This Week in History recalls memorable and decisive events and personalities of the past.

20th June 451 – Battle of Chalons: Flavius Aetius battles Attila the Hun

In the year 451, Europe was in a state of turmoil. The Roman Empire, which had dominated much of Europe for 400 years, was now speeding towards political irrelevance in its western half and was under extreme pressure in its eastern half. Germanic kings had established kingdoms within the borders of the Roman Empire, independent of imperial control – and now the most powerful military force in Europe, led by Hunnic warlord Attila, was laying siege to the city of Orleans. 

By this time, the Huns had menaced Europe for decades. Originating somewhere in the vast steppe stretching from Ukraine to Mongolia, the Huns had arrived in Europe in the course of the 4th century, their expansion impelling many Germanic peoples to flee west and seek shelter within the Roman Empire.

Under Attila, their most fearsome warlord yet – curiously, Attila is a Gothic, not Hunnic name – the Huns had successfully raided the eastern half of the Roman Empire and the Persian Empire, and no one had yet managed to defeat him. 

In the year 450, Attila, for reasons still debated by historians, launched an invasion of the western half of the Roman Empire, likely seeking to plunder its cities and extract tribute from the Romans. 

Opposing him was a Roman general by the name of Flavius Aetius. In his youth, Aetius had been a political hostage – common, then, as a means of ensuring treaties were honoured – in both the Visigoth and Hunnic kingdoms, and had learned much and forged many connections. 

Aetius now sought to put together a coalition of many peoples to finally defeat the menacing Huns. By this time, the Roman army was largely made up of Germanic warriors trained in Roman warfare, and, in turn, many of the Germanic kings who now squatted inside the Roman Empire were themselves former Roman army officers. It is no surprise then that Aetius, leveraging the knowledge and connections he had made as a hostage, was able to put together a force of Franks, Burgundians, Saxons and Visigoths to face Attila’s invasion of the west. 

The Roman allied army finally met the Huns at the Battle of Chalons in 451. The exact course of the massive battle is heavily disputed, but by the end the Romans and Huns had reached a stalemate. While the Huns seem to have suffered more in the fighting, the death of Visigoth king Theodoric in the fighting destabilised the Roman coalition.

Unable to defeat his enemies, however, and with his supplies running low, Attila would retreat to his capital in modern-day Hungary. 

The Battle of Chalons was one of the last great military hurrahs of the Roman Empire in the west; by 476 there would no longer be a western emperor. The Hunnic empire too would not last long. Within two years of the battle, Attila would be dead, his empire disintegrating soon after as his Germanic subjects revolted against the Huns, and his sons battling each other. 

21st June 1945 – The Battle of Okinawa ends 

On 1 April 1945, American troops landed on Okinawa and engaged in a battle for one of the only parts of what the Japanese considered their home islands that would be occupied by the Allies. 

Over the next 81 days, 183 000 American troops would slowly drive across the island against 76 000 Japanese troops and 20 000 conscripted native Okinawans. 

The battle for the island saw extremely fierce fighting, with the use of flamethrowers, suicide charges by Japanese troops, Japanese conscription of children, ‘Kamikaze’ suicide plane attacks on American ships and a heavy bombardment of the island by American and British aircraft and ships. 

One of the most horrific features of the battle was the mass suicides of Japanese civilians, who, believing propaganda about the cruelty of the American troops and with encouragement from the Japanese army, took their own lives. 

Around 15 000 American troops would be killed along with 77 000 Japanese as well as anywhere between 40 000 and 150 000 civilians who were caught in the crossfire, starved to death or committed suicide. The battle also saw ninety percent of the buildings on the island destroyed.

The battle would have a profound effect on both the Japanese and the American governments’ view of the war. 

The Japanese military was convinced by the battle that they could still win the war by provoking an American invasion of the main Japanese islands and then inflicting a huge toll on the invaders, forcing the Americans to negotiate. 

The Americans, on the other hand, were convinced that an invasion of Japan would be extremely costly in soldiers’ lives, and as a result intensified the massive bombing campaign of Japan which led ultimately to the dropping of atomic bombs on Nagasaki and Hiroshima. 

This video is a fascinating look at the effectiveness of Kamikaze attacks on American ships []

22nd June 1633 – The Holy Office in Rome forces Galileo Galilei to recant his view that the Sun, not the Earth is the centre of the solar system

The imprisonment of astronomer Galileo Galilei is emblematic in popular history of the supposed intolerance and opposition to science of religious institutions, especially the Catholic Church. The real story is far more complex and involved not only religious persecution grounded in dogma but a fair amount of political and petty rivalry.  

A renowned Italian inventor by the beginning of the 17th century, Galileo began to take an interest in astronomy, and, after being sceptical at first of the theory that the Sun was the centre of the Universe (an idea first proposed by astronomer Nicholas Copernicus), was later won over by the idea. 

This stood in contrast to the prevailing scientific and religious beliefs of the time, based on the work of the ancient Greek scientist, Aristotle, as well as a literal interpretation of Christian scripture. These views held that the celestial bodies were smooth, and all orbited the Earth and that the Earth did not move. 

Using a vastly improved version of a telescope, Galileo observed that the moon was covered in craters, and that there were moons orbiting Jupiter. This led Galileo to conclude that the mathematical models of Copernicus were in fact correct. 

The Catholic Church at the time was under huge pressure from its competition with the growing Protestant movement to prove that it was as religiously zealous and committed to scripture. As such, the church had over the past few decades moved away from its usual strategy of attempting to reconcile science with Christian teaching towards one of pursuing a more hard-line literal interpretation. 

When Galileo’s work came to the attention of some of his enemies in Italian political and church circles, they endeavoured to use the opportunity to destroy him. They found many willing to assist them, not only in the more zealous parts of the church but also in the scientific establishment the authority of which rested on the dominance of the Aristotelian theories. With this backing, his detractors made a presentation to the Pope, Paul V, condemning Galileo.

In 1616, Galileo was brought before a church commission, which, despite Galileo’s insistence that nothing he had promoted had been in conflict with scripture, found him guilty of teaching things contrary to Catholic teachings and Aristotelian science. He was banned from promoting the Copernican theory ever again. Galileo complied after being threatened with torture. 

In 1623, Pope Paul V died and was replaced by Urban the VIII. Urban had been an admirer of Galileo and so Galileo thought that he was back in papal favour and could resume writing more freely on astronomy. He wrote a dialogue between the various theories of the time and eventually published it in 1632. 

Unfortunately, Urban was convinced that one of the characters in the dialogue, who came off badly, was based on himself and Galileo was hauled before an inquisition, which found him ‘vehemently suspect of heresy’ and sentenced him to life imprisonment. All of his works were banned. 

The Pope was still somewhat sympathetic to him, allowing him to serve his imprisonment in the villa of a wealthy friend, and later granting Galileo’s request to live under house arrest at his own villa in Florence, so that he could be close to his family. 

Galileo died a few years later, still under house arrest. His work would not be unbanned by the Church until 1835. Only in 1992, Pope John Paul II acknowledged that Rome had erred in condemning Galileo.

24th June 1995 – South Africa wins the Rugby World Cup final against New Zealand 

A day remembered very fondly by many South Africans who lived through it. Emerging from the cultural isolation experienced during Apartheid, no one was entirely sure how South Africa would perform in world sports. 

South Africa entered the Rugby World Cup with a strong performance in the group stage, emerging top of their pool. 

The national team defeated Western Samoa in the quarter finals, and then France in the semi-finals, to reach the final, where they found themselves head-to-head with the legendary New Zealand All-Blacks, who had dominated at the tournament so far. 

After an exciting and unexpected flyover by a South African Airways passenger jet before the game, the atmosphere was electric. The score was tied, 9-9, at the end of the match, forcing the game into extra time for the first time in a World Cup final. 

With just seven minutes of extra time remaining, a 30-metre drop goal by Joel Stransky would score the winning goal of the match. 

During the trophy ceremony, President Nelson Mandela, wearing the Springbok jersey, handed the trophy to captain Francois Pienaar. This is regarded as an iconic moment that convinced many white South Africans that they would have a place in the cultural life of the new South Africa. For many, it is remembered fondly as one of the great symbolic moments of nation-building after the dark years of Apartheid. 

The story is immortalised in Clint Eastwood’s 2009 Oscar-nominated film, Invictus.

26th June 1243 – Mongols defeat the Seljuk Turks at the Battle of Köse Dağ

On the western edge of the Mongol Empire lay the sultanate of Rum. Located in modern-day Turkey, Rum was a successor state of the once mighty Turkic Seljuk sultanate that had previously dominated the Middle East. 

Prior to the 1240s, the Turks of Rum had paid tribute to the Mongols to avoid being attacked and were regarded by the Mongols as a subject people. However, the Mongols began to demand more tribute, insisting, too, that the Sultan of Rum travel to the Mongol capital in the east to pay homage to the great Khan in person (paying homage was a common feature of medieval governance). Such a journey would take months and leave the sultanate without a leader, which could result in usurpation of the throne or civil war. The Seljuks of Rum refused, and so, in 1242, the Mongols under commander Baiju Noyan invaded Rum with an army of Mongols, Georgians and Armenians. 

The decisive battle was fought at Köse Dağ in north-eastern Turkey. The two armies are thought to have numbered about 50 000 Mongols and 70 000 Turks and allied mercenaries. 

The inexperienced Rum sultan ordered an attack by 20 000 of his troops, who rushed forward to attack the Mongols, but were lured into a trap and routed. 

Seeing this, the rest of the Seljuk army disintegrated, fleeing the field of battle. 

What followed was a period of chaos, with the sultanate of Rum collapsing, and the Mongols becoming the dominant power in Anatolia. 

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