THE BATTLE OF THE CATALAUNIAN PLAINS IS OFTEN SEEN AS one of the great decisive battles in world history, the battle that saved western Europe from Attila. It was not that simple. This was not a Stalingrad, a turning point that stopped a barbaric invader in his tracks; more of a Hunnish Dunkirk, at which a great army escaped to fight on. Orléans had been the turning point, as Attila had seen when he avoided action and turned around; but it led to no definitive conclusion. Thereafter, for a couple of weeks, he was working to keep his army intact. The Catalaunian Plains was a rearguard action, forced upon Attila when he was already in retreat.

What if he had been victorious? After losing the initiative at Orléans, he would have had at best a bridgehead in Gaul. The open fields of Champagne would have offered valuable pasture and suitable territory on which his mounted archers could operate. But that would have been of use only if he managed to hold Metz, Trier and the Moselle corridor to the Rhine. That was his supply line, the artery that would feed him in some later advance that would seize all Gaul, the half of the empire he had so speciously claimed as Honoria’s dowry. Now all that was lost, at least for the present. He had escaped by the skin of his teeth, and by pure chance – there was no way he could have known that Aetius would decide to let him go for political reasons to do with the death of Theodoric.

No-one in these confused times accorded the battle the importance it later acquired. In that very year, in Marseille, a chronicler was at work recording what he learned of these events. This unnamed sage, known only as the Chronicler of 452, was a devout Christian, his aim being to continue the history written by Jerome, which ended in the late fourth century. Yet when he came to the events of the last chapter, all he wrote was: ‘Attila invaded Gaul and demanded a wife as if she were his by right. There he both inflicted and received a serious defeat, and withdrew to his own country.’ Scholars find it interesting that he already knew of the Honoria scandal, and apparently did not doubt it. They are also interested by what he did not say. Since this was not narrative history, more a chronological list, we have to guess what he approved and didn’t. He finished writing his account in 452, when Aetius was still one of the most powerful men in the empire (and might well be returning to Arles, a day’s ride from Marseille, any time), but he does not say that this was a decisive victory for the great Aetius, because at the time of writing Aetius did not look like much of a saviour. ‘At this time, the condition of the state appeared to be intensely miserable, since not even one province was without a barbarian inhabitant, and the unspeakable Arian heresy, which had allied itself with the barbarian nations and permeated the whole world, laid claim to the name of Catholic.’ On top of that, Attila was still alive and kicking, which was very bad news, because he was, at that very moment, mounting yet another and possibly far more serious invasion. In brief, the world was going to the dogs and it was all Aetius’ fault.

By autumn 451 Attila was back in his Hungarian headquarters, with its wooden palace, its stockaded houses, Onegesius’ bath-house, and its encircling tents and wagons. Would he then have been happy to sit there, enjoying the loot brought back from the campaign in Gaul? A different character might have been. He might have learned his lesson, settled down to consolidate an empire that, if nurtured, would have created a lasting counterpart to Rome and Constantinople, trading with both. But Attila was no Genghis, willing to plan for stability and impose his vision on his minions and vassals. He was trapped by his circumstances. There would not have been much left in the way of silks, wine, slaves and gold after several weeks of enforced and ignominious retreat. His multi-tribal chieftains would have been restless.

No-one recorded what he did that winter. But we can infer that it was not good. In the summer of 451 the Emperor Marcian had called his 520 bishops to meet at Nicaea in the autumn, to sort out the vexed matter of Christ’s nature, saying that he himself hoped to be there ‘unless some urgent affairs of state should detain him in the field’ – which in fact they did, the field in question being Thrace. Something had drawn him to the Danube frontier. Something forced the venue of the Fourth Ecumenical Council to be changed from Nicaea to Chalcedon, safe the other side of the Hellespont from Constantinople. And something prevented bishops from the Danube border area going to Chalcedon. If that something was Attila, back from failure in Gaul, it would not have been enough to keep the funds flowing, for these were the same regions the Huns had pillaged time and again. They were milked dry.

By now Attila knew that his main enemy, Rome, had an unreliable ally in the Visigoths. The two would unite only in defence of Gaul. If he could ensure that his enemy was Rome, and only Rome, surely victory would follow, as it would have done at Orléans had it not been for Avitus, Theodoric and the Visigoths. Like all dictators, he must have known that his precarious confederation could be held together only with ever grander visions, and the promise of ever greater victories. What greater prospect than Rome itself – vulnerable, as everyone knew, because it had already been taken by barbarians, namely the Visigoths themselves, 40 years before?

But there were other enticing prospects along the way, in particular the town that guarded the main high road into Italy from Hun-occupied Pannonia. First in line was a minor prize, the Slovenian town of Ljubljana (Emona in Roman times), which, once taken, opened the road to the small but significant Isonzo river, Italy’s traditional frontier (and for that reason the site of no fewer than twelve battles in the First World War). It was what lay at Isonzo’s southern end that interested the Huns.

The fortress-town of Aquileia had a proud history of defending the homeland’s north-eastern corner. Almost two centuries before, its women had joined in to fight off a rebel, Maximin, by donating their hair to make ropes for the town’s defensive machinery. A temple had been built to ‘Venus the Bald’ in their honour. One of the richest, strongest and most populous of cities on the Adriatic coast, it had been built as a gateway to the east, a nodal point linking the land routes from Rome to the south and the Alpine pass to the north with the sea routes from the Adriatic.

So it was much more than a military base. Its thriving commercial life owed much to the presence of a large community of Jews, ‘Orientali’ in Latin sources, who may have been the original settlers. In any event, they introduced silk-weaving, dyeing and in particular glass-making, which had been practised in the Middle East for 2,000 years. It was they, therefore, who inspired the creation of a 5-kilometre canal leading across the Isonzo’s swampy mouth from the sea. The result has been analysed in a paper by SamuelKurinsky,1 a Jewish American businessman, philanthropist and scholar with a specialist interest in the history of glass-making. ‘The Jewish community’, he writes, ‘may have been one of the largest and most economically influential of the Diaspora, exceeded only by those of Rome and Alexandria.’ Naturally, given the town’s large Roman majority and the growth of Christianity, the Jews suffered repression, principally under a late-fourth-century bishop, Chromazio. It was he, it seems, who sanctioned the burning of the synagogue in 388, excused by St Ambrose, in standard antisemitic style, as ‘an act of providence’. Over time, Christian buildings replaced the Jewish ones, some of which were unearthed by archaeologists from the 1940s onwards, often being described as ‘paleo-Christian’ or ‘pagan’ despite their Jewish iconography. Among the finds are several lavish mosaic floors, one right under the bell-tower of a later Christian basilica, another huge one – over 800 square metres, making it one of the largest of its time – under the basilica itself. Alongside is a marble-lined, octagonal mikvah (ritual bath), fed by a spring, with the six steps required by Jewish law.

The glass-makers of Aquileia are worth a small diversion, under Kurinsky’s guidance. The art was still a mystery to Europeans when the Jews arrived among the bays of the Adriatic coast, so their products were in demand over a wide area, to the resentment of some Christians. St Jerome, briefly a resident of Aquileia, complained that glass-making had become one of the trades ‘by which the Semites had captured the Roman world’. Recent finds have astonished experts, because they are some of the earliest produced in Europe. Surprise on surprise – a few preserve the names of their proud makers, some of whom were slaves, at least one being a woman. Two glass vessels emerged in Linz, the Danubian town on the Roman trade route over the Dolomites. The mouldings include the phrase Sentia Secunda facit Aquileiae vitra: ‘Sentia No. 2 makes Aquileian glass’.

The stout walls of this rich and important city had often been besieged, but never taken – except once, when Alaric led the Visigoths towards Rome in 401. If Alaric could do it, so could Attila. And, as Attila’s spies would have told him, Aetius, certain that he had shut the Huns back in their cage, had not ordered the town to prepare for action.

Action came in late June 452. We can infer this thanks to the pope and some birds. Pope Leo I, who wrote letters in May and June, made no mention of an invasion of Italy, so it is unlikely to have begun earlier; and Attila’s siege could not have started much later, according to an unlikely source: the storks which nested on Aquileia’s roofs.

The storks come into the story because this was no quick siege. Aquileia’s citizens did not need orders from Aetius: they knew how to withstand an assault, having good access downriver to the open sea. After nearly two months of waiting, with Aquileia living up to its reputation, Attila must have begun to hear murmurs from his generals. How long was this going on? Vineyards and orchards and grain-rich fields would sustain the troops through the late summer, but where was the loot? Priscus, quoted by Jordanes, takes up the story:

The army was already muttering and wishing to leave when Attila, as he was walking round the walls deliberating whether he should break camp or remain longer, noticed some white birds, namely storks, which make their nests on rooftops, taking their young away from the city and, contrary to their custom, conveying them out into the country. Since he was an extremely shrewd inquirer, he had a presentiment and said to his men: ‘Look at the birds, which foresee what is to come, leaving the doomed city, deserting endangered strongholds which are about to fall. Do not think this is without meaning; it is certain; they know what is going to happen; fear of the future changes their habits.’

Gibbon, always good for a quote, described the scene thus:

[Attila] observed a stork preparing to leave her nest in one of the towers, and to fly with her infant family towards the country. He seized, with the ready penetration of a statesman, this trifling incident which chance had offered to superstition; and exclaimed, in a loud and cheerful tone, that such a domestic bird, so constantly attached to human society, would never have abandoned her ancient seats unless those towers had been devoted to impending ruin and solitude.

Could there be any truth in this charming tale? Possibly, because the Huns would have sought and respected auguries, both natural and man-made (like the omens read into blood-marks before the battle on the Catalaunian Plains). For Romans and barbarians alike, birds were portentous creatures, especially ravens, owls and storks, as magpies are to us: ‘One for sorrow, two for joy.’ Now, storks are indeed creatures of habit, about which Attila would have been rather better informed than Gibbon; as, thanks to two and a half centuries of ornithology, are we. Storks in general – unlike Gibbon’s lone mother in her Disneyesque devotion – do not have ancient seats. They migrate, heading south for winter. The white stork, Ciconia ciconia, leaves its European summer nests between mid-August and early September, heading for Africa overland. Juveniles leave first, trailed by their parents. Western populations take one flight path, easterners another, both circling the Mediterranean, the two groups being divided with remarkable precision along latitude 11°E, a mere 200 kilometres west of Aquileia. Westerners fly over Spain, easterners, including those of Aquileia, over Turkey and the Dead Sea to the Nile valley and points south. Attila, coming from Hungary, would have been familiar with the habits of eastern white storks; and so would his shamans, who, as we know from the Catalaunian Plains, accompanied his entourage. A smart shaman might have been looking out for a reliable sign to buttress whatever Attila had in mind. It seems unlikely that the storks knew much about the ins and outs of siege warfare; but it is just possible, I suppose, that smoke and the collapse of their nesting-places drove them out early, which places this moment during the siege of Aquileia, with stork-like precision, a few days before mid-August. It is not too far-fetched to imagine a shaman, knowing Attila’s hopes, coming up with an excuse to continue the siege. How better to inspire trust than by claiming inevitable victory? What better backing than the forces of nature, proclaiming the fall of the city as surely as rats proclaim the imminent sinking of a ship?

Whoever said what to whom, it did the trick. Hun spirits revived, inspiring a return to the tactics developed in the taking of Naissus in 447, only five years previously. ‘Why say more?’ comments Jordanes. ‘He inflamed the hearts of the soldiers to renew the assault on Aquileia.’ A siege train took shape – slings to throw boulders, ‘scorpions’ (heavy crossbows firing metre-long arrows), battering-rams swinging beneath shells of shields – which in a remarkably short time broke through Aquileia’s walls, with awful consequences for the city, ‘which they despoiled, smashed asunder and devastated so savagely that they left hardly a trace of it to be seen’ – an exaggeration to which we shall return later.

What, meanwhile, of Aetius and the Romans during Attila’s advance? Not much, according to our main source, Prosper, a chronicler and theologian from Aquitaine who became one of Rome’s leading religious and literary figures, possibly working as an official at the court of Pope Leo I. He was a man of abrupt and succinct opinions. To him, Aetius was idle and a coward. He made no provisions. He did not look to the Alpine defences. He would have scurried for safety with the emperor, if shame had not braced him. There is no need to take this as gospel, though. Prosper had an agenda, which was to downgrade Aetius in order that his master the pope should take the spotlight, centre stage, hand in hand with God, in the coming events. The fact was that the empire never did defend the Alpine pass, because it was too wide an entrance for easy defence. Italy was invaded six times in the fifth century, and not once were the invaders opposed until they got to the valley of the Isonzo and Aquileia.

What actually happened after the fall of Aquileia is vague. Attila apparently raided half a dozen smaller towns – Concordia and Altinum among them – in the surrounding area, but did not head for the seat of imperial government in Ravenna. Perhaps he judged it too tough a target, or perhaps he knew that the emperor was in Rome; in any event, he kept instead to the north, following the edge of the Po valley. Rather than suffer the fate of Aquileia, cities simply opened their gates: Padua, Vicenza, Verona, Brescia, Bergamo and, finally, Milan. There the Huns burned and looted so much that the citizens had time to flee. According to one account, Attila took up residence in the imperial palace, where he saw a painting of Scythians prostrate before the two Roman emperors of East and West. He liked the idea, hated the subject matter, and ordered a local artist to paint a similar scene with himself on a throne and the two emperors pouring out gold at his feet.

Now the advance faltered. A conqueror would have headed south across the Apennines to Rome, sweeping all before him. Priscus says that Attila, following closely in Alaric’s footsteps and with the same intentions, was warned by his shamans that he might suffer the same fate should he take Rome, namely death immediately after victory. Certainly death was in the air, in the form of heat, food shortages and disease. High summer was over, but September in the north Italian plains is oppressive; and the area was home to malaria-carrying mosquitoes. Others experienced a similar fate later. In 540 the Franks were ‘attacked by diarrhoea and dysentery, which they were quite unable to shake off because of the lack of proper food. Indeed they say that one third of the Frankish army perished in this way.’ Another Frankish army failed for the same reasons in 553.

Possibly an army headed by Aetius also had an effect, though there is only one brief and confusing sentence by the Spanish chronicler Hydatius, writing in about 470, to support the idea. Instead of an all-out military response, though, Rome opted for a diplomatic one, written up by Prosper, who was keen to record the role played by his master, Pope Leo I.

Leo was a genuinely significant figure, made more so by Prosper in what would today be regarded as appallingly right-wing terms. Leo’s election, delayed by his absence in 440, was awaited with ‘marvellous peace and patience’. He rooted out heresy with admirable zeal, burning books as a divinely inspired holy man should. He showed himself to be a strong pope just at the moment when the greatest threat to the church, Attila, murdered his brother Bleda and assumed absolute power beyond the Danube. Worldly leaders like Aetius were examples of pride, ambition, injustice, impiety and imprudence, from all of which Leo, by comparison, was free. He even opposed the eastern emperor Theodosius II, who at the Second Council of Ephesus in 449 allowed that Christ did not share in the human nature of his mother, but was only apparently human. When Theodosius died in 450, Marcian, brought in to rule by Theodosius’ sister, came as the saviour of orthodoxy, Leo’s orthodoxy; hence the Fourth Council in Chalcedon in 451. Women, to Prosper, were irrelevant. Marcian’s wife, Pulcheria, to whom he owed the crown? Galla Placidia, mother of the Emperor Valentinian and the erratic Honoria, one of the most powerful women of her age? Not a mention. And of course, now that Attila was threatening the very heart of the empire, Aetius was worse than useless and everything was down to Leo.

Where Aetius relied on his own judgement, Leo relied on God. His mission to Attila was from the Senate and Valentinian III. ‘Nothing better was found than to send an embassy to the terrible king and ask for peace.’ He took with him two colleagues: Trygetius, former prefect and experienced negotiator with Gaiseric the Vandal in Africa, and the ex-consul Avienus, now one of the two most powerful senators in Rome. Possibly, Leo’s main role was to negotiate the ransom of captives. This, then, was a mission of top envoys. Yet in Prosper, Leo and God are Rome’s real saviours. As a result, later accounts wrote out the other two entirely, or transformed them into something very different.

Attila was apparently quite ready to meet the three envoys, perhaps seeing in them a mirror-image of his own elite logades, headed by Rome’s most senior shaman. As Prosper puts it, ‘The king received the whole delegation courteously, and he was so flattered by the presence of the highest priest that he ordered his men to stop the hostilities and, promising peace, returned beyond the Danube.’

Just like that. Magic. Because Leo was in Prosper’s eyes a living embodiment of Christ working through man. ‘The elect receive grace,’ he said in another context, ‘not to allow them to be idle or to free them from the Enemy’s attacks, but to enable them to work well and to conquer the Enemy.’

What really happened at the meeting no-one knows. Perhaps, as some sources say, it occurred on the shore of Lake Garda, ‘at the well-travelled ford of the River Mincius’ (now the Mincio, which flows out of Lake Garda at Peschiera), though what Attila would have been doing travelling east prior to an invasion of Rome, I can’t imagine; he should have been heading south. Certainly, there would have been some hard bargaining. Quite likely, Attila would have threatened Italy with a terrible fate, as Jordanes says, ‘unless they sent him Honoria, with her due share of the royal wealth’. That would open the way for a counter-offer: no Honoria, who was now either safely married off or ‘bound to chastity’ (perhaps the same thing, given Honoria’s raging rejection of her husband); but on the question of the royal wealth a deal could be done. Prisoners would have been released, cash paid, honour satisfied.

In the absence of any hard information, legends soon arose claiming a miracle. The version in the thirteenth-century Hungarian codex (Gesta Hungarorum), in which Attila is terrified into compliance by a vision of an angry, armed angel, is one among several examined in chapter 12 below. Certainly Attila was not a man to take much notice of popes. He had problems enough to stop his advance. Disease, famine, a sudden appreciation of what he was really up against: Attila must have now seen how much more he had bitten off than he could chew. In addition, he was now dangerously exposed, deep in Italy, with Rome’s other half, Constantinople, closer to Hungary than he was himself.

He headed back across the Isonzo, and home to Hungary.

In the autumn of 452, as the ice re-formed over the Danube, he sent off yet more ambassadors to Marcian threatening devastation ‘because that which had been promised by Theodosius was in no wise performed, and saying that he would show himself more cruel to his foes than ever’.

But this was bluster. He had lost thousands on the Catalaunian Plains, thousands more to disease in Italy. He had not returned home in time to catch the full benefit of the summer grass. Even if the Italian campaign had paid for itself with Leo’s ransom money, nothing was coming from Marcian, and now, once again, he had an exhausted army and expectant commanders to keep happy. There were no more embassies. That winter, an ominous silence descended on the Danubian frontier, leaving Marcian ‘disquieted’ at what Attila might be planning. Come the spring, something would have to be done.

Back in Italy, a dozen towns had suffered the Hun assault, or later claimed they had. Nothing, apparently, was as bad as the fate of Aquileia. Jordanes’ words echo down the centuries, rewritten by Gibbon: ‘The succeeding generation could scarcely discover the ruins of Aquileia.’ Other writers, without looking too closely, claimed that the city suffered total and everlasting destruction.

Well, not exactly. It is possible to make a guess at the truth, because something is known of Aquileia post-Attila.

Six years later the town, supposedly so flattened that its ruins were hardly visible, was reviving well. It had a good flock of Christians, and a bishop. His name was Nicetas, and in March 458 he wrote to Leo, whose reply survives in a collection of his letters. Nicetas was coping with a crisis caused not simply by the destruction but by the business of recovery. It had all been terrible: families had been broken up, the men taken prisoner, the women forsaken; but now, with God’s help, things had improved. At least some of the men had returned. So Attila had indeed released prisoners, presumably because Pope Leo had ransomed them. How many did not survive to be ransomed? What happened to those who survived, but were not ransomed? Enslaved, for sure, and by now either dead or working for some Hun chief in Hungary.

Nicetas had two problems. The first was this: some of the women had remarried, thinking their husbands dead. What was the status of their marriages now? It was a terrible question to answer, for a ruling either way would throw hundreds of families into turmoil. Leo, however, was not a pope much given to doubt: he replied that second marriages should be annulled, and the first husbands reinstated. No mention, by the way, of the women taken by the Huns; they were lost for ever, and posed no theological problem.

The second matter concerned the status of the returnees as Christians. Some had, while prisoners, apparently been forced to adopt the ways of heresy, taking heretical communion, or (if they were children) being baptized by heretics. To describe Huns as heretics sounds odd indeed. In fact, the problem is evidence that Attila’s army was still a very mixed bag, and included Goths, who had been converted to Arianism a century before. Nicetas might not know a Goth from a Hun, but heresy was a red rag to a papal bull. Leo ruled that enforced conversion was no conversion: they would be welcomed back, forgiven and reinstated.

Eventually, the domestic dramas played themselves out, and the reviving town was soon rich enough for its Christian community to build its basilica over the ruins of the synagogue. The Jews, it seems, had already left. True, the place went downhill. A century later, another barbarian attack, by Lombards this time, underscored its decline, and many of its inhabitants chose to drift west to a new settlement in the unpromising but safer lagoons and islands of the Laguna Veneta.

This connection became for many a simple statement that Aquileia’s surviving inhabitants fled from the Huns to found Venice, which was supposedly a secure haven because the Huns dared not ride their horses into the surrounding mud. Perhaps the Jews of Aquileia had led the way, but for the Christian majority it was all much more stretched out than that. Not until 569, after another barbarian invasion, did Aquileia’s bishop, Paulus, take his relics and regalia to the port of Grado, 10 kilometres south of Aquileia, and about as far out into the Adriatic as you can get without drowning. From there, after another century of rivalry, authority finally jumped to Venice. It was not until the ninth century that Venice proper began to turn channels into canals and link islands with bridges, and create something new and grand that would inspire later writers to turn the inconvenient, extended mess of historical fact into short, sharp folk tales.

Venice still retains a link with its Aquileian roots and traditions, to the benefit of its tourist industry. On the nearby islands of Murano and Burano, they still make glass, thanks in part to the slave Sentia and her co-workers in Aquileia before Attila turned their world upside down.

1 Samuel Kurinsky, ‘The Jews of Aquileia: A Judaic Community Lost to History’, Hebrew History Federation (www.hebrewhistory.org/factpapers/aquileia28.html).

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