On the last day of March 451, in the month of the war-god, fifty thousand men crossed the Rhine, passing from Germany into Gaul.  At their head was a man who for ten years had been harassing and frightening the Roman empire, a man of immense pride and confidence, who loved fighting but conducted himself with self-control, a man who, if he could, tricked and terrorised the enemy so they were already beaten before he directed his ranks of mounted archers against them, a man who treated supplicants with kindness but had his rivals impaled on sharpened stakes where they died two days later, a man of fierce reputation whose fame has never waned -- Attila, king of the Huns. Where Attila's horse had been, it was said, the grass did not grow again. [1]

As the guards took up their watch for the Hun's first night on imperial soil, Attila sat in his tent, drinking from an ivy-wood cup. It had been rumoured in Gaul for many months that he was planning to invade. Now here he was, preparing to take possession of the territory with the air of a man about to pick a ripened fruit from an orchard that belonged to him. He was dressed, as usual, in simple clothes, fine and clean but without the adornments or gem-studded weapons of his commanders, who were coming in a continual stream to make their reports. There had been no opposition, they all said, at their various crossing-points along the river between Mainz and Cologne. The Rhineland frontier forts had been abandoned when the defenders saw or heard the advancing Huns. Only a few stragglers were taken prisoner, to be ransomed later at the rate of eight gold solidi per captive (the solidus was a Roman coin introduced by Constantine I in 312; 72 solidi made a pound of gold, and 8 solidi was a year's wages for a Roman cavalryman. --Ed.). Talking over the days ahead with Ellac, his oldest son, and Onegesius, his right-hand man, Attila saw little danger, rather the prospect of many more ransomable prisoners and much plunder. For his opponents were divided, and those he did not crush or absorb would soon be begging for terms.[2]

In the Roman empire, this was a time of war-like politics. Men of character and ambition vied for dominance amidst a shifting pattern of military factions and alliances. The struggle involved two classes of people. On the one hand, were the Romans, which, since the emperor Caracalla's edict of 212, meant simply all free citizens of the empire. On the other, were the barbarians, which is what Romans called those who had come, or whose parents had come, from outside the empire and who spoke neither Latin nor Greek as their first language.

Since the early 400s, various Roman generals had tried to claim the imperial title, usually establishing their false rule in Gaul, but being defeated and executed after a few months or years by those loyal to the true emperor. Other Roman generals, while not aspiring to the imperial throne, had settled their differences on the battlefield rather than in the council chamber.

Nevertheless, few Roman citizens desired the dangers and hardships of a soldier's life, and for two or three hundred years, barbarian immigrants had been increasingly important in the imperial forces. Initially they were restricted to special auxiliary units under Roman officers, but gradually they found their way into the Roman military proper, and were now reaching the topmost echelons of the army, with some parlaying this success into political careers as senators and consuls. At the same time, other barbarians had been coming into the empire as huge bands of mercenaries, looking to their commanders as their kings and, with wives and families accompanying them, regarding themselves as distinct nations in their own right.

Neither Roman usurpers nor barbarian kings had in mind to damage the empire. What they wanted was to share in its power and wealth. While the usurpers may have been driven by personal ambition, they found support among constituencies dissatisfied with the performance of the prevailing regime. As for the barbarian, king-led peoples, they could be more hostile towards each other than towards the imperial authorities. They wanted little other than an official position in the Roman forces, plus some pay to live on and a place to settle. Often they were granted it. In 449, even Attila was made honorary 'master of both forces', the highest rank in the Roman army, and he was awarded hundreds, later thousands, of pounds of gold a year, as pay for his troops.

Such are some generalisations about the state of things in the later Roman empire. In reality, each person involved in the struggle to control the empire's affairs was unique in terms of motivation, behaviour and background, and no two episodes evolved in exactly the same way. The barbarians were varied in speech, custom and religion, and had come into the empire at different times, with different objectives, and in different ways, some singly, others en masse. To explain all these matters in full would take so long my book could never start. What I can do is describe how things stood on that cool spring night, when Attila first made camp on Gallic soil.

Since 395, when Theodosius I bequeathed the empire to his two sons, the western and eastern halves of the empire had been run separately under their own emperors. In the spring of 451, the eastern emperor was Marcian, based at Constantinople, the eastern capital. Marcian was nearly sixty and had come to power less than a year before, on 25 August 450. A capable man, and a former soldier who had spent a long time at the imperial court, he owed his appointment to the empress Pulcheria, who also became his wife. She was the granddaughter of Theodosius I and sister of Theodosius II, the preceding emperor, to whom she had been a chief adviser; though nearly fifty at Marcian's accession, she had never been married before. The emperor in the west was Valentinian III, another grandchild of Theodosius I, who had come to the throne when he was six years old, on 23 October 425. He was now nearly thirty-two, having ruled for just over a quarter of a century. He lived in Ravenna, for the western emperors had relocated to that marsh-bound, difficult-to-attack city, fifty years beforehand, feeling safer there than in Rome. Valentinian's territories comprised, in theory, Illyricum (roughly, Austria, western Hungary and the former Yugoslavia --Ed.), Italy, Britain, Gaul, Spain and North Africa. Many of these parts, however, were occupied by barbarian settlers, who showed varying degrees of commitment to Roman rule.

In Toulouse, 550 miles south-west of Attila's overnight camp, there lived Theodered, king of the Goths. Today, we call his people the Visigoths, or western Goths, so as to distinguish them from the Ostrogoths, or eastern Goths, who at that time did not yet exist as a nation. The Visigoths had been in Aquitaine, the south-west region of Gaul, since 419, when they were allowed to settle there as a reward for fighting for the Roman army in Spain. They were given land and the right to collect the local tax revenues, and in return had to police that region and defend it against other threats. Theodered acquired the kingship just as this agreement was being made. He had prestige because he was then married to a daughter of Alaric I, the man who had forged the Visigothic identity in the years around 400, and who died in 410. In 419, the Visigoths were assigned Aquitanica Secunda only, that is the coastal part of Aquitaine whose chief city was Bordeaux, but Theodered stretched the arrangements to include Aquitanica Prima, the area of central southern France stretching from Bourges to the Pyrenees. He tried, but failed, to push even further west and bring the rich and important cities of Gaul's Mediterranean coast, such as Narbonne and Arles, under his control. Now in his sixties, he was a general and ruler of great experience.[3]

In Ravenna, was the man who really ran the affairs of Valentinian's territory at this time, the supreme commander of the western forces, Aetius. He was just sixty years old. He came from a soldiering family, for his father had led a distinguished career in the Roman army, rising to be master of the cavalry in Gaul. By the time Aetius was fifteen, he was already an officer serving at the imperial court. In that year, 405, he had been sent as a hostage to the Visigoths, where he remained three years. (In this period, when two nations made a treaty, they showed their commitment by exchanging hostages. Although in principle the hostages could pay with their lives if the treaty was broken, they were usually treated well, joining the relevant king or emperor's entourage and learning their hosts' way of life and military culture. They thus promoted understanding and goodwill between the two nations. --Ed.) Alaric, then leader of the Visigoths, thought so highly of Aetius that he requested him as hostage a second time, but the request was not granted. Instead, Aetius was sent as hostage to the Huns, where he spent another three years. He later credited the Huns with teaching him the art of war, and, in his subsequent political career, Aetius relied on his friends the Huns many times. Hun mercenaries helped him win battles against both Roman rivals and unruly barbarians. During the early 440s, his oldest son was a hostage at Attila's court. Yet while Aetius had stayed friendly with the Huns, his relationship with the Visigoths under Theodered had gone downhill. This was despite the fact his wife, named Pelagia, was a Visigoth. He had twice had to defeat them in Gaul to stop their expansion. The 430s had been the worst time, when Theodered took sides against Aetius in Roman politics and his Visigoths killed Aetius' top general, who was attacking them in Toulouse.  More recently, in 446, the Visigoths had fought alongside the Romans against barbarians in Spain. Historians in Constantinople, praising Aetius' efforts to control the barbarians, would later call him 'the last Roman in the west'.

Other barbarian peoples had been assigned by Aetius to garrison various parts of Gaul, which both gave them something to do and made use of them to protect against still other potential invaders. These included the Iranian-speaking Alans, who had come from thousands of miles to the east, and first entered Gaul, illegally, in 407. In 440, one group of Alans had been given abandoned estates in the Rhone valley around Valence. A year or two later, others were sent to western and north-western Gaul, and while they were supposed to share the land with its owners, they used force of arms to drive them out completely. Around the same time, Aetius assigned the Burgundians a share of land in Savoy, the region on the western side of the Alps stretching south from Geneva. Earlier, in the mid-430s, Aetius and his Hun allies had heavily beaten the Burgundians, who were then living in the Rhineland, further to the north. At the time of Attila's invasion, the king of the Burgundians was Gundioc, a man in his thirties whose father had been killed by the Huns in that earlier action. He lived at Lyons. The king of the Alans, Sangiban, was in his fifties, and lived at Orleans, on the main bend of the River Loire.

The last important barbarians in Gaul were my own people, the Franks. Unlike the others, they had been settling in northern Gaul for hundreds of years, coming from their homelands on the other side of the Rhine. I will tell the full story later on. Most came peacefully, to work and trade, as well as to join the Roman army, though some came as raiders and were occasionally punished by the imperial forces. The Franks were divided into many tribes, and in the time leading up to Attila's invasion had different kings in the different towns where they had settled. One of them was Chlogio, who tried to unite the Franks. In 440, he sent his younger son, Merovech, who is also my eight-times-great-grandfather, to take presents to Aetius in Rome. Merovech, then only seventeen, promised the loyalty of the Franks and asked for grants of land and tax revenues like those given to the Visigoths, Alans and Burgundians. Aetius welcomed the alliance, and went so far as to adopt Merovech as his son, sending him back to Chlogio with many return gifts. However, Chlogio was dissatisfied what Aetius offered him, and, like Theodered the Visigoth, he tried to take more, only to be defeated by Aetius. In 450, Chlogio died. Merovech's older brother, Chloderic, expected to take over his father's position, but Aetius told the Franks, if they wanted the friendship of the Romans, they should make Merovech their king. Chloderic, angry and humiliated, went to Attila at his court in Hungary, and urged him to attack northern Gaul, offering his own knowledge of the countryside and its defenders. Merovech based himself at Tournai, where Frankish settlers had long been living, and that is where he was on the night of Attila's invasion, 200 miles to the west of Attila's camp. He was 28 years old.

In north-western Gaul, that is Brittany and the adjoining area north of the Loire, the Bagaudae presented another challenge to the imperial authorities. These were not barbarians but Roman citizens who refused to pay the Roman taxes and obey the Roman laws. 'Bagaudae' meant simply 'mob', for these were mainly peasants, led by a few more eminent people, who were driven to outlawry by the financial burdens imposed by the Roman state and its inability to protect them from theft and violence. In 437, Aetius ordered an expedition that put down the Bagaudae unrest. In 448, it flared again and was again put down. One of the ringleaders, Eudoxius, a physician, fled to the Huns, to avoid certain execution. He was another who could advise Attila of the situation in Gaul, and help him plan an invasion.[4]

When the Alans first entered Gaul, they did so in alliance with two other barbarian groups that had since moved on to other parts of the western Roman empire. These were the Vandals and the Sueves. After raiding Gaul for two or three years, the Vandals, Sueves, and some Alans moved into Spain. Then, in 429, while the Sueves remained settled in the province of Gallaecia in north-west Spain, the Vandal king Geiseric led his people on to North Africa. Boniface, the Roman general who had charge of that region was Aetius' great rival, and Aetius had tricked Boniface into becoming a rebel by persuading him, falsely, that the emperor wanted to have him executed. It was Boniface who invited the Vandals to Africa, as he needed their support. Boniface was forgiven when the truth came out, but he died fighting Aetius in Italy in 432, by which time it was too late. The Vandals were in North Africa. Twenty-odd years later, when Attila invaded Gaul, Geiseric was still king and by then approaching fifty. He ruled from Carthage over the central provinces (modern Tunisia, plus the Algerian and part of the Libyan coast, --Ed.). The Romans had the less productive regions, opposite Spain in the west, while Egypt belonged to the eastern empire. There was hatred between the Vandals and the Visigoths, which came about because Geiseric's oldest son, Huneric, was married to Theodered's daughter but repudiated her and sent her back to her father with her nose cut off. Fearing that Theodered would take revenge, Geiseric sent ambassadors to Attila, offering him money if he would attack the Visigoths.

There only remains to mention Britain. Apart from some garrisons of part-time troops on the northern frontier and in a few other places, the Roman legions had been withdrawn from Britain before Valentinian became emperor, to deal with the troubles in Gaul. Raiders from the north took advantage of the situation, but the British were told they would have to organise their own defence. They did so by hiring Saxon mercenaries from northern Germany. However, the Saxon leaders demanded ever more pay and land. In 442, the British refused the Saxons' latest demands and tried to expel them, whereupon the Saxons invited many compatriots to come across the North Sea and set themselves up as the island's new rulers. The British appealed to Aetius but he was unable to help for fear that taking troops from Gaul would cause the fragile order there to break down.

Let us return to Attila. He became king of the Huns in 435 along with his brother, Bleda, whom he murdered in 445. For a century, the Huns had been building an empire in the vast area north of the Danube, stretching from the Rhine to the Black Sea, even claiming some authority over the Saxons of Britain. They were largely responsible for the situation just described, for while some of the tribes of this region readily acquiesced to Hunnish rule, people like the Visigoths and Burgundians did not, and sought safety by invading the empire. Through the 440s, Attila raided across the Danube into the eastern empire, sacking cities, defeating imperial armies, and taking away Roman prisoners. Ambassadors from both east and west were constantly visiting him to negotiate peace. By the end of the decade, after a series of treaties, he seemed to have reached a way of living with the authorities in Constantinople, while the western empire had ceded him some territory along the river Save in Pannonia (western Hungary, --Ed.) in return for peace.  

In late 449, a private messenger arrived from Italy asking for an audience with Attila. He explained to Onegesius, Attila's deputy, that he had been sent by the sister of Valentinian, Honoria. She was seeking Attila's help because her brother was mistreating her, accusing her of having an affair with one of her servants. To show that she was serious, she sent her ring. When Attila had been informed of this and was tossing the ring in the palm of his hand, he told Onegesius what to do. He wanted a letter sent to Valentinian, saying that Honoria was now betrothed to him and not only should she be sent to him so he could marry her but, since Honoria held the rank of empress, she should be accompanied by a dowry of half the western empire. Under Aetius' direction, Valentinian refused, saying Honoria was already married, but Attila renewed his demand and when the Romans remained intransigent, threatened war. By this time, Marcian had become emperor at Constantinople, and one of his first acts was to cancel the annual payments made to the Huns. This in turn meant Attila would be unable to reward his followers; he therefore needed new sources of booty if he was not to lose their goodwill. With Honoria giving him a strong claim to the west, with Chloderic offering to guide him into Gaul, and with Geiseric subsidising the expedition, Attila was bound to do what he did.

In the autumn of 450, Attila called his senior commanders together and told them what they were already expecting to hear. As soon as the first crops were beginningto ripen, so the army could live off the land, they would set out. In the meantime, they were to get their staffs busy making the many meticulous preparations for a major campaign, inspecting weapons, building up stocks of arrows, conducting manoeuvres, detailing the order of march, planning the flow of supplies.

"You all know me well," Attila told his men, who were sitting in two straight lines down either side of his audience chamber. "You know I do not make war recklessly. This is no exception. Victory for us is the only likely outcome. The Roman leader, Aetius, is an old friend of the Huns. When our army enters Gaul and he sees we are serious, he will probably let us take it without a fight. Our only problem then is Theodered and his Visigoths, and our army will be twice the size of theirs. In any case, these Visigoths ran away from the Huns before, looking for safety inside the empire. I do not suppose they have any greater courage now. If Aetius does oppose us, we will surely crush his Roman army, for look how the empire has already proved powerless to prevent the invasion of many barbarian peoples. You may say, what if the Romans and the Visigoths join forces. That is unlikely to happen, for Aetius and Theodered are enemies and have fought often. However, suppose they do combine against us, which I do not in the least expect. There will be no cohesion in their army, because they mistrust each other and have not trained together. Such a makeshift coalition will not stand up to our forces. The eastern emperor hands over all his gold because he fears us and cannot resist us. The western emperor is far weaker and his resources shrunk by the loss of Britain and North Africa. But a good commander leaves nothing to chance, and I am making sure to prevent a Roman-Visigothic alliance. I have written to Aetius, telling him that my quarrel is not with Rome and he should be glad because I will deliver for him what he has long been seeking, the destruction of the Visigoths. And I have written to Theodered, reminding him that the Romans are his enemy whereas the Huns are friends of the Goths, many of whom are among our loyal subjects and enjoy every honour in our Hun empire. So tell your officers to prepare for war with an eager heart. Before the next year is out, even the least of them will have his own estate and be enjoying the life of a Gaulish aristocrat."

When Edeco, one of Attila's personal bodyguard, returned from this meeting to his own compound, he summoned his two sons. Onoulph, was nineteen, Odovacer, eighteen. Four years earlier, they had joined him on the Huns' last major campaign, but they had been too young to be given a serious role in the fighting. This time, Edeco told them, they would be expected to play a full part. Onoulph looked serious and began to question his father about what lay ahead. Odovacer grabbed his bow and rode off to the range for target practice.

During the winter months, Attila also wrote to the other groups in Gaul. To several important men among the Franks he sent an angry letter, saying they had done wrong by disdaining Chlodio's rightful heir and raising Merovech instead of the older Chloderic. He accused them of cowardice insofar as they had acted to satisfy Aetius, and advised them to reinstate Chloderic, who would soon be coming to Gaul with the full support of the Huns. In the case of the Burgundians, Attila reminded Gundioc how they had been massacred fifteen years before, by a Hun army under Aetius, and his own father had been killed. He said Aetius was responsible for this crime, since the Huns were just mercenaries doing what they were paid to do, and it was time for the Burgundians to get revenge. They could do so by joining the Huns. Otherwise they risked being destroyed again, this time for good. Finally, following advice from the Bacaudae leader, Eudoxius, Attila wrote to Sangiban, king of the Alans in the north-west, who had made his headquarters at Orleans. He told Sangiban that if he did not join the Huns, he would be treated as a Hun enemy. Aetius would not fight his old allies, while the Visigoths could not resist a Hun army twice their size. If Sangiban came over to Attila now, he could continue to enjoy his position; otherwise, he would be caught and killed in a cruel fashion. These letters were mostly fruitless. Only a few Franks had pledged to join those who had already accompanied Chloderic to Attila's court.

 * * *

A little before dawn, the Hun army began to take down tents and load them up the wagons. Of the Huns themselves, most had slept in the saddle, leaning forward on their horse's necks. They took their breakfast of cheese and dried meat while still mounted, and even relieved themselves from horseback, riding side-saddle to do so. The columns set out in controlled order. Detachments of cavalry went off at speed in all directions, extending a reconnaissance screen fifty or more miles around the main formation, which moved down the Moselle valley at the pace of the wagons and foot-soldiers. Its destination was Orleans, where it would cross the Loire and close in on the Visigoths in Aquitaine. The left wing veered southward to protect against the Burgundians, while the right wing went north towards the Franks. This right wing was above normal strength, full of cavalry and fast. Its mission was not only to prevent the Franks from joining the fight but to capture Merovech so that Chloderic could be imposed in his place as Frankish king subject to the Huns. In the meantime, though, Attila kept Chloderic close to him in the main body of the army, to ensure he remained under his control. 

By Wednesday 4 April, their fourth day in Gaul, the Huns had reached Trier. Formerly the home of the western Roman emperors in Gaul, it was fully walled and the only way in was by four three-storied gatehouses, each consisting of four towers with an outer and inner gate and courtyard between. Attila paused his army and summoned Onegesius to his side. They tested the defences in the area of the northern gate, by sending a wing of mounted bowmen to gallop in and out, briefly exchanging fire with the city's defenders. The result was as they expected. There was no massive Roman army waiting for them here, just the  city's normal garrison, swollen by border troops that had retreated from the Rhine during the last week. The Huns had nothing to fear from such a small, low-grade force, and would not waste time storming the city. Leaving a small detachment behind to watch over Trier, Attila ordered his army on.

News of the Huns' progress had now been reaching the imperial court at Ravenna for some forty-eight hours, and the cities of Gaul, less well served by communications but closer to the action, for about the same period. Aetius was already on his way to Gaul, to establish a headquarters at Arles. As he travelled, messengers were constantly arriving and departing. Though Attila had given every sign of his intentions, and Roman spies had tracked the growing Hun army across Germany, Aetius had not known exactly where they would attack. He had also hoped, it is true, that it would not come to this. Barely a month ago, some imperial courtiers had been warning the emperor the Huns were bearing down on the west, and they implied that Aetius was failing to protect the empire. Aetius had dismissed what they said, telling the emperor no-one knew the Huns better than he did. In any case, he said, he had taken precautions, agreeing with Theodered, for example, that the Visigoths and Romans would come to each other's aid in the event of an attack on Gaul. Aetius remembered how Valentinian had sat in silence, with a sour look on his face, as the great general beat the emperor in argument for the umpteenth time. Aetius had now been proven wrong, but there was a brighter side. If he pulled this off, and there was no reason why he should not, it would be the crowning glory of his career. Even now, two of his best tribunes were on their way to Toulouse to get the Visigoths moving and become his liaison officers. Aetius thought of the ten-year old son he had left behind in Italy, and how it might yet be that he could make him emperor one day.

On 7 April, which happened to be Easter Saturday, the Huns arrived at Metz. Walled - see Mr Carlton's page - where does he get all that from??

In Orleans, Sangiban did not know what to do. He was in the middle between Huns, Romans and Visigoths. It would be easy to back the wrong party, and lose everything. All the reports reaching him said that Attila had assembled the largest army ever to enter Gaul, drawing on all the nations of the Hun empire from across northern Europe and far into Asia. Whether Aetius or Theodered would be able to respond remained unknown. He sent an envoy to Attila, with a message not to be written down. The message was that, if Attila came to Orleans, he, Sangiban, would open the city gates to him, and assist his passage across the Loire. The bishop of Orleans at that time was Anianus. When the rumour reached him that Sangiban was planning to betray the city, he demanded an audience with the Alan king. He asked Sangiban if what he had heard was true, berating the king at the same time. Sangiban spoke softly to the bishop, pointing out his difficulty.

My Alans are brave," Sangiban said, "but they are too few in number to protect Orleans and the surrounding districts from the horde descending on us. We do not know whether Aetius will come to our defence. If I had not promised to surrender the city, and Attila came here unopposed, he would have surely taken it by force. Not only I but all the city's innocent inhabitants would then have been in danger of their lives. But now, we can hope to be spared. Nevertheless, if Aetius should bring his army to Orleans in time, so as to turn back and defeat the Huns, then I will forget my promise to Attila and remain loyal to the Romans."

"Attila's people are heathens, who summon demons and worship idols in the form of animals," Anianus replied. "It would be better to die as holy martyrs than to live a cowardly life under such a race."

Sangiban said that he was only thinking of the people of Orleans. He hoped Aetius would arrive at Orleans before Attila did, but otherwise his strategy was as he had said and could not be changed.

"How long," asked Anianus, "before the Huns reach the city?"

Sangiban said that, from his communications with Attila, it seemed it would be the middle of June.

Tonantius Ferreolus was PPO per Gallias. PLRE.

Since Attila killed his brothers to take power in 440, he had...

[1] The exact date of Attila's entry into Gaul is not otherwise attested, but he arrived at Metz on Easter Saturday (7 April); XLH 2.6. With a Rhine crossing on 31 March, this would have required the Hun army to make about 25 km a day, which is a moderate fast pace (20 km a day might be standard) but one could expect the army to make good progress at first. A description of Attila's character is in Jordanes Getica 182. I am seeking the original source for the oft-quoted saying about Attila and the grass.

[2] Sources...Priscus etc. Purchasing power of Roman coins:

[3] Prosper a. 419 for the settlement of the Visigoths in Aquitaine. We do not know Theodered's birth-date, but he was likely to have been at least 30 to have acquired the kingship of the Visigoths at a time when it was still vigorously contested among men who were war-leaders.

[4] Chr Gall 452 for 437 and 448.