Battle of the Catalaunian Fields: Aëtius' Romano-Visigoth Army Stops Attilla & Huns

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Battle of the Catalaunian Fields: Aëtius' Romano-Visigoth Army Stops Attilla & Huns

"Hunnic Cavalry Clashes Against the Roman Infantry"
Battle of the Catalaunian Fields by Peter Dennis
Image courtesy of
(Unless otherwise indicated, all illustrations are courtesy of Wikipedia)

Today in Military History: June 20, AD 451

[Today's post is an update to one originally published in 2010]

At one time, this battle was listed as one of the "Fifteen Decisive Battle of World History" when Sir Edward Creasy wrote his 1851 historical epic. Today, there is still dispute about the full significance of the fight. However, the result of the battle still delayed the inevitable collapse of the Roman Empire for almost 25 years. And it would prove to be the high-water mark of the Hunnic Empire under its last and greatest ruler, Attila.

Background of the Huns

In the mid-fifth century AD, the old Roman Empire was crumbling. The eastern half of the old empire was now ruled from the new imperial city of Constantinople. The British Isles were under assault from waterborne barbarians from northern Germany. Other Germanic tribes were encroaching on Roman territory in Gaul (modern-day France and Belgium) and North Africa, Corsica, Sardinia and Sicily. Finally, a nomadic tribe of Asiatic peoples were threatening the Western Empire with fire, sword, pillage and plunder. They were the Huns, and their name lives on today as vicious, cruel barbarians.

The origins of the Huns are still debated by historians. It appears they were originally from the steppes of what is today northwestern China, Mongolia and/or Kazakhstan. Their culture is very similar to the much later Mongols: mounted horsemen, using composite bows, javelins, straight two-edged swords made of iron and lassoes in combat. Their arrowheads and javelin tips were made of bone.

Political Map of Europe and western Asia, c. AD 450; Image courtesy of DJ Sturm and Wikipedia
Political Map of Europe and western Asia, c. AD 450
Image courtesy of DJ Sturm and Wikipedia

The Huns raised herds of cattle, horses, sheep and goats. Apparently, they also subsisted on wild roots, but planted no crops nor raised towns or cities. For clothes they wore caps, trousers and leggings made of goatskin, and linen tunics. Several historians described the Huns as wearing their clothes until they fell apart. [East Roman historian Priscus, who was actually present for a time at the court of Attila, said that the only thing that set him apart from the other Huns was the cleaner condition of his clothing.]

The historian Jordanes, writing a century after the Huns left western Europe, described them thusly: "They are short in stature, quick in bodily movement, alert horsemen, broad shouldered, ready in the use of bow and arrow, and have firm-set necks which are ever erect in pride. Though they live in the form of men, they have the cruelty of wild beasts." Other chroniclers stated that the Huns mutilated the faces of male children at birth, variously either to inure them to pain or to prevent the growth of facial hair. Another custom of the Huns was to strap their children's noses flat from an early age, in order to widen their faces, to increase the terror their looks instilled upon their enemies.

The Huns did not, at first, appear to have a single ruler, instead being led by groups of individual leaders or nobles, who from time to time would form larger bands. It also appears that there was no single Hunnic culture or ethnic identity. The Huns were probably a ruling elite, leading small bands of warriors, with conquered peoples comprising the remainder of their armies.

The Huns first appeared in European chronicles around AD 370, as they entered the area of what is today Russia and Kazakhstan, just north of the Black Sea. They attacked and subjugated the Alans, another nomadic Asiatic tribe. Next, they attacked and dispersed several Gothic tribes living north of the Black Sea and the Danube River, particularly the Ostrogoths.

In 395, Hun-Goth armies attacked the East Roman Empire from two directions. First they crossed the Danube and attacked Thrace. Then, a second force overran Armenia and pillaged Cappadocia. Then, they entered Syria, threatened Antioch and swarmed through the province of Euphratesia. Roman Emperor Theodosius, who had re-conquered the West Roman Empire the previous year, had left his legions in the West, so the Huns essentially had free rein in the East. Not until 398, when a newly-raised Roman-Goth army threatened them, did the Huns finally withdraw. For the next thirty years more or less, bands of Hun mercenaries were recruited by both the East and West Roman empires. But by 434, things were changing…

The Antagonists: Attila the Hun vs. Flavius Aëtius

"Attila the Hun" portrait by sculptor George S. Stuart
"Attila the Hun" portrait by sculptor George S. Stuart

Short of stature, with a broad chest and a large head; his eyes were small, his beard thin and sprinkled with grey; and he had a flat nose and tanned skin, showing evidence of his origin.

***Jordanes, 6th century AD,from Priscus, describing Attila

…He was manly in appearance and well made, neither too frail nor too heavy; he was quick of wit and agile of limb, a very practiced horseman and a skillful archer, he was indefatigable with the spear. A born warrior, he was renowned for the arts of peace, without avarice and little swayed by desire, endowed with the gifts of the mind, not swerving from his purpose for any kind of evil instigation. He bore wrongs with the utmost patience and loved labor. Undaunted by danger, he was excelled by none in the endurance of hunger, thirst and vigil.

*** Renatus Profuturus Frigeridus, 5th century AD Roman historian describing Attila

Born in about the year 406, Attila apparently belonged to a noble family among the Huns. His uncle Rugila ruled the Hunnic Empire until 434, but was apparently killed by his brother Mundzuk, father of Attila. After the exile of Mundzuk, Attila and his brother Bleda jointly ruled the Huns. Then in 445, Bleda died, according to classical sources, in a hunting accident after first attempting to assassinate Attila, and his brother retaliated. Attila was now the sole ruler of the far-flung Hun Empire, which stretched from the steppes of Central Asia to the Rhine River, from the Baltic Sea to the Danube River, with its capital city somewhere on the central plain of Hungary. [The exact location of Attila's capital is still unknown.]

Due to the brutality of the Hunnic invasions, Attila acquired the nom de guerre "Scourge of God," indicating that many classical historians believed that he had been sent to punish the people of Europe. In addition, Attila wielded a sword, believed to have been forged using iron from a meteorite, which Jordanes refers to as the "Sword of Mars." It was viewed as a symbol of divine favor, and in the words of English historian Edward Gibbon, "the vigour [sic] with which Attila wielded the sword of Mars, convinced the world that it had been reserved alone for his invincible arm."

Powers Boothe as Flavius Aëtius in mini-series Attila (2001); Image courtesy of
Powers Boothe as Flavius Aëtius in mini-series Attila (2001)
Image courtesy of

Flavius Aëtius, born in about 396, was of mixed Gothic-Roman parentage. When he was a child, Aëtius was sent as a hostage to live for several years first with the Visigoths, then with the Huns. It is thought by modern historians that because of his early association with these "barbarian" peoples that Aëtius acquired an understanding of their ways and how to deal with them. Aëtius worked himself up to become one of the foremost politicians and military leaders of the late Roman Empire. [Roman historian Procopius called him "the last true Roman of the West," to honor both his military and his political acumen]

Background to the Battle

Between 440 and 449, the Huns launched several attacks in several directions. One attack, aimed at Armenia, was turned back by the Sassanian Persians. Then, the Huns crossed the Danube and began attacking cities in the Eastern Roman Empire. Winning several battles, the Huns even managed to capture several cities using battering rams and siege towers, machines hitherto unknown to them. The Huns then appeared before the very walls of Constantinople, but were turned back by the monumental structures. [Parts of the walls had been damaged by earthquakes, but repairs were accomplished in a remarkable two months.]

In the spring of 450, Attila received an unusual letter. It was from Justa Grata Honoria, the ambitious and promiscuous older half-sister of the current West Roman emperor Valentinian III. She had plotted to assassinate her brother and replace him on the imperial throne. Rather than execute or exile her, Valentinian had tried to shut her up in a nunnery in Constantinople. After several unsuccessful attempts to escape, Valentinian decided that the next most likely way to keep his half-sibling occupied was to marry her off to an elderly Roman senator, one Flavius Bassus Herculanus, who is described as having good character and a total lack of ambition. The wedding may have occurred in early 450.

Emperor Valentinian III (reigned 425-455); Fifth or sixth century AD bust, sculptor unknown; Image courtesy of
Emperor Valentinian III (reigned 425-455)
Fifth or sixth century AD bust, sculptor unknown
Image courtesy of

Wanting to avoid the oblivion of a loveless marriage, Honoria wrote a letter to Attila, asking for his assistance. She also sent her engagement ring with the letter, possibly to show the genuineness of her appeal. Attila, however, chose to interpret her appeal as a counter-marriage proposal. He replied to Honoria, saying he would "ride to her rescue." In addition, Attila asked that as her dowry he be given half of the West Roman Empire. Valentinian got word of the correspondence, and began making preparations to defend his empire.

Aëtius began to gather his forces, which by this point were rather mediocre. The mighty Roman legions of the Republican and early Imperial periods had badly decayed; the West Roman army was largely composed of lightly-armed and armored auxiliaries, with large portions composed of foederati. These non-Roman auxiliary barbarians, like Visigoths, Franks, and other tribal warriors, had become the backbone of the late imperial Roman military, many as cavalrymen as horse warriors now dominating the battlefields of the late Roman Empire.

In fact, contingents of Visigoths and Alans had been settled in portions of Gaul with the understanding that they would support Rome militarily if called upon in an emergency. Unfortunately, when Attila and his Huns crossed the Rhine River to invade Gaul, both the Visigoths and Alans were prepared to defect to the Huns. Only through the powerful, personal prestige of Aëtius were these two tribal groups persuaded to live up to their promises and join the Roman forces gathering to oppose Attila. At first, the Visigoths were committed to sitting by neutrally, but were convinced by Aëtius that servitude under Attila was worse than being allies of Rome.

Attila's Invasion of Gaul, AD 451, and cities sacked by the Hunnic army
Attila's Invasion of Gaul, AD 451, and cities sacked by the Hunnic army

Attila's forces attacked, pillaged and burned many of the cities of eastern and northern Gaul, including Cologne, Mainz, Trier, Metz, Tournai, Cambrai, Amiens and Beauvais. Paris was saved, only because the Huns regarded it as being too small to yield any tangible plunder. Then, the Huns besieged the town of Orléans, which was the capital of the Alan federates settled in Gaul.

On June 14, the Huns breached the walls of Orléans, and some horsemen were in the town's suburbs, when the Romano-Visigothic army appeared and attacked the Hunnic invaders. Heavy casualties were inflicted on the Asiatic horsemen. Attila realized that his army, should it capture the city, would be forced to defend it. By this point, the Huns were weighed down with loot, and lacking in food supplies. Probably thinking that he wanted to enjoy his plunder, Attila ordered his army to begin falling back across the Rhine. With the Roman enemy in pursuit, Attila began looking for a likely spot to turn and fight. On the banks of the Marne River, near the modern-day city of Châlons-en-Champagne, the Hun army found a wide plain known as the Catalaunian Fields. Making his decision, Attila turned to fight…

Dispositions of the Armies

The size of the two forces is still fodder for modern historians. No primary sources give any numbers for the two sides, so speculation runs rampant. It is most likely that the Roman army numbered somewhere between 45,000 and 50,000 men. In addition to Romans, Alans, and Visigoths, several contemporary historians say the allied force included Burgundians, Franks, Saxons, and Sarmatians.

Visigoth heavy cavalryman, 5th century AD; Image courtesy of
Visigoth heavy cavalryman, 5th century AD
Image courtesy of

On the Roman side, Aëtius rethought his initial deployment after he received some suspicious intelligence reports. Sangiban, the Alan ruler, had contacted Attila during the siege of Orléans. He had been willing to open the gates of the city to the Huns, if the Alans would be permitted to join the Hunnic army. [This turned out to be a ploy by Sangiban, as the Alans put up a spirited defense of Orléans and were considered to be very loyal to the Roman cause.] Aëtius placed the Alans – a nomadic horse people – in the center of the Roman line with the other Germanic mounted tribal warriors; this was done as Aëtius was familiar with Attila's tactics, and the Huns expected the Romans to hold the center.

Hoping to throw the Hunnic battle plan off kilter, the Romans [A] held the left flank, with contingents of horse archer (probably Huns) guarding the infantry flanks [B] backed up by federate infantrymen [C]. As stated above, the Alan mounted cavalry [D] held the center – and likely had their own horse archers [E] guarding the flanks, and various smaller contingents of barbarian horsemen [F] backing up the Alans. Finally, the Visigothic cavalry forces [G] were deployed on the right wing to face their traditional enemy, the Ostrogoths. The Visigoths were commanded by their aged king, Theodoric, with his son Thorismund commanding a contingent of heavy cavalry [H]. Another of Theodoric's sons, also named Theodoric, was present at this conflict and probably commanded some of the Visigothic forces.

Hunnic light horseman, 5th century AD; Image courtesy of
Hunnic light horseman, 5th century AD
Image courtesy of

The Hunnic army, in addition to the core of Huns, included various conquered groups, most notably Ostrogoths, Rugians, Gepids, Thuringians, Scirians and Scythians, with some conquered Franks and Burgundians also in the mix. Modern historians believe Attila's coalition and the Romano-Visigothic force were roughly the same size.

Both armies, following the conventions of the time, drew up in three divisions. The Hunnic army deployed in the following manner: the Ostrogoths – the next most numerous contingent in his army – comprised the left wing [J], Attila and his Huns occupied the center [K], with the Gepids [L] and other smaller Germanic tribes [M] on the right. The Huns were all mounted and bow-armed, with the Ostrogoths comprised mostly of foot archers, some armored spearmen, and units of heavy cavalry probably the personal bodyguards of the nobles and the Ostrogothic king, Valamir, and light cavalrymen wielding javelins. The other Germanic tribes were mostly foot warriors, armed mainly with spears, swords, axes, and javelins. The Hunnic camp [N] was far in the rear, consisting of a wagon laager, to be used only a last resort

Battle of the Catalaunian Fields, June 20, AD 451, initial deployment; Map is personal work of the author, based on numerous descriptions
Battle of the Catalaunian Fields, June 20, AD 451, initial deployment
Map is personal work of the author, based on numerous descriptions

The site of the battle (thought to be closer to the city of Troyes than Châlons) was a mostly flat plain with a substantial ridge dominating the middle of the battlefield, with the Roman coalition on one side, the Hunnic confederation on the other..

Battle of the Catalaunian Fields (or Châlons-sur-Marne)

On the morning of June 20, in accordance with Hunnic customs, Attila had his soothsayers examine the entrails of a sacrifice before battle. Their signs foretold two events: first, disaster would befall the Huns; and, second, one of the enemy leaders would be killed. At the risk of his own life and hoping for Aëtius to die, Attila gave the orders to deploy for battle. However, he delayed leaving his camp until mid-afternoon. It is speculated that this was done so his troops could flee the battlefield under cover of darkness should they be defeated.

At the beginning of the battle, the Romans and their Germanic infantry allies occupied the left side of the central ridge that dominated the center of the battlefield. At about the same time, the Visigothic right wing occupied the far right end of the central ridge. Shortly after this, Prince Thorismund led his Visigothic contingent forward and occupied a prominent hill forward of the ridge, threatening the Ostrogoth flank.

Seeing the danger to his right flank, Attila ordered his center to attack the Romans on the high ground on his right flank – apparently not trusting the quality of his Gepid-Germanic warriors in his right wing. The Romans, armed with thrusting spears, javelins and darts with foot and horse archers in support, managed to turn back the first attack of the battle (1). At the same time, a force of Ostrogoths attempted to dislodge Thorismund and his Visigoths from their position on the Roman right flank, but the prince's horsemen performed admirably and held their ground. As the Ostrogoths withdrew, Thorismund's force counterattacked, throwing their enemy into confusion (2).

Battle of the Catalaunian Fields, June 20, AD 451, First phase; Map is personal work of the author, based on numerous historical descriptions
Battle of the Catalaunian Fields, June 20, AD 451, First phase
Map is personal work of the author, based on numerous historical descriptions

Next, the Hun cavalry launched an all-out assault on the center of the Roman army, where the Alans had been stationed (3). Despite misgivings about their loyalty, the Alan cavalry resisted the charge of the Huns and held their ground. Seeing the Huns' exposed flank, King Theodoric ordered his Visigothic cavalry to charge the flank of the Huns (4) . For over an hour, there was desperate fighting in the center. The Alans broke first and began falling back in disorder, with the Huns in hot pursuit. The Ostrogothic force moved forward to intercept their traditional enemies, and the intense fighting continued (5).

However, at some point in the fighting, the aged King Theodoric either fell from his horse or was speared by an Ostrogothic warrior. In the confusion, Theodoric's body was trampled by his own cavalrymen. When it was realized that their ruler was down and probably dead, the Visigoths seemed to go into a battle frenzy, throwing back the Ostrogoths (6) and slamming into the flank and rear of the Huns (7). In this confused fighting, Attila's bodyguard unit was attacked by the nearly-insane Visigoths and nearly wiped out. Seeing the Huns now hard-pressed, Aëtius ordered his Romans and allied barbarian troops – who had pretty much sat by all day watching the action – to move forward and strike the right flank of the Hunnic center (8), and to move forward and threaten the Gepids and other Hunnic German allies. With the threat of being enveloped on both flanks, Attila ordered a hasty retreat back to their fortified wagon laager camp (9).

Battle of the Catalaunian Fields, June 20, AD 451, Final phase; Map is personal work of the author, based on numerous historical descriptions
Battle of the Catalaunian Fields, June 20, AD 451, Final phase
Map is personal work of the author, based on numerous historical descriptions

It was now late in the day, with sunset approaching. The Ostrogoths, beaten and dispersed, left the Catalaunian Fields and began retreating back across the Rhine. The Huns began making preparations to defend their camp. During the night, small units of Hun and allied warriors made their way to the fires of Attila's camp. In the confusion, Thorismund and his Visigoths rode into the Hun camp, only to realize their mistake and avoided capture by fighting their way back out. The battle of the Catalaunian Fields was ended.


The next day, the Romano-Visigoth army surrounded Attila's camp. A few isolated Roman sorties were driven off by accurate bow fire of the Huns. Fearing that a renewed attack would result in his capture, Attila ordered his men to construct a huge heap of saddles and plunder in the middle of his camp. Should the enemy breach the camp's perimeter, Attila would climb to the top of the pile and order it set on fire, becoming his funeral pyre. Prince Thorismund, seeking revenge for his father's death, was determined to attack the Hun camp, and put an end to Attila.

However, the historian Jordanes claims Aëtius persuaded Thorismund not to attack the camp. Further, the Roman commander convinced the Visigothic prince that his first duty was to preserve his succession to leadership of his tribe, as he had five brothers who might usurp his throne. Therefore, later on June 21 the Visigothic portion of the Roman army pulled up stakes and left for the south of Gaul. [Many historians speculate that Aëtius was actually trying to preserve the status quo. If the Huns were eliminated as a threat to the Roman Empire, then the Visigoths would likely loom as a new threat. Therefore, Aëtius felt that he could continue to play both ends against the middle, and preserve the Western Roman Empire.] By nightfall, Attila's army was retreating eastward, without any harassment from Romans or Visigoths.

Casualty figures are impossible to discern; Jordanes claims that 165,000 men fell at this battle, an obviously inflated figure. It probably would not stretch the truth to say that the Hun confederation suffered a minimum of 40-50 percent casualties. On the other side, the Alans probably suffered near total annihilation for carrying the brunt of the fighting, while the Visigoths likely lost 25-30 percent of their men. The Romans, in spite of the early fighting, basically sat by the rest of the day and watched the action from a ringside seat; their casualties could be termed minimal. [Two possible explanations are postulated: that Aëtius was dubious about the quality of his men, or that he wanted to preserve his own forces while allowing his allies to shoulder most of the fighting.]

Footnote #1: There was a Christian legend that for three days and nights after the battle Roman, Visigothic, Ostrogothic and Hunnic ghosts continued to fight. For years afterward, when Romans discussed the battle of the Catalaunian Fields, one Latin phrase was invariably used: "Cadavera vero innumera!" (truly countless bodies)

Footnote #2: For the next three years, Flavius Aëtius was the only Roman personage with the political prestige and military prowess to hold the empire together. And his reward? Emperor Valentinian, who feared that Aëtius wanted to place his own son on the imperial throne, called the patrician general to Ravenna (which was now the capital city of the West Roman Empire) to give a financial account. On September 21, 454, while delivering his report, Valentinian himself stabbed Aëtius to death. Roman poet and diplomat Sidonius Apollinaris is credited with an observation to the emperor, "I am ignorant, sir, of your motives or provocations; I only know that you have acted like a man who has cut off his right hand with his left." Six months later, Emperor Valentinian would himself be assassinated by two Huns, former retainers of Aëtius.

Poster for film Attila (1954), starring Anthony Quinn and Sophia Loren.
Poster for film Attila (1954), starring Anthony Quinn and Sophia Loren.

Footnote #3: Attila the Hun has been fodder for the motion picture industry. In the 1954 French-Italian movie Attila, the title role was played by Anthony Quinn with Sophia Loren as Honoria. It was released in the U.S. in 1958. Also in 1954, the film Sign of the Pagan boasted Jack Palance as Attila. Most recently, a 2001 British-made TV mini-series entitled "Attila" starred Gerard Butler (star of the movie 300) in the title role, with the late Powers Boothe as Aëtius.

Footnote #4: Attila died in the early months of the year 453. He had taken a younger wife, and apparently succumbed to either a severe nosebleed or to a massive heart attack while…celebrating with his new wife. He was buried in a secret location, with the slaves responsible for the work killed by Attila's retainers. With his death, his sons fought for his throne, resulting in revolts among the Huns' many subject peoples. By 460, the Hun Empire was gone.

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