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Attila the Hun in Australia

In my last blog, I referred to my experience of having visions of the battle of Sphacteria (fought in Greece between Athens and Sparta in 425 BC) whist standing on a beach in 2021 Australia. Well, something similar has happened again, this time in the depths of rural Australia, on the edge of the outback; as unexpected a place to find insights into ancient warfare as you’ll find. I don’t know if it’s my mind or the stage in life I am at (whatever that means!), but there, I was struck with an insight into the cavalry armies of Attila the Hun and how they must have operated. The fact this happened in rural Australia (which is admittedly very flat, but it is certainly not the kind of steppe terrain the Huns would have roamed), made it all the more surprising. And, the most famous battle of the Huns was fought on June 20th, 451 – the battle of the Catalaunian Plains (or Catalaunian Fields, Campus Mauriacus, Châlons, Troyes, Maurica). I realised that my revelation occurred only two weeks before the 1,570th anniversary of the battle (hence I publish this on the 20th of June, at least in Australia).


In one of my other lives, I run an opera education programme for High School students (ages 12-17) called Opera Express where participants write their own opera from scratch over four days and then perform it. The year that was Covid-19, put any such opera projects on hold so it was with great joy that I accepted an invitation to deliver a project in Outback New South Wales, in the mining town of Cobar, some 700 km west of Sydney. This would also be the furthest west in Australia I had ever travelled (I have lived here 20 years and have not yet made it to the ‘red centre’ or the culturally significant site of Uluru). Because of that fact, I decided that this project would be a great opportunity to take my family with me (this involved taking them out of school for a week during term time – it also saw me proofing an edition of Ancient History Magazine on the move and in the most remarkable of places). As I had my family with me, I found myself breaking the drive from Sydney to Cobar at the inland city of Dubbo. One of the attractions of Dubbo is the Taronga Western Plains Zoo which we visited before heading to Cobar itself.

The zoo sprawls around 5km of roads with wide open spaces between enclosures. You can drive around in your own vehicle or you can hire an electric golf-buggy; we chose the latter. We drove past rhinos, cheetahs, elephants, giraffes, and zebras. Coming into the last part of the zoo, however, we came to an enclosure of Takhi. I didn’t recognize the name, but, as I drove closer, one of the information boards had their alternate name, Przewalski’s Horse. That name I did recognise.  This was the horse of the central steppes of Asia (also known as the Mongolian wild horse and Dzungarian horse). By the 1970s, this remarkable breed of horse were nigh on extinct in the wild (only twelve were left) but they were preserved in the breeding programmes of several zoos (including in Australia) and they have been reintroduced to their natural habitat since the 1990s. It was probably also this breed of horse that Attila’s Huns would have ridden in their vast marauding armies who pressured the Goths and others westwards, forcing them to cross the Danube and Rhine into the Roman Empire in the late 4th century. The Huns themselves then crossed en masse into the empire in the 5th century and caused havoc for both Eastern and Western Empires until Attila’s death in 453. Most famously, Attila was ‘defeated’ at the battle of the Catalaunian Plains in 451 (more on why I put defeated in inverted commas below). Przewalski’s Horse was also the breed used by the Mongol armies of Genghis Khan and his successors who carved a vast empire in the 13th and 14th centuries. If I had had my medieval warfare hat on, I might have had visions of Mongol invasions, but I have been looking into the Attila and the Huns, so it was Huns I saw.

How surprising therefore, to see these Hunnic horses in a zoo in Australia (the zoo has a herd of eighteen). We got to their enclosure at around 3pm – and I don’t know why, but at that moment several of the horses chose to chase one another galloping around their enclosure. And that was when revelation struck.


In the 440s and 450s, the mainly cavalry armies of the Huns commanded by their kings Attila and his brother Bleda, and then from 444 by Attila alone, seemed unstoppable. Their vast numbers of cavalry outnumbered the Roman armies sent against them and they inflicted defeat after defeat on a variety of Roman commanders. Attila and his brother became kings in 430/434 and probably made agreements with the Eastern Roman Empire in 435 to be paid a tribute to leave the empire alone. That tribute remained unpaid, however, and in the early 440s, the Huns invaded across the Danube and defeated armies and took cities in both the western and eastern halves of the Roman Empire. The sources vary, telling us they took anything from several to hundreds of cities. These Huns were not just able to defeat armies (such as at the Utus in 447 – and in several other battles which leave little trace in the sources), but they also took cities – like Naissus in 442. Unlike the Goths in the 370s, the Huns could besiege and take cities – in 452 they sacked Mediolanum and Aquileia and other cities in Italy’s north. Priscus and Jordanes give us details of their siege techniques (archery platforms, rams, and ladders) and, although some modern scholars have doubted their accounts, they can’t deny that the cities fell. Several of the cities had seemingly impregnable walls so the Huns must have had some methods to get over, through, or by, those defences. Luckily for the Eastern Empire, Attila failed to take Constantinople itself even though he put it under siege. The Emperor Theodosius II was forced to pay a huge indemnity (6,000 pounds (2,700 kilograms) of gold) to make the Huns leave the empire and yearly tribute was again promised. The Huns' next target was the West.

Here is not the place to go into Attila’s reasons for attacking the West – questions remain around the emperor Valentinian III’s sister Honoria’s offer of marriage to him, or of Attila behaving as a ‘friend to the Romans’ and attacking the Roman enemies of the various Gothic tribes, or of intervening in Frankish succession. There may even have been a condition to leave the East alone under the terms of the payment in the late 440s and hence the Huns turned their attention westwards. Again, we get varying accounts. And once again, details of just how many cities Attila sacked after crossing into what had been the Roman provinces of Germania and Gallia are unclear. Several cities (like Paris) may have later built stories about how they had suffered (or survived) Attila’s invasion – usually with miraculous intervention (by Saint Genevieve in the case of Paris). The reasons for those stories are the idea that Attila was later turned away from Italy in 452 by the (divine) intervention of Pope Leo I. The prominent politicians who accompanied Leo on the embassy to Attila at the River Po near Mantua are often ignored in the sources. These were the praefectus Trigetius, and the consul of 450, Gennadius Avienus – so the embassy from Valentinian III was a political (rather than religious) intervention and it probably arranged for Attila to be paid a sum of gold to leave Italy, just as he had been earlier in the East at least twice. Divine intervention had nothing to do with it – but that was not the picture the sources painted (so any trace of a payment to Attila in 452 is missing from the sources). In 451, however, Attila cut a swathe way across Gaul towards Aurelianum (modern Orléans).


The Roman supreme commander, the comes et magister ultriusque militia, Flavius Aëtius, forged an (unlikely) alliance to oppose Attila. Marching with men from Italy he also enlisted the kingdoms of Gaul as allies. Comprising the Visigoths (only recently enemies of Rome), and other tribes including the Alan king Sangiban (or Sambida, who is accused is some sources of collusion with the Huns). Jordanes (Getica 191) lists the Roman allies as Franks, Sarmatians, Armoricans, Liticians, Burgundians, Saxons, Riparians, and Olibrones (former Roman soldiers). Added to these were the Alans, the Visigoths, and the troops of Aëtius’ Gallic and Italian commands. This alliance is presented as being a desperate, last-minute, measure but probably took much more time to organise (and involved other diplomats such as Eparchius Avitus (who had also been a military commander against the Huns until retirement in 440)). It seems clear that Attila’s intention to invade the west had been known for some time, perhaps even a couple of years in advance.


In the sources, it is unclear if Attila turned away from Orléans before he breached the walls or after he had (but before he had the chance to plunder the city). The Romano-Visigoth alliance was on its way and Attila withdrew towards the east – probably into the modern Champagne-Ardenne region of northeastern France. He may have approached Tricasses, (modern Troyes) on the River Seine. Perhaps as he prepared to cross the river by the bridge there, he was met by the pursuing forces of Aëtius. Other sources give the location as close to Metz, or the Mauriac plain, even on the Loire (two sources name the Danube). Modern scholars have argued incessantly over their favoured location for the battle: north, east, or west of Troyes. The ancient town of Catalaunum is now Châlons-en-Champagne on the River Marne and gives the battle its most common name (the battle of Châlons or the Catalaunian Plains).


Wherever the battle was fought, the forces of Aëtius and the Visigothic King Theodoric met and stopped the cavalry army of Attila. It stands to reason that Aëtius and Theodoric used their cavalry too, supported by infantry although the accounts we have can be seen as largely a cavalry encounter, and perhaps the reasons for the alliance were to increase the numbers of cavalry facing the Huns.

The sources paint the battle of the Catalaunian Plains as a Roman and allied victory and tell us that Attila suffered huge, incalculable, losses. He was, however, still able to invade and devastate northern Italy in 452 and take more cities, so his losses cannot have been so great. What is more, no army stood against him in 452 (some sources tell us that an army was sent from the East by the new emperor Marcian, but it is unclear if this force actually opposed Attila). So, at best, Catalauniuan Plains seems to have been a bloody and hard-fought draw – Aëtius' forces suffered huge losses too and in 452 what should have been a confident Western Roman army (if it had defeated Attila the year before) was nowhere to be seen. The battle then was most probably a close-run thing (King Theodoric would lose his life, probably riding to support Thorismund, his son and heir, who fought next to Aëtius – Theodoric was cut down by Attila’s allies, the Ostrogoths (although an alternate tradition has him fall from his horse)).


Our picture of Hun cavalry tactics come, not from any contemporary 5th century source, but from the picture in Ammianus Marcellinus in the late 4th century and in Zosimus, using another 4th century contemporary, Eunapius of Sardis. Writing in the 390s, Ammianus tells us that the Huns virtually lived on horseback (31.2.6) and that they entered battle in wedge-shaped (cuneus) formations and divided suddenly and attacked rapidly, shooting missiles – arrows and javelins – as well as using cloth plaited into nooses (31.2.8–9). The ‘wedge’ here may simply have meant irregular groups rather than a specific formation. The Huns grew up in the saddle; all men were warriors and they delighted in danger and war (Ammianus 31.2.21–22). Zosimus (4.20.4) also mentions Hunnic tactics: wheeling, charging, retreating in good time, and shooting from their horses. Outnumbered, the Roman forces stood no chance. We get the number of 500,000 men for Attila’s army (Jordanes Getica 182) but almost no modern author accepts that number. Nonetheless, we should imagine that the Huns usually outnumbered their Roman enemies by some margin.

At the Catalaunian Plains, however, two factors played into the Romans’ favour – the numbers in the alliance (we are given the vast number of 300,000 casualties – no one believes that number either). The alliance, as we noted, may have been for the purpose of ensuring the usual numerical discrepancy was somewhat mitigated and, especially in cavalry, the Romans had enough men to cope with the Huns' numbers. The other factor in the Romans favour during the battle seems to have been that the crux of the contest was fought over a ridge – perhaps the Les Maures Ridge, identified as that at Montgueux (although there are several candidates for the battlefield – most involve a plain as the battle’s name suggests, but few involve a ridge). A ridge was not the place for a cavalry battle, but that is where it was fought. In Jordanes’ account (Getica 197, 201), the battle took place as a race for the ridge – the Romans and Visigoths commanded by Thorismund, reached the crest before the Huns could. This was perhaps because the Huns had a steeper slope to ascend or because their horses were slower than the Roman and Visigothic mounts. This may sound controversial but it is clear from Jordanes (our best source for the battle) that this was explicitly the case: ‘Attila sent his men to take the summit of the mountain, but was outstripped by Thorismund and Aëtius, who in their effort to gain the top of the hill, reached higher ground and through this advantage of position easily routed the Huns as the came up.’ And this brings us back to me sitting dumbstruck in an electric golf-cart at Dubbo zoo watching Takhi run.


The horses of the Huns were hardy and versatile and able to travel huge distances with immense stamina over all kinds of terrain. They are a stockier breed than other horses too, with a characteristic short mane and tail. What they were not, however, was fast (at least in comparison with Roman cavalry mounts). This perhaps explains the Hunnic loss in the race for the crest of the ridge at the battle of the Catalaunian Plains. In their other, earlier, battles, overwhelming numbers and missile fire overcame their outnumbered opponents (and armies which were also, predominately, infantry with much lower proportions of cavalry units). Earlier battles probably also did not involve the occupation of a ridge (the Utus was fought at a river crossing). In 451, Aetius seems to have mustered enough Roman and allied troops (and especially cavalry) to negate those numbers.


Watching the Takhi run, they were relatively erect, not low in the form of galloping Arabian breeds, more akin to those horses with which the Romans would have been equipped. Seeing the Takhi gallop around their enclosure, I suddenly saw Hun horsemen being beaten to the crest at Montgueux and then fighting furiously against their Roman opponents for most of the day of June 20th. Ammianus told us that the Huns fought mounted even against infantry but there, they fought their fellow mounted men of the Roman and Visigoth cavalry, perhaps slightly higher on their bigger horses, and with the added advantage of higher ground. Repulsed, Attila himself led another Hun charge before realising that his forces were beaten and withdrawing. The fighting was intense, however, and lasted most of a long day (one source tells us that the battle started at the 9th hour, about 3pm) – and June 20th was very close to the Summer Solstice – sunset not coming until almost 10pm. The battle was fought until nightfall and even after – Attila withdrew to his wagon laager, Thorismund got mixed up with some Huns and came away wounded, even Aëtius got lost on the battlefield and spent the night in the Visigoth camp. More than seven hours of furious fighting perhaps makes the vast numbers of casualties in the sources more believable.

The aftermath of the battle was that Theodoric was dead, Attila had retired to his wagon laager and did not stir from it. The allies could have put the wagon laager under siege but seem to have lacked the strength to assault it. Thorismund was encouraged by Aëtius to return to the Visigothic capital to secure his throne (some sources suggest this was a stratagem by Aëtius to remove the Visigoths from the field). Aëtius, however, did not then press his advantage to defeat the Huns utterly which suggests he too had suffered serious losses and that all sides were bloodied and exhausted. Attila withdrew back across the Danube (but he would return to Italy in 452).

I didn’t want to leave this blog without you, dear reader, having a sense of what I was so lucky to see in such an unlikely and serendipitous context. Taronga Western Plains Zoo has a video of their Takhi running – hopefully, here you too can see visions of the Huns (or the Mongols) charging across the battlefields of the past, and at the Catalaunian Plains, unable to reach the crest first where the Roman and Visigoth cavalry awaited them.

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