TOP 100 REVIEWERon 18 November 2013
This is a very interesting, original and, at times, fascinating book on the relations between the Alamanni, a confederation of Germanic tribes on the right bank of the Upper and Middle Rhine, and the Roman Empire between the third century and the fifth century, from the reign of Caracalla to their defeat and conquest by Clovis and his Franks.
The book's originality lays in the author's thesis, with John Drinkwater developing the case that the Germanic tribes along the Rhine, in general, and the Alamanni, in particular, did not represent a deadly threat to the Romans, or even to Gaul. Rather, Rome, ever since Julius Caesar and Arioviste, tended to use them and make them into terrifying "bugbears", playing on Romans' ingrained terrors going back to the Cimbri and the Teutons of the late second century BC. In a way, they were a kind of convenient "punching ball" each and every time that an Emperor needed to burnish his military credentials and win some quick victories for "internal consumption".
The author does not, however, go as far as to state that they were harmless, but the damage they could do was limited to frontier raids by war bands, mostly relatively small (the maximum for each war band seems to be about a thousand warriors). These raids, many of which came for further inland, as opposed to coming from the populations settled along the frontier, lead to harsh Roman reprisals. The real danger that they represented was in times of Roman civil war when they could (and did) take advantage of the undermanned frontier garrisons but, here too, they were reacting to their much more powerful neighbour.
The points are well-made, well-argued, thoroughly discussed, and mostly convincing. The rather revisionist conclusion drawn by the author - that the Roman Emperors deliberately magnified the threat that these tribes represented in order to justify the huge costs of maintaining larges forces on the Rhine and in Gaul - seems, at first look, difficult to dispute, although it is quite controversial.
The author's sections on Ammianus Marcellinus are particularly good and convincing as they show how the Roman author's biases lead him to magnify the threat on the Rhine frontiers. Julian and his entourage are presented as rather devious. According to Drinkwater, they largely engineered the troubles that lead to the Caesar's victory at Strasbourg, giving him the military glory he needed to challenge Constantius II, and destroying the latter's policy and alliances with the Alamanni. In addition, the author also questions the numerous "victories" that Valentinian the First won over them a decade later, reducing them to punitive expeditions and mostly small engagements.
After reading these fascinating and somewhat revisionist interpretations, I could not help wondering. Although I was not entirely convinced, it seemed clear that the "Germanic" threat had been often exaggerated by the Roman Emperors. I was not quite certain; however, to what extent this might have been the case. This is because the author tends to rather systematically minimize almost all Germanic incursions and to downgrade them to mere raids.
Regardless of whether you are entirely "sold" on the author's thesis or whether you remain somewhat sceptical, there is much more to this book that that. Three main additional items stand out - there are others as well, but to keep this review reasonably short, I will only mention these.
One is the author's skill in showing that most of these Germanic tribes, and the Alamanni in particular, mainly intended to integrate, and that this was mostly achieved through service in the Roman army. The examples of Alamanni officers found in the written sources and serving in the army show to what extent some of them achieved this. This is completed by the second element, which is the rather skilful use of archaeological findings that give glimpses on the arrival, settlement, living conditions and society of the Alamanni how it evolved over time, and how they seem to have mostly wanted to preserve close links with Rome and become part of the Empire.
The third element is that this book, beyond the thesis presented, is perhaps the most valuable of all. This is because it brings to (relative and partial) light the history of and life on a large part of the Rhine frontier and it largely succeeds in demystifying the "Barbarians". These were clearly not so "Barbarian" as the Roman propaganda tended to portray them. Moreover, they did not want to remain "Barbarian" at all: they seem to have wanted to become Romans...
After hesitating a bit, because some of the author's interpretations are somewhat speculative and at times far-fetched, I will settle on five stars because this is a superb book. It is a must read for anyone interested on the Roman Empire, even if you are not entirely convinced by the time you have finished it...