Aetius surveys the Catalaunian fields. Aetius was still generalissimo of the west, and as we know from Merobaudes’ second panegyric, he had been anticipating the possibility of a Hunnic assault on the west from at least 443.
LEGIO Comitatenses, GALLIA, 451 A. D. The Ursarienses were a Statutory [Standing Army] Comitatenses (ie belonging to the mobile army, the comitatus) of the late empire, this man is from Legio III Italica according to Notitia dignitatum, under the command of the Magister equitum infra Gallias. The legionaries were protected by cuirabolli curiass, wore tunics decorated with orbicoli and clavi, and were equipped with round or oval shield. The new helmet of Persiano-derivation [Sassanid] was one of many variations of this late period.
In spring 451, Attila’s massive army surged westwards out of the Middle Danube, probably following the route taken by the Rhine invaders of 406. ‘It is said’ that the army consisted of a staggering half-million men, reported Jordanes, in his choice of words revealing that for once even he didn’t believe the figure; but there is no doubting the huge size of the force, or that Attila was drawing on the full resources of the Hunnic war machine. As Sidonius Apollinaris, a more or less contemporary Gallic poet, put it:
Suddenly the barbarian world, rent by a mighty upheaval, poured the whole north into Gaul. After the warlike Rugian comes the fierce Gepid, with the Gelonian close by; the Burgundian urges on the Scirian; forward rush the Hun, the Bellonotian, the Neurian, the Bastarnian, the Thuringian, the Bructeran, and the Frank.
Sidonius was writing metred poetry, and required names of the right length and stress to make it work. What he gives us here is an interesting mixture of ancient groups who had nothing to do with the Hunnic Empire (Gelonian, Bellonotian, Neurian, Bastarnian, Brauteran) and real subjects of Attila (Rugian, Gepid, Burgundian, Scirian, Thuringian and Frank), not to mention, of course, the Huns themselves. But, in essence, Sidonius was spot on. And we know from other sources that large numbers of Goths were also present.
No surviving source describes the campaign in detail, but we know roughly what happened. Having followed the Upper Danube northwestwards out of the Great Hungarian Plain, the horde crossed the Rhine in the region of Coblenz and continued west. According to some admittedly fairly dubious sources, the city of Metz fell on 7 April, shortly followed by the old imperial capital of Trier. The army then thrust into the heart of Roman Gaul. By June, it was outside the city of Orleans, where a considerable force of Alans in Roman service had their headquarters. The city was placed under heavy siege; there are hints that Attila was hoping to lure Sangibanus, king of some of the Alans based in the city, over to his side. At the same time, according to another pretty dubious source, elements of the army had also reached the gates of Paris, where they were driven back by the miraculous intervention of the city’s patron Saint Genevieve. It looks as if the Hunnic army was swarming far and wide over Roman Gaul, looting and ransacking as it went.
Aetius was still generalissimo of the west, and as we know from Merobaudes’ second panegyric, he had been anticipating the possibility of a Hunnic assault on the west from at least 443. When it finally materialized, nearly a decade later, he sprang into action. Faced with this enormous threat, he strove to put together a coalition of forces that would stand some chance of success. Early summer 451 saw him advancing north through Gaul with contingents of the Roman armies of Italy and Gaul, plus forces from many allied groups, such as the Burgundians and the Aquitainian Visigoths under their king Theoderic. On 14 June, the approach of this motley force compelled Attila’s withdrawal from Orleans. Later in the same month, Aetius’ men caught up with the retreating horde somewhere in the vicinity of Troyes, another 150 kilometres or so to the east.
On a plain called by different sources the Catalaunian fields or campus Mauriacus, which has never been conclusively identified, a huge battle took place:
The battlefield was a plain rising by a sharp slope to a ridge, which both armies sought to gain . . . The Huns with their forces seized the right side, the Romans, the Visigoths and their allies the left . . . The battleline of the Huns was so arranged that Attila and his bravest followers were in the centre . . . The innumerable peoples of diverse tribes, which he had subjected to his sway, formed the wings.
The Romans and Visigoths reached the ridge first and thwarted every attempt to dislodge them – so our main source tells us, but then lapses into rhetoric (though pretty good rhetoric it is):
The fight grew fierce, confused, monstrous, unrelenting – a fight whose like no ancient time has ever recorded . . . A brook flowing between low banks . . . was swollen by a strange stream and turned into a torrent by the flow of blood. Those whose wounds drove them to slake their parching thirst drank water mingled with gore.
Theoderic was killed in the fighting, either struck by a spear or trampled to death when he fell from his horse, but the accounts of his death are confusing. Again according to our main source, a total of 165,000 men died, but this figure is nonsense. At the end of the day’s fighting, Attila was distraught. Forced back inside a defensive wagon circle, for the first time ever his army had suffered a major defeat. His initial reaction was to heap up saddles to make his own funeral pyre. But his lieutenants persuaded him that the battle was only a tactical check, and he relented. A stalemate followed, with the two armies facing each other, until the Huns began slowly to retreat. Aetius didn’t press them too hard, and disbanded his coalition of forces as quickly as possible – a task made much easier by the fact that the Visigoths were keen to return to Toulouse to sort out the succession to their dead king. Attila consented to his army’s continued withdrawal and, tails between their legs, the Huns returned to Hungary. Although the cost to the Roman communities in the Huns’ line of march was enormous, Attila’s first assault on the west had been repulsed. Yet again, Aetius had delivered at the moment of crisis. Despite the limited resources available, he had put together a coalition that had saved Gaul.
In his wrath, the Hun spent the winter of 451/2 limbering up for yet more violence. This time the blow fell on Italy. In the spring of 452, his force broke through the Alpine passes. The first obstacle in their path was Aquileia. Here they were held up by the city’s massive defences – Attila even contemplated calling off the whole campaign. On the point of bringing their long and frustrating siege to a halt, he saw a stork shipping its young out of the nest that it had built in one of the city’s towers, carrying one by one those that couldn’t yet fly. Seeing this, Priscus tells us, ‘he ordered his army to remain still in the same place, saying that the bird would never have gone . . . unless it was foretelling that some disaster would strike the place very shortly.’ The stork, of course (not to mention Attila), was right. The Huns’ precocious skill at taking fortified strongholds prevailed, and Aquileia fell to them in short order. Its capture opened up the main route into north-eastern Italy.
The horde then followed the ancient Roman roads west across the Po Plain. One of the political heartlands of the western Empire and agriculturally rich, this region was endowed with many prosperous cities. Now, as in the Balkans, one after the other these cities fell to the Huns, and they took in swift succession Padua, Mantua, Vicentia, Verona, Brescia and Bergamo. Now Attila was at the gates of Milan, a long-time imperial capital. The siege was protracted, but again Attila triumphed, and another centre of Empire was looted and sacked. A fragment of Priscus’ history preserves a nice vignette:
When [Attila] saw [in Milan] in a painting the Roman Emperors sitting upon golden thrones and Scythians lying dead before their feet, he sought out a painter and ordered him to paint Attila upon a throne and the Roman emperors heaving sacks upon their shoulders and pouring out gold before his feet.
But, as in Gaul the previous year, Attila’s Italian campaign failed to go entirely to plan. Papal sources and Hollywood scriptwriters love to focus on one incident in particular when, after the capture of Milan, Pope Leo, as part of a peace embassy that included the Prefect Trygetius and ex-consul Avienus, met Attila to try to persuade him not to attack the city of Rome. In the end, the Huns did turn back, retreating to Hungary once again.
In some circles this went down as a great personal triumph for the Pope in face-to-face diplomacy. Reality was more prosaic. Other forces apart from the God-guided Leo were at work. Attila’s Italian campaign, essentially a series of sieges, lacked substantial logistic support; and in their often cramped conditions the Hunnic army was vulnerable in more ways than one. The chronicler Hydatius put it succinctly: ‘The Huns who had been plundering Italy and who had also stormed a number of cities, were victims of divine punishment, being visited with heaven-sent disasters: famine and some kind of disease.’ By the time Milan was captured, disease was taking a heavy toll, and food running dangerously short. Also, Constantinople now had a new ruler, the emperor Marcian, and his forces, together with what Aetius could put together, were far from idle: ‘In addition, [the Huns] were slaughtered by auxiliaries sent by the Emperor Marcian and led by Aetius, and at the same time they were crushed in their settlements by both heavensent disasters and the army of Marcian.’ It looks as though, while the Hunnic army in Italy was being harassed by Aetius leading a joint east-west force, other eastern forces were launching a raid north of the Danube, into Attila’s heartland. The combination was deadly, and, as in the previous year, the Hun had no choice but to retreat. With some kind of peace or truce in operation, his army rolled back into central Europe.
If 451 was itself no more than a tactical check, two major defeats in as many years put a substantial dent in the great conqueror’s reputation. These western campaigns were much more difficult to mount, in fact, than Attila’s Balkan adventures of the previous decade. The Hunnic Empire did not have the bureaucratic machinery of its Roman counterpart, however lumbering that might be. As far as we know, it ran to one Roman-supplied secretary at a time, and a prisoner called Rusticius who was kept for his skill at writing letters in Greek and Latin. Nothing suggests that the Huns had any equivalent, therefore, of the Romans’ capacity for planning and putting in place the necessary logistic support, in terms of food and fodder, for major campaigns. No doubt, when the word went out to assemble for war, each warrior was expected to bring a certain amount of food along with him, but as the campaign dragged on, the Hunnic army was bound to be living mainly off the land. Hence, in campaigns over longer distances, the difficulties involved in maintaining the army as an effective fighting force increased exponentially. Fatigue as well as the likelihood of food shortages and disease increased with distance. There was also every chance that the army would spread so widely over an unfamiliar landscape in search of supplies that it would be difficult to concentrate for battle. In 447, during the widest-reaching of the Balkan campaigns, for their first major battle Attila’s armies had marched west along the northern line of the Haemus Mountains, crossed them, then moved south towards Constantinople, then southwest to the Chersonesus for their second: a total distance of something like 500 kilometres. In 451, the army had to cover the distance from Hungary to Orleans, about 1,200 kilometres; and in 452 from Hungary to Milan, perhaps 800, but this time they were laying siege as they went, which made them yet more susceptible to disease.64 As many historians have commented, in campaigns covering such vast distances into the western Empire, Attila and his forces were almost bound to experience serious setbacks.
But Attila didn’t learn the lesson. Early in 453, he was on the eve of launching yet another destructive campaign across the European landscape, when finally the scourge of God went to meet his employer. He had just taken another wife (we don’t know how many he had in total). On his wedding night he drank too much, burst a blood vessel and died. His bride was too scared to raise the alarm, and was found beside the corpse in the morning. The funeral was an orgy of mourning and glorification, as Jordanes describes:
His body was placed . . . in state in a silken tent . . . The best horsemen of the entire tribe of the Huns rode around in circles . . . and told of his deeds[:] ‘The Chief of the Huns, King Attila, born of his father Mundiuch, lord of the bravest tribes, sole possessor of the Scythian and German realms – powers previously unknown – captured cities and terrified both empires of the Roman world and, appeased by their entreaties, took annual tribute to save the rest from plunder. And when he had accomplished all this . . . he fell not by wound of the foe, nor by treachery of friends, but in the midst of his nation at peace, happy in his joy and without sense of pain.’
When the wake had finished:
In the secrecy of the night they buried his body in the earth. They bound his coffins, the first with gold, the second with silver and the third with the strength of iron . . . iron because he subdued the nations, gold and silver because he received the honours of both empires. They also added the arms of foemen won in the fight, trappings of rare worth, sparkling with various gems, and ornaments of all sorts . . . then . . . they slew those appointed to the work.