The Alamanni: A Roman Myth

05 Dec

I recently finished reading John Drinkwater’s The Alamanni and Rome 213-496. Caracalla to Clovis. I started a review a few days ago and it’s been kicking my butt (I can’t seem to really do it justice in less than 3,000 or so words) so I’ve decided to throw in the towel and compose a brief post about the Alamanni, in particular how Rome viewed — and used — them. Re Drinkwater; This was a good book with a LOT of information. He’s a bit selective in the use of some of his sources and he has this annoying habit of bringing up an issue, devoting maybe one sentence to it without summarizing arguments and throwing you to a footnote, sometimes to something which is out of print. I grew to dread anything footnoted, “Drinkwater, 1983a.”1 There are also stretches where it seems to me that he’s making a logical argument rather than one based on evidence but, while it has a few warts, overall this is a good book. I was fortunate to find a used copy at Kalamazoo this year and I’ll be using it a lot in this post.

Now I don’t have space on this blog to post anything beyond a very brief summary of all this (and historians reading this blog can take a nap during this if you like – unless you find a mistake in which case I appreciate corrections) but the Alamanni may be the single best example of how Rome created barbarian tribes and exaggerated the threat they posed for their own ends. There isn’t a single reason for this; the reason likely varied from Emperor to Emperor. One reason pretty much has to be to emphasize their own military successes and their role as the protector of the Empire and the Roman people however there were undoubtedly others. To me, one of the main reasons this was effective was because the population had been given accounts of a barbarian threat for so long that they were ready to believe that there was some massive foreign force ready to invade and destroy Rome, restrained only by the bravery and actions of Roman soldiers and the Emperor.

Brennus, who led the Gauls during their 4th century, BC sack of Rome, continued to receive mention in literary sources through the fifth century. Caesar’s Gallic Wars, while a wonderful historical source, exaggerated the strength of the barbarians for Caesar’s own purposes. Even Tacitus, who seems to have really tried to get things right, portrays various barbarian groups as cohesive entities. Beyond this there were accounts of Marcus Aurelius’ Marcomannic Wars and an Iuthungi invasion into Italy somewhere around 271.2

This is the start of the myth. For the most part, the myth holds true for other barbarians along the Rhine, it’s just that for the Alamanni, the Roman creation is even more extreme. So who, or what, were the Alamanni? This is an interesting question. Drinkwater believes they were a bunch of folks who happened to live in the region between the Rhine and Danube which was lost to Rome in the 3rd century, part of the former Germania Superior. Their arrival was as what I’d characterize as “just folks.” Scattered small bands of people arrived from various places and settled in the region over a period of time. Drinkwater says, “Whatever the original meaning of the term ‘Alamanni’ and the manner in which it became attached to a certain set of people, the lesson of fourth century history and archaeology is that there was no invasion by a single, fully fledged people or consciously related association of tribes.”3

Drinkwater thinks they weren’t much of anything, as an entity, until at least the fourth century. To this point they consisted of tribal groups capable of developing a war-party of around 600, large enough to cause some serious damage if they crossed the Rhine and raided into the Empire but not sizable enough to represent any sort of invasion threat. In contrast, Thomas Burns believes they began to form a confederacy, coalescing around the Iuthungi, in the 270’s and 280’s. Figuring out the “truth” of this is one of those interesting pieces of history which historians argue over and which I enjoy reading about.4

The Alamanni, even more than the other barbarian “groups” appear to have been a diffuse group without really answering to a central authority. Nobody knows what or how the Alamanni thought of themselves. They didn’t write any books. When they were first mentioned in light of a Germanic campaign in 213, it appears likely that you could consider Dio’s Alamanni to actually be, People who happen to live in the region the Romans call Alamannia.5

Now every Human society has some sort of social structure, formal or not. I’m not saying that these folks didn’t but based on their extremely rural settlement patterns it seems likely that for much if not all of the third, and even into the fourth century, this structure would have been very local.

As time went on this slowly changed. These small clusters coalesced into larger groups and signs of local elites appears. Settlements became large enough that local industry and craftmanship, particularly with iron, appear. During the fourth century a new type of settlement appeared on hillsites. These are only occasionally walled but seem to indicate a vertical stratification of society and the appearance of local elites. These elites likely held positions of authority and it seems that by the mid-fourth century this had become at least somewhat hereditary. It’s hard to say where in the hierarchy residents of these sites ranked — this likely varied from site to site — however it’s hard to avoid believing that they would have asserted effective control over the immediate surroundings, at least to the extent that agricultural production would have been directed towards supplying their needs. Still, even here the geographic area likely controlled by these elite centers was relatively small and could not have represented large numbers of people. 6

From a Roman perspective, the Alamanni achieve stardom during the middle of the fourth century. In 354 Constantius II attacks the Alamanni in response to extensive raiding in Gaul, resulting in an eventual peace treaty and Constantius adopting a title recognizing this victory (which was achieved without casualties). Ammianus Marcellinus notes that seven Alamanni Kings, led by Chnodomarius, band together against Julian in 357 and are able to raise a force which Ammianus numbers at 35,000 at Strasbourg.7

By now you’re probably saying to yourself, “The Alamanni were a myth? What myth? They raised a pretty big army for that time, crossed the Rhine and attacked Rome. Doesn’t sound like a myth to me.”

While not always literally true, I’m quite fond of the old saying that myths are usually distortions based on fact. In this case, that seems true. Clearly the Alamanni had become more organized by the mid-fourth century. However the simple fact (I’m giving Ammianus the benefit here) that this consisted of the banding together of seven kings says to me that they weren’t very organized. There’s no reason to believe that Chnodomarius was any sort of “super king” embodied with the right to command all of these others. If that type of kingship was inherent with the Alamanni, I think we’d have heard much more of them both before and after the mid-fourth century. It’s also apparent that, in an extraordinary circumstance, these kings were able to work together, though how well is a matter for debate – they certainly lost, badly.

Whether they attacked Rome or acted primarily out of self-defense is at least somewhat debatable, and pretty dependent on POV. By this time the Alamanni had become a pretty useful client group. Alamannia seems to have become one of the first places Rome went to find some extra troops to serve locally in the army. During the usurpation of Magnentius the Alamanni may have been used by Constantius to weaken the usurper by encouraging them to raid into Gaul. Unfortunately, if this is what happened, they didn’t stop once Magnentius was defeated. Constantius had to move into Gaul to achieve his bloodless victory (see above). Things didn’t end there though as the Franks continued attacks to the north, including taking Cologne and Alamanni began settling on the western bank of the Rhine, providing Julian, once he was given command of the Western army, with a good excuse to attack.8

In any case, by 357 the Alamanni were able to band the forces of seven kings together at Strasbourg. Here they were a threat, at least in numbers. However in the ensuing battle they seem to have been less so. Ammianus provides a fairly detailed account of the battle where it appears that the Roman force was in some jeopardy, however his casualty figures of 6,000 Alamanni and 247 Romans tells a different story.9

Julian wasn’t finished with the barbarians. He proceeded to attack Alamanni settlements on both sides of the Rhine, completely driving them out of Roman territory, and took his army through Alamanni territory, destroying settlements and crops. Of course in 361 he was declared Emperor and left the area for the civil war that didn’t happen as Constantius died.

The Alamanni still show up after this but it appears that from this point forward they are largely mentioned either as raiding into Roman territory, or as clients and allies. Rome engaged in a strategy of gift-giving and payments and Alamanni periodically served in and with the Roman army. Based on the narratives, it appears that their high point came in the 350’s. This did not stop Roman Emperors from being willing to consider military success against raiders to be significant victories. Orators continued to trumpet Roman successes. The barbarians, including the Alamanni, continued to be considered a threat looming on the borders.

Based on the sources, unless you accept that the Suebi/Suevi mentioned as crossing the Rhine in 405/6 were another name for Alamanni, they never again really threaten Rome. Their final significant mention comes in 496 or 497 when Clovis defeats them at Zülpich.10 Drinkwater believes that from about 450, in the wake of the dissolution of the Hunnic Empire, the Alamanni began a process of becoming increasingly organized which, if the process had been allowed to run its course, may have led to their forming a kingdom such as the Visigoths, Burgundians, or Franks. However for them the process began too late and Zülpich ended any chance of this happening. By 506/7 Clovis and the Franks had taken over Alamannia and they became part of the Merovingian kingdom.

Ultimately, the Alamanni were never much of a threat to Rome. They caused some trouble through raiding and Constantius may have started a process where for a brief period they began settling on Roman lands, but they were never organized to the point where they could seriously think of invading. Their one major organization under Chnodomarius amounted to a bunch of kinglets gathering their forces in response to Roman attacks. Beyond this, most of their activity consisted of warbands crossing the Rhine to engage in pillaging raids, often in response to Rome reducing their subsidies. This obviously sucked if you happened to be a raided settlement and some Roman citizens were undoubtedly killed but they were never going to take over Roman territory by force.

But folks in Rome and Constantinople didn’t know this. They were hundreds of miles from the frontier. Messages from the border provinces likely focused on what was going wrong, not when everything was fine. Most of all, depictions of barbarians in literature, triumphs celebrated for victories over barbarians, barbarians being killed during state games, and oratory, all supported the concept of a barbarian menace, only kept from Rome’s door by the valor of its leaders.

Occasionally barbarians could be a real threat. The Goths in the wake of Adrianople show this, and if Chnodomarius had won at Strasbourg things would likely have gone badly for local residents of the area, until another Roman force could have cleaned things up. For the most part though, the image of barbarians threatening Rome, or even the border provinces of the Empire, is a Roman myth until the fifth century. This is true for various barbarian groups including the Franks and Burgundians. It is particularly true for the Alamanni, a group that never really achieved the sort of structure necessary to become a real threat to the Empire.

1 In case you’re curious, this refers to, Drinkwater, John F., Roman Gaul: The Three Provinces, 58 B.C.-A.D. 260. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press (1983). ISBN: 978-0-8014-1642-2. Based on Amazon and Cornell University Press (using the search term, “Drinkwater”), it appears to be out of print.

2 Drinkwater, 2003, pp 70-75, argues that this invasion may have occurred in 260 and the event of 271 was more along the lines of a raid or foraging incursion, motivated by Aurelian ending subsidies which had been established following the earlier invasion. In any case, this threat evidently impressed the Roman people enough to inspire the construction of the Aurelian Walls. For an example of the persistence of the memory of the fourth century BC Gallic invasion, see Themistius, Or.3.43c, delivered in 357 in honor of Constantius.

3 From Drinkwater, 2003, p 45.

4 See Burns, 2003, p. 278 and Drinkwater, 2007, p 80. For Drinkwater, it takes his entire Chapter 3, “Settlement,” pp 80-116, to really get a handle on his position. For one thing, he prefers the terms “Elbgermanic” and “proto Alamanni” which infer that who the Romans called Alamanni were mainly “just people.”

5 Drinkwater, 2003, p 44 has a short discussion of some modern historians believing Dio’s mention of Alamanni to be a later addition by translators and explains why he disagrees with this. Cassius Dio’s Roman History 78.13.4-6 discusses the 213 campaign which consists of Caracalla running around and deciding to build forts and cities here and there which does not give me the impression that the Alamanni were capable of any sort of organized resistance.

6 Two interesting perspectives are provided here. Drinkwater, 2003, pp 100-3 believes these were rarely walled and is careful to call them “hill-sites.” He also proposes that the Romans may have assisted with the construction of some of these sites as a means of getting locals to assist with Roman security just across the Rhine. Edward James, 2009, pp 142-3 calls these hill-forts and adds some interesting details including evidence of relatively sophisticated trading activity such as the presence of scales, weights and silver ingots.

7 I’m not going to list all of the Ammianus mentions of the Alamanni. Let’s just say that they are prominent, first appearing in Book 10 of his History with their final mention in Book 27. However XVI.12 describes the Battle of Strasbourg and the subsequent campaign is covered in XVII.1. Eutropius, writing(probably) in 369 in his Breviarium, X.14, doesn’t use exact numbers but says that, “Julian, with only a modest force, overwhelmed vast numbers of Alamanni at Strasbourg …” Drinkwater, 2003, pp 238-9 believes the Alamanni numbered in the neighborhood of 15,000.

8 Drinkwater footnotes multiple sources for this; Libanius, Socrates Scholasticus, Sozomen, Zosimus and Ammianus. I don’t have Libanius but I have the other four and I’ll quote from my translation of Socrates III.1.26, “For the barbarians whom the Emperor Constantius had engaged as auxiliary forces against the tyrant Magnentius, having proved of no use against the usurper, were beginning to pillage the Roman cities.”

9 Ammianus VI.12.63 for casualties. While the number of Alamanni dead can probably be summarized as Ammianus saying, “The Romans killed a whole bunch of them,” the number of Roman dead is likely to be fairly accurate.

10 Gregory of Tours, Historiae 2.30. I’ve mentioned before (see note 15) how it seems that Gregory can’t really be trusted when talking about things which happened either a long time before or geographically distant from when and where he was however this event was so seminal to the formation of the Merovingian kingdom that it seems likely that his account is substantially true. Of course Gregory is more concerned with Clovis’ conversion than the battle itself.

Bird, H. W., trans., Eutropius: Breviarium. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press (1993). ISBN:978-0-8532-3208-7.

Burns, Thomas S., Rome and the Barbarians, 100 B.C.-A.D. 400. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press. ISBN: 978-0-8018-7306-5.

Cary, Earnest, trans., Dio’s Roman History. Cambridge: Loeb Classical Library (1961).

Drinkwater, John F., The Alamanni and Rome 213-496. Caracalla to Clovis. Oxford: Oxford University Press (2007). ISBN: 978-0-19-929586-5.

Heather, Peter and Moncur, David, ed. & trans., Politics, Philosophy and Empire in the Fourth Century: Select Orations of Themistius. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press (2001). ISBN: 978-0-8532-3106-6.

James, Edward, Europe’s Barbarians, AD 200-600. Harlow: Pearson Education (2009). ISBN: 978-0-582-77296-0.

Rolfe, John C., trans., Ammianus Marcellinus: History (3 vols). Cambridge: Loeb Classical Library (2000).

Socrates Scholasticus, The Eccelesiastical History. Nu Vision Publications (2007). ISBN: 978-1-5954-7906-8. NOTE: This is one of these cheap OOP reprint editions which I bought a few years ago when I was poorer and not concerned with making blog posts. It doesn’t even say who the original translation was by, which is weak. I have several of these and someday I should start updating them, at least if I’m going to keep citing them.

Thorpe, Lewis, trans., Gregory of Tours: The History of the Franks. London: Penguin Books (1974). ISBN: 9-780140-442953.


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8 responses to “The Alamanni: A Roman Myth

  1. Michelle Ziegler

    December 5, 2011 at 2:14 am

    Good stuff! Reminds me a lot of the Anglo-Saxons. They arrive in c.450 but don't have recognizable kings until 550-570s at least. They take over part of Roman Britain slowly compared to the Franks and the Visigoths or Lombards. Their very name reminds us of how disorganized they were. The Anglo-Saxons had the advantage of being farther from Rome. Based on what Gildas says the Saxons were good for Roman rhetoric. Yet the fact that they held out for so long suggests the raiding of the 400s must not have been as bad as elsewhere (not as bad as the Vikings would later be!).

  2. Steve Muhlberger

    December 5, 2011 at 2:44 am

    At Leeds in 2006 there was a series of sessions on the Alamanni. After hearing the experts discuss various kinds of evidence from various periods I came to a similar conclusion. One consideration is that Alamannia was a really small area — of some strategic significance but small and not capable of supporting many people. I still think that Alamanni meant no more than "all those people" who happened to stick in the area — and had to be managed somehow. I believe that one of the papers at Leeds concerned Carolingian efforts to administer the area. Once again they seemed to be aimed at keeping a small region from making trouble.Of course if I had independently reviewed the evidence my opinion would mean more.P.S. That time at Leeds Ralph Mathisen used the best Power Point presentation I have ever seen. Beautiful, clear, semi-animated and a real help to audience understanding.

  3. Curt Emanuel

    December 5, 2011 at 3:37 am

    Michelle, It's a fairly similar progression for all of the barbarian/germanic groups. All that changes are the dates. The Franks and Burgundians were never the threat Roman literature said they were, not in the 4th century anyway, though their group formation seems to have been several decades ahead of the Alamanni. The Goths are a bit of a special case due to the circumstances of their entering Rome but even for them, their organization seems not to have been what rumor made it. Themistius has an Oration for Theodosius in the 380's where he talks about barbarians having overrun the entire world.Steve, Interesting. Some day I really have to get to Leeds. You're probably familiar with the argument for Alamanni having evolved from "all men." Too bad there isn't more evidence about them. Based on Drinkwater, it appears that they may have been one of the more intensely managed "groups." A lot of supporting one leader over another, providing subsidies, etc. It's interesting how much is based on Ammianus where what may have been the least threatening of the frontier groups (need a better word – they weren't much of a group) becomes a bogeyman.I've enjoyed Mathisen's K'zoo sessions the past few years. Good stuff and he's quite good at asking questions at the end of a presentation which help illustrate/clarify the core of what was being talked about. One of the reasons I don't ask many questions is the historians ask better ones, usually.

  4. edmund

    December 8, 2011 at 2:26 am

    I know you've read "Empires and Barbarians" Curt, and it seems you liked it as much I as did. I don't know how controversial or innovative that book is, but this post seemed like a good excuse to mention how much I loved it. The idea of groups forming themselves on the border between zones with vastly different levels of economic development, and then slowly developing social structures designed to exploit that border is just such a nuanced and convincing and exciting model for me.

  5. Curt Emanuel

    December 9, 2011 at 12:55 am

    When it comes to Empires and Barbarians I liked the first few chapters quite a bit. Good review of the material, mostly a lot of evidence that I thought he detailed pretty well, etc. But once he got into the main section of the book where he detailed his argument, I liked it substantially less. The tipping point was where he decided that the Norman Invasion of 1066 should serve as a model for the Anglo-Saxon settlements in Britain, without showing me much of any basis for doing so. That was the biggest error of that type but it wasn't the only one. The book became a "meh" for me – not great but not terrible either. It did teach me the hazards of reviewing part of a book though.As for the barbarians, it's pretty obvious that by the 4th and 5th centuries they were more organized and cohesive than they'd been in the 1st or 2nd. At the same time, they seem not to have reached the point where they had a hereditary leadership and structures of control until, for the most part, they moved into the Empire and started using its structures. At least, they didn't demonstrate these sorts of structures much. The odd battle every 30-50 years doesn't seem much to go on and appears to be an exception, not a rule.

  6. Jonathan Jarrett

    December 9, 2011 at 6:37 pm

    As for the barbarians, it's pretty obvious that by the 4th and 5th centuries they were more organized and cohesive than they'd been in the 1st or 2nd.If you were one of my pupils, Curt, I'd be pushing you at this point by saying something like, "So, there were no new barbarian groups forming after the 2nd century? Or the new ones entered the game as organised entities?" Not because I have a particular view, but just because eight weeks of teaching and three days of interviewing new applicants have left unable to do much more than pick up on logical tangles and pull at their threads… It does seem as if there's a monolithic quality to your category `barbarian' there which I think one could probably dismantle.

  7. Curt Emanuel

    December 9, 2011 at 9:12 pm

    Granting first of all that what I wrote was vastly simplistic, my use of "barbarians" as a whole included the fact that in the first and 2nd centuries many of them could not have been categorized into a "group" but by the 4th or 5th century most of them (at least in the area near the Rhine — Florin Curta would state that the Slavs were nowhere close to being an entity at this time) could. Now this particular statement doesn't account for the probability that there were quite likely some small scattered settlements that should not be considered part of any larger entity/polity/grouping but I'll still stand by it, as stated. The original post has as one of its main points that the Alamanni didn't begin to form into any sort of group, however rudimentary, until either the late 3rd or early 4th century, that up to that point they were "just people". I'd hate to think I was directly contradicting myself in a comment to that post (though maybe what I wrote and what I think I wrote aren't the same thing?). However to me, people who weren't a group at all in the 1st and 2nd centuries and are part of one in the 4th and 5th are more organized during the later period.I'm unaware of any way to quantify this change in barbarian organization — for example, stating that during the first century 50% of the barbarian population would not have been considered part of a "group" while by the early 5th century that number was closer to 10% — but I still think it's valid as a statement of an overall trend.


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