Chalons was hardly a victory in the tradition of Rome. When you look at the Roman victory over the Dacians portrayed on Trajan’s Column you see a large professional organisation using technology to wipe out a brave but outmatched enemy. They display tactics, well drilled formations and sophisticated logistics. It is clear that the Romans are more advanced than the people they are fighting against. Three hundred years later we are in a world of tribal battles with both sides indistinguishable from each other. Individual feats of arms are important – so Thorismund the son of Theodoric becomes a hero by dint of his bravery. Men are inspired to great deeds by orations and martial music. Omens are sought and used to influence morale. It wasn’t really a Roman victory in anything other than name and certainly did not herald any kind of rebirth of Roman power in the west.
Aetius had somehow pulled together an army composed mainly of the very barbarians who had destroyed the empire and driven the greatest barbarian of them all, Attila himself from the field and surrounded him in his camp. It had been a costly victory. His ally Theodoric had been killed. The Goths found their king’s body and buried him with full warrior honours in sight of the enemies he had just defeated. His son Thorismond was a hero of the battle and now became the new king. His first impulse was to revenge his father. But an attack revealed that though the Huns were cornered they were far from defenceless and the attack was driven back by a hail of arrows.
But Attila’s position was desperate. He was pinned down and it was only a matter of time before the arrows would run out. If the arrows lasted the food wouldn’t. He was driven to build a bonfire of saddles on which he proposed to sacrifice himself rather than let himself be captured. The choice of fuel for the fire is instructive. Presumably they had lost a great many horses.
But the expected attack from his enraged enemies never came. In fact they drew back clearing his escape route. Attila did not at first believe that this could be anything other than a trick, but eventually took the opportunity and rode away from Gaul. He had been defeated, but he had survived and kept a large chunk of his army into the bargain. Details are sparse, but we have to ask why the opportunity of destroying Attila wasn’t seized. Maybe at bay they were just too fierce to face. Or the losses on the Roman side may have been too big to maintain the blockade. Or perhaps the polyglot forces couldn’t agree on a common course of action. The most likely explanation seems to be the most cynical. Aetius still hoped to re-establish Roman hegemony over Gaul and the best way to achieve this was by maintaining a balance of power. In which case the destruction of Attila by the Goths was as bad an outcome as the destruction of the Goths by Attila. We don’t have enough details to know, but if that was the story it was consistent with the behaviour of the Romans in general and of Aetuis personally.
If so he may have regretted his attempt at playing the puppet master. Attila was hardly chastened by the experience and the following year he was back and this time he swept into Italy itself. There were no barbarian allies to call on this time. Aetius was able to put up a feeble resistance, and indeed never let Attila complete freedom of operation. But a pitched set piece battle was out of the question. Attila could do pretty much as he liked. What he liked tuned out to be besieging and capturing Italian cities. The most significant of these sieges for later history was Aquileia. This large city at the head of the Adriatic had the strategic position controlling the entrance to Italy. It was garrisoned by some Gothic troops. Attila could not leave the city in his rear and so had to take it. The siege was long and difficult – and took three months. In fact the story is that Attila was on the point of giving up when he saw a family of storks leave the city. He took this to be an augur of the fall of the city and ordered one last push with redoubled fury. The defenders were finally overcome. The city was then completely destroyed with so much thoroughness that later generations could not even find it. This was not exactly unprecedented behaviour for the Huns, but it may reveal that Attila was not in as overwhelming a military position as had been the year before. He may not have had spare troops to occupy the city and couldn’t risk it falling back into the hands of his enemies.
But this short term expediency was to have a much longer effect. Refugees from Aquileia and its surroundings took refuge in the swamps and morasses of the sea shore. They no longer had a city to return to and you can understand why they might have had second thoughts about founding it anew under the circumstances. Instead they created a new settlement among the islands and lagoons where at least they would be safe from a large land attack. This settlement became permanent and took the name of the province from which its founders had escaped, Venetia or Venice. Venice was to become a powerful and important city which played a large and significant role in the history of Europe. It would never be taken by force until the time of Napoleon.
With Aquileia out of the way Attila could relax a little and there was little Aetius could do to hamper him. The Hun was able to occupy the most important city after Rome and Ravenna, Milan. There we see him beginning to behave in a way consistent with what must have been his ultimate objective of creating a new Hunnic empire to replace that of Rome. In the palace he picked out for his stay he saw a picture illustrating a Roman emperor receiving the submission of some Scythian tribesman. Attila took this to be insulting and ordered a painter to reverse the roles. He must have intended to march on Rome itself – if he was interested in the symbolism of wall paintings nothing could have done more for his CV as a destroyer of the Roman Empire than to march through the gates of the imperial city itself. But he must have had some kind of misgivings about this project because he entered into negotiations to spare the city. This has been attributed to the intervention of pope Leo. Leo may well have been a very able man but it seems a little generous to credit him with saving Rome from Attila, and if we do it begs the question of why he left it so late to intervene with his fund of spiritual capital. And the deal struck involved quite a lot of actual capital. Attila left Italy with a huge pile of cash and a treaty promising the delivery of the princess Honoria.
So Rome was saved from Attila, but he could look back on a reasonably satisfactory campaign. He had had some fun, he had acquired some cash and he had a promise of more goodies to come. He obviously wasn’t entirely convinced of the good faith with which the treaty had been entered into because he promised to be back with his horsemen if the deal wasn’t honoured. Back home he celebrated by taking another in his line of wives. The happy day was celebrated with feasting and drinking. The Hun and his new bride went to bed, but the excitement was too much for the barbarian. A blood vessel burst and he was discovered the next day dead in bed next to his distraught widow. The funeral of Attila inspired some superb prose from Gibbon which I simply have to repeat word for word.
His body was solemnly exposed in the midst of the plain, under a silken pavilion; and the chosen squadrons of the Huns, wheeling round in measured evolutions, chanted a funeral song to the memory of a hero, glorious in his life, invincible in his death, the father of his people, the scourge of his enemies, and the terror of the world. According to their national custom, the Barbarians cut off a part of their hair, gashed their faces with unseemly wounds, and bewailed their valiant leader as he deserved, not with the tears of women, but with the blood of warriors. The remains of Attila were enclosed within three coffins, of gold, of silver, and of iron, and privately buried in the night: the spoils of nations were thrown into his grave; the captives who had opened the ground were inhumanly massacred; and the same Huns, who had indulged such excessive grief, feasted, with dissolute and intemperate mirth, about the recent sepulchre of their king.
The achievements of Attila were buried with him. The empire of the Huns was in reality a large coalition held together by the skills of the man who created it. WIth him out of the way it rapidly collapsed. The sons of Attila may or may not have inherited his talent – but there were too many of them and they eagerly fought amongst themselves to replace him. The kings of the big German tribes like the Gepids lost no time in asserting their independence. In fact a struggle for supremacy saw the German tribes fighting one another, Huns fighting one another, and Germans fighting Huns. One of the sons of Attila, called Dengish, killed later ended up with his head on a spike in the hippodrome in Constantinople.
So how significant was Attila really to history? Does his reputation really reflect his achievements? In particular was the battle of Chalons the turning point it is often portrayed as? It has to be said that Gibbon makes no particular claims on behalf of either Attila or the famous battle that turned him back from Gaul. What he does do is give the battle one heck of a write up. It is an account that really brings the battle to life. In his book 15 Decisive Battles of World History Edward Creasey simply gives up trying to emulate Gibbon’s version and freely concedes that he simply can’t better it. What Creasey does do is explain why the battle was so important to European and world history. For a start it ensured that the Germans and the races related to them, including of course the English, would be the major influence on world history. This seems a bit racist to modern ears. And of course it is. We no longer think that race is that big a deal. In any case, most of Attila’s followers were Germans anyway.
The other thing that Creasey thought was important was that Attila was a pagan and may have swept away Christianity. This seems unlikely by this late date – the Church was not yet totally in control in the way it was to become, but it was well down the path. But what of it? We no longer regard Christianity as the defining feature of European civilisation. Many people don’t even any longer have a positive view of its influence. So Attila’s role as the scourge of God no longer seems to be particularly important.
Attila could have swept away the Roman Empire, but probably wouldn’t have done. And the empire in the West did not have long to survive anyway. The Eastern empire was to go on to last another thousand years – Attila might have stopped this. But again, he is more likely to have taken it over than simply destroyed it. As he didn’t sort out the dynastic succession even within the Huns it is hard to imagine that as an emperor he would have been any more successful.
He was ultimately a one off. Had he defeated Aetius and then gone on to live a long life the chances are he would have become an emperor and no doubt he would have set some things in train that would have turned out a bit differently than they actually have. But he would not have made a totally new world. The vision of a Scythian Europe peopled by folk with different language, religion and skin colour was beyond his ability, and probably wasn’t what he had in mind if he could. He was just a barbarian on the make who happened to be born at the right time and place to make a huge impact in his own day. That his name is still known all these centuries later is remarkable but is basically just a twist in the thread of history.
In the short run the news of Attila’s demise must have come as the remission of a sentence of death in Constantinople. Now that he was removed normal service could be resumed. In fact the empire was to adopt and adapt a lot of the tactical innovations that they had observed the Huns using. Byzantine cavalry would soon be training to shoot bows from the saddle. This innovation was going to make Byzantine forces formidable and to play a part in making the Eastern Empire a formidable power once again.
In the West you might have thought that the big winner would be Aetius personally. He was the man that had turned back the Huns in Gaul and had even contrived to manage things to prevent the victory simply becoming a launch pad for some other barbarian leader to become overlord in the west. Sadly that wasn’t the way Roman politics worked. He was beheaded on a trumped up charge by the jealous order of the emperor.