LOOKING BACK AFTERWARDS, WHEN PEOPLE KNEW WHAT A close call it had been for all Europe, they realized there had been signs, warnings, prodigies and portents of the coming threat: an earthquake in Spain, an eclipse of the moon, the Northern Lights casting their unearthly glow too far south, like spectres armed with flaming lances battling clear of polar regions. In June 451 a comet appeared vivid in the dawn sky – Halley’s Comet, as we now call it, its glowing head and streaming tail as menacing as a flaming missile from a heavenly catapult. The threat that had been steadily building for 50 years – the Visigoths grabbing Aquitaine, Alans, Vandals and Suevians scattering across northern Gaul, Burgundians in Savoy, Franks edging along the Meuse, North Africa lost, Britain cut off, Brittany a law unto itself, Bagaudian brigands roaming wild – seemed on the verge of climax.

In undertaking the invasion of the West, the Huns faced a problem similar to that which faced the Germans as they prepared to invade France in 1914, and again in 1939. Approached from the Rhine, France has fine natural defences in the form of the Vosges mountains, giving way to the Eifel and Ardennes in the north. Practically the only way through is up the Moselle, through what is now Luxembourg, and then out onto the plains of Champagne. But it was no good making a thrust through the mountains into the heart of France (or Gaul) if the army could be threatened from the north – from Belgium or, in this case, the region occupied by the Franks.

Attila had a problem with the Franks. The Frankish king had died, and his two sons were disputing the succession. The elder one had approached Attila for help; the younger one, aged no more than fifteen or sixteen, sought Roman backing, and found it in Aetius. Priscus saw this young man in Rome in late 450, and was struck by his looks: ‘His first beard had not yet begun to grow, and his flaxen hair was so long that it poured over his shoulders.’ Aetius adopted him as a son – a common device to ensure a firm alliance – and the youth went away laden with gifts and promises. Obviously, he was about to receive the help he needed to secure the throne, and thus tumble into the arms of Rome. It would not do to have a Roman vassal on the right wing, any more than Germany in 1914 could afford to let neutral Belgium fall into the Allied camp. To invade France successfully, Germany had to take out ‘poor little Belgium’. To invade Gaul, Attila first had to neutralize the poor little Franks.

Early in 451 Attila’s main army advanced up the Danube along frontier tracks, spreading out on either side, crossing tributaries over fords or pontoons of logs cut from the surrounding forests. One wing seems to have swung south and then up the Rhine, via Basel, Strasbourg, Speyer, Worms, Frankfurt and Mainz, then meeting the main force, which followed the old frontier from the Danube to the Rhine. The Huns probably crossed near Koblenz, cutting trees along the bank to make rafts and pontoon bridges for their wagons.

From there, in March 451, Attila could have sent a small force to sweep up those Franks not already fighting for the Romans. Evidence in favour of this is that Childeric, the elder son who had approached Attila, later emerged among the Franks as a king of some stature. Certainly, Franks soon formed a contingent in Attila’s army as well as in Rome’s; and this would hardly have been possible if they were still wholly allied to Rome, ready and waiting to stab Attila from his rear.

The accounts of this campaign are all Christian, since it was Christianity that kept the flickering torch of civilization burning: all of them were written later, and most of them are hagiographies of martyred bishops, owing as much to spin and imagination as to historical truth. But it is possible, even so, to map Attila’s progress. There was, perhaps, a secondary crossing near Strasbourg, and some opposition from the Burgundians. But the main assault came near the junction of the Rhine and Moselle at Koblenz. That spring, the Huns and their motley allies headed up both sides of the Moselle, two single files on the winding roads, linking up at the nine-arched stone bridge of Trier.

Really, they should have got no further. Trier had been the capital of Rome north of the Alps until the provincial government moved to Arles 50 years before, and it had been a fortress for three centuries. Its 7-metre-high walls linked four colossal gateways, of which one is still there, saved by a Greek monk who walled himself up in it in the eleventh century, protecting it with an aura of sanctity. When the Huns came by, this north gate was a shining soft yellow, but over the centuries it acquired the dark patina that affects all ageing sandstone, and became the Porta Nigra, the Black Gate. Nothing in Gaul, then or now, could better state Rome’s power than this Schwarzenegger-ish guardhouse, 30 metres high, 36 long and 22 deep. Its stone blocks, some bearing names and dates inscribed by proud masons, weighed up to 6 tonnes each. Cut by bronze saws powered by water from the Moselle, they were bound not with cement but with iron clamps into three storeys of 144 arched windows and two squat towers. Two arches, gated and portcullised, led through it into the old city and its 80,000 inhabitants. This was Rome in miniature. Its marbled palace, built on Constantine’s orders in 300–10, was made with 1.5 million tiles brought from the Pyrenees and Africa. The city’s bathhouse was the empire’s largest, except for those of Diocletian and Caracalla in Rome itself, complete with exercise-room, hot, cold and tepid rooms, coal-fired furnace and two-storey cellars. In the stadium, 20,000 people could see gladiators fighting, criminals fed to lions, and plays on a stage cranked up from the floor (all there in today’s ruins).

So Trier should have stopped the Huns dead in their tracks. But they passed it with hardly a pause. We have no idea what happened. The lack of an account suggests that its garrison, depleted since Arles became Gaul’s capital, just shut themselves up and let the barbarians flow around them. The Huns moved on, no doubt leaving a rearguard to block the valley upriver in case Trier’s soldiers regained their nerve.

In any event, the only information we have concerns the next town on their line of march, Metz. According to one account, the Huns hammered in vain at the walls of Metz with a battering-ram, and advanced on to a fortress upriver, where, just before Easter, news reached them that a portion of Metz’s weakened walls had collapsed. A quick night-time gallop back downriver brought them straight into the breach, and the town fell on 8 April. A priest was taken hostage, others had their throats cut, and many died in their burning houses.

On then, down the gentle limestone slopes of the Ardennes foothills, and out on to the flat expanses of the campi, the open savannahs that give their name to Campania, Champagne as it became. The region was known then as the Catalaunian Plains or Fields, after the Latin name for a local tribe, still recalled in the name of the present-day town of Châlons. There was, it seems, a small diversion north of Châlons, to Reims, the central city of Gaul, where all major roads met. The ancient town, with its triumphal arch built by Augustus and its forum, was almost empty, its inhabitants having taken to the woods, but there remained a small crowd hoping for the best, along with its archbishop and some priests. According to legend, the prelate, Nicasius, was singing Psalm 119 when the Huns reached him. Perhaps he hoped that this longest of psalms, with its 176 verses, would provide some special protection. It didn’t. He had just reached verse 25 – ‘My soul cleaveth unto the dust: Quicken thou me according to thy word’ – when a Hun sword struck off his head. He was later beatified as St Nicaise.

The main thrust, though, lay westward, towards Orléans, where Attila’s old enemies, the Alans, prepared for assault. The Huns, with their wagons, were moving with less than Blitzkrieg speed, covering no more than 20 kilometres a day, through a countryside emptied by fear. Those with possessions buried them; the rich trembled in their fortified mansions; the poor fled to the woods and mountains.

They even began to flee a little town to the north, way off the Hun line of march. The Parisians didn’t want to be trapped on their river-island. It was (of course) a saint who brought them to their senses. Genevieve, like another later saintly maiden, had kept sheep as a child, before taking the veil at fifteen and becoming noted for her self-mortifying austerity and visions, the one no doubt producing the other. She was good at miraculous cures and at seeing the future, both talents that came in handy when the Huns invaded. This, she saw, had to be the will of God, who could be mollified only by prayer and repentance. She made a dramatic appeal to the townsfolk not to abandon their homes, but instead to look to God for salvation. The men reviled her and went on fleeing, but courageous women put their cowardly men to shame, and the exodus stopped. Lo and behold, the Huns came nowhere near Paris. They had no need to, of course, because it wasn’t on their route. But Paris remembered this simple country girl who reversed the panic that could have turned the future French capital into a ghost town, and made Genevieve the city’s patron saint.

Where, meanwhile, was the imperial army? When the Huns had first invaded, no-one knew their destination. Perhaps it was Italy. Valentinian had ordered most of the army to remain at their home bases. Aetius, as a precaution, was sent off with a small force to Arles, at the mouth of the Rhône, where he awaited developments, no doubt in increasing impatience.

Now the Huns were heading south-west, aiming to go over the open lands of Champagne, across the Loire, then south towards the Visigothic capital, Toulouse. This would keep them well away from the Massif Central, and, once free of the Loire’s forests and out in the open, allow their cavalry to operate to full advantage.

On the way, though, were two major cities, Troyes and Orléans.

Orléans would be the key, as it had been for centuries. Its original name, or rather the Latin version of its original Celtic name, was Genabum, since it sat on the genu, the knee, of the Loire, where the river kinked at its most northerly point. In winter the Loire was a torrent; but in summer it became a river-road, the best way of travelling through the thick oak forests either to the coast or to the high heartland and on down the Rhône to the Mediterranean. But it was also a meeting point for roads, one of which led south over a stone bridge. It was, in brief, the gateway to the north-west. Caesar having burned it, Marcus Aurelius rebuilt it, naming it after himself, Aurelianum, which later transmuted into Orléans. In the fifth century it was rich, big and sophisticated, far outdoing little Paris, and not bothered by the presence in the surrounding forests of an Alan clan.

It would have taken the Huns three weeks to cover the 330 kilometres from Metz to Orléans, assuming a clear run. They would be there by early May. The citizens locked themselves within their solid walls and prepared for a siege. Meanwhile, a Christian leader, Anianus – later sainted for his services as St Aignan (or Agnan) – had already hurried off to contact Aetius, to check for himself what help might be available, and when. Aetius was in Arles, at the mouth of the Rhône, a long haul for Anianus, whether by road or by river, perhaps a combination of the two, riding upriver beside the Loire’s springtime current for 300 kilometres (two weeks), over the watershed at St Etienne to the Rhône (a day), then fast downriver for 200 kilometres (another five days). It would take at least the same again for Aetius to move north: say, five weeks in all – a close-run thing, especially as the Huns were not the only danger. The local Alans suddenly recalled that their kinsmen were Hun vassals, and were part of the approaching army. Their chief, Sangibanus, sent a message to Attila, saying that he would help take Orléans in exchange for fair treatment.

Attila’s route led across the rivers Aube and Seine through Troyes, and around it, for this was a large army, with wagons, which would have used every available road. He would have noted the landscape north of Troyes, today’s Aube département, the chalky savannahs of Champagne, where the Seine and Aube meander towards each other across the Catalaunian Plains. Troyes, a pretty place of wood-and-thatch houses and perhaps a stone-built villa or two, had no walls – easy prey for the advancing Huns. There was a substantial church, which rated a bishop, Lupus, famous for having been part of a mission to post-Roman Britain 20 years previously, and about to become much more famous – briefly, infamous – as a result of Attila’s arrival.

Attila’s troops would have entered Troyes. It was too good a source of supplies to ignore. No doubt looting had already started, inspiring a legend in which fact and fiction are hopelessly mixed, but which is often presented as history. According to Lupus’ official biography, he saved his city and his people by confronting Attila, a meeting that involved one of the supposed origins of a famous phrase. Assuming the meeting took place, how Lupus introduced himself is not recorded, but it presumably included something like: I am Lupus, a man of God. At this, Attila came up with a smart one-liner, in impeccable Latin:

Ego sum Attila, flagellum Dei’ – ‘I am Attila, the Scourge of God.’

This was, of course, a Christian interpolation, made because Attila’s success demanded explanation. It would have been inconceivable that a pagan could prevail over God’s own empire, against God’s will. Therefore, pagan or not, he must have had God’s backing, the only possible explanation being that Christendom had not lived up to divine expectations and was being punished for its lapses. A folk tale tells of a hermit, captured by the Huns, foretelling doom: ‘You are God’s Scourge, but God may, if it pleases Him, break his instrument of vengeance. You will be defeated, so that you may know that your power has no earthly origin.’ Isidore of Seville, an encyclopedist of the sixth and seventh centuries, also used the phrase to describe the Huns. Within two centuries it was a cliché: one to which we shall return in chapter 12.

Precisely the same argument would be used by a later pagan leader against another monotheistic religion, when Genghis Khan swept into the Islamic world in 1220. He is said to have told the citizens of Bukhara: ‘I am the punishment of God. If you had not committed great sins, God would not have sent a punishment like me upon you.’ In both cases, the historian who recorded the leader’s words served an agenda, to remind the faithful of the need for piety. Thus churches make pagan leaders serve a divine purpose, despite themselves.

As the story goes, the bishop was intimidated. Since Attila was, it seemed, divine retribution, appeasement, rather than defiance, was in order: ‘What mortal could stand against God’s scourge?’ he replied. So the two found each other useful. Attila agreed to spare Troyes – not so much as a chicken taken from it – with the proviso that Lupus must stay with him until Attila saw fit to let him go. The bishop could prove a handy lever should his flock think of offering resistance, or if he, Attila, needed a bargaining chip at some time in the future. It was a deal that rather took the shine off Lupus’ reputation. Was he a hostage, as he would no doubt have claimed? Or more of a guide, an early example of what is now known as Hostage Syndrome, when the victim, in self-protection, becomes complicit in the crime?

Meanwhile, Anianus was in Arles, doing his best to persuade Aetius to move. Orléans could hold out for a month, no more. According to the account of his life, he sets a deadline: ‘Thus shall the prophecies by the Spirit be fulfilled, that on the 8th day [before] thekalends (i.e. the 1st) of July, the cruel beast shall resolve to tear the flock to pieces. I beg that the Patrician shall come to our aid by the predicted date.’ Any later than mid-June and all would be lost. Aetius gave his word, and Anianus headed for home.

Aetius now faced the unpleasant task of going to war with the people he had known from childhood, whose soldiers he had used as mercenaries, with whom he had sought nothing but peace for the last fifteen years. To fight them, he would have to make friends with Attila’s enemies, the Visigoths, the strongest of the many barbarian forces scattered across the face of Gaul, and Rome’s traditional enemy.

Theodoric had been resigned to war with Attila. Over the last 20 years, he had got used to being Aetius’ foe as well, and had no hopes of any help. He was therefore preparing to defend his land, his people and his capital, Toulouse. It had not occurred to him to take the war to Attila through the hostile territory of Gaul. Aetius knew all this. To bring Theodoric on board would take some very astute diplomacy, for which he obtained backing from the Emperor Valentinian himself.

As it happened, there was a man who could undertake this task quite nearby, in Clermont-Ferrand. It was, of course, Avitus: patrician, scholar, diplomat, future emperor and friend of Theodoric. Having retired from public office, for the past eleven years he had enjoyed the life of a wealthy aristocrat, supervising Avitacum and its huge estate, with its pines, waterfalls and delightful lake, pursuing not just the pleasures of the senses and the mind, but also a political and cultural agenda. He knew from personal experience that military power alone could not preserve the empire. He had seen wandering barbarians settle and change. The idea was this: that peace would grow from education in the ways of Rome. As O. M. Dalton put it in his edition of Sidonius’ letters, he probably believed that peaceful ‘understanding with the most civilised of the barbaric peoples might save an empire which Italy was too enfeebled to lead’. If this was so – and his later life’s work suggests it was – he would have dreamed ‘of a Teutonic aristocracy more and more refined by Latin influences, which should impart to the Romans the qualities of a less sophisticated race and to their own countrymen a wider acceptance of Italian culture’. Theodoric and his Visigoths were the proof that such an aim could be successful.

Having led his people to an end of wandering, Theodoric now had ambitions to rival, if not Rome, then at least its provinces in the arts of civilization. He was flattered to have the friendship of a man admired even in Rome. From his estate by the shores of Lake Aydat, Avitus had brought silky sophistication to Theodoric’s untutored, fur-clad chieftains and his capital, Toulouse (Tolosa as it was then), 250 kilo-metres away to the south-west. Young Goths were now studying the Aeneid and Roman law. The patrician had even offered personal guidance on the tutoring of the youngest and brightest, another Theodoric. Of all Rome’s nobles, Avitus was the only one guaranteed to get a good reception from Theodoric. They were friends, almost equals.

The fate of Gaul, perhaps of the empire, now rested on the personal links between three men: Aetius, the commander; Avitus, the peaceful patrician; and Theodoric, the barbarian king wary of Rome’s motives, yet eager for Rome’s culture. Two days after Anianus’ departure, Aetius was with Avitus, putting his case. I imagine the two of them in the scroll-filled library overlooking the pines, the hot baths and the surrounding mountains. It was not an easy case, because Aetius wanted Avitus to use his peaceful links with Theodoric to convince him of the need for war. Attila was no Theodoric. It would be useless to think of talking settlement, peace and education. Sidonius’ poem suggests what was said, the gist of which ran like this: ‘Avitus, it is no new honour to have me make a plea to you. At your command, enemies become peaceful and if war is in order, you produce it. For your sake, the Goths stay within their frontiers, and for your sake they will attack. Make them do it now.’

And Avitus went, bearing an urgent request to Theodoric from the Emperor Valentinian himself, which Jordanes turns into ringing words, delivered, we can assume, by the patrician in person:

Bravest of nations, it would be prudent of you to combine against Rome’s oppressor, who wishes to enslave the whole world, who needs no cause for war, but thinks that whatever he does is right. He grabs whatever he can reach, he takes pride in licence, he despises law both human and divine, he shows himself an enemy of all nature. Indeed, he who is the enemy of all deserves such hatred. I beg you to remember what you surely cannot forget: that the Huns do not win by fighting wars, in the results of which all share, but, more disturbingly, by treachery. To say nothing of ourselves, can your pride bear this to go unpunished? Being mighty in arms, heed your danger, and join hands with us.

Theodoric responded like a hero, declaiming his reply to Avitus in front of his chiefs:

Romans, you shall have what you desire. You have made Attila our foe as well. We will follow him wherever he summons us, and however puffed up he may be by divers victories over mighty peoples, the Goths know how to fight off these overbearing people. I call no war a burden, unless it lack good cause; for he on whom Dignity smiles fears no ill.

And so diplomacy and charm produced what no war could have achieved: a force that could confront the greatest barbarian army yet to threaten the empire. ‘Will future races and peoples ever believe this?’ commented Avitus’ son-in-law Sidonius later, eager to assert the primacy of negotiation over force. ‘A Roman’s letters annulled a barbarian’s conquests!’

For his hero’s words, Theodoric received a just reward. ‘The nobles shouted their acclaim, and the people gladly followed’ – no longer in defence but forward, to stop Attila in his tracks, with Theodoric leading ‘a countless host’, flanked by two of his sons, Thorismund and Theodoric, the four others being left to guard the home front. ‘O happy array,’ comments Jordanes, who was himself a Goth. ‘Sweet comradeship, to have the help and solace of those whom he chooses to share his dangers!’

And now, with little time to spare, Aetius sent messengers to every major city and every barbarian clan that had found new land and new life in Gaul. The greater threat of Attila’s Huns won new allies: the Swabians of Bayeux, Coutances and Clermont, the Franks of Rennes, the Sarmatians of Poitiers and Autun; Saxons, Liticians, Burgundians and other clans of yet greater obscurity; even some of the wild Bagaudae from Brittany. Many had their own insights into Attila’s progress, for traders brought news, and barbarian clans had friends and relatives fighting for Attila. Information leaked back and forth – so it was not too surprising that Aetius heard of Sangibanus’ offer to side with Attila in the coming siege of Orléans.

After the Roman and barbarian armies linked up, somewhere unrecorded, they raced the Huns to Orléans, a race that Aetius won by a whisker, a day perhaps, or more likely several days, with enough time to suck Sangibanus, the vacillating Alan chief, into his ranks and ‘cast up great earth-works around the city’.

Some say that the Huns beat them to it, which is unlikely, but it made a great story that continued the drama of Anianus, now back in the city after his frantic journey to Arles.

With the Huns at the very gates and the townspeople prostrate in prayer (of course, this being a Christian account), Anianus twice sends a trusty servant to the ramparts to see if help is coming. Each time he returns with a shrug. Anianus despatches a messenger to Aetius: ‘Go and say to my son Aetius, that if he does not come today, he will come too late.’ Anianus doubts himself and his faith. But then, thanks be, a storm brings relief from the assault for three days. It clears. Now it really, really is the end. The town prepares to surrender. They send a message to Attila to talk terms. Terms? No terms, he says, and sends back the terror-stricken envoys. The gates are open, the Huns already inside when there comes a cry from the battlements: a dust cloud, no bigger than a man’s hand, recalling the coming relief from drought in Elijah – the Roman cavalry, eagle standards flying, riding to the rescue. ‘It is the aid of God!’ exclaims the bishop, and the multitude repeats after him, ‘It is the aid of God!’ The bridge is retaken, the riverbanks cleared, the invaders driven from the city street by street. Attila signals the retreat. It was of course the very day – remembered as 14 June – that Anianus had given Aetius as the deadline.1

Such a close-run thing makes good Christian propaganda, and therefore is not much favoured by historians. But it may contain an element of truth, because Sidonius mentions it, and he was a contemporary. Writing to Anianus’ successor, Prosper, in about 478, Sidonius refers to a promise he had made the bishop to write ‘the whole tale of the siege and assault of Orléans when the city was attacked and breached, but never laid to ruins’. Whether or not the Huns were actually inside the walls when Aetius and Theodoric arrived, there can be no doubt that their arrival saved the city. The event would remain bound into the city’s prayers for over 1,000 years, St Agnan’s bones being revered until they were burned by Huguenots in 1562, at which point the city gave its affection to its even more famous saint, Joan of Arc, who had saved it from the English in another siege a century before.

In a sense, it didn’t matter whether Attila actually assaulted the city or not. His scouts would have told him of the city’s newly made defences and its coming reinforcements. There was no bypassing Aetius and the Goths; no chance of easy victory against this well-fortified city; no succour from Sangibanus, after all; nothing for it but a strategic withdrawal from the Loire’s forests to open ground, where he could fight on his own terms.

A week and 160 kilometres later, the Huns approached Troyes once again, the wagons trailing along the dusty roads, the foot soldiers forming a screen over the open countryside, the mounted archers ranging all around, and Aetius’ army hungry on the flanks, awaiting its moment.

There had to be a showdown, and the place was perhaps dictated by an encounter between two bands of outriders, pro-Roman Franks and pro-Hun Gepids leading the way in the retreat. They met and skirmished, possibly near the village of Châtres, which takes its name from the Latin castra, a camp. Châtres is on the Catalaunian Plains, the main town of which was Châlons – Duro-Catalaunum in Latin (‘The Enduring Place of the Catalauni’) – and the coming battle is often referred to by later historians as the Battle of Châlons. In fact, Châlons is 50 kilometres away to the north; Latin sources closer to the time refer to it as the Battle of Tricassis (Troyes), 25 kilometres to the south, which, they say, was fought near a place called something like Mauriacum (spellings vary), today’s Méry-sur-Seine, just 3 kilometres from Châtres.

Now it was time for a decision. Attila was on the defensive, and his army tiring. Which was better: to risk all in conflict, or continue the retreat to fight another day? But there might not be another day. An army retreating through hostile territory was like a sick herd, easy prey. Besides, to cut and run, even were it possible, was no way for a warrior to live, certainly no way for a leader to retain his authority. Was this perhaps the prophesied moment of national collapse, from which young Ernak would rise as the new leader? His shamans would know. Cattle were slaughtered, entrails examined, bones scraped, streaks of blood analysed – and disaster foretold. The shamans had some good news among the bad. An enemy commander would die. There was only one enemy commander who mattered in Attila’s eyes: his old friend and new enemy, Aetius. So Aetius was doomed. That was good, for ‘Attila deemed the death of Aetius a thing to be desired even at the cost of his own life, for Aetius stood in the way of his plans’. And how was Aetius to die if Attila avoided combat?

Attila had with him an immense throng of semi-reliable contingents from subordinate tribes, and his unwieldy, essential wagons full of supplies. But he also had the Hun weapon of choice, his mounted archers. If he could strike fast, as late as possible in the day, the onset of night could allow a chance to regroup and fight on the next day.

It was 21 June, or thereabouts, 1500 hours. The battle-ground was the open plain by Méry, which undulates away eastwards and northwards. The Huns would have to avoid being forced to the left, where they would be trapped by the triangle of waters where the Aube and Seine came together. They would fight as the Goths had at Adrianople, with a defensive laager of wagons acting as a supply base, and mounted archers launching their whirlwind assaults on the heavily armed opponents. The Huns put their backs to the river, and faced the pursuing Roman armies as they spread out over the plain. Attila placed himself at the centre, his main allies – Valamir with his Ostrogoths and Ardaric with his Gepids – to left and right, and a dozen tribal leaders ranging beyond waiting for his signal.

On the Roman side, Aetius and his troops took one wing, Theodoric and his Visigoths the other, with the unreliable Sangibanus in the middle.

Across the gentle undulations of the plain, all of this would have been in full view of both sides, and each would have seen the strategy of the other. Attila would hope his archers would break through the Roman centre; Aetius would hope his two strong wings could sweep in behind the archers and cut them off from their supply wagons.

Just nearby the plain rose in one of its slight billows, offering an advantage, which perhaps Attila had not spotted soon enough. When he did, and ordered a troop of cavalry to seize it, Aetius was ready. Aetius, either by chance or by shrewd planning, was closer. The Visigoths, with cavalry commanded by Theodoric’s eldest son Thorismund, reached the summit first, forcing the Huns into a hasty retreat from the lower slopes.

First round to Aetius. There was nothing for it but a frontal assault. Attila regrouped, and addressed his troops, in a brief speech (in Hunnish, of course) that Jordanes, a Goth, quotes in Latin as if verbatim. It’s fair to conclude the king said something, and perhaps the words were indeed remembered and found their way into folklore; but Jordanes was writing a century later, when the Huns were long gone, so what Attila actually said is anyone’s guess. If Attila recalls Henry V here, it is Shakespeare’s version, not the real thing. Here’s the gist:

After you have conquered so many peoples, I would deem it foolish – nay, ignorant – of me as your king to goad you with words. What else are you used to but fighting? And what is sweeter for brave men than to seek vengeance personally? Despise this union of discordant races! Look at them as they gather in line with their shields locked, checked not even by wounds but by the dust of battle. On then to the fray! Let courage rise and fury explode! Now show your cunning, Huns, your deeds of arms. Why should Heaven have made the Huns victorious over so many, if not to prepare them for the joy of this conflict? Who else revealed to our forefathers the way through the Maeotic marshes, who else made armed men yield to men as yet unarmed? I shall hurl the first spear. If any stand at rest while Attila fights, that man is dead.

The words cannot be genuine, of course. Jordanes was keen to capture something of the fight-to-the-death spirit that has infused warriors down the ages: the Sioux’s battle cry ‘Today is a good day to die!’, Horatius in Macaulay’s Victorian epic (‘How can man die better than by facing fearful odds?’), and the ageing Anglo-Saxon who urged his fellows on against the Vikings at the Battle of Maldon in 991:

Courage shall grow keener, clearer the will,
The heart fiercer as our heart faileth.

And the battle itself? Jordanes rose to the occasion, with grand phrases that echo in the evocations of many battles in many languages. In translation, it even falls easily into free verse:

Hand to hand they clashed, in battle fierce,

Confused, prodigious, unrelenting,

A fight unequalled in accounts of yore.

Such deeds were done! Heroes who missed this marvel

Could never hope to see its like again.

A few telling details with the smack of truth survived the passage of time, pickled by folklore. A stream ran through the plain, ‘if we may believe our elders’, that overflowed with blood, so that parched warriors slaked their thirst with the outpourings of their own wounds. Old Theodoric was thrown and vanished in the mêlée, trampled to death by his own Visigoths or (as some said) slain by the spear of Andag, an Ostrogoth.2

Dusk was falling, on the evening of what could have been the year’s longest day. The whirlwind tactics of the Hun archers had not had enough impact on the Roman and Visigothic lines, which forced their way forward, breaking the Hun mounted formation, slashing their way into the rear lines protecting the wagons. Surrounded by his personal guard, Attila pulled back through the heaving lines to the circle of wagons that formed a wheeled fortress in the rear. Hard behind him, through the gap, came Thorismund, who got lost in the gloom and thought himself back at his own wagons, until a blow on the head knocked him off his horse. He would have died like his father, if one of his men had not hauled him to safety.

With the coming of night, the chaos stilled. Troops found comrades and settled into scattered camps. The night was fine: if it had rained, Jordanes would surely have mentioned the fact. But there were, I think, clouds, because it would otherwise have been a peculiarly dramatic sight. It would have been lit by a half-moon, as we know from the tables of lunar phases. Consult Herman Goldstine’s New and Full Moons 1001 BC to AD 1651,3 and you learn that the new moon had fallen on 15 June, a week before the battle. So imagine a balmy summer night, darkened by cloud, ghostly figures, the snorts of horses, the clank and creak of armour, the groans of the wounded. Men mounted and on foot wandered in search of comrades, unable to tell friend from foe unless they spoke. Aetius himself was lost among the Huns, unnoticed by them, until his horse, stumbling over corpses, came to a Goth encampment and delivered him to safety behind their wall of shields, and perhaps to a couple of hours’ sleep for the rest of the short night.


There is something else that Jordanes does not mention. The early-morning twilight should have witnessed a wonderful sight – Halley’s Comet rising in the north-east, tail first, like a searchlight scanning the sky ahead. It was there all right, as astronomers have known since the orbit of Halley’s Comet was accurately calculated in the mid-nineteenth century. Since then calculations have been refined.4 The comet was noted by Chinese astronomers on 9 or 10 June, and became visible in Europe by 18 June. A vision like this would have imprinted itself on the minds of warriors as sharply as an arrowpoint, for nothing would more forcefully have marked the significance of the occasion. Many other sightings did. In their cuneiform records, Babylonian astrologers remarked that the comet’s appearance in 164 BC and 87 BC coincided with the death of kings. Embroiderers stitched it into the Bayeux Tapestry to record its appearance when William the Conqueror invaded England in 1066. In the early fourteenth century, Giotto painted its 1301 return into his Adoration of the Magi. Surely, if it had been seen, men would have marvelled, and written, and sung.

They didn’t. The only person to mention the comet was the Spanish bishop and chronicler Hydatius, and that was only in passing. Of the battle itself being marked by an event of astronomical significance – nothing.

It is dangerous to draw conclusions from the absence of evidence, but this absence, combined with the other absences of storm and moon, strongly suggest that the day after the battle dawned dry, drab and cloudy. If so, imagine the surviving Romans staring over their shields at a scene of dusty desolation – corpses everywhere, riderless horses grazing, the Huns sheltered in silence by their wagons, the course of the Aube marked by a line of trees across the treeless plains rolling away into grey twilight.

Stalemate – with the advantage to the Romans, for they were on home ground of a sort, could keep supplies coming, and could keep the Huns penned up until starvation drove them out. It would take time. Attila showed no sign of giving up, inspiring a Homeric image from Jordanes. ‘He was like a lion pierced by hunting spears, who paces to and fro before the mouth of his den and dares not spring, but ceases not to terrify the neighbourhood by his roaring. Even so this warlike king at bay terrified his conquerors.’ The Romans and Goths re-formed, closer, and began their siege, forcing the Huns to keep their heads down with a steady rain of arrows.

Attila saw a possible end. His shamans had predicted the death of a commander, who might turn out to be not Aetius, but Attila himself. He prepared for a hero’s death by immolation, as if about to enter a Hunnish version of Valhalla, the abode of slain warriors. He ordered a funeral pyre of saddles – an indication, by the way, that the Huns had wooden saddles, Mongol-style, not leather ones – ready for an overwhelming Roman assault. They would never take him alive, never have the satisfaction of killing him or seeing him die of wounds.

Meanwhile, the Visigoths had been surprised not to find their king leading the besiegers, just when victory seemed certain. They looked for and found him, a corpse among a pile of corpses. As the siege continued, they raised the body on a bier and, led by Thorismund and his brother, carried him off for a battlefield burial, with ritual laments – dissonant cries, as Jordanes calls them. It seems they made their slow procession in full view of the Huns, to display their pride in their fallen chief. ‘It was a death indeed, but the Huns are witness that it was a glorious one.’

Jordanes says that 165,000 died in the course of the two-day battle, and another 15,000 in the Frank–Gepid skirmish the night before: 180,000 dead. It is a ludicrous number, at a time when towns counted their populations in the low thousands. The countryside could not have supplied food enough to sustain such numbers. No-one can know how many actually did die, but if the losses had been one-tenth Jordanes’ numbers they would still have been massive. From armies that may have numbered 25,000 each, perhaps one-third died: some 15,000 at a guess; and among them, as the shamans had predicted, a commander, though the two main protagonists, Aetius and Attila, had been spared to fight another day.

Trying to identify the site of the battle is, as Maenchen-Helfen snootily puts it, ‘a favourite pastime of local historians and retired colonels’, as if the matter were beneath the notice of serious academics. But this was a turning point in European history. It matters, if only because, were it to be found, archaeologists could, perhaps, find some evidence of what really happened.

In August 1842 a workman was quarrying sand some 400 metres east of the village of Pouan, 30 kilometres north of Troyes, when he found about a metre down a skeleton, lying on its back in a grave apparently dug so hastily that it was not even flat. The skeleton lay on its back in a gentle curve, as if in a deckchair. Alongside were two rusty sword blades, some gold ornaments and a ring engraved with four enigmatic letters, HEVA. Jean-Baptiste Buttat might have kept his finds a secret, or disposed of them privately. Luckily, he sold the two sword blades to the Troyes museum, even though it could not afford Buttat’s full asking price, and the decorations to a local jeweller, who in 1858 sold them to Napoleon III. The regional government then offered the swords to the emperor, so that the treasure could be all together. Napoleon III saw the wisdom of the offer, but then, in a fit of generosity, turned it on its head. ‘National antiquities belong where they were discovered,’ he wrote, and sent the jewels to join the swords, re-creating the original find in Troyes’ museum. There, in the excavated Roman basement, the Treasure of Pouan has pride of place.

Actually, there’s not much to it – the two swords; a torque, or neckring; a bracelet; two buckles and some decorative plaques; the ring. These few items were made to assert wealth and dignity. The settings and the sword handles are covered in gold leaf, the jewels are garnets. The larger sword, a double-edged blade almost a metre long, is of three pieces of steel turned, hammered and welded in the technique known as Damascene. Yet it is light enough to be used in one hand. Its pommel is of a unique shape, an oval piece of wood inlaid with garnets. The shorter sword is a single-edged weapon known as a scramasax.

In 1860 a local antiquarian, Achille Peigné-Delacourt, published his conclusions about the treasure. ‘A chance discovery may have unexpected consequences,’ he begins, ‘and may furnish the means to resolve long disputed historical questions.’ This is a case in point. Perhaps – Peigné-Delacourt quotes an eminent historian, a certain Monsieur Camut-Chardon – these were the remains of a warrior who, overtaken by some disaster, had fallen into the river, the course of which had subsequently changed? No, replies Peigné-Delacourt, that cannot be, because the soil in which the items were found long pre-dates the appearance of man on earth. M. Camut-Chardon had reported another bolder hypothesis, only to reject it. Peigné-Delacourt picks it up and runs with it: ‘I am going to declare that I am one of the bold who attribute the skeleton and ornaments found at Pouan to Theodoric, king of the Visigoths, who was killed fighting Attila in 451.

‘This conclusion impels us to fix the battle-ground to the spot where these remains were recovered.’

The geography of the place seemed to fit well with Jordanes’ account. Roman roads bypassed and converged on Troyes. One road from Orléans, now vanished, led past Troyes 25 kilometres to the northwest, through Châtres (originally castra, the camp). It was here that the Franks and Gepids could have skirmished. A road ran north from Troyes, straight as an arrow, and so it remains today, the N77, still running as the Romans built it over a plain as big as an ocean. It’s all agribusiness now, a patchwork of pastel browns and greens and yellows, but 1,500 years ago its chalky grasslands would have been terrific galloping country. A ten-minute drive brings you to Voué, which in Roman times was Vadum. It is on a stream, the Barbuise, with low, firm banks, no obstacle at all to a galloping horse, just a few centimetres deep, which runs off to your left to Pouan, with the Aube just beyond. The ground rises gently to the east of Pouan. Here, suggests Peigné-Delacourt, was where the Romans gathered, blocking the Huns from crossing the river.

I had no great hopes that Pouan would offer any revelations. On the map, it looks to be just one among the villages loosely scattered across the Catalaunian Plains north of Troyes. I went there early one spring morning, expecting drabness and insignificance, and was charmed. The Barbuise, flowing in over flat chalky fields and past trees speckled with balls of mistletoe, trickles right through the village, past a half-timbered mill and a solid grey church and houses with exposed beams. There is a public tennis court. Pouan is a comfortable dormitory for commuters to Troyes – or so I imagined, because there was no-one around to ask. It was time for breakfast. There seemed to be no square, no central shopping area, no focus to the village’s bourgeois rambling. Ah, a bakery. It had tables, and there was a woman setting out chairs, and it advertised coffee. No, I was too early. All I could hope for was information. I hoped I did not derange her, but could she tell me – did people round these parts know about Attila? She looked politely puzzled. ‘Attila le Hun,’ I explained. ‘The great battle, near here, sixteen hundred years ago. Romans and Huns. And the treasure . . .?’

Pardon, m’sieur, je ne sais rien. Have you tried the mairie?’

Well, I couldn’t wait for the town hall to open. That was that. I turned the car, paused to consider a lane leading along the Barbuise, backed up beside a half-timbered house to check my map, and saw a woman hurrying towards me.

‘You want to know about Attila, m’sieur?’ She was panting after her run from the bakery. My strange question had become a matter for instant gossip. ‘My husband knows about Attila. Excuse me, my child, the bus, but this is our house, go and ask him.’

There was an entrance into a courtyard, the house on one side, a barn on the other – guarded, to my surprise, by a lion made of white stone. From the barn’s shadowy interior stepped a slim figure in jeans and a green sweater – ‘Raynard Jenneret. Sculpteur’, as a sign on the barn proclaimed. We explained ourselves to each other. Jenneret mostly works metal into angular creations that look like toys, or science-fiction machines, or tribal totems, but the lion suggested more traditional interests. He likes history. Attila and Aetius were old acquaintances of his. He knew all about the treasure, and had himself dug around the site in the hopes of finding more. So he could take me there? He was delighted. We drove down a track, bumping past a field of winter wheat to our right which rose like a soft billow in this ocean-plain to a cross, an odd thing to mark the middle of a field. To our left, the slope levelled into an ancient flood plain, across which the Aube wound out of sight a kilometre away. Now I saw what gave Pouan its advantage. As well as having its own charming little river, it stood a crucial metre or two clear of the Aube’s flood plain. Once, this sloping wheatfield had been a gentle riverbank, which accounted for its economic significance as a source of sand. Builders had always used it, Jenneret said; still do, as some yellow mounds further along the slope revealed. That also explained the cross – 20 years before, a sablier had been quarrying when the sand fell in and suffocated him. Right there, in waste ground coarse with grass clumps and straggly dogwood, was where the treasure had been found. Oh, no doubt that it was Theodoric’s burial, and this was where Attila fought Aetius. Everyone knew that.

This, I could well believe, was the setting for a scene imagined by Peigné-Delacourt, a conspiracy theory of ambition, intrigue and murder. In his book, he wonders if Thorismund, eager to claim the throne over his brothers, might have had an interest in finding a corpse, any corpse, that could be identified, rightly or wrongly, as his father’s, and buried quickly, with a show of grief and instant acclamation for Thorismund as king. And then, given the uncertainty of the battle’s outcome and the knowledge of where the tomb was, would it be likely that those who conducted the burial would be allowed to live? It all sounds a bit over the top, given that the burial would have been so quick, almost in the heat of battle, with no burial mound to mark the spot. But it is not entirely the fruit of his imagination, because there have been other finds in the area of Pouan and its neighbour Villette, a couple of kilometres to the east – two small bronze vases, a cup, a gilded bronze ewer, three blades, horse-trappings: all sustaining the idea – for Jenneret, the certainty – that this was the battle-ground, and this the site of Theodoric’s burial.

French scholars tend to agree. Others, on the other hand, point out similarities with the artefacts of other cultures in Russia or across the Danube, undermining any Visigothic links. Estimated dates range from the third to the seventh century. It is all infuriatingly vague, though when they try for greater accuracy archaeologists are drawn back to Peigné-Delacourt’s suggestion, to the mid-fifth century, to a rich Goth, and, in the end, to Theodoric.

Of course, the letters HEVA engraved on the ring would settle it, if only anyone had a clue what they meant. The ring and the script are Roman. Scholars agree that it must be sheer coincidence that Heva is a common Latin spelling for Eve, unless we adopt the romantic idea that this noble had the ring engraved in honour of some Roman mistress. Scholars of Gothic have thrown up several possibilities, circling around heiv, ‘house’ or ‘family’, as in heiva-franja, ‘head of a household’, possibly connected to the Old High German, hefjan, to raise or educate. Old Saxon has hiwa, a husband. Or it means ‘Strike!’, the imperative of heven, to strike. There is no sense to be found in any Gothic or Germanic solution. Latin, though, might work. The inscription is, after all, in fine Latin lettering, which justifies a little speculation. Suppose this was a royal ring, and engraved accordingly: what might Theodoric have wished it to record? Remember that he aspired to things Roman. He was a friend of one of Gaul’s most eminent scholars and politicians, Avitus. He knew that Rome proclaimed its authority with four letters: SPQR, senatus populusque romanus, the Roman Senate and People. I like to think that HEVA is a four-letter phrase, recalled by initials. But this is not a ring of royal authority, because it was not taken from him in death. It’s personal, as personal as his sword. Perhaps he wished to state his own claim not in terms of government, but of personal achievement. HIC EST (‘This is’) fits; but ‘This is’ who, or what? We have several possible initial As: Aetius, Avitus, Aquitania. Theodoric had conquered Aquitaine. How about HIC EST VICTOR AQUITANIAE – ‘This is the Victor of Aquitaine’? Or perhaps he liked to look forward to ever greater success – HIC EST VICTORIAE ANULUS, ‘This is the Ring of Victory’? A totally different possibility was suggested to me by David Howlett, editor of the Oxford University Press’s Dictionary of Medieval Latin. An inscription on an Anglo-Saxon lead pendant, found in the village of Weasenham All Saints in Norfolk, suggests that some in Europe shared with Jews a mystical interest in the names of God.5 In that case, perhaps the initials stand for Ha’shem Elohim V’ Adonai – The Name of God is ‘Lord’. How odd if this were so. A Hebrew phrase recalled in neat Roman letters? But why, and whence? The questions fire the imagination – was this a war trophy, a gift or purchase from a Romano-Jewish community, a talisman with a meaning hidden from its owner, who looked on it as a Tolkeinian Ring of Power? Well, this is all wishful thinking. But it keeps open the hope that Raynard Jenneret, or some future sablier, will stumble on a bit of armour or a coin which will tell us once and for all, as clearly as if incised in a fine Roman typeface, that Theodoric was here, and so therefore HIC ERAT ATTILA.

Thorismund now wanted to finish the job. But Aetius, older and wiser, had a longer-term strategy in mind, which involved doing something quite astonishing.

He decided to let the Huns off the hook.

It takes some effort and some tortuous logic to see why. The Visigoths were Rome’s traditional enemy, drawn into alliance only to face the great danger posed by Attila. If Attila were now overwhelmed and wiped off the face of the empire, that would leave the Visigoths in a position of some strength, and as much of a threat as the Huns had been – more, in fact, because Aetius knew the Huns of old and thought he could deal with them again. He knew the Visigoths as well, and did not trust them, whatever Avitus claimed about their ambitions to be considered civilized. Aetius was getting on. He was set in his ways, and was certain the Visigoths would remain a threat; as always in the past, he would need the help of the Huns to restrain them. Better an uncertain balance of power now than the risk of total collapse later. Attila had asked only for half the empire; the Visigoths would want the lot.

Of course, he couldn’t tell Thorismund all that. Instead, he reminded the Visigoth prince of his brothers at home. Once they knew of their father’s death, who knew what disputes over the succession might break out, if Thorismund, the eldest, were not around to claim the throne? Better for him to swallow his anger, break off the engagement and head for home to secure the succession. He was not to worry – the Romans would handle the Huns from now on. He made a similar argument to his Frankish allies. The surviving Huns would be on their way soon, cutting through or round the Ardennes, which would put them in a good position to extend their control over the area, unless the Franks were strong enough to put them off. Better for the Franks as well to head home.

Both agreed. And so, to the astonishment of the Huns, the rain of arrows ceased, the Visigoths filed away south-west on the 350-kilometre journey back to Toulouse, the Franks left for Belgium, and silence fell. Attila’s troops, in their laager of wagons, wondered what it meant. They knew about retreats like this, for their archers had used similar tactics many times in the last century. It had to be a trick. They sat tight.

‘But when a long silence followed the absence of the foe, the spirit of the mighty king was aroused at the thought of victory, and his mind turned to the old oracles of his destiny.’ A commander had died; he, Attila, was therefore destined to live. But there was no point in fighting on. Granted safe passage, the Hun wagons began to roll away, along the roads past Troyes to the Moselle, the Rhine and distant Hungary.

It is just possible that Lupus had something to do with Attila’s escape. All this while, he had been hostage and guide, whether forced or voluntary. Perhaps, working for his own survival and that of his town, he had advised on the battle site. Now, having survived, he would advise how best to retreat, and get the battered Huns away from Troyes as fast as possible. If so, it worked; though not to Lupus’ advantage, if there is any truth in his life-story. After seeing Attila safely back to the Rhine, he was allowed to return, as promised – to a less than rapturous reception.

He received from his people only rejection for all the benefits he had brought them; for instead of being welcomed by the citizens, as he deserved for having delivered them from the loss not only of their livelihood but even their lives, seeing as how he had led Attila to the Rhine, he received defiance and discontentment as if he had been at one with him, on account of which the saint withdrew to Mt Lassoir, near Châtillon-sur-Seine.

Then, penitence done, he returned to Troyes to live for another 25 years, dying forgiven, famous and much honoured, and in due course canonized as St Loup, memorialized in the names of dozens of towns, peaks and churches all across France.

Gaul was saved.

And Attila lived to fight another day.

1 Not exactly. The actual date he mentioned was viii kal. julii, i.e. 1 July minus eight days: 23 June.

2 . . . and thus a distant kin of his Visigothic victim. His claim was not believed by enough people to turn him from footnote into hero.

3 American Philosophical Society, Philadelphia, 1973.

4 For further details, see Gary Kronk, Cometography, vol. 1 (Cambridge, 1999).

5 The find is described by Elisabeth Okasha and Susan Youngs, ‘A Late Saxon Inscribed Pendant from Norfolk’, Anglo-Saxon England, vol. 32, Dec. 2004. The suggested interpretation is Howlett’s.

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