Justa Grata Honoria and Attila – The Hunnic Invasion of Gaul

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 (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.

Roman villa in Gaul sacked by the hordes of Attila the Hun, G. Rochegrosse (1910)

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 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 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.

Solidus of Honoria showing the empress crowned with a diadem by the Manus Dei (hand of God)

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 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 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).

Solidus of Marcian

It is generally supposed that Attila laid siege to Orleans; but 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 strengthening Orleans, before Attila’s approach, before there is any collision between the two armies. The relation of Jordanes 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). Orleans was threatened but never besieged—never attacked. 

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 given circumstances it was a triumph for the defenders of Gaul, and it hastened the retreat of the invader. But 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.

The map shows the possible routes taken by Attila’s forces as they invaded Gaul, and the major cities that were sacked or threatened by the Huns and their allies

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 point to the fact that Attila had no great strategical talent

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.

(Source: “The Invasion of Europe By the Barbarians”, by Bury, J.B.)

Research-Selection for NovoScriptorium: Anastasius Philoponus

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