The defense of Gaul (Roma aeterna est?)

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The defense of Gaul (Roma aeterna est?)

Post by Thanas » 2008-06-13 05:47pm

In Order to celebrate me reaching the millenium in posts, I shall offer a treat for the board. This is strictly speaking part of my "Roma aeterna est?" series, but because there is bound to be discussion and tangents, I shall post it seperately before posting a polished version in the parent thread.

Julian in Gaul: A Case Study of the Collapse, Reorganization and Defense of a Roman Province

Part I: Introduction

Many books have been written about the Flavius Claudius Iulianus and the opinions about him are as varied as the list of works covering or attributed to him. In the middle ages, Julian was demonized and received the less favourable cognomen Apostata. In the age of reason he served as heros to Voltaire, Montesqui and Frederick II, King of Prussia. But only the historians of the 19th and early 20th century have started to do Julian justice. Most famous is Leopold von Ranke's note about Julian: "In niemand aber haben sich jemals die auseinandergehenden, einander widersprechenden Tendenzen einer Zeit näher repräsentiert als in Julian" [Never before were the different and contradicting trends of one age as represented by a single person as with Julian; Ranke, Leopold von: Weltgeschichte - Die Römische Republik und ihre Weltherrschaft (World history: the Roman Republic and its world rule, 2 volumes, 1886)]

Today, most modern works focus on his status of being the last polytheistic emperor of Rome. Yet for his contemporaries he was first and foremost a defendor of the empire, a true military leader, as talented as he was young. Even Christian writers had to admit that he was a truly talented leader. Jordanes called him vir egregius et rei publicae necessarius (Jordanes, Romana 304) and Prudentius described him as ductor fortissimus armis. I will therefore try to illustrate this aspect of him in the following parts of this essay and provide a general overview about the Renaissance of roman control in Gaul.

A brief caveat lector: This is a very abbreviated version of a speech of mine. So if anyone copies this, he/she/it better ask me first, or I WILL sue you and/or make sure your university knows of it. Also, this one has not been read by anyone, so mistakes are bound to occur. I am very grateful if anyone would point out spelling mistakes.

Part II: Sources and literature
Ammianus Marcellinus (one of Julian's staff officers), Zosimos and Libanios have been covered before.

We are very fortunate to have a few of Julian's own words on the matter, namely his panegyricii in favor of Constantius II and his letter towards the Senate and People of Athens. However, all those sources are propaganda. Regrettably, Julian's own book about the war in Gaul has been lost.

Eunapios of Sardeis, a hierophant and an admirer of Julian, wrote a lot about Julian. Sadly, his work is lost, albeit Zosimos used a lot of it to write his own Historia. Eunapios idolizes Julian and his work is riddled with anecdotes. The best collection of the fragments can be found in: Blockley, R.C., The fragmentary classicising historians of the later roman empire. Eunapios, Olympiodorus, Priscus and Malchus (ARCA Classical and medieval texts, paper and monographs 10), Liverpool 1983.

Salminius Hermias Sozomenus, a christian lawyer of the fifth century, is one of the few christian chroniclers who covers the fighting in Gaul in his Historia Ecclesiastica. Of course he is biased against Julian and sometimes seems to get lost in anecdotes as well, yet he is still a valuable source for the period.

Other writers mention Julian and may or may not be discussed further in the text, but I think this should suffice for the first time. One might say that there exists a good literary foundation, but sadly a lot of the texts are very subjective and have a definite agenda.

Part III: The Rhine frontier

In order to talk about the collapse of the Rhine frontier, one must first know what the Rhine frontier was. This Article does a good job in describing the classical structure and it even includes a map which is very helpful. A seperate article explains the later Rhine frontier in general.

Furthermore, every Reader should look at this map and if possible, have it open in a seperate tab/window for the rest of the article since geography is essential to the subject at hand.

Many of you will know that due to the reforms of Diocletian and Constantine the Roman army was split into two different categories - the border army (limitanei) and the field armies (comitatenses). Despite a strong view to the contrary, the border guards were not "third-rate soldiers scared of a single barbarian" and did not "abandon the care of their armor". One can instead assume that they were very capable and professional forces, no matter what the Osprey book might say about the matter. I refer you to the excellent essays in the Cambridge Ancient History, Vol. XIII, especially the part by R. C. Blockley, Warfare and Diplomacy, pg. 411-436. In fact, many of the units guarding the border were over 300 years old and had such proud names as XXII Primigenia, VIII Augusta, I Minerva, XXX Ulpia - familiar names to any historian of the classical Roman military. Though most likely diminished in size (although there is a debate on the matter which I will not cover here) they represented roman might and the continued roman presence near and on the river, which was also guarded by a substantial fleet.
The comitatenses were the field army, a mobile reserve composed of the best roman troops. As their name (followers, companions) implies, they "accompanied" the roman commanders to the battle. Before the battle, they were joined by the limitanei. 401 is a somewhat curious example as it was the other way around - Stilicho ordered the limitanei to travel to Italy in order to (succesfully) deal with Alaric. However, for the time period we are talking about, the system was still very much in place.

As one can see from the map I linked to, the major threats to the Romans at the time were the Franci and the Alamanni. Both were germanic tribes, the franks being notorious for their battle-axes and the alamanni (literally meaning "all men", though again this is open for debate) for assimilating most of the older german tribes. Now, when one says "franci" or "alamanni", one does not mean a single tribe, but a collection of fairly different tribes which the Romans just called by a single name. The Alamanni for example were actually composed by at least seven different tribes, each led by its own king. Most germanic tribes fought on foot, and those two made no exception. The heavy hitters in their armies were nobles and their retinue, heavily armored and - contrary to common belief - quite disciplined and capable of performing complex maneuvers. They also fielded some cavalry though compared to their roman opponents they were almost always second-rate. Artillery and siege trains were almost nonexistent.

Part IV: The collapse of the Rhine frontier

The actual collapse of the Rhine frontier was - as in so many cases - precipitated by internal strife. On the January 18th, 350, Magnentius was proclaimed emperor by the field army of Gaul. After he had disposed of the Emperor Constans, he was defeated by the emperor Constantius II,, Constants brother and the son of Constantine I (magnus) at Mursa (nowadays Osijek) in Croatia. Mursa was one of the bloodiest battles in Roman history, with a death toll nearly double the bodycount of the battle of Adrianople (Mursa: 56.000 romans, Adrianople 32-36.000 romans, though the latter figure is debatable). Constantius lost half his army, Magnentius two thirds of his. He then retreated to Gaul, where he had named his relative Decentius Caesar, to reinforce his position.

As usual, the Alemanni had heard of the defeat and a coalition of several tribes, led by Chnodomar, was formed. Chnodomar is the rare example of a leader who was as versed in the art of diplomacy as in the art of warfare, for not only did he manage to defeat a roman army in battle, he also managed to keep the coalition together despite several roman attempts at sowing disunity. As we will see in the following parts, Chnodomar is one of the three protagonists of this story.

Due to the losses sufffered at Mursa and the looming threat of Constantius, Magnentius was unable to pose much of a threat to the ambitions of Chnodomar, who crossed the rhine in force and defeated Decentius in a decisive battle, whereof we neither know the name nor the exact date. In this battle the aforementioned old legions perished since they are not mentioned after the time period in which the battle had taken place (351-352). In the year 353, Constantius moved once again against Magnentius, who was once again defeated in a decisive and bloody battle at Mons Seleucus and committed suicide along with Decentius.

This battle and the earlier defeat at the hands of Chnodomar meant that the gallic army and the border armies had all but vanished and that the border was ripped wide open by the attacking Alamanni and Franci. The Franci apparently wanted to capitalize on the success of the Alamanni though they never formed an alliance with them. Among scholars, there has been a vigorous debate on whether the invasion of the Alamanni was triggered by envoys of Constantius (for the debate, see: Lorenz, S., Imperii fines erunt intacti. Rom und die Alamannen 350-378, Frankfurt a.M. 1997 (Diss. Berlin 1995), S. 22-23, Fn. 85.).

Zosmios (II,53,3), Julian (ep. ad. SPQR athen. 286a, 287a) and Libanios (Or. 18,33.) all claim this. Yet they were all enemies of Constantius as well. Yet on a latter date both Libanios and the christian Sozomenos (Sozomenos V, 1,2; Libanios Or 18, 52) claim that the Alamanni were able to show Julian letters of alliance by Constantius. And an alliance with the barbarians would have prevented Decentius to help Magnentius (and the Alamanni did in fact remove the threat of Decentius). Finally, it would not have been the first time that an emperor would use barbarians against an Usurpator.

My hypothesis is therefore that Constantius did enter into some kind of an alliance with the Alamanni. However, it is quite unlikely that Constantius would have allowed the Alamanni to ramsack Gaul. Most likely the Alamanni simply took advantage of the fact that nobody was there to stop them and exploited that advantage.

Whatever the cause or the reason, the fact of the matter was that within one year, the entire border of the Rhine was ripped open and the Alamanni and Franci swarmed across the now undefended hinterland. 45 cities were lost.


Alright, I think I'll stop here for the first part since my hand hurts from typing. Comments and criticism is always welcome and I hope you found this to be an enjoyable read.
Whoever says "education does not matter" can try ignorance
A decision must be made in the life of every nation at the very moment when the grasp of the enemy is at its throat. Then, it seems that the only way to survive is to use the means of the enemy, to rest survival upon what is expedient, to look the other way. Well, the answer to that is 'survival as what'? A country isn't a rock. It's not an extension of one's self. It's what it stands for. It's what it stands for when standing for something is the most difficult! - Chief Judge Haywood
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