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European Kingdoms

Germanic Tribes


MapSedusii (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.

A West Germanic tribe, by the first century BC the Sedusii were a relatively small group that was occupying territory across the Rhine, although precisely where is unknown. The early Suebic confederation of which they were part seems to have been concentrated along the east bank of the Rhine, and only some way into the interior of Germania, so doubtless the Sedusii were within easy travelling distance of the river. They would have been neighboured by similar tribes such as the Nemetes, Triboci, and Vangiones.

The tribe's name is an intriguing one. Removing the plural suffix leaves 'sedus'. This may come from the early German *seđuz (sb.m.) which descended into Goth as 'sidus', Old Norse as 'siär', Old English as 'sidu', Old Frisian as 'side', Old Saxon as 'sidu', and Old High German as 'situ', all of which meant 'custom, habit'. It is related to the Sanskrit 'svadhà', meaning 'particularity, custom', but it is hard to see how that works as a name. It's also interesting to note that a similar sound in Germanic is 'set' which is seen often, and in proto-Celtic it is 'sed' instead of 'set', in the form *sed-e/o-, meaning 'sit' (see the Seduni for an example). The Sedusii almost certainly referred to themselves as 'the settlers' in one form or another, which marks them out as another tribe with a potential Celtic/Germanic mix.

The Sedusii formed one of the minor constituent tribes of the nascent Suevi confederation in the first century BC. Their existence was recorded only by Julius Caesar. At various times, their number included the tribes of the Alemanni, Angles, Hermunduri, Langobards, Marcomanni, Quadi, Semnones, and Warini, and perhaps also the Heruli too. None of these tribes were what could be considered 'front line' tribes, living along the border with the Roman empire. Instead they were arrayed behind a large number of other tribes which were better known and better attested by Roman writers. The Suebic tribes remained a little more obscure, at least until they came into direct contact with the empire, and many of the more minor tribes that made up the confederation were almost entirely unchronicled.

The Sedusii themselves seemingly had a brief independent existence, soon disappearing into the melting pot of shifting tribal allegiances and alliances. They are recorded as supplying 6,000 mounted warriors and 6,000 foot warriors for Ariovistus' venture of 60-58 BC, with the two divisions fighting as a team. The foot warrior kept up by grabbing hold of the horse's mane or tail whilst running alongside, demonstrating that these horses were not used in a full-speed cavalry charge into battle, but more as part of the general pell-mell lunge towards their enemies.

(Information by Peter Kessler, with additional information by Edward Dawson, from The Celtic Encyclopaedia, Harry Mountain, from Complete Works of Tacitus, Alfred John Church, William Jackson Brodribb, & Lisa Cerrato (1942), from Roman History by Cassius Dio, translation by Earnest Cary (1914-1927), from Germania, Tacitus, from Roman Soldier versus Germanic Warrior: 1st Century AD, Lindsay Powell, from The Horse, the Wheel, and Language: How Bronze-Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes Shaped the Modern World, David W Anthony, from Geography, Ptolemy, and from External Link: The Works of Julius Caesar: Gallic Wars.)

60? BC

Ariovistus is a leader of the Suevi and other allied Germanic peoples in the second quarter of the first century BC, and at least up to 58 BC. Displaying the interconnected nature of Germanics and Celts at this time, he is a fluent speaker of Gaulish, and one of his two wives is the daughter of Vocion of the Norican kingdom.

As recorded by Julius Caesar, and perhaps also by Cicero (who writes in 60 BC of a defeat for the Aeduii), Ariovistus and his followers take part in a war in Gaul, assisting the Gallic Arverni and Sequani to defeat their rivals, the Aeduii. The reasons for the war are unknown, but they could be related to the Sequani hold over a vital trading corridor in the Doubs river valley which links to the Rhine. The Battle of Magetobriga results in a victory for the allies, thanks to the Suevi troops, and the Aeduii become vassals of the Sequani.

While the entry of the Suevi into Gaul proved to be comparatively easy around 60 BC, the subsequent Battle of Vosges in 58 BC took part amidst the typically difficult terrain in the region (which is close to the modern German border in France), and against Roman troops and Rome's most brilliant general

Ariovistus seizes one-third of the Aeduii territory in the Alsace region, settling about 120,000 Germans there. However, with the Sequani now at his back, between him and Germania, he decides to clear them out of their Doubs valley homeland. More German settlers are introduced there, and a further third of Gaulish territory is demanded for his allies, the Harudes.

58 BC

The Aeduii appeal to Rome for relief from Ariovistus' alleged cruelty 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 Suebi. 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.

406 - 409

The bulk of the Suevi cross the Rhine at Mainz in 406 in association with the Vandali and Alani. After spending two years on the west bank of the Rhine, all three tribes settle in Roman Iberia by 409. The Suevi kingdom is formed in the north-western region of Galicia. Some Suevi groups remain on the Rhine as part of the Frankish confederation while others remain further east and north, such as the Langobards, Lugii, and Warini and, in the southern Cimbric peninsula, along with the Angles and Eudoses, the Swæfe, who are ruled by the Angle, Witta of Wehta's Folk. The Suevi's closely-related associates, the Alemanni, also remain behind, on the east bank of the Rhine, occupying territory that earlier had been under the Marcomanni and Sedusii in Franconia, and quite probably absorbing the Sedusii altogether.

Crossing the Rhine
The main bodies of the Vandali, Alani, and Suevi tribes crossed the Rhine at the end of 406, resulting in panic and chaos within the Roman empire

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