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European Kingdoms

Germanic Tribes


MapChatti (Germanic)

Hesse's earliest recorded ancestors were the Chatten or Chatti, a Germanic folk who were in existence by the first century BC. They, along with the Cherusci, were the masters of Germania following the expulsion or absorption of the Celtic tribes and before Roman domination. They originated from Germanic migrants who had settled along the upper banks of the River Visurgis (Weser), the Moenus river valley (the modern Main), and the wooded Taunus highlands in between. This roughly covers areas of the modern German states of Hesse and Rhineland-Palatinate.

Providing a definitive breakdown for the tribe's name is difficult because a precise definition for letter pronunciation shifts cannot be provided. The Edward Dawson model says that, with the Latin suffix of '-i' removed, the Chatti or 'Chat' name is really 'Khat'. The 'kh' corresponds to the modern German and Scottish 'ch' sound, as in 'ich' and 'loch' respectively. The word means 'anger' or 'hate'. So the tribe would have been 'the haters' or 'the angry'. The tribe may have been involved in some sort of feud or revolt against oppressors, perhaps, to have gained such a name.

But here is where the alternatives come into play. Vladimir Orel has *xataz ~ *xatez sb.m./n., which filters through as the Goth 'hatis', meaning 'hatred, anger', and many similar examples including the Old English 'hatr', all meaning hate or anger, with a relation to destruction. (The 'x' is the voiceless velar fricative.) Trish Wilson prefers an explanation which involves a change occurring through a second lingual shift, from 'c' to 'h' as in these examples from Latin/Germanic: 'captus/haflting', meaning 'prisoner' and 'pisces/fisch', so it's clear that there has been a shift from 'p' to 'f'. Such a double change can also be seen in the 'l' to 'i' shift, 'flumen' to 'fiume', and 't' to 'z', used in Florentia becoming Fi(o)renze and in (Adriatic) Veneti becoming Veneziano.

The problem with providing a firm definition and also in showing how Chatti became Hessi revolves around how the 'c' (or 'ch') of Chatti (Catti) was pronounced. Was it a 'ch' as in much of Latin? Or a 'k' sound like some Latin and all Celtic? Or was it a 'kh' sound such as is used in modern German 'ch' and also in Scottish 'loch'? The shift is not tightly defined so. until it is, the precise meaning of Chatti must remain relatively conjectural. However, Dawson also offers an option which could fully explain the basis of the tribe's name and subsequent shifts in how that name was given. As with many other Germanic tribes during the early phases of contact between them and the Gauls, the Chatti may have taken their name via Celtic language influence. It may be derived from the Celtic 'cat', meaning 'battle or fight', being adapted to mean 'fighters'. This would mean that the 'c' was pronounced as a hard 'k' sound, and it would quickly have changed into the Germanic 'kh' sound which would have turned 'Cat' into 'Chat', with 'Chatti' being the plural form. The meaning of 'fighters' would seem to have been extended over time in Germanic to become 'the haters, the angry'.

The Chattuarii may have been a branch of the Chatti (along with the Mattiaci). Their name breaks down into 'chatti' plus 'uari', which is the Gaulish word 'wiros' for 'man', the plural being 'wiri' which was adopted by German tribes. So Chattuari means 'Chatti men'. 'Chatti' gradually became 'Hessi', from which originates the modern state's name. The 't' to 'ss' shift occurs often enough in German, and can also be seen in the Boiocasses tribal name.

By the first century BC, a division of the Chatti had formed following an internal squabble (according to Tacitus). This splinter group became known as the Batavi, and it migrated to settle around the mouth of the Rhine, in the northernmost reaches of Celtic Belgae territory (in the modern Netherlands). Also noted both by Julius Caesar, they supplied several units to the Roman army. The Chatti themselves were not mentioned by Caesar by name, simply being lumped into the general Suevi collective. That collective became much stronger after Caesar's time, going on to become one of the most powerful opponents of the Romans during the first century AD. They defeated the powerful Cherusci and the other neighbouring tribes. In the second century AD, they were located close to the east bank of the Rhine, which became their traditional homeland. They were generally bordered to the east by the Hermunduri, and to the south by various other elements of the Suevi. Together with these groups they formed the Herminones, one of the five original groups of Germanics.

The capital of the Chatti was named by Roman writers as Mattium. It lay beyond the River Adrana (the modern Eder) and was destroyed by Germanicus in his campaigns of 12-9 BC. Despite being described by Tacitus its location was lost to history. General opinion believes it to have been located around modern Fritzlar, in the Schwalm-Eder district of northern Hesse, to the north of the Eder, but there are several potential sites in the region.

(Information by Peter Kessler, with additional information by Edward Dawson and Trish Wilson, from A Handbook of Germanic Etymology, Vladimir Orel, from The Barbarians: Warriors & Wars of the Dark Ages, Tim Newark (Blandford Press, 1985), and from External Link: Geography, Strabo (H C Hamilton & W Falconer, London, 1903, Perseus Online Edition).)

1st century BC?

Tacitus mentions the Batavi as a constituent part of the Chatti who are divided from them following an internal dispute. They migrate westwards before the first century AD, settling in what becomes the central Netherlands.

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 which 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.

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

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.

fl AD 9 - 19


King of the Chatti.

AD 9

Adgandestrius is part of the coalition of tribes which is led by Arminius of the Germanic Cherusci and which decimates three legions under Roman Governor Publius Quinctilius Varus. The disaster is a tremendous blow to Roman plans for expansion into Germania Magna, something from which they never entirely recover.


The Marsi role in resisting the Romans is short-lived. They are massacred by General Germanicus at the start of his invasion of northern Germany and an area of fifty Roman miles of Marsi territory is laid waste. Much of this land is later occupied by the Chatti and their Hessian descendants.


Adgandestrius asks for poison from Rome so that he might kill the Cherusci leader, Arminius. The request is refused on the grounds that it would be unsportsmanlike, although Rome is quite capable of being unsportsmanlike whenever it suits its own ends.


Strabo mentions the little-known Chattuarii as neighbours of the Chatti, placing them immediately to the east of the lower Rhine for the subsequent four centuries. The tribe's origins are unknown, and they seem not to be particularly migratory..

Citadel of Namur
The Meuse valley, shown here at the citadel of Namur, formed the western border for the Chattuarii following their crossing of the Rhine, taking territory from the fading Roman administration


As recorded by Tacitus, the Hermunduri and Chatti fight a great battle. Each of them is vying for control of the rich salt-producing river which flows between them. Besides their passion for settling everything by force, Tacitus says, they hold a religious conviction that this region is close to heaven so that men's prayers receive ready access. In the battle, the Chatti are defeated with a disastrous result. In the event of victory, both sides have vowed their enemies to the gods Tiu (Tyr) and Wotan (Wodan). The vow implies the sacrifice of the entire defeated side with their horses and all their possessions. Similar German post-battle rituals have been discovered in first century AD Jutland.

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 (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.

The Gaulish and Germanic Batavian revolt of AD 69-70 was a major contributor to the instability experienced in the Roman empire during the 'Year of Four Emperors'


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. Domitian also antagonises the Germanic tribes by driving back the Chatti from these new provinces at the River Taunus. All this appears to do is stir up the tribe to provide further opposition to the Romans on their western flank.


Two legions of Domitian's armies in Germania Superior at Mogontiacum (Mainz) revolt under L Antoninus Saturninus, for reasons which are largely lost to history (thanks to the later destruction of Saturninus' personal documents). The revolt is supported by the Chatti tribe. It is quite plausible that the officers involved rebel against Domitian's rather strict moral policies. Whatever goal Saturninus has is completely unknown and there seems to be little indication of a plan. The Roman governor of Germania Inferior puts down the revolt, seemingly before it even begins.


The Roman writer Tacitus mentions a large number of tribes in Greater Germania, which includes the Chatti. He states that their settlements begin at the Hercynian Forest (known to the Greeks as Orcynia - the modern Black Forest forms its western part), where the country is not so open and marshy as in the other cantons into which Germany stretches.

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

The Chatti are to be are found on the edges of the forest, and are 'noted for their hardy frames, close-knit limbs, fierce countenances, and a peculiarly vigorous courage. For Germans, they have much intelligence and sagacity; they promote their picked men to power, and obey those whom they promote; they keep their ranks, note their opportunities, check their impulses, portion out the day, entrench themselves by night, regard fortune as a doubtful, valour as an unfailing, resource; and what is most unusual, and only given to systematic discipline, they rely more on the general than on the army.

Their whole strength is in their infantry which, in addition to its arms, is laden with iron tools and provisions. Other tribes you see going to battle, the Chatti to a campaign. Seldom do they engage in mere raids and casual encounters. It is indeed the peculiarity of a cavalry force quickly to win and as quickly to yield a victory. Fleetness and timidity go together; deliberateness is more akin to steady courage'.

By this time, Cherusci numbers and fighting ability have been dented through unsuccessful warfare against the Chatti. This point signals their eclipse and eventual absorption by other tribes.

162 - 170

The Chatti continue to trouble the Romans, raiding Roman territory in 162 and 170. This is during a period of continued border trouble for Rome. From AD 166 the first invasion takes place of Germanic peoples across the Danube, under the leadership of the Marcomanni, which also includes elements from many other tribes.

Roman defensive tower
Emperors Hadrian and Antoninus Pius had 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 which the Marcomanni managed to break through

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 largely 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 which has come to be known as Francia. The main body of Chatti remain located along the eastern bank of the Rhine, from where they mount yet another raid into Roman territory in 213.


In the late fourth century, Sulpicius Alexander writes a history of Germanic tribes which 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.


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 before they appear to be subsumed by the Franks as a whole and by the Chatti in particular, probably with elements in both camps.


The 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 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.

Roman town gates of Metz
The fairly insignificant Mosan Franks settled the area between Soissons and the Alemanni, taking the Roman town at Moguntiacum (Metz or Mainz) the gates of which are shown here

496 - 505

MapThe Franks conquer the Alemanni at the Battle of Tolbiac in 496, although the victory is a narrow one. An Alemannic 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.

These events probably cause some Alemanni to drift south-eastwards where they form part of the Bavarii confederation. Back at home, the hilltop settlements of the Alemannic nobility are abandoned and their cemeteries fall into disuse, and it is this Alemannic drift which effectively removed the Chatti from their confederation. At the same time, strategically situated settlements of Frankish warriors and their entourages emerge in the sixth and seventh centuries, as the Franks impose their own governance on the region.

The Frankish Conradine family establishes itself as a leading noble house in the Lahngau (later a key location in the founding of Hesse). The Conradines maintain close familial relationships with the later Carolingians and Robertians (the latter of whom also play a role in early Hesse, with Robert III being count of Worms and Rheingau until 834). The early church also plays a key role in the management of the Lahngau. At this time the only existing monastery is that of St Lubentius in Dietkirchen (probably founded in the sixth century), although its first written mention is only in 841.


The Germanic Chattuarii appear to be named in both of the Old English texts, Beowulf and the Widsith list, as the Hætwerum (Hetwaras). They are bordered on their eastern flank by the Chatti. This group has been largely anonymous to Roman writers since the late third century, prompting some speculation that they have merged with other groups to form the Alemanni. This is possible, of course, but the fact that the Chatti re-emerge later (as the Hessi) suggests that they retain their identity within any such groupings.

River Main
The River Main area of Western Germany became the new homeland of the Alemanni following their migration from the Baltic Sea region


St Boniface of the church at Canterbury, 'Apostle of the Germans', fells the sacred oak of the Thuringians at Gaesmere (modern Geismar) to symbolise the abolition of their paganism, and they are converted to Christianity en masse. The Chatti are included amongst this group of Germans to be so converted, perhaps better known by now as Hessi.


A letter is written by Pope Gregory III which is sent to 'Bonifatius', St Boniface. In the letter, the pope refers to the population as Hassiorum, the 'folk of Hessen'. Those folk of Hessen are emerging into history as a series of small counties which are eventually joined together to form Hesse.

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