Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2007.06.24

John F. Drinkwater, The Alamanni and Rome 213-496. Caracalla to Clovis.   Oxford:  Oxford University Press, 2007.  Pp. xi, 408.  ISBN 978-0-19-929586-5.  $110.00.  

Reviewed by Hendrik Dey, American Academy in Rome (
Word count: 2177 words

Table of Contents

Drinkwater's (hereafter D) new volume on Romano-Alamannic relations joins the vibrant canon of what might be termed 'Roman frontier studies', a growing assemblage of scholarly works produced during the past several decades which has collectively reshaped traditional views about the steady collapse of Roman 'civilization' under the relentless pressure of 'barbarian' hordes bent on its destruction, and created in the process a newly complex and often problematic picture of the relationship between the later Roman Empire and its neighbors.

Several interrelated arguments permeate D's narrative. The first to be introduced postulates that the Alamanni were largely a construction of the Romans, who invented the term as a convenient designator for the various groups of Germanic peoples located north and east of the Rhine - Danube re-entrant. For their part, these peoples seem not to have had much sense of ethnic or cultural cohesion, at least until about the fourth century, when the Roman ethnographic trope of a unified Alamannic gens began to convince the Alamanni themselves. Moreover, this loose grouping of petty kingdoms and principalities (pagi) was decidedly inferior in population, technology and socio-economic development to its Roman neighbors, so much so -- and this is where D most distances himself from past interpretations -- that they could not have posed any serious threat to the Empire even had they wished to do so, which they did not. Returning to somewhat more familiar ground, D asserts that the Alamannic menace was thus predominantly a creation of the Roman authorities (for all that the effects of cross-border raiding could be most unpleasant on a local level), a carefully-maintained fiction designed to serve the interests of those in power.1 Sustained low-intensity conflict along the Rhine frontier allowed Roman emperors to establish or polish a reputation for martial valor, kept large armies trained and occupied, and indeed 'justified the maintenance of the whole imperial system in the west' (p. 361): massive troop concentrations had to be supported by regular tax collection and administered by a ramified bureaucratic apparatus, both of which served to enrich and employ members of the governing classes, while also strengthening their hold on the remainder of the provincial population. The Alamanni, meanwhile, were generally content to comply with the Roman fiction. For all that they were more often the oppressed than the aggressors -- there is a whiff of postcolonial theory in all of this -- the victims more than the instigators of armed conflict, they were on the whole as invested in maintaining a symbiotic status quo as were those on the imperial side. Alamannic warriors and their leaders came to depend on the empire for subsidies in cash and kind, lucrative and prestigious positions in the Roman army, and more generally the long-term political and economic stability which proximity to the essentially static imperial frontier guaranteed. All of these benefits, D stresses, accrued to both sides with minimal risk, as neither had any interest in conquering the other or profoundly altering the existing balance of power.

The bulk of the volume is strongly informed by these underlying premises, particularly the extensive sections of historical narrative devoted to events along the Rhine frontier between the third and fifth centuries. The first chapter ("Prelude") provides an historical introduction to the Rhine frontier from the time of Caesar's Gallic campaigns to the beginning of the third century AD. Here too, D emphasizes his twin convictions that the 'barbarian menace' was programmatically exaggerated by Roman authorities for their own ends, and that the presence of Roman legions along the Rhine frontier was quite superfluous in strategic military terms, since 'the western Germani posed no real threat' (p.12). Chapter 2 ("Arrival") continues the narrative into the third century, beginning with the first appearance of Alamanni in accounts of Caracalla's campaigns on the Rhine frontier in 213 (according to the testimony of Cassius Dio and Aurelius Victor, which D is inclined to accept; see pp. 42-43). Following a brief excursus on the origins and formation of the people later called Alamanni (the majority likely had roots amongst the 'Elbgermanic' peoples of eastern Germany; their ancestors gradually moved west toward the Roman frontier and settled near the Rhine-Danube re-entrant in the third century, after which they began to coagulate into something resembling a discrete people, a process D likes to call 'ethnogenesis sur place'), D turns to the arrival of the Alamanni in their future homeland, the area of the Roman frontier between the Rhine and Danube called the agri decumates, which they pressured the Gallic emperor Postumus to abandon in the turbulent years following his usurpation in 260. Thereafter, the Alamanni consolidated their hold on the area and became a close neighbor of the Empire, with which they necessarily entered into constant contact, both as opponents and -- more often for D -- as collaborators and allies.

Several broadly thematic chapters follow: Ch. 3 ("Settlement") examines the speed and rhythm of the Alamannic occupation of their future homeland, as well as the infrastructure and settlement patterns of the society that developed there; it is a challenging and often inherently speculative enterprise, given the sparseness of the archaeological record and the difficulties of interpreting existing data. Ch. 4 ("Society") treats the political and military institutions of the Alamanni, along with elements of demography, social organization, and economy, insofar as any of these are susceptible to analysis on the basis of cursory and/or tendentious remarks in Roman sources and exiguous archaeological finds. As a token of the overwhelming superiority of Roman power, D compares the population of the imperial provinces adjacent to the Rhine with that of 'greater Alamannia', which he puts at ca. 10,000,000 and ca. 120,000 souls, respectively, a ratio of 80:1. No fools, the Alamanni were hence more eager to serve their neighbors than to attempt their eradication, mostly by taking posts in the Roman army, as D demonstrates in Ch. 5 ("Service").

The next three chapters form a detailed account of the years from 285-394, with certain periods treated in greater detail according to the relative richness of the textual record. Hence, the six years between 355 and 361, which correspond with Julian's command in the west, get a chapter all to themselves, thanks to the unparalleled richness of the sources (including Ammianus, Libanius, and Julian himself). D's discussion throughout is erudite and unsurprisingly reveals a thorough command of the sources, though some will of course take issue with the details of his interpretation. As the various arguments presented cannot be treated here in detail, it will suffice to note that D is consistently at pains to downplay the seriousness of nearly all the attested Alamannic attacks on Roman territory, which were either invented essentially ex nihilo, or otherwise substantially magnified to provide Roman emperors (notably Julian and Valentinian I) with the pretext they needed to launch more or less massive reprisals, which could in turn be publicized as major military victories. In the few cases where serious offensive action was undertaken by the Alamanni, it was in response to extreme Roman weakness caused by internal strife, as in the case of the attacks of the early-mid 350s, when frontier defenses drastically weakened in the wake of civil war between Constantius II and the usurpers Magnentius and Decentius were probed more tenaciously than usual by Alamannic raiders (pp. 200-216).

Following 383, the Alamanni effectively disappear from the roll of Rome's enemies along the frontier. They are never again described as being at war with Roman forces, and they indeed exit the historical record almost completely in the fifth century, the period which forms the focus of D's final chapter. In ceasing to demonize the Alamanni, Rome's leaders seem to have deemed Franks, Huns and other groups of barbarians a more compelling threat, as they indeed proved to be, to nobody more than the Alamanni themselves, who disappear as an independent people at the end of the fifth century, when they were definitively conquered and subsumed by Clovis' Franks. D is thus moved to wonder why the Alamanni never became a successor kingdom in their own right, and what it was that led to their eclipse by the Franks. He concludes that unlike the Franks (or presumably the Visigoths, Vandals, Saxons, and so on), the Alamanni were too invested in the Roman establishment to contemplate life without it, or to seek to overturn the old system, or even to profit from its ruin. In the end, the less Romanized Franks were better able to countenance the ruin of the imperial order, and in the timely appearance of Childeric and his son Clovis, they found immensely charismatic leaders willing and able to carve a robust polity out of the vacuum left by the end of the Roman Empire in the west. As these Frankish leaders did not seek to benefit from the image of a frontier bristling with Alamannic spears ready to burst across the Rhine, they were willing (and able) to eliminate their rivals once and for all.

The final four pages of the chapter contain a lucid summary of D's principal contentions, as well as his assessment of the importance of a study devoted exclusively to the Alamanni. For D, then, "Their [sc. the Alamanni] chief role in history is that they offer a unique insight into the nature of the Romano-barbarian relationship" (p. 359). The key to that relationship and the core of his thesis, D again stresses, is that "... as far as the late Roman west is concerned, the 'Germanic threat' was an imperial artifact -- an indispensable means of justifying the imperial presence and imperial policies, and of maintaining provincial loyalty to the Empire." To my mind, this ultimate section would have worked particularly well as an introduction, for its simple and forceful exposition of both the broader relevance of the study and its salient arguments. In its current position, it in any case merits separate treatment as a conclusion per se, which the book otherwise lacks.

More generally speaking, D's book is patently a valuable addition to the corpus of work devoted to relations between the Empire and its neighbors. In addition to his thorough use of the ancient sources, D has extensively mined the secondary literature, in the process digesting several decades' worth of recent work by German-speaking scholars whose ideas are often not sufficiently represented in Anglophone scholarship. While he does not shrink from modifying or refuting the interpretations of events offered by ancient and modern commentators alike,2 D is diligent in noting both his differences with previously expressed views and communes opiniones, as well as his debts to past scholars. Thus, for all that D's account of Romano-Alamannic interactions reflects his particular concerns -- above all his interest in minimizing the Germanic threat -- and seems primarily aimed at a rather advanced readership, it nonetheless remains useful as a resource for the non-specialist seeking an entrée into current thinking and scholarship on 'Romans and barbarians.'

It strikes me that among specialists, D's most original point may also be the most controversial: it is one thing to say that the Romans exaggerated the menace of transrhenane populations for their own ends, a postulate that most will no longer find objectionable; it is quite another to propose that the Alamanni et al. had neither the capacity nor the will to inflict serious harm on the frontier provinces of the Empire, or that they would have been disinclined to occupy Roman Gaul even in the absence of a massive Roman standing army. D walks a delicate line between making the Alamanni essentially powerless, a political tool of the Roman empire on the one hand, while on the other acknowledging that they were a "warrior society" brimming with thousands of young men eager for spoils and military glory, who could and frequently did cause enormous damage to the empire and its inhabitants. D is in fact frequently compelled to acknowledge that the Alamanni typically became much more aggressive when Roman defenders were weak or distracted. We might recall here the Alamannic raid of 270-71, when they sowed destruction as far as northern Italy (see pp. 70-79), or the previously-mentioned case of 355-56, when Alamanni raided across the Rhine and even settled in droves on the left bank in imperial territory, where they remained until Julian violently expelled them. If the Alamanni are to have any credibility as an historical phenomenon, in short, they cannot be wholly a figment of the imagination, be it that of modern scholars or the ruling classes of the later Roman Empire.

In conclusion, D's book immediately takes its place as one of the most focused and detailed analyses of the Alamanni in existence, certainly the best available in English. With regard to the broader applicability of the paradigm illustrated for the Alamanni as a case-study in the workings of the Roman frontier, the findings of future studies on other frontier peoples will be crucial.3 In the meanwhile, D. has given anyone contemplating such an undertaking a valuable point of departure, and a laudable example to follow.


1.   As D acknowledges, basically similar ideas have been expressed in one form or another by John Matthews, Walter Goffart, Walter Pohl, and others.
2.   The testimony of ancient sources in particular is occasionally bodily discarded when it jars with his views; see e.g. p. 227, with n. 73; also pp. 231-235, where Libanius' tale of a Roman bridge across the Rhine destroyed by tree-trunks sent downstream by the Alamanni is (ingeniously) turned on its head.
3.   M. Kulikowski's already published work on the Goths along the Danube frontier, for example, shares many of D's fundamental premises, notably in the contention that notions of 'Goths' as a unified people and as implacable enemies of Roman civilization were both largely inventions of the Roman authorities: see most recently M. Kulikowski, Rome's Gothic Wars (Cambridge, 2007), with references to the author's prior works.

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