History Files


European Kingdoms

Germanic Tribes




Index of Germanic TribesMapNemetes (Germans/Belgae?)

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. 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.

Usually classified as a Germanic tribe, by the first century BC the Nemetes were a relatively small group that was occupying territory on the west bank of the Rhine. They were neighboured to the north and south by similarly small German tribes that had also crossed the river to further push the Gauls westwards, the Vangiones and Triboci respectively. Across the Rhine were the Tulingi, while to the west were the Mediomatrici.

However, as if to refute this classification as Germans, wherever Celts lived, 'nemet-' provided a component of tribal names, often in connection to woods or small forests. Nemetona was a goddess whose name was based on the Celtic root 'nemeto-', meaning 'consecrated space, grove'. She possibly personified the concept of sacred space and was almost certainly the eponymous deity of the Nemetes. Nemetona is attested throughout their territory. Given this dominance by Celtic names and a goddess, but the tribe's generally attested Germanic origins, it seems most likely that this group of Germans were commanded by a Celtic elite, possibly following their crossing of the Rhine (although the Celtic elite may have been Belgic, which could push back their takeover by several centuries and perhaps make the entire tribe Belgic with different degrees of Germanic influence). Their neighbours to the west were also Belgic, which may serve to explain why the Nemetes were able to remain on the west bank of the Rhine after the defeat of Ariovistus of the Suebi in 58 BC.

The tribe is also sometimes referred to as the Nemeti, which is simply the same thing with a different plural suffix. Nemetes is reduced to 'nemet' without its plural suffix, '-es'. Nemet was a Celtic word used for a sacred grove. Essentially the tribe were 'the people of the sacred grove'. The use of a Celtic word to describe themselves seems to lend weight to the supposition that they (or at least their warrior elite) were Belgic rather than Germanic.

With a capital at Noviomagus Nemetum, the tribe's lands began at the edge of the vast Hercynian silva, the great forest that stretched into the distant east from the Rhine, virtually cutting off southern Germany from Southern Europe. Precisely when the tribe arrived on the west bank of the Rhine is unknown. The 'border' (not that any such organised method of differentiation existed) between Celts and Germans was in a state of constant fluctuation. However, given the fairly well-known rate of German advance from Northern Europe, the Nemetes can only have arrived in the second or first centuries BC at the earliest (provided, of course, that they actually were Germans).

(Additional information by Edward Dawson, from The Celtic Encyclopaedia Volume 4, Harry Mountain, and Celtic Culture: An Historical Encyclopaedia. Vols 1-2, John T Koch (Ed), and from External Links: The Works of Julius Caesar: Gallic Wars, and the Dictionary of Greek and Roman Geography, William Smith.)

58 BC

The Aeduii appeal to Rome for relief from the alleged cruelty of Ariovistus of the Suevi towards them. Julius Caesar, in his role first as consul and then as governor of Gaul (from 58 BC), appears to pursue a diplomatic course that will deliberately end in warfare. Caesar is also informed that a further hundred units of Suevi are about to cross the Rhine under Nasua and Cimberius.

The showdown happens at the Battle of Vosges following an unsuccessful face-to-face parley between the two leaders. The Suevi host lines up in units of tribal groups starting with the Harudes, Marcomanni, Triboci, Vangiones, Nemetes, Sedusii and the core of the Suebi themselves. Superior Roman tactics breaks that line and the Suevi host makes a run for the Rhine. Ariovistus makes it across, but many of his allies now turn on him and the Suevi. It is Caesar who records the existence of the Suevi, differentiating them from the tribe of the Cherusci, but now they avoid the Rhine for generations, concentrating on building a fresh confederation in central Germania.

This is the first mention in history of the Nemetes, and they are clearly already in Gaul if only as part of the Suebic invasion. Whether they had carved out a territory beforehand, or do so now, taking land from the Mediomatrici, they become a permanent fixture on the west bank of the Rhine.

53 BC

As noted by Julius Caesar in his Gallic Wars, the Hercynian Forest (known to the Greeks as Orcynia) is home to a mixture of Germans and a once-powerful arm of the Volcae Tectosages. The forest lies on the east bank of the Rhine (this forms the northern border of the lands known to the ancient writers of the Mediterranean, and the modern Black Forest forms its western part). Its breadth is such that it takes a quick traveller nine days to cross it through uncertain paths, as there are no known roads. It begins at the frontiers of the Helvetii, Nemetes, and Raurici, and extends in a line along the River Danube to the territories of the Daci and the Anarti. From there its borders twist northwards into the vast lands that have not been charted by the Mediterranean cultures.

Hercynian Forest
The Riesengebirge was part of the once-vast Hercynian Forest which spread eastwards from southern Germany and which proved a serious impediment to Roman expansion

10 BC

The first Roman presence in Noviomagus (modern Speyer) is established in the form of a military camp (which can be located between the modern episcopal palace and the town hall).

AD 98

Writing around this time, the Roman writer Tacitus mentions the Nemetes, calling them 'unquestionably Germanic', but perhaps being too restricted in his definition of what was clearly Germanic, Belgic, or Gaulish. Under Rome's administration of Gaul and the Rhine frontier, the civitas of the Nemetes becomes part of Germania Superior (Upper Germany). The civitas is administered from Noviomagus. During the middle ages the town becomes better known in the Germanic form of 'Spires' (as Speyer), coined for its ecclesiastical leanings which begin before AD 346, by which time a bishop is already in residence. The medieval diocese of Speyer preserves the former tribal boundaries.