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European Kingdoms

Germanic Tribes


MapSemnones / Juthungi (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.

By the first century BC the Semnones were a fairly large group that was occupying territory in eastern Germany, close to the modern Czech border and between the Albis and the Viadus (the modern Elbe and Oder respectively). They were neighboured to the north by the Burgundiones, to the south by the large host of Boii, and to the north or west by the Langobards.

The Semnones or Semnoni tribe are not to be confused with the Celtic Semnones. In fact, they have the same name as a leader of the Lugii confederation around AD 500 - Semno. To break down the name, remove the suffixes and the remainder is apparently Celtic, but without Semno's full personal name suffix of '-os' or '-us'. This reduced suffix may have been its form in Celtic at that late date (the start of the sixth century AD), but the sense is that the first century BC tribal name is the Germanic form of the Celtic name. The use of the Celtic word for 'chain' in the name has a precedence in Dumnonii/Damnonii, which also can mean tied up or roped, extended to 'tame', and further extended to mean 'master, owner'. A best guess for the meaning of the name is 'the chainers', or 'the tamers' or, perhaps more tentatively through inference, 'the masters'.

The alternative name for this tribe is Juthungi, meaning 'the youths'. Reading a description of them by Tacitus, he talks of their ancient grove and the fact that everyone going into it must do so in chains. So, since use of groves is a Celtic habit that was adopted by some Germans, a look-up of 'semn' in proto-Celtic produces 'sīmo-' (?), meaning 'chain'. It is easy to see this name building onto the base word for chain the various suffixes found in Semnones: '-n', '-on', and '-es' (Celtic, German and Latin suffixes). Fordmeyer's proto-German dictionary supplies 'youth' (n) in the form of 'juwúnthiz, juwunðōjíthō'. This may be the root for Juthung (Yuthung). So where did this very different name come from for this tribe? A fairly wild but educated guess is that a group of young, aggressive Germans took over a Celtic tribe (or more probably Belgic), one whose rituals in their grove involved entering wearing chains to show that they were slaves of the deity or deities there. That aspect of being 'owned' by the deity is fully in line with British Celtic names in which the person's name is the dog of such-and-such a deity. Culturally this reflects a high degree of dominance/submission. Some take 'the youths' to mean successors, as in 'the descendants [of the Semnones]'.

The Suevi of which the Semnones were nominally a part were a confederation of Germanic peoples which included the tribes of the Marcomanni and Quadi, the Hermunduri and Semnones, the Langobards, and the Alemanni. Some elements of the Marcomanni further south formed part of the Bavarii confederation at the start of the sixth century. The term seems to have been used almost casually to describe a wide range of German peoples. The Semnones remained in their homeland in eastern Germany for the remainder of their identifiable existence, eventually disappearing to be replaced by the Alemanni confederation, probably after having been submerged within it.

(Information by Peter Kessler, with additional information by Edward Dawson, from the Complete Works of Tacitus, Alfred John Church, William Jackson Brodribb, & Lisa Cerrato, from the Dictionary of Greek and Roman Geography, William Smith, from Our Forefathers, Volume 2, Gudmund Schutte, from Geography, Ptolemy, and from External Link: Geography, Strabo (H C Hamilton & W Falconer, London, 1903, Perseus Online Edition).)

AD 17 - 19

War breaks out between Arminius of the Cherusci 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 that later forms Bohemia by AD 18. He is overthrown by one of his own nobles the following year.


Strabo places the Langobards near the mouth of the Elbe. They are in frequent and close relations with the Hermunduri and Semnones, two great Suebic tribes who dwell higher up the river. 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.

River Elbe
The mouth of the River Elbe was held by the Langobards during the early part of the first century AD, but it was also the only access to the sea for the powrful Semnones tribe


The first historical mention of the Lugii is by Strabo, who seems to place them as members of a tribal federation which includes the Butones (a questionable name, perhaps a misspelling of Gutones), Mugilones, Semnones, Sibini and Zumi.

fl c. 80s


King of the Semnones during the reign of Domitian.

81 - 96

During his reign, Emperor Domitian is involved several times in German politics. He grants the Lugii a hundred warriors to help them in their battles against the Suevi, and establishes two new Roman provinces on the Rhine - Germania Superior and Inferior. Domitian also antagonises the Germanic tribes by driving back the Chatti from these new provinces, with the Semnones probably being included in this number.


Writing around this time, the Roman writer Tacitus mentions the Suevi, listing their constituent tribes which cover the larger part of Germania. Noted for their custom of twisting their hair and binding it up in a knot, the Semnones are one of their constituent tribes, inhabiting the ancient forest of Semnonum Silva (the 'forest of the Semnones').

Tacitus says of them, 'The Semnones give themselves out to be the most ancient and renowned branch of the Suevi. Their antiquity is strongly attested by their religion. At a stated period, all the tribes of the same race assemble by their representatives in a grove consecrated by the auguries of their forefathers, and by immemorial associations of terror. Here, having publicly slaughtered a human victim, they celebrate the horrible beginning of their barbarous rite. Reverence also in other ways is paid to the grove. No one enters it except bound with a chain, as an inferior acknowledging the might of the local divinity. If he chance to fall, it is not lawful for him to be lifted up, or to rise to his feet; he must crawl out along the ground. All this superstition implies the belief that from this spot the nation took its origin, that here dwells the supreme and all-ruling deity, to whom all else is subject and obedient. The fortunate lot of the Semnones strengthens this belief; a hundred cantons are in their occupation, and the vastness of their community makes them regard themselves as the head of the Suevic race.'

That last statement is very telling. With the large number of a hundred cantons behind them, could they have assumed the dominance of the Suebic confederation following the Suebi failure under Ariovistus in 58 BC?


Ptolemy, who writes in the mid-second century, places the Sicambri to the south of a group of westerly Suevi Langobards, in the Rhineland. To their east are the Suevi Anglii, while along the Elbe are the Chauci, to the east are the Semnones, and then there are the Suebi, perhaps the original core tribe of the confederation, which is apparently settled on the Rhine to the east of the Ems.

River Rhine
Despite the strength of Germanic settlement to the east of the Rhine by the second century AD, the river still posed a considerable barrier to their westwards expansion, especially with the Roman defences it contained

The second century seeress, Waluberg, is a Semnonian. Archaeology reveals her existence due to the discovery of ostracon, a pot shard of a type used by scribes in Roman Egypt, having been broken off a cheap pot before being written upon. The location is Elephantine, close to the Nile's First Cataract, although the reason behind her being there is unclear.

FeatureThe name Waluberg is in fact a title, quite possibly a place name, and one which strongly hints of the originally Celtic nature of the Semnones themselves. It breaks down as 'wahl' or 'wal', a variation of the name for the Celts themselves (see feature link), plus 'burg', meaning 'fort'. Her name is the 'Celt-fort' (at least one other breakdown is available online which is wildly wide of the mark).


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 (who by now have shifted some way south), Sitones, Suardones, Suiones (Swedes), and the Warini.

258 - 260

The Alemanni break into the Roman empire in strength, causing widespread damage. The archaeological evidence reveals a lack of continuity in the provincial Roman population of the limes. Roman encampments and settlements, including the villae rusticae (farms), are abandoned and destroyed. With extraordinary effectiveness the Alemanni penetrate as far as Italy where they are at last halted (the Juthungi can be included in this invasion). Gallienus (who is administering the west) meets them and defeats them in battle at Milan.

An inscription of 260 is discovered in 1992, placed on a Roman monument in Augsburg, stating that the Semnones are also known as the Juthungi. They are returning from Italy when they are attacked near Augsburg by Marcus Simplicinius Genialis on 24-25 April. What is most notable here is that, suddenly, the Semnones are the Juthungi, 'the youths'. The period around the mid-third century must be where the originally-Celtic Semnones are taken over by a Germanic elite who have branded themselves 'the youths'. The tribe's history from this point onwards is much more militaristic than before.

356 - 358

The Alemanni, again with the Juthungi, invade Roman territory. This time the target is the province of Raetia, and the Roman capital of the province and one of the biggest Roman military camps in southern Germany, Castra Regina, is destroyed despite having massive stone walls. A second invasion of Raetia in 383 is repelled by an army of Alani and Huns.

406 - 409

The Hunnic invasions force the Suevi to move. 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, causing chaos despite being refused permission to settle by the Franks, all three tribes settle in Roman Iberia by 409, disrupting the Gallic empire of Constantine III. Some Suevi groups remain on the Rhine as part of the Frankish confederation while others remain further east, such as the Alemanni, Angles, Eudoses, Langobards, Lugii, and Warini and, in the southern Cimbric peninsula, the Swæfe, who are ruled by the Angle, Witta of Wehta's Folk.

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

429 - 431

Between these two dates Roman General Aëtius fights the Juthungi in Raetia. This appears to be their final mention in history. Presumably they are submerged within the Alemannic confederation.

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