Historical Tales: 6— French - Charles Morris

The Huns at Orleans

On the edge of a grand plain, almost in the centre of France, rises a rich and beautiful city, time-honored and famous, for it stood there before France had begun and while Rome still spread its wide wings over this whole region, and it has been the scene of some of the most notable events in French history. The Gauls, one of whose cities it was, named it Genabum. The Romans renamed it Aurelian, probably from their Emperor Aurelian. Time and the evolution of the French language wore this name down to Orleans, by which the city has for many centuries been known.

The broad Loire, the longest river of France, sweeps the foot of the sloping plain on which the city stands, and bears its commerce to the sea. Near by grows a magnificent forest, one of the largest in France, covering no less than ninety-four thousand acres. Within the city appears the lofty spires of a magnificent cathedral, while numerous towers rise from a maze of buildings, giving the place, from a distance, a highly attractive aspect. It is still surrounded by its mediśval walls, outside of which extend prosperous suburbs, while far and wide beyond stretches the fertile plain.

Such is the Orleans of to-day. In the past it was the scene of two striking and romantic events, one of them associated with the name of Joan of Arc, the most interesting figure in French history; the other, which we have now to tell, concerned with the terrible Attila and his horde of devastating Huns, who had swept over Europe and threatened to annihilate civilization. Orleans was the turning-point in the career of victory of this all-conquering barbarian. From its walls he was driven backward to defeat.



Out from the endless wilds of Scythia had poured a vast swarm of nomad horsemen, ill-favored, fierce, ruthless, the scions of the desert and seemingly sworn to make a desert of Europe. They were led by Attila, the "Scourge of God," as he called himself, in the tracks of whose horse's hoofs the grass could never grow again, as he proudly boasted.

Writers of the time picture to us this savage chieftain as a deformed monster, short, ill-formed, with a large head, swarthy complexion, small, deep-seated eyes, flat nose, a few hairs in place of a beard, and with a habit of fiercely rolling his eyes, as if to inspire terror. He had broad shoulders, a square, strong form, and was as powerful in body as he was ready and alert in mind. The man had been born for a conqueror, and Europe was his prey.

The Scythians adored the god of war, whom they worshipped under the shape of an iron cimeter. It was through the aid of this superstition that Attila raised himself to dominion over their savage and tameless hordes. One of their shepherds, finding that a heifer was wounded in the foot, followed the track of blood which the animal had made, and discovered amid the long grass the point of an ancient sword. This he dug from the earth in which it was buried and presented to Attila. The artful chief claimed that it was a celestial gift, sent to him by the god of war, and giving him a divine claim to the dominion of the earth. Doubtless his sacred gift was consecrated with the Scythian rites,—a lofty heap of fagots, three hundred yards in length and breadth, being raised on a spacious plain, the sword of Mars placed erect on its summit, and the rude altar consecrated by the blood of sheep, horses, and probably of human captives. But Attila soon proved a better claim to a divine commission by leading the hordes of the Huns to victory after victory, until he threatened to subjugate, if not to depopulate, all Europe. It was in pursuance of this conquering career that he was brought, in the year 451, to the banks of the Rhine and the borders of the future realm of France, then still known as Gaul, and held by the feeble hand of the expiring empire of Rome.

The broad Rhine proved but a feeble obstacle to the innumerable cavalry of the Huns. A bridge of boats was quickly built, and across the stream they poured into the fair provinces of Gaul. Universal consternation prevailed. Long peace had made the country rich, and had robbed its people of their ancient valor. As the story goes, the degenerate Gauls trusted for their defence to the prayers of the saints. St. Lupus saved Troyes. The prayers of St. Genevieve turned the march of Attila aside from Paris. Unluckily, most of the cities of the land held neither saints nor soldiers, and the Huns made these their helpless prey. City after city was taken and ruined. The fate of Metz will serve as an example of the policy of the Huns. In this city, as we are told, priests and infants alike were slain, and the flourishing city was so utterly destroyed that only a chapel of St. Stephen was left to mark its site. Its able-bodied inhabitants were probably reserved to be sold as slaves.

And now, in the prosecution of his ruinous march, Attila fixed his camp before the walls of Orleans, a city which he designed to make the central post of the dominion which he hoped to establish in Gaul. It was to be his fortified centre of conquest. Upon it rested the fate of the whole great province.

Orleans lay behind its walls trembling with dread, as the neigh of the Hunnish horses sounded in its ears, as the standards of the Hunnish host floated in the air. Yet it was not quite defenceless. Its walls had been recently strengthened. Behind them lay a force of soldiers, or of armed citizens, who repelled the first assaults of the foe. An army was known to be marching to its relief. All was not lost.

Forty years earlier Rome had fallen before Alaric, the Goth. The empire was now in the last stages of decreptitude. Yet by fortunate chance it had an able soldier at the head of its armies, ∆tius, the noblest son of declining Rome. "The graceful figure of ∆tius," says a contemporary historian, "was not above the middle stature; but his manly limbs were admirably formed for strength, beauty, and agility; and he excelled in the martial exercises of managing a horse, drawing the bow, and darting the javelin. He could patiently endure the want of food or of sleep; and his mind and body were alike capable of the most laborious efforts. He possessed the genuine courage that can despise not only dangers but injuries; and it was impossible either to corrupt, or deceive, or intimidate the firm integrity of his soul."

When the Huns invaded Gaul, this skilled and valiant commander flew to its relief. To his Roman army he added an army of the Visigoths of Southern Gaul, under their King Theoderic, and marched to the rescue of the land. But the gathering of this army took precious time, during which the foe wrought ruin upon the land. The siege of Orleans had begun by the time ∆tius was fairly ready to begin his march.

In that seemingly doomed city all was terror and dismay. A speedy capture, a frightful massacre, or a no less frightful enslavement to the savage Huns, was the dread of the trembling inhabitants. They had no saint to rescue them by his prayers. All their hope lay in the arms of their feeble garrison and the encouraging words of their bishop, in whose heart alone courage seemed to keep alive.

Anianus was the name of this valiant and wise churchman, whose counsels of hope alone sustained the despairing citizens, whose diligence and earnestness animated the garrison in its defence. The siege was fierce, the defence obstinate, the army of relief was known to be on its way, if they could but hold out till it came. Anianus, counting the days and hours with intense anxiety, kept a sentinel on the lookout for the first signs of the advancing host of Romans and Goths. Yet hours and days went by, and no sign of flashing steel or floating banner could be seen, until the stout heart of the bishop himself was almost ready to give way to the despair which possessed so many of the citizens.

The Huns advanced point by point. They were already in the suburbs. The walls were shaking beneath the blows of their battering-rams. The city could not much longer be held. At length came a day which threatened to end with Orleans in the hands of the ruthless foe. And still the prayed-for relief came not. Hope seemed at an end.

While such of the people as could not bear arms lay prostrate in prayer, Anianus, hopeful to the last, sent his messenger to the ramparts to look for the banners of the Roman army. Far and wide, from his lofty outlook, the keen-eyed sentinel surveyed the surrounding country. In vain he looked. No moving object was visible, only the line of the forest and the far-off bordering horizon. He returned with this discouraging tidings.

"Go again," said the bishop. "They should have been here before now. Any minute may bring them. Go again."

The sentinel returned, and again swept the horizon with his eyes, noting every visible object, seeing nothing to give him hope. With heavy tread he returned to the bishop, and reported his failure.

"They must be near!" cried Anianus, with nervous impatience. "Go; look once more. Let nothing escape your eyes."

Back went the messenger, again mounted the rampart, again swept the plain with his eyes. Nothing,—ah! what was that, on the horizon, at the very extremity of the landscape, that small, faint cloud, which he had not seen before? He watched it; it seemed to grow larger and nearer. In haste he returned to the bishop with the hopeful news.

"I have seen a distant mist, like a far-off cloud of dust," he said. "It is moving. It comes nearer."

"It is the aid of God!" burst from the lips of the bishop, his heart suddenly elate with joy. And from the expectant multitude, through whose ranks ran like wildfire the inspiring tidings, burst the same glad cry, "It is the aid of God!"

Crowds ran in all haste to the ramparts; hundreds of eyes were fixed on the far-off, mist-like object; every moment it grew larger and more distinct; flashes, as of steel, color, as of standards, were gradually perceived; at last a favorable wind blew aside the dust, and to their joyful eyes, under this gray canopy, appeared the waving folds of banners, and under them, in serried array, the squadrons of the Roman and Gothic troops, pressing forward in all haste to the relief of the beleaguered city.

Well might the citizens cry, "It is the aid of God!" The army of ∆tius had come not a day, not an hour, too soon. The walls had given way before the thundering blows of the battering-rams. A breach had been made through which the Huns were swarming. Only for the desire of Attila to save the city, it might have been already in flames. As it was, the savage foes were breaking into the houses in search of plunder, and dividing such citizens as they had seized into groups to be led into captivity, when this cry of glad relief broke loudly upon the air.

The news that had aroused the citizens quickly reached the ears of Attila. A strong army of enemies was at hand. There was no time to occupy and attempt to defend the city. If his men were assailed by citizens and soldiers in those narrow streets they might be slaughtered without mercy. Prudence dictated a retreat.

Attila was as prudent as he was daring. The sound of trumpets recalled his obedient hordes. Out they swarmed through the openings which had permitted their entrance. Soon the army of the Huns was in full retreat, while the advancing host of Romans and Goths marched proudly into the open gates of the delivered city, with banners proudly floating and trumpets loudly blaring, while every heart within those walls was in a thrill of joy. Orleans had been saved, almost by magic as it seemed, for never had been peril more extreme, need more pressing. An hour more of delay, and Orleans, perhaps the whole province of Gaul, had been lost.

We may briefly conclude the story of this invasion of the Huns. Attila, convinced of the strength and spirit of his enemy, retreated in haste, foreseeing ruin if he should be defeated in the heart of Gaul. He crossed the Seine, and halted not until he had reached the plains of Ch‚lons, whose level surface was well adapted to the evolutions of the skilled horsemen who formed the strength of his hordes.

As he retreated, the Romans and Goths followed, pressing him sharply, making havoc in his rear-guard, reaching Ch‚lons so closely upon his march that the Goths, under Torismond, the young and valiant son of their king, were able to seize a commanding height in the midst of the field, driving back the Huns who were ascending from the opposite side.

The battle that followed was one of the decisive battles of history. Had the Huns won the victory, all western Europe might have become their prey. The victory of ∆tius was the first check received by this mighty horde in their career of ruin and devastation. The conflict, as described by the historians of the time, was "fierce, various, obstinate, and bloody, such as could not be paralleled, either in the present or in past ages." The number of the slain is variously estimated at from three hundred thousand to about half that number. Exaggerated as these estimates undoubtedly are, they will serve to indicate the ferocity and bloody nature of the struggle. For a time it seemed as if the Huns would win. Led by their king, they broke through the centre of the allies, separated their wings, turned their whole strength against the Goths, and slew Theodoric, their king, at the head of his men.

But the victory which seemed theirs was snatched from them by the valiant Torismond, who descended from the height he had seized, assailed the Huns with intrepid courage, and so changed the fortune of the field that Attila was obliged to retreat,—vanquished for the first time in his long career. The approach of night alone saved the Huns from a total defeat. They retired within the circle of their wagons, and remained there as in a fort, while the triumphant allies encamped upon the field.

That night was one of anxiety for Attila. He feared an attack, and knew that the Huns, dismounted and fighting behind a barricade, were in imminent danger of defeat. Their strength lay in their horses. On foot they were but feeble warriors. Dreading utter ruin, Attila prepared a funeral pile of the saddles and rich equipments of the cavalry, resolved, if his camp should be forced, to rush into the flames, and deprive his enemies of the glory of slaying or capturing the great barbarian king.

The attack did not come. The army of ∆tius was in no condition for an assault. Nor did it seem safe to them to attempt to storm the camp of their formidable antagonist, who lay behind his wagons, as the historians of the time say, like a lion in his den, encompassed by the hunters, and daring them to the attack. His trumpets sounded defiance. Such troops as advanced to the assault were checked or destroyed by showers of arrows. It was at length determined, in a council of war, to besiege the Huns in their camp, and by dread of starvation to force them into battle on unequal terms, or to a treaty disgraceful to their king.

For this Attila did not wait. Breaking camp he retreated, and by crossing the Rhine acknowledged his defeat. The Roman empire had won its last victory in the west, and saved Gaul for the Franks, whose day of conquest was soon to come.