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European Kingdoms

Germanic Tribes


MapHermunduri (Suevi)

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 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.

The Hermunduri (or Hermanduri) appear to have been one of many tribes with mixed ancestry, both Celtic and Germanic, as they are frequently included in either group. In the first century AD they were located in central Germania, generally occupying a wide swathe of territory southwards from the Elbe, along the line of the River Saale. The Bohemian Forest was on their eastern flank while the Roman province of Germania Superior was to the west. Neighbouring them were tribes such as the Cherusci, Semnones, Marcomanni, Naharvali, Osi, Lugii, plus the Raeti to the south, and the Chatti to the north-west.

They were one of the early tribes to emerge into history in central Germany in the first century AD, but remained fairly obscure. Little detailed knowledge exists of them, and there is an almost total absence of the names of tribal leaders, revealing that they had little substantial political or military contact with Rome - and yet they were counted by Rome as one of the best trading contacts possessed by the empire. By around AD 200 they had disappeared, their cohesion largely destroyed by warfare. Their remnant was possibly absorbed by the Alemanni confederation which had formed close to their tribal lands, and their territory later lay within Thuringia.

The Hermunduri 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 tribe was also counted as part of the Suevi confederation, a wide-ranging collection that also included the Alemanni confederation, along with the Langobards, Marcomanni, Quadi, and Semnones. Some elements of the Marcomanni further south later formed part of the Bavarii confederation, at the start of the sixth century. The term 'suevi' seems to have been used almost casually to describe a wide range of German peoples.

(Information by Peter Kessler, with additional information by Edward Dawson, from The La Tene Celtic Belgae Tribes in England: Y-Chromosome Haplogroup R-U152 - Hypothesis C, David K Faux, from Geography, Ptolemy, from Roman History, Cassius Dio, from Research into the Physical History of Mankind, James Cowles Pritchard, and from External Link: Geography, Strabo (H C Hamilton & W Falconer, London, 1903, Perseus Online Edition).)

fl AD 19 - 50

Vibil / Vibilius

Earliest-known leader of the tribe.

AD 19

Vibil is involved in the exile of a young nobleman of the Marcomanni tribe named Catualda around this date, or perhaps shortly before it. Catualda returns in this year (perhaps as the puppet of a Roman plot to sow discord).

Hermanduri warrior
Generally referred to by Romans as Germans, the Hermanduri were one of the earliest Germanic tribes to gain an identity of their own but perhaps suffered for it for that very reason


Strabo places the Langobards near the mouth of the Elbe at this time. They are in frequent and close relations with the Hermunduri and Semnones, two great Suebic tribes who dwell higher up the stream (further up river, along the tributary of the Saale). Strabo seems to suggest that in his time the Hermunduri and Langobards had been driven from the left to the right bank of the Elbe. However, in the case of the Hermunduri this cannot be a long-lasting situation as they are soon to be found back on the left (southern) bank of the Elbe.


Vannius of the Quadi shows an inclination to rebuild the Marcomanni confederation, so Rome instigates an insurrection to solve what it sees as a problem on its borders. The regnum Vannianum breaks up following the insurrection which is led by the nephews of Vannius, Wangio and Sido, and supported by the Hermunduri. Vannius is deposed and later dies in unknown circumstances. Wangio gains the leadership of the Quadi while Sido gains that of the Hermunduri. Who now rules the Marcomanni is entirely unknown.

50 - ?


Nephew of Vannius of the Quadi.


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.


Tacitus, writing around this time, describes the Hermunduri as perhaps the best-known Germans as far as Rome is concerned. They are the only tribe to carry on extensive trade with the empire, and individual Hermunduri are the only Germans to be allowed into Roman cities without armed escorts. Their name is used as the source of the Latin word that is adapted to describe the entire people, the Germanii. They are also viewed as being part of the Suevi's confederation of tribes.

166 - 169

A Marcomanni confederation is formed which also includes elements from many other tribes including the Iazyges, Sarmatians, and elements of the Suevi confederation which includes the Quadi. Together they cross the Danube and invade Dacia, penetrating as far as Italy and forcing the Roman emperor, Marcus Aurelius, to spend the rest of his life campaigning in the Danube region to contain the problem, which he does (to an extent) with a further defeat of them in 180.

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


Marcus Aurelius dies while conducting what would have been a final Roman campaign against the most dangerous barbarian Germanic tribes across the Danube. It is formed of an alliance which is under Marcomanni leadership and includes Dacians, Peucini, and Sarmatians. As it is, the problem is never fully resolved.


Having been broken during the Marcomannic Wars against Emperor Marcus Aurelius, the Hermunduri are now absorbed into a new confederation of smaller tribes called the Alemanni. Until at least the sixth century, it is likely that each tribe in the confederation largely rules itself, with a possible over-king simply providing military leadership in times of trouble. Large numbers of Hermunduri may also be absorbed by the Thuringians in the third century.


By this time, the Suevi have formed a wide-ranging confederation of tribes which are all known individually but which are counted as being Suevi.

The vast number of tribes included in the confederation include the Aestii, Angles, Aviones, Buri, Cotini, Eudoses, Gutones, Hermunduri (who have virtually ceased to exist as a recognisable independent people), Langobards, Lugii (a name applied to several tribes: the Harii, Helisii, Helveconae, Manimi, and Naharvali), Marcomanni, Marsigni, Naristi, Nuitones, Osi, Quadi, Reudigni, Semnones, Sitones, Suardones, Suiones (Swedes), and the Warini.

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