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April 13, 2020

33 – The Battle of the Catalaunian Plains

33 – The Battle of the Catalaunian Plains

The Scourge of God descends upon Gaul. Aetius must rally what remains of Western Rome and unite with his nemesis Theodoric of the Visigoths. Together, they will fight Western Rome’s last great battle against Attila and his Huns. 


The Scourge of God descends upon Gaul. Aetius must rally what remains of Western Rome and unite with his nemesis Theodoric of the Visigoths. Together, they will fight Western Rome’s last great battle against Attila and his Huns.


When I started this podcast in January 2019 I decided that I wanted to tell the whole story of France. Rather than just telling a political history of the French state, or focus on French culture, I wanted to tell the history of France. To me France is a powerful word that encompasses the French people, language, culture, government, origins and influence abroad. While I’ve focused on the Hexagon, I’ve always been willing to look at events abroad, because the history of a country and a people cannot be told without their connection to the broader world, something which we have to do in order to understand the significance and context of The Battle of the Catalaunian Plains.

Historians from the 19th century and before described this battle as one of the most important battles of all time, as civilized Christians beat back the barbarian hordes. While this is quite the overstatement, symbolically, this battle was hugely important as a culmination of enormous historical developments that ended an entire era across Eurasia. If you remember my talk about historical theory in episode 10 where I discussed catalysts versus longue durée, this battle was a catalyst for the transformation of Gaul into Francia, but it only came about because of long-term changes. From the mid-2nd century to the late 3rd century the Eastern hemisphere underwent one of the greatest transformations in its history, as a global pandemic shifted the balance of power from sedentary peoples to nomadic Central Asian warriors. Most of this episode will be about events in Gaul, but if you’ll indulge me, let’s go down the rabbit hole together.

Around 10,000 BCE humans first developed agriculture. While this might seem like a natural and innocuous transition, this early scientific discovery led to global conflict between those who wanted to settle in one location, versus the nomads, who migrated with their flocks and hunted game. For millennia the nomads dominated since they could easily escape danger or raid settled peoples. Numerous civilizations across Eurasia developed and went extinct, including the monument builders of western France around 5,500 BCE to 4,500 BCE that we talked about in Episode 3. Around 3,000 BCE the first settled civilizations emerged that continued on in some form or another to this day, in Egypt and Mesopotamia. Civilization, the process in which a people settle in one location and develop cities, began to take root across Eurasia, particularly along a longitudinal line favorable to agriculture that stretched from Northern Africa and Hispania in the West to China in the East.

The flowering of civilization meant the end of the Neolithic period and the beginning of Antiquity. Nomads still existed in Eurasia and Northern Africa, but by the 3rd century BCE they were heavily outnumbered by civilized people because the latter had reliable food sources. Moreover, sedentary peoples developed writing and numerous technological advancements at a faster pace than the nomads. Civilized people called nomads ‘uncivilized’ because they didn’t live in cities, but despite the evolution of that term to mean ‘stupid’ or ‘ignorant,’ nomads were neither. Nomads often came into contact with civilized people and learned from them, while developing their own innovations, albeit at a slower pace due to their lack of writing. But the world was changing and civilization was winning.

By the 1st century CE, Augustus ordered the invasion of Germania, Persia solidified its hold on the eastern frontiers so it could control the Silk Road, and Han China was beating the nomadic Xiongnu (匈奴) to their north. The civilized people dominated and even expanded into the ‘wild’ and ‘savage’ land of the nomads as they sought to remake the world in the image of their glorious empires. Greco-Roman philosophers, Persian laurates and Chinese imperial scholars were convinced of the superiority of their culture and their rising population, against the backward nomads living on the fringes of their borders.

Then there was an unprecedented catastrophe that upended the entire Eastern Hemisphere. In 161 a virulent strain of smallpox broke out in China. From there it traveled in all directions, where it reached a Roman army camp in Persia by 165. Through these soldiers it spread across the Roman Empire, particularly devastating the heavily urbanized Italian peninsula. In the West, this became known as the Antonine Plague, though it killed tens of millions across Eurafrasia. The disease infected one out of three people in the Roman Empire and killed one out of twelve, but that was only the beginning of its devastation. Mass death and sickness meant less resources were gathered and less trade conducted, leading to economic decline, food shortages, and eventually political chaos as order broke down, something which I covered in more detail in episode 25. In the East, this was even worse, as the population of China in 160 declined from 65 million to possibly just 35 million in 300. This devastating disease outbreak was a major catalyst for the fall of empires, as Han China separated into the Three Kingdoms and Parthia became Sasanian Persia, both in the 220s. Rome, which was less affected, took longer to collapse, but the Antonine Plague reversed Rome’s continual growth and border expansion into one of chaos, civil war and retraction.

This pandemic was the worst disease outbreak in history until the Black Death, and the empires of antiquity weren’t prepared to meet this new challenge. While the disease ravaged the civilized world, the nomads were relatively unaffected. They lived far away from the centers of outbreak. Moreover, they lived in relatively small groups spread out across vast lands, meaning that if one were infected they wouldn’t spread it to many people. Without even knowing it, these ancient nomads were masters of social distancing. Within a century the population of Eurasia shifted dramatically. Sedentary peoples still outnumbered the nomads, but that gap wasn’t nearly as large as it had been, which raised serious problems. Large empires had to defend borders that could stretch hundreds if not thousands of miles, while an invading group of barbarians could attack one single spot. By the time Constantine came to power he had a total army of around 400,000, but he still gave up the fortifications along Gaul’s border because his troops were stretched so thin they couldn’t fight against even mid-sized German armies. The rulers of the great empires of antiquity could either spread their forces out to defend all their borders and then risk catastrophe when a nomadic army overwhelmed them, or concentrate their forces around important cities, leaving smaller towns defenseless against raiders, something we covered in episodes 26 to 32.

The smallpox outbreaks which began in 161 were only the first of two cataclysmic shifts, and it led to the second. The second major change was the rise of the Huns, the largest and most powerful group of nomadic warriors on Earth. Much like the Germans, the Huns were not a unified group, but a collection of interconnected tribes. The Huns dominated the Eurasian steppe, one of the largest contiguous ecoregions in the world, stretching 8,000 kilometers or 5,000 miles from northeastern China all the way to modern Hungary. The Huns dominated this vast area by cultivating horses that were larger and hardier than those used by civilized people. Legend holds that Hun children learned to ride before they could walk. Nearly as important as their horses, the Huns developed curved bows which were incredibly accurate. With the horse and bow the Huns could travel hundreds of miles in a few days, raid and slaughter an undefended town and leave before an imperial army could arrive. And even if a cavalry unit chased them the Huns were experts at shooting their enemies from afar then engaging the weakened remnant with axes. Over a century their population grew through natural reproduction, capture and conquer. As their population grew they expanded, forcing weaker groups to flee, most notably the Goths, in the West.

After smallpox ravaged the entire civilized world from the West to the Far East, so did the Huns. In 311 Eastern Huns sacked Luoyang the capital of Jin China. In the 370s the White Huns and Alchon Huns conquered Eastern Persia before moving into India. By 400 a large group of Huns settled north of the Danube and pillaged the Eastern Roman Empire. By 426 Huns arrived in Gaul, though not as conquerors. These Huns were mercenaries fighting under the Roman military commander Flavius Aetius. As Rome lacked the manpower to fight the Visigoths, Burgundians and Franks, Aetius used his personal connections to procure mercenary armies to devastating effect. It must have been quite a shock to the Germanic peoples settled in Gaul to come face to face with the Huns. They and their ancestors had fled across most of Europe either from the Huns themselves, or from other tribes fleeing these ruthless peoples. But now, the Huns had followed them to the Western edge of the world.

Yet in Gaul, from 395-435 the Huns mostly stuck to mercenary work or raiding, since they didn’t have a king to unite them all into a conquering force. There were a number of powerful kings, but rulership wasn’t concentrated, until the rise of Bleda and his younger brother Attila, who united the tribes and ravaged the Balkans. When Bleda died in 445 Attila became the sole ruler and in 447 he forced the Eastern Roman Empire to pay him 2,100 pounds of gold in tribute every year.

By now it was clear that the Huns, and Attila personally, were the great power in Europe. But even as Attila turned the Eastern Roman Empire into a tributary, in 450 events in Western Rome pulled him towards Gaul. First, Emperor Valentinian III’s sister Honoria sent Attila a ring and begged him to free her from her unhappy marriage; which if you remember from Episode 7, this is the second time that an Italian love triangle resulted in a barbarian invasion. Attila interpreted the ring as an invitation to marriage, and he claimed half of the Western Roman Empire as his dowry, which the Romans responded to with shock, anger and barely-concealed terror. The second major event in the West was a succession crisis among the Franks as two rival leaders claimed kingship. Records are scarce and so we don’t know exactly who these two kings were, though it is likely that Childeric I fought against a Roman-backed candidate. We cannot be sure though according to the 7th century Frankish book the Chronicle of Fredegar, Childeric I was a captive of the Huns, and his later dominance of the Franks makes sense due to later Hunnic support.

That year the new Eastern Roman Emperor refused to pay tribute to the Huns. While many expected Attila to march against Constantinople, he instead assembled an army of Huns and vassal tribes and headed westward, with the goal of making Childeric I his puppet ruler of the Franks and raiding Gaul. If Attila elevated Childeric I to kingship and weakened the Romans, that would leave a powerful enemy on the Roman frontier, setting up an invasion of Italy. In 451 the Huns arrived in Gaul where they sacked Tournai, Cologne, Trier and a number of other cities loyal to the Roman-backed candidate.

The Romans watched this invasion in horror. Gaul, the frontline between barbarism and Italy itself was falling to Attila’s unstoppable onslaught. Aetius raised the largest army he could, numbering in the tens of thousands, and marched northwestward. He knew he couldn’t fight Attila’s army alone and sent emissaries to his rival Theodoric I of the Visigoths. Even though the two had spent the past 25 years fighting each other they understood that the Huns could wipe them both out. Theodoric I swallowed his pride, assembled every man that could be spared and met with Aetius is southwestern Gaul. Along the way, Aetius developed a coalition of Visigoths, Burgundians, Armoricans, Franks and Saxons.

By the beginning of summer Attila succeeded in making his puppet a king among the Franks, again possibly Childeric I, though we can’t be certain. Yet, Attila wasn’t finished, and decided to raid the land of the Alans, which was a small area around Aurelaniaum, modern-day Orléans. The Alans were an Iranian people that the Huns had pushed westward, and if you’re wondering why I didn’t mention them in the last episode…my bad. But in my defense they weren’t very numerous and would be swallowed up by the Franks within 50 years, so they didn’t leave much of a long-term impact. But even if they won’t be important in future, they are incredibly important in this episode.

The Alans had fled halfway across the known world from the Huns, but now Attila was sacking their towns. As the Scourge of God himself attacked their land the Alans resisted with legendary ferocity. They knew they couldn’t run anymore and they fought with all the desperation of a cornered tiger. The climactic battle was the siege of Aurelaniaum itself. Up to this point, Attila had won an uninterrupted series of victories across Francia, but he struggled to take the city. That isn’t to say he couldn’t take it. If Attila committed to a long siege he could have certainly wiped out the Alans. But he had got what he came for; he put a puppet in control of Francia, he ravaged his enemies and he was loaded down with plunder to pay his soldiers. Attila decided he wasn’t going to waste time destroying one more city, and instead led his men back east.

As Attila retreated Aetius arrived and met with leaders of the Alans, whereupon they agreed to join him and chase down the Huns. It’s unclear exactly why the Alans would do this, though there are quite a few reasons why they, and many small Germanic tribes, joined this coalition. First, Attila’s raiding may have left them with virtually nothing and they wanted to recover food and booty taken from them. Second, some may have wanted vengeance for their destroyed homes and slain loved ones. Third, if they didn’t join this coalition and beat back Attila, the Huns could return and ravage the land worse than any Goth or Frank would. Fourth and finally, if the coalition was victorious, those who didn’t join would almost certainly be preyed upon by the Romans and Visigoths. For all these reasons Aetius and Theodoric I gathered more and more men as they chased after Attila.

The Roman army neared Attila’s in north-eastern Gaul, in what is today the Champagne region. When Attila’s scouts reported they were being followed the Scourge of God decided to meet them in pitched battle. Attila believed he couldn’t simply outrun them and return home since it would make him look weak, and such a large coalition could overwhelm his puppet king of Francia. Attila kept his forces moving in order to draw the Romans onto an open field, where the Hunnic cavalry were at their best. On June 20th, 451 the two armies assembled on the Catalaunian Plains and faced each other.

Historians don’t know exactly what occurred next due to conflicting sources. For over a thousand years the official Roman narrative recounted by the historian Jordanes was accepted. In it, he recounts the failure of the Alans and the bravery of the Visigoths who overwhelmed their foes, defeating the Huns and saving Western Civilization. Yet, this interpretation is widely criticized by modern historians who argue that the ancient Romans often copied sagas from antiquity in retelling their own stories, and Jordanes’ version of events is an almost play-by-play of the Battle of Marathon, in which the Grecian center collapsed under Persian pressure but the wings engulfed the enemy army.

We’ll never know exactly what happened but the most likely course of battle occurred like this: The armies assembled that morning and faced each other from roughly a mile away, out of immediate arrow range. The Visigoths under Theodoric I held the right wing. The Visigoths were primarily infantry, who formed a shield wall to protect against the Huns’ mounted archers, while their own archers were behind them. Finally, a Visigothic cavalry unit led by Theodoric I’s son Thorismund waited in the very back. In the center were the Alan cavalry. The Alans were the most devoted to the cause as it was their homes that were directly under threat by the Huns and their puppet Franks. On the left-wing were the Romans and their foederati, who assembled like the Visigoths, with infantry forming a shield wall in front, archers behind and cavalry in the rear.

On the opposite side of the field Attila arranged his armies like so: Attila and his cavalry had the center. The Ostrogothic infantry and cavalry on Attila’s left faced Theodoric I and the Visigoths on the Roman right. Attila’s right had Frankish and Gepid infantry and cavalry, which stared down the Romans and their foederati. In total, each coalition possessed around 50,000 men, for a total of 100,000, which was easily the greatest assembly of warriors Gaul had seen in centuries.

The battle began when Attila led the Huns in a charge down the center. The hoofbeats of thousands of horses shook the very ground the Romans stood upon. That same sound, like a mix between a storm and an earthquake, that had terrorized the civilized and nomadic worlds from China to Gaul now crescendoed as they neared the enemy line. The Alans charged out to meet them, and scored a number of kills, but the skill and ferocity of the Huns was overwhelming and the Alans quickly retreated. Next, the Huns split their forces in half and charged east and west where they galloped in front of the Visigoths and Romans and rained arrows on the two remaining armies. One arrow struck Theodoric I, killing him. While terrifying, the two shield walls were very effective against the Huns, and the stationary archers rained death on them. For a moment, it looked as if Attila had erred as more Huns died than allied soldiers.

But even this was just one part of Attila’s plan. As the Hunnic cavalry moved to the farthest right and left, they revealed the allied infantry who had charged behind them. The Huns had shielded their infantry from their enemies and now the Ostrogoths, Franks and Gepids crashed into the Visigoth and Roman lines, while the Huns circled around and prepared for another charge. The better part of the 100,000 men assembled on the field of battle now engaged each other. The ferocious Ostrogoths, Franks and Gepids tore into the Visigoths and Romans. But the Romans and their allies still had one advantage; their archers rained death on their enemies and every few seconds that the infantry held meant another volley of arrows.

Even as the allies pushed back the barbarians the Huns returned for another charge down the open center, where they planned to rain death on the exposed Visigothic and Roman flanks. But as they approached, Thorismund charged with his cavalry from the right, while the Alans, now regrouped, charged forward and the Roman cavalry moved in from the left. What happened next was utter chaos. The straight lines that formed at the beginning of the battle fell apart. The open center suddenly filled with thousands of horsemen crashing into each other or into the two main armies’ wings as each side attempted to sow confusion and disorder among the enemy infantry. From afternoon into late evening both sides tore into each other.

We can only imagine the utter confusion of the soldiers’ by the days’ end. By the 5th century the Roman army couldn’t provide the standardized uniforms they used to wear, and instead each man provided their own clothes, which meant they dressed just like the barbarians. Moreover, many Germanic groups fought on both sides, including Franks and Burgundians. As evening fell the lines of both armies melded together, the standard-bearers fell or lost control of their regiments, and filth-covered men stabbed at whatever was closest to them. Who could tell if the Frank or Burgundian in front of you was an ally or an enemy?

Night fell and the battle ended, as neither side could properly see each other. The Huns, Romans and both of their Germanic allies wandered around in a daze, tripping over corpses and puddles of blood, trying to reconnect with their allies. Aetius himself was so confused that he nearly wandered into the Hunnic camp! Throughout the night soldiers retreated to whichever camp they belonged to and waited tensely for morning. At this point, neither side knew who had won the battle.

When morning came the sun shone on a field of carnage as thousands of bodies decomposed, and the field turned a sickly dark brown with blood and mud. As the crows and worms arrived for an unprecedented feast Attila and Aetius stared each other down from across the field and deliberated. Neither had won the decisive victory that they had hoped for. Aetius knew he couldn’t keep fighting. The Visigoths under their new leader Thorismund, were probably calling for a retreat. Their king was dead and they were far from home that they didn’t want to pursue the Huns any further. Aetius was naturally suspicious of the Visigoths. Now that the Huns were in retreat he worried they would consider Rome a greater threat.

Meanwhile Attila didn’t have any clear reason to keep fighting. He had already devastated his enemies enough that they couldn’t challenge the Franks, and his men couldn’t acquire any sizeable plunder from attacking them. The only thing he could accomplish by re-engaging was smashing a Roman army before his planned invasion of Italy. But he had already lost enough men who were eager to go home with their plunder.

For at least a day the Romans and Huns fortified their camps and watched each other. But then Aetius called a retreat and his forces snuck away one early morning. When the Hunnic scouts reported this to Attila he ordered a march back towards his empire on the Danube. Thus ended Attila’s war in Gaul.

The Romans and Visigoths claimed they won an incredible victory over the barbaric, pagan Huns and forced them back east. This story was repeated without any serious questioning throughout Western histories until the last century, as archeologists and historians re-evaluated the battle. In retrospect, the idea that western powers ‘forced’ Attila to retreat is pure nonsense; he was already heading east probably to deal with a succession crisis, and to gather his forces for an invasion of Italy, which he did the following year. When Attila invaded Italy in 452 the Roman army was so exhausted that Aetius didn’t win a single pitched battle against him, and Attila ransacked the north. Moreover, Attila’s puppet king, likely Childeric I, maintained his position of power over most of the Franks. In the next hundred years the Franks conquered the Gallo-Romans and forced the Visigoths to flee to Hispania. Meanwhile, the Burgundians, who mostly allied with Attila, held their own territory and were an important entity within the area. The battle exhausted Rome and the Visigoths, while Attila’s allies, namely the Franks, dominated the region.

So does that mean that Attila and the Huns won the battle, and the past 1,500 years of Western history books are propaganda? Not exactly. Attila wanted to decisively smash the Romans and Visigoths so that he could dominate Gaul and Italy. But the western powers barely held. While Attila’s allies benefitted from his campaign, they still shared power with his enemies. When Attila invaded Italy in 452 he plundered north of the Po River but disease forced him to retreat before he could besiege Rome. In his Gallic and Italian campaigns, Attila won most of the battles, weakened his enemies and killed far more people than he lost, but he didn’t conquer his enemies outright.

After the Italian campaign Attila returned to his capital and in March 453 threw a lavish marriage festival for his newest wife. After a heavy night of drinking his nose bled profusely and by the morning he was dead, probably of a burst blood vessel. Not long after Attila’s death, his sons raised their own armies and launched the devastating Hunnic Civil War. As the Huns destroyed themselves their German vassals rose up and defeated them, ending the Hunnic Empire and its threat to Europe. The Scourge of God was dead, and his empire fell with it.

Now we have to ask one final question about the Battle of the Catalaunian Plains: what impact did it have on Gaul? This battle joins the Battle of Marathon and the Battle of Poitiers as a mythologized event that Western historians claimed was a world-changing triumph of the civilized West over the barbaric East. This is a huge overstatement, and modern historians are right to criticize this interpretation. But I argue that this battle was actually incredibly important in the history of France, and yes I mean France, not Gaul, because this battle helped make France.

When Attila arrived in Gaul, it was Barbaria, a land divided between numerous different ethnolinguistic territories with some remnants of Roman power. The most populous and powerful of all were the Franks but the Franks had a long-standing tradition of independence and refused to have one king rule over all of them. At the same time the Visigoths were the most aggressive power in the region because even though they weren’t very populous they were united under one king. But Attila imposed Childeric I on most of the Franks, and suddenly this enormous group of people came under the dominion of one king and his followers. When the Hunnic Empire collapsed, Childeric I’s role transformed from Attila’s greatest vassal to one of Europe’s most powerful kings. Childeric I’s son Clovis would use this position to conquer the Visigoths and lesser powers and officially transform Gaul into Francia. Thus, Attila unintentionally midwifed France as we know it by uniting most of the Frankish tribes under one ruler.

The second impact of this battle was that it legitimized Germanic rule to the Gallo-Romans. When the Germanic peoples first established their kingdoms in the early 400s the Gallo-Romans detested them as barbarians and pagans. But by 451 a new generation emerged which had lived entirely under their rule. These Gallo-Romans watched their barbarian leaders defend their lands and lives at the Battle of the Catalaunian Plains to drive out a foreign, pagan menace. After the battle numerous writers and Christian bishops praised the barbarians, with one priest even claiming that they had been sent by God to defend Christianity from paganism. Another Roman writer claimed that the Visigoths, Franks and others were the true Romans, because while the people of Italy became decadent, slothful and corrupt, the Germanic peoples embodied all of the martial qualities of the ancient Romans. Most of these accounts are clearly propaganda as the church and artists depended on the Germanic lords to pay them for their services. But propaganda or not, these new kingdoms legitimized themselves to the Gallo-Romans through their defense of Roman culture, Christianity and traditional values. As Clovis I conquered Gaul he converted to orthodox Christianity and fought against the Arian Visigoths with the support of the Pope and the majority of the population.

Thus the Battle of the Catalaunian Plains was a remarkably important event in French history. It weakened Roman military power over Gaul, legitimized the Germanic kingdoms and united most of the Franks under one king. All of this set the stage for the end of Antiquity and the beginning of the Medieval period.




Ancient Encyclopedia

Christ Stewart: The History of China Podcast (consulted on Chinese history)

Early Medieval Europe 300-1000 by Roger Collins, 3rd ed. 2010

Fifth-century Gaul: A Crisis of Identity? Ed.s John Drinkwater and Hugh Elton 1992

The Huns, Rome and the Birth of Europe by Hyun Jin Kim, 2013

Roman Aristocrats in Barbarian Gaul by Ralph Whitney Mathisen, 1993