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Author Topic: OTD 20th June 451: Battle of the Catalaunian Fields  (Read 1214 times)


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OTD 20th June 451: Battle of the Catalaunian Fields
« on: June 26, 2021, 12:23:00 PM »
Continuing my series of posts from the Companions' Facebook page, here is the most popular post from the past week commemorating the Battle of the Catalaunian Fields between Attila and Aetius. This is clearly not directly about the Anglo-Saxons, but it is related to the immediate post-Roman period in Britain and so of interest.

After the Roman militias were recalled from the Province of Britannia, the people struggled mightily with invasions from Scots and Picts. According to Gildas they appealed to General Aetius for help, probably some time between 446 AD and 454 AD, but he told them to look to their own affairs.
He had his hands full. On 20th June 451 AD he took on the forces of Attila the Hun in the Battle at Catalaunian Fields in north east France in what is now known as the Champagne region. The exact site of the battle is not known but it was probably somewhere between Troyes and Chalons-sur-Marne.
Among the casualties was Theodoric, King of the Visigoths, but the Romans held the field in one of the most important battles of the age. This was the first time that Europeans had managed to defeat the Hun army, and the idea that they were invincible was proven wrong.
The battle came at a time when the old Roman Empire had fractured and was now split between Byzantium in the East and Ravenna in the West. At the same time the Huns were driving westwards, displacing Goths and Franks as they came. It is likely that part of this movement of people impacted the decision of tribes in the Anglo-Saxon homelands to migrate to Britain, while most of the other tribes moved into the continental mainland remnants of the Western Roman Empire. When they could not prevent the advance, the Romans resorted to a familiar tactic of trying to pay the advancing forces off, a tactic later used by the Anglo-Saxons against the Vikings, and which was equally unsuccessful for both parties.
Attila took control of the Huns in 433 AD and with his brother he organised a far more effective force to replace the somewhat random looting and pillaging tribal groups which had previously attacked the Romans.  At the Treaty of Margus in 439 AD he negotiated a huge sum of money to refrain from attacking the Romans, and turned to the Sassanid Empire instead. The Sassanids proved to be more ferociously capable of defence and so the Huns returned to the Roman field, while the Romans had withdrawn their troops to deal with the Vandals in North Africa and Sicily. In 445 AD the Huns swept through the Danube region which was now undefended.
Attila viewed Rome as weak, and starting in 446 or 447 CE, he invaded the region around the modern Balkans, destroying over 70 cities, taking slaves, and sending his spoils back to the city of Buda (possibly Budapest).
Then in 450 AD he was offered the perfect opportunity to attack further west. The Roman Emperor’s sister requested Attila’s help in escaping a marriage contract; Attila cannily chose to interpret this as a betrothal and demanded half the Western Empire as a dowry, then brought his army west to bring home his bride. His opposing war leader was Aetius.
Ironically Aetius had spent his youth as a hostage at the court of the Huns, spoke their language, and understood their culture. He knew Attila well, even using him as a mercenary in a number of other campaigns and the two men had a friendly relationship.
Aetius was also charismatic and had a reputation for bravery and military skill. Even so he was only able to muster around 50,000 men and had to ally with Theoderic I of the Visigoths to make up sufficient numbers for the campaign which involved huge armies.
In 451 AD Attila moved on Gaul with an army of around 200,000 men, taking Gallia Belgica first of all, and the people fled before him. Few if any were aware of his losses against the Sassanids and he was seen as impossible to defeat. Attila then moved on until he reached Orleans which he placed under siege. It was here that Aetius came against him and managed to disperse his forward troops. Attila withdrew to the north leaving around 15,000 Gepid warriors who were destroyed by Aetius in a night attack.
The two forces met at the Catalaunian Fields, where allegedly Attila waited until around 2.30pm to start the attack, possibly because he was not fully in position. The fierce fighting went on until dark and was confused and bloody. Morning light revealed the carnage, with neither side pressing to re-engage. And now things become even more strange.  Aetius sent home his ally Thorismund, possibly because he didn’t feel confident of his loyalty. With Thorismund off the field Aetius then also slipped his forces away leaving Attila awaiting attack. Once he realised his opponents had gone Attila himself chose to leave Gaul and return home; there is no known reason for this decision and it had been suggested that Attila and Aetius had made a bargain under the cover of the confusion the night before. Aetius remained indispensable to his masters and Attila did not have to face a fight he may not have been confident of winning, and was able to keep his booty into the bargain.
Deciding who was the “winner” is difficult. However, Roman culture was retained and the Huns withdrew, having failed to reach their objective of taking half the Roman territory which Attila had demanded.
Aetius and Attila were both dead within a few years. Aetius killed by the Emperor Valentinian, and Attila bursting a blood vessel while drinking heavily. Attila’s sons fought each other and their inheritance fell apart in the years that followed. The Roman Empire in the West was soon to fall to Germanic tribes.