Battle of the Catalaunian Plains
|Battle of the Catalaunian Plains|
|Part of the Hunnic invasion of Gaul|
The Huns at the Battle of Chalons
by Alphonse de Neuville (1836–85)
|Western Roman Empire
|Commanders and leaders|
|Attila the Hun
|Casualties and losses|
The Battle of the Catalaunian Plains (or Fields), also called the Battle of Châlons or the Battle of Maurica, took place on June 20th, 451 AD between a coalition led by the Roman general Flavius Aetius and the Visigothic king Theodoric I against the Huns and their vassals commanded by their king Attila. It was one of the last major military operations of the Western Roman Empire, although Germanic foederati composed the majority of the coalition army. The battle was strategically inconclusive: the Romans stopped the Huns' attempt to establish vassals in Roman Gaul, and installed Merovech as king of the Franks. However, the Huns successfully looted and pillaged much of Gaul and crippled the military capacity of the Romans and Visigoths. The Hunnic Empire was later dismantled by a coalition of their Germanic vassals at the Battle of Nedao in 454.
- 1 Prelude
- 2 Battle
- 3 Outcome
- 4 Forces
- 5 Site of the Catalaunian Fields
- 6 Historical importance
- 7 Aftermath and reputation of the battle
- 8 See also
- 9 Notes
- 10 Further reading
- 11 External links
By 450 AD Roman control of Gaul had been restored in much of the province, although control over all of the provinces beyond Italy was continuing to diminish. Armorica was only nominally part of the empire, and Germanic tribes occupying Roman territory had been forcibly settled and bound by treaty as Foederati under their own leaders. Northern Gaul between the Rhine north of Xanten and the Leie river (Germania Secunda) had unofficially been abandoned to the Salian Franks. The Visigoths on the River Garonne were growing restive, but still holding to their treaty. The Burgundians in Sapaudia were more submissive, but likewise awaiting an opening for revolt. The Alans on the Loire and in Valentinois were more loyal, having served the Romans since the defeat of Jovinus in 411 and the siege of Bazas in 414. The parts of Gaul still securely in Roman control were the Mediterranean coastline; a region including Aurelianum (present-day Orléans) along the Seine and the Loire as far north as Soissons and Arras; the middle and upper Rhine to Cologne; and downstream along the Rhône River.
The historian Jordanes states that Attila was enticed by the Vandal king Gaiseric to wage war on the Visigoths. At the same time, Gaiseric would attempt to sow strife between the Visigoths and the Western Roman Empire (Getica 36.184–6). However, Jordanes' account of Gothic history is notoriously biased and unreliable, and much of it is omitted or garbled. Connor Whately notes that Jordanes' entire work may in fact be a political statement on the campaigns of Belisarius and the policies of Justinian, who also considers the Battle of Chalons to be the climax of the piece. Hyun Jin Kim suggests the account is an allusion to the Battle of Marathon and severely distorted to fit Herodotus' narrative format. Therefore, any claims by Jordanes must be rigorously scrutinised, and the possibility that his entire account may be fabricated cannot be excluded.
Other contemporary writers offer different motivations: Honoria, the sister of the emperor Valentinian III, had been betrothed to the former consul Herculanus the year before. In 450, she sent the eunuch Hyacinthus to the Hunnic king asking for Attila's help in escaping her confinement, with her ring as proof of the letter's legitimacy. Allegedly Attila interpreted it as offering her hand in marriage, and he had claimed half of the empire as a dowry. He demanded Honoria to be delivered along with the dowry. Valentinian rejected these demands, and Attila used it as an excuse to launch a destructive campaign through Gaul. Hughes suggests otherwise, saying that the reality of this interpretation should be that Honoria was using Attila's status as honorary Magister Militum for political leverage.
Another possible explanation is that in 449, the King of the Franks, Chlodio, died. Aetius had adopted the younger son of the Franks to secure the Rhine Frontier, and the elder son had fled to the court of Attila. Bona and more recently Kim take this theory a step further, reasoning that it was the real cause of the war, and the primary reason Attila attacked Gaul. Bona argues that Childeric was a vassal of Attila, and he identifies the founders of the Merovingian dynasty as the two claimants to the Frankish throne. In the somewhat garbled story of the Chronicle of Fredregar, Childeric was expelled by the Franks and allegedly forced to live in exile in Thuringia for eight years, which was a Hunnic vassal at the time. Kim argues that the character of Wiomad represents the Huns who helped Childeric fight the Romans and engineered his return from exile, and concludes that the main objective of Attila at Chalons was conquest of the Franks and establishment of vassal states on the Rhine.
Attila crossed the Rhine early in 451 with his followers and a large number of allies, sacking Divodurum (Metz) on April 7. Other cities attacked can be determined by the hagiographic vitae written to commemorate their bishops: Nicasius was slaughtered before the altar of his church in Rheims; Saint Servatius is alleged to have saved Tongeren with his prayers, as Genevieve is to have saved Paris. Lupus, bishop of Troyes, is also credited with saving his city by meeting Attila in person. According to Hughes, there are two possible explanations for Attila's widespread devastation of Gaul: the first is that Attila's main column crossed the Rhine at Worms or Mainz and then marched to Trier, Metz, Reims, and finally Orleans, while sending a small detachment north into Frankish territory to plunder the countryside. The second is that Attila divided his army into two or three columns and crossed at different points, but he argues this is unlikely since coordination would be difficult if any of the columns were threatened and that too many unknowns were involved with the Roman opposition.
Attila's army had reached Aurelianum (modern Orleans, France) before June. According to Jordanes, the Alan king Sangiban, whose Foederati realm included Aurelianum, had promised to open the city gates. This siege is confirmed by the account of the Vita S. Aniani and in the later account of Gregory of Tours, although Sangiban's name does not appear in their accounts. However, the inhabitants of Aurelianum shut their gates against the advancing invaders, and Attila began to besiege the city, while he waited for Sangiban to deliver on his promise. There are two different accounts of the siege of Aurelianum, and Hughes suggests that combining them provides a better understanding of what actually happened. After four days of heavy rain, Attila began his final assault on June 14, which was broken due to the approach of the Roman coalition. Both Hughes and Kim agree that the siege of Aurelianum was the high point of Attila's attack on the West, and the staunch Alan defence of the city was the real decisive factor in the war of 451. Kim and Bachrach both argue that the Alans were never planning to defect as they were the loyal backbone of the Roman defence in Gaul.
Upon learning of the invasion, the Magister Utriusque Militiae Flavius Aetius moved his army quickly from Italy into Gaul. According to Sidonius Apollinaris, he was leading forth a force consisting of few and sparse auxiliaries without one regular soldier. Hughes argues the insignificant number of Roman troops reported is due to the fact the majority of Aetius' army was stationed in Gaul. He immediately attempted to convince Theodoric I, king of the Visigoths, to join him. Allegedly Theodoric learned how few troops Aetius had with him and decided it was wiser to wait to oppose the Huns in his own lands, so Aetius turned then to the former Praetorian Prefect of Gaul, Avitus, for help. Supposedly Avitus was not only able to convince Theodoric to join with the Romans, but also a number of other wavering barbarian residents in Gaul. Hughes suggests the coalition probably assembled at Arles before moving to meet the Goths at Toulouse, and that the army was supplied by Tonantius Ferreolus who had been preparing for a Hunnic attack for a few years prior. The combined armies then marched to Aurelianum (Orléans), reaching that city on June 14.
Aetius and his coalition began to pursue Attila, whom Kim argues was leaving Gaul with the majority of his objectives completed. According to Jordanes, the night before the main battle, some of the Franks allied with the Romans encountered a band of the Gepids loyal to Attila and engaged them in a skirmish. Jordanes' recorded number of 15,000 dead on either side for this skirmish is not verifiable. MacDowall suggests that Attila had set up a tactical delay along his route of retreat in order to keep Aetius from catching him before he arrived at a suitable battlefield location. The two forces at last met somewhere on the Catalaunian Fields circa June 20, a date first proposed by J.B. Bury and since accepted by many, although some sources claim September 20.
Allegedly, Attila had his diviners examine the entrails of a sacrifice the morning of the day of the battle. They foretold disaster would befall the Huns, but one of the enemy leaders would be killed. Attila delayed until the ninth hour (about 2:30 PM) so the impending sunset would help his troops to flee the battlefield in case of defeat. Hughes takes his own interpretation of this, noting that the divination may be an emphasis of Attila's barbarity and therefore possibly a fabrication. He states that the choice to begin the battle at the ninth hour was due to the fact both sides spent the whole day carefully deploying their coalition armies.
According to Jordanes, the Catalaunian plain rose on one side by a sharp slope to a ridge; this geographical feature dominated the battlefield and became the center of the battle. The Huns first seized the right side of the ridge, while the Romans seized the left, with the crest unoccupied between them. Jordanes explains that the Visigoths held the right side, the Romans the left, with Sangiban of uncertain loyalty and his Alans surrounded in the middle. The Hunnic forces attempted to take the ridge, but were outstripped by the Romans under Aetius and the Goths under Thorismund.
Jordanes goes on to state that Theodoric, whilst leading his own men against the enemy Goths, was killed in the assault without his men noticing. He then states that Theodoric was either thrown from his horse and trampled to death by his advancing men, or slain by the spear of the Goth Andag. Since Jordanes served as the notary of Andag's son Gunthigis, even if this latter story is not true, this version was certainly a proud family tradition.
Then Jordanes claims the Visigoths outstripped the speed of the Alans beside them and fell upon Attila's own Hunnic household unit. Attila was forced to seek refuge in his own camp, which he had fortified with wagons. The Romano-Gothic charge apparently swept past the Hunnic camp in pursuit; when night fell, Thorismund, son of king Theodoric, returning to friendly lines, mistakenly entered Attila's encampment. There he was wounded in the ensuing melee before his followers could rescue him. Darkness also separated Aetius from his own men. As he feared that disaster had befallen them, he spent the rest of the night with his Gothic allies.
On the following day, finding the battlefield was "piled high with bodies and the Huns did not venture forth", the Goths and Romans met to decide their next move. Knowing that Attila was low on provisions and "was hindered from approaching by a shower of arrows placed within the confines of the Roman camp", they started to besiege his camp. In this desperate situation, Attila remained unbowed and "heaped up a funeral pyre of horse saddles, so that if the enemy should attack him, he was determined to cast himself into the flames, that none might have the joy of wounding him and that the lord of so many races might not fall into the hands of his foes".
While Attila was besieged in his camp, the Visigoths searched for their missing king and his son Thorismund. After a long search, they found Theodoric's corpse "where the dead lay thickest" and bore him away with heroic songs in sight of the enemy. Upon learning of his father's death, Thorismund wanted to assault Attila's camp, but Aetius dissuaded him. According to Jordanes, Aetius feared that if the Huns were completely destroyed, the Visigoths would break off their allegiance to the Roman Empire and become an even graver threat. So Aetius convinced Thorismund to quickly return home and secure the throne for himself, before his brothers could. Otherwise, civil war would ensue among the Visigoths. Thorismund quickly returned to Tolosa (present-day Toulouse) and became king without any resistance. Gregory of Tours claims Aetius used the same reasoning to dismiss his Frankish allies, and collected the booty of the battlefield for himself.
The primary sources give little information as to the outcome of the battle, barring Jordanes. All emphasize the casualty count of the battle, and the battle becomes progressively biased into being a viewed as a Gothic victory beginning with Cassiodorus in the early 6th century.
"The Huns broke the peace and plundered the Gallic provinces. A great many cities were taken. On the Catalaunian Plains, not far from the city of Metz, which they had taken, the Huns were cut down in battle with the aid of God and defeated by general Aetius and King Theoderic, who had made a peace treaty with each other. The darkness of night interrupted the fighting. King Theoderic was laid low there and died. Almost 300,000 men are said to have fallen in that battle." - Hydatius, Chronicon, 150.
Prosper, contemporary to the battle, states:
"After killing his brother, Attila was strengthened by the resources of the deceased and forced many thousands of neighboring peoples into a war. This war, he announced as a guardian of Roman friendship, he would wage only against the Goths. But when he had crossed the Rhine and many Gallic cities had experienced his savage attacks, both our people and the Goths soon agreed to oppose with allied forces the fury of their proud enemies. And Aetius had such great foresight that, when fighting men were hurriedly collected from everywhere, a not unequal force met the opposing multitude. Although the slaughter of all those who died there was incalculable - for neither side gave way - it appears that the Huns were defeated in this battle because those among them that survived lost their taste for fighting and turned back home." - Prosper, Epitoma Chronicon, s.a. 451.
"The battle raged five miles down from Troyes on the field called Maurica in Campania." - Additamenta ad Chronicon Prosperi Hauniensis, s.a. 451.
"At this time Attila king of the Huns invaded the Gauls. Here trusting in lord Peter the apostle himself patrician Aetius proceeded against him, he would fight with the help of God." - Continuatio Codex Ovetensis.
"Battle was made in the Gauls between Aetius and Attila king of the Huns with both peoples and massacre. Attila fled into the greater Gauls." - Continuatio Codex Reichenaviensis.
The Gallic Chronicles of 452 and 511 state:
"Attila entered Gaul as if he had the right to ask for a wife that was owed to him. There, he inflicted and suffered defeat and then withdrew to his homeland." - Chronica Gallica Anno 452, s.a. 451.
"Patrician Aetius with king Theodoric of the Goths fight against Attila king of the Huns at Tricasses on the Mauriac plain, where Theodoric was slain, by whom it is uncertain, and Laudaricus the relative of Attila: and the bodies were countless. - Chronica Gallica Anno 511, s.a. 451.
The Paschale Chronicle, preserving a garbled and abbreviated passage of Priscus, states:
"While Theodosius and Valentinian, the Augusti, were emperors, Attila, from the race of the Gepid Huns, marched against Rome and Constantinople with a multitude of many tens of thousands. He notified Valentinian, the emperor of Rome, through a Gothic ambassador, "Attila, my master and yours, orders you through me to make ready the palace for him." He gave the same notice to Theodosius, the emperor in Constantinople, through a Gothic ambassador. Aetius, the first man of senatorial rank in Rome, heard the excessive daring of Attila's desperate response and went off to Alaric in Gaul, who was an enemy of Rome because of Honorius. He urged him to join him in standing against Attila, since he had destroyed many Roman cities. They unexpectedly launched himself against him as he was bivouacked near the Danubios river, and cut down his many thousands. Alaric, wounded by a saggita in the engagement, died.
Attila died similarly, carried off by a nasal hemorrhage while he slept at night with his Hunnic concubine. It was suspected that this girl killed him. The very wise Priscus the Thracian wrote about this war." - Chronicon Paschale, p. 587.
It is ultimately Jordanes' writing, whose passages were mentioned above, that leads to the difference in opinions in modern interpretations of the battle's outcome.
As a Roman victory
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In the traditional account, modern scholars take a very direct interpretation of Jordanes, although usually with various points of contention. Modern scholars tend to agree that the battle took place on a long ridge, not a plain with a hill to one side. Hughes argues that the Huns deploy in the center, with their vassals on the wings, because they were expecting a Roman infantry center, with cavalry wings. This way Attila could pin down the center with the disorganized Hunnic style of warfare, while the majority of his troops focused on breaking one or both of the enemy flanks. However, Hughes argues that the Romans were expecting this, which is why he placed the Alans in the center of the formation, who were skilled cavalrymen and had advanced knowledge of how to fight alongside the Roman style of warfare. Bachrach also notes that Jordanes' point of placing the Alans in the center due to disloyalty is biased on Jordanes' part.
Jordanes' description of the battle, according to Hughes, takes place from the Roman perspective. Attila's forces arrived on the ridge first, on the far right side, before the Visigoths could take that position. Then Aetius' Romans arrived on the left side of the ridge, and repulsed the Gepids as they came up. Finally the Alans and the Visigoths under Thorismund fought their way up and secured the center of the ridge, holding it against Attila. However, Hughes differs in that he places Thorismund between the Alans and Visigothic main body, rather than on the Visigothic flank. MacDowall, for example, places Thorismund on the far right of the battlefield and states Thorismund's engagement was a skirmish just prior to the main clash. The final phase of the battle is characterized by the Gothic attempt to take the right side of the ridge, in which Theodoric is slain, the rest of his army unaware of his death. It is at this point that Thorismund located Attila's position in the Hunnic battle line, and attacked the Hunnic center, nearly slaying Attila himself and forcing the Hunnic center to retreat. Both armies fell into confusion as darkness descended, and neither side knew the outcome of the battle until the following morning.
After the battle, the allies decided what to do next, and resolved to place Attila under siege for a few days while they discussed the matter. Aetius allegedly persuaded both Thorismund and the Goths, and the Franks as well, to leave the battle and return home. Hughes argues that since the Franks were fighting a civil war in the Battle, and Thorismund had five brothers who could usurp his new-found position as king, that it is likely Aetius did advise them to do so. O'Flynn argues that Aetius persuaded the Visigoths to return home in order to eliminate a group of volatile allies, and argues that he let Attila escape because he would have been just as happy to make an alliance with the Huns as with the Visigoths. The majority of historians also share the view that at this point Attila's "aura of invincibility" was broken, and that Aetius allowed the Huns to retreat in the hopes he could return to a status of partnership with them and draw on the Huns for future military support. The battle, almost immediately afterwards, then became famous for its staggering death toll.
As a Roman defeat
|This section relies largely or entirely upon a single source. (August 2015)|
Kim, in his recent work on the Huns, takes a radically different view of the battle's outcome. Kim suggests that, in fact, the entire battle is a play on the Battle of Marathon, with the Romans being the Plateans on the left, the Alans the weak Athenian center, and the Goths the Athenian regulars on the right, with Theodoric as Miltiades and Thorismund as Callimachus. The return home by the Goths to secure Thorismund's throne is the same as the return to Athens to protect it from sedition and the Persian Navy.
Kim also suggests a radically different outcome of the battle: his argument is mostly based on the description of the positions of various forces after the battle, which he believes to be the part that is actually factual. Thorismund and Aetius both lose track of their armies, both in the middle of the enemy army in the confusion of the night, with Aetius fearing that disaster had happened. He argues the important piece of information given is that the Huns were unable to near the Roman camp because of the archers positioned within it, stating that what really happened is that the Roman coalition had routed and the Huns had chased them back to their camps, not Attila being chased to his.
Kim uses this to build a new interpretation: after Theodoric is killed, the Gothic line routs and leaves a gap in the line for the Huns to exploit, making the Visigoths at fault for the disaster. He says that Jordanes tries to place the fault on the Alans, who bore the brunt of the battle in the center because they were the most reliable of the allied forces and a hindrance to Visigothic hegemony in the region at the time.
However, Kim's views have received a mixed reception among scholars of the period, with one reviewer noting that much of the text amounts to "a confused and confusing story, involving the rewriting of histories, genealogies and chronologies... exacerbated by strange and clumsy conflations." They therefore should be taken with skepticism.
Both armies consisted of combatants from many peoples. Besides the Roman troops and the Visigoths, Jordanes lists Aetius' allies as including the Francii, Riparii, Sauromationes, Aremoriciani, Liticiani, Burgundians, Saxones, and Olibrones (whom he describes as "once Roman soldiers and now the flower of the allied forces"), and "other Celtic or German tribes." Fleuriot argues that the British Litaui also joined Aetius in the battle, being called Liticiani by Jordanes and Britones by Gregory of Tours. Halsall argues that the Rhine Limitanei and the old British field army composed that of the Armoricans, and Heather suggests that the Visigoths may have been able to field about 25,000 men total. Drinkwater adds that a faction of Alamanni may have participated in the battle, possibly on both sides like the Franks and Burgundians.
Jordanes' list for Attila's allies includes the Gepids under their king Ardaric, as well as an army of various Gothic groups led by the brothers Valamir, Theodemir (the father of the later Ostrogothic king Theodoric the Great) and Widimer, scions of the Amali Goths. Sidonius offers a more extensive list of allies: Rugians, Gepids, Geloni, Burgundians, Sciri, Bellonoti, Neuri, Bastarnae, Thuringians, Bructeri, and Franks living along the Neckar River E.A. Thompson expresses his suspicions that some of these names are drawn from literary traditions rather than from the event itself:
The Bastarnae, Bructeri, Geloni and Neuri had disappeared hundreds of years before the time of the Huns, while the Bellonoti had never existed at all: presumably the learned poet was thinking of the Balloniti, a people invented by Valerius Flaccus nearly four centuries earlier.
On the other hand, Thompson believes that the presence of Burgundians on the Hunnic side is credible, noting that a group is documented as remaining east of the Rhine; likewise, he believes that the other peoples Sidonius alone mentions (the Rugians, Scirans and Thuringian) were likely participants in this battle.
Nevertheless, the number of participants for either side is entirely speculative. Jordanes reports the number of dead from this battle as 165,000, excluding the casualties of the Franco-Gepid skirmish previous to the main battle. Hydatius, a historian who lived at the time of Attila's invasion, reports the number of 300,000 dead. However, the Chronicon Paschale, which preserves an extremely abbreviated and garbled fragment of Priscus' account of the campaign, states Attila's forces numbered in the tens of thousands.
The figures both Jordanes and Hydatius offer are implausibly high. Thompson remarks in a footnote, "I doubt that Attila could have fed an army of even 30,000 men." However Lindner argues that by crossing the Carpathians the Huns had forfeitted their best logistic base and grazing grounds, and that the Hungarian plain could only support 15,000 mounted nomads. Kim notes that the Huns continued use of the Xiongnu decimal system, meaning their army was probably organized into divisions of 10, 100, 1000, and 10,000, but no real estimates of Hunnic military capacity can be determined. Their barbarian allies, however, do receive mentions at other times in other sources: in 430 A.D. Octar was defeated by a force of 3000 Neckar Burgundians, and Heather estimates that both the Gepids and the Amali Goths could have fielded 15,000 men each at the Battle of Nedao in 454. Therefore, the total Hunnic forces could have plausibly been in excess of 48,000 men.
A sense of the size of the actual Roman army may be found in the study of the Notitia Dignitatum by A.H.M. Jones. This document is a list of officials and military units that was last updated in the first decades of the 5th century. The Notitia Dignitatum lists 58 various regular units, and 33 limitanei serving either in the Gallic provinces or on the frontiers nearby; the total of these units, based on Jones analysis, is 34,000 for the regular units and 11,500 for the limitanei, or just under 46,000 all told. However, this figure is an estimate for the years 395-425 A.D. and one that constantly changes with new research. The loss of Africa, which cut approximately 40,000 infantry and 20,000 cavalry or more from the Roman army on top of previous losses, was enough to permanently cripple the Roman military capacity. While the figure of the Gallic field army cannot be used for the Battle of the Catalaunian Fields, it does indicate the Roman forces present at the battle were significantly lower than the estimated 34,000 men.
The combined forces of the federates would have been far greater in number, while the Roman forces in Gaul had become much smaller by this time. Assuming that the Hunnic forces were roughly the same size as the Roman and federate army, the number involved in battle could be in excess of 100,000 combatants in total. This excludes the inevitable servants and camp followers who usually escape mention in primary sources.
Site of the Catalaunian Fields
The actual location of the Catalaunian Fields is unclear. Historian Thomas Hodgkin located the site near Méry-sur-Seine, but current consensus is that there is no conclusive site, merely being that it is in the vicinity of Châlons-en-Champagne (formerly called Châlons-sur-Marne) or Troyes. More recent evaluations of the Battlefield have been performed, notably by Phillippe Richardot, who proposed a location of La Cheppe, slightly north of the modern town of Chalons.
Simon Macdowall in his 2015 Osprey title proposed the battle took place at Montgueux just west of Troyes. Macdowall goes as far as to identify the Roman alliance's camp site being placed at Fontvannes, a few kilometers west of the proposed battlefield, and places Attila's camp on the Seine at Saint-Lyé. This draws on the earlier work of M. Girard, who was able to identify Maurica as the "les Maures" ridge of Montgueux, based on the second Additamenta Altera to Prosper's Epitoma Chronicon, which states it took place five Roman miles from Tecis or Tricasses, the modern Troyes. The road in the region is known as the "Voie des Maures", and the base of the ridge is known as "l'enfer" to the locals. A small stream near the battlefield that runs to Troyes is known as "la Riviere de Corps" to this day. According to MacDowall, modern maps continue to identify the plains in the region as the "les Maurattes." The ridge at Montgueux is currently the best researched proposal for the battlefield location.
In 1842, a labourer uncovered a burial at Pouan-les-Vallées, a village on the south bank of the Aube River, that consisted of a skeleton with a number of jewels and gold ornaments and buried with two swords. By the nature of its grave goods, it was initially thought to be the burial of Theodoric, but Hodgkin expressed skepticism, suggesting that this elite burial was that of a princely Germanic warrior who had lived in the 5th century. The Treasure of Pouan is conserved in the Musée Saint-Loup (Musée d'Art d'Archéologie et de Sciences Naturelles), Troyes. It is still unknown whether or not the find is related to the battle.
Traditional view: The battle was of macro-historical importance
This battle, especially since Edward Gibbon addressed it in The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire and Sir Edward Creasy wrote his The Fifteen Decisive Battles of the World, has been considered by many historians to be one of the most important battles of Late Antiquity, at least in the Latin-speaking world.
Creasy quoted Herbert's Attila concerning this battle
The discomfiture of the mighty attempt of Attila to found a new anti-Christian dynasty upon the wreck of the temporal power of Rome, at the end of the term of twelve hundred years, to which its duration had been limited by the forebodings of the heathen.
Creasy also stated:
Attila's attacks on the Western empire were soon renewed, but never with such peril to the civilized world as had menaced it before his defeat at Châlons; and on his death, two years after that battle, the vast empire which his genius had founded was soon dissevered by the successful revolts of the subject nations. The name of the Huns ceased for some centuries to inspire terror in Western Europe, and their ascendancy passed away with the life of the great king by whom it had been so fearfully augmented.
John Julius Norwich, the historian known for his works on Venice and on Byzantium, said of the battle of Chalons:
It should never be forgotten that in the summer of 451 and again in 452, the whole fate of western civilization hung in the balance. Had the Hunnish army not been halted in these two successive campaigns, had its leader toppled Valentinian from his throne and set up his own capital at Ravenna or Rome, there is little doubt that both Gaul and Italy would have been reduced to spiritual and cultural deserts.
He goes on to say that though the battle in 451 was "indecisive insofar as both sides sustained immense losses and neither was left master of the field, it had the effect of halting the Huns' advance."
There are a couple of reasons why this combat has kept its epic importance down the centuries. One is that —ignoring the Battle of Qarqar (Karkar), which was forgotten at this time— this was the first significant conflict that involved large alliances on both sides. No single nation dominated either side; rather, two alliances met and fought in surprising coordination for the time. Arthur Ferrill, addressing this issue, goes on to say:
After he secured the Rhine, Attila moved into central Gaul and put Orleans under siege. Had he gained his objective, he would have been in a strong position to subdue the Visigoths in Aquitaine, but Aetius had put together a formidable coalition against the Hun. Working frenetically, the Roman leader had built a powerful alliance of Visigoths, Alans and Burgundians, uniting them with their traditional enemy, the Romans, for the defense of Gaul. Even though all parties to the protection of the Western Roman Empire had a common hatred of the Huns, it was still a remarkable achievement on Aetius' part to have drawn them into an effective military relationship.
Addressing Attila's fearsome reputation, and the importance of this battle, Gibbon noted that it was from his enemies we hear of his terrible deeds, not from friendly chroniclers, emphasizing that the former had no reason to elevate Attila's reign of terror, and the importance of the Battle of Chalons in proving Attila to be defeatable.
Opposing view: The battle was not of macro-historical importance
However, J.B. Bury expresses a quite different judgement:
The battle of Maurica was a battle of nations, but its significance has been enormously exaggerated in conventional history. It cannot in any reasonable sense be designated as one of the critical battles of the world. The Gallic campaign had really been decided by the strategic success of the allies in cutting off Attila from Orleans. The battle was fought when he was in full retreat, and its value lay in damaging his prestige as an invincible conqueror, in weakening his forces, and in hindering him from extending the range of his ravages.
The number of combatants, while not as small as many conflicts over the following centuries, is not large compared to the entire forces of the Roman empire. And it did not halt Attila's campaign against the Roman Empire: the following year a weakened Attila invaded Italy, and caused much destruction, only ending his campaign after Pope Leo I met with him at a ford of the river Mincio. It was only after Attila's sudden death in 453, and after the divided and competing Hunnic forces fell upon each other at the Battle of Nedao in the following year, that the Huns vanished as a threat to Europe.
Further, following this victory the Roman Empire did not emerge with renewed military might, but instead was likewise weakened, though more slowly than the Huns: despite the assassinations of first Aetius, then Emperor Valentinian III, then the Sack of Rome by Geiseric in 455, a generation later there were still sufficient useful remains of the Western Roman Empire for the warlords to fight over. As Bury further observes:
If Attila had been victorious, if he had defeated the Romans and the Goths at Orleans, if he had held Gaul at his mercy and had translated — and we have no evidence that this was his design — the seat of his government and the abode of his people from the Theiss to the Seine or the Loire, there is no reason to suppose that the course of history would have been seriously altered. For the rule of the Huns in Gaul could only have been a matter of a year or two; it could not have survived here, any more than it survived in Hungary, the death of the great king, on whose brains and personal character it depended. Without depreciating the achievement of Aetius and Theoderic we must recognise that at worst the danger they averted was of a totally different order from the issues which were at stake on the fields of Plataea and the Metaurus. If Attila had succeeded in his campaign, he would probably have been able to compel the surrender of Honoria, and if a son had been born of their marriage and proclaimed Augustus in Gaul, the Hun might have been able to exercise considerable influence on the fortunes of that country; but that influence would probably not have been anti-Roman.
It is highly notable that Bury, who does not believe the Battle of Chalons to be of macrohistorical importance, characterizes Aetius' rule thus: "From the end of the regency to his own death, Aetius was master of the Empire in the west, and it must be imputed to his policy and arms that Imperial rule did not break down in all the provinces by the middle of the fifth century." Bury goes on to say, after noting that the emperor had cut off his right hand with his left by murdering the only man who held the dying empire together, "Who was now to save Italy from the Vandals?" Bury made clear that there was no one capable of taking Aetius' place.
Several other respected historians have similar views.
Aftermath and reputation of the battle
Gibbon succinctly states:
The following year, Attila renewed his claims to Honoria and territory in the Western Roman Empire. Leading his troops across the Alps and into Northern Italy, he conquered the cities of Aquileia, Vicetia, Verona, Brixia, Bergomum and Milan. Finally, at the very gates of Rome, he turned his army back only after negotiating with the pope.
Another reason the ferocity of this campaign left a deep impression upon its contemporaries is that not only did Attila savage much of Europe in a manner unrepeated for centuries, but the battle acquired a reputation for carnage almost immediately. Considering the extravagant totals for casualties, Gibbon remarked that they "suppose a real and effective loss, sufficient to justify the historian's remark that whole generations may be swept away by the madness of kings in a single hour".
Primary sources immediately note the battle for being exceptionally bloody. Prosper Tiro of Aquitaine states that the battle was a mass slaughter, writing immediately afterwards. The Gallic Chronicle of 452, Jordanes, Hydatius, and the Lex Gundobada all state or indicate the casualties were extreme. Jordanes explicitly states:
For, if we may believe our elders, a brook flowing between low banks through the plain was greatly increased by blood of the slain. It was not flooded by showers, as brooks usually rise, but was swollen by a strange stream and turned into a torrent by the increase of blood. Those whose wounds drove them to slake their parching thirst drank water mingled in gore. In their wretched plight they were forced to drink what they thought was the blood they had poured from their own wounds.
The philosopher Damascius stated that the fighting was so severe "that no one survived except only the leaders on either side and a few followers: but the ghosts of those who fell continued the struggle for three whole days and nights as violently as if they had been alive; the clash of their arms was clearly audible". The Gallic Chronicle of 511 remarks that one participant stated "cadavera vero innumera" or "truly innumerable corpses." The works of Sidonius Apollinaris, Jordanes, Gregory of Tours, and the Chronicle of Fredegar all claimed that it was in the authors' beliefs a mistake to let Attila and his army escape. Tackholm makes note of the evolution of the view of the battle, which goes from being a stalemate in the 5th century, to being hailed as a great victory for the Goths in the 6th as they distorted it to fit their own ethnography.
A further reason for the reputation of this battle is that it was the first major battle since the death of Constantine I where a predominantly Christian force faced a predominantly pagan opponent. This factor was very much apparent to the contemporaries, who often mention prayer playing a factor in this battle (e.g., Gregory of Tours' story of the prayers of Aetius' wife saving the Roman's life in Historia Francorum 2.7).
- Jordanes, De Origine Actibusque Getarum, 36.190
- Davies, Norman, Europe: A History, (Oxford University Press, 1996), 232.
- Jordanes, De Origine Actibusque Getarum, 38.199
- Jordanes, De Origine Actibusque Getarum, 36.199
- Hyun Jin Kim, The Huns, Rome, and the Birth of Europe, 81
- Hyun Jin Kim, The Huns, Rome, and the Birth of Europe, 82
- Chronica Gallica 511, s.a. 451.
- Gibbon, Decline and Fall, volume II, p.537
- Chronica Gallica Anno 452, s.a. 443
- Bachrach, Bernard (1973). A History of the Alans in the West. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. pp. 29, 32, and 62–63.
- Drinkwater, John (2007). The Alamanni and Rome. Oxford: Oxford University Press. pp. 327–329.
- The Getica (or "Gothic History"), our principal source for this battle, is the work of Jordanes, who acknowledges that his work is based on Cassiodorus' own Gothic History, written between 526 and 533. However, the philologist Theodor Mommsen argued that Jordanes' detailed description of the battle was copied from lost writings of the Greek historian Priscus. It is available in an English translation by Charles Christopher Mierow, The Gothic History of Jordanes (Cambridge: Speculum Historiale, 1966, a reprint of the 1915 second edition); all quotations of Jordanes are taken from this edition, which is in the public domain.
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- Given, John (2014). The Fragmentary History of Priscus. Merchantville, NJ: Evolution Publishing. pp. 93, 98, 100, and 102.
- A modern narrative based these sources can be found in E.A. Thompson, The Huns (Oxford: Blackwell, 1996), pp. 144–48. This is a posthumous revision by Peter Heather of Thompson's A History of Attila and the Huns, originally published in 1948.
- Hughes, Ian (2012). Aetius: Attila's Nemesis. Barnsley, South Yorkshire: Pen & Sword Military. p. 148.
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- Chronicle of Fredegar, 3.11
- Kim, Hyun Jin (2013). The Huns, Rome, and the Birth of Europe. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. pp. 79–82.
- The vitae are summarized in Hodgkin, Thomas (1967) [1880–89], Italy and Her Invaders, II, New York: Russell & Russell, pp. 128ff.
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- Bachrach, Bernard (1973). A History of the Alans in the West. Minneapolis: Minnesota University Press. pp. 65–67.
- Kim, Hyun Jin (2013). The Huns, Rome, and the Birth of Europe. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. p. 77.
- Sidonius Apollinaris, Carmina, 7.329.
- Hughes, Ian (2012). Aetius: Attila's Nemesis. Barnsley, South Yorkshire: Pen & Sword Military. p. 159.
- Sidonius Apollinaris, Carmina, 7.332–56.
- Hughes, Ian (2012). Aetius: Attila's Nemesis. Barnsley, South Yorkshire: Pen & Sword Military. pp. 160–161.
- Kim, Hyun Jin (2013). The Huns, Rome, and the Birth of Europe. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. p. 80.
- Jordanes, Getica 41.217
- MacDowall, Simon (2015). Catalaunian Fields AD 451. Oxford: Osprey Publishing. p. 52.
- Bury (1958) , History of the Later Roman Empire from the Death of Theodosius I to the Death of Justinian (59), New York: Dover, p. 329.
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- Jordanes, De Origine Actibusque Getarum, 38.196-201
- Jordanes, De Origine Actibusque Getarum 40.209.
- Given, John (2014). The Fragmentary History of Priscus. Merchantville, NJ: Evolution Publishing. p. 101. ISBN 978-1-935228-14-1.
- Jordanes, De Origine Actibusque Getarum, 40.209–12.
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- Jordanes, De Origine Actibusque Getarum, 40.214-218; Gregory of Tours, Historia Francorum 2.7.
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- Pugnatum est in quinto milliario de Tecis loco nuncupante Maurica in Campania." - Additamenta ad Chronicon Prosperi Hauniensis, s.a. 451.
- "Hoc tempore Attila Hunorum rex invadit Gallias. Contra hunc commendans se domno Petro apostolo patricius Aetius perrexit dei auxilio pugnaturus." - Continuatio Codex Ovetensis, Magna Germaniae Historia IX, p. 490."
- "Pugna facta in Galliis inter Aetium et Attilanum regem Hunorum cum utriusque populi caede. Attila fugatur in Gallias Superiores." - continuatio Codex Reichenaviensis, Magna Germaniae Historia IX, p. 490.
- Murray, Alexander (2008). From Roman to Merovingian Gaul. Toronto: University of Toronto Press. p. 85.
- "Aetius patricius cum Theodorico rege Gothorum contra Attilam regem Hunorum Tricassis pugnat loco Mauriacos, ubi Theodoricus a a quo occisus incertum est et Laudaricus cognatus Attilae: cadavera vero innumera." - Chronica Gallica Anno 511, s.a. 451.
- Heather, Peter (2007). The Fall of the Roman Empire: A New History of Rome and the Barbarians. Oxford: Oxford University Press. p. 339.
- MacDowall, Simon (2015). Catalaunian Fields AD 451, Rome's Last Great Battle. Oxford, U.K.: Osprey Publishing Ltd. pp. 55–57.
- Hughes, Ian (2012). Aetius: Attila's Nemesis. Barnsley, South Yorkshire: Pen & Sword Military. p. 164.
- Hughes, Ian (2012). Aetius: Attila's Nemesis. Barnsley, South Yorkshire: Pen & Sword Military. pp. 165–166.
- Bachrach, Bernard (1973). A History of the Alans in the West. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. pp. 65–67.
- Hughes, Ian (2012). Aetius: Attila's Nemesis. Barnsley, South Yorkshire: Pen & Sword Military. p. 168.
- MacDowall, Simon (2015). Catalaunian Fields AD 451. Oxford: Osprey Publishing. pp. 58–60.
- Hughes, Aetius: Attila's Nemesis, 170-172.
- Hughes, Ian (2012). Aetius: Attila's Nemesis. Barnsley, South Yorkshire: Pen & Sword Military. pp. 173–174.
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- Getica 36.191.
- Léon Fleuriot, Les Origines de la Bretagne, (Paris: Payot, 1980), p. 244; Christopher Snyder, The Britons, (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2003), p. 147; Gregory of Tours, Historia Francorum, 2.7.
- Halsall, Barbarian Migrations and the Roman West, p. 253; Heather, The Goths.
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- Carmina 7.321–25.
- E.A. Thompson, The Huns, p. 149.
- Jordanes, Getica, 40.217; Hydatius, Chronica, 150
- Chronicon Paschale, p. 587.
- Thompson, "endnote 65", The Huns, p. 300.
- Rudi Paul Lindner, "Nomadism, Horses, and Huns", Past and Present, 92 (1981), p. 15
- Kim, The Huns, Rome, and the Birth of Europe, pp. 23, 40.
- Otto Maenchen-Helfen, On the World of the Huns, (Berkeley: University of California, 1973), pp. 82-83; Peter Heather, The Goths.
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- Bury, The Later Roman Empire, p. 295.
- Lucien Musset, The Germanic Invasions: The Making of Europe, AD 400–600, 1975.
- Edward Gibbon, Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (New York: Modern Library), volume II, p.1089.
- Gibbon, Decline and Fall, Volume II, p.285
- Prosper Tiro, Epitoma Chronicon, 1463.
- Chronica Gallia 452, s.a. 451; Jordanes, De Origine Actibusque Getarum, 41.217; Hydatius, Chronica Hispania, 150; Lex Burgundionem, 17.1.
- Jordanes, De Origine Actibusque Getarum, 40.208.
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- Chronica Gallia 511, s.a. 451.
- Sidonius Apollinaris, Carmina, 7.344-346; Jordanes, De Origine Actibusque Getarum, 41.216-217; Gregory of Tours, Historia Francorum, 2.7; Fredegar, Chronica Epitomata, 2.53.
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|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Battle of Chalons.|
- History of the Later Roman Empire (1923) at LacusCurtius.
- Italy and Her Invaders (1918) at LacusCurtius.
- The Origin and Deeds of the Goths by Jordanes. Translated by Charles C. Mierow.