Theodoric, King of the Visigoths, was among those forces who gathered and died at the Battle of the Catalaunian Fields. Illustration by Angus McBride, copyright Angus McBride, all rights reserved. Image provided here as fair use for educational purposes.
In the summer of 451 A.D., Aetius (credited by historians for helping to break the Huns’ siege of Orleans) had assembled a military force to combat Attila’s further advance. Since the Roman army of the 5th century was not what it had once been, Aetius needed outside help.
Edward Gibbon describes a successful effort to recruit Theodoric, King of the Visigoths (a former Roman enemy), who had an independent kingdom in Aquitaine (with his capital located in the southern French town of Toulouse):
Theodoric yielded to the evidence of truth, adopted the measure at once the most prudent and the most honorable, and declared that as the faithful ally of Aetius and the Romans he was ready to expose his life and kingdom for the common safety of Gaul.
Here you stand after conquering mighty nations and subduing the world...It is a right of nature to glut the soul with vengeance. Let us then attack the foe eagerly, for they are ever the bolder who make the attack.
Both leaders were fighting with international forces. (Edward Gibbon notes that “nations from the Volga to the Atlantic were assembled on the plain of Châlons.”)
Despise this union of discordant races. To defend oneself by alliance is proof of cowardice...Attack the Alans, smite the Visigoths. Seek swift victory in that spot where the battle rages, for when the sinews are cut the limbs soon relax, nor can a body stand when you have taken away the bones. Let your courage rise and your own fury burst forth.
Fury, it is said, did indeed burst forth.
Hand to hand they clashed in battle, and the fight grew fierce, confused, monstrous, unrelenting---a fight whose like no ancient time has ever recorded...For if we may believe our elders a brook flowing between low banks through the plain was greatly increased by blood from the wounds of the slain. Those whose wounds drove them to slake their parching thirst drank water mingled with gore. In their wretched plight they were forced to drink what they thought was the blood they had poured out from their own wounds.
Theodoric was killed on the battlefield. Attila, surrounded and concerned he might be captured, ordered that his own funeral pyre be prepared. According to Jordanes:
He was determined to cast himself into the flames, that none might have the joy of wounding him and that the lord of so many races might not fall into the hands of his foes.
But Attila, under siege, walked away from defeat when Aetius decided not to take advantage of his upper-hand position.
Perhaps wishing to maintain the balance of power within the remnants of the western empire, Aetius convinced Theodoric’s son (Torismond) that he should attend to matters at home. When Torismond and his Visigoths withdrew, the Battle of the Catalaunian Plains was effectively over.
Attila was still alive, unlike so many others.
[O]wing to dissensions between the Romans and Goths he [Attila] was allowed to escape to his home land, and in this most famous war of the bravest tribes, 160,000 men are said to have been slain on both sides.
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