June 20th in German History: The Battle of Chalons

De Neuville - The Huns at the Battle of Chalons.jpg
The Huns at the Battle of Chalons. Painting by Alphonse de Neuville.

In the waning days of the Western Roman Empire, Attila the Hun, the so-called scourge of God, invaded Gaul and Italy in search of wealth and conquest. He defeated Roman armies in battle, burned cities, and destroyed countrysides. Further, he forced barbarian tribes to flee into Roman lands, sowing further chaos and destruction. However, by 450 CE Rome had reestablished sufficient control over Gaul, modern-day France, to lead a coalition of its allies against Attila. On June 20th, 451, Rome and her German allies would meet Attila on the field of battle. The Roman army, mostly made up of German allies, defeated Attila and frustrated his plans to establish control over Gaul.

By the fifth century CE, Rome was an empire in decline. It could no longer muster sufficient forces to fight its battles, and so had to rely on barbarians that had settled inside its borders. In 451, Attila crossed the Rhine River and began sacking cities. General Flavius Aetius, one of the last skilled Western Roman commanders, met with the kings of various Germanic tribes, most notably Theodoric of the Visigoths, and convinced them to join his army. His coalition force chased Attila, who, having succeeded in destroying population centers and gathering a wealth of plunder, was leaving Gaul. On June 20th, Attila decided to give battle, having arrived at a suitable location somewhere on the Cataluanian fields. The course of the battle is disputed, but most sources agree that the Romans and their allies were able to force them off of a ridge which dominated the battlefield, and then hold it against assaults by the Huns and their vassals. Some accounts say that the Visigoths attacked Attila’s personal guard after Theodoric was killed. Theodoric’s son, Thorismund, led the attack, forcing Attila to retreat from the field. After the battle, Aetius convinced Thorismund to journey home quickly in order to prevent his brothers from claiming the throne. This, while sound advice, also had the effect of allowing the Romans to claim the plunder that Attila had gathered.

While Attila survived the battle, his aura of invincibility was broken. He failed to establish a Hunnic empire in Gaul and would find his power diminished from then on. Attila invaded Rome in 452, but was forced to abandon that invasion due to disease and famine in his army. The Visigoth’s critical role in the battle is often cited as leading to their gaining the status of an independent kingdom in the following years. Rome would never again exercise lordship over the Germanic peoples, which would develop into the kingdoms and states that were the basis for modern nation-states.

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