One of the greatest victories in the career of the great conqueror Attila the Hun came as he swept the allied Roman-Visigoth force from the field and assured his conquest of Gaul. As very little of the Hunnic culture included portraiture, it is difficult to know what Attila looked like, but he was recorded by the Roman historian Priscus, attendee to the Hun court in 448 as an attaché to the Byzantine ambassador. Priscus described Attila as, “Short of stature, with a broad chest and a large head; his eyes were small, his beard thin and sprinkled with grey; and he had a flat nose and tanned skin, showing evidence of his origin.”
He allied himself with Emperor Valentinian III of the Western Empire and began a crossing of Gaul toward the Visigothic kingdom Toulouse. His alliance with Rome fell apart as Valentinian’s sister Honoria, who had an arranged betrothal to a senator, attempted to escape it by asking for political aid from Attila. As proof of her turmoil, she sent along the engagement ring, which Attila took as a proposal. He agreed to this imaginary proposal and asked for a dowry of half the Western Empire. Valentinian tried unsuccessfully to convince Attila of the illegitimacy of the proposal, and the Hun continued westward into Rome, now as an enemy. Aetius, Roman general and former friend to Attila, formed up the troops of a new Visigothic and Roman force, blocked Attila’s path, and caught the army at the Plains of Catalaunian.
While skirmishes erupted between the various Hunnic vassals and Roman allies, the main forces arrived at the field. Inspired by augurs, Attila turned his soldiers back quickly and seized the ridge at the top of the plain. The Romans had attempted to beat them, and their forces became disorganized. The Visigoths hurried to flank, but their king Theodoric was fell from his horse and was trampled. With the Visigoths slowed, the Huns pressed the attack on the Sangiban allies in the center, who broke and became confused with the Visigoths. Seeing their allies crumble under the onslaught of Hunnic horse archers, Aetius ordered the Romans to retreat.
Reining his victorious troops, Attila would push through the little Roman defense left in Gaul and conquered the Visigoths, whose tribal chiefs fought each other over the throne as much as the Huns. Seeking to defend Italy against invasion, Aetius convinced Valentinian to honor his sister’s “proposal.” In 452, Attila won his bride along with Gaul and northern Hispania and with the Visigoth lands between the two. With an affirmed alliance between the Huns and Romans, Attila went on to press the Franks into vassals and then turned eastward to collect tribute the Byzantine emperor Marcian had stopped. Early in 453, Attila suffered fatal bleeding from the nose and throat, which was taken as witchcraft (or simply assassination by poison) conducted by Marcian.
The Huns would be unified with the death of Attila in seeking vengeance on Constantinople, which would not fall for two generations. Using Gothic vassals as bulk soldiers and driving the Danes from mainland Europe, the Hunnic Empire stretched from the Atlantic to the Caspian and the Mediterranean to the North Sea for nearly three centuries. It fell to an uprising sparked by the Frankish noble Charlemagne, who would build a powerful empire in its western half while a new breed of horsemen, the Magyar, conquered the east. Meanwhile, the Muslims of Africa would cross the Mediterranean and conquer as far north as the Alps, eventually to become the uncontested major world religion after the fall of Rome.
In reality, the Romans took the left side of the ridge, and they halted the Huns from taking the strategic center. As the Hunnish augurs predicted, the Huns would face a great loss, but one of the enemies would be killed; Attila hoped it would be Aetius. Attila fell back to lick his wounds, refitting his troops for a campaign against Marcian that would never happen due to his death (which may or may not have been natural causes) while at a feast for his latest marriage to a Gothic princess. His soldiers rode in circles around his funeral tent, chanting, “Who can rate this as death, when none believes it calls for vengeance?” Attila’s sons would turn to infighting, and the Hunnish Empire would collapse a year later with a Gothic confederation.