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Battle of Chalons


Battle of Chalons
Location:Somewhere in the western
part of present-day France
Date:September 20, 451
Combatant1Roman Empire
Led byAetius and Theodorid
ForcesAn alliance of foederati that
included the Visigoths
Led byAttila the Hun
ForcesAn alliance of numerous
subject nations

The Battle of Chalons, also called the Battle of the Catalaunian Fields or the Battle of the Catalun, occurred on September 20, 451 between the Roman general Aetius, assisted by the Visigoths under their king Theodorid and other foederati on one side, and the Huns led by their king Attila with their allies. The actual location of this battle is not known with certainty: Hodgkin, in his Italy and Her Invaders, stated the location to be near Mery-sur-Seine, but current consensus places the battlefield at Châlons-en-Champagne.

Our principal source for this battle is the Gothic History of Jordanes, who admits that his work is an abridgement of 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 the now lost writings of the Greek historian Priscus. Jordanes states that Attila was enticed by Gaiseric, king of the Vandals, to wage war on the Visigoths, while simultaneously encouraging disharmony between the Visigoths and the Roman Empire. Despite Gaiseric's intrigues, upon Attila's invasion of Gaul, Aetius was able to secure the support of Theodorid and his army, as well as many independent peoples inhabiting Gaul. A common modern explanation for this unity against Attila is that the allied powers perceived Attila as their undeniable primary threat to existence.

Attila met no significant resistance until he reached Aureliani, present-day Orleans. Sangiban, king of the Alans, whose realm included Aureliani, had promised to open the gates of this city to Attila, but the Romans learned of this ploy ahead of time and were able to not only occupy Aureliani in force, but force Sangiban's troops into joining the allied army. Upon meeting the Roman-led forces, Attila at first began to retreat back to his own lands, but finally decided to make a stand where the battle took place. Jordanes explains Attila's change of mind to his learning that the Patrician Aetius was present in the opposing force, and hoped that by fighting Aetius would be slain, even at the risk of his own life.

Both armies consisted of combatants from many people. Jordanes lists Aetius' allies as including (besides the Visigoths) both the Salic and Riparian Franks, Sarmatians, Armoricans, Liticians, Burgundians, Saxons, Olibrones (whom Jordanes describes as "once Roman soldiers and now the flower of the allied forces"), and other Celtic or German tribes. Attila had with him the Gepids under their king Ardaric, as well as an Ostrogothic army led by the brothers Valamir, Theodemir -- the father of the later Ostrogothic king Theodoric the Great -- and Vidimer, scions of the Amali.

The night before the main battle, one of the Frankish forces on the Roman side encountered a band of the Gepids loyal to Attila. Jordanes records that this skirmish left 15,000 dead on either side.

The Catalaunian plain rose on one side by a sharp slope to a ridge, which dominated the battlefield, and became the center of the battle. The Huns first seized the right side of this ridge while the Romans seized the left, with the crest unoccupied in the between them. When the Hunnish forces attemped to seize this decisive position, they were foiled by the Roman alliance, whose troops had arrived first, and repulsed the Hunnish advance. The Hunnic warriors fled in disorder back into their own forces, thereby disordering the rest of Attila's army.

Attila attempted to rally his forces, struggling to hold his position. Meanwhile king Theodorid, while encouraging his own men in their advance, was killed in the assault without his men noticing. Jordanes states that Theodorid was thrown from his horse and trampled to death by his advancing men, but also mentions another story exists stating Theodorid was slain by the spear of the Ostrogoth Andag. Since Jordanes served as the notary of Andag's son Gunthigis, if this latter story is not true then it is certain that this version was a proud family claim.

The Visigoths outstripped the speed of their Alani charges them and fell upon Attila's own Hunnish household unit, forcing Attila to seek refuge in his own camp, which he had fortified with wagons. The Romano-Gothic assault apparently swept past the Hunnish camp in pursuit of the fleeing enemy troops, for when night fell and Thorismund, son of king Theodorid, was retiring to friendly lines, mistakenly entered Attila's encampment, where he was wounded in the ensuing melee before his followers could rescue him. Darkness also separated Aetius from own men, and fearing that disaster had befallen them, searched for his Gothic allies, and on finding them, with whom he spent the rest of the night.

On the following day, finding the battle fields "were piled high with bodies and the Huns did not venture forth", the Goths and Romans held a meeting on how to proceed. 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 decided 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."

During the siege of Attila's camp, the Visigoths went looking for their missing king, and Thorismund, the son of their king. After a long search, they found Theodrid's body beneath a mound of corpses, and bore him away with heroic songs in the sight of the enemy. Thorismund upon learning of his father's death, wanted to assault Attila's camp, but when he first conferred with Aetius, the Patrician had different advice. According to Jordanes, Aetius feared that if the Huns were completely destroyed by the Visigoths, then the Visigoths would break off their allegiance to the Roman Empire and become an even graver threat. So Aetius advised the Gothic king to quickly return home and secure the throne for himself, before his brothers could, which would force Thorismund into a war with his own countrymen. Thorismund quickly returned to Tolosa, present-day Toulouse, and became king without any resistance. On the Visigoth's withdrawal, Attila at first believed it to be a feigned retreat to draw his battered forces out into the open to be annihilated, and so remained within his defences for some time before he risked leaving his canton and at last returning to his homelands.

Jordanes' figure for the number of dead in this battle is 165,000, excluding the casualties of the Franko-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. Both figures are suspiciously high, and modern historians suggest a number far lower.

One cannot deny that the number of combatants in this battle was large, far larger than any battle since Adrianople in 378, or any battle over the next several centuries. The large number of men, as well as their varied origins, left a deep impression on the minds of succeding generations. Add to this the progressive demonization of the Hunnish king Attila, who is often portrayed in contemporary entertainment as a medieval version of Adolf Hitler, and it is easy to see how this battle has become a decisive encounter of the forces of Good versus Evil. However, the battle itself was not decisive. The following year Attila invaded Italy, causing much destruction, only ending his campaign after Pope Leo I met with him at a ford of the river Minicio. On Attila's sudden death in 453, the Huns quickly vanished as a threat to the rest of Europe. Nor did the Roman Empire emerge from this victory more powerful, but instead likewise weakened but only more slowly than did the Huns, despite the assassinations of first Aetius, then emperor Valentinian III, followed by the sack of Rome by Gaiseric in 455. Despite these critical losses, a generation later there were still sufficient useful remains of the Western Roman Empire for the warlords to fight over.

The quotations from Jordanes in this article were taken from a 1915 translation by Charles Christopher Mierow of Princeton University.