Category Archives: Barbarians/Germanics/NotRomans

Charlemagne and His Bones

For the past few days reports have been circulating about analysis of bones found in Aachen Cathedral. I’m not going to offer much discussion of this or what it means here other than to repeat what others have found. Basically, analysis of the remains, on top of previous investigation, has provided pretty strong confirmatory evidence that the bones found in Charlemagne’s sarcophagus are indeed those of Charlemagne.

The remains interred at Aachen are those of a tall, thin man who likely walked with a limp as there is evidence of bone deposits related to injury in his heels and kneecaps. The full results of this investigation haven’t been published yet so it will be interesting to see what the results of an expected DNA analysis will provide.

The Karlsschrein, where Charlemagne’s remains (most of them) were interred.
Photo from Wikimedia Commons

For me, I think this makes a nice transition to briefly talk about my current level of knowledge of the Carolingians, sort of a precursor to when I get out of Early Christianity and start reading up on Western Europe from the end of the 7th century to about 1000 AD (and very possibly later).

The Carolingians have always fascinated me. I’ve mentioned how when I first started reading on Medieval History, now approaching 20 years ago, within a few years I found that what interested me the most was the concept of a large, cohesive society (the Roman Empire) falling, breaking up into total chaos, then reforming itself. Keep in mind this is what I thought at the time. Once I started reading up on it it didn’t take long to find out that the reality was very different from the previous process and that I had a lot of misconceptions which I’d need to correct.

This leads me to a major misconception I likely have/had; my willingness to buy into the Carolingian myth. How well does what came to be believed about them match with what actually happened? This will be a main point of investigation for me. I don’t want to detract from the “pre-study level of knowledge” post I’ll likely put up, similar to what I wrote as I was beginning to look at Early Christianity. However the Carolingian Empire was highly romanticized after its dissolution. Subsequent rulers frequently used the Carolingians as justification for their own rule as they claimed to be direct inheritors of the divine right first acknowledged by Pope Zachary and later confirmed by Pope Leo III’s coronation of Charlemagne. Part of this justification likely meant portraying the Carolingian Empire as far more cohesive than it was. How much of this myth-making have I retained? How much of it reflects reality? How did this process take place and what were its impacts? Above all; where will this lead me (and how long will it take)? I guess another question is to wonder when I’ll finish up with Early Christianity and get to this but that is unanswerable.

I’m going to close this post here and offer a couple of links which discuss the recent evidence regarding Charlemagne’s bones:

From Medieval Histories, an online magazine about Medieval History: Bones of an Emperor

From The Local, an English-Language German news source: Charlemagne’s Bones are (probably) Real


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Rome’s Fifth Century Grain Supply

I took a break from reading about Christianity to catch up on some things that have been laying around here a while and came across several good articles in last fall’s issue of the Journal of Late Antiquity. Among these is an analysis by Jason Linn of the city of Rome’s grain supply between the signing of a treaty between Rome and the Vandals in 442 and the resumption of hostilities in 455 after Valentinian III’s death.

Genseric_sacking_Rome_45519th century painting of Geiseric’s sack of Rome in 455 by Karl Briullov. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

For background, Roman cities were something of an anomaly, or at least appear that way to those of us who are interested in the Middle Ages. The Medieval city was relatively modest in size through most of the period and its population appears to have been largely supported by local agricultural production. A Medieval city with a population of 10,000 was large, one with a population of 50,000 was huge, and possibly unknown in Western Europe before about the millennium. In contrast, the Roman Empire possessed several cities with populations of over 100,000 and Rome, Alexandria(probably), and – later – Constantinople over 500,000 and, in the case of Rome at least, possibly approaching a million. These cities could not have been supported by local agricultural production, except for Alexandria due to Egypt’s fertility, but must have been part of more extensive trade networks. 1

I’ve been interested in discussions of trade networks for several reasons. Among these are as indicators of economic wealth, particularly among elites, how involved medieval people were in the wider world compared with their immediate environment, and what types (and the extent) of networks existed. In the case of Roman cities, one purpose for these networks was to provide a more basic need; to feed the population.

Some of the theories that have been proposed include that with the loss of Roman North Africa, the city also lost the annona which was basically a taxation paid in kind by agricultural areas. Instead Rome had to pay the Vandals for its grain. A related theory is that this supply was less reliable than the taxation system and resulted in food shortages in the city. Linn sets out to disprove both of these concepts.

Linn believes that the treaty of 442 was not some sort of watershed as it has often been viewed. While he believes the grain supply from North Africa did decrease, the western empire possessed enough agricultural land to make up this shortage.(298-9) He discusses this using a combination of reasoned argument, evidence related to grain production, and coinage. There are multiple sub-arguments within his overriding thesis and I’ll try to touch on some of these as I go along.

He opens by discussing the provisions of the treaty. The treaty itself does not survive, just reports of it from various sources. Without going into too much detail, Linn believes that this treaty was signed from a relative position of Roman strength. He accepts Procopius’ report that one of the terms of the treaty involved Geiseric handing over his son, Huneric, as hostage, something which would be doubtful if the Vandals were completely dictating the terms.(301) 2

The terms of the treaty have been debated with some believing that the grain shipments from North Africa represent an economic transaction and that Rome paid for what it received. Linn believes this is not supportable and that the grain was sent to Rome free of charge. He discusses Roman coin finds in North Africa and says, “Hardly any Roman coins from the mid-fifth century have been found in Carthage.”(309) Linn believes that this indicates that Geiseric possessed the ability to compel North African farmers to produce grain for Rome without financial return, possibly continuing a taxation in kind system. 3

Linn is careful to note that it is almost certain that less grain was sent to Rome than had been prior to the Vandal conquest.(306-309) Procopius indicates that much of the land allocated to Geiseric’s Vandal subjects was granted tax-free. Some land went out of production. Meanwhile, the local population level did not change substantially so a higher proportion of grain would have been required to meet local needs.

While the grain supply from North Africa would have been reduced, Linn believes that local regions such as Sicily, parts of Gaul, and Italy would have been able to make up the difference.(315-6) He also spends a fair amount of time discussing how by this time Rome had fewer mouths to feed.(317-21) I won’t go into detail on this but his two main points are that the size of the standing army was radically reduced by this time and that the population of Rome was, at most, about 500,000, substantially reduced from its height. In addition, much of the army that remained received their pay in coinage rather than in grain. 4

One additional piece of evidence which I think deserves mention is that, based on contemporary sources, it appears that Rome had enough grain to feed its population during the period. Between 442 and 455 there is evidence for a single famine, from 450-2, and this affected all of Italy, not just Rome, indicating a broader event, either due to weather or some other factor, and not a failure of the annona payment.

I enjoyed this article. Linn uses a lot of evidence, enough for you to see how he arrives at his conclusions. I have some questions about a couple of those (see footnote 4, below) but based on the evidence he provides I think his overall conclusions are on fairly solid ground; Rome was adequately fed between 442-455, grain continued to arrive from North Africa, and this was along the lines of a free payment, not something Rome had to buy.

1 Amazingly, I haven’t read anything which specifically discusses Late Ancient/Late Antique population in detail. The book I’ve seen most frequently referenced is Liebeschuetz, J.H.W.G., The Decline and Fall of the Roman City. Oxford: Oxford University Press (2001). ISBN: 978-0-19815-247-7.

2 Other than a brief comment Linn does not discuss the possibility that this arrangement may have been something Geiseric wanted as a precursor to his son’s possible marriage to Valentinian III’s daughter and to become, possibly, Emperor through marriage. Without some sort of textual evidence this is impossible to prove but Geiseric showed himself, throughout his career, to be an able ruler who was able to take a long-term view. I can hypothesize him thinking something along the lines of, If my son marries Eudoxia there’s a good chance he could become Emperor. It would be a good thing if he spent a few years in Rome so if and when the time comes, he’ll have learned the things he needs to so he can handle the job. I could see him thinking along the same lines when it came to making sure the grain got through – that Rome would be more willing to accept a Vandal Emperor if they couldn’t blame his father for not feeding Rome, and that by continuing the custom of free grain from North Africa, Geiseric and Huneric could demonstrate their worthiness to be rulers of the Western Empire if the opportunity arose. There’s also the concept that if Rome continued to receive grain, it would be less motivated to cross the Mediterranean and try to get North Africa back as it tried (and failed) to do in 460 and 468. As you can see from this lengthy note, I can come up with a bunch of reasons why a treaty which included free grain shipments and a “hostage” may have been exactly what Geiseric wanted. Also, I think it’s important to note that many scholars believe Huneric was sent as a hostage in 435, not 442. Linn outlines his reasons for disagreeing with them on page 300.

3 Every time I read more about North Africa in the fifth century I become a little more impressed with Geiseric. He certainly is viewed badly by contemporary sources but even these criticisms point to his ability as a ruler. Even his repression of Orthodox Catholicism in favor of Arianism, despite Victor of Vita’s account, points to an ability to do so without negatively impacting much beyond the type of service conducted at churches. He had the foresight to begin building a fleet of ships well in advance of his crossing into Africa and 25 years later the Vandals, who had just about zero experience with the sea prior to reaching North Africa, were able to assemble a fleet and sack Rome. Under his rule the Vandals went from a nothing grouping to ruling one of the wealthiest areas of the Empire and, evidently, without causing massive local disruptions, at least long-term (other than to Orthodox Christianity).

4 To be honest, Linn’s use of this last piece of evidence puzzles me. Even if the army was paid in cash rather than grain they still would have had to eat, resulting in little or no net change in total grain requirements. This and his lack of emphasis on the possibility that Huneric may have been sent to the Roman court because Geiseric wanted it that way are the two pieces of this article I have my strongest doubts about.

Linn, Jason, “The Roman Grain Supply, 442-455,” Journal of Late Antiquity 5.2 (2013), 298-321.

Victor of Vita, Victor of Vita: History of the Vandal Persecution, John Moorhead, ed. and trans. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press (1992). ISBN: 978-0-85323-1271-1.


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A War of Words: Primacy of the Visigothic Bishopric of Toledo

I’ve read a little on the Visigoths. One of the interesting things about a kingdom with a relatively weak central government (at least compared to the Merovingians and Ostrogoths) is all of the conflict. This probably wasn’t a lot of fun for the folks living back then but one of the results is that there are a fair number of sources written for the purpose of advancing the cause of various factions. The Visigothic Church suffered from this same lack of central organization and because of this there are a lot of textual sources. You get all of these regional sources like The Martyrs of Cordoba, Lives of the Visigothic Fathers and Lives of the Fathers of Mérida. This is in addition to the various Saints’ Lives used to promote individual churches.

Jamie Wood wrote an interesting article that appeared in the latest Journal of Early Christian Studies which examines another case of a Church using textual means to advance its interests.

In the late fourth century Jerome wrote De viris illustribus or Lives of Illustrious Men, a biographical list of 135 prominent Christians(mainly). This was supplemented by Gennadius who added an additional 91 names in the late fifth century. In the seventh century Isidore of Seville and Ildefonsus of Toledo followed this tradition by writing additional short biographies of prominent Christian figures. Wood believes that Isidore and Ildefonsus had very specific purposes in mind when they wrote these, which he proceeds to discuss. 1

Between Jerome and Gennadius, just 14 of their 226 figures were from Spain (I’m using Spain to indicate the entire Iberian Peninsula). Wood believes that Isidore recognized this shortcoming and set out to correct it “by deepening and broadening the bio-literary history of the Spanish Church.”(624) Isidore was not terribly selective in who he chose to write about and included, “as many Spaniards as he could find, irrespective of whether they had written anything of note or even if he had managed to read their works.”(624) Isidore engaged in an effort to enhance the status of Spain’s Christian past which was not restricted to his De viris illustribus but included biographical details where the Apostle James wrote to Spain and Paul proclaimed the nature of Christ in Spain. 2

Into this literary setting steps Ildefonsus, Bishop of Toledo from 659-667. Before discussing what he wrote I think it’s important to set the stage a bit. Before the Visigoths decided to make it their capital in the sixth century, Toledo was a nothing town – Wood calls it a backwater.(630) It had no political or ecclesiastical history which would make anyone sit up and take notice. Cartagena, as a Mediterranean port, was historically much more important to the Roman province of Carthaginiensis however it was devastated first by the Byzantine conquest of the 6th century and again when the Visigoths reclaimed it in the early 7th century. Once recovered, Cartagena began to regain its influence. It had lost its status as a metropolitan city however it regained episcopal status under King Wamba around 675. It is logical to believe that the Toledan Church felt threatened by Cartagena’s resurgence.

Map of the Visigothic Kingdom showing Toledo and Cartegena. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Besides Cartagena, Toledo would have lacked the sort of history associated with other Spanish bishoprics such as Tarragona, Braga, Mérida and Seville.(633) Isidore failed to mention a single Toledan in his De viris illustribus. Ildefonsus evidently decided that his city needed something to enhance its status.

Ildefonsus opens his De viris illustribus with a veiled criticism of Isidore, “Finally that wisest of men, Isidore, bishop of the See of Seville, following the same path, added to the list the best men he knew. But he departed this life without having looked into this matter fully.” 3

By necessity, Ildefonsus uses a different method from his predecessors. Jerome, Gennadius and Isidore were largely concerned with religious figures who had written though, as mentioned above, Isidore’s standards for this were a bit lower. Ildefonsus didn’t have that to work with. There were no great authors from Toledo. But there were great and saintly men. His hagiographical content swamps that of the others. His first figure, Asturius, receives a miraculous vision revealing the tombs of martyrs. Asturias’ successor, Helladius, while not an author was a worthy man who “… declined to write as he demonstrated things that ought to be written through the pages of his daily life.” 4

Another method Ildefonsus used was that of succession. Church fathers often wrote that the bishops of the great churches were endowed with their posts through Apostolic appointment and succession. 5 Ildefonsus followed this model by including seven bishops of Toledo among his 13 men and establishing historical continuity by naming the successors to Asturius.

This is fun stuff. Churches used all sorts of strategies to advance their causes. Besides cases which involved actual violence you have forged charters and other writings, the discovery of a prominent saint associated with a church and my personal favorite; the successive rewriting of the vita of the church’s saint where the saint becomes progressively more impressive. Sometimes this even turned into a competition with a nearby church where each church kept providing revised vitae. Sort of a medieval version of “my Saint can beat up your Saint.” Ildefonsus’ effort to advance the Toledan Church by associating important religious figures with it fits in nicely with these promotional efforts.

1 FWIW, I have Ildefonsus in Fear (1997) and Jerome and Gennadius in Schaff (2012) but I do not, as far as I know, have Isidore.

2 In Romans 15:24,28 Paul expresses his intention to travel to Spain. However as Romans is believed to be his last letter and he wrote it while a prisoner prior to his being taken to Rome as described in Acts, I think it unlikely, despite later assertions to the contrary by John Chrysostom and Cyril of Jerusalem, that he ever got there. For reference, Wood believes that Isidore wrote his De viris illustribus between 604 and 608(622).

3 Fear (1997), p 107.

4 For Asturias and Helladius see Fear (1997), pp 109-10 and 114-5, respectively.

5 For one of the earliest examples of this see 1 Clement 44 (written about 95) where he argues against the forcible removal of presbyters of the Church at Corinth. Other writers (I think Irenaeus but I’m not going to look for it) used similar arguments against heretics; that “correct” thinking resided with bishops who possessed the authority of Apostolic succession.

Fear, A. T., ed. & trans., Lives of the Visigothic Fathers, Liverpool: Liverpool University Press (1997). ISBN:978-0-85323-582-8.

Schaff, Philip and Wace, Henry, eds., Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers Second Series Volume 3: Theodoret, Jerome, Gennadius, Rufinus: Historical Writings, etc. Fifth Edition, Peabody Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers (2012). ISBN(for set):978-1-56563-116-8.

Wood, Jamie, “Playing the Fame Game: Bibliography, Celebrity, and Primacy in Late Antique Spain,” Journal of Early Christian Studies 20 (2012): 613-40.


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Kalamazoo 2012, the Final Day: Goths and Old Food Nicely Presented

Sunday at Kalamazoo was another dark, semi-drizzly day. Lots of people use this for a travel day but I’m fortunate since I live relatively nearby and can make Sunday sessions. These are often some of the best (this year is a good example of that) and I very much recommend it to those attending, if you can make it work. I have occasionally skipped the final session, as I did last year to get an early start or if I run into someone who needs a ride to the airport and doesn’t have one, but usually I stick around to the end. One other last-day benefit, which I haven’t taken advantage of in a while, are the book discounts.

In any case, after loading all my stuff (I think it was only two trips to the car this year) I headed back to Valley II for Session 520: Sixth-Century Italy: Representing the Gothic War. The first paper was by Brian Swain, a Phd candidate from The Ohio State University, “‘A modern-Day Empire Worthy of a Tragedy’: Jordane’s Commentary on the Gothic War of Justinian.” This was something of a revisionist paper, which was fine by me. Recent scholarly opinion has come to view Jordanes as promoting an aggressive Roman/Byzantine policy toward the Goths and he is considered pro-Roman and anti-Goth (though I have read articles where Jordanes is considered to be arguing in favor of the legitimacy of Gothic rule in order to view the war as a legitimate effort by Justinian to battle Those Evil Arians and Defend Orthodox Christianity). Swain believes that Jordanes should not be viewed as pro or anti anyone – that he is more nuanced, particularly when you consider his Romana Breviarium along with the Getica. He provided a fairly detailed review of Jordanes where at various points in the two works he praises Justinian, casts doubt over Byzantine claims to dominion over the Goths, calls for the war to end through an agreement with the Goths, blames Justinian for its length and closes with a commentary on the ineptness of Roman rulers which could be interpreted as criticizing Justinian. I haven’t read the Getica in some time. Clearly I need to and also get my hands on the Romana Breviarium (if I don’t have it here already). I enjoyed this paper though it will take my reading the two sources to figure out whether I agree with it or not.

Next up was Jonathan J. Arnold presenting, “Manly Goths, Effeminate Romans.” Last year he gave a cool paper on Theoderic’s moustache. This year his topic was bit bit weightier (except when you look at the underlying theme of the prior year’s which was that of people over analyzing sources to sometimes find stuff that isn’t there). He opened with a quote from Walter Goffart’s Narrators of Barbarian History (I have this but haven’t read it yet) where Goffart uses a quote to demonstrate that Romans were portrayed as masculine, Goths as feminine/effeminate. Arnold believes that the quote Goffart uses supports this however if you examine Italian/Gothic sources, the reverse characterization is largely true. I’ll offer several examples (I have over a page of notes so I won’t give all of them). Ennodius has an epigram on Boethius where Boethius and the Romans are depicted as weenies (sorry – this is how I jotted it down in my notes) and Theoderic is described in a panegyric as warlike, a military victor, and has rescued Italy which has become weak and womanly under the Romans. Theoderic is masculine, strong and a manly man, including a speech to his mother where he is depicted as stating this outright. Through Theoderic a female Rome will be renewed, rescued by the masculine and warlike Goths. Cassiodorus celebrates Theoderic and the Goths as manly. The Goths are Italy’s defenders, trained as men of the God Mars. While there are a few good Roman men, overall Rome is militarily weak. Amalasuintha is depicted as a manly Goth who happens to be a woman and is contrasted with Galla Placidia who is too gentle and weakened Rome through peace. In contrast, in Jordanes’ Getica Amalasuintha is despised as weak and the manly Romans are victorious over the effeminate Goths. This was a very good paper with a lot of information.

I have another page-and-a-half of notes for the next paper by Tina Sessa of The Ohio State University, “Perceptions of War and Decline in Sixth-Century Italy.” Sessa was concerned with how the Christianization of Europe impacted viewpoints of war and how war impacted the evolution of Christianity. She stated that war cannot just be looked at in the context of attitudes but that impacts such as the loss of life and property and interactions of different societies must be considered. She used Gelasius’ depictions of the War between Odoacer and Theoderic in 489-93 to consider the war’s impacts. Based on Gelasius, barbarian violence was harmful, regardless of who was responsible. Churches were negatively impacted, including those in the south which really weren’t involved in the war. Among the Pope’s activities in response to war, he radically reduced the requirements for one to become a bishop due to need and a shortage of qualified clerics. He wrote to Palladius telling him to restore a deposed bishop, Stephanus, as his deformity was caused by war. She closed by discussing methodological issues in trying to figure out how to separate the rhetoric of war from the reality of war’s impacts on ecclesiastical life. My apologies for the weak summary. I recall this as being a very good paper but I’m afraid I haven’t done justice to it. And this was a very strong session overall. I don’t know if it was my absolute favorite but it ranks up there.

As did Session 571: Diet, Dining and Everyday Life: The Uses of Ceramics in the Third-to-Ninth-Century World. This session was a treasure. I’d decided earlier that due to my fascination with peasants I’d go to this over the final session on the Ostrogoths. I very nearly reconsidered considering the quality of the previous session but I ended up sticking to my plan and was glad I did, though I have 5 pages of notes for three papers which will make summarizing this a bit difficult. There were a few common points for all three papers; residual evidence of food is extremely rare, enough so as to make it nearly useless; faunal evidence (remnants from animals) can be unreliable for a variety of reasons including decomposition rates of different remains and scavengers, however it is often necessary to rely on it while recognizing the limitations and; pictorial and textual evidence often presents an idealized version of life. Also, none of the papers covered anything later than the seventh century.

Andrea Achi from the New York University Institute of Fine Arts opened with, “And How did They Eat: An Investigation of Food Storage, Processing, and Consumption Patterns in a Late Antique Household.” She gave a detailed description of a portion of the Dakhla, Egypt archaeological site, in particular evidence for food storage, preparation and consumption in an elite household, headed by one Serenos. On the site they found a large storage room filled with small bowls of varying sizes. They also found platters for shared, family style dining. Cooking pots were of fairly uniform size however cooking bowls were more varied. They did not find any large serving platters leading to the thought that these may have been made of more valuable materials than the locally produced ceramics. A couple of interesting notes were that as bones showed no evidence of burning, meat was probably either boiled or braised. There was an absence of extensive ovens in the home leading researchers to believe that the home may not have been used for cooking, just for reheating. However they do not know where the food was prepared. Possibly there were communal ovens which have not been found or they may have used a second floor of the house, which has now been destroyed. Beyond that, these folks ate well, produced their ceramics locally, except for amphorae, and weren’t too particular about what they did with bones. And if I ever read much on Late Antique Egypt I need to find a copy of Roger Bagnall, ed., The Kellis Agricultural Account Book.

More artifacts were in store when Elizabeth de Ridder Raubolt of the University of Missouri-Columbia presented, “Art and Artifact at the Late Antique Communal Meal.” I really enjoyed this one. She used a combination of archaeological and textual evidence to discuss how meals were conducted in the 4th through 6th centuries. Meals were taken reclining on a large, curved couch with a center table accessible to all diners where each person could see and speak to the others. There was a hierarchy of diners with the most important placed at either end. Large platters seem to have been important in elite dining however ceramics came to be more frequently used as time went on and it has been argued that African Red Slip (ARS) platters may have replaced silver in Christian households. Later in the period ARS becomes less common, being found only in the larger sizes, not used for smaller bowls, indicating possible problems with supply. Good paper and she used a lot of images to illustrate her points.

Image of the Last Supper from the Rossano(6th century Italy) Gospels. Photo from Wikimedia Commons. Note Judas reaching for food, his eyes cast down while the others all show reverence towards Christ.

The final paper of this session and, for me, the 47th Congress, was “Pots and Pantries: Correlating Cooking Ware with Dining Habits in Visigothic Spain by Scott de Brestian of Central Michigan University. I have a ton of notes for this one however he covered two primary themes for the period from the end of Roman rule to the early 7th century. One was whether the type of cooking ware used is a good indicator of what was eaten and the other was what changes in cooking ware could tell us about society. He mainly looked at two types of ceramics; casseroles, which were broad, flat, two-handled baking trays and; ollas which were large cooking pots which could be suspended by the neck over a fire and were used for slow cooking and for boiling meat. Traditionally ollas have been linked with eating pork while casseroles to eating sheep and goat. In the interior of Spain very few casseroles were found, almost all ollas, with a couple of exceptions. However faunal evidence indicates that while pigs were a substantial portion of the diet, they ate more sheep and goat. In addition, in Sainte-Blaise in Southern Gaul, ollas comprised 26% of 5th-6th century finds and 40% in the 7th century but faunal evidence indicates no significant dietary change. Brestian believes there is little evidence that looking at the types of pots used is a valid way of determining what was eaten.

Another area he covered was ceramic quality. About 50% of early 5th century cookware was improved Terragona. This declined to 15-20% by the 7th century. Over time, the use of African Red Slip pottery also declined. These were replaced by locally produced imitations. This decline shows a loss of wealth and also a decline in competition. The wealthy had fewer competitors and it took less of a display to demonstrate their status. Where previously elites possessed the entire range of high status vessels, now they used a selection. The one exception to this seems to be the Visigothic kings who had all vessels, demonstrating that elite dining rituals were now something expected of the king, not all elites. Another good paper accompanied by a lot of images which I haven’t captured adequately, and a very good session.

In place of a K’zoo summary post, I’ll throw in a quick paragraph here. I had a good time and went to some really good sessions. The accommodations continue to improve, especially with Wi-fi in most rooms. I was also more social than the previous year which was nice. As of now I’ve made four of these in a row, a record for me. Unfortunately, I’d say the odds are against my being able to attend next year. I think I’ll have a big May conflict and will probably take a year off. That’s OK, it’s not like I’m about to run out of books any time soon. Look for my 2012 posts to make it to my Kalamazoo page in the near future.


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Saturday at Kalamazoo: Monks and Goths

Following breakfast Saturday morning I headed back to the exhibit area and spent an hour or so at Powell’s, finishing up my book purchasing. Then I headed for Schneider and Session 376, Contexts of Early Medieval Monasticism I: Architectural Concepts. Before I begin I want to mention that the organizers had put together a booklet which included abstracts of all three Contexts of Early Medieval Monasticism Sessions. Even though I only went to one of these, it provided me with some information which may prove useful once I finish my Early Christianity Reading.

First up was Gregor Kalas from the University of Tennessee-Knoxville presenting, “The Residences of Carolingian Abbots and the Afterlife of the Late Antique Villa.” This was a really interesting paper. Kalas opened with a discussion of the Plan of St. Gall showing how the Abbot was expected to live in his own house, not communally. This was supported by the Aachen synod of 817 where Benedict of Aniane amended the Benedictine Rule to have some separation from the community. This separation mimics the villa plan where the owner and his family live in a residence separated from the rest of the estate. Farfa and San Vincenzo al Volturno are examples of monasteries which were formerly villas. The Plan of St. Gall, with its private residence for the Abbot and a private route to the basilica seems to have been modeled after villa construction. Ultimately, Kalas believes that Late Antique villas provided models for monastery plans and that by the 9th century an abbot’s residence could be considered a less luxurious villa. An interesting factoid (to me anyway) was his discussion of Farfa where in the 8th century the abbot lived as something of a recluse but by the 9th century they became increasingly worldly, which he attributes to the evolving relationship with the Carolingian rulers where the monastery became subject to greater royal control and a reduced Papal influence. Good paper and I’m hoping what he talked about is published someplace so I can get a closer look at his evidence.

Kirsten Ataoguz of Indiana University-Purdue University-Fort Wayne (IPFW for those of us in Indiana and yes, other than in basketball Purdue and IU collaborate a LOT!) followed with, “Overlapping Contexts of the Last Judgement at the Monastery of Saint John in Müstair, Switzerland.” Now I have a page-and-a-half of notes for this one. Even so, I have a feeling this summary will suffer as much from temporal distance as any because she showed a lot of really cool images which I can’t precisely recall – oh, for an eidetic memory. Müstair is one of several 9th century churches in the Alps with a similar image of the Last Judgement. This image tells a story (in looking for images in Müstair, the Last Judgement is just a piece, though an essential one, of the frescoes in the church) showing Christ as judge. He is depicted as the gatekeeper to an apostolic city (a local apostle, Vigilius, is among those shown) and with his right hand up and left hand down shows that he will choose between the saved and damned. These images, prominently displayed in the church, are for the benefit of the laity, not the monks. Ataoguz discussed how this type of story-telling differed from very literal eastern representations. Due to the prevalence of similar images in local 9th century churches she believes it is very possible that this type of representation originated in the region. Another very good paper.

Saint John Monastery in Mustair, Switzerland

Monastery of Saint John in Mustair, Switzerland. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

The final paper was by Annika Rulkens from the University van Amsterdam, “Monastic or Not? The Architecture of Rural Churches in Ninth-Century Hessen.” This was a comparative examination of the architecture of churches to support her thesis that smaller churches should be considered monastic. She believes that smaller satellite churches of Fulda and Sturm, built from the mid-eighth through mid-ninth century were modeled after the larger Abbey churches. These churches were built with the approval of the mother house and while she does not believe they were directed to use similar architecture, they chose to do so. Again, lots of images used for this paper which I don’t recall well enough to describe here.

For lunch I had the opportunity to sample the marvelous cuisine in Schneider (said menu choices consisted of pre-wrapped sandwiches – still better than past years and it provided calories) and chatted with The Cranky Professor (TCP) and ADM. Actually, ADM was working for the most part but I had a lot of fun with TCP. I had sort of a theme for the week I went with which was pretty much, “The way I do my job is very different from you,” With an emphasis on the fact that Purdue does not expect me to know how to write – we have a communications department which edits everything we put together. At the time I was in the middle of putting together a fairly short publication which seemed to be taking forever to finish (seriously – I took maybe 12 hours to write the draft, which was 95% of the end product). I’m pretty good at laughing at myself and TCP was willing to join in. I’m in the middle of a 150-page agrosecurity project right now and I dread how long that one will take.

I went Goth for the rest of the day, starting with Session 429, Early Medieval Europe II. Louis Shwartz, a Phd candidate from the University of Toronto opened with, “What Rome Owes to the Lombards: Devotion to Saint Michael in Early Medieval Italy and the Riddle of Castel Sant’Angelo.” Michelle Ziegler has already covered this paper nicely and I don’t have much to add. In talking about why Saint Michael came to be associated with Sant’Angelo he discusses mentions of him in Paul the Deacon and believes that ultimately Saint Michael’s association with the church likely dates from Cunibert who was King from 688-700 and Liutprand who succeeded him. Cunibert was a strong promoter of Saint Michael and when Liutprand allied himself with the Papacy and converted the Lombards, this association was solidified. Good paper and be sure to read Michelle’s more detailed summary.

Erica Buchberger, a Phd student from the University of Oxford followed with, “Gothic Identity in Spain Before and After the Arab Conquest.” She believes (and I agree with her) that people identifying themselves as Goths disappeared fairly quickly after the Arab Conquests. I regret that I didn’t write down the specific sources she used however she argued that examples of people identifying themselves as Gothic is hard to find after the end of the 7th century. In narratives, Goths disappear as an entity after 754 and afterwards people may say that they were of Gothic descent but they did not identify themselves as Goths. She believes this may have been a sign of loyalty; that they were true to their heritage but loyal to their Arab rulers. However she did say that in the North Gothic identity lasted longer and can be found up to 883 in a chronicle (again, I apologize for not noting which one).

The final paper was by Helen Foxhall Forbes of the University of Leicester, “Suicides and the Damned in Anglo-Saxon England.” I recall this being a very interesting paper though it was as much about damnation overall as about the attitude toward suicides. However it is interesting that A-S sources almost never mentioned contemporary suicides but instead focused on those taking place in the past and that suicide is not mentioned in the Anglo-Saxon law codes. Aelfric speaks strongly against suicide and one of the Vercelli Homilies states that “Jews, heathens and suicides” won’t be saved. According to the Old English Penitential and the OE Handbook the body of a suicide cannot be sung over or buried in consecrated ground. In contrast, the Blickling Homily states that a murderer can be saved and there was an Old English belief that even an executed criminal could be saved. Aelfric disapproves of priests fighting and says that one killed in battle will not be prayed for but may be buried in consecrated ground and that he will be judged by God. Good stuff in this one.

Following this I headed to Valley II and Session 461, Sixth-Century Italy I: Representing the Ostrogothic Kingdom. I was very pleased to see the sessions on the Ostrogoths this year, in particular that they were organized by Deborah Deliyannis of Indiana University. I decided I was a fan of hers after reading Ravenna in Late Antiquity last year.

The first scheduled speaker didn’t arrive so Shane Bjornlie of Claremont McKenna College started things off with “Princeps Illiteraturs: The Political Polemic of the Gothic War and Sources for Theoderic the Great.” This paper discussed how Theoderic was portrayed after his death, primarily during the Gothic War. It was a detailed examination of the sources which, while unsurprising in content, was quite interesting and informative. As might be expected, sources such as Ennodius and Cassiodorus portrayed him as a successful ruler of a Roman province while sources associated with Justinian’s court such as Procopius and Marcellinus Comes depicted him as an illegitimate barbarian. The Anonymous Valesianus describes Theoderic’s death as being the same as Arius’ with his bowels bursting as he was relieving himself. While there wasn’t anything particularly revolutionary here, I enjoyed it because of how many sources were covered, including later ones such as Gregory the Great, Fredegar and Paul the Deacon.

Another paper dealing extensively with sources and Theoderic followed as Christine Radtke of The University zu Kõln presented, “Theoderic the Great: Auctor Civilitas, Pius Princeps, Virtuous King.” With the help of a very useful handout she covered the various ways in which Theoderic was portrayed as a legitimate Roman ruler. These included Ennodius’ Panegyricus where he is praised in a fairly standard way as a successor of the Roman Emperors. On the Senigallia Medallion (the only certain image we have of Theoderic) he is titled as Rex and Princeps, titles by which he would have wanted to be known. In Cassiodorus’ Variae, each letter shows a different aspect of Theoderic as ruler and as a whole they stress his civilitas and depict him as someone highly engaged with the past to legitimize his rule and portray him as a Gothic ruler interested in peaceful cooperation between Romans and Goths. I don’t think there was anything new, different or surprising in either of these papers but I appreciated both of them for their examination of the sources.

Following this session I headed back to the exhibit area to pick up my book purchases. I’ve gotten better at this over the years and now I rarely leave one behind. It was interesting to find that several publishers are aware of this blog and one person told me that she appreciated my book reviews, particularly when it was one of theirs. Possessing a book from Brill and folks recognizing me all in the same day? That put me in happy camper mode, a good attitude to have when I went to the Pseudo Society Session, had a sub and some beer for dinner (I’d had enough pizza for one week the previous evening) and laughed for a couple of hours. As always, I don’t report on Pseudo, mainly because you have to be there to appreciate it but all of the “papers” were good though I don’t think any make my Hall of Fame.

That was enough for me as I skipped the dance, as I do every year, and made it to bed fairly early, only rarely being woken up by the late partying which went on in the courtyard outside my window. Probably didn’t hurt that it was cold enough that said window was closed.


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Conference Report: Vikings, Nosectomies, and a Saint

I’ve been horribly delinquent in my blogging lately. I’d like to say that will change in the near future but I fear this is not so. However it will change at some point. I’m equally behind on keeping up with the blogs I usually read.

On February 24 I went to campus for the second day of the Purdue Comitatus Annual Conference, subtitled, “North Atlantic Connections: Texts and Interpretations of the Medieval North.” Comitatus is a Purdue Medieval studies student group. I’ve been meaning to get to this conference for several years and the stars finally aligned so I could make it.

Based on the conference title I knew this likely wouldn’t be a program right in my wheelhouse however it was a bit closer than I expected. Most of the papers dealt with the Early Medieval Period and while the protagonists generally spoke Old English, Old German or Old Norse rather than Latin or Greek (not to say that I know Latin or Greek, just more about the people who spoke them) I was somewhat familiar with most of the topics.

Chad Judkins, a Purdue PhD student, opened with, “Writing the Viking Invasions and King Alfred’s Educational Program.” For the most part this was a continuation of the “Vikings received an overly bad reputation in historical sources” theme which has become prominent over the past couple of decades. Rather than bloodthirsty invaders in horned helmets intent on nothing more than killing folks for pleasure, it’s pretty widely recognized that their raiding was, mostly, economically motivated. Judkins expanded on this. 1

Judkins reviewed a variety of sources including Alfred’s preface to Gregory’s Pastoral Care, Alcuin and Asser. He showed that while Vikings were profoundly disliked, an economic decline seems to have been in effect well before their arrival. Alfred mentions a decline in literacy while Asser discusses how monastic life had become corrupted by wealth and was in decline prior to their arrival. As much of the destruction involved religious institutions including icons, books and churches, the ecclesiastical writers of the day will have believed both that a great deal of damage was done and that this was an attack on religion. Alfred implies that Vikings were a divine punishment, sent by God because of a decline in morality, virtue, monasticism and literacy, and Alfred is willing to use their return as a threat if this is not reversed. While this is a fairly standard type of paper, it was interesting and pointed out some specific sources I wasn’t aware of.

Next up was Phil Purser of Landers University, “Vapn-Wyf: Valkyrie Reflexes in Old English Literature.” He discussed how the Valkyrie was perceived in England and how she evolved from her Scandinavian origins. He believes that Valkyries were portrayed in three ways; as warriors, from a religious perspective, and from a contemporary popular perspective, particularly with laborers. How they were portrayed can provide some clues to their evolution from their Scandinavian origins.

As warriors, Valkyries are described as warrior women. As warrior women their role was not generally to carry a sword or spear but to provide wisdom and encouragement. He drew a parallel between Wealtheow in Beowulf and Valkyrie depictions, such as in the Old Norse verse, Eriksmal and in Danish visual representations of women resembling Valkyries bearing horns. Purser termed this as providing benevolent battle aid. 2

In religious representations Valkyries are depicted as horrible hags. Wulfstan (which I’ve not read) uses them in various ways to depict the evil of the Norse and gives them a relationship with witches. This is a distortion of the Danish Valkyrie who is something of a gatekeeper rather than a death-dealer, choosing men in their final hours for inclusion in Valhalla.

For the English working class the Valkyrie were invisible and harmful. Various charms are used to prevent or dispel their evil. Hag-shot, which is a source of mysterious physical pain is a Valkyrie affliction and flying “stinging women” were believed to cause side-stitch.

Marianne Kalinke from the University of Illinois gave a paper, “Tracking a Werewolf Through Space and Time” to discuss an example of manuscript transmission to Iceland. She uses the werewolf tale of Bisclaret to argue that this story came to Iceland directly from France rather than including a Norse intermediary. In the Icelandic tale Bisclaret is Tiòdel’s Saga. The general theme of the story is that a knight periodically disappears for several days at a time. After questioning from his wife he reveals to her that he is a man while clothed and a wolf while naked. He also tells her where he hides his clothes when he’s out wolfing it. The wife’s not too thrilled to find that she’s been spending her nights next to a wolfman and she coerces another knight to steal the clothes, trapping Bisclaret/Tiòdel in wolf form. When Bisclaret/Tiòdel doesn’t appear for some time he is declared dead and she marries the other knight. Later the king happens to come across an exceedingly friendly wolf which he takes back to his castle. To cut out several parts of the story, the wolf, while in the King’s company encounters his former wife and attacks her, tearing off her nose. As this behavior is very out of character for the wolf the wife is tortured (whole lot of things revealed about contemporary attitudes toward women but I won’t go into that here) and confesses her crime and reveals where the clothes have been hidden.

The common understanding of the original manuscript transmission has been that the story came to Iceland from an Old Norse source. Kalinke argues that it came directly from France rather than having a Norse intermediary. Her argument, which is very persuasive, at least to someone not familiar with other arguments, is based on elements of the story being common to the French and Icelandic versions and missing from the Norse version. The two elements she used were details of shapechanging and what happened to the wife when Bisclaret attacks her. I’ll focus on the wife. In the Old Norse version Bisclaret/Tiòdel tears off her clothes and leaves her standing naked in front of everyone. In the French and Icelandic versions her nose is torn off. Based on the original transmission route, she would have gone from having her nose torn off (French) to having her clothes torn off (Norse) back to losing her nose(Icelandic). Kalinke’s transmission directly from France to Iceland with a consistent nosectomy account is more logical.

There are obviously other areas to explore with this. For example, it’s possible that two versions went from France to Scandinavia and the clothes version is the only one from there which survives. But based on current manuscript evidence, Kalinke believes that a direct France to Iceland transmission makes the most sense.

Ben Wright, a Master’s student from Western Michigan University, used hagiography to illustrate Norse depictions in Early Medieval manuscripts in, “Illuminating the North: Northmen in Manuscript Pictures from Paris and Monte Cassino.” He focused on the evolution of the Life of St. Maurus. Hagiography has been one of my primary medieval interests so I’m afraid my notes do not reflect the main point of Wright’s paper.

The Life of Maurus was likely written by Odo of Cluny (Odo argued that it was written by a 6th century contemporary of Maurus) in the second half of the 9th century. In this vita the Devil is equated with Northmen and they are banished by Maurus.

What’s more interesting to me is how this vita evolved and its relative importance. Maurus ended up being used to provide additional ammo for various entities to make territorial claims. In particular a conflict between Monte Cassino and Saint-Maur-des-Fossès over control of Glanfeuil developed. In the story Maurus, a disciple of Benedict, founded Glanfeuil and his relics had been transported from there to Fossès when Odo and the monks were driven out by Northmen in 862. So Fossès had the relics. However Monte Cassino had been founded by Benedict.

In order to strengthen its claim, in 1033 Monte Cassino acquired an arm of Maurus as a relic. In 1071 Desiderius, the Abbott of Monte Cassino, had a richly decorated and illustrated book, the Codex Benedictus produced. However none of that worked. Fossès exerted control over Glanfeuil from 1058-86 however in the early 12th century Glanfeuil began to assert its independence which it achieved in 1133.

The Codex Benedictus.
The Codex Benedictus (photo from the University of Arizona)

Wright provided a slideshow which included various illustrations of how Northmen were depicted in various manuscripts and he discussed how up to 1133 Maurus had been shown as a Greek cleric (Monte Cassino would have been heavily influenced by the Eastern Empire) however after 1133 he was depicted in Western dress. This part of the presentation was good but for me the use made of Maurus in a power struggle was more interesting.

There was one final paper on the uses of humor in sagas which I won’t report on because I took really crummy notes, unfortunately (the paper and presentation were quite good). The day closed with some Old Norse readings (one of the grad students invited me to join their group – is there an unmet Ag School quota? – but I declined. I have enough trouble with Latin.)

1 A couple of months ago I woke up in the middle of the night and couldn’t get back to sleep. In flipping through the channels of very bad late night television, I came across a Viking movie where everyone, except Lee Majors who was the hero, wore horned helmets. I ended up watching the second half of it simply to marvel at how bad it was. Worst. Movie. Ever. At least dealing with Medieval History. And kind of funny.

2 In Eriksmal, “I stirred the Einherjar/Bade them Rise up,/Stir to their benches/Ready their ale-horns/For the Valkeries come bearing wine/at the coming of the prince.” This compares fairly well with Wealtheow’s role in lines 612-41 and 1161-1231 of Beowulf where she serves as hostess, cupbearer, and encourages the men.


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The Alamanni: A Roman Myth

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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