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European Kingdoms

Germanic Tribes


Cherusci (Germanic)

The Germanic tribes seem to have originated in a homeland in southern Scandinavia (Sweden and Norway, with the Jutland area of northern Denmark, along with a very narrow strip of Baltic coastline). They had been settled here 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 the late Roman republic. 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.

The Cherusci lived in areas of the northern Rhine valley, extending eastwards into the forests of what is now north-western Germany. They may have been named after the hart, or deer, from *herut in ancient Germanic. Established in the Rhine valley from as early as the first century BC to at least the third century AD, their name may not be Germanic, perhaps instead being used by their enemies or neighbours to describe them. They were mentioned as a tribe of the Germani by Julius Caesar in 53 BC, where he distinguished them from the Suevi, and were subjugated by Rome in 12 BC.

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).

(Information by Peter Kessler, with additional information by Edward Dawson, from Roman Soldier versus Germanic Warrior: 1st Century AD, Lindsay Powell, from the Complete Works of Tacitus, Alfred John Church, William Jackson Brodribb, & Lisa Cerrato, from Germania, Tacitus, from The Harleian Miscellany: A Collection of Scarce, Curious and Entertaining Tracts Volume 4, William Oldys & Thomas Park, 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 Link: Geography, Strabo (H C Hamilton & W Falconer, London, 1903, Perseus Online Edition), and The Illustrated History of Belgium.)

53 BC

The Germanic Cherusci encounter Rome for the first time, in the form of Julius Caesar, and are already established in their northern Rhine Valley homeland. Caesar identifies them separately from the Suevi when crossing the Rhine to punish the latter for aiding Gallic tribes. He states that the Bacenis forest divides them from the Suevi.

Map of European Tribes
This vast map covers just about all possible tribes which were documented in the first centuries BC and AD, mostly by the Romans and Greeks, and with an especial focus on 52 BC (click or tap on map to view at an intermediate size)

12 - 9 BC

The Cherusci are subjugated by Rome, along with some of their neighbours in the first of four campaigns let by Nero Drusus, stepson of the emperor, who is appointed governor of the Rhine region of Gaul. After building a fortress on the island of the Batavi, he undertakes some difficult fighting in which he is generally successful, subduing numerous tribes. He progresses as far as the River Elbe, where he builds boats and sails to the North Sea. He is killed in a fall from his horse during the fourth campaign in 9 BC.


fl AD 8 - 21

Arminius / Erminaz / Hermann

King of the Cherusci. The original 'Herman the German'.


Cherusci noble and rival contender for power. King in AD 21.

AD 9

Arminius (known as Herman Siegfried to modern Germans) declares the independence of the Cherusci from Rome with his decimation of three legions under Roman Governor Publius Quinctilius Varus. He achieves this momentous victory in an alliance with the Bructeri, Chatti, Chauci, Marsi, and Sicambri (a coalition which is sometimes, rather ridiculously, termed the Armenian empire).

The Tencteri and Usipetes are also highly likely to be involved, as are the Dulgubnii, subjects of the Cherusci. The Bructeri, Tubantes and Usipetes certainly team up to harass the troops of Germanicus AD 14, and they are later included in his triumph. Segestes, whose daughter Arminius had married against his wishes, bears Arminius a lifelong grudge and this now flares up into open division.

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

14 - 15

Germanicus invades northern Germany with Segestes as an ally, and they start with the massacre of the Marsi. This enrages the Germanic tribes and Arminius' confederation is reformed willingly. After Roman forces (and Batavi allies) relieve Segestes from a siege which is being conducted by Arminius, Segestes hands over his pregnant daughter and she is taken to Rome where her son is born (he later trains as a gladiator and dies in combat before he reaches the age of twenty).


The Cherusci suffer two defeats in this period, the first being at Idistaviso and then at the Battle of the Angrivarian Walls in the summer. Arminius doubtless finds his authority has been damaged by the second defeat, at least.

17 - 19

War breaks out between Arminius and Maroboduus of the Marcomanni. The cause is Maroboduus' decision not to join the Cherusci-Roman war of AD 9 in common cause with his fellow Germans. Now the Cherusci join with some of Maroboduus' own Suevi subjects, the Langobards and the Semnones, to stage a revolt against his power. Following an indecisive battle, Maroboduus withdraws into territory which later forms Bohemia by AD 18. He is overthrown by one of his own nobles the following year.


Segestes and members of the royal family murder Arminius, destroying Cherusci cohesion and allowing the Romans to appoint a client king. Following his appointment, Rome largely leaves the Cherusci to their own devices.

Harz Forest
The Harz is now a national park in Germany to ensure that this primeval forest survives, but in the first century BC it was probably home to the Suevi


Son of Arminius. Died as a gladiator in Rome.

21 - ?


Father-in-law of Arminius. Roman client.


A request is sent to Rome asking that Italicus be sent to serve as king, after the nobility of the Cherusci has been destroyed by internal conflict. Whether or not Segestes is killed before this point is entirely unknown. The new, Roman-educated prince soon falls out of favour with his people and they attempt to expel him. The Langobards, previously a minor tribe under the dominance of the once-mighty Cherusci and Marcomanni, now appear on the scene with enough authority and strength to impose the restoration of Italicus.

47 - c.50


Nephew of Arminius. Roman client. Soon fell out of favour.

fl 90s


King at the time of Tacitus' Germania.

late 1st century

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.

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.

Wooden tower on the limes along the Rhine
The Roman borders, called limes, were fortified with broad wooden towers in which soldiers stood guard to warn of potential infringements

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. Elements of the Cherusci and their subjects, including the Dulgubnii, are also in the process of being absorbed into the Saxon tribal confederation. They disappear from history as an identifiable people.

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