Top 10 Battles of the Fifth Century

Here is our list of ten most important battles of the fifth century.

1. Battle of Châlons (451)

A medieval illustration of the Battle of Chalons.

Also, known as the Battle of the Catalaunian Plains, it most likely took place on June 20, 451. It was fought between a coalition led by the Roman general Flavius Aetius and the Visigothic king Theodoric I against the Huns under their king Attila. The Huns, a nomadic people from the Great Steppe, were involved with the Roman world since the latter half of the fourth-century, but it was under Attila that they became an empire that threatened the Eastern and Western Roman Empires. He had gained several victories and was on the verge of conquering the northern part of Gaul when he faced off against a force of Romans, Visigoths and other barbarian peoples somewhere in the region of Champagne.

At least 100,000 men were involved in the fighting. Jim Bradbury notes that “the battle was probably fought on a flat plain with large forces on both sides. There was a hill to the Roman right, which they held after a struggle. Theoderic I, King of the Visigoths, was killed by an Ostrogoth javelin. A charge from the hill decided that the battle. Attila prepared for himself a funeral pyre of wooden saddles. It was growing dark and the Huns retreated without pursuit to move on to Italy.”

The chronicler Jordanes offers this description of the fighting:

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. There such deeds were done that a brave man who missed this marvellous spectacle could not hope to see anything so wonderful all his life long. 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. It was not flooded by showers, as brooks usually rise, but was swollen by a strange stream and turned into a torrent by the increase of blood. 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 from their own wounds.

The Battle of Chalons was largely inconclusive in a military sense, and historians disagree about how important it was in world history. For example, John Julius Norwich wrote that:

It should never be forgotten that in the summer of 451 and again in 452, the whole fate of western civilization hung in the balance. Had the Hunnish army not been halted in these two successive campaigns, had its leader toppled Valentinian from his throne and set up his own capital at Ravenna or Rome, there is little doubt that both Gaul and Italy would have been reduced to spiritual and cultural deserts.

Meanwhile, J.B. Bury argues that its “significance has been enormously exaggerated in conventional history. It cannot in any reasonable sense be designated as one of the critical battles of the world.”

2. Battle of Bon Cap (468)

One of the largest naval operations in world history, over 1000 ships and 100,000 soldiers were sent by Eastern (Byzantine) and Western Roman Empires to North Africa to take revenge on the Vandals for their sacking of Rome in 455. The Roman fleet positioned themselves off Cap Bon peninsula near Carthage, and demanded the submission of the Vandals. The Vandal commander Gaiseric asked the Romans to give him a five day truce to negotiate, but once the winds turned in his favour, he sent out his fleet to attack.

The Byzantine historian Procopius describes what the Vandals did next:

And when they came near, they set fire to the boats which they were towing, when their sails were belied by the wind, and let them go against the Roman fleet. And since there were a great number of ships there, these boats easily spread fire wherever they struck, and were themselves readily destroyed together with those with which they came in contact. And as the fire advanced in this way the Roman fleet was filled with tumult, as was natural, and with a great din that rivalled the noise caused by the wind and the roaring of the flames, as the soldiers together with the sailors shouted orders to one another and pushed off with their poles the fire-boats and their own ships as well, which were being destroyed by one another in complete disorder.

The combined Roman fleet lost an estimated 700 ships and 70,000 men. The Vandals would continue to rule North Africa for another 66 years.

The defeat and death of Peroz I, depicted in the Shahnameh.

3. Battle of Herat (484)

The clash of two empires - the Sassanids and the Hephthalites - would occupy central Asia during the latter decades of the fifth century. The Sassanid ruler Peroz I had already suffered two humiliating defeats from the Huns of the Hephthalite Empire when he launched a new campaign in the year 484. Peroz assembled a huge army of 100,000 soldiers to attacks the nomadic warriors, but his eagerness for revenge would lead him to be trapped in the city of Herat. The Huns surrounded the city and in the ensuing battle almost the entire Sassanid force was wiped out. Peroz was among the dead, as was much of his military command. The Hephthalite victory allowed them to invade the Sassanid empire and plunder it for two years.

4. Battle of Soissons (486)

A victory by the Frankish leader Clovis I over the Roman military commander Syagrius, this allowed the Franks to almost double the size of their kingdom and make them a regional power in Western Europe. In his History of the Franks, Gregory of Tours writes about what took place:

In the fifth year of [Clovis’] reign Syagrius, king of the Romans, son of Egidius, had his seat in the city of Soissons which Egidius, who has been mentioned before, once held. And Clovis came against him with Ragnachar, his kinsman, because he used to possess the kingdom, and demanded that they make ready a battlefield. And Syagrius did not delay nor was he afraid to resist. And so they fought against each other and Syagrius, seeing his army crushed, turned his back and fled swiftly to king Alaric at Toulouse. And Clovis sent to Alaric to send him back, otherwise he was to know that Clovis would make war on him for his refusal. And Alaric was afraid that he would incur the anger of the Franks on account of Syagrius, seeing it is the fashion of the Goths to be terrified, and he surrendered him in chains to Clovis’ envoys. And Clovis took him and gave orders to put him under guard, and when he had got his kingdom he directed that he be executed secretly.

5. Battle of Pollentia (402)

This battle was fought on April 6, 402, in northern Italy. It pitted the Roman commander Flavius Stilicho against the Visigoths, led by their king Alaric. Jim Bradbury writes, that “Alaric was encamped near Pollentia which the Romans attacked. Stilicho’s Roman force included Alans and Vandals. Stilicho sent his Alans on a cavalry attack, which was held - the Alan leader being killed. The Romans did not break, and their infantry advance won the battle. The Visigoth camp was taken and Alaric’s wife was captured. Alaric escaped and Pollentia was not decisive. He was defeated at Verona and agreed to leave Italy, returning to make a peace that lasted until the latter’s death.”

Stilicho’s victory was able to preserve Rome for only a few years. After his death, Alaric and the Visigoths returned to Italy, and sacked the Eternal City in 410.

6. Battle of Nedao (454)

After the death of Attila in March of 453, many of the Germanic peoples he had subjugated rebelled against the Huns. The revolt would lead to a battle taking place in the region of Pannonia, where Attila’s son and successor Ellac was killed and the Hunnic Empire broken. Jordanes’ writes:

When Ellac was slain, his remaining brothers were put to flight near the shore of the Sea of Pontus, where we have said the Goths first settled. Thus did the Huns give way, a race to which men thought the whole world must yield.

7. Battle of Avarayr (451)

A 15th century Armenian miniature depicting the battle of Avarayr.

This battle is considered to be one of the most important events in Armenian history. At this time Armenia was ruled by the Sassanid Empire and its ruler Yazdegerd II encouraged the Armenian Christian population to convert to Zoroastrianism. This provoked a rebellion led by Vartan Mamikonian, and with 66,000 men he engaged with a larger Sassanid force. While the Armenians were defeated and Vartan killed, they considered their defence of Christianity a moral victory. It would be another thirty years before the Sassanids agreed in a treaty to grant religious freedom to Armenia.

8. Battle of Chenghong Island (404)

This was perhaps the most important in a series of victories by the Chinese general Liu Yu over Huan Xuan in the year 404. The latter had seized power over the Jin Dynasty in the previous year, and had declared himself Emperor. Liu Yu had pretended to be loyal to Huan, but then an uprising to restore the former Jin ruler to the throne. Several battles were fought in the spring of 404, including at Chenghong Island where Liu won despite being outnumbered by Huan’s forces. By June of that year Huan Xuan was dead, and Liu Yu would become the power behind the throne. His military and political skill, as well as his own ambition, would lead Liu to overthrow the Jin Dynasty sixteen years later.

9. Battle of Aylesford (455)

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle report for the year 455:

This year Hengest and Horsa fought with Wurtgern the king on the spot that is called Aylesford. His brother Horsa being there slain, Hengest afterwards took to the kingdom with his son Esc.

Most details about this battle are hard to confirm and mixed with legend, but apparently it involved the British warlord Vortigern (or his sons) and the Saxon mercenary leaders Hengest and Horsa. It was one of a series of battles fought in southern England, which led to the establishment of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms.

10. Battle of Tolbiac (496)

This battle may have actually taken place ten years later - its importance lies in that the victory by Clovis I over the Alamanni led the Frankish ruler to convert to Christianity. Clovis had married Clotilde, a princess of the kingdom of Burgundy, and she was trying to persuade him to become a Roman Catholic.

Gregory of Tours explains what happened at the battle of Tolbiac, which is located in present-day western Germany:

It came about that as the two armies were fighting fiercely, there was much slaughter, and Clovis’s army began to be in danger of destruction. He saw it and raised his eyes to heaven, and with remorse in his heart he burst into tears and cried: “Jesus Christ, whom Clotilde asserts to be the son of the Living God, who art said to give aid to those in distress, and to bestow victory on those who hope in thee, I beseech the glory of thy aid, with the vow that if thou wilt grant me victory over these enemies, and I shall know that power which she says that people dedicated in thy name have had from thee, I will believe in thee and be baptized in thy name. For I have invoked my own gods but, as I find, they have withdrawn from aiding me; and therefore I believe that they possess no power, since they do not help those who obey them. I now call upon thee, I desire to believe thee only let me be rescued from my adversaries.” And when he said thus, the Alamanni turned their backs, and began to disperse in flight.

Soon after Clovis and thousands of his supporters were baptized.

References:

Jim Bradbury, The Routledge Companion to Medieval Warfare (Routledge, 2004)

Dennis Showalter (ed.), The Encyclopedia of Warfare (Amber Books, 2013)

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