When Ancient Gods Collide: Attila the Hun and Flavius Aetius

The Roman Empire seemed to be on the verge of an unalterable collapse at the beginning of the fifth century AD. It had become unable to expel the Germanic tribes that were now pressing on its extensive northern borders, and the policy of allotting these tribes land within the empire had backfired spectacularly when the Visigoths had not only defeated the empire in open battle at Adrianople in 378, killing the Emperor Valens in the process, but even sacked the city of Rome itself in 410.

For the Romans themselves, now a civilization stretched across three continents, these events were nigh on unbelievable. Circumstances were so dire that the Emperor Honorius sent the people of the Roman province in Britain a message that they should look after their own defense rather than rely on the imperial forces from that point on.

The cause of these attacks and migrations on the part of the Germans was not a desire to destroy the empire, but actually to escape the emergence of a new and even more violent threat – the Huns. They were nomadic horsemen from the eastern steppes, particularly noted for their savage methods of war and plundering, as well as their rejection of the Christian faith.

Alaric of the Visigoths was the first barbarian king to capture Rome in 800 years.
Alaric of the Visigoths was the first barbarian king to capture Rome in 800 years.

To make their appearance even more intimidating, male infants had their heads tightly swaddled so that the skull became enlarged and extended at the back, a form of artificial cranial deformation that must have given the Huns the appearance of monsters in the eyes of the people they attacked. Under their most capable leader, Attila, they had mastered not only the tactics of hit and run cavalry warfare but also sophisticated siege works, allowing them to attack not only isolated villages and Roman villas but also large towns and even cities.

The Huns.
The Huns.

Meanwhile, in the decades following the 410 sack of Rome, the emperors of the eastern empire in Constantinople and their counterparts in the west had worked hard to set the empire back on an even keel, and under the magister militum Flavius Aetius, they had been largely successful. Aetius, a Roman born in what is now Bulgaria of a Roman mother and barbarian father, had been raised as a hostage both at the court of the Visigothic king and that of the Huns, and so he possessed not only a knowledge of the psyches of these non-Roman peoples, but also a heavy dose of their military hardiness, a quality sadly lacking in the majority of Romans of the time.

The Roman and Hun Empires in 450 AD. Note the territories taken over by Germanic tribes like the Visigoths and Burgundians, as well as the Vandals in North Africa.
The Roman and Hun Empires in 450 AD. Note the territories taken over by Germanic tribes like the Visigoths and Burgundians, as well as the Vandals in North Africa.

Aetius had even led a Hunnic army in a Roman civil conflict during the 420’s and he spent much of the 430’s and 440’s as leader of the Roman army in Gaul, playing one tribe off against another and reasserting Roman control of the province. By about 450, it was his intention to lead to an invasion of Roman North Africa, which had been taken by the Vandals in 429-430 and was sorely missed by the western empire as a vital source of grain.

Modern Hungarian reenactors display Hunnish costumes. By Derzsi Elekes Andor CC BY-SA 4.0

His plans were unfortunately put off indefinitely when Attila invaded northeastern Gaul, taking advantage either of an appeal from the Emperor Valentian III’s sister Honoria or else a power struggle between rival claimants to the throne of the Franks, the precursor tribe to the modern French, who were just settling in the area. Attila’s horde cut a swath of destruction through the region, sacking, burning, and looting every structure that they came upon and completely undoing decades of Aetius’s work.

The Huns Charge.
The Huns Charge.

To counter them, Aetius marched north with a skeleton force of auxiliaries, recruiting as he went and gathering an army of allies from the various Germanic tribes that were in the region, among them the Visigoths, the Burgundians, the Alans, and the Franks themselves. Elements of many of the same tribes fought in the army of Attila also. The traditional story that Aetius had no regular Roman soldiers in his army is unlikely given that the majority of his army was already in Gaul and he merely traveled  to the area of operations with auxiliaries. In any case, it was clear that the western Romans were now unable to fight off serious invasions without the assistance of the Germanic allies.

The two sides met on a field somewhere in the Catalaunian Plains, near Chalons, in what was the first battle in perhaps a century where a largely Christian army clashed with a pagan force. Though contemporary sources are more than likely over exaggerated (one writer claims that Attila led an army a million strong into Gaul, for example), it is entirely possible that there could have been as many fifty thousand warriors on each side. The battle itself began late in the day, possibly as a result of Attila’s reluctance to engage after receiving bad omens, but more likely because deploying and positioning such huge multi-national forces took time.

Attila leads the attack on the Roman and Visigothic lines.
A later illustration depicts the Huns’ reputation for mercilessness.

The opening stages of the battle involved the two armies jockeying for the high ground around a ridge in the center of the field, with the Romans seeming to win the race and push the Huns back. Attila’s whole line was then shattered by a powerful Visigothic charge, which cost the life of their king, Theodoric I. The Huns withdrew and regrouped, but the fighting continued until the sun set and the night drew in. Even then, the result was not a foregone decision, and Aetius, after becoming separated from his own men in the confusion was under the impression that they had been wiped out.

He need not have worried in the event, as the next day brought the extent of the Roman-Visigothic victory to light and Attila, the scourge of God himself, was cooped up under a combined enemy siege in his camp. The casualties were truly “Cadavera vero innumera” – countless dead – as the Romans reported. Aetius then confusingly sent his allies, the Visigoths and Franks away, ostensibly to re-impose authority in their own areas, and Attila was somehow allowed to escape and withdraw across the Rhine. Aetius’s reasoning for these actions seems to have been that to allow any one barbarian tribe to gain a clear upper hand would inevitably be at the cost of Roman authority, and that was certainly something that he wished to avoid.

A year later, Attila was back and this time he attacked Italy itself. Almost unopposed once more, he rode through the north of Italy, laying waste and carrying off whatever booty he did not burn. Like a ghost, Aetius shadowed him with his own army, but did not give battle, even when Attila’s horde burned the ancient city of Aquileia to the ground. Aetius’s abilities as a strategist and general were proven with this campaign of maneuvering, as despite the fact that Attila was able to cause widespread damage and suffering, he was unable to take either the de facto western capital Ravenna or Rome itself as a result. The tactics of Aetius mirrored those of Quintus Fabius Maximus, “the shield of Rome”, against Hannibal six centuries before.

Pope Leo I appeals to Attila to spare Rome. The painting by Raphael is today housed in the Vatican in Rome.
Pope Leo I appeals to Attila to spare Rome.

Unfortunately, Attila proved a far more poisonous foe than the noble Carthaginian, and the Roman Empire of the 400’s was sadly a far cry from the Roman Republic in its prime. Attila was convinced by an imperial embassy led by the pope to withdraw from Italy, which he did, dying the next year after over exerting himself following his wedding to a much younger bride.

It appeared that Flavius Aetius, having built a coalition of both Roman and barbarian, was in a prime position to continue rebuilding the empire in a new form, but just as this seemed a realistic possibility, he was stabbed to death by his own emperor, Valentinian III, in a fit of jealousy and imperial paranoia. The world he had saved almost died with him, as within a generation the Roman Empire had ceased to exist in the western world. More than any other, Aetius perhaps deserves the title “Last of the Romans.”

The empire that Attila had brought together and which exceeded even Rome’s in area did not even last that long. A year after his death, the German tribes he had kept under his thumb threw off the rule of his successors and the Hunnish hegemony dissolved, never to rise again.

Damien Peters for War History Online

Damien Peters

Damien Peters is one of the authors writing for WAR HISTORY ONLINE