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Julian the Apostate versus Chnodomar: A Roman army under Julian awaits an attack from an Alamanni army under Chnodomar. Julian boasts superior cavalry but Chnodomar believes his tactics can neutralize them. How will Julian adapt to these and other Alamanni surprises? Also known as the Battle of Argentoratum.
This battle is often classified as one of those classic battles between Roman “civilization” and barbarian “hordes” but this language subjectively labels entire cultures. Roman organization is consistently touted as superior to their Gallic and Germanic counterparts. Historiographically, the Romans are typically heavily outnumbered but prevail due to their superior organization; the barbarians appear as violent brutes who charge mindlessly but furiously. It is ironic that Roman accounts show absurd numbers of barbarians, which would also imply the Roman logistical organization was inferior. It was also the Romans who descended into civil war after “pacifying” west of the Rhine River, and clever Alamanni tactics nearly overcame the Romans in this battle.
Chnodomar likely did not fight dismounted as some accounts would suggest; Delbrück points out how such a heavy-set man would not have been able to disengage from the battle and reach his horse to flee as primary sources insist he did (translated 1980: 267n). Regardless, he fought in the frontline as did other kings and nobles, which prevented any real management of the battle to react to events as they unfolded. Julian directed the battle from the center to the rear and was more able to respond to the defeat of the Roman cavalry on the right and the infantry at the center. On the Roman left, Severus effectively carried out his orders to protect the army’s left flank.
It is a great shame that I did not discover Delbrück’s four-volume History of the Art of War until this animation. While his German bias is evident, he is succinctly critical of history and asks questions that must be asked. Delbrück pays close attention to details of battles, destabilizing our current perception of battles. For Strasbourg, Delbrück finds great fault with the idea that Julian was able to prevent his cavalry from fleeing altogether by his personal intervention:
Such an act by a commander is very often found in military history but the larger the armies involved, the more certain it is that the reports are false . . . Troops which are already in flight and are sorely pressed by the enemy can no longer be stopped with mere words, least of all cavalry . . . In the “Military Letters” of Prince Kraft Hohenloe (1:78), we can read a critical description of how powerless a commander is to stop a cavalry unit overcome by panic, even if no real enemy is in pursuit. (1980: 264)
He continues that stories of a commander miraculously rallying a unit only really occur when fresh units come into play; at Strasbourg, Roman infantry reserves entered the fray to engage the Alamanni cavalry. In the animation, only part of the cavalry remains near the battlefield and re-engages only when the battle is won, consistent with Ammianus’ vague description of the Roman cavalry’s return (Delbrück, 1980: 264).
Numbers as always are controversial and subject to debate. Elton (1996: 255) and Head (1976: 59) merely repeat the initial estimates of a vast Alamanni army of 35,000; Warry (1980: 206) and Goldsworthy (2000: 178) acknowledge this number is speculative; two authors are explicitly critical and offer their own estimates. Delbrück estimates only 6-10,000 Alamanni soldiers (1980: 267-8n) while Drinkwater estimates 15,000 based on a core of 9,000, levy of 4,000 and allies of 2,000 (2007: 239). The latter estimate is more recent, its author written more specifically on this time period and region, and more consistent with the typically meticulous Roman body count of 6-8,000 Alamanni.
Some maps of this battle depicted the Alamanni occupying slightly higher ground while others depicted the Roman occupying this terrain. For the animation, I have simply treated the battle as relatively flat, maybe with some gentle changes in terrain which would explain such contradictory illustrations. Regardless of which side held this terrain, it does not appear to have significantly affected the battle.
I only discovered this battle while playing Ancient Battles Deluxe, which is a solid board game with an extremely flexible battle engine from Victory Point Games. It is available for purchase as a board game and on Vassal, free software which creates an online method of playing board games, provided you know the rules. I must give a shout-out to another great community, DBA Online, for their adaptation of miniature war-gaming for online play. They also feature images for every historical army up until the medieval ages, which really helps me out when I am trying to depict what type of units comprise each army.
– Jonathan Webb
Delbrück, Hans. History of the Art of War Within the Framework of Political History: The Germans Vol. 2. Translated by Walter J. Renfroe Jr. Westport: Greenwood, 1980.
Drinkwater, J.F. The Alamanni and Rome 213-496. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007.
Dupuy, Trevor N. The Harper Encyclopedia of Military History: From 3500 BC to the Present, Fourth Edition. New York: HarperCollins, 1991.
Elton, Hugh. Warfare in Roman Europe AD 350-425. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996.
Goldsworthy, Adrian. Roman Warfare. New York: Cassell, 2000.
Head, Constance. The Emperor Julian. Boston: Twayne, 1976.
Warry, John. Warfare in the Classical World. London: Salamander, 1980.
Alamannic cavalry: http://www.dbaol.com/armies/army_74_figure_1.htm
Alamannic infantry: http://www.dbaol.com/armies/army_74_figure_1.htm
Julian the Apostate: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Julian_the_Apostate
Map of Gaul: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Strasbourg
Map of the world: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_map_projections
Roman cavalry: http://www.dbaol.com/armies/army_77a_figure_1.htm
Roman infantry: http://www.dbaol.com/armies/army_77a_figure_1.htm
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