Julian and the Alamanni

Emperor Julian’s Roman Army travels on the Rhine near Strasbourg.

Julian had survived because he was so young (only six when the previous Emperor Constantine died), and he appeared unambitious and insignificant; he professed Christianity, but he had fallen in love with the culture of Athens and was a pagan at heart. In 355, as Constantius himself was preparing for war against Sapor, Julian was sent to Gaul as caesar to fight the Franks. (Julian’s chief of staff was picked personally by Constantius.) Julian quickly assumed command and won some victories, but the raids continued. The Alamanni-after a succession of successful raids and skirmishes, after driving even Julian behind walls, after seeing Roman cooperation break down in a futile attempt to coordinate a converging movement on the Alamanni-decided on a major campaign in Gaul under their king, Chnodomarius [Chnodomar]. Julian was ready to fight, and the two sides met at the battle of Strasbourg [Argentoratum] (A. D. 357).

The Roman army had to march about twenty miles. It set out at dawn, the foot soldiers in the middle, their flanks guarded by cavalry squadrons including cataphracts and archers (“a formidable kind of armed men”). After eight hours marching, they reached the vicinity of the enemy camp and Julian suggested to the troops that they prepare a fortified camp wherein they could rest, refresh themselves, and prepare to attack the next dawn. The soldiers “gnashed their teeth, clashed their spears on their shields,” and demanded that Julian lead them immediately against the enemy. Julian’s Praetorian prefect also urged him to attack while they had all the Alamanni fixed in one location and reminded him of “the hot tempers of the soldiers which could turn them so easily to riot.” A standard bearer cried out, “Advance, Caesar, luckiest of all men!”

The Romans advanced slowly, and when they came in sight of the Alamanni, they formed up in a close-packed wedge formation, and the Alamanni also formed up in wedges. The Alamanni put all their cavalry opposite the Roman cavalry on the Roman right. As the cataphracts had the advantage over the Alamanni cavalry because they wore mail armor and their hands were free while the Alamanni had to hold reins and shield in one hand and spear in the other, the Alamanni reinforced their cavalry with skirmishers and light infantry. The Alamanni had dug trenches on their right from which to spring ambushes, but the Romans expected trickery and halted on the edge of the trenches and waited to see what would happen.

Julian, protected by a bodyguard of 200 men and identified by a dragon banner, rode back and forth calling upon his men to restore Rome’s majesty; the Alamanni called upon their leaders to dismount and share the fortunes of the common soldier. King Chnodomarius [Chnodomar], a gigantic, muscular man, was the first to dismount, and the other princes followed his example. Then the trumpets blared, the two sides hurled their spears at each other, and the Alamanni charged. “The Alamanni, their long hair streaming, their eyes blazing with madness, made a terrifying sight.”

The two sides, densely packed, pushed each other back and forth, and clouds of dust obscured the field. Then the Roman cavalry commander was wounded and the Roman cavalry withdrew; Julian rushed to the spot to stop the retreat, but the cavalry and Julian were out of the battle long enough for the Alamanni to force their way into the Roman formation. There they were checked momentarily by Julian’s German troops before they broke through to the center of the army, where the Roman master of troops commanded a special unit. The two sides hacked at each other, the Romans sheltered behind their phalanx of shields, the Alamanni gone beserk, trying to break the formation and shouting war cries above the shrieks and moans of the wounded and dying. The Romans stabbed at the unprotected sides of the Alamanni, until they broke the impetus of their charge and forced them to turn and run.

The Romans pursued them to the banks of the Rhine and struck them until their swords were dulled, their spears broken, and then they stood on the banks of the river and threw javelins at them. The Alamanni who had preserved their shields in their flight used them as miniature rafts to take them to the other side. Chnodomarius surrendered and was sent to Rome where he died of old age. The Romans estimated that the Alamanni had numbered about 35,000 and that they themselves had been outnumbered three to one. They acknowledged 247 dead.

Julian’s Germans were so valuable to him that he learned their language. One of the commanders in his subsequent campaign against the Persians was Vadomarius, who had been king of an Alamannic canton. As king, Vadomarius led raids into Roman territory (in 352-353), his own territory had been raided in retaliation, and he had concluded a peace treaty with the Romans. Under the cover of the peace treaty, even as he accepted the local Roman commander’s invitations to banquets, he continued to raid Roman territory. Roman patience ran out, Vadomarius was arrested while he was attending a banquet, and he was sent to Spain. (His son succeeded him as king.) During Julian’s campaign in the east, Vadomarius was the “leader of the Phoenicians,” and under Julian’s successor, Valens, he conducted the siege of Nicaea and successfully commanded troops against the Persian King Sapor II in 371. This German king was at home in the Roman world, at least as that world was represented by the army, and he was a trusted commander, although his loyalty was pledged to the emperor and the army, not to the abstract entity Rome.

Julian tried to ameliorate the radical division between government and governed in Gaul with a total reorganization of the administration and a remission of taxes. His reforms were opposed by his own chief of staff (Constantius’s man), who ordered a larger tax. When Julian refused, the chief of staff reported to Constantius, and Constantius ordered Julian to collect the tax. Julian made a personal appeal to the people of Gaul and collected more money than the chief of staff had demanded. Julian’s success aroused the suspicions of Constantius, and Julian was ordered to send several large contingents of troops east to Constantius for the Persian War of the winter 359-360. Julian agreed, but his troops refused to serve so far away from their homes. They convinced Julian to let them proclaim him emperor (February 360), and they raised Julian on a shield, a custom followed by the German tribes. Julian asked Constantius to recognize him as co-emperor. Instead, Constantius gathered an army, and Julian and Constantius marched to a confrontation averted only by the death of Constantius in 361.

Thus Julian became sole emperor of the Roman Empire. Julian hated Christianity as the enemy of the Hellenic past he loved. He withdrew the privileges Christians had enjoyed and reintroduced sacrifice and the emperor cult. He forbade Christians to teach in the schools and refused them public careers. He looked the other way as old scores were settled.




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