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Hunnic Invasions: Battle of Chalons

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Conflict:

The Battle of Chalons was fought during the Hunnic Invasions of Gaul.

Date:

The traditional date for the Battle of Chalons is June 20, 451. Some sources indicate that it may have been fought on September 20, 451.

Armies & Commanders:

Huns

Romans

  • Flavius Aetius
  • Theodoric I
  • 30,000-50,000 men

Battle of Chalons Summary:

In the years preceding 450, Roman control over Gaul and its other outlying provinces had grown weak. That year, Honoria, the sister, of Emperor Valentinian III, offered her hand in marriage to Attila the Hun with the promise that she would deliver half the Western Roman Empire as her dowry. Long a thorn in her brother's side, Honoria had earlier been married to Senator Herculanus in an effort to minimize her scheming. Accepting Honoria's offer, Attila demanded that Valentinian deliver her to him. This was promptly refused and Attila began preparing for war.

Attila's war planning was also encouraged by the Vandal king Gaiseric who wished to wage war on the Visigoths. Marching across the Rhine in early 451, Attila was joined by the Gepids and Ostrogoths. Through the first parts of the campaign, Attila's men sacked town after town including Strasbourg, Metz, Cologne, Amiens, and Reims. As they approached Aurelianum (Orleans), the city's inhabitants closed the gates forcing Attila to lay siege. In northern Italy, Magister militum Flavius Aetius began mustering forces to resist Attila's advance.

Moving into southern Gaul, Aetius found himself with a small force consisting primarily of auxiliaries. Seeking aid from Theodoric I, king of the Visigoths, he was initially rebuffed. Turning to Avitus, a powerful local magnate, Aetius finally was able to find assistance. Working with Avitus, Aetius succeeded in convincing Theodoric to join the cause as well as several other local tribes. Moving north, Aetius sought to intercept Attila near Aurelianum. Word of Aetius' approach reached Attila as his men were breaching the city's walls.

Forced to abandon the attack or be trapped in the city, Attila began retreating northeast in search of favorable terrain to make a stand. Reaching the Catalaunian Fields, he halted, turned, and prepared to give battle. On June 19, as the Romans approached, a group of Attila's Gepids fought a large skirmish with some of Aetius' Franks. Despite foreboding predictions from his seers, Attila gave the order to form for battle the next day. Moving from their fortified camp, they marched towards a ridge that crossed the fields.

Playing for time, Attila did not give the order to advance until late in the day with the goal of allowing his men to retreat after nightfall if defeated. Pressing forward they moved up the right side of the ridge with the Huns in the center and the Gepids and Ostrogoths on the right and left respectively. Aetius' men climbed the left slope of the ridge with his Romans on the left, the Alans in the center, and Theodoric's Visigoths on the right. With the armies in place, the Huns advanced to take the top of the ridge. Moving quickly, Aetius' men reached the crest first.

Taking the top of the ridge, they repulsed Attila's assault and sent his men reeling back in disorder. Seeing an opportunity, Theodoric's Visigoths surged forward attacking the retreating Hunnic forces. As he struggled to reorganize his men, Attila's own household unit was attacked forcing him to fall back to his fortified camp. Pursuing, Aetius' men compelled the rest of the Hunnic forces to follow their leader, though Theodoric was killed in the fighting. With Theodoric dead, his son, Thorismund, assumed command of the Visigoths. With nightfall the fighting ended.

The next morning, Attila prepared for the expected Roman attack. In the Roman camp, Thorismund advocated assaulting the Huns, but was dissuaded by Aetius. Realizing that Attila had been defeated and his advance stopped, Aetius began to assess the political situation. He realized that if the Huns were completely destroyed, that the Visigoths would likely end their alliance with Rome and would become a threat. To prevent this, he suggested that Thorismund immediately return to the Visigoth capital at Tolosa to claim his father's throne before one of his brothers seized it. Thorismund agreed and departed with his men. Aetius used similar tactics to dismiss his other Frankish allies before withdrawaling with his Roman troops. Initially believing the Roman withdrawal to be a ruse, Attila waited several days before breaking camp and retreating back across the Rhine.

Aftermath

Like many battles in this time period, precise casualties for the Battle of Chalons are not known. An extremely bloody battle, Chalons ended Attila's 451 campaign in Gaul and damaged his reputation as an invincible conqueror. The following year he returned to assert his claim to Honoria's hand and ravaged northern Italy. Advancing down the peninsula, he did not depart until speaking with Pope Leo I. The victory at Chalons was one of the last significant victories achieved by the Western Roman Empire.

Selected Sources

  1. About.com
  2. Education
  3. Military History
  4. Conflicts & Battles
  5. Battles & Wars: to 1000
  6. Wars of Rome
  7. Attila the Hun at the Battle of Chalons

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