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Website: Battle of Chalons: Attila the Hun Versus Flavius Aetius

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Uitgeverij: HistoryNet



In the West, the patrician Flavius Aetius was trying to hold a crumbling empire together, with the child emperor Valentinian III and his mother and regent, Aelia Galla Placidia, serving mostly as figureheads. Recent wars between Aetius and Theodoric the Visigoth, his theoretical vassal who had been allowed to settle within the empire, gave Attila confidence that the Western Empire's strength would be drained and unable to resist his onslaught. In addition, he was sure that rather than unite with Aetius, Theodoric would use the opportunity of Attila's invasion to assert his own independence.

And so the Hunnic leader confidently crossed the Rhine into Gaul with a host consisting of not only Huns but also numerous German subjects, including Ostrogoths, Gepids, Franks, Rugians, Sciri, Burgundians and Thuringians. Advancing in three columns through modern-day Belgium, the Huns spread terror and destruction. Town after town was destroyed, including Metz, Cambrai, Strasbourg, Rheims, Amiens and Worms. Paris was saved only because the Huns considered it too small to be worth the trouble of a siege.

All the while, Aetius was marching to intercept Attila. In spite of Aetius' entreaties, Theodoric at first refused to commit himself to an alliance against the Huns, just as Attila predicted. Eventually, however, he decided that the threat of Hunnic devastation was more serious than that of Roman domination, and summoning his warriors, he set out north to join Aetius.

Another barbarian tribe that Aetius had allowed to settle in the empire, the Alans, was settled around the town of Orlans, but they and their king, Sangiban, were of doubtful loyalty. As it transpired, it was at Orlans that the Hunnic host converged and also where Aetius and Theodoric met up. The allies arrived just in time to prevent Sangiban from opening the city's gates to admit Attila. The Huns were already in the suburbs when Aetius arrived. Without hesitation the Romans fell on the scattered Huns, inflicting heavy casualties in the town, where the mounted Huns were at a severe disadvantage. As night fell, Attila withdrew his forces, heading east for the more open terrain around Châlons, which better suited his style of fighting. The Romans and Visigoths followed the retreating Huns closely, overtaking and annihilating their rear guard.

By that stage, with his warriors heavily laden with plunder, Attila would have been content to withdraw to Pannonia. Aetius, however, was determined to bring him to battle. The place chosen by the Huns to turn and fight was known as the Catalaunian Plains. Historians disagree on the exact site of the battle, but it is generally believed to lie somewhere between Troyes and Châlons. The terrain there was a virtually flat, featureless open plain, the only landmark being a hill that dominated Attila's left flank.

[...] Aetius the general had won the battle. Now Aetius the consummate politician emerged to exploit the victory. Still fearing the strength of the Visigoths within the empire, he was concerned lest a total defeat of the Huns would see Visigoth power swell. Anxious to preserve some sort of balance of power, he decided to let Attila withdraw. Thorismund, now king of the Visigoths, opposed that plan, but the wily Aetius convinced the young monarch of a pressing need for him to return to Toulouse to consolidate his position against his jealous brothers. The Visigoths withdrew from the Châlons battlefield, and Attila was allowed to slink back over the Rhine, defeated and humiliated, but with his power still intact.

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