In the last post we described the sack of Rome which occurred in 410 A.D. Now we jump forward 40 years to find Rome and the Visigoths allied against Attila and the Hunnic Empire. How did this happen? How did the destroyer of Rome, the tribe that fought the Roman army for 200 years, now become an ally?
Before getting to the action – the Battle of Chalons in 451 A.D. – we need to set up the preliminaries, which involve some intricate politics.
Circa 408 A.D, the Pyrenees were manned by a militia placed there to block barbarian incursions into Spain. But the militia was withdrawn to support the usurper Constantine who sought to oppose Honorius for the crown. With the militia gone, the Suevi, Vandals, and Alani poured down from Gaul into Spain, taking it over. They devastated the country before deciding to settle it and then put an administrative apparatus in place.
The king of the Goths at that time was Adolphus, who received the crown following the death of Alaric. Formerly a rival of the Visigoths, Adolphus was now embraced by them out of necessity – the need for a strong leader. And Adolphus had come to realize the merits of friendly co-existence. As Gibbon tells us:
“In the full confidence of valor and victory, I once aspired (said Adolphus) to change the face of the universe; to obliterate the name of Rome; to erect on its ruins the dominion of the Goths; and to acquire, like Augustus, the immortal fame of the founder of a new empire. By repeated experiments, I was gradually convinced, that laws are essentially necessary to maintain and regulate a well-constituted state; and that the fierce, untractable humor of the Goths was incapable of bearing the salutary yoke of laws and civil government. From that moment I proposed to myself a different object of glory and ambition; and it is now my sincere wish that the gratitude of future ages should acknowledge the merit of a stranger, who employed the sword of the Goths, not to subvert, but to restore and maintain, the prosperity of the Roman empire.
Adolphus suspended his operations of war and negotiated a treaty with Rome. Once the treaty was complete, he marched his army to the southern provinces of Gaul and settled between the Mediterranean and the Ocean. Adolphus then cemented his relationship with Rome by marrying the daughter of emperor Theodosius, who was also sister to Honorius.
Peace being foreign to the mind of the king, he became convinced at the urging of Honorius to attack the barbarians in Spain. After seizing Barcelona, he was assassinated. Some intrigues followed and then the crown of the Visigoths passed to Wallia. The latter worked his way through Spain and upon reaching Gibraltar, contemplated crossing to Africa, but he changed his mind and decided to become an ally of Rome instead. Brought to the city and given a triumph, Wallia now carried the mantle as Rome’s great ally in the west.
Put to work by the Romans, he attacked Spain.
“He exterminated the Silingi, who had irretrievably ruined the elegant plenty of the province of Boetica. He slew, in battle, the king of the Alani; and the remains of those Scythian wanderers, who escaped from the field, instead of choosing a new leader, humbly sought a refuge under the standard of the Vandals, with whom they were ever afterwards confounded. The Vandals themselves, and the Suevi, yielded to the efforts of the invincible Goths. The promiscuous multitude of Barbarians, whose retreat had been intercepted, were driven into the mountains of Gallicia; where they still continued, in a narrow compass and on a barren soil, to exercise their domestic and implacable hostilities.”
The year was 418 A.D.
With the Spanish war complete, the Visigoths established themselves in Aquitaine under the ecclesiastical control of Bordeaux. Their neighbors were the Burgundians who controlled upper Germany and the Franks who controlled lower Germany. After his death, Wallia was succeeded by Theodoric, a forward thinking man who had his six sons educated in Roman jurisprudence at the best schools in Gaul.
The other component of our Roman-Gothic alliance is the singular personality Flavius Aetius. Born in Moesia to a Scythian father and an Italian mother, Aetius served much of his childhood as a hostage: first with Alaric (405-408 A.D) and then with Rugila, king of the Huns. Those experiences aided Aetius in two ways: he developed a comfort with military life and he became friends with his adversaries.
When Honorius died in 423 A.D, Aetius attached himself to the usurper Johannes, who sent him to the Huns to ask for military assistance. He returned to Italy in 425 A.D. with an army only to find Johannes dead and the western empire in control of Valentinian III and his mother Galla Placidia. After some fighting, Aetius was able to forge a compromise with Galla which required that he send the Huns home in exchange for an appointment as general under the new emperor.
The list of Aetius military successes is a long one. Between 427 and 430 A.D. he defeated the Visigoths and Franks in Gaul. Between 433 and 450 A.D. he fought the Burgundians, the Suebi, and the Visigoths, treating with the latter in 439 A.D. He fought the Burgundians again in 443 A.D. and the Franks again in 448 A.D. Wherever he went, Aetius carried a Hunnic cavalry with him.
In 451 A.D, Attila was recruited to come to the aid of the Vandals and Franks who were under constant pressure from the Visigoths and Romans. His readiness to go to war is described by Gibbon in the following passage,
“The kings and nations of Germany and Scythia, from the Volga perhaps to the Danube, obeyed the warlike summons of Attila. From the royal village, in the plains of Hungary his standard moved towards the West; and after a march of seven or eight hundred miles, he reached the conflux of the Rhine and the Neckar, where he was joined by the Franks, who adhered to his ally, the elder of the sons of Clodion. A troop of light Barbarians, who roamed in quest of plunder, might choose the winter for the convenience of passing the river on the ice; but the innumerable cavalry of the Huns required such plenty of forage and provisions, as could be procured only in a milder season.
“But as the greatest part of the Gallic cities were alike destitute of saints and soldiers, they were besieged and stormed by the Huns; who practiced, in the example of Metz, their customary maxims of war. They involved, in a promiscuous massacre, the priests who served at the altar, and the infants, who, in the hour of danger, had been providently baptized by the bishop.”
…From the Rhine and the Moselle, Attila advanced into the heart of Gaul; crossed the Seine at Auxerre; and, after a long and laborious march, fixed his camp under the walls of Orleans.
Attila now began a siege of the city. The people put up a stubborn defense but were at the point of breaking when a messenger sent to the ramparts by the bishop returned with a report where he
“mentioned a small cloud, which he had faintly descried at the extremity of the horizon. The remote object, on which every eye was fixed, became each moment larger, and more distinct; the Roman and Gothic banners were gradually perceived; and a favorable wind blowing aside the dust, discovered, in deep array, the impatient squadrons of Aetius and Theodoric, who pressed forwards to the relief of Orleans.”
To avoid being trapped in the heart of Gaul, Attila broke the siege and retreated beyond the Seine near the plains of Chalon. There the plains extend for a hundred miles in each direction -- an ideal spot for battle.
Above is a map showing the location of Chalons. I thought it would be interesting to point out the locations of the World War I battle line and Hitler's attack point at the start of World War II as references.
As Attila retreated, the rear of his formation was harassed by the vanguard of the allies causing him some 15,000 casualties.
He asked for auspices to be taken and he was told, “your adversary will be killed, but you will lose the battle.” To avoid the negative connotation of the prophesy, Attila exhorted his troops, telling them he would lead them into battle.
The battle dispositions were as follows.
“At the head of his brave and faithful Huns, he occupied in person the centre of the line. The nations subject to his empire, the Rugians, the Heruli, the Thuringians, the Franks, the Burgundians, were extended on either hand, over the ample space of the Catalaunian fields; the right wing was commanded by Ardaric, king of the Gepidae; and the three valiant brothers, who reigned over the Ostrogoths, were posted on the left to oppose the kindred tribes of the Visigoths. The disposition of the allies was regulated by a different principle. Sangiban, the faithless king of the Alani, was placed in the centre, where his motions might be strictly watched, and that the treachery might be instantly punished. Aetius assumed the command of the left, and Theodoric of the right wing; while Torismond still continued to occupy the heights which appear to have stretched on the flank, and perhaps the rear, of the Scythian army.”
After the initial discharge of missile weapons, cavalry from both sides engaged each other in close combat. The middle of the Hunnic line was able to pierce the weak center of their opponents and quickly wheeled left to attack the Visigoth army. Theodoric, leading his troops, was struck by a javelin, knocked off his horse, and trampled to death. Soon the auspices would be fulfilled as the Visigoths restored their order of battle, routed the barbarian army, and forced Attila to retreat. The Hunnic army spent the night preparing to be attacked but the allies had suffered substantial casualties themselves and were in no shape to press them. Aetius' survey of the carnage proved to him that he had won the battle.
The following year Attila pressed a claim for Honoria, sister of Valentinian III, who he had previously married. Rebuffed, he vowed to destroy Italy. Beginning with Aquileia, Attila pressed a three month siege to conclusion and then leveled the city. One by one the other cities and towns fell like dominoes before him: Vicenza, Verona, and Bergamo were destroyed while Milan and Pavia paid tribute to avoid the fate of the others.
Desperate to stop the carnage, the bishop of Rome and others were sent to negotiate with Attila and a treaty was struck for the withdrawal of his army from the peninsula. Before it could be signed, however, Attila died suddenly of a burst artery. The year was 453 A.D.
Over the next few years, the Goths became more powerful: Visigoths in Gaul and the Ostrogoths in the Balkans – the latter now separated from the remnant Hunnic Empire. The Hunnic nation broke apart as a result of the poor leadership and infighting between the sons of Attila. Ellac, the eldest son, lost his life in the battle of Netad. Dengisich, another brother, was killed by his slaves. The youngest brother, Irnac, who was smarter than his siblings, retired to lesser Scythia, only to be overrun by new hordes from the east.
Most unfortunate of the threads of this story was the assassination of Aetius, who was intrigued against by Valentinian’s favorite eunuch Heraclius. Jealous of his reputation and power, the emperor decided Aetius was a threat to the crown, and stabbed him during a palace visit on September 21st 454 A.D. Less than a year later the emperor would be assassinated by two of Aetius’ lieutenants.