CHAPTER VI. THE BATTLE OF CHALONS, A.D. 451.
"The discomfiture of the mighty attempt of Attila to found a new
anti-Christian dynasty upon the wreck of the temporal power of
Rome, at the end of the term of twelve hundred years, to which
its duration had been limited by the forebodings of the
heathen." - HERBERT.
A broad expanse of plains, the Campi Catalaunici of the ancients, spreads far and wide around the city of Chalons, in the north- east of France. The long rows of poplars, through which the river Marne winds its way, and a few thinly-scattered villages, are almost the only objects that vary the monotonous aspect of the greater part of this region. But about five miles from Chalons, near the little hamlets of Chaps and Cuperly, the ground is indented and heaped up in ranges of grassy mounds and trenches, which attest the work of man's hand in ages past; and which, to the practised eye, demonstrate that this quiet spot has once been the fortified position of a huge military host.
Local tradition gives to these ancient earthworks the name of Attila's Camp. Nor is there any reason to question the correctness of the title, or to doubt that behind these very ramparts it was that, 1400 years ago, the most powerful heathen king that ever ruled in Europe mustered the remnants of his vast army, which had striven on these plains against the Christian soldiery of Thoulouse and Rome. Here it was that Attila prepared to resist to the death his victors in the field; and here he heaped up the treasures of his camp in one vast pile, which was to be his funeral pyre should his camp be stormed. It was here that the Gothic and Italian forces watched but dared not assail, their enemy in his despair, after that great and terrible day of battle, when
Of conflict was o'erpast, the shout of all
Whom earth could send from her remotest bounds,
Heathen or faithful; - from thy hundred mouths,
That feed the Caspian with Riphean snows,
Huge Volga! from famed Hypanis, which once
Cradled the Hun; from all the countless realms
Between Imaus and that utmost strand
Where columns of Herculean rock confront
The blown Atlantic; Roman, Goth, and Hun,
And Scythian strength of chivalry, that tread
The cold Codanian shore, or what far lands
Inhospitable drink Cimmerian floods,
Franks, Saxons, Suevic, and Sarmartian chiefs,
And who from green Armorica or Spain
Flocked to the work of death."
[Herbert's Attila, book i. line 13.]
The victory which the Roman general Aetius, with his Gothic allies, had then gained over the Huns, was the last victory of Imperial Rome. But among the long Fasti of her triumphs, few can be found that, for their importance and ultimate benefit to mankind, are comparable with this expiring effort of her arms. It did not, indeed, open to her any new career of conquest; it did not consolidate the relics of her power; it did not turn the rapid ebb of her fortunes. The mission of Imperial Rome was, in truth, already accomplished. She had received and transmitted through her once ample dominion the civilization of Greece. She had broken up the barriers of narrow nationalities among the various states and tribes that dwelt around the coast of the Mediterranean. She had fused these and many other races into one organized empire, bound together by a community of laws, of government and institutions. Under the shelter of her full power the True Faith had arisen in the earth and during the years of her decline it had been nourished to maturity, and had overspread all the provinces that ever obeyed her sway. [See the Introduction to Ranke's History of the Popes.] For no beneficial purpose to mankind could the dominion of the seven-hilled city have been restored or prolonged. But it was all-important to mankind what nations should divide among them Rome's rich inheritance of empire: whether the Germanic and Gothic warriors should form states and kingdoms out of the fragments of her dominions, and become the free members of the commonwealth of Christian Europe; or whether pagan savages from the wilds of Central Asia should crush the relics of classic civilization, and the early institutions of the christianized Germans, in one hopeless chaos of barbaric conquest. The Christian Vistigoths of King Theodoric fought and triumphed at Chalons, side by side with the legions of Aetius. Their joint victory over the Hunnish host not only rescued for a time from destruction the old age of Rome, but preserved for centuries of power and glory the Germanic element in the civilization of modern Europe.