John Bagnell Bury's

The Invasion of Europe
by the Barbarians

Lecture 9

Attila's Attack on Gaul and Italy

The Intrigues of Honoria—The Hunnic Invasion of Gaul—The Incursion of the Huns into Italy—Death of Attila and the Collapse of the Empire


The Intrigues of Honoria

SINCE their entry into Europe the Huns had changed in some important ways their life and institutions. They were still a pastoral people; they did not learn to practise tillage; but on the Danube and the Theiss the nomadic habits of the Asiatic steppes were no longer appropriate or necessary. And when they became a political power and had dealings with the Roman Empire—dealings in which diplomacy was required as well as the sword—they found themselves compelled to adapt themselves, however crudely, to the habits of more civilised communities. Attila found that a private secretary who knew Latin was indispensable, and Roman subjects were hired to fill the post. But the most notable fact in the history of the Huns at this period is the ascendancy which their German subjects appear to have gained over them. The most telling sign of this influence is the curious circumstance that some of their kings were called by German names. The names of Rugila, Mundzuk [142] (Attila's father), and Attila are all German or Germanised. This fact clearly points to intermarriages, but it is also an unconscious acknowledgment by the Huns that their vassals were higher in the scale of civilisation than themselves. If the political situation had remained unchanged for another fifty years the Asiatic invader would probably have been as thoroughly Teutonised as were the Alans, whom the Romans had now come to class among the Germanic peoples.

From A.D. 445 to 450 Attila was at the height of his power: his prestige and influence in Europe were enormous. Up to 448 he exercised his might mainly at the expense of the eastern half of the Empire, i.e. the provinces and subjects of Theodosius II., from whose government he extorted very large yearly payments of gold. If the western provinces of the Empire until this date escaped the depredations of the Huns, this immunity was mainly due to the personality and policy of Aetius, who always kept on friendly terms with the rulers. But a curious incident happened, when Attila was at the height of his power, which diverted his rapacity from the east to the west, and filled his imagination with a new vision of dominion.

Of the court of Valentinian, of the Emperor's private life, of his relations to his wife and his mother, we know no details. We have seen that he was intellectually and morally feeble, as unfitted for the duties of the throne as had been his uncles Honorius and Arcadius. But his sister Justa Grata Honoria had inherited from her mother some of the qualities we should expect to find in a granddaughter of Theodosius and a great-granddaughter of the first [143] Valentinian. Like Galla Placidia, she was a woman of ambition and self-will. She had been elevated to the rank of an Augusta probably about the same time that the imperial title had been conferred on her brother. During her girlhood, and until Valentinian's marriage, her position in the court was important, but when her nieces were born she had the chagrin of realising that henceforward, from a political and dynastic point of view, she would have to play an obscure part. She would not be allowed to marry anyone except a thoroughly safe man who could be relied upon to entertain no designs upon the throne. We can understand that it must have been highly disagreeable to a woman of her character to see the power in the hands of her brother, immeasurably inferior to herself in brain and energy. She probably felt herself quite as capable of conducting affairs of state as her mother had proved herself to be.

She had passed the age of thirty when her discontent issued in action. She had a separate establishment of her own, within the precincts of the palace, and a comptroller or steward to manage it. His name was Eugenius, and with him she had an amorous intrigue in A.D. 449. She may have been in love with him, but love was subsidiary to the motive of ambition. She designed him to be her instrument in a plot to overthrow her detested brother. The intrigue was discovered, and her paramour was put to death. She was herself driven from the palace, and betrothed compulsorily to a certain Flavius Bassus Herculanus, a rich senator of excellent character, whose sobriety assured the Emperor that a dangerous wife would be unable to draw him into revolutionary schemes. The idea of this union was hateful to Honoria and [144] she bitterly resented the compulsion. She decided to turn for help to a barbarian power. She despatched by the hands of a trustworthy eunuch, Hyacinthus, her ring and a sum of money to Attila, asking him to come to her assistance and prevent the hateful marriage. Attila was the most powerful monarch in Europe, and she boldly chose him to be her champion.

The proposal of the Augusta Honoria was welcome to Attila, and was to determine his policy for the next three years. The message probably reached him in the spring of A.D. 450. The ring had been sent to show that the message was genuine, but Attila interpreted, or chose to interpret, it as a proposal of marriage. He claimed her as his bride, and demanded that half the territory over which Valentinian ruled should be surrendered as her dowry. At the same time he made preparations to invade the western provinces. He addressed his demand not to Valentinian but to the senior Emperor, Theodosius, and Theodosius immediately wrote to Valentinian advising him to hand over Honoria to the Hun. Valentinian was furious. Hyacinthus was tortured to reveal all the details of his mistress's treason, and then beheaded. Galla Placidia had much to do to prevail upon her son to spare his sister's life. When Attila heard how she had been treated, he sent an embassy to Ravenna to protest; the lady, he said, had done no wrong, she was affianced to him, and he would come to enforce her right to a share in the Empire. Attila longed to extend his sway to the shores of the Atlantic, and he would now be able to pretend that Gaul was the portion of Honoria.


The Hunnic Invasion of Gaul

Meanwhile Theodosius had died and his successor, the warlike Marcian, refused in the autumn of A.D. 450 to continue to pay the annual tribute to the Huns. This determined attitude may have helped to decide Attila to turn his arms against the weak realm of Valentinian instead of renewing his attacks upon the exhausted Illyrian lands which he had so often wasted. There was another consideration which urged him to a Gallic campaign. The king of the Vandals had sent many gifts to the king of the Huns and used all his craft to stir him up against the Visigoths. Gaiseric feared the vengeance of Theodoric for the shameful treatment of his daughter, and longed to destroy or weaken the Visigothic nation. We are told by a contemporary writer, who was well informed concerning the diplomatic intrigues at the Hun court, that Attila invaded Gaul "to oblige Gaiseric". But that was only one of his motives. Attila was too wary to unveil his intentions. It was his object to guard against the possibility of the cooperation of the Goths and Romans, and he pretended to be friendly to both. He wrote to Toulouse that his expedition was aimed against the enemies of the Goths, and to Ravenna that he proposed to smite the foes of Rome.

Early in A.D. 451 he set forth with a large army, composed not only of his own Huns, but of the forces of all his German subjects. Prominent among these were the Gepids, from the mountains of Dacia, under their king Ardaric; the Ostrogoths under their three chieftains, Walamir, Thiudemir, and Widimir; the Rugians from the regions of the upper Theiss; the [146] Scirians from Galicia; the Heruls from the shores of the Euxine; the Thuringians, Alans, and others. When they reached the Rhine they were joined by the division of the Burgundians who dwelled to the east of that river and by a portion of the Ripuarian Franks. The army poured into the Belgic provinces, took Metz (April 7), captured many other cities, and laid waste the land. It is not clear whether Aetius had really been lulled into security by the letter of Attila disclaiming any intention of attacking Roman territory. Certainly his preparations seem to have been hurried and made only at the last moment. The troops which he was able to muster were inadequate to meet the huge army of the invader. The federate Salian Franks, some of the Ripuarians, the federate Burgundians of Savoy, and the Celts of Armorica obeyed his summons. But the chance of safety and victory depended on securing the cooperation of the Visigoths, who had decided to remain neutral.

Avitus was chosen by Aetius to undertake the mission of persuading Theodoric. He was successful; but it has been questioned whether his success was due so much to his diplomatic arts as to the fact that Attila was already turning his face towards the Loire. There was a settlement of Alans in the neighbourhood of Valence, and their king had secretly agreed to help Attila to the possession of that city. The objective then of Attila was Orleans, and the first strategic aim of the hastily cemented arrangement between the Romans and Goths was to prevent him from reaching it. The accounts of what happened are contradictory. The truth seems to be that the forces of the allies—the mixed army of Aetius, and the Visigothic host under Theodoric, who was accompanied by his [147] son Thorismund—reached the city before the Huns arrived, and Attila saw that he would only court disaster if he attempted to assault their strongly fortified camp. No course was open but retreat. Aetius had won a bloodless strategic victory (summer, A.D. 451).

It is generally supposed that Attila laid siege to Orleans; but there are two versions. According to one, he was on the point of capturing it when the Roman and Gothic armies appeared, and saved it at the last moment. According to the other, the Huns were already in the town when the rescuers arrived and drove them out. Our sources for both these accounts are certainly derived from ecclesiastical tradition at Orleans; in both of them, the interest is concentrated not on the historical circumstances, but on the wonderful things which were done by the bishop of Orleans, St. Anianus. The tradition used to carry some weight as of early origin, but it was shown some years ago by Krusch to have been a compilation of the eighth century. Our two accounts are simply variants of the same ecclesiastical tradition, which glorified the deeds of St. Anianus. Are we to choose between these two variants? To my mind, it is entirely uncritical to make such a choice, seeing that the whole tradition is suspicious on account of the obvious motive which it flaunts. There is a third alternative: both accounts may be false. Now when we turn to Jordanes (who wrote a century later), we find not a single word about a siege of Orleans. Orleans comes into the story, but the story, as he tells it, not only omits but clearly excludes a siege. In Jordanes we find Aetius doing exactly what we should have expected; we find him fortifying and [148] strengthening Orleans, before Attila's approach, before there is any collision between the two armies. The relation of Jordanes, as I read it, implies that the army of Aetius and his allies rested on Orleans to oppose the advance of the Huns; and that Attila was not only unable to attack Orleans, but did not venture to advance against a combination more powerful than he had anticipated. He retreated eastward by Tricasses (Troyes). This, I have little doubt, is the true outline of what happened. Orleans was threatened but never besieged—never attacked. But the citizens must have been for some time agitated with the excitement of dread at the approach of a great danger, and in those days of apprehension we may well believe that the bishop of Orleans, Anianus, exercised a beneficial influence in calming the minds of his fellow-citizens and sustaining their bewildered spirits with the hope of divine protection. If the conspicuous activity of the bishop at this crisis produced a deep and abiding effect on the men of Orleans, it is quite in accordance with the growth of legend, of ecclesiastical legend, that the tradition of his good work should have been enhanced, should have been made striking, sensational, and miraculous, by representing the city in the supreme agony of danger—about to be captured or even already captured—and saved by the prayers of the saint. In supporting this view, I may point out that the invasion of Gaul by the Huns stimulated not only the mythopoeic imagination of the Germans, but the mythopoeic inventiveness of the Church. There were probably few cities that came within the actual or possible range of Attila's arm that had not some tale to tell of miraculous intervention. At Paris, which Attila did not approach at all, it was said that [149] St. Geneviève assured the citizens that there was no danger.

It was not enough for the allies to have checked and turned back the invader: they must strike him if possible in his retreat. They overtook him at Troyes, an important meeting-place of roads, and a battle was fought north of the city at the locus Mauriacus—which cannot be identified with certainty, but may perhaps be near Mery. The battle, which began in the afternoon and lasted into the night, was drawn; there was immense slaughter, and king Theodoric was among the slain. Next day, the Romans found that Attila was strongly entrenched behind his wagons, and it was said that he had prepared a funeral pyre in which he might perish rather than fall into the hands of his foes. Thorismund, burning to avenge his father's death, was eager to storm the entrenchment. But this did not recommend itself to the policy of Aetius. It was not part of his design to destroy the Hunnic power, of which throughout his career he had made constant use in the interests of the Empire; nor did he desire to increase the prestige of his Visigothic allies. He persuaded Thorismund to return with all haste to Toulouse, lest his brothers should avail themselves of his absence to contest his succession to the kingship. He also persuaded the Franks to return immediately to their own land. Disembarrassed of these auxiliaries, he was able to pursue his own policy and permit Attila to escape with the remnant of his host.

This battle has been generally misnamed the battle of Chalons, but Chalons (Catalauni) is far away; it would be much more correct to call it the battle of Troyes. Both sides sustained great losses, but in the [150] given circumstances it was a triumph for the defenders of Gaul, and it hastened the retreat of the invader. But I would have you observe that strategically it only reinforced the check which the Huns had already received, and merely accelerated their departure. It inflicted an actual blow by the losses which at the lowest estimate must have been heavy; but its chief importance was undoubtedly the moral injury which it dealt to the prestige of Attila's power. If Aetius had permitted him to retreat, unassailed and at his leisure, the moral effect of the check would have been infinitely smaller; and this was probably the main consideration which influenced Aetius in courting a battle. It is essential to realise that the battle of the locus Mauriacus was not a battle of despair; and I think that we may be certain that the odds were not against Aetius, or he would not have risked it.

Under this criticism, the battle cannot retain precisely the historical significance which has commonly been claimed for it. It is usually ranked among the great battles which have decided the fates of nations and determined the course of history. But the fate of Attila's invasion was decided before the battle was fought; it was decided by the strategic dispositions of Aetius. Nothing but an annihilating victory for Attila would have changed the situation, and on general grounds it is improbable that Aetius plunged into very serious risks or hazards. His strategy had already been decisively superior, and all our evidence seems to me to point to the fact that Attila had no great strategical talent. Contrast the futility of this Mongolian invasion of Gaul with the splendidly conceived and splendidly executed strategy which marked the great invasion of eastern Europe in the middle of the [151] thirteenth century. Such a contrast illustrates the truth of what I say, that Attila was no strategist—a fact which has not been hitherto duly estimated.

But if we deny to the battle of Troyes its claim to be one of the great decisive battles of history, you will expect me to transfer to the whole campaign the significance which I have ventured to deny to the isolated engagement. But can the invasion and the campaign regarded as a whole be said to assume the proportions of an ecumenical crisis? The danger did not mean so much as has been commonly assumed. If Attila had been victorious; if he had defeated the Romans and the Goths at Orleans; if he had held Gaul at his mercy and had translated—and we have no evidence that this was his design—the seat of his government and the abode of his people from the Theiss to the Seine or the Loire, there is no reason to suppose that the course of history would have been seriously altered. For the rule of the Huns in Gaul could only have been a matter of a year or two; it could not have survived the death of the great king on whose brains and personal character it depended. Without depreciating the achievement of Aetius and Theodoric, we must recognise that at worst the danger they averted was of a totally different order from the issues which were at stake on the fields of Plataea and the Metaurus. If Attila had succeeded in his campaign, he would probably have been able to compel the surrender of Honoria, and if a son had been born of their marriage and proclaimed Augustus in Gaul, the Hun might have been able to exercise considerable influence on the fortunes of that country; but that influence would probably not have been anti-Roman.


The Incursion of the Huns into Italy

Attila lost little time in seeking to take revenge for the unexpected blow which had been dealt him. He again came forward as the champion of the Augusta Honoria, claiming her as his affianced bride, and invaded Italy in the following year (A.D. 452). Aquileia, the city of the Venetian march, now fell before the Huns, and was razed to the ground, never to rise again: in the next century hardly a trace of it could be seen. Verona and Vicentia did not share this fate, but they were exposed to the violence of the invader, while Ticinum and Mediolanum were compelled to purchase exemption from fire and sword.

The path of Attila was now open to Rome. Aetius, with whatever forces he could muster, might hang upon his line of march, but was not strong enough to risk a battle. But the lands south of the Po, and Rome herself, were spared the presence of the Huns. According to tradition, the thanks of Italy were on this occasion due not to Aetius, but to Leo, the bishop of Rome. The Emperor, who was at Rome, sent Leo and two leading senators, Avienus and Trygetius, to negotiate with the invader. Trygetius had diplomatic experience; he had negotiated the treaty with Gaiseric in A.D. 435. Leo was an imposing figure, and the story gives him the credit for having persuaded Attila to retreat. He was supported by celestial beings; the apostles Peter and Paul are said to have appeared to Attila and by their threats terrified him into leaving the soil of Italy.

The fact of the embassy cannot be doubted. The distinguished ambassadors visited the Huns' camp near the south shore of Lake Garda. It is also certain [153] that Attila suddenly retreated. But we are at a loss to know what considerations were offered him to induce him to depart. It is unreasonable to suppose that this heathen king would have cared for the thunders or persuasions of the Church. The Emperor refused to surrender Honoria, and it is not recorded that money was paid. A trustworthy chronicle hands down another account which does not conflict with the fact that an embassy was sent, but evidently furnishes the true reasons which moved Attila to receive it favourably. Plague broke out in the barbarian host and their food ran short, and at the same time troops arrived from the east, sent by Marcian to the aid of Italy. If his host was suffering from pestilence, and if troops arrived from the east, we can understand that Attila was forced to withdraw. But, whatever terms were arranged, he did not pretend that they meant a permanent peace. The question of Honoria was left unsettled, and he threatened that he would come again and do worse things in Italy unless she were given up with the due portion of the imperial possessions.

Death of Attila and the Collapse of the Empire

Attila survived his Italian expedition only one year. His attendants found him dead one morning, and the bride whom he had married the day before sitting beside his bed in tears. His death was ascribed to the bursting of an artery, but it was also rumoured that he had been slain by the woman in his sleep.

With the death of Attila, the Empire of the Huns, which had no natural cohesion, was soon scattered to [154] the winds. Among the dead king's numerous children there was none of commanding ability, none who had the strength to remove his brothers and step into his father's place. Hence the sons proposed to divide the inheritance into portions. This was the opportunity of their German vassals, who did not choose to allow themselves to be allotted to various masters like herds of cattle. The rebellion was led by Ardaric, the Gepid, Attila's chief adviser. In Pannonia near the river Nedao another battle of the nations was fought, and the coalition of German vassals—Gepids, Ostrogoths, Rugians, Heruls, and the rest—utterly defeated the host of their Hun lords (A.D. 454). It is not improbable that the Germans received encouragement and support from the Emperor Marcian.

This cardinal event led to considerable changes in the geographical distribution of the barbarian peoples. The Huns themselves were scattered far and wide. Some remained in the west, but the greater part of them fled to the regions north of the lower Danube, where we shall presently find them, under two of Attila's sons, playing a part in the troubled history of the Thracian provinces. The Gepids extended their power over the whole of Dacia (Siebenburgen), along with the plains between the Theiss and the Danube which had been the habitation of the Huns. The Emperor Marcian was deeply interested in the new disposition of the German nations, and his diplomacy aimed at arranging them in such a way that they would mutually check each other. He seems to have made an alliance with the Gepids which proved exceptionally permanent. He assigned to the Ostrogoths settlements in northern Pannonia, as federates of the Empire. The Rugians found new abodes on [155] the north banks of the Danube, opposite to Noricum, where they also were for some years federates of Rome. The Scirians settled farther east, and were the northern neighbours and foes of the Ostrogoths in Pannonia; and the Heruls found territory in the same vicinity—perhaps between the Scirians and Rugians. But from all these peoples there was a continual flow into the Roman Empire of men seeking military service. In the depopulated provinces of Illyricum and Thrace there was room and demand for new settlers. Rugians were settled in Bizye and Arcadiopolis; Scirians in Lower Moesia.

The battle of the Nedao was an arbitrament far more momentous than the battle of Troyes. The catastrophe of the Hun power was indeed inevitable, for the social fabric of the Huns and all their social instincts were opposed to the concentration and organisation which could alone maintain the permanence of their empire. But it was not the less important that the catastrophe arrived at this particular moment—important both for the German peoples and for the Empire. Although the Hunnic power disappeared, at one stroke, into the void from which it had so suddenly arisen, we shall see, if we reflect for a moment, that it affected profoundly the course of history. The invasion of the nomads in the fourth century had precipitated the Visigoths from Dacia into the Balkan peninsula, had led to the disaster of Hadrianople, and may be said to have determined the whole chain of Visigothic history. But, apart from this special consequence of the Hun invasion, the Hun empire performed a function of much greater significance in European history. It helped to retard the whole process of the German dismemberment of the [156] Empire. It did this in two ways: in the first place, by controlling many of the East German peoples beyond the Danube, from whom the Empire had most to fear; and in the second place by constantly supplying Roman generals with auxiliaries who proved an invaluable resource in the struggle with the German enemies. The devastations which some of the Roman provinces suffered from the Huns in the last years of Theodosius II. and Valentinian III. must be esteemed a loss which was more than set off by the support which Hunnic arms had for many years lent to the Empire, especially if we consider that, as subsequent events showed, the Germans would have committed the same depredations if the Huns had not been there. This retardation of the process of dismemberment, enabling the imperial government to maintain itself for a longer period in those lands which were destined ultimately to become Teutonic kingdoms, was all in the interest of civilisation; for the Germans, who in almost all cases were forced to establish their footing on imperial territory as federates, and who then by degrees converted this dependent relation into independent sovranty, were more likely to gain some faint apprehension of Roman order, some slight taste for Roman civilisation, than if their careers of conquest had been less gradual and impeded.

Continue to Lecture 10

[Decline of Roman Power in the West]

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