Flavius Aetius was a legendary military commander. A skilled tactician who defeated one of history’s most feared and battle-hardened soldiers in Attila the Hun. But he was more than just a master on the battlefield. He was a ruthless political operative.
Aetius has even been called ‘the Empire’s greatest commander,’ and he is in exalted company with such contenders for the title including Julius Caesar, Scipio Africanus and Flavius Belisarius. Yet for all his smarts, it was his naivety that ultimately led to his downfall.
Read on to discover the truly remarkable life and times of Aetius, magister militum, and the man who stood between the Roman Empire and utter destruction.
Flavius Aetius - The Early Years
Regarding the very early life of Flavius Aetius, facts are hard to come by. It’s believed he was born around 390 AD in the modern-day northeastern Bulgarian town of Silistra, then known as Durostorum in Moesia Secunda.
He was born to Gaudentius, who served under Emperor Honorius as Master of the Cavalry, known as magister equitum. The identity of his mother is unknown however she may have come from a noble Italian family.
In his youth he was sent to two hostage camps, one run by the Visigoths and another run by the Huns. It was in these camps where he gained the valuable insights into the tactics of warfare these tribes utilised, and this knowledge would serve him well in later life.
During his time with the Huns he met the son of their king. His name was Attila. The story of Flavius Aetius and Attila would be one that would weave a complex and fascinating narrative through the rest of their lives.
Aetius the Power Broker
In the fifth century AD the Western Roman Empire was suffering a slow death, while the political situation was tangled and complex. Reflecting the blurred nature of the Empire at the time, Aetius straddled both sides of the divide between Rome and its enemies. He was an accomplished Roman soldier, but was also known and respected by the enemies of Rome.
In 423 AD, Joannes secured the throne and turned to Flavius Aetius to help him defeat Valentinian III’s supporters. The master tactician raised an army of Huns, but Joannes had already been killed by a force sent by eastern ruler Theodosius II. Valentinian III took the throne but was only six years old, so the ruling was done by his mother, Galla Placidia. This left Aetius in an awkward position.
He had raised an army against the emperor, which would usually carry a charge of treason and most probably death. However because he commanded such a large Hun army, he had leverage. Placidia made Aetius magister militum per Gallias (Master of the Military in Gaul) and in return, the Huns returned home.
Aetius the General
Aetius waged successful campaigns in Gaul against the Visigoths and the Franks between 427 AD and 430 AD. A couple of years later he became involved in a power struggle with a Roman general named Bonifacius, both of whom vied for the favour of Placidia.
At the Battle of Rimini, Bonifacius won (but died soon after) and with the help of the Huns, Aetius returned to power. Flavius Aetius was now the most powerful man in the Western Roman Empire having emerged victorious in this internal conflict. He was now the most important and powerful military figure in the Empire, and spent much of the next decade securing his own position, and that of Rome.
The Battle of the Catalaunian Plains
What most historians agree was the final major battle of the Western Roman Empire, the Battle of the Catalaunian Plains pitted Flavius Aetius and Theodoric I, king of the Visigoths, against the Huns led by Attila.
The latter, known for his brutality, had murdered his brother to take sole charge of the Huns. This was welcomed by Aetius who hoped it would lead to a period of cooperation but he was wrong. Flavius Aetius and Attila would come together again. This time as opposing battlefield generals.
Attila and his troops had waged war against the Eastern Empire and had gained land and tribute, but Attila now turned his attention to the west. Experts are split as to why, but one possibility is that he didn’t get enough plunder in the east.
The Huns now marched on Gaul, with a large force probably numbering in the tens of thousands. The battle site has been long disputed but is believed to be somewhere in the Champagne-Ardenne region of northeastern France.
The battle was brutal and bloody and thousands of men on each side were reportedly killed. Flavius Aetius’ men had been successful in driving Attila’s army from the battlefield, and they became trapped inside their camp. For the very first time, Attila the Hun was close to defeat.
Despite declaring a victory for the Romans and their allies, both armies fell back and Attila was spared.
The Assassination of Aetius
While Aetius was victorious at the Battle of the Catalaunian Plains – with one historian writing that it ‘embodied the triumph of order over the forces of chaos’ – Attila’s army nevertheless invaded Italy the following year. While Rome lacked the military forces to oppose them, other factors led the Hunnic leader to withdraw, possibly due to disease within his army or lack of supplies.
After Attila died, Rome enjoyed a short respite and Aetius tried to rebuild the army. However, within the Empire itself Aetius still had many enemies and they were baying for blood.
The future Roman emperor Petronius Maximus, a eunuch called Heraclius and Valentinian III were jealous of the power wielded by General Aetius, and the latter summoned him to a meeting at the imperial palace.
Protocol suggested that meetings were taken unarmed and alone. During his life, Flavius Aetius didn’t make many mistakes but this was his biggest. As he entered the room in September 454 AD, Valentinian drew his sword and killed him.
Killing a general so loved by the population and the army was, ironically, Valentinian’s undoing. He and Heraclius were killed by Maximus with Valentinian’s guards watching on. They too were disgusted their emperor had killed their general.
Aside from Majorian who made a final, concerted effort to restore the glory of Rome, with Aetius gone the Western Roman Empire lasted little more than twenty years.