On this day in 451, on the Catalaunian Plains of northeastern France, the Huns and the Romans fought in the Battle of Châlons, one of the largest battles of the ancient world, and one of the last significant victories of the Western Roman Empire.
In 450, Honoria, the sister of Emperor Valentinian III, offered her hand in marriage to Attila the Hun, promising that she would grant him half the Western Roman Empire as her dowry. When Attila accepted her offer and was promptly refused by Valentinian, he prepared for war.
Attila marched across the Rhine, sacking towns along the way and gathering a coalition that included the Gepids and Ostrogoths.
Meanwhile, in northern Italy, military commander Flavius Aetius began marching toward Gaul to meet Attila’s offensive, and preparing forces, including Visigoths under Theodoric I, Franks, and several local tribes.
Word of Aetius’ approach reached Attila and his forces just as they were breaching the city walls of Aurelianum. Attila broke the siege and retreated, looking for an advantageous spot to fight the Roman forces.
The forces met at the Catalaunian Fields just before sunset the next day, Aetius’ men on the left slope of a ridge that crossed the fields, Attila’s on the right. The Hunnish forces attempted to seize the strategic central position, but were foiled by the Roman alliance and fled in disarray. Seeing an opportunity, Theodoric’s Visigoths surged forward to attack Attila’s retreating forces. Aetius’ men pursued the fight from behind and by nightfall the fighting stopped. Recognising that he needed an enemy to maintain Rome’s far-flung alliances with neighbouring tribes, Aetius decided against re-attacking and destroying the Huns completely. After several days, Attila broke camp and retreated back across the Rhine.
Almost immediately, the battle acquired a reputation for carnage. “Cadavera vero innumera,” the Romans said afterwards: “Truly countless bodies!”
Châlons was important for several reasons. It was the first significant conflict that involved large alliances on either side, fighting in a coordinated fashion. Some historians contend that Châlons was an epic battle because the fate of western civilisation depended upon its outcome. Ultimately, it proved Attila was defeatable, undid his reputation as an invincible conqueror, and halted the Huns’ further advance into Western Europe. It also marked one of the Western Roman Empire’s last major victories.
Caption: Attila slays Theodoric I during the Battle of Chalons, from “Histoire de France” by M. Colart.