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Flavius Aetius

(c. 390 - 21 or 22 September 454 CE)

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)

Flavius ​​Aetius

Flavius ​​Aetius was born around 390 CE in Dorostotum on the Danube in Moesia (now Silistra, Bulgaria). He was one of the last great Roman chiefs, also called “the last of the Romans”.

Origins and coming to power

The mother was a Roman from a wealthy family from Italy. Father Flavius ​​Gaudentius (Flavius ​​Gaudentius) made a career in the Roman army. imperial cavalry commander (magister equitum), then commander (comes) in the province of Africa. His military career was almost hereditary, so Aetius went in the same footsteps.
Aetius, already as a teenager, thanks to his father’s position, got into the imperial court, where he began to gain first political contacts. He worked, among others in the office of the prefect praetorium. At that time, Rome was forced to give up some of his young men to Gothic captivity. In 405 CE Aetius was captured by Alaric – the leader of the Visigoths.

He served Alaric until 408 when he was handed over to the Huns, where Aetius met Attila, his brother Bleda, and their uncle Ruas. As Aetius himself later said, this was the most important period in his life, because not only did he grow up, but also he met many important political personalities and learned “wildlife” – he learned to hunt, ride a horse, and also learned how to fight barbarians, the main enemies of Rome. Shortly thereafter, around 420 – at the end of the reign of Honorius, he returned to the Empire and began to implement such valuable knowledge acquired in captivity.

In 423 CE, the emperor Honorius died unexpectedly, who without a descendant left the state without a designated successor. The lack of strong candidates and the fact that the Eastern Roman emperor Theodosius II delayed the decision whether he would try to take over and unite the Empire, caused a struggle for power. Aetius, who supported the usurper Jan, received a high office (curopalatines) and undertook the operation of bringing the Hun army to help in the fight for the Roman throne. Aetius, however, arrived with the barbarian army too late and had to negotiate his position on the political scene with the victorious Emperor Valentinian III. The bargaining chip was certainly the fact that Aetius was supported by large Hun forces. The emperor offered him the position of commander (comes), and in return, he supported Valentinian and his mother Gaul Placidia.

Roman commander

Aetius became famous for fighting barbarians in Gaul (in the south with Visigoths; in the north with Franks) whom he defeated much easier than any other chief; mainly because of their in-depth knowledge of their tactics. He defeated Franks twice and personally defeated the ancestor of the legendary Chlodwig. As a result of his victory, he regained lands on the Rhine in the Roman rule. In exchange for his merits, in 429 he was appointed the main commander of the West Army – magister militum praesentalis. To strengthen his position, he was accused of plotting and killed Felix Flavius, a rival to military power in the Western Roman Empire.

Flavius ​​Aetius once again proved his competence, defeating the Jutungas in Recession, winning at Noricum and breaking up the Franks again in 432 CE. This year he also received the prestigious consul position.

In the same year, the fortune turned around. In 432 CE two of the greatest leaders of the Western Roman Empire were confronted: Aetius and Bonifacius, who competed for influence at the court. Aetius, sensing that he was in a lost position, decided to go despite the numerical advantage of the opponent. He lost a clash with a Roman commander from Africa at Arminium, thereby losing control of Italy. Aetius was forced to flee to the Huns. His exile, however, did not last long, because Bonifatius gave up his ghost a few months later because of the wound he had suffered during the battle. Aetius could safely return to the Peninsula and regain the title of commander-in-chief. In addition, wanting to fully humiliate his former rival, he married Boniface’s widow, Pelagia, sent his son Sebastianus to Constantinople, and took over the family’s property. In 435 CE he was additionally recognized as a patrician.

In the following years, Aetius fought more with barbarians in Gaul, often allying with various tribes to defeat others. He defeated the Visigoths or Burgundy several times, using allied Huns in all campaigns. In the years 447-448, he defeated Alans and Franks in Gaul. In exchange for his military merits, there was erected a monument in Rome in 439 CE.

Fighting the Huns

The Huns at the Battle of Chalons, Alphonse de Neuville

In the 50s, Gaul and Aetius stationed there came with news of what Attila began to do with the areas subordinated to the Western Empire – he burned and destroyed villages, desperately seeking new resources. Thanks to friendly contacts, Aetius tried to convince Attila to retreat, but the Huns leader refused. This time the Visigoths stood up on the call of Aetius, and he had to defeat his friend.

The final clash of the Western legions and the greatest power in the history of the barbarians, Hun Attila – “Scourge of God” – was to take place in the lands which today occupies the city of Chalons, and then the lands were called the Catalaunian Fields June 20, 451 year CE1. Three huge armies – Roman, Visigothic and Hunnian – clashed in one of the largest and bloodiest battles of antiquity. Despite great losses, Aetius managed to defeat the Huns and drive them from Gaul. He won but allowed them to escape, citing his old friendship with Attila. It is also believed that Aetius really wanted to maintain a counterweight in the Goths region.

After the battle, he inspected the battlefield and commented on this bloody slaughter with one sentence famous to this day – cadavera vera inumera, meaning “truly countless bodies”. According to ancient sources, many were killed in this battle; the authors provide numbers: 300 or 180,000 victims.

Defeating the Huns in battle did not mean that their attacks would cease. The fights continued, e.g. on the Po River. Huns managed to include destroy Milan or Ticinum; However, due to the aggression of the Eastern Roman emperor – Marcian, they had to retreat.

Aetius spent the last years of his life in apparent glory on court intrigues. He decided to surrender his son, Gaudentius, for the imperial daughter, Placidia. Perhaps Aetius was hoping that after the death of the ruler, his son would take over. Aetius’ actions were considered hostile, and Valentinian, excited by close surroundings, decided to kill Aetius.


On September 21 or 22, 454 CE, Aetius was summoned by Emperor Valentinian III to the Imperial Palace in Ravenna to report on financial matters. When Aetius informed about the state of the treasury, suddenly the emperor rose from the throne and began to accuse Aetius of accusations of acting against him. He accused him of losing his throne rights in the Eastern Empire because of him, and now Aetius sought to take power from him in Ravenna. Then the emperor stood up and hit the Roman commander in the head several times on the head, killing him on the spot. Aetius’ comrades shared his fate.

The emperor, after killing Aetius, went to the Senate and announced that he had conspired against him; his body was exposed to the public. In order to ascertain the loyalty of barbarians in the Empire, delegations were sent to the chiefs.

Aetius’ soldiers did not remain indebted. In revenge for their leader, they killed the emperor in March the following year.


The name of Aetius is rarely mentioned outside the circle of specialists, but it is worth mentioning the latter of the great Roman chiefs. He learned to take full advantage of both the cultural richness of the West and what was brought by the peoples of the then barbarians. Even on the battlefield, he knew how to keep his honour and allow Attila to retreat, for the rest of his life, unhappy that he had to wipe out in battle with him.

Based on the actions of earlier late Roman chiefs Stilicho or Constantius, Aetius focused on cooperation with the people who came to the Empire. It contained foeder and did not seek to drive out the newcomers, but rather to use them effectively to stabilize the situation in the country.

It is worth noting that Aetius in his activities focused mainly on Gaul, a region famous for usurpers. The massive invasions of barbarians by the Rhine and the lack of reaction of the central authorities (first in Milan, then in Ravenna) led to the fact that in Gaul there were independent authorities wishing to take matters into their own hands. The solution to this problem was the alliances mentioned above (foederati) and the focus of more attention on the region from the magister militium.

Particular attention should be paid to the effectiveness of the chief in military operations: out of many campaigns, only one was unsuccessful, which was due to Bonifacius’ military advantage. Aetius kept his sobriety of mind and avoided unnecessary actions; for example, he is accused of not taking action to regain Britain, Spain or Africa – but he must take into account the possibilities that Aetius and the emperor could afford at that time. The situation was already tense enough around Italy, and any additional campaigns could have directly threatened the capital and the Apennine Peninsula.

The death of Flavius ​​Aetius, baptized as the “the last of the Romans”, definitely meant no chance of rebuilding the Western Roman Empire and led Rome to the abyss. Procopius reports that the emperor, after killing Aetius, was to ask a certain Roman whether he had made the right decision by removing Aetius; he would answer: “Good or bad, I don’t know that, but I know you have cut off your right hand with your left”.

  1. The more correct name is campus or locus Mauriacus.
  • Aleksander Krawczuk, Upadek Rzymu: Księga wojen
  • Marcin Pawlak, Aecjusz i barzbarzyńcy, Kocewia Mała, 2020

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