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European Kingdoms

Germanic Tribes




Index of Germanic TribesMapHeruli (Heruls / Eruli) (Germans)

An East Germanic tribe, the precise origins of the Heruli (or Heroli) are unknown. They seem to have borne some relationship with the tribes that formed the Suevi. Their name is equally obscure, but later inscriptions in Scandinavia which are sometimes attributed to them suggest that this fierce, martial people were called the 'lords' ('erilaz' singular, later 'eorlas' or 'lords' to the Angles and Saxons who migrated to Britain, and 'erlos' or 'men' to the Old Saxons). Perhaps it was bestowed as an honorific due to their fighting abilities amongst their fellow Scandinavians.

One suggestion for their apparently sudden appearance in 267 or 268 is that they may have been only recently established on the eastern bank of the Dnepr as an ethnogenesis between Goths, other Germanic tribes, and some Sarmatian nomads. Other information suggests that they originated in southern Scandinavia alongside the Goths and Langobards and were driven out in the third century AD. Thereafter they migrated into eastern Europe, probably through Poland and Ukraine, until they reached the Don. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that the Heruli core group probably migrated from Scandinavia and picked up other additions along the way, forming the people who appeared so suddenly in AD 267.

The Heruli were generally lumped together by the Romans as Germans, or Germani. The construction 'Ger-man' breaks down into 'ger' (still used in English as 'gar', the name of a fish) meaning spear, and 'man' which is unchanged in meaning. 'Her-man' is another form of the word. It was likely to have been formed of 'ger' for a spear and 'ker' for an army of spearmen, for which 'k' was softened to an 'h'. Some sources suggest quite wrongly that Germani means 'neighbour' or 'men of the forest'. Instead, the possessors of this name were tough, fierce killers and would not have named themselves anything quite so friendly. The Romans introduced Germani because they consistently heard both forms from the Germans themselves: 'herman' as in Hermunduri, and 'german', because these warriors called themselves just that: spearmen. The Heruli and Cherusci names may also derive from or contain this root word for spear, meaning an army (of spears).

The Heruli were a subject tribe of the Goths and their later Ostrogoth division until the latter were destroyed by the Huns in 375. Like a great many tribes in Eastern Europe they were subjugated by the Huns until the death of Attila, after which they re-emerged along with a branch of the Goths. Together, under Odoacer, they displaced the last Roman emperor and ruled the Gothic kingdom of Italy for two decades. Their fortunes waned after that, and they quickly disappeared from the historical record.

(Additional information by Edward Dawson.)

1st century


fl c.120s


127 - 162


162 - 201


c.200 - 250?

It seems that the original core Heruli group is to be found on the lower Elbe in this period. From here they head south-eastwards over the course of two generations or so, heading in the direction of the Black Sea.

201 - 237


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).

This is the first historical record of the Heruli (and possibly the subjected Scirii tribe too), which has them occupying territory around the Meotic swamps, close to the mouth of the Tanais (Don). They and the Goths are classed by Rome as pirates who ravage the coasts of Greece and Asia Minor.


By the end of the third century there appear to be two groupings of Heruli, one in Eastern Europe and one in the west. Mamertinus records an attack by Heruli across the Lower Rhine and into Gaul. Heruli also raid into Iberia along with Alemanni and Saxons. The attack presents a hard-pressed Rome with some difficulties in pegging back the attack, as the empire is also concerned with mounting an attack on a usurper in Britain.

Heruli warriors confronted by late Roman troops, possibly the Heruli who could have been defeated in AD 287 and recruited as mercenaries

It may be possible that this poorly-recorded group of Heruli are defeated and employed by Rome as mercenaries. Ammianus mentions the Heruli and the Batavi together as brother people. The latter are well known for their services as Roman soldiers in the second and third centuries, so 'brother' in this sense could mean fellow Germanics serving together in the army.

c.290 - 292


Vassal of the Ostrogoths.

? - 340


Vassal of the Ostrogoths.

c.330s - 360s

Ermanaric is the great warrior-king of the Ostrogoths who subdues the surrounding Germanic peoples including the Heruli, subsequently leaving all his conquered peoples to observe their own laws and rulers on the condition that they pay homage to him.

fl c.360s?


Defeated by the Ostrogoths.

360 - 361

At the start of 360, Roman Caesar Julian (the Apostate) is wintering in Lutetia Parisiorum (the early Paris) when reports reach him that the Scotti and Picts have broken a previous agreement (perhaps made in 343) and are plundering lands close to the frontier in Britain. Given the situation on the Rhine, especially with the Alemanni, he is unable to leave, so he sends his magister militum, Lupicinus, along with some of his best units, the Heruli, the Batavi, and two numeri Moesiacorum. Lupicinus marshals his forces at London, but is recalled following Julian being proclaimed Augustus by his troops. Whether the campaign goes ahead under a less senior commander is unknown.

361 - 363

Heruli serving in Rome's armies (almost certainly descendants of those who had probably been captured in 287) are promised under Emperor Julian that they will not be sent to the Levant to serve on the frontier there. They may have served in Casta Batavis, now in Lower Bavaria, for the entire period since their enlistment.


The invading Huns subjugate the Ostrogoths and Heruli in the vast territory they occupy in what is now Ukraine and areas of southern Russia, creating a vast kingdom of their own which survives until the death of Attila in 453.

fl 380s


Vassal of the Huns.


The fall of the Huns allows the Heruli to rise up and free themselves. They set up a strong Roman foederati kingdom of their own in southern Moravia, near the rivers March and Theiss and covering later Brno and Vienna. They subdue all their neighbours, including the Langobards, turning them into vassals. They become feared once more as pirates and for their ability as Roman mercenaries.


On 28 August 475, the magister militum, Orestes, assumes control of the Roman government at Ravenna using his Gothic, Heruli, and Rugii foederati. He deposes Emperor Julius Nepos and forces him to flee to Dalmatia, where he reigns as emperor-in-exile until 480.


Orestes reneges on his promise to give his foederati land. The Scirian General Odoacer, with Eastern Roman backing, kills Orestes. Odoacer rules Italy as a continuation of the Roman state with Zeno's blessing while his Heruil, Rugii, Scirii and other Germanic followers gain the land they had been promised in Italy. The Heruli are the strongest of his supporters and their fortunes are largely tied to him.

Probably by this time, and certainly within the fifth century, horsemen from the Danubian region, almost certainly Heruli from the army of Attila, have established contacts along the former amber trade routes to Scandinavia. Archaeologists later find examples of trade materials from this period, especially in the border areas between the Danes and the Geats.

c.500 - 508

Rodolf / Hrodolphos

Killed by the Langobards.


Rodolf is slain by the Langobards as they rise up against their overlords and the Heruli and Gothic kingdom in southern Moravia is destroyed. Herulian fortunes wane after this disaster. Some surviving Heruli join the Langobards and move to Italy, some form part of the Bavarii confederation in southern Germany, while others seek refuge with the Gepids and then the Byzantines. Perhaps the ruling core of the Heruli head northwards, towards Scandinavia.

509 - 512

The core of the Heruli, including its ruling nobility, apparently arrive in Scandinavia in this period (passing the Varni or Warini, on the southern coast of the Baltic Sea). Though generally neglected by scholars, Jordanes and Procopius both mention them. It seems that they settle between the Danes and Gautoi (Geats) at a time when the populations of the Cimbric Peninsula and southern Sweden are in a state of flux.

Of the Heruli who do not join the migration to Scandinavia, after seeking refuge with the Gepids, some of them are allowed to resettle depopulated land in Singidunum (modern Belgrade) by the Byzantines in 512.


After one generation, the minor federate Heruli kingdom in Singidunum disappears from the historical record. These 'South Heruli' merge into surrounding populations or unite with the Langobards.

An artist's reconstruction of the Roman city of Singidunum (the modern Balkans city of Belgrade, now the capital of Serbia)


By now the Heruli appear to have moved to the far north of the Cimbric Peninsula, into Jutland, apparently expelled by the Danes further south. Their new settlement could be in the Maelar Valley on the northern trade route. Their subsequent entry into Sweden is poorly documented. They are not mentioned by name as the Heruli, but they may be the Erils (normally taken to mean earls, but in isolated cases though perhaps to refer to a people rather than a position).

Their presence there can also be supported by archaeology. They have probably followed the trade routes that had been established between the Heruli in the Danubian region and Scandinavia in the fifth century. Burial mounds in Uppsala (not far north of Stockholm) which contain East Germanic remains not found elsewhere in Scandinavia may belong to the Heruli, but the population is a relatively small one and, for all their martial aggressiveness, it is almost certain that they are subsequently integrated with the Swedes.


Procopius mentions that Heruli remaining in central Europe are now in Illyria, probably left there from the movements into Italy or on the edges of the Bavarii confederation. Around this time they are searching for a new king to govern their grouping, and they find him in Scandinavia, where their royal family has many members. It seems there may be a level of two-way traffic between the two groups which is known about in the Eastern Roman court, where they receive information from Heruli returning from the north.

The Romans view the Illyrian Heruli as faithless and 'utterly abandoned rascals', a people impossible to rule. However, they serve in Byzantine armies for a number of Eastern Roman emperors, most notably in the campaigns of Belisarius, for whom they even supply a personal guard. Belisarius' replacement in the Italian campaigns, Narses, is sent in 545 to recruit amongst the Heruli, probably to support further campaigns in Italy.


The Roek Stone of this period most likely confirms the presence of a branch of the Heruli royal family in Swedes, but under the names of the Maringa and Ingoldings. Although this is generally neglected by Scandinavian scholars - but not denied - there is no doubt that a group of prominent Heruli settled somewhere on the Scandinavian Peninsula around 512. It is also claimed that the Heruli could be the first Scandinavian colonisers of Iceland.