Flavius Aetius. Only a handful of scholars know who he was. You can look him up on Google, but 1,500-plus years later, not many people will find him memorable, nor will they care.
On the other hand, I’ll bet everyone reading this post knows who Attila the Hun was. Or at least you recognize the name, even if you aren’t really familiar with his history. It’s either an insult or praise to be called “right of Attila the Hun” these days, although Attila would not have understood the reference.
Attila’s reputation as a warlord still resonates, 1,500 years later. But his contemporary, Aetius, is mostly forgotten. Yet both men were very similar. In fact, they knew each other in their youth and were likely friends for a while.
Both were born on the “wrong” side of the Danube – barbarians in Roman eyes. While his father was a Roman solider “of Scythian extraction,” Aetius spent many formative years in the court of the Visigoths and then the Huns, a ‘hostage’ under Attila’s uncle, King Rugila. In exchange, the twelve-year-old Attila was sent as a child hostage to the Roman court of the western Roman emperor, Honorius.
Aetius learned firsthand how the Huns lived and fought. After he was released, he even led a large army of Huns during one of the numerous battles of succession between competitors for the position of emperor (in 425 CE). He became the military commander in Gaul and conducted many successful campaigns as general, trying to keep the empire intact, including one in 436 CE when he used an army of Huns to subdue the Burgundians. He was elected consul three times.
Meanwhile, Attila had risen to become the sole ruler of the disparate tribes of Huns, uniting them for the first time under one ruler, and was winning his reputation as the “scourge of God” through a series of violent campaigns against the eastern Roman empire, mostly in the poorly-defended Balkans. Although he terrorized a lot of inhabitants and razed many minor cities along the borders, Attila’s military actions were not as serious or as damaging to the eastern empire as he would have liked. He failed to take Constantinople, twice, although he did force the city to grant him tribute.
Attila’s successes were in great part due to the Western empire stripping the armies from the east to fight the Vandals, who had conquered the Roman colonies in Africa, taken Carthage, and were eyeing an attack through Sicily into the Italian peninsula. Without armies to oppose him, Attila was able to ravage the Balkans with little to stop his rampages. The Vandals, by the way, were not stopped for long, and sacked Rome in 455 CE (under their leader, Genseric, another name that has mostly fallen through the cracks of history into the obscurity below).
Both Aetius and Attila were accomplished rulers and military leaders with a string of successes during their lifetimes. And when they met on the battlefield, in 451 CE, it must have seemed to many as a clash of titans. In fact, the battle of the Catalaunian Plains is considered one the the pivotal battles in the late Roman Empire:
This is considered as one of the most important battles in the history of Europe and Christianity, since if Attila conquered Europe, he could destroy the Roman cultures and potentially annihilate Christianity…
In 450 CE, Attila decided to attack the Western Empire, taking a path through northeastern Gaul with his Huns and a motley collection of some less-than-enthusiastic vassals – Gepids, Ostrogoths, Rugians, Scirians, Heruls, Thuringians, Alans, and Burgundians. He was initially successful, and even more terrifying to the inhabitants than he had been in the east.
Aetius, meanwhile, was busy cobbling together an army from a variety of allies, including Franks, the Burgundians, Celts and Visigoths. They moved in front of the Huns at Orléans, and rather than fight, the Huns turned away. Aetius gave chase and caught Attila near Catalaunum (modern Châlons-en-Champagne).
So here we have the battle of the century. If Attila won, there would be nothing to stop him and his army from rampaging through the last bastions of the empire, right to the Atlantic Ocean, and into the heart of the peninsula to sack Rome itself. If he lost, Attila’s reputation as the feared and powerful leader of the unstoppable barbarian horde would be forever damaged; he would be forced to retreat in disgrace.
And guess who won? Aetius. The Huns were driven back across the Danube, and, with his reputation as “invincible” in tatters, Attila’s alliance broke apart (the Ostrogoths even went over to Rome). Attila returned, and raided northern Italy for a year or so, razing some towns, causing damage but not having any real strategic success. The eastern Roman emperor meanwhile decided enough was enough, and had sent his armies into the field to defeat the Huns Attila had left behind.
Attila retired from Italy in 452, intending to turn against Constantinople one more time. But he died in 453 CE. After his death, the Hunnish empire fell apart at the hands of squabbling successors. They disappear from history shortly after Attila’s death.
Aetius, meanwhile, was criticized for allowing the Huns to escape, although he probably wanted to preserve his army to fight the bigger threat of the Vandals. His remaining army wasn’t large enough to crush Attila’s Huns in Northern Italy, and simply kept them from getting too far south. The “last of the Romans” was murdered by his emperor, Valentinian III, in 454 CE.
Aetius, say some scholars, saved the Roman world. Yet I’d bet dollars to doughnuts not even one in ten people know who he is today. Attila’s “brand” remains strong, and his mythology is still great. Why?
Public relations. That’s why Attila’s name still survives. Attila has had better media coverage than Aetius. PR is all about maintaining and fortifying reputation.
And that’s the value of PR. There are books about Attila (including The Leadership Skills of Attila the Hun, which, according to at least this review,has some serious mistakes about Attila’s actual history: “He led his Huns to bring German and Slavic nations under control, defeat Rome and Constantinople, triumph over the lands of Asia, and then conquer Africa. Taking over the world is the ultimate challenge for just about any leader or manager, and barbaric Attila seems to have accomplished it with poise and grace.” Perhaps that just points to how well Attila’s brand was grown and expanded into mythology since he died.*)
Poor old Aetius. The man who defeated Attila and saved the empire – at least for a few more years – is a minor character in the annals of history, mostly forgotten and ignored. His name was never used to frighten children, nor is it ever used today in some political analogy. No one seems to have written books using his leadership skills as a model for modern management.
That’s what happens when you don’t have good PR to save your reputation.
* That muddled history seems to be the reviewer’s, not the book author’s.