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European Kingdoms

Germanic Tribes




MapAmpsivarii (Suevi)

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The Germanic tribes seem to have originated in a homeland in southern Scandinavia (Sweden and Norway, with the Jutland area of northern Denmark, along with a very narrow strip of Baltic coastline). They had been settled here for over two thousand years following the Indo-European migrations. The Germanic ethnic group began as a division of the western edge of late proto-Indo-European dialects around 3300 BC, splitting away from a general westwards migration to head towards the southern coastline of the Baltic Sea. By the time the Germanic tribes were becoming key players in the politics of Western Europe in the last two centuries BC, the previously dominant Celts were on the verge of being conquered and dominated by Rome. They had already been pushed out of northern and central Europe by a mass of Germanic tribes which were steadily carving out a new homeland.

The Ampsivarii (or Amsivarians) were located in north-western Germany, to the east of the lower Rhine. Their core territory, small as it was, lay between the Yssel and the Ems, roughly on the modern Dutch-German border. To the west of them were the Frisii and probably the Campsiani, to the south-west were the Chamavi, to the south the minor tribe of the Tubantes (who quickly migrated southwards), to the south-east the Bructeri, to the east the Chasuarii, and to the north the Chauci.

Their name appears to mean 'men of the Ems', although Tacitus is the only writer to discuss them. A detailed analysis of the Angrivarii tribal name reveals the possibility that the names of several supposed Germanic tribes could well have been Gaulish in origin. The word 'ware', which appears as 'vari' in the Ampsivarii name, is probably a Gaulish word borrowed into Germanic tongues that means 'man'. In Gaulish this is 'wiros', which is still used today in the English word 'werewolf'. Since the Ampsivarii are 'the men of the Ems', then this is a district name, and could easily be pre-Germanic and therefore Gaulish. It appears that the entire tribal name is derived from Gaulish rather than German. This is yet another indication of the proposed co-opting of numerous Gaulish tribes who were transformed into German tribes by incoming German warrior elites. When the Germans entered Central Europe from Scandinavia, there were a few recorded displacements of Gauls, but mostly the Gaulish tribes there appeared to have simply vanished. Were they destroyed? Unlikely. What is much more likely is that they were taken over by a new ruling class. It seems possible that a series of tribes with a variant of the 'wiros' suffix gained it from Gaulish: the Angrivarii, Chasuarii, Chattuarii, Hetwara (a later name for the Chattuarii), and the Warini may simply mean 'the men'.

The Germanic Franks were first documented during the third century (the Period of Migration), when they were to be found occupying territory on the Lower Rhine Valley (on the east bank, in what is now northern Belgium and the southern Netherlands). They were one of several West Germanic federations, and were formed of elements of the Ampsivarii, Batavi, Bructeri, Chamavi, Chatti, Chattuarii, Cherusci, Salii, Sicambri, Tencteri, Tubantes, and Usipetes. Most of these peoples were living along the Rhine's northern borders in what was then known as Francia. The Ampsivarii were eventually absorbed by this federation, with elements also within the Chatti.

(Information by Peter Kessler, with additional information by Edward Dawson, from Germania, Tacitus, from Agricola, from The Harleian Miscellany: A Collection of Scarce, Curious and Entertaining Tracts Volume 4, William Oldys & Thomas Park, from Roman Soldier versus Germanic Warrior: 1st Century AD, Lindsay Powell, from The Horse, the Wheel, and Language: How Bronze-Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes Shaped the Modern World, David W Anthony, and from External Link: Geography, Strabo (H C Hamilton & W Falconer, London, 1903, Perseus Online Edition).)

AD 9 - 21

Arminius declares the independence of the Cherusci from Rome, decimating three legions in the Teutoberger Forest. He achieves this momentous victory in an alliance with several other tribes, but the Ampsivarii decline to take part in what appears to be nation-building by the Cherusci leader. The Ampsivarii leader, Boiocalus, apparently refuses in person. The tribe is ostracised by its fellow Germanics as a result.

fl c.9 - c.60


An unusually long-lived tribal leader.

58 - 59

Having been centred on the Weser and Elbe until now, the Chauci expand westwards as far as the River Ems, probably driven by the need to find new land for their flourishing population. To achieve this expansion they expel the neighbouring Ampsivarii, driving them away from the Ems. The tribe appeals to the Bructeri, Tencteri, Tubantes, and Usipetes for help, but Rome acts immediately, sending troops into the territory of the Tencteri and threatening them with annihilation. All four tribes withdraw from the alliance and the Romans withdraw from their territory, leaving the Ampsivarii utterly friendless, as they are still being ostracised by their peers. Instead, Boiocalus, who had been imprisoned for a time and had then served Rome in an unknown capacity, sees an opportunity for settlement to the west.

59 - 60?

The lower Rhine has recently been cleared out by Rome to serve as a buffer zone between the empire and tribal Germania. Having kicked out the Frisii for attempting to reoccupy the area, Rome is not impressed when Boiocalus, as an official 'friend of Rome', petitions the regional Roman commander for permission to settle the land. Permission is refused because the Romans seem to insist on the tribe subjugating itself to Rome while offering Boiocalus land for his own personal use. He is forced to reject the offer on the grounds that it would make him a traitor to his tribe.

Hückelhoven on the Rhine
Sections of the lower Rhine were cleared by Rome in AD 58 in order to create a buffer zone between the empire and the barbarians on the other side of the Rhine

The Ampsivarii subsequently form a defensive alliance with the Tencteri and Bructeri, but Rome acts immediately, sending troops into the territory of the Tencteri and threatening them with annihilation. Both they and the Bructeri withdraw from the alliance and the Romans withdraw from their territory, leaving the Ampsivarii utterly friendless. They become wandering refugees, seeking temporary shelter with various tribes on the east bank of the Rhine, but being rejected violently by others. Their numbers dwindle until all their warriors are dead. The survivors are regarded as booty and are distributed between several tribes.


The Roman writer Tacitus mentions a large number of tribes in Germania Magna. He also relates the recent history of the Ampsivarii, one of the very few to record the tribe's existence. He places their first century homeland between the Yssel and the Ems, in the middle of the latter.

3rd century

By now elements of the Ampsivarii, Batavi, Bructeri, Chamavi, Chatti, Chattuarii, Cherusci, Salii, Sicambri, Tencteri, Tubantes, and Usipetes have formed the Franks, one of several west Germanic federations. They are to be found occupying territory on the Lower Rhine Valley, on the east bank, in what is now northern Belgium and the southern Netherlands), a region that has come to be known as Francia.


In the late fourth century, Sulpicius Alexander writes a history of Germanic tribes that has since been lost but which has been quoted by Gregory of Tours. One of those quotes relates that Arbogast, the Frankish-born magister militum of the Western Roman empire, attacks the Franks across the Rhine, wreaking havoc amongst them. While there he sights on a distant hill a force containing Ampsivarii and Chatti under the control of Marcomer, king of the Salian Franks. The two forces do not engage.

This mention of the Ampsivarii strongly suggests that not all of the tribe had wandered to extinction in AD 59/60 but instead that some of them had found shelter with the Chatti and had managed to maintain their identity over the last three centuries.


FeatureThe formal partition of the Roman empire into the Eastern and Western sections is undertaken by Honorius and Arcadian. An official register of all the offices, other than municipal, which exist in the Roman empire at this time is compiled in the Notitia Dignitatum. A formation of Ampsivarii are mentioned as the Ampsiuarii unit of Palatine auxiliaries. This appears to be the last mention of the tribe in history. Their ultimate fate is unknown, but it seems likely that they are subsumed by the Franks and Chatti, probably with elements in both camps.