Battle of Chalons

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Battle of Chalons
DateJune 20, 451
PlaceSomewhere in the northeastern
part of present-day France
Resultbloody, but inconclusive despite the massive Hunnish retreat
Western Roman Empire, Visigoths Huns
Flavius Aetius, Theodorid Attila the Hun
30,000-50,000 30,000-50,000
Unknown Unknown

The Battle of Chalons, also called the Battle of the Catalaunian Fields or the Battle of the Catalun, took place in 451 between the allied forces and foederati led by the Roman general Aetius and the Visigothic king Theodorid on one side, and the Huns led by their king Attila and their allies. This battle was the last major military operation of the Western Roman Empire.



By 450 Roman control of Gaul, as with all of the provinces outside of Italy, had grown feeble. The Visigoths, who had been forcibly settled in Aquitaine a generation before, were growing incresingly restive. The Burgundians, forcibly settled near the Alps, were more submissive, but were likewise looking for openings for revolt. Northern Gaul had been all but abandoned to the Franks between the Rhine and Marne rivers in the east, and Armorica was only nominally part of the empire. The only parts still securely in Roman control was the Mediterranean coastline and a band of varying width that ran from Aureliani (present-day Orléans) upstream along the Loire, across and downstream along the Rhone.

The historian Jordanes states that Attila was enticed by Gaiseric, king of the Vandals, to wage war on the Visigoths, while at the same time Gaiseric attempted to sow strife between the Visigoths and the Western Roman Empire (Getica 36.184-6)1. However, other contemporary writers offer other motivations: a few years before Honoria, a troublesome sister of the emperor Valentinian III had sent a message to the Hunnic king; she had been married off to a loyal senator, Herculanus, to keep her in a repectable confinement, and asked for Attila's help in escaping this marriage. Attila interpreted this as a proposal of marriage, and demanded that Honoria be delivered to him and half of Valentinian's domain be her dowry. Although Valentinian rejected these demands, Attila used them as his excuse to launch a destructive campaign through Gaul.2

Early in 451, Attila crossed the Rhine with his supporters and a large number of allies. His troops sacked Divodurum (Metz) on April 7; other cities attacked can be determined by the saintly lives (or Vitae) of their bishops: Nicasius was slaughtered before the altar of his church in Rheims; Servatus is alleged to have saved Tongres with his prayers, as Genevieve is to have saved Paris.3

By June, Attila's army had reached Aureliani, which guarded an important crossing over the Loire. According to Jordanes, Sangiban, king of the Alans, whose realm included Aureliani, had promised to open the gates of this city to Attila (Getica 36.194f); this siege is confirmed by the account of the Vita S. Anianus and in the later account of Gregory of Tours (Historia Francorum 2.7), although Sangiban's name does not appear in their accounts. The Aureliani shut their gates against the invaders, and Attila either waited for Sangiban to deliver on his promise or began a siege of the city.

Aetius the patricius or military leader, upon learning of the invasion, moved quickly from Italy into Gaul, according to Sidonius Apollinaris, "leading forth a force consisting of auxiliaries, few and sparse, without one regular soldier" (Carmina 7.329f). He immediately attempted to convince Theodorid to join him, but on learning how few troops he had with him, the Visigothic king decided it was wiser to wait for the Huns in his own lands. Aetius turned to a powerful local magnate, Avitus, who was not only able to convince Theodorid to join with the Romans, but also a number of other wavering barbarians resident in Gaul (Carmina 7.332-356). The combined armies then marched for Aureliani, reaching that city about June 14.

They had reached Aureliani literally at the last possible minute: according to the author of the Vita S. Anianus, Attila had made a breach in the city's walls and had gotten a party within the city when news of the allied army reached him. Although he practically had control of the city, to keep it meant that Attila would be himself besieged inside of it, with an unfriendly population and far from home. He broke camp, and proceeded back towards his country, doubtlessly looking for a spot where he could make a stand, with Theodorid and Aetius in close pursuit. The two forces at last met at the Catalaunian Fields on July 20, a date first proposed by J.B. Bury and since accepted by consensus.

The actual location of the Catalaunian Fields is not known with certainty: Historian Thomas Hodgkin located the site near Mery-sur-Seine,4 but current consensus places the battlefield at Châlons-en-Champagne.


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 (Getica 41.217).

Attila, following his people's customs, had his diviners examine the entrails of a sacrifice that morning, which foretold disaster would befall the Huns and that one of the leaders of his opponents would be killed. Hoping that in the fight Aetius would be slain, he at last gave the orders for combat, even at the risk of his own life; but he delayed until the ninth hour (approximately 3pm), so that the impending dusk might help his defeated troops to flee the battlefield. (Getica 37.196).

According to Jordanes, 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 between them. (He explains that the Visigoths held the right side, the Romans the left, with Sangiban of uncertain loyalty and his Alans surrounded in the middle.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 (Getica 38).

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 that another story had Theodorid 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 tradition (Getica 40.209).

The Visigoths outstripped the speed of the Alani beside 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 charge 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, he mistakenly entered Attila's encampment, where he was wounded in the ensuing melee before his followers could rescue him. Darkness also separated Aetius from his own men. As he feared that disaster had befallen them, he searched for his Gothic allies, and spent the rest of the night with them (Getica 40.209-212).

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" (Getica 40.213).

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 Patricius 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 (Getica 41.214-217). Gregory of Tours claims Aetius used the same strategem to dismiss his Frankish allies, and collected the booty of the battlefield for himself (Historia Francorum 2.7).


Both armies consisted of combatants from many peoples. Jordanes lists Aetius' allies as including (besides the Visigoths) both the Salic and Riparian Franks, Sarmatians, Armoricans, Liticians, Burgundians, Saxons, Olibrones (whom he describes as "once Roman soldiers and now the flower of the allied forces"), and other Celtic or German tribes (Getica 36.191).

Jordanes' list for Attila's allies includes 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 (Getica 38.199). Sidonius offers a more extensive list of allies: Rugians, Gepids, Gelonians, Burgundians, Scirans, Bellonotians, Neurians, Bastarnae, Thuringians, Bructeri, and Franks living along the Neckar River (Carmina 7.321-325). E.A. Thompson expresses his suspicions about some of these names:

The Bastarnae, Bructeri, Geloni and Neuri had disappeared hundreds of years before the times of the Huns, while the Bellonoti had never existed at all: presumably the learned poet was thinking of the Balloniti, a people invented by Valerius Flaccus nearly four centuries earlier.5

Thompson, however, believes that the presence of Burgundians on the Hunnic side is credible, noting that a group is documented as remaining east of the Rhine; likewise, he believes that the other peoples Sidonius alone mentions—the Rugians, Scirans and Thuringians—were likely participants in this battle.

However, the number of participants for either side—or in total—is entirely speculative. Jordanes' offers the number of dead from 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. No primary souce offers an estimate for the number of participants

The figures of both Jordanes and Hydatius are implausibly high; Thompson remarks in a footnote,"I doubt that Attila could have fed an army of even 30,000 men."5 As a reference, in the early 3rd century, the Roman Empire maintained 30 legions with just under 5200 actual men each; if we follow the general assumption that the number of auxiallaries matched the number of legionaries, then add the Praetorian Guard as 5,000 strong, and 6 Urban Cohorts, we find that the Empire at its height fielded a total 323,000 all told across its territories.6

A better sense of the size of the combatants may be found in the study of the Notitia Dignitatum by A.H.M. Jones.7 This document is a list of officials and military units that Jones believes was last updated in the first decades of the 5th century. He identified 58 various regular units, and 33 limitani serving either in the Gallic provinces or on the frontiers; the total of these units, based on his analysis, is 34,000 for the regular units and 11,500 for the limitani, or just under 46,000 all told. While the Roman forces in Gaul had become much smaller by this time, if we accept this number as the total for all of the forces fighting with Theodorid and Aetius, we should not be too far off. Assuming that the Romano-Gothic and Hunnic forces were about equal in size, then in total the battle involved just under 100,000 combatants, excluding the inevitable servants and camp followers who almost always escape mention.

Archeological evidence

In 1842, a laborer uncovered a burial at Pouan, a village on the south bank of the Aube River, some 10 miles from Mery-sur-Seine. This discovery consisted of a skeleton with a number of jewels and gold ornaments and buried with two swords; this burial obviously was of a Germanic warrior who lived in the 5th century. These find were later given to the city museum of Troyes.

The archeologist who described this find, Peigne Delacourt, claimed that it was the remains of Theodorid, who had been slain in battle and quickly interred by his followers who meant to recover his corpse after the battle, but due either to mistake or their death the body recovered and buried at Tolouse was the wrong one.8 Hodgkins, and later J.B. Bury, expressed their skepticism over this identification.


This battle, especially since Sir Edward Creasy wrote his book, The Fifteen Decisive Battles of the World, has been considered one of the most important battles of late antiquity. However, the number of combatants, while not as small as many conflicts over the following centuries, is not as large as at, say, the unquestionably important Battle of Adrianople in 378. And it did not halt Attila's campaign against the Roman Empire: the following year Attila invaded Italy, and caused much destruction, only ending his campaign after Pope Leo I met with him at a ford of the river Mincio. It was only after Attila's sudden death in 453, and after the divided and competing Hunnic forces fell upon each other at the Battle of Nedao in the following year, that the Huns vanished as a threat to Europe.

Further, the Roman Empire following this victory did not emerge with renewed military might, but instead was likewise weakened, though more slowly than the Huns: despite the assassinations of first Aetius, then emperor Valentinian III, then the sack of Rome by Gaiseric in 455, a generation later there were still sufficient useful remains of the Western Roman Empire for the warlords to fight over. To label a battle as decisive is to state that it irrevocably changed events: had Attila won, his empire still would have dissolved upon his death, the Roman Empire would still have come to an end in the West, Gaul would still have been a prize that the Visigoths, the Burgunds and the Franks later fought over.

There are a couple of reasons why this combat has kept its epic importance down the centuries. One is that—ignoring the Battle of Qarqar, which was forgotten at this time—this was the first significant conflict that involved large alliances on both sides. No single nation dominated either side; rather two alliances met and fought in surprising coordination for the time.

The second reason is that the ferocity of this campaign left a deep impression upon its contemporaries. Not only did Attila savage much of Europe in a manner unrepeated for centuries, but the battle acquired a reputation for carnage almost immediately. Considering the extravagent totals for casualties, Edward Gibbon remarked that they "suppose a real and effective loss, sufficient to justify the historian's remark that whole generations may be swept away by the madness of kings in a single hour."9 Two contemporary descriptions survive showing that this battle had an unparalled reputation for its carnage. The first is from Jordanes:

For, if we may believe our elders, a brook flowing between low banks through the plain was greatly increased by blood of the slain. It was not flooded by showers, as brooks usually rise, but was swollen by a strange stream and turned into a torrent by the increase of blood. Those whose wounds drove them to slake their parching thirst drank water mingled in gore. In their wretched plight they were forced to drink what they thought was the blood they had poured from their own wounds. (Getica 40.208)

The second comes from the philosopher Damascius, who not many years afterwards heard that the fighting was so severe "that no one survived except only the leaders on either side and a few followers: but the ghosts of those who fell continued the struggle for three whole days and nights as violently as if they had been alive; the clash of their arms was clearly audible."10

A final reason for the reputation of this battle is that it was the first since the death of Constantine the Great where a predominantly Christian force faced a pagan opponent. This factor was very much apparent to the contemporaries, who often mention prayer playing a factor in this battle (e.g., Gregory of Tour's story of the prayers of Aetius' wife saving the Roman's life in Historia Francorum 2.7). 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.


  1. The Gaetica (or "Gothic History"), our principal source for this battle, is the work of Jordanes, who aclnowledges that his work is based on 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 lost writings of the Greek historian Priscus. It is available in an English translation by Charles Christopher Mierow, The Gothic History of Jordanes (Cambridge: Speculum Historiale, 1966, a reprint of the 1915 second edition); all quotations of Jordanes is taken from this edition, which is in the public domain.
  2. A modern narrative based these sources can be found in E.A. Thompson, The Huns (Oxford: Blackwell, 1996), pp. 144-148. This is postumous revision by Peter Heather of Thompson's A History of Attila and the Huns, originally published in 1948.
  3. Summarized in Thomas Hodgkin, Italy and Her Invaders (New York: Russell & Russell, 1967 reprint of the original 1880-1889 edition), volume II pp.128ff.
  4. Hodgkin, Italy and Her Invaders, volume II pp. 160-2.
  5. Thompson, The Huns, p.149.
  6. Thompson, The Huns, endnote 65, on page 300.
  7. This is based on a similar calculation made by Chester G. Starr in his The Roman Empire 27 B.C. - 476 A.D. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1982), p.88.
  8. A.H.M. Jones, The Later Roman Empire (Baltimore: John Hopkins, 1986 reprint of the 1964 original), pp.1417-1450.
  9. Hodgkin, Italy and Her Invaders, volume II pp. 155-159.
  10. Edward Gibbon, Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (New York: The Modern Library, n.d.), volume II, p.285.
  11. Quoted in Thompson, The Huns, p.155.

External links

fr:Bataille des champs Catalauniques hu:Catalaunumi csata nl:Slag op de Catalaunische velden pl:Bitwa na Polach Katalaunijskich sv:Slaget vid Katalauniska fälten


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