In Chalon, a battle was fought that brought a win to a Roman Army, one that almost literally came before the absolute fall of the Roman Empire. Today Chalon is called the Champaign country. Here Roman General Aetius and Theodoric I King of the Visigoths joined forces and decided to stop the Huns, led by Attila. The Battle is also called the Battle of the Catalaunian Fields, where it took place.
The sun was setting on the Roman Empire. Rome had long since stopped being a Republic and was firmly a monarchical dictatorial military power. By 451 AD it had split into two empires, the Holy Roman Empire in the West and the Constantinople in the East. Valentinian II fought holding actions against barbarians overrunning the remains of what was once a string of Roman towns and garrisons from Spain to Gaul. Germanic tribes served in the Roman Army in large numbers, mostly as a bid to do slightly better as a professional Roman soldier than one of the “unwashed” barbarians tribesmen. Visigoths had overrun Gaul and Vandals overran Italy. So the lines of the divide were blurred. Centuries of living among barbarians didn’t stop the birds and the bees and many people were joined from many families. Valentinian was half Visigoth. His father was a Visigoth and his mother was Italian. Valentinian also grew up around Visigoths, prayed with them, slept and ate and sang songs with them. “The last of the Noble Romans”, Valentinian was occupied leading forces against the interloping Franks and the Goths in both Italy and Spain, but he had the respect of all.
Now come the Huns, a barbarian group like no other. These were the best horsemen the Romans had ever seen. No Roman garrisons could stop them, many of the forces, truth be told, were cobbled together from reserve forces in the hinterlands of the fading Empire. No other Germanic tribe could stand up to them either. They were mostly a cavalry army but they maneuvered with such deftness and force that the classical infantry formations of the Roman era just could not keep up with them on a battlefield. They were merciless killers who rarely negotiated anything. They simply showed up and took what they wanted and killed everyone, men, women, children. Some women were kept but for the most part there was no mercy meted out whatsoever. Attila himself was like a monster out of a folktale. He was short, hairy, swarthy, utter charismatic, and as fine a horsemen as any he rode with. His men wore furs, goatskin leggings, fur hats and caps; they carried a compound bow, bone tipped arrows, rope, sometimes a long spear and a knife. They painted and scarred their own faces to make themselves minatory. They were descended from Mongol tribesmen and related to other Asiatic bands. Nomadic and clannish, around the 5th century, the Huns decided that they needed more land and launched attacks on the Goths with ferocity rarely seen. The Goths fled across the Rhine into the Balkans, then Thrace. Now everyone in Rome was paying attention.
The Huns crossed the Rhine in 450 AD and tore through Gaul. They took Cologne, Strasburg, and Orleans. Theodoric and Aetius had to join forces and fight together. In the plains of Chalon was a valley in between two rises. Attila was no fool. He saw some Germanic tribes approach and he decided perhaps that if he built coalitions with them, and get them to turn loyalties against Rome, he would make himself and his kingdom richer faster. Many worried that the Alans occupying the center of the Roman line were secretly going to turn on the Romans in the battle. The Huns took rise on the right; the Romans and the Visigoths took the rise on the left. The Romans were on the left of the line, the Visigoths on the right and the Alans and other allied auxiliaries of the Romans occupied the middle.
It was late in the day and the ritual reading of the bird entrails for the shamans divining for Attila unveiled an impending disaster. This battle would be lost and many commanders would die. Attila decided
then that he would start the battle late in the day and give his troops a chance to escape in the dark should the alliance despoil Attila’s plans to dominate northern Europe. Atilla also placed all of the families in the wagon train in a defensive lager that the troops could retreat to if the battle required two days. In the middle of the lager, Attila prepared a bon fire to jump into in case the Romans wanted his body.
The attack started in the mid afternoon just as it was raining. The Huns as expected rushed into the center line consisting of the Alans. The battle advantage went back and forth for hours, until the Huns were hemmed in from both flanks and started to panic and flee. Many tried to get into their own wagon lager and were slaughter as traffic piled up at the inadequate openings. Theodoric fell off his horses and was trampled to death by his own cataphracts. His son was also wounded; and the ensuing melee grew increasingly confused after darkness fell. The initiative of battle was lost, but the Huns were driven off the battlefield into their own camp. The fighting ended, the battlefield strewn with bodies, Attila had to wait a few days before he dared leave.
The other barbarian kings who fought with Aetius were convinced to go home to their regions and seize power now that Attila was defeated. It was a smart political move. It allowed Attila to emerge still in power. This would ensure that a power grab by the Visigoth leaders in the vacuum created by Attila’s departure would be prevented.
Source: History Online, Oxford Companion to Military History, Wikipedia, The Definitive Visual History of War, Dorling Kindersley.