"Truly countless bodies!" – Myths, legends, Attila the Hun and the Battle of the Catalaunian Plains

20 June 451, a federation of Western Germanic and Iranian tribes and Romans under Flavius Aëtius fought Attila’s Huns and their allies in the epic Battle of the Catalaunian Plains.

"Cadavera vero innumera," the Romans said afterwards: "Truly countless bodies!" (Traditional Roman description of the Battle of the Catalaunian Plains)

Han Chinese fighting the Xiongnu - traditional Chinese depiction

Unfortunately, the authors of antiquity rarely were precise ethnographers, neither in the Roman world nor in China. Thus, we have only a rather vague idea about who the Huns actually were and where they came from, what language they spoke and their customs have been described only by their enemies. While they had a propagandistic interest to exaggerate what they saw or heard into the peak of barbarism, at least some of the few contemporary reports we have match with practices still common with peoples beyond the Altai mountains in the Steppes of Central Asia. Around 1750, the French orientalist and sinologist Joseph de Guignes came up with the idea to equate the Huns with the Xiongnu, a group of nomads who dominated the Steppe from South Siberia to the borders of China roughly until the 4th century CE and moved westward. Edward Gibbon picked up the thread and his “Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire” made the theory rather popular until the second half of the 20th century when it became clear that we have no real idea who the Xiongnu were either. They might have been of Yeniseian, Uralic, Mongolic, Turkic or Iranian origin with further strong Indo-European Sarmatian dashes or all of the above. Fact is, the Xiongnu founded the first of the vast “Steppe Empires” in Central Asia and the probability is rather high that they were a conglomerate of various tribes with “Xiongnu” being the honorific title for the top clans at a given time. And the same might be true for the Huns, various tribes who might have been a part of the multi-ethnic Xiongnu confederation. Whoever they were, they crossed the river Volga, assimilated the Iranian Alans and bore down upon the Gothic kingdom in the Caucasus in 375 CE. It was the beginning of the “Völkerwanderungszeit”, the great migration period, when the Huns allegedly pushed the fleeing tribes settling in Central and Eastern Europe across the Borders of Rome. 

Roman villa in Gaul sacked by the hordes of Attila the Hun by Georges Rochegrosse (1910)

Three generations later, by the end of the 440s, the Huns had become top of the heap of another multi-ethnic confederation under Attila, lording it in a semi-nomadic style over the vast region from present-day Germany to the coast of the Baltic Sea in the North and everything north of the Danube and the northern shores of the Black Sea with the Hunnic main area of settlement in the plains of the Tisza in present-day Hungary. And since the Huns and Goths and Franks and Alans and Vandals and what not did rather not sow or reap or stow away in barns, Attila and his alliance were depended on raids or Roman tribute to prevent them. In 450, the Eastern Romans had stopped payment, the Balkans were bled dry from continuous Hunnic forays and it was time for Attila to turn west across the Rhine into Gaul to keep things going and various myths came up about the actual casus belli. That Honoria, sister of the Western Roman Emperor Valentinian III, proposed to Attila because she did not want to marry an elderly senator and promised the Hun half the kingdom is a charming tale, but probably relates to the power struggle Valentinian’s supreme commander, the mighty magister militum Flavius Aëtius, had to fight within the empire. The stories of Frankish dynastic struggles east and west of the Rhine take the same line. However, Attila and his Huns, Ostrogoths, Gepids, Burgundians and Franks (both from east of the Rhine), Herulians, Scirii and Langobards crossed the river in April 451, sacked Strasbourg and Metz and rushed towards Orleans. Attila’s former ally Aëtius hurried to Gaul from Ravenna with a small contingent of Roman regulars and, with the help of the influential Gallo-Roman Senator Avitus, managed to persuade Visigoths, Alans, Burgundians and Franks (from west of the Rhine) to fight for him. They all had already settled in Gaul for more than 30 years, the place being hardly a Roman province anymore, but with the tribes at least acknowledging Roman supremacy. When Aëtius’ allied army of about 30 – 50,000 men finally approached Orleans, Attila called off the siege and withdrew towards the Rhine with his slightly larger force. The two armies finally met somewhere between Châlons and Troyes in the region of Champagne-Ardenne in the northeastern part of present-day France in a place called the Catalaunian Plains. We know about what happened next only from the stylus of Jordanes, a 6th century Roman historian with Gothic roots and a tendency to tell rather tall tales. What he reports accordingly reads more like a heroic epic along with valiant deeds, the treachery of allies, the dead of kings and Attila, fearing defeat, having a heap of saddles erected in his camp to where he retreated from the allies, setting the pile alight and finally, when he saw a chance to extract the rest of his troops from the battlefield, refrained from throwing himself into the fire and fled back across the Rhine instead. Legend has it that combat on the Catalaunian Plains was so fierce that the spirits of the dead fought on for three more days. And that they appear on each anniversary of the battle and continue to fight in the air over the field.

The Huns In Italy as imagined by the Spanish history painter Ulpiano Checa (1860 – 1916)

In reality, Attila and his Hunnic confederation were far from being defeated.  A year later, they crossed the Alps, destroyed the city of Aquileia - its refugees became the founders of Venice – and was allegedly held back from sacking Rome when Pope Leo preached to him and who knows, maybe it was the superstitious fear he might suffer the same fate as Visigothic King Alaric, who conquered the Eternal City and died shortly afterwards, that made Attila turn back and return to the banks of the Tisza. He died in in 453 in his wedding night with the young Ostrogothic princess Ildico, allegedly from a rush of blood, another nucleus for post-migration period legends, from the Völsunga saga to the Lay of Atli and, of course, the Nibelungenlied. The Hunnic dominion over the tribes of Central and Eastern Europe ended when their Germanic and Iranian allies defeated Attila’s son and successor Ellac somewhere in Hungary at the Battle of Nedao in 454, just a year after Attila’s death. What remained of the Huns was absorbed by the other peoples of the Eastern European Steppe, some continued to fight as mercenaries as late as the 6th century, whether they were still identical with Attila’s original European Huns is highly doubtful though. Historiographers from late antiquity and the Middle Ages tended to call everything nomadic from the plains that threatened the European and Middle Eastern Empires “Huns” at some point anyway, regardless of their actual origins. And so the name “Hun” remained what it probably was from the beginning – a honorific for fearsome warriors. The Battle of the Catalaunian Plains, though, was, in all probability an indecisive affair, another major engagement of the tumultuous migration period, the Völkerwanderungszeit.

And more about the Battle of the Catalaunian Plains and the Huns on: