ildico weeping by the body of her blood-covered husband. Apparently he had bled through the nose during his sleep and, being well gone in wine, had suffocated in his own blood.

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