The last great Battle from Antiquity: The Battle of the Catalaunian Plains (June 20, AD 451) - History Key

The last great Battle from Antiquity: The Battle of the Catalaunian Plains (June 20, AD 451)

In a continuous rush of prey, the Huns made brutal raids in Europe. They didn’t seek to settle in the conquered territories, but rather to expand as much as they could. The Huns sparked a wave of terror that wouldn’t be forgotten for centuries. On this day in history, 20 June 451 AD, the Battle of the Catalaunian Plains took place. It was the last great battle of antiquity, but also one of the bloodiest battles in history.

Empire of Attila and the Roman Empire around 450 AD. Settlement area of Germanic tribes within the Imperium Roman are marked, controlled areas are in color
Empire of Attila and the Roman Empire around 450 AD. Settlement area of Germanic tribes within the Imperium Roman are marked, controlled areas are in color © William R. Shepherd/ Image Source: Wikipedia

Pretext

In the 450s, the Roman control over Gaul and all provinces outside Italy was weak. Therefore, Attila the Hun wanted to take advantage of Rome’s instability. He’s claims went now to the West Roman Empire of which he demanded half as a dowry, by a virtue of a future marriage to Valentinian III’s sister, Honoria. In fact, everything was just a pretext for new robberies, as long as Honoria had been imprisoned in a Byzantine monastery. In response, Attila devastates Gaul in a series of unprecedented cruel attacks.

At the head of a huge army of Huns, Burgundians, Gepids, Ostrogoths and Franks, the young commander conquered one by one the great cities of Gaul: Strasbourg, Amiens, Worms, Reims and Metz, leaving tens of thousands of victims. The historians consider that the Huns attack was based on the old rivalry between the Visigoth king Theodoric and the Roman armies. Attila probably hoped that the Visigoths will join him in order to gain independence from Rome and being able to launch a decisive attack on Rome. However, the military genius, Flavius Aetius intervened.

The enemy of my enemy is my friend

Flavius Aetius succeeded in a short time what no one believed could be accomplished: an alliance with the old enemies, in front of the common enemy. Despite that the Roman troops were poorly trained and outnumbered, Aetius managed to convince Theodoric to join him against the Huns. Moreover, the Visigoth King also attracted small groups of Burgundians and Franks who didn’t join the Huns.

"The Huns at the Battle of Chalons" from page 135 of A Popular History of France From The Earliest Times Volume I of VI
“The Huns at the Battle of Chalons” from page 135 of A Popular History of France From The Earliest Times Volume I of VI © A. De Neuville/Image Source: Wikipedia

The Roman-Visigoth army surprise Attila during the siege of Orleans. In fact, when the troops led by Aetius arrived, some Huns managed to penetrate the streets of the city. Advantaged by the closed place where Attila’s cavalry was trapped, Aetius ordered the attack, an attack on which the Huns suffered significant losses. Forced to retreat, Attila drives his army near Chalon, on the place called the Catalaunian Plains.

"Attila the Hun" portrait by sculptor George S. Stuart
“Attila the Hun” portrait by sculptor George S. Stuart © CC BY-SA 3.0/Image Source: Wikipedia

According to ancient and medieval historians, the less loyal troops to Rome had been flanked by the army of Theodoric to prevent them from deserting. On the other side, Attila preferred his own warriors in the center, flanked by Gepids and Ostrogoths. Although the details given by the chronicles of the Battle of Catalaunian Plains are not very clear, the modern historians have been able to reconstruct a large part of it. Apparently, since the first clash, both camps have suffered heavy losses.

However, Attila managed to break an important defensive line. In a quick attack, Theodoric is hit by an arrow, falling from his horse. He is crushed by his own army. Despite that their leader died, the Visigoths didn’t retreat, but they managed to destabilize the Huno-German troops.

Political decision?

Paradoxically, Aetius forbids the Roman soldiers to attack. He waited the withdrawal of their enemies under the Visigoths pressure. Although, at first glance, Aetius decisions seem bizarre, a careful analysis of the political context fully justifies his actions. The refusal to sacrifice his own troops denotes his vision for the years to come. Aware that the new Visigoth leader will try to fight against Rome, Aetius refuses to give Attila the final hit, hoping for a future alliance with him, or in the worst case, the preservation of the Roman army.

Some historians speak about more than 100,000 losses in the Battle of Catalaunian Plains. However, no one imagined that the Huns would attack the Roman Empire again, only a year after this brutal battle.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *