Battle of the Catalaunian Plains

Orfeas Katsoulis | Jun 18, 2024

Table of Content


The Battle of the Catalaunian Fields took place in 451 AD between the Romans under Flavius Aëtius and the Visigoths under Theoderic I on the one hand, and the Huns under Attila and the Ostrogoths on the other. It took place in what is now northeastern France near the present-day town of Châlons-en-Champagne. The battle is dated by the majority on June 20, 451, while a minority holds the date of September 20. The Roman Visigoth army defeated the Huns with heavy losses and forced them to retreat from Gaul.

The battle was once considered a defense of the Roman west against the Huns. Modern research, on the other hand, emphasizes that at that time two motley alliances faced each other, and often understands the events rather as a power struggle between the two rivals Attila and Aëtius.

Prosper Tiro of Aquitaine, contemporary of the battle, only barely mentions Attila's campaign. Important information on the prehistory is provided by the contemporary witness Priskos. However, there is only one substantial late antique source that describes the battle on the Catalaunian Fields in more detail, namely the Roman-Gothic historian Jordanes, who, however, wrote only a good century after the event and is not always reliable. Above all, his figures of army strengths are completely exaggerated, and he idealized the role of the Visigoths and demonized Attila. Considerable distrust is therefore warranted towards his statements. Moreover, the surviving accounts must be treated with great caution, since they convey only the retrospective view of the victors, who were concerned to portray the events as a barbarian attack on the Imperium Romanum and not as a Hunnic intervention in internal Roman conflicts. In addition to Jordanes, Agathias and Prokopios also touch on the battle.

Actually, initially there was a largely good relationship between Attila's multiethnic federation and Western Rome. In addition, the Hun ruler Attila and the Western Roman army commander (magister militum) and de facto head of government, Flavius Aëtius, also maintained good personal relations in the beginning. Aëtius had remained victor in a civil war in 433 only with Hunnic help and had dominated the imperial court in Ravenna ever since. After 447, however, relations deteriorated, and there is much to suggest that the war of 451

For a while Attila seems to have hesitated, then he decided to launch a full-scale attack on Gaul to confront Aëtius and the Visigoths. In the spring of 451, he began to concentrate pressure on the Rhine. The Alamanni resisted, while the Franks on the right bank of the Rhine largely joined him. The Franks on the left bank of the Rhine, the Ripuarian Franks, in turn, subordinated themselves to Aëtius, who, having just arrived in Gaul from Italy, drew to himself all the existing Roman troops as well as the Foederates - among them the Burgundians in Savoy, the Alans around Orléans and the Visigoths; the latter were of particular importance to Aëtius because of the strength of their army. At first, however, Visigoth king Theoderic I seemed to want to wait in Aquitaine to see how the power struggle would turn out. Aëtius then sent to Theoderic the former praetorian prefect of Gaul, Avitus, who was highly respected by Romans and Goths alike. Avitus succeeded in convincing the Visigoth of the advantages of joint action against Attila.

During these negotiations, Attila's army marched past Argentoratum and, on April 7, 451, Metz - both cities thoroughly sacked in the process - towards Orléans. Aëtius, now reinforced by the Visigoths, also marched from the southwest toward Orléans. According to Jordanes' tradition, the city fell shortly before the arrival of Aëtius, who surprised the Huns while sacking the city and forced them to retreat. However, this is still doubted, since it seems almost inconceivable that the Hunnic scouts should have been unaware of the arrival of such a large army. Presumably, Attila withdrew his troops from Orléans in time and then marched eastward back to his camp, an entrenched wagon castle. Attila's retreat from Orléans took place at night, covered by the warriors of the Gepids, who formed the rearguard. The Ripuarian Franks, in turn, formed the vanguard of the Western Roman army. In the fierce night battle that followed, both sides suffered heavy losses until they parted without result. Aëtius followed with the army and set up camp within sight of Attila's chariot castle.

The name Catalaunian Fields (Latin Campi Catalauni) comes from the Gaulish tribe of Catalaunians who settled in the region where the battle took place.

The identification of the battlefield is controversial. Thus, until today it could not be determined with certainty where exactly the battle took place. For a long time, a plain near Châlons-en-Champagne was assumed to be the site of the battle. There is a suggestion that a larger group of Huns founded the village of Courtisols eleven kilometers east of the city after the battle.

However, since it is reported that Attila retreated eastward from Orléans, it seems more likely that the battle was fought somewhere on the plain between Châlons-en-Champagne and Troyes (modern northeastern France), probably closer to Troyes.

It is known that the battlefield was defined by a wide plain. It was bordered to the north by a river, probably the Marne, and to the south by some unconnected forests. In the north, a hill rose even before the river.

The troop strength of both sides can only be estimated, since the historical data are obviously exaggerated and therefore untrustworthy. (Jordanes speaks of 500,000 fighters.) Attila's army consisted only about half of Huns, while the other half was provided by his vassals. These contingents were ordered by size; particularly important were those of the Ostrogoths under Valamir, the Gepids under Ardarich, and the Franks on the right bank of the Rhine, as well as those of the Burgundians (from a sub-tribe that lived on the Main River).

Heruls, Skirs, Lombards and others were also represented in small contingents. It should be noted that the Ostrogoths apparently made up about half of the vassal force. The Huns were, as usual, mounted and armed with spear, club and rope sling, as well as with their most important weapon, the specially made mounted bow. Armor was usually not worn by them, only a small round leather shield was used for defense. It was different with the Germanic vassals. Except for the Ostrogoths, whose contingent probably consisted of about a third of horsemen, almost all were foot soldiers. The Ostrogothic cavalry can be classified as heavy cavalry, since they were equipped with thrusting spears and longswords and at least leather armor, but often also chain armor and helmets. However, the stirrup was still unknown in Late Antiquity. With the exception of the Franks, the foot warriors will probably have gone into battle mostly without armor, but with round shield, spear, sax or longsword. Long-range weapons were hardly used by the Teutons, and only among the Ostrogoths are archers attested. The Franks used the franziska, a curved throwing axe used just before the combatants clashed, as a unique long-range weapon. Apart from that, the Frankish warriors were also armed with spear, sax and a wooden shield, partly also with longswords.

Aëtius' army consisted of about half regular Roman units and Frankish and Burgundian foederati on one side and Visigoth warriors on the other. In addition, there were a few thousand federated Alans.

Romans, Franks and Burgundians formed the heavy infantry. At the same time, the late Roman soldiers must not be imagined as the legions of the early imperial period. They were armed with an oval shield, a spangled helmet, a long sword (spatha) and the composite bow of oriental design, which was probably not insignificantly responsible for the still considerable striking power of Roman armies, mostly they still wore chain mail, but no more track armor. Some of the units were still called legio, but they were only 1000 to at most 2000 men strong. Many soldiers that Aëtius had mustered seem to have been limitanei, these were often recruited from the local population around the sites. This reduced mobility, but the morale of these troops, who were defending their own communities and families, was all the higher. The imperial army of movement, the comitatenses, apparently no longer played a major role in western Rome around the middle of the 5th century, since the endless internal and external conflicts had led to high losses among this elite force, which could not be compensated for due to empty state coffers. Aëtius seems to have opposed Attila with all the Roman troops he still had at his disposal, certainly including comitatenses. Many were mounted.

The Ripuarian Franks were probably armed in the same way as the Franks on the right bank of the Rhine mentioned above. The Burgundians on both sides were apparently armed only with longswords. Since the battle of Adrianople in 378, the Visigothic warriors had increasingly switched from foot soldiers to cavalry due to the beating example of the Alans' cavalry. At least two-thirds of the Visigothic contingent was therefore mounted. They were divided into the noble cavalry, armed with chain armor and thrusting spears, and the mass of lightly armed cavalry. The latter usually had no armor at all, but had javelins, long swords and probably small riding shields made of wood or several layers of leather. Among the foot soldiers, spear, longsword and shield, and occasionally simple bows were most common, but no armor. Finally, the Alans were very similar to the Huns in their armament and fighting style.

Jordanes provides a detailed but highly literary account of the course of the battle in his Getica. In the course of the late morning, Aëtius led the army to the battle on the plain between the two camps. Leaning against the river to the north, the Romans were in the first meeting, the Federated Franks and Burgundians in the second, forming the left wing and left center of the battle formation. Adjacent to the south, Federated Alans under their leader Sangiban were positioned in the center between Romans and Visigoths. Supposedly, they were placed between Romans and Visigoths because Sangiban was considered unreliable. Following them, a large contingent of Visigoths under Theoderic I held the right part of the center and the right wing up to the first forests. In the northeast, behind the hill, a smaller force of Visigoths under Thorismund, Theoderic's son, had also been posted by Aëtius to threaten the Huns' right flank from there. It was not until noon that Attila also led his army out of camp to accept the offered battle. According to Jordanes, his battle formation was as follows: At the southern foot of the hill stood the troops of the Gepids, Burgundians and Franks as the right wing. Adjacent to the south stood the Hunnic cavalry, forming an elongated center, with a front extending from the right of the Romans through the front of the Alans and the left of the Visigoths. South of it, up to the woods, the Ostrogoths, as the left wing, faced the right part of the Visigoths.

The battle began in the early afternoon with the Huns attacking in the center and the Ostrogoths on the left wing. The Alans could not or would not withstand the attack and allegedly fled at the first enemy touch. On the left and right, however, the Romans and Visigoths alike held off the attack. At this point, Thorismund and his dismounted warriors attacked over the crest of the hill. In response, Ardarich, the leader of the Gepids, threw some of his troops at them. The Goths were able to hold the hill, but could not advance any further. With the Alans fleeing in the center, the Visigoths were now in crisis. They were attacked head-on by Huns and Ostrogoths as well as on the left flank by Hun horsemen who had broken through. Confusion spread, and for a moment it looked as if there would be panic in the Visigoth army.

In the midst of his people, Theoderic gathered his warriors for renewed resistance on two sides, according to Jordanes, who wants to highlight the heroism of the Goths. At this point, Attila had his troops attack the Romans, presumably to prevent Aetius from sending help to the Visigoths. However, he made the tactical mistake of attacking the Romans only frontally, although he could have reached their open flank from the south. However, thanks to the high penetrating power of the composite archers, the frontal attacks were repulsed time and again with high losses on the Hun side. Nevertheless, the situation on the right wing became more and more critical, and it seemed to be only a matter of time before the Visigoths would collapse under the double attack from the front and the side.

Finally, Theoderic, hit by a throwing spear (allegedly from an Ostrogoth named Andages from the Amalian dynasty), fell from his horse and was immediately trampled to death by numerous hooves. But this very event drove the Visigoths to fierce resistance. Now they were no longer concerned with battle, but with revenge for their rex. Meanwhile, the Ostrogoths' offensive power slowly began to flag, and on the other side, Thorismund, upon hearing the news of his father's death, led his troops in a death-defying attack down the hill. In the tangled melee, he almost fell into the hands of the Gepids. In this battle, the heavy losses that the Gepids had suffered in the night battle were now avenged. Finally, the entire right wing was thrown back and made to flee despite Ardarich's efforts.

Now Attila committed his second tactical mistake. Instead of stopping the attacks on the Romans and reinforcing his right wing against Thorismund, he continued to attack, allegedly in the hope that Aëtius would be killed in the process. The attacks on Aëtius's front continued to be as unsuccessful as they were loss-making. Meanwhile, at the other end of the Hun battle line, the Ostrogoths were pressed harder and harder until they finally turned to flight. The situation had changed fundamentally. It was already dawn when Aëtius let his front advance. The exhausted Huns, now threatened on both flanks and now also attacked head-on, could no longer mount a successful defense. Attila gave the order to retreat to the wagons in time, before the supposedly foreseeable collapse of his army. During the night, according to Jordanes, Aëtius and Thorismund enclosed Attila's army in his camp.

The next morning Attila found himself surrounded and supposedly believed himself completely lost. According to Jordanes, he even had a funeral pyre built from wooden horse saddles, on which he wanted to be burned at the first breakthrough of the enemy army. But it did not come to that, allegedly because Aëtius changed now from the army commander again to the politician. According to Jordanes, he feared that the Visigoths, under an energetic rex, would no longer be satisfied with federate status in Aquitaine after the Huns were gone as a common enemy. So he allegedly convinced Thorismund of the need to return to Toulouse as soon as possible in order to assert his claim to the crown against his brothers. The latter was indeed able to assert himself as the new rex.

However, from then on, the army commander had to renounce Visigothic help, since Thorismund was his personal enemy, which makes some modern researchers suspect that the latter actually left against the will of Aëtius. In 453, the latter had the Goth assassinated.

Aëtius himself, whose army had also suffered heavy losses, set out on the second day after the battle in any case and let Attila withdraw. For several days, Attila allegedly thought of a trap, before he discovered through scouts that there was no enemy army left in the surrounding countryside. Thereupon he retreated across the Rhine.

The battle obviously ended with a tactical success of Aëtius. The consequences for Attila were, contrary to the claims of Jordanes, not too serious at first, since he not only remained unchallenged in the interior, but was able to attack Western Rome again the next year with a very large army, this time directly in Italy. However, the nimbus of (only seemingly) Hun invincibility was gone, and Attila's loss of prestige was considerable.

For Aëtius, the battle meant the assertion of his position in Gaul and at the imperial court, although he was in fact unassailable anyway. However, this last great defensive performance seems to have finally exhausted all Western Roman reserves of strength. The losses among the regular troops were very high and could not be compensated in time. In 452, therefore, Aëtius was apparently no longer even able to block the Alpine passes; he was able to resist Attila after his invasion of Italy only with Eastern Roman troops.

The Battle of the Catalaunian Fields was seen for a very long time as one of the most important decisions in world history, as a defense of the Occident against Asian hordes. An example of this is the long-told legend that this battle is acoustically repeated every night in the skies.

Today, historians have largely abandoned this view, since Attila and his goals and possibilities are now seen more soberly. Even if he had won the battle, this would not have been the end of Rome, but at best the end of Aëtius and his rule in Ravenna. That Attila had planned a permanent conquest of Gaul or even further territories is not considered very realistic - mainly because he did not have the necessary resources at his disposal and because he was never concerned with a conquest of the Roman Empire, but with booty for his warriors and with reputation that had been lost through the previous snubs.

He succeeded to a limited extent in the former, but not in the latter. When he brought his army, decimated by a plague, home from Italy again in 452, he had gained nothing. He continued to be denied all annuities, as well as a Roman title that would have brought him prestige, and a foedus that would have settled his relationship with Western and Eastern Rome. In 453 he died, probably of natural causes. A little later Thorismund was murdered, allegedly at the instigation of Aëtius (see above). Since the latter now had no opponent to fear, he wanted to cement his position in Ravenna by betrothing his son to the daughter of Emperor Valentinian III. The latter reacted by slaying the overpowering army commander with his own hands in 454. Thus, only three years after the Battle of the Catalaunian Fields, all the army commanders were dead, and Western Rome was headed for a new civil war.


  1. Battle of the Catalaunian Plains
  2. Schlacht auf den Katalaunischen Feldern
  3. ^ The Getica (or "Gothic History"), our principal source for this battle, is the work of Jordanes, who acknowledges that his work is based on Cassiodorus' own Gothic History, written between 526 and 533. However, the philologist Theodor Mommsen argued that Jordanes' detailed description of the battle was copied from lost writings of the Greek historian Priscus. It is available in an English translation by Charles Christopher Mierow, The Gothic History of Jordanes (Cambridge: Speculum Historiale, 1966, a reprint of the 1915 second edition); all quotations of Jordanes are taken from this edition, which is in the public domain.
  4. ^ Connor Whately notes that Jordanes' entire work may in fact be a political statement on the campaigns of Belisarius and the policies of Justinian, who also considers the Battle of Chalons to be the climax of the piece.[11] Barnish thinks it was used to portray Theodoric the Great as the new Aetius and Clovis as the new Attila.[12] Hyun Jin Kim suggests the account is an allusion to the Battle of Marathon and severely distorted to fit Herodotus' narrative format.[13] Therefore, any claims by Jordanes must be rigorously scrutinised, and the possibility that his entire account may be fabricated cannot be excluded.
  5. Simon MacDowall: Catalaunian Fields AD 451. Rome’s last great battle, Bloomsbury, London 2015, S. 55.
  6. Peter Geiss, Konrad Vössing: Die Völkerwanderung: Mythos – Forschung – Vermittlung. Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2020, ISBN 978-3-8470-1154-5 ( [abgerufen am 20. Juni 2021]).
  7. Martin Schanz: Geschichte der römischen Literatur: bis zum Gesetzgebungswerk des Kaisers Justinian. C.H.Beck, 1969, ISBN 978-3-406-01398-0 ( [abgerufen am 20. Juni 2021]).
  8. Demandt, Magister militum, Sp. 654–656.
  9. Le nombre de combattants est estimé au minimum à deux grandes armées de part et d'autre, soit environ 24 000 à 25 000 combattants (hypothèse de Michel Rouche) mais d'autres historiens médiévaux n'ont pas hésité à évoquer un grand fracas d'hommes, mettant en prise plus de 100 000 hommes de part et d'autre. Il est certain que les chiffres médians décomptent déjà tous les participants ou groupes épars concernés par les déplacements militaires qui ne pouvaient être présents sur le lieu de la bataille.
  10. Un campus est un lieu à végétation basse ou rase, d'où l'observateur peut voir de loin
  11. Bóna-Hunok 81. o.
  12. Bóna-Hunok 56. o.
  13. Bóna-Hunok 82. o.
  14. a b c Bóna-Hunok 83. o.

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