Catalaunian Plains, Battle of the

Catalaunian Plains, Battle of the
 ♦ Major battle in June 451 between Attila the Hun and his Hunnish and allied armies against the Roman imperial forces and their allies, led by the great general Aëtius. Although it is traditionally known at the Battle of the Catalaunian Plains or Battle of Châlons, J. B. Bury has argued that because of the battlefield's proximity to Troyes it should be known as the Battle of Troyes. Whatever the name should be, the battle was the most important of several that Attila fought as part of his invasion of the Western Empire in the early 450s. Although the battle ended in a draw, Attila himself was on the verge of suicide during the fighting and survived only because Aëtius allowed him to escape.
   The battle itself was part of Attila's campaign in the Western Empire after several years harassing the Eastern Empire and extracting significant wealth and political concessions from Constantinople. The invasion of 451 may have been brought on by the emperor's sister, Honoria, who, like her aunt Galla Placidia, may have offered her hand in marriage to the barbarian king. Attila's demands for Honoria and other things were rejected, and therefore he invaded Gaul, seizing Metz, Rheims, and numerous other cities before being repulsed at the important city of Orléans. Despite that setback, Attila caused great destruction and bloodshed and threatened Visigothic power in Gaul. The Goths were compelled to assist the imperial armies in defense of Gaul because of the ferocity of Attila's assault.
   After leaving Orléans, Attila moved toward Troyes, where he met the imperial armies of Aëtius, which included Alans, Bretons, Franks, Burgundians, and Visigoths. Attila's army was also made up of peoples of numerous nations, including his own Huns, Alans, Franks, Gepids, Heruls, and Ostrogoths. On the eve of the battle, Attila consulted a priest who examined bones of a sheep. The priest proclaimed that the Huns would lose the battle but that a great enemy leader would fall; Attila desired the death of the leader and therefore risked battle. On the day of the battle, Attila arranged his Huns in the center of his lines and the subject peoples on both flanks. On the opposite side, Aëtius, with his Romans, commanded the left flank; Theodoric commanded his Visigoths on the right flank; and the center was held by the Alans. After major skirmishing on the previous night, the battle began at three o'clock in the afternoon and went on into the evening.
   It was a ferocious battle, which, according to one contemporary, ended with 165,000 dead, including the Visigothic king Theodoric. The battle went so badly for Attila that he fortified himself in a circle of wagons, preparing for the final assault that would have left him dead from battle or from suicide. But the Roman commander, Aëtius, recognized the value of having Attila's Huns as a legitimate threat to other barbarian peoples in order to preserve the balance of power. Consequently, Attila was allowed to withdraw from the battlefield without being annihilated by the armies of Aëtius. Although the battle ended technically as a draw, Aëtius could claim victory because he stopped Attila's advance and killed a large number of his enemy's troops.
   The battle was a major setback for Attila, who was forced to withdraw from his invasion following the contest on the Catalaunian Plains. Although he again invaded Italy in the following year, Attila's aura of invincibility was damaged and his army seriously depleted by the near disaster on the battlefield between Châlons and Troyes. Although the importance of the battle is overstated when it is described as one of the great battles of history, it was an important moment in late imperial history because Attila's virtual defeat left him much less of a threat to the Roman empire. Never a serious threat to the life of the empire, Attila nonetheless demanded significant tribute from the empire, and anything that weakened his challenge was a benefit to the emperors.
   See also
 ♦ Bury, John B. History of the Later Roman Empire: From the Death of Theodosius I to the Death of Justinian. Vol. 1. 1923. Reprint, New York: Dover, 1959.
 ♦ ---. The Invasions of Europe by the Barbarians. New York and London: W. W. Norton, 1967.
 ♦ Randers-Pehrson, Justine Davis. Barbarians and Romans: The Birth Struggle of Europe, a.d. 400-700. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1983.
 ♦ Thompson, Edward A. A History of Attila and the Huns. Oxford: Clarendon, 1948.
 ♦ ---. The Huns. Oxford: Blackwell, 1995.
 ♦ Wolfram, Herwig. The Roman Empire and Its Germanic Peoples. Trans. Thomas J. Dunlap. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997.

Encyclopedia of Barbarian Europe. 2014.

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