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Germanic Tribes




Index of Germanic TribesMapGermanic Tribes (Teutons)
10th Century BC - 7th Century AD

In the first century AD, vast areas of central, northern and eastern Europe were dark and unknown lands full of savage Germanic barbarians - at least according to the Romans. Little is known about many of them in detail, but brief windows are opened onto their lives and organisation at various points during the existence of the Roman empire while others went on to play major roles in the extinction of that empire. The Indo-European 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. Strabo says that the Romans introduced the name 'Germani' for these 'new' barbarians because their tribes were the 'authentic Celts', seeming to mean that they were what the Celts used to be - strong, aggressive and bold. Alternatively, it is possible that the Germani were allies of the Celts (supported by Edward Dawson - see the note below for 750-500 BC). The name could originate from Celtic usage to describe their neighbours who lived in the forests (Germani means 'neighbour' or 'men of the forest').

The Germanic tribes seem to have originated in a homeland in southern Scandinavia (Sweden and Norway, and probably northern Denmark too), where they had been settled for over two thousand years following the Indo-European migrations. Certainly, tradition maintained by the Goths stated that they had migrated from a homeland in this region. In the early first century AD, Pliny and Strabo describe the Teutones as inhabiting central Denmark, forming a group known as the Ingaevones with the Chauci and the Cimbri. 'Ingaevones' itself may be a derivative of the later Angles, who may have been part of the same collective, along with the Jutes (both tribes occupied the southern Baltic coast at this time, immediately east of the Saxons). Another early grouping or culture was that of the Irimones, which was situated further to the east, between the rivers Oder and Elbe. The third grouping was that of the Istvaeones, located on the Rhine and around the Weser. All three of these early terms for tribal collectives fell out of use as individual tribes came to be known.

A fourth group were the Herminones, which comprised the Suebi (in the narrow sense), Chatti, Hermunduri and others, which dominated the Elbe region. Their linguistic descendants speak modern Upper German. These four groups (plus one other) formed in the pre-Roman Iron Age after around 800 BC. Maurer attributed proto-Germanic to the Nordic Bronze Age, which he dates to 1200-800 BC according to the information available to him then. The dates have changed a little and a pre-Roman Iron Age has been developed since then to which some assign the proto-Germanic language. It ranged over a region forming a rough triangle, with vertices in southern Scandinavia, the mouth of the Rhine, and the mouth of the Vistula. In fact the Baltic Sea was known to the Romans as the Mare Suebicum, a name which it no doubt inherited from times at which the Suebi inhabited the shores of the Baltic and were probably one with the Suiones (Swedes).

Once they had migrated southwards from Scandinavia, the Germanic tribes carved out homelands between the Rhine and the Pripet Marshes (modern Belarus). They slowly consolidated their positions (although migrations still occurred) until they had formed into barbarian kingdoms that eventually threatened the Roman empire itself. This became bloody reality when they were forced west and south by later incursions of Hunnic tribes into their lands. Six major tribes, the Visigoths (Western Goths), the Ostrogoths (Eastern Goths), the Vandali, the Burgundians, the Langobards (initially part of the Suevi confederation), and the Franks participated in the fragmentation and collapse of the Western Roman empire. Several other tribes were also involved in this mass migration, the Alans and key tribes of the Suevi confederation in particular, though the Alans were an Iranian steppe people, not Germans.

FeatureMost Celtic and Germanic tribal names were made up of a core word, plus two suffixes, one indigenous and one Latin. For example, the Pictones is not Picton (Picts in modern English), it is Pict. The Redones are Red (Reds in plural form in modern English). This is often overlooked when analysing tribal names. Many of those tribes, especially in the north, acknowledged the importance of a figure named Woden or Wotan. The proto-Germanic dictionary mentions 'guda, gudan', meaning 'priest'. 'Gudan' is a form of Wotan, which suggests that it is the native Germanic name of a priest who is later deified. 'Wotan' may even be a title for a particular priest, and may be pronounced 'Guotan' by the Celts who strongly influenced the Germanic tribes. Far from being a warrior chieftain, the Eddas, Volsung Saga, Niebelungenleid, Beowulf, and others always describe Wotan as a magician, not a fighter. The Vainamoinen of the Kalevala shows similarities and possibly a template for later versions of 'magician' priests such as Wotan and even Merlin.

It seems that Germanic and Norse magical tradition could originate with the Finns/Kvens because it shows the characteristics of the shamanism of Uralic and Altaic speakers and related groups across northern Eurasia. An absolute characteristic of the Eurasian shamanic cosmogony is the higher/middle/lower worlds division, quite evident in the nine worlds of Norse myth if you have magical knowledge and know the subject properly. The Germanic peoples, who originated as a recognisable group in southern Scandinavia, show evidence of strong contact and influence from Celts and Finns/Kvens. Of their deities, there seems to be only one direct descendant from Indo-European tradition, that of Tyr or Tiu (who is cognate with 'deus' or 'dyus'). The others appear to be either invented (Heimdall means 'home valley'), or borrowed (Thor was the Taranus of the Celts), or they are deified humans such as Wotan (the Woden of the Angles).

One peculiar feature about the early West Indo-European Germanics is their apparent cultural similarity with or heavy influence by East Indo-Europeans (specifically Indo-Iranians/Aryans). How an eastern or satem influence could have been brought to bear on North-West Indo-Europeans has long been a puzzle to linguists. The most likely theory was that an eastern group somehow found its way into southern Scandinavia to provide a satem 'flavour' to the proto-Germanic language. However, recent genetic testing of living peoples may well have cleared up the mystery. Indo-European Y chromosomes carry two primary flavours, called R1a and R1b by geneticists. R1a is found strongly in Slavs, Balts, and Indo-Iranians (carrying satem pronunciation), and is mixed with R1b in Germanic-speaking peoples. The geographic distribution in ancient times for R1a is European Russia just west of the Ural Mountains, providing an open corridor between Germanics to the west and Indo-Iranians to the east. Eventually this corridor closed up as Uralics spread into the north from the Urals, but by that time the Germanics had been set on their way to being noticeably different from their nearest cousins, the Celts. It remains to be seen whether this DNA-based theory will supersede the established linguistics theory, but as far as the Germanics go, it's a highly rewarding breakthrough.

(Additional information by Edward Dawson, from The La Tene Celtic Belgae Tribes in England: Y-Chromosome Haplogroup R-U152 - Hypothesis C, David K Faux, from Power and Status in the Roman Empire, AD 193-284, Inge Mennen, from Germania, Tacitus, from Agricola, from The Harleian Miscellany: A Collection of Scarce, Curious and Entertaining Tracts Volume 4, William Oldys & Thomas Park, from Geography, Strabo, 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 Links: The Works of Julius Caesar: Gallic Wars, and Ancient Origins, and Skanderborg Museum, and Polybius, Histories, and Dictionary.com. Other major sources listed in the 'Barbarian Europe' section of the Sources page.)

from c.2000 BC

Following their gradual arrival over the previous few centuries, the chariot-driving Late Neolithic Celto-Ligurian tribes are in control of large areas of central and western Europe. Represented by the 'Bell-Beaker Folk', and with some knowledge of copper-working, they begin moving into the British Isles. Other Indo-Europeans arrive in territory between the Balkans and Persia, where the Thracians and Iranians form two large groups. The Balts occupy most of what is now Germany. Illyrian tribes occupy an area of southern Europe between the Italian peninsula and modern Greece. Indo-Europeans have already moved from the Danube region into the Italian peninsula, and warlike Greek tribes (the early Mycenaeans) into the Mediterranean area.

Northern Mesopotamian chariot petroglyphs
The Yamnaya Horizon theory saw many semi-nomadic pastoral tribes migrate huge distances over many generations, helped by their use of four-wheeled wagons and chariots, and the petroglyphs shown here (from northern Mesopotamia) form one of history's earliest recordings of these chariots

The proto-Teutons enter and dominate most of the Scandinavian peninsula, where a racially distinct Germanic Nordic develops from a mixture of invading Indo-European Nordics and Old Stone Age survivors. Indo-European tribes soon possess most of Europe at the expense of the earlier stock who are now either pushed into the more inaccessible parts of the Continent (such as the Aquitani around the Pyrenees), or become the lower strata of society, the untouchables of Europe.

c.2000 - 1000 BC

During the last few centuries prior to the Yamnaya horizon (which saw the proto-Indo-European ancestors of the now proto-Germanics begin their migrations), cannabis may have been travelling from the Pontic-Caspian steppes to Mesopotamia and the early city states of Sumer. Greek kdnnabis and proto-Germanic *baniptx seem to be related to the Sumerian kuriibu. Sumerian dies out as a widely spoken language after around 2000 BC, so the connection must be a very ancient one. The international trade of the Late Uruk period (circa 3300-3100 BC) provides a suitable context for this trade.

The link between the early, proto-Indo-European form of the word cannabis (and therefore its probable Sumerian origin of kuriibu) to the proto-Germanic form requires a few steps. In the late Bronze Age, proto-Germanic groups are pretty isolated in southern Scandinavia and along the southern shore of the Baltic Sea, but are theorised to be in contact with the proto-Celts (and possibly even dominated by them). In support of this is the realisation that 'cannabis' would need to pass through Celtic to reach its Germanic form: the initial 'k' would be a 'kw' in Q-Celtic (of the First Wave), transformed to a 'p' in P-Celtic (of the Second Wave), and then transformed into a 'b' in Belgic (northern Celtic), and finally adopted into Germanic. This appears to fit in with the idea that Belgic Celts dominate northern Europe prior to the rise of the Germanic tribes around the fifth century BC.

1000s BC?

FeatureNorse legend mentions gods who are described as members of two groups: the Aesir and the Vanir. This latter is very suggestive of early contact between Germanics in Scandinavia and the seagoing Veneti living along the Gulf of Gdansk and the Vistula. However, the exact origins of the Vanir and the war between them and the Aesir are open to intense speculation.

There is strong evidence among the various peoples of the Indo-European diaspora that two distinct groups of deities are honoured. This appears to be best preserved among the Hindus, who talk about them as Devas (suras) and Asuras (not-suras). Some cultures later preserve worship of both; others choose one or the other and indicate some sort of conflict between them. The Aesir appear to be Asuras. Two Hindu Asuras, known as Thor and Ermin among Germanics, appear in the Norse pantheon.

One thing that can be said with some certainly is that the Vanir do not seem to be Suras/Devas. That leaves the possibility that the Aesir/Vanir war is a legendary account of a human war, but whether between Germanics against Celts, or against the Kvens whom they are steadily displacing or absorbing in southern Scandinavia is unclear, A war involving Germanics is a certainty; in fact, two wars. It is already known that the Indo-European tribes who have evolved into Germanics have entered Scandinavia and have displaced someone, almost certainly Finno-Ugric speakers or even older populations. There's also evidence that Celts enter Jutland. So which of these interactions with the Germans is the cause of war? That's a very good question. Both have names that could evolve over time into 'Vanir'. Veneti could lose its 't' due to softening, while the 'k' of Kven would easily soften to 'ch', leaving 'ven'. So who are the wanes/vanir? Anything further would be speculation.

c.1000 BC

Latins and other Indo-European Italic tribes continue to migrate into Italy. West Italics first, and East Italics later, the latter largely displacing the first group. Celtic tribes arrive in Iberia, probably in two waves, the first traditionally placed around 900 BC. More recently, however, there has been a tendency to identify the early arrivals as Indo-European or proto-Celtic tribes and argue for a process of infiltration over an extended period, from around 1000 to 300 BC, rather than invasions.

The first arrivals appear to establish themselves in Catalonia, having probably entered via the eastern passages of the Pyrenees. Later groups (more identifiably Celtic) venture west through the Pyrenees to occupy the northern coast of the peninsula, and south beyond the Ebro and Duero basins as far as the Tagus valley. It could be the strong Iberian presence that prevents the Celts from continuing down the Mediterranean coast.

Map of Late Bronze Age Cultures c.1200-750 BC
This map showing Late Bronze Age cultures in Europe displays the widespread expansion of the Urnfield culture and many of its splinter groups, although not the smaller groups who reached Britain, Iberia, and perhaps Scandinavia too (click on map to show full sized)

As can be seen from the map above, by this stage the Urnfield culture has formed several sub-groups or cultures in an unbroken line between the modern Netherlands to the heel of Italy, from eastern central Poland to the eastern Pyrenees, and  from eastern France to western Ukraine.

These include: the Lower Rhine groups, the North Alpine groups, the Golasecca culture (in north-western Italy), the proto-Villanova culture (in central and northern Italy), the Middle Danube groups, the Knoviz culture (in southern Poland, Bohemia, and Moravia), the Lausitz culture (in eastern Poland), and the Gava culture (in the upper Balkans). Britain and the Atlantic coast of Western Europe are still dominated by the Atlantic Bronze Age system, while northern Poland and Germany and southern Norway and Sweden are dominated by the Nordic Bronze Age societies.

What is also intriguing is the area encompassed by the Nordic Bronze Age. The Germanics are in that area, but the extent of the Nordic cultures is larger than their range at this time... or is it? Could the Nordic area in northern Germany and Poland be made up of Germans who are conquered by Celts? Could that be the origin of the Veneti and Belgae? The date of 750 BC is far too early for any known Germanic expansion because Celts are known to be in that area later. So this lends support to the idea that the Belgae and Veneti are part of a mixed Germanic/Celtic culture along the southern shore of the Baltic Sea. The Jastorf culture of the sixth century BC may be a result of Celts moving north to mingle with Germans to produce the hybrid Belgae.

c.750 - 500 BC

While the Celts are beginning to expand from their traditional territory in southern Germany, the Germanic peoples still seem to be occupying a possible original homeland in southern Sweden and the Jutland peninsula (as suggested by Edward Dawson), where they would be surrounded on three sides by Kvens and Sámi. They appear to go through a period in which they are conquered by the Gauls and remain subject to them (especially in Jutland). This leads to a good deal of cultural cross-contamination, with Germans exhibiting Celtic influences (in the form of words and names), and Celts exhibiting similar Germanic influences. This cross-cultural exchange is especially noticeable in many Belgic tribes of the first century BC, raising the possibility that they are the ones dominating the Germans at this time, not the Gauls (effectively Eastern Celts as opposed to the Western Celts of Gaul). Subsequent to this (and probably triggered by this period of Gallic control), the Germans begin expanding south-westwards along the North Sea coast and eastwards along the shores of the Baltic.

At this stage the Germanic peoples appear to be at least ninety per cent Swedish in origin, with only the Vandali and Teutones possibly of a Jutland peninsula origin (although other tribes such as the Sicambri also have a claim). Both these latter tribes have Gallic names, supporting the theory that the Jutland peninsula is conquered by Gauls (or Belgics), and southern Sweden is probably made a satellite subject region. The indicators for this are the very evident influence on the Germanics by Gauls in borrowed words, borrowed names, borrowed gods and shared customs.

c.325 BC

FeaturePytheas of Massalia undertakes a voyage of exploration to north-western Europe, becoming the first scholar to note details about the Celtic and Germanic tribes that he finds, although the latter are much fewer in number while the Gauls dominate Western Europe and the British Isles.

Ptolemy's map of Britain
The details recorded by Pytheas were interpreted by Ptolemy in the second century AD, and this 1490 Italian reconstruction of the section covering the British Isles and northern Gaul shows Ptolemy's characteristically lopsided Scotland at the top

Around the same time, according to Julius Caesar in his entry for 53 BC in his Gallic Wars, there had formerly been a time when the Gauls excelled the Germans in prowess, and waged war on them offensively. On account of the great number of their people and the insufficiency of their land, the Gauls sent colonies over the Rhine. One of these, a division of the powerful Volcae Tectosages, had seized fertile areas of Germany close to the Hercynian Forest, (known to the Greeks as Orcynia), and had settled there.

c.250 BC

Germanic settlements have spread only a little further south-westwards along the North Sea coastline, and eastwards into the heart of modern Poland (seemingly the driving force behind the Przeworsk culture) and northern Germany. One exception to this is the tribe of the Bastarnae (whose ethnic background is highly uncertain), who have already reached the Balkans by this time.

Between this point and the beginning of the first century AD, expansion and migration continue this slow progression, extending into modern Belarus, Russia and Ukraine, and southwards towards modern Switzerland, central Germany, and Czechia, Slovakia and Hungary. Some Celtic groups are pushed into migrating away from the expansion, while others such as the Marsigni may take refuge in forests and on mountains to be assimilated by Germans in time.

The later Anglo-Saxon advance through Britain can be used as a basic model for what happens when aggressive Germans encounter Celts, as they do from this point onwards. The Celts are conquered, adopt the new language, retain their cultural habits and legends (the Saxon Herne the Hunter, for example, is the Celtic god Cernunnos) and continue as 'fake' Germans, eventually to become indistinguishable from them. Germanic warrior elite takeovers of Gaulish tribes is covered in detail in the introduction for the Angrivarii tribe. It also seems possible that a series of Germanic tribes with a variant of the 'wiros' suffix in their names gain it from Gaulish: the Ampsivarii, Chasuarii, Chattuarii, Hetwara (a later name for the Chattuarii), and the Warini may simply mean 'the men'. Other tribes exhibit cross-cultural influences in their names (at least), including the Seduni and Sedusii.

c.230 - 220 BC

The Bastarnae may be a mixture of various Germanic tribes, or they may be entirely Celtic. In 220 BC they take part in the siege of Olbia (in modern southern Ukraine) on the Black Sea coast. If they do indeed contain Germanic elements then these have moved far in advance of their fellow Germanics in Northern Europe. In 231 BC another potential (if extremely unlikely) Germanic group appears in northern Italy. These are the Gaesatae, Celtic mercenaries who carry a name that may be interpreted in Germanic terms (although a purely Celtic explanation is much more likely).

113 - 102 BC

A large-scale incursion of the sea into Jutland around the period between 120-114 BC is known as the Cimbrian Flood. It permanently alters the shape of the coastline and drastically affects the way people live in the region. It is probably this event which affects the Teutones (Teutons) and Cimbri. These two peoples migrate en mass from their homeland, heading southwards towards Italy. Along the way they pick up the Celto-Germanic Helvetii peoples (in territory that later becomes Franconia), and possibly spark a secondary migration of Belgic peoples from the Netherlands and northern Gaul into south-eastern Britain.

Along their way they also drop off fragments such as the Atuatuci, and their passage sparks a partial tribal movement by elements of the Boii who invade the Norican region south of the Danube, and it is either the Cimbri or the Boii who attack the Scordisci Celts in the Balkans.

The Teutones wandering in Gaul
An illustration depicting the Teutones wandering in Gaul, part of a large-scale migration from modern Denmark into northern Italy

As shocking as this invasion is to the Romans, according to the later writings of Julius Caesar, the 'Germani' tribes of the Caerosi, Condrusi, Eburones, and Paemani (and perhaps also the unmentioned Segni) have already settled in Gaul, along the eastern edges of Gaulish and Belgae territory around the modern Belgian and Dutch borders. This suggests that the Germanic tribes are already pushing outwards from their northern European base around the Danish peninsula and the southern shores of the Baltic.

c.100 - 10 BC

The migration of Goths from Sweden to the southern shores of the Baltic seems to start in this period. By the very existence of its Germanic name which has the same roots as that of the Goths, the Cotini tribe of Celts would appear to gain a Germanic warrior elite which would most likely be Gothic in origin. As the Cotini are first mentioned in history in 10 BC, this event must take place before that date.

c.60 - 58 BC

Ariovistus is a leader of the Suevi and other allied Germanic peoples in the second quarter of the first century BC, and at least up to 58 BC. He and his followers take part in a war in Gaul, assisting the Gallic Arverni and Sequani to defeat their rivals the Aeduii. He subsequently settles with large numbers of his followers in conquered Gallic territory in the Alsace region, but is defeated at the Battle of Vosges and driven back over the Rhine in 58 BC by Julius Caesar's Roman legions.

55 BC

As recorded by Julius Caesar in his work, Commentarii de Bello Gallico, the Tencteri and Usipetes tribes are driven out of their tribal lands in Germania by the militarily dominant Suevi. This probably places them on the middle Rhine. Throughout the winter they attempt to resettle, but fail to find any land. Their wanderings bring them to the mouth of the Rhine, in the territory of the Belgic Menapii, who are located on both sides of the river. The Germans attack them, forcing them to withdraw to the western side of the Rhine, where the Menapii are able to defend the river line for some time. They also attack the Condrusi and Eburones tribes. Feigning a withdrawal to lure out the Menapii, the Tencteri and Usipetes defeat them, capture their ships and occupy many of their villages for the winter.

Caesar, alarmed at this threat to the north of territory in Gaul that he has already conquered, takes a force into the region. After much diplomatic effort and some delays, he attacks the Germanic tribes and drives them back into Germania with heavy losses. Both tribes follow the east bank of the Rhine upstream and find refuge with the Sicambri. They remain settled in these lands for much of the remainder of their existence. Caesar crosses the Rhine to follow them and to show the Germans that Romans are not afraid to stage a counter-invasion. Another reason is that a portion of the cavalry of the Usipetes and Tencteri had not been present at the recent battle. Instead they had proceeded to the territories of the Sicambri to join this tribe, remaining defiant, while uniquely amongst the peoples across the Rhine, the Ubii petition Caesar for help against the oppressive Suevi who until recently have been ruled by the powerful Ariovistus.

53 - 12 BC

The Cherusci are a Germanic tribe which inhabits areas of the northern Rhine Valley, extending eastwards into the forests of north-western Germany. They are established here throughout the first century BC and the first century AD, but their name may not be Germanic, perhaps instead being used by their enemies or neighbours to describe them. They are mentioned by Julius Caesar in 53 BC, where he separates them from the Suevi, and they are subjugated by Rome in 12 BC.

29 BC

The Bastarnae cross the Haemus in support of the Scordisci in modern north-western Bulgaria. They attack a Thracian tribe known as the Dentheletae who are allies of Rome. General Marcus Licinius Crassus goes to assist the Dentheletae and the Bastarnae withdraw. Crassus follows them and eventually engages them in battle. Caught unawares, the Bastarnae are routed and their king is killed in combat with Crassus. According to Roman writers, thousands of Bastarnae perish in the ensuing slaughter and the Peucini, and Moesia itself, are subjugated. In general the tribe remains docile under imperial control until the late third century AD, but thereafter proves to be an enthusiastic participant in every major attack on Roman Dacia and Thrace.

Mount Haemus
The Haemus mountain range (the modern Balkana, or Stara Planina) is relatively easy to approach from the north, which is the way the Bastarnae travelled, but it presents a formidable barrier on its southern side

12 - 9 BC

Nero Claudius Drusus Germanicus, stepson of Emperor Augustus, is appointed governor of the Rhine region of Gaul. He launches the first major Roman campaigns across the Rhine and begins the conquest of Germania. He starts with a successful campaign that subjugates the Sicambri. Later in the same year he leads a naval expedition along the North Sea coast, conquering the Batavi and the Frisii, and defeating the Chauci near the mouth of the Weser. In 11 BC, he conquers the Bructeri, Usipetes and Marsi, extending Roman control into the Upper Weser. In 10 BC, he launches a campaign against the Chatti and the resurgent Sicambri, subjugating both. The following year he conquers the Mattiaci, while also defeating the Marcomanni and Cherusci, the latter being taken care of near the Elbe. He is killed in a fall from his horse during his fourth campaign, and his death deprives Rome of one its best generals.

8 - 6 BC

Migrations of Marcomanni from the region of northern Bavaria and the River Main lead them to the former homeland of the Boii in Bohemia. Their king, Marbod, forms a confederation of tribes which includes Langobards, Lugii, Marcomanni, and Semnones, and the Boii themselves. Possibly this also incorporates remnants of the alliances of Ariovistus in 58 BC.

Various Germanic tribes can be located within the area of the Przeworsk culture at this time, including the Lugii and Vandali, and the Venedi. The Burgundians are also linked to the region prior to their migration. Arguments have existed for some time over whether the Przeworsk is the result of Germanic, proto-Slavic, or Celtic influence. The truth is probably that all three contribute. The Lugii especially are known to cross the boundary between Germanic and Celtic, while little is known of the proto-Slavs except that they first emerge between southern Poland and western Ukraine.

c.4 BC

The Batavi are conquered by Rome and become subjects of the empire. None of their rulers are known, but two Batavian figures of importance do feature in Roman history in the first century AD.

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 the Bructeri, Chatti, Chauci, Marsi, and Sicambri. It is highly likely that the Dulgubnii, Tencteri, and Usipetes are also involved. The Bructeri, Tubantes and Usipetes certainly team up to harass the troops of Germanicus in AD 14, and they are later included in his triumph. In AD 15, Germanicus invades northern Germany and, following two Cherusci defeats in AD 16 (Idistaviso and the Battle of the Angrivarian Walls), Arminius is murdered in AD 21.

1st Century AD

It is Rome's attempted advance into the forests of southern and West Germanic lands that leads to intensified internecine battles farther north. Archaeologists in Denmark in 2012 reveal the bones of an entire army whose warriors have been thrown into the bogs near the Alken Enge wetlands in East Jutland after losing a major engagement. The river valley of Illerup Ådal is a well-known archaeological location which has produced several important finds, especially in the large wetland area where the River Illerup runs into Lake Mossø.

Alken Enge bones
Skulls are scattered around thighbones and joints in the great mass grave at the Alken Enge wetlands in East Jutland, which was a centre of early Germanic populations

Many of the bones bear the marks of cutting and scraping, and many skulls are crushed. After the bodies of the defeated warriors have lain on the battlefield for about six months. The remains of the fallen are gathered together and all of the flesh is cleaned from the bones, which are then sorted and desecrated before being cast into the lake. The warriors' bones are mixed with the remains of slaughtered animals and clay pots that probably contained food sacrifices. Archaeologists at the time of the discovery are fairly sure that this is a religious act. It seems that this is a holy site for a pagan religion - a sacred grove - where the victorious conclusion of major battles is marked by the ritual presentation and destruction of the bones of the vanquished warriors.

Geological studies have revealed that the finds are thrown into the water from the end of a tongue of land that, at this time, stretches out into Lake Mossø, which is much larger than it is today. The battles near Alken Enge are waged during a period in which major changes are taking place in Northern Europe due to the expansion of the Roman empire, which is putting pressure on the Germanic tribes. This results in wars between the Romans and the Germanic tribes, and between the Germanic peoples themselves. The Chatti are the victims of a similar post-battlefield process themselves in AD 58.


Shortly before his death in AD 24, Strabo completes ongoing work on his Geography. It contains a description of the peoples and places known to this Greek writer who latterly lived in Rome. One of the Germanic tribes mentioned are the Campsiani whom he includes amongst the Suevi. They live along the coast, contiguous with the Chauci, Chattuarii, and Landi, which places them on the Atlantic coast of the northern Netherlands. Many other tribes are also mentioned, including the Bructeri and Sicambri.

c.50 - 150

The arrival in Poland of the Gothic people in the first and second centuries AD from their homeland in southern Sweden has a great impact on the Baltic population there, resulting in them moving towards eastern Lithuania. Perhaps as a result of this population shift, the Frisians are soon to be found occupying the territory to the west of the Zuyder Zee, making them the most westerly of the Germanic peoples of Northern Europe.

Gotland standing stone
This standing stone was found on the island of Gotland, immediately to the east of modern Sweden, and depicts Vikings with their boats and armaments, which were a development of those of the early Germanic settlers around the Scandinavian coastal regions

69 - 70

Gaius Julius Civilis leads a Batavian insurrection against a Rome which is distracted by the events of the Year of the Four Emperors. He is supported by the Bructeri, Canninefates, Chauci, and Tencteri, while the Sinuci are also mentioned as a people who live in the region (although their involvement in the revolt is uncertain). The tribes send reinforcements and Civilis is initially successful. Castra Vetera is captured and two Roman legions are lost, while two others fall into the hands of the rebels. In AD 70 the Chatti, Mattiaci, and Usipetes join in, besieging the legionary fortress at Mogontiacum (modern Mainz).

Eventual Roman pressure, with aid from the Mediomatrici, Sequani, and Tungri, forces Civilis to retreat to the Batavian island where he agrees peace terms with General Quintus Petilius Cerialis. His subsequent fate is unknown, but the Batavi are treated with great consideration by Emperor Vespasian. During the revolt, the Roman fortress ceases to be used (for obvious reasons) and the Oppidum Batavorum is razed. Quintus Petilius Cerialis soon gains the post of Governor of Britain in reward for his triumph.


The Roman geographer Pliny the Elder briefly mentions the 'Bastarnae and other Germans'. They may (now) be a sedentary tribe, but their increasingly close affiliation with the neighbouring Sarmatians implies an increasingly semi-nomadic way of life - or at least a return to one after a period of settlement. Clearly the Bastarnae are now thought of as being Germanic, so the proposed takeover by a Germanic warrior elite has taken place, and may account for the tribe's lack of activity for an extended period. By this stage Germanic groups are following the same Venedi route south by following the Vistula, and one group must have made it here ahead of the others, establishing themselves amongst the Bastarnae.


Around this year, Rome establishes two provinces on the border territory between Gaul and Germania Magna, calling them Germania Superior and Germania Inferior. The latter has contained Roman settlements for over a century, and had previously formed part of Gallica Belgica. Cities such as Aachen, Cologne, Mainz, Speyer, Trier, and Worms are all founded within these provinces by Rome and all of them become important medieval cities.


Writing at this time, Tacitus mentions a large number of tribes in Germania Magna. Included are the Angles, Aviones, Bastarnae, Batavi, Burgundians, Chatti, Chauci, Cherusci, Eudoses, Frisians, Gepids, Gutones, Langobards, Lugii, Marcomanni, Nuitones, Reudigni, Rugii, Saxons, Suardones, Vandali, Varinians (Warini), and Venedi.

For a seagoing people like the Belgae, it would have been a fairly simple process to sail along the southern waters of the Baltic and enter a wide river mouth such as the Vistula, to settle as the Venedi

These tribes appear to be collected into four main divisions: the Ingaevones (in modern Denmark, and along the North Sea coastline especially); the Istvaeones (located along the Rhine); the Irminones (along the River Elbe); and the East Germanics (in the areas of the Oder and Vistula). The peoples who remain in Scandinavia are termed North Germanics by modern scholars. Tacitus claims the first three divisions are tribes which are descended from the mythical Mannus ('Man', or Homo sapiens), the son of Tuisto and the father of three sons who bear the names of these divisions.

117 - 138

Emperor Hadrian spends much of his career consolidating the Roman empire and securing its borders. This includes the building of limes, or defensive works, along the Rhine to keep out possible future Germanic incursions, although it is probably Hadrian's successor, Antoninus, who completes much of this work.


Ptolemy, who writes in the mid-second century, places the Sicambri to the south of a group of westerly Suevi Langobards, in the Rhineland. To their east are the Suevi Anglii, while along the Elbe are the Chauci, to the east are the Semnones, and then there are the Suebi, perhaps the still-identifiable original core tribe of the confederation, who are apparently settled on the Rhine to the east of the Ems.

From about this time, many of the East Germanic tribes begin to migrate southwards from Poland, led by the Goths. The migration could be caused by pressure from the Baltic tribes, early segments of the later Lithuanians, who are expanding back into territory they had lost to the Germanic tribes in the first century AD. The Goths draw with them the neighbouring Gepids and Scirii, along with the Rugii, who are part of the Suebian confederation.

166 - 169

The first invasion of Germanic peoples across the Danube takes place under the leadership of the Marcomanni, penetrating into Italy and forcing the Roman emperor, Marcus Aurelius, to spend the rest of his life campaigning in the Danube region to contain the problem, which he does with a further defeat of them in AD 180.

Roman defensive tower
Emperors Hadrian and Antoninus Pius concentrated on defining the Roman empire's borders, defending the territory they had. That would have included building watch towers along the limes in the Danube region through which the Marcomanni managed to break out

It is from this period onwards, in the second century, that many of the Germanic tribes recorded as being active during the Principate start to unite into bigger tribal unions, resulting in the Franks, Alemanni, Bavarii, and Saxons.


Now largely Romanised through their contact of a generation before, living in Roman-style houses and using Roman goods, the relatively new confederation of smaller tribes which is known as the Alemanni make the first of their invasions of the Roman empire. They participate decisively in the plundering raids into the Limes Germanicus, the provinces beyond, and even into Italy.


The Goths cross the Danube to raid districts of Moesia and Thrace - the first occasion they appear in any detail in the historical record. They are surprised by Roman Emperor Decius while besieging Nicopolis on the Danube and flee through the Balkans. Eventually they are defeated by Aemilianus, Roman governor of Moesia Superior and Pannonia.


By this time, the Suevi have formed a wide-ranging confederation of tribes that are all known individually but which are counted as being Suevi. The vast number of tribes included in the confederation include the Aestii, Angles, Aviones, Buri, Cotini, Eudoses, Gutones, Hermunduri (who have virtually ceased to exist as a recognisable independent people), Langobards, Lugii (a name applied to several tribes: the Harii, Helisii, Helveconae, Manimi, and Naharvali), Marcomanni, Marsigni, Naristi, Nuitones, Osi, Quadi, Reudigni, Semnones, Sitones, Suardones, Suiones (Swedes), and the Warini.

267/268 - 269

The Peucini Bastarnae are specifically mentioned in the invasion across the Roman frontier. Part of the barbarian coalition which includes Goths and Heruli, they use their knowledge of boat building from several centuries of living on the Black Sea coast and in the Danube estuary to help build a fleet in the estuary of the River Tyras (now the Dniester). The force of which they are part sails along the coast to Tomis in Moesia Inferior. They attack the town but are unable to take it. Sailing on, they are frustrated twice more, at Marcianopolis (Devnya in modern Bulgaria) and Thessalonica in Macedonia. Finally, they move into Thrace where they are crushed by Emperor Claudius II at Naissus in 269.

The Danube delta homeland of the Peucini Bastarnae was just north of the former Greek port of Histria, which may have been conquered when the tribe temporarily held power to the south of the delta region


The appearance of the Gepids drives a wedge between the Tervingi branch of the Goths (led by the Balti Goths), west of the Dniester, and the Greutungi (led by the Amali Goths), east of the Sea of Azov. The Tervingi consolidate their realm between the Dniester and the Danube, and become known to the Romans as the Visigoths. The Greutungi, or Ostrogoths, are conquered by the Huns, who sweep into Europe from the Asiatic steppes in the latter half of the fourth century.

It is probably these large-scale population movements which forces the Angles and Jutes to move northwards into the Cimbric Peninsula, where they settle over the course of the next century. Also, elements of the Vandali and Burgundians are forced to move, crossing the Rhine to invade the Roman empire where they are defeated by Emperor Probus. They are resettled in Britain in 277. The Chauci find themselves being overrun by the Saxons in their homeland against the north-western coast of Germany.


Frankish leader Ascarich and his co-ruler lead a raid across the Rhine into Roman southern Gaul, apparently breaking a previous agreement. They are defeated, captured, and executed in an amphitheatre by the simple means of allowing them and their followers to be torn apart by animals to the applause of the crowd. They are the first Frankish leaders to have their names recorded for posterity.

c.340s - 360s

Ermanaric is the great warrior-king of the Ostrogoths who subdues the surrounding peoples, subsequently leaving them to observe their own laws and rulers on the condition that they pay homage to him. By these means, Ermanaric becomes the head of a confederation which Jordanes, a bureaucrat in the Byzantine capital of Constantinople in the sixth century, believes to include all the tribes of Germany and Scythia, covering a vast territory in what is now Ukraine and areas of southern Russia. It is possible that one of his conquests, the Merens, is the same as the Myrging tribe of the fifth century. Another allied tribe, the Heruli, are significantly powerful in their own right.

354 - 380

The Franks are accepted into the northern Roman empire by Julian the Apostate in 358. Also in Gaul is Mallobaudes, another Frankish chief. Between 354 and at least 380, he serves in the Roman army, helping to defeat the Alemanni in 378 and killing Macrian, king of the Alemannic tribe of the Bucinobantes in 380.

Julian the Apostate
Julian the Apostate abandoned Christianity in favour of a return to the old Roman ways of worship, and is shown being initiated into the Eleusian mysteries


The Saxons have by now formed a loose state composed of a large coalition of tribes in modern north-west Germany, in territory between the Frisian coastline and the lands to the south of Angeln.

376 - 378

The Visigoths are defeated by the Huns and flee across the Danube to seek shelter in the Roman empire. Badly treated and starved of supplies, they revolt and ravage the land south of the Danube, killing Emperor Valens in battle. Peace is restored and they are allowed to settle in northern Greece, in Thrace and Moesia, charged with defending the Danube. The Ostrogoths and Rugians, who by now seem to have a kingdom in Austria, are subjugated and made Hunnic clients.


Gendobaud, Sunno and Marcomer lead a Frankish invasion of the Roman provinces of Germania and Belgia. Their warriors break through the limes, destroying farmlands and killing people around the city of Cologne, before retreating across the border with their booty. Roman General Quintinus mounts a reprisal raid across the border but his troops are surrounded and defeated, and very few of them make it back.

406 - 409

By now the Franks are settled on the west bank of the Rhine in minor 'kingdoms' which cover areas of north-eastern Gaul, along with some groups of Suevi. Now, the bulk of the Suevi peoples cross the Rhine at Moguntiacum (Mainz) in 406 in association with the Vandali and Alans (the Alemanni remain behind). After spending two years ravaging Gaul and migrating southwards into Aquitaine, all three tribes are pushed out by the Visigoths and cross the Pyrenees to settle in Roman Iberia by 409. Some Suevi groups remain on the Rhine as part of the Frankish confederation while others remain in the southern Cimbric Peninsula, the Swæfe, who are ruled by a branch of the Angles - Wehta's Folk.

Roman town gates of Metz
The Roman town of Moguntiacum (Mainz), whose gates are shown here, was a frequent target of Alemanni attacks, although it was the Mosan Franks who eventually conquered it


Communications (and intrigues) between Rome and the Visigoths break down, so Alaric leads the Visigoths to the sack of Rome. Shortly afterwards, he himself dies.

417 - 418

During its last days the Western Roman empire allows the Visigoths to settle in southern Gaul thanks to a treaty signed in 418. The Visigoth leader, Theodoric, founds a kingdom of his peoples which covers much of southern Gaul and extends into the Iberian peninsula.


Under pressure from the newly settled Visigoths in the Iberian peninsula, the Vandali and Alans move south and invade Roman North Africa, taking the cities of Carthage and Utica.


The Anglian prince, Hengist, and his brother Horsa are invited to Britain by the High King, Vortigern, and land at Ypwines fleot (Ebbsfleet) with their Jutish followers. Traditionally, they fulfil the terms of their contract by fighting back Pictish and Irish Scotti invaders and receive territory on which to settle. Very shortly they begin to carve out a kingdom of their own which they call Kent. Their success encourages greater Saxon and Angle leaders to migrate to Britain as a way of escaping the increasing pressures of life in their native lands, squeezed between dominant Danes to the north and equally dominant Frisians to the south.


To preserve his new domains, the powerful Frankish leader Merovech fights alongside the Visigoths on the side of Rome to halt the advance of the Huns at the Battle of the Catalaunian Plains (otherwise known as the Battle of Chalons, within the former territory of the Catalauni Celts). Merovech also becomes the founding figure of the Merovingian dynasty of kings, marking a sudden rise in Frankish dominance in the region.

c.450 - 500

One of the biggest mysteries of the Migration Period takes place at some point in the late fifth century or early sixth. The long and narrow island of Öland in the Baltic Sea, close to Sweden's south-eastern coast, is becoming important as a crossroads for Baltic trade. Commanding it means power and status. Archaeology on the island has shown that the gradual disintegration of the Roman empire has left a large number of former soldiers deposited here. Presumably this is after having followed the trade routes themselves or returning home after having offered themselves for service to Rome, as no Roman outpost had ever been established this far north. These soldiers have probably found that some degree of their experience is required on the island, but they also largely turn their hands to a more pastoral existence.

A Swedish borg of the type used on Oland island
This model at Kalmar County Museum shows the layout of the typical borg, with high walls and limited entrance points (although without the Roman gates), food stores inside the walls and a temporary village structure in the centre, presumably for times of need or perhaps the depths of winter


Several massive fortifications known as borgs have been established on the island, with earthen walls and Roman-style gates around 4.5 metres (fifteen feet) that encircle small villages and food stores. These borgs appear to be temporary residences rather than permanent settlements. One such borg is now attacked and defeated, its hundreds of inhabitants brutally executed, some with their mouths stuffed with goat and sheep's teeth. Greeks and Romans both buried warriors with coins in their mouths to pay for their transportation into the afterlife, but tribes also have a similar practice, suggesting a shared Indo-European origin for the practice. This version, however, seems to be a parody of that custom.

The bodies are left unburied, rotting where they lie. None of the considerable wealth that is left behind is plundered. Leaving behind such valuable plunder, not only at the time of the massacre, but for every generation afterwards until the settlement is overgrown and hidden by nature, suggests something greater than mere political warfare. It suggests dire warnings against trespass across the generations, with parents instructing their children not to go near the cursed site. Usually only plague sites can generate such an impact, although the cause in this borg's case is still unknown.

One other theory is that some sort of religious or shamanistic involvement is responsible. Fifth century Romans are Christians, while Scandinavians are staunchly pagan. If the borg with its large Roman population has been Christianised and is attempting to 'infect' the rest of the island, the local pagan priests may be responsible for organising an attack. Orders will have been given that nothing be touched. The priests may themselves may have gone in and taken and destroyed Christian objects, forbidding anyone else from touching anything in the fear that a cross may be found that they have missed. Such priestly commands would be even more unbreakable that a fear of disease.


The Franks conquer the former Roman capital of Gaul, Trier (Augusta Treverorum). The city had already been sacked by Franks (probably in 413 and 421) and by the Huns in 451.


Clovis occupies the remnants of northern Gaul which are still outside his Frankish kingdom. This includes the Roman administration of Soissons. He moves the Frankish capital to Paris, former capital of the Gallic Parisii.

489 - 493

At the behest of Eastern Emperor Zeno, Theodoric invades Italy and founds an Ostrogothic kingdom based in Rome. Another Germanic people, the Rugians, join them.

496 - 505

MapThe Franks conquer the Alemanni at the Battle of Tolbiac in 496, although the victory is a narrow one. An Alemmanic uprising in 505 is defeated and the kingdom is drawn directly within the Frankish kingdom. Any independence the Alemanni may have enjoyed after 496 is now lost. The region comes to be known by the less tribal and more formal name of Alemannia.

The Battle of Tolbiac
Defeat by Clovis of the Franks at Tolbiac in 496 signalled the beginning of the end of Alemannic independence (The Battle of Tolbiac by Ary Scheffer, 1836)

Index of Germanic TribesLater Germanics
c.AD 500s - 700s

By this time the Germanic kingdoms of Western Europe were settling down and establishing the borders that would create medieval and modern Europe. The Franks had largely set their northern borders in the fifth century, although they continued to push south and east. The Visigoths soon firmly established themselves in Iberia, along with the Suevi, while the Vandals and Alans were supreme in North Africa.

In Northern Europe the Saxons and Frisians were consolidating their territory, while the Danes were leaving Sweden to claim territory abandoned by the Angles and Jutes. In Central and Eastern Europe, Germanic tribes, and absorbed groups of Celts and earlier indigenous peoples formed various kingdoms, some of which were short-lived in the face of growing Slav dominance or when threatened by waves of nomadic invaders from the Far East. Due to the later Slav dominance here, borders remained fluid for far longer, well into the tenth and eleventh centuries AD, by which time many of the West Germanic kingdoms had been established for half a millennium (if they still survived at all).


Describing a Europe of about AD 500, the Old English poem Widsith mentions several Germanic peoples, not all of whom can be properly identified. The list of rulers covers a span of up to a century, and is probably cobbled together from all the famous warriors known to the poem's composer, while Widsith himself may make his trip to the court of the Ostrogothic King Ermanaric around AD 375, just before the latter's death.


The Franks of Austrasia conquer the Thuringians. Portions of territory are lost to the Saxons, probably to the Continental Saxons, but there also seems to be a reverse migration of Germanics from the east coast of Britain, where the recent British victory at Mons Badonicus has cut them off from the acquisition of new lands. These returning Angles and Saxons appear to be given land in Thuringia by King Theuderich. However, it is also at this time, in this century, that the migration of Britons from the mainland to Brittany is at its heaviest, weakening the British defensive position for the future.


The Eucii, or Saxones Eucii, are associated with the Saxons by this point, which is when they become dependants of the Franks. Some scholars identify these people with the Jutes who have been settled in Britain for almost a century (there had been a backwash of settlers returning to the Continent after the major British victory of about 496). Instead, these Eucii may be an obscure tribe known as the Euthiones who are also associated with the Saxons in a poem by Venantius Fortunatus (written in 583).

Saxon sceat of Essex
This Anglo-Saxon silver sceat dates to about AD 700 and was indicative of the general emergence of Germanic coinage by this time


Jordanes, a bureaucrat in the Byzantine capital of Constantinople, writes of the barbarian tribes in Eastern Europe and Scandinavia, mentioning a wide number of them which include the following:

The Gepidae (the Gepids of the 270s) who dwell In the land of Scythia to the west, while on the northern edges of Dacia, around the western shore of the Black Sea at the mouth of the Danube, the populous Venethi occupy a great expanse of land. They seem to have been earlier known as the Sclaveni and Antes. The Sclaveni branch now occupies territory between the city of Noviodunum and the lake called Mursianus to the Danaster, and northwards as far as the Vistula, mostly in swamps and forests. The Antes occupy the curve of the sea of Pontus, between the Danaster and the Danaper.

In 'the island of Scandza' (Scandinavia), there dwell nineteen tribal groups, only some of whom are named. In Sweden, there are the Screrefennae (Sámi peoples) and the Suehans (Swedes) on the eastern edge, the latter being noted for their splendid horses. Further south there are far more tribes living shoulder to shoulder: the Theustes (in the Tjust region of Småland), Vagoth (Gotlanders?), Bergio (probably in the region of Skåne), Hallin (southern Halland), and Liothida (again probably in Skåne), Further southwards are the Ahelmil (probably in the region of Halmstad), Finnaithae (in Finnveden), Fervir (Fjäre Hundred), and Gauthigoth (the Västergötland Geats). Then come the Mixi, Evagre, and Otingis. Southernmost in Scandinavia live the Ostrogoths (the Östergötland Geats), Aeragnaricii, and the most gentle Finns, 'milder than all the inhabitants of Scandza'. Similarly located are the Vinovilith, Suetidi (Swedes again), and Dani (Danes), the latter being responsible for driving out the Heruli.

In modern Norway the Adogit live in the far north. Further south are the Grannii (Grenland), Augandzi (Agder), Eunixi, Taetel, Rugi (Rogaland), Arochi (Hordaland, who have been linked to the Charudes) and Ranii, with the Raumarici (the later kingdom of Raumarike) close to modern Oslo.


The death of Eastern Roman Emperor Justinian I in 565 ends a period of strong rule in Italy. The advent of the Avars in south-eastern Europe triggers a wave of migration that sees the remnants of the Gepids join the Langobards and both peoples, along with various flotsam and jetsam, enter northern Italy. It also permanently ends Germanic dominance in Pannonia. Following the Langobard migration southwards, a new confederation, the Bavarii, forms in their place north of the Danube, in modern south-eastern Germany.

Pannonian basin
The Pannonian basin is a marked topographical low in central Europe which is surrounded on all sides by mountain ranges, making it ideally defensible


The Suevi kingdom in the Iberian peninsula falls to the Visigoths.


The process of civilising and Christianising the Germanic peoples has long been underway. By the eighth century they have formed kingdoms which have existed for over three centuries in some cases, and can no longer be considered to be barbarians. Instead, they rule half of Europe. After the disappearance of Germanic ethnic origins (in the form of their tribes) in the High Middle Ages, the cultural identity of Europe is built on the idea of Christendom as opposed to Islam, which serves to unite a European external view of the world.