We do magic to Maps
The sun rose gently over northeastern France on this morning in 451 CE, shining a light upon the furrowed brow of Europe's most fearsome enemy, Attila the Hun. Standing over the scattered entrails of a sacrificed animal, he has just heard an ominous forecast from tribal prophets. Attila had, as always, followed Hunnic tradition to the letter: he listened intently as his seers picked through the scattered organs in search of truth from the gods the morning before a major battle – it's just that he had rarely heard a prediction of doom.
Just over ten years since he first led men across the Danube River and threatened Constantinople, the short, barrel-chested Attila was now deep into the Western Roman Empire in search of revenge. Having declared his wish to conquer the Visigoths of southwestern France, he made an alliance with Emperor Valentinian III in 450. Legend says that Valentinian's sister, Honoria, in a bid to be free of her arranged marriage to an older member of the senate, sent her ring to Attila to propose a more complete union. Whether that was her intent or not, Attila accepted on the condition he received half the empire.
Upon learning of his sister's treachery, Valentinian flew into a murderous rage, only choosing to exile Honoria after his mother pleaded with him for mercy. The Emperor sent a letter to Attila revealing his displeasure, declaring the proposal – if that is what it was – null and void. Attila believed an agreement had been reached with Honoria and, angered by Valentinian's refusal to see it followed to the letter, vowed to take the territory he had been promised.
So it was that Attila, backed by his fellow Huns and warriors from more than a half-dozen other tribes, crossed over the Rhine in 451 to extend his kingdom to the Atlantic Ocean. He first captured Metz, then Reims. In early June, the Hunnic force – anywhere from 50,000 to 80,000 strong – arrived at Orleans. There, a combined Roman and Visigoth army finally caught up with Attila just as his men broke through the walls on June 14th. Realizing they would soon be under siege, Attila ordered a strategic retreat to a more advantageous field.
The Catalaunian plains, near modern Chalons-en-Champagne, were deemed the appropriate location and there, on this day in 451 CE, Attila the Hun's westward advance finally stopped dead in its tracks.
The field itself, Attila must have thought, would be ideal for his skilled horsemen to dominate. A gentle slope to a central ridge would allow the Huns to impose their will on the Roman-Gothic force, demand a surrender – or, more likely, impose a slaughter – and then resume his planned march to the sea essentially unopposed. Tactically, the idea would have to be considered sound. Practically, it was a different matter.
Flavius Aetius, the Roman magistrate for this portion of Gaul, had spent an extensive amount of time convincing Theodoric I, the Visigothic king, to join in the fight. Moved to act once he realized how small Aetius' legions were, the combined force would come to roughly equal that of their Hunnic counterparts.
Attila must have liked his chances – right up until he heard the prophecy, that is. Warned the Huns would face disaster despite the enemy losing one of its commanders, Attila delayed his first attack until later in the day for two reasons: he hoped Aetius, who had spent time in exile with the Huns in 433, would be the leader from the other side who fell and – having been informed he would lose – he believed sunset would give his men an easier escape from the field.
As the battle began, the Roman army swept to the left as the allied tribes – Alans led by Sangiban – drove toward the high ground in the center of the plain. The Visigoths charged along the right in an attempt to pin Sangiban and his forces in. (The Alans loyalty uncertain, the Romans and Visigoths were determined not to be caught by surprise and cede the field.)
The Hunnic horsemen had been beaten to the high ground and, unable to force a retreat, wheeled back towards Attila and the remainder of the army, throwing the advance into disarray. Men and horses clashed, with thousands dead on both sides. Historical accounts tell us the following day the grounds “were piled high with bodies and the Huns did not venture forth.” Attila and his men were trapped in their own camp. Resolved to avoid surrender, Attila is said to have lit a massive fire in order to throw himself into it should the Romans and Visigoths move in for the kill.
It was not to be. Theodoric, the Visigoth king, had been thrown from his horse and trampled in his army's advance the day before. His son, Thorismund, grief-stricken and angry, attempted to convince Aetius to launch an all-out attack to finish the Huns off. The Roman magistrate, in a canny political move, encouraged Thorismund to return home and solidify his claim to the crown, believing it the best way to maintain the Roman-Gothic alliance. Wary that his brothers might take his rightful inheritance, Thorismund agreed.
As the Visigoths backed away in an orderly retreat, Attila ordered his men to solidify their defenses. Convinced it was a ruse to draw his army out and crush what remained, Attila and the Hunnic armies maintained their position until absolutely certain their enemies were gone. Weary and stinging from the strategic defeat – historians tend to refer to the battle as a draw more valuable to the Romans – Attila led his army home, humiliated to see his prophets had been proved correct.
Last Updated on: June 12, 2012