History Files


European Kingdoms

Germanic Tribes




MapUsipetes (Germans)

In general terms, the Romans coined the name 'Gaul' to describe the Celtic tribes of what is now central, northern and eastern France. The Gauls were divided from the Belgae to the north by the Marne and the Seine, and from the Aquitani to the south by the River Garonne. They also extended eastwards, into the region that was becoming known as Germania. The Celts had ruled much of this in their heyday, but by the middle of the first century BC they were fragmented, and were either in the process of being expelled by the increasingly powerful Germanic tribes who were migrating southwards from Scandinavia and the Baltic coast, or they were being defeated and integrated into Germanic or other tribes. The Usipetes were one such West Germanic tribe, and by the first century BC the eastern bank of the Rhine was their home. They were neighboured to the north by the Tencteri and beyond them the Chatti.

Otherwise known as the Usip or Usipi, the tribe's name is a tough one to decipher. The suspicion is that Usipii may be more accurate. The 'u-' is suspected of being the prefix 'un-', a negative that is still in use today. 'Sip' means to decline, to sink low. So the name probably means 'those who have not declined'. The language is early Germanic, but the cognates/descendents are found in Anglo-Saxon: 'un-' and 'sipian'. Given the tendency of the classical authors to mangle these names, a guess at the original form of the name would be Unsipion or Unsipon, 'the undeclined' or 'the undegenerated'. Some sources indicate a preference for a Celtic link which seems unlikely. However, if that is correct then Usipii would be 'su-', meaning 'good', reversed into 'us-', plus 'epos', meaning 'horse', making them something along the lines of the 'good horses' or perhaps good horsemen. The horse was an important status symbol, so this would have been a powerful name.

Some secondary or tertiary sources seem to regard the Usipetes as one tribe along with the Tencteri, or at least two tribes with a possible common ancestry. Both also seemed to display Celtic influences (hence the confusion over the origin of the Usipetes name). This could be due to their appearance together in 55 BC, when they crossed the Rhine and caused some chaos amongst the Gauls there. However, in their history as recorded by Rome, the Tencteri spent most of their time allied to or neighboured by the Bructeri to the north. They were certainly in that region from the middle of the first century BC, although both they and the Usipetes probably became progressively Germanised, erasing any early Celtic links they may have had.

FeatureIt has been suggested (by Rübekeil) that the Tencteri name could be Germanic or Celtic, meaning 'the faithful' in both tongues, but while Julius Caesar calls them Germans, simply because they came from the eastern side of the Rhine. It seems that both the Usipetes and Tencteri (and by extension the very similar Tubantes) belonged culturally to the La Tène, making them Celts, or possibly Celts with a Germanic warrior elite in control of them. Controversy exists as to whether particular tribes were German or Gaulish (Celtic), and it seems the Tencteri and Usipetes could straddle both definitions. The subject is discussed in greater detail in the accompanying feature.

(Additional information by Edward Dawson, and from Diachrone Studien zur Kontaktzone zwischen Kelten und Germanen, Ludwig Rübekeil, 2002, from Roman Soldier versus Germanic Warrior: 1st Century AD, Lindsay Powell, and from External Link: The Works of Julius Caesar: Gallic Wars.)

55 BC

As recorded by Julius Caesar in his work, Commentarii de Bello Gallico, the Germanic 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.

Germanic warriors
This romanticised illustration of Germanic warriors bore little similarity to the rough and ready warriors of the Germanic tribes along the Rhine

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.

Several other tribes submit to Caesar, but the Sicambri withdraw from their territories on the advice of the Usipetes and Tencteri. Caesar remains in their lands for a few days before burning down their villages and taking their corn. He moves his forces into Ubii territory to show solidarity with them against the Suevi threat before returning to Gaul.

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.

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 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.

Teutoberger wald
The decimation of three legions in the Teutoberger wald was a massive humiliation for the Roman empire and caused the abandonment of plans to conquer Germania Magna

58 - 60?

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. The Usipetes themselves may be dislodged by the Chauci, as they appear to move southwards between this event and the revolt of AD 69, presumably taking the Tubantes with them.

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, Cugerni, and Tencteri, while the Sinuci are also mentioned as a people who live in the region. 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 (presumably leading the Tubantes along with them), 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.

83 - 84

Following their share in the defeat of AD 70, the Tubantes and Usipetes appear to fall under Roman domination. Now inhabiting territory further to the south, close to the Chatti, the tribes provide auxiliaries to the Roman army and in the sixth year of the governorship of Gnaeus Julius Agricola in Britain (generally agreed to be AD 84), Usipetes troops are to be found serving as a cohort in that province.


The Roman writer Tacitus mentions a large number of tribes in Germania Magna, and he places the Chauci between the lower Rhine and Elbe, close to the North Sea coast. He calls them a just and noble people, preferring to avoid violence but quite willing to defend themselves militarily if the need arises (this probably does not include the coastal Chauci who continue to practise coastal raiding). They are accounted as part of the Ingaevones group of Germanic tribes. Those Chauci living between the Weser and Elbe are referred to as the Greater Chauci, while those between the Weser and Ems are the Lesser Chauci, with the former area being densely populated. The tribe as a whole is bordered to the south by the Tencteri and Usipetes, to the south-west by the Bructeri and Chamavi, with the coastal Frisii to the west, and the Aviones and Reudigni to the north, across the Elbe.

Germanic Tribesmen
As time passed, Germanic peoples were hired en masse by the Romans as mercenaries and auxiliary troops, especially in the fourth and fifth centuries, and as the empire's central administration waned, the mercenaries became the new masters of the territory they controlled

3rd century

The Germanic Franks are first documented during this century (the Period of Migration), when 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). They are one of several West Germanic federations, and are formed of elements of the Ampsivarii, Batavi, Bructeri, Chamavi, Chatti, Chattuarii, Cherusci, Salii, Sicambri, Tencteri, Tubantes, and Usipetes. Most of these peoples live along the Rhine's northern borders in what is becoming known as Francia. The fortunes of all of these tribes are now tied to the greater Frankish collective.


MapThe main body of Chattuarii have probably remained to the east of the Rhine until this period. They are still neighboured to the east by the Chatti and are now to the south of the Bructeri. At this point they cross with the bulk of the Franks and settle between the Meuse and the west bank of the Rhine, while the Bructeri, along with the Tencteri, Tubantes, and Usipetes, do not migrate at all. Instead they remain in their traditional tribal lands and gradually coalesce into the more minor Ripaurian Franks who remain on the east bank of the Rhine.