Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Resisting the Huns!

A representation of the Battle of the Catalaunian Fields
We mentioned here that the Huns under Bleda and Attila negotiated a treaty with the Eastern Roman Empire. In 450, as sole ruler of the Huns after his brother Bleda's death, Attila put the Western Roman Empire in his sights. The Western Emperor's (Valentinian III) sister, Honoria, sent a message to Attila requesting help; she was betrothed to a senator named Herculanus who kept her confined.

Attila considered Honoria's request for help as an offer of marriage, and thought her dowry should include half the Empire. Emperor Valentinian made it clear that Attila was misunderstanding the situation completely. Attila reacted as one might expect: he invaded Gaul in 451, attacking the town of Metz on 7 April and reaching Orleans (then called Aurelianum) in June.

The general of the Western Roman forces, Flavius Aetius, left Italy for Gaul to counter the Huns. With support from the Visigoths, he reached Aurelianum on 14 June just as Attila had breached the city, chasing him off. (Attila was already in the city, but to remain when news came of an approaching army meant the chance they would be surrounded and besieged themselves.) The combined Roman and Visigothic forces caught up with the Huns on 20 June in the Catalaunian Fields (true location unknown, but presumed to be Chalons in the Champagne region).

We are told by Jordanes that Attila, according to Hunnic custom, had a bird killed and its entrails examined to determine how the battle would go. The prediction was defeat for the Huns but death for an enemy commander. Theodoric, at the head of the Visigoths, was killed. When his son wanted to avenge him, Flavius convinced him to go home and secure the throne. As the Visigoths withdrew from the battlefield, Attila thought it was a ruse to lure him into a trap, so he withdrew the Hunnic troops and abandoned the battle.

Some historians have seen the Battle of the Catalaunian Fields as a pivotal moment when the Huns were prevented from taking over Western Europe. But Attila was not opposed to continue his assault on the Empire. The following year he approached Rome with the goal of claiming Honoria after all. Pope Leo I met him at the edge of Rome, and Attila turned away. When Attila died a year or so later, the Huns became less of a threat to Europe.


  1. Great blog! Helped me understand the Huns a bit better..

    1. Thanks Kathleen!
      Attila was a lot more complex than I realized. There's a lot more interesting info to mine there for future posts.