Western Roman Empire: How Aëtius defeated the Huns - and was murdered by a jealous emperor

Aëtius is often referred to as the last Roman or the last eagle of Rome.

Western Roman Empire: How Aëtius defeated the Huns - and was murdered by a jealous emperor

Aëtius is often referred to as the last Roman or the last eagle of Rome. And this despite many mistakes and shortcomings. He is the last military man of the Western Roman Empire who once again made victory and glory shine over the eagles of the empire. After his death, de facto power passed to foreign masters; it was only a matter of time before the last emperor of the Western Rome, Romulus the Child, was finally pushed aside.

By 454, the Roman Empire was only a shadow of its former self. Formally, the emperor ruled. And when the most powerful man in the empire, Flavius ​​Aëtius, visited his emperor in Ravenna, he sensed no danger. Aëtius, the last great general of Rome, had eliminated all rivals; an attack on him would have been madness, because only he, the powerful army commander, was still holding the empire together. But that stopped the Emperor Valentian III. not off.

He was of high birth and came to the throne at the age of six. But he was never really able to rule; politics was initially determined by his powerful and clever mother Galla Placidia, a daughter of the Eastern Roman Emperor Theodosius I. During the times of turmoil, the empire had turned into a kind of emergency military dictatorship, with all power coming from the military commander Aëtius. He had defeated Attila, the Hun king, but after the "Scourge of God" died, Valentian sensed his chance. During a lecture on tax revenue, the emperor drew his sword and, together with his chief eunuch, who had hidden an ax under his robe, attacked the surprised general and killed him.

Politically, Aëtius was right to be careless; he had underestimated the wounded soul of the monarch, who was a symbolic figure throughout his life, and feared that the general himself wanted to join the imperial family through clever marriage policy.

By the time of Aëtius, the part of the empire ruled by Rome was descending into chaos. The stabilization that had been initiated by the cruel Emperor Diocletian's violent efforts about a hundred years earlier had now evaporated. The empire was no longer able to protect its borders and either keep the "barbarians" out or settle them in the empire's territory in such a way that they would submit to the rule and laws of Rome. Now the tribes crossed the border, pillaged and pillaged, and settled elsewhere in the empire, establishing autonomous territories.

And that brought the entire system of the Empire into disarray. It was based on peace in the territory and an undisturbed economy. This was the only way to generate the tax revenue needed to maintain the army at the borders. However, as the barbarians seized the richest areas, the empire threatened to collapse financially. This is what the world looked like into which Aëtius was born in what is now Bulgaria around 390 AD. Into a kingdom that was teetering towards the abyss. His father held an important position as a military commander, but for the boy this meant that he spent his youth as a hostage. First with the Goths and then with the Huns.

This warlike cavalry people put pressure on the ailing empire. Because of their own military campaigns against the Romans, but also because the expansion of the Huns threatened all kinds of tribes that went on the move and plagued the imperial territory. Aëtius' first political act turned out to be a mistake. The young Roman persuaded the Huns to support a usurper, but by the time Aëtius appeared in Italy, his troops had already been defeated.

But with the Huns behind him, he was able to meet with the mother of Emperor Valentian III. communicate. Aëtius then rose to the top military position in the empire. There, the disputes between the top generals have now been resolved with wars against each other. His marriage showed what the conditions were like. Aëtius managed to eliminate his opponent Sebastianus around 433. After his death he took his wife Pelagia as his wife. She was a Goth and through this marriage Aëtius gained access to a large inheritance and the soldiers of the slain man.

He achieved his greatest military success in the Battle of the Catalaunian Fields in 451. There he led a colorful coalition of Visigoth allies and the last legions of Rome against Attila and his allies. For a long time, the battle was exaggerated as a conflict between Christian Europe and the pagan, Asian "hordes" of the Huns.

The historian Sir Edward Creasy (1812-1878) wrote: "Attila's attacks on the Western Roman Empire were soon renewed, but never with such danger to the civilized world as had threatened it before his defeat; and at his death, two Years after this battle, the vast empire that his genius had founded was soon crushed by the successful revolts of the conquered nations. The name of the Huns ceased to strike terror in Western Europe for several centuries, and their supremacy faded with the life of the great king."

In fact, the battle was not the turning point; Attila's campaign had already failed due to maneuvers by his opponents. But it was only the defeat in the field battle that destroyed his aura.

The meeting was so impetuous that the legend arose that the battle would rage on forever in the clouds. When his camp was surrounded, Attila had a pyre built for himself. He wanted to die by his own hand and not be killed by those he had defeated so many times. In the battle, which involved heavy losses, Aëtius achieved an important victory over Attila, who had previously appeared insurmountable. It is controversial whether the Romans could have completely destroyed the Hun army.

The overwhelming threat was averted, at least for the time being. In the shadow of this victory, Aëtius sought to have his daughter married into the imperial family. The immediate result was his murder. The British historian Edward Gibbons wrote that the act was reminiscent of a man "who cut off his right hand with his left."

The American scholar Robert F. Pennel observed: "The empire was but a relic of its former self. Gaul, Spain and Britain were virtually lost; Illyria and Pannonia were in the hands of the Goths; and Africa was soon conquered by the Barbarians conquered. Valentian was fortunate to be in the possession of Aëtius, who maintained the Roman name for a time and earned the title of "Last Roman". He was murdered by his ungrateful master."

The emperor had no luck in killing his general. The next spring he attended a military exercise. Two of Aëtius' followers, the two Huns Optila and Thraustila, raised their swords. Not a hand in the guard moved to save the hapless emperor.

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