"the military force of the whole nation, in deep and solid columns, broke through the barrier of the Rhine" - Alemanni war bands in the winter of 366

2 January 366, Alemanni war bands crossed the frozen Rhine River for a major raid into Roman Gaul.
“The ambassadors of the Alemanni had been offended by the harsh and haughty behavior of Ursacius, master of the offices; who by an act of unseasonable parsimony, had diminished the value, as well as the quantity, of the presents to which they were entitled, either from custom or treaty, on the accession of a new emperor. They expressed, and they communicated to their countrymen, their strong sense of the national affront. The irascible minds of the chiefs were exasperated by the suspicion of contempt; and the martial youth crowded to their standard. Before Valentinian could pass the Alps, the villages of Gaul were in flames; before his general Degalaiphus could encounter the Alemanni, they had secured the captives and the spoil in the forests of Germany. In the beginning of the ensuing year, the military force of the whole nation, in deep and solid columns, broke through the barrier of the Rhine, during the severity of a northern winter.“ (Edward Gibbon “The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire“)

 The ornament of the 7th-century Gutenstein scabbard, found near Sigmaringen, Baden-Württemberg,
showing a heavily armed and armoured warrior who had turned into a werewolf…
or is wearing a wolf costume, an Úlfhéðnar.

Traditionally, the time “between the years”, from the winter solstice to the first full moon in January is uncanny, the Wild Hunt is abroad, the death stalk the lands of the living, werewolves haunt the crossroads and January 2nd is especially ominous, one of the “Rauhnächte”, the rough or bleak nights. But whether the auspices of the last blōðisōjanan, the sacrifice held during the Winter Nights, were especially good or if it was sheer pragmatism that drove the war bands of the Alemanni across the frozen Rhine, off they went, from the areas of settlement they occupied in southwestern Germany since the Limes had fallen a hundred years before, and straight into Roman Gaul to pillage and plunder. Ten years earlier, they had been driven out of Gaul by Emperor Julian the Apostate, most of their warlords were slain and the emperor had followed them back across the river and forced them to become Roman vassals. But the man died somewhere in Persia in 363, Rome’s latest potentate Valentinian was somewhere south of the Alps and the time was just ripe to make another go at Gaul.

The Wild Hunt, according to the Norwegian painter Peter Nicolai Arbo (1872)

Alemanni means “All Men” or “The People” and they were probably a confederation of tribes formed after Marcus Aurelius’ Marcomannic Wars around 180 CE from various groups of Germanics described by Caesar, Tacitus and Ptolemy as Suebi from the region between the rivers Main and Elbe. They had already invaded Italy during the late 3rd Century, were bloodily repulsed, but remained a constant threat along Rome’s Rhine frontier. And during the year of 366, they made a good start again in the plundering-and-pillaging-line, defeated the first Roman army they met in Spring, eastern Gaul was in flames, but then, in the Summer of 366, they were surprised in their camp near Châlons-sur-Marne and decisively defeated. The survivors tramped back across the river, regrouped under a new warlord named Rando and sacked the major Roman city of Mogontiacum, Mainz, in the following year. Emperor Valentinian managed to overcome the Alemanni finally at the bloody Battle of Solicinium somewhere in Swabia. A few years later, the migration period that would be the end of the Roman Empire in the west had begun in earnest, the Alemanni however chose to remain in their areas of settlement from Switzerland to the river Main with only occasional forays into Gaul and might even have helped to defend Italy against the migrating tribes like the Huns, Goths and Vandals.

Evariste-Vital Luminais: “Alemannic Rout at the Germans after the Battle of Tolbiac” (1848)

It was one of the definite winners of the Migration Period, the Franks, who finally did for Alemannic independence. After Clovis’ victory over the Alemanni in 496 at Tolbiac, their dominions received Frankish overlords, the people a proper Christianisation and the region became the later Duchy of Swabia. When the political focus in the German-speaking parts of the Holy Roman Empire shifted to Swabia during the late 13th Century, it became customary to call the King rex Alamanniae instead of “King of the Romans”. And while most of the neighbours stuck to calling the Germans “les Allemands“ or something similar from then on, the title itself was rather quickly abandoned, when the royal dignity of the Holy Roman Empire moved further south to Austria and House Habsburg.

And more about the Alemanni on: