Book Review by Ian Hughes
In recent years there has been a growing interest in the Late Roman Empire. Fuelled to a large degree by an ever-increasing number of translations of primary sources, anybody interested in Late Antiquity is close to being overwhelmed by the sheer volume of scholarly publications being published. Furthermore, interest is not limited solely to aspects of Roman history. John F Drinkwater has contributed to this outpouring with a book focused on one of Rome’s ‘Germanic’ enemies, the Alamanni.
Beginning with two chapters that establish a base, Drinkwater briefly covers the Romano-Alamannic relations from the time of Julius Caesar up to the beginning of the book proper in the early-third century. Drinkwater finally establishes the Alamanni in their home in the Agri Decumates, abandoned by Rome during the course of the ‘Third-Century-Crisis’.
In these chapters Drinkwater sets out his overriding concepts. One of these is that the presence of the Empire helped to forge the Alamanni, who were forced to coalesce from smaller tribal groupings into a power-block that was able, at least to some degree, to deal with Rome on a less subservient basis. The argument is well presented and it is hard to argue against the proposal.
A second assumption is that as far as the Alamanni – and other tribesmen living along the frontiers – were concerned, the Roman Empire was a land ‘paved with gold’. Living conditions were better and service in the army – especially at higher level – was much sought after, notably with reference to the salary that could be earned and then spent either back with their home tribes or near the centre of things at the Roman court. As with the previous concept, the argument is well presented and to a large degree is supported by other modern experts on the period with regard to the tribes along the whole of the ‘Germanic’ frontier in the north.
His other main proposition is slightly more contentious: contrary to the ancient sources and modern historians who accept them at ‘face value’, he dismisses the idea that the Alamanni were intent on the invasion of the Empire and were they capable of destroying Rome.
In support of his theory, Drinkwater posits "a maximum resident population of c.120,000 for the fourth century”, noting that “the third-century figure must have been considerably lower" (p. 81). When compared to the many millions resident within the empire, it is clear that the Alamanni had no hope of ‘destroying’ the Empire. Drinkwater replaces the perception of the ‘destructive’ Alamanni with a new picture: that the Alamanni were never in a position to threaten Rome, and knew it.
As a result, Drinkwater suggests that claims in the ancient sources that the Alamanni were intent on the destruction of Rome were obviously untrue and for propaganda purposes. The claims reflected the political agenda of the Roman emperors, who, desperate to earn a military reputation, were then able to wage a war that they were never in danger of losing. In this model, the Alamanni were the weaker partners who had no option but to play along with the political game of the Empire, at the same time trying to raise their own power whilst acknowledging that Rome was forever superior.
Unfortunately, the hypothesis fails to explain why, when the empire’s defences were distracted by other frontiers, the ‘weak’ Alamanni managed to cause serious problems, for example the raids which even reached Italy in 270-71, or when they attempted to settle on Imperial territory in 355-56. The Alamanni were obviously not as passive as postulated. Although such evidence can be used by those who disagree with Drinkwater, on the whole the hypothesis is compelling and, to his credit, Drinkwater does not, like some authors, ignore points which go against his theories: instead, he outlines his various ideas but also notes where other authors are in opposition to his thoughts.
It should also be noted that other tribal groups, notably the Goths and the Marcomanni, had previously launched raids and invasions of the Empire to devastating effect, and the Goths were later to cause major disruptions of both the Eastern and Western halves of the Empire. It may only be with the benefit of hindsight that it is possible to see that the Alamanni, unlike other tribal groups, were unable to cause severe problems to Rome.
After the introductory chapters the book takes the now-traditional thematic approach, with chapters on ‘Settlement’, ‘Society’, and ‘Service’. Despite Drinkwater’s superb grasp of the material used to construct these chapters, it quickly becomes apparent that he is forced to rely on a comparatively small number of archaeological excavations coupled with a few written records from biased Roman sources. As a result, much of what is written is conjectural, although it should be noted that Drinkwater acknowledges this and his subsequent hypotheses are well-formulated and well-presented.
Having covered the social aspects of Alamannic life, Drinkwater changes his approach to a chronological method, with chapters covering the three major periods of conflict, the first detailing the long early period between 285 and 355, followed by two more focused chapters, ‘Conflict 356-61’ (Julian’s ‘Rule’ in the West) and ‘conflict 365-94’ (the Wars of Valentinian down to the Roman Civil War of 394).
This is possibly the most rewarding section of the book. Drinkwater’s command of the sources allows him to analyse these years in detail, explaining why the course of events unfurled as they did. However, it should be noted that everything in these chapters is dependent on Drinkwater’s paradigm that the Alamanni were never intent or capable of invading the Roman Empire with a view to conquest.
It is not worth entering into a detailed analysis of these chapters. They are an invaluable tool for anybody who wishes to investigate conditions along the northern frontier and how the Romans interacted with their neighbours: indeed it is possible that some of the analysis here could be used to great effect if used as a model to examine Rome’s dealings with other ‘barbarians’ in the north.
In the final chapters Drinkwater discusses the ways in which the Alamanni reacted to the collapse of Rome in the fifth century, tracing their attempts to expand into the power vacuum left by the breakup of the empire, largely by ‘marginal settlement and heavy raiding’ (p.335). In this they were thwarted by the emergence of the ‘Ostrogothic kings’ in Italy, but mostly by the growing power of the Franks in the west, by whom they were to be overcome shortly after the final eclipse of Rome.
Alongside his ability to explain his hypotheses clearly and concisely, Drinkwater has also integrated a lot of non-English – but especially German – sources into his work. This aspect should not be overlooked, as it allows English readers access to much of the modern research and theory being produced on the continent in the first half of the first decade of the twenty-first century.
Having explored the many good aspects of the book it is time to turn to the two disappointing factors, the first of which is the quality of the maps. Although of themselves adequate, the fact that many of the maps are simple line drawings depicting areas in the centre of Europe without any external context makes understanding difficult, especially with regard to the ‘campaign’ maps of the later chapters. This is disappointing, as the inclusion of good maps in such a technical book should be taken as given. Instead, the reader needs to have an atlas to hand in order to fully understand the location of events.
The second of the problems is the high cost of the book. As this review is being typed the average price of the book is c.$100/£75. At a time when many of the primary sources are being translated and produced at a far lower price, the cost of buying the book is prohibitive. If the publisher’s reason for the high cost is that demand will be low, charging the customer a large percentage of their monthly wage is likely to make the excuse self-fulfilling. It is also rather sad: the book deserves a far wider audience than it is likely to receive.
In conclusion, and despite these negative factors, the book is very highly recommended. Anybody wishing to learn more about the history of the Alamanni, especially in relation to Rome, has no option but to read this book. The same can be said for anybody who wishes to learn more about Romano-German relations on the northern frontier, as much of the discussion can be used to inform opinion about Roman political manoeuvrings and their ramifications all along the Rhine-Danube border. Without doubt it is the best book of its kind to have been produced in a long time.