FLAVIUS AETIUS Roman commander in the West, notable for his defeat of Attila and the Huns at Chalons, 451
The Huns at the battle of Châlonssur-Marne. By Alphonse de Neuville
Flavius Aetius in 447
Flavius Aëtius (c. 396–454), dux et patricius, was a Roman general of the closing period of the Western Roman Empire. He was an able military commander and the most influential man in the Western Roman Empire for two decades (433-454). He managed policy in regard to the attacks of barbarian peoples pressing on the Empire. Notably, he gathered a large Roman and barbarian army to win the Battle of the Catalaunian Plains, ending the famous Hunnic invasion of Attila in 451.
Flavius Aetius was born at Dorostolus, in the province of Moesia (now near the Black Sea in the Balkans). He was the son of Gaudentius, who is identified simply as a master-general in the Roman army cavalry, later to become master of the horse and count of Africa. Moesia was a Roman stronghold in the Balkan area when Aetius was born. At some point in his youth, he was kidnapped by barbarians and raised as one of them, first by the Goths and later by the Huns; he was raised personally by Rhuas, the king of the Huns. Aetius acquired the knowledge of barbarian tactics, and in 424 he commanded a force of some 60,000 barbarians into what is now Italy.
Following the death of the Roman emperor Honorius on 15 August 423, there was a fierce struggle to succeed him. Although Honorius’s relative Valentinian had positioned himself to become emperor, the throne was seized by Ioannes (also called Johannes), the primicerius notatiorum (chief notary), who was backed by ambassadors Aetius and the Huns. The Eastern Roman emperor Theodosius II sent ambassadors to Rome, and they persuaded some of Ioannes’s aides to betray him; he was arrested, taken to a small village, and executed. When word of Ioannes’s arrest (but not his execution) arrived at the Huns’ camp, Aetius set out with a force to rescue him. Valentinian, taking control of Rome, offered Aetius a pardon and named him the count of Italy in exchange for his ending any war against Ioannes’s killers. Aetius accepted this offer, which led to his becoming one of the most important generals in the Western Roman Empire. In 429, he was named a magister utriusque militum (master of the soldiers).
One of Aetius’s chief rivals for power was Count Bonifacius (Boniface), the comes (count) of Africa, who, siding with the Vandals in Africa, marched on Rome to end Aetius’s influence. When the Hunnic and Vandal armies met in battle at Rimini (432), Aetius killed Bonifacius with his own javelin!
From 433, Aetius was involved in the Roman wars in Gaul (modern France) against many of the barbarian tribes there, including the Visigoths and Franks. However, few of his military accomplishments are noted by historians. In 436, Aetius and a Hunnic army defeated the Burgundians, a group of East Germanic tribesmen, after they had invaded Upper Belgica (now north and east of the River Loire in modern France). Aetius’s victory against this tribe was so complete—more than 20,000 Burgundians died in battle, as opposed to few Romans and Huns—that the clash is remembered in history in The Nibelungenlied, an epic poem written in Middle High German around 1200!
Aetius’s greatest military victory is that of Châlonssur-Marne, also called the battle of Maurica or Campus Mauriacus, or the battle of the Catalunian Plains. On 20 September 451, Aetius, commanding groups of barbarian soldiers, including Visigoths and Burgundians— both of whom he had previously defeated—faced Attila and the Huns, Aetius’s former allies. Attila had turned against the Roman Empire to rampage across Rome-controlled Europe, devastating the Balkans and exacting tribute from the Eastern Roman Empire. When the Huns turned on Gaul, Western Roman emperor Marcian called on Aetius to defeat his former allies. At Châlons-sur-Marne, Attila gathered the forces of many barbarian tribes, including the Ostrogoths, the Gepids, the Thuringians, and the Franks. To start the battle, Aetius dispatched Thorismund, the son of King Theodoric of the Visigoths, and his forces to seize an area that overlooked the whole field; Thorismund battled back the Hunnic forces to take the area. The Huns joined the Ostrogoths to assault the main Visigothic regiment, but the Visigoths held despite the death of King Theodoric. A contingent of Gepids attacked a position held by Romans and Franks, but they, too, could not break through. The battle lasted throughout the day; it is estimated that perhaps 300,000 men died, although many historians dispute this number. The end of the fight came when, in the darkness, Thorismund and his men charged down the hill from the heights he had seized and drove the Huns and Ostrogoths into flight.
Edward Creasy, who named Châlons as one of the 15 most decisive battles in world history, writes: “But when the morning broke and revealed the extent of the carnage with which the plains were heaped for miles, the successful allies saw also and respected the resolute attitude of their antagonist. Neither were any measures taken to blockade him in his camp, and so to extort by famine that submission which it was too plainly perilous to enforce with the sword. Attila was allowed to march back the remnants of his army without molestation, and even with the semblance of success.” The battle was critically important in the history of Europe since it halted the advancement of the Huns to France and broke the hitherto unstoppable Attila, who died two years later. As a result, the Huns were never the power they had been before Châlons-sur-Marne.
Aetius’s dreams of victory were short-lived. In September 454, he was about to marry one of his sons to the daughter of Roman emperor Valentinian III. However, during an argument over whether Aetius’s son could become emperor, Valentinian drew a dagger and murdered the general. The foul deed would cost the Roman Empire its very existence: Lacking a reliable military commander to stave off outside threats, Rome would be invaded and destroyed in two decades’ time. Aetius’s death was avenged when one of his friends accosted Valentinian at the Campus Martius in Rome and stabbed him to death.
Book "World Military Leaders: A Biographical Dictionary" by Mark Grossman