Battle of the Catalaunian Plains

One of the most dreaded figures in history — Attila the Hun — left a harrowing memory in the minds of the waning Roman Empire. Known as the “scourge of God,” he and his Hunnic horde laid waste to Roman territories they invaded. So terrifying were the Huns that a brilliant Roman general named Aetius had to assemble a combined force of Roman and Gothic warriors to face them. In AD 451, the winds of war brought the two forces face-to-face in ancient France in what came to be known as the Battle of the Catalaunian Plains.


After dominating as a superpower for centuries, the Roman Empire was not as powerful as it was in the middle of the 5th century. It was now divided into two halves — the capital in Constantinople, which retained some power, and the capital in Rome, which was now in decline. This decrease in the empire’s dominion over the ancient world was caused by centuries of constant barbarian invasions and civil wars. These two factors can be blamed for the empire’s loss of many of its territories. Consequently, formidable barbarian tribes settled in Spain and Gaul, while North Africa gradually fell out of the empire’s authority. Luckily for Rome, in the midst of this imperial degeneration stood Flavius Aetius, a general who served under the reign of Emperor Valentinian III.

Flavius Aetius had battled against the invaders in Gaul for years and struggled to keep the empire’s grip on the region. His army, however, was significantly different from other generals during Rome’s prime, as a portion of Aetius’ army included barbarian soldiers. Serving under Rome’s military appealed to non-Romans because of the salary and the possibility of being granted better status in society. Due to Aetius’ influence in the army and the western Roman empire, his troops were more allegiant to him than to the emperor. Apart from his loyal troops, Aetius also enjoyed the support of a tribe known for its fury on the battlefield — the Huns. During Aetius’ military campaigns in Gaul, he learned how useful the Huns were in helping him crush his enemies. With the help of these ruthless warriors, his reputation rose as a general, and he became the most powerful man in the empire. He was totally unaware that he would eventually face off with these warriors.

The Rise of Attila

Like many larger-than-life warriors, Attila seized total power through bloodshed. In 445, while the Huns were fighting in Gaul under the command of Aetius, Attila murdered his brother, Bleda. The two brothers had been sharing supreme Hunnic power since 433, and Attila wanted no one to share that power with. It is believed that the murder happened while Bleda was out hunting boar. With Attila wielding sole Hunnic power, the Huns cut their alliance with Rome. However, this drastic change in political stance was not surprising. Even while he shared the throne with his brother, Attila attacked territories in the Eastern Roman Empire. They routed Roman troops and, in 443, reached the city of Constantinople. Luckily for the eastern empire, the city’s massive walls proved too much for the invaders. The Huns marched into Greece in 447 and, with the Roman Empire’s inability to retaliate, dictated a peace settlement that required Rome to pay them a sizeable yearly sum. With this financial triumph, Attila set his sights on the western half of the Roman empire.

Roots of the Conflict

Attila only needed a justification to launch a war against the Western Roman Empire, and one came his way. However, historians do not know what exactly triggered Atilla’s campaign. The Gothic historian, Jordanes, writes that the conflict started when Gaiseric, king of the Vandals, convinced Attila to spark hostilities against the Visigoths. Gaiseric also allegedly spread animosity between the western Romans and the Visigoths. However, Jordanes’ writings on the matter are viewed as questionable. The more accepted version involves the emperor Valentinian III’s sister, Honoria. Honoria had already been rumored as a woman with loose morals who used sex to attain her ambitions. Her brother once caught her having an affair with her chamberlain. Probably fearful that her affairs might eventually put his imperial power in danger, Valentinian arranged to marry her to Bassus Herculanus, a Roman Senator whom Valentinian felt had no ambitions for the throne. Honoria objected to her brother’s plan and, in 450, asked Attila the Hun to help her get out of the situation. She sent over her messenger, who brought her letter and her ring to Attila. Most probably, Honoria was not suggesting that Attila marry her, but the Hunnic king took it to mean that way and agreed to it. He ordered Honoria to be brought to her and asked for a dowry, which he asserted should be half of the western empire. Valentinian then discovered the trouble her sister had caused and immediately sent letters to Attila explaining that the proposal was not true. But by then, Attila sensed the opportunity that the situation was offering. He had been craving to attack Rome all these years, and now a pretext fell into his hands. He threw aside Valentinian’s explanations, announced that the proposal was valid, and declared he would come to get what he believed was now his.

In 451, Attila and his Hunnic forces attacked Gaul and plundered many cities. During this time, Aetius was occupied with diplomatic affairs, but his mind was already working on the impending conflict. Drawing from his experience of fighting with the Huns, he knew that simply facing them with a traditional Roman army was suicide. He concluded that he needed to ask for help from other barbarian tribes to stand a chance against Attila. Germanic tribes like the Franks, Visigoths, Burgundians, and Alans had been Rome’s enemies for many years, but for the time being, they would now fight alongside the empire. 

The Site

Historians have not been able to come up with a specific location where the battle transpired. A widely-accepted geographical estimate is an area near modern-day Chalons-en-Champagne, southeast of Paris. The British historian, Thomas Hodgkin, believes the battle took place at Méry-sur-Seine, in north-central France. Meanwhile, the most recent assessment suggests that the area of La Cheppe, near Chalons, is where Attila had set up his camp during the battle.

The Battle

On the 20th of June, 451, Aetius and his combined troops of Roman soldiers and Gothic tribes stood on the Catalaunian Plains. Across them stood Attila and his warriors, who knew that the terrain favored their horse-mounted soldiers.

Aetius assigned the Alans to the middle. The Visigoths, led by their king, Theodoric, stood on the right side. Aetius let his Roman soldiers and some Germanic warriors take the left side. Across them, Attila placed himself in the middle of his troops, flanked by his Hunnic horsemen and allied troops.

The fighting started at noon. At the outset, the Huns’ ferocity resulted in numerous Visigoth deaths. However, the Visigoths established position on a nearby hill, thus gaining upper ground. This was not enough to weaken the attack of the Huns, who hurled a tremendous assault on the center where the Alans were. This central attack consequently made the Huns vulnerable to retaliation from the Visigoth horsemen, who wasted no time in battering them. On seeing his men perish, Attila ordered them to pull back. Around this time, King Theodoric, leader of the Visigoths, died. His son, Thorismund, automatically takes the throne and leads his men to strike back.

Historical accounts of Aetius’s Roman soldiers have not been clear. It can be surmised that the general intended to keep his soldiers safe for as long as he could. This would make sense because he must have calculated that his Visigoth allies could defeat Attila and, in the process, reduce their numbers. The Visigoths were merely temporary allies in this conflict, and a reduction in their numbers would be favorable to Rome in the future.

As the opposing forces continued to clash, thousands of bodies littered the plains. The dead and the dying now lay on the ground that had turned soppy with their own blood. Attila and his warriors were beginning to be encircled in their camp by Aetius’ men. While they were fighting desperately to escape, Aetius suddenly commanded his troops to pull back. This caused surprise among his men, who were sensing victory. Thorismund, who had just replaced his father on the throne and was on the verge of scoring his first major victory as a king, talked back to Aetius. The clever Roman general deflected Thorismund’s opposition by suggesting that he head back home to strengthen his new rule as king and not give his brothers time to plot against him. Aetius made sense, and the young Visigoth king led his troops back home. Attila and his men turned home as well, nearly defeated.

While it can be said that Aetius should have finished off the Huns, the general may have indeed intended to preserve the lives of his Roman soldiers, thus his reluctance to engage fully. He had sent a clear message to Attila and, at the same time, reduced the numbers of his temporary allies. With the barbarians now weakened, the Roman army was again able to strengthen its forces in Gaul.


Attila may have suffered a near-defeat in the Battle of the Catalaunian Fields, but he was far from being a spent force. In 452, he attacked Italy, destroying Aquileia and plundering Mediolanum, modern-day Milan. Aetius knew that he could no longer stand up to Attila without his barbarian allies. He decided to write to Pope Leo I and requested him to forge a peace agreement with Attila. Peace negotiators were sent, and finally, Attila withdrew his forces. However, it is unclear if his withdrawal was due to negotiations or to a disease that broke out in his army. Before he left, though, he warned that he would come back to unleash more destruction unless Rome delivered Honoria to him.