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European Kingdoms

Germanic Tribes


MapSitones (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.

Normally referred to as a Germanic tribe, by the first century BC the Sitones were a relatively small group that was occupying relatively uncertain territory, probably in Scandinavia if Tacitus is to be understood accurately. They would have been neighboured by the early Swedes to the south and the Kvens to the north.

The Sitones' tribal name is a very simple one to break down. Removing the Germanic plural, '-on', and also the Latin '-es' plural leaves the core word, 'sit', meaning 'settlers'. The tribe were 'the settlers'. It suggests that they had found their home on what seems to have been the border between fellow Germanics to the south and the 'foreign' Kvens to the north, and had no plans to migrate anywhere. In fact the name may have been more a statement of intent than anything, perhaps in the face of Kven resistance to their settlement.

The Sitones (or Sithones) formed one of the minor constituent tribes of the vast Suevi confederation in the first century AD. Their existence was recorded only by Tacitus, who mentioned that they had a woman as a ruler. While this may not seem entirely unusual in itself, Saxo Grammaticus in his Gesta Danorum (History of the Danes) wrote that a German maxim is that it is shameful to be ruled by a woman. This is evidence that the Sitones were not originally German. More probably, they were Celts who had either gained a German ruling class or who had simply succumbed to the inevitable, and in a world that was becoming increasingly dominated by Germanic tribes to the east of the Rhine, they fitted in and became Germanic in dress and eventually language. The other alternative is that they were Kvens. Tacitus seems to support this with his positioning of them alongside the early Swedes and by his claim that they were ruled by a woman. Clearly they practise the same form of matrilineal descent as the later Picts of northern Britain.

The Suevi were a confederation of Germanic peoples that came into existence by the first century AD, and perhaps earlier. 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.

(Information by Peter Kessler, with additional information by Edward Dawson, from the 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: A Theory of Civilisation, Philip Atkinson.)

AD 98

Writing around this time, the Roman writer Tacitus mentions the Suevi, listing their constituent tribes which cover the larger part of Germania. Clearly in the century and-a-half since their first appearance on the Rhine they have expanded considerably.

Noted for their custom of twisting their hair and binding it up in a knot (called the Suebian knot), they comprise the Langobards, the Semnones ('oldest and noblest of the Suebi'), 'the seven tribes of Jutland and Holstein': the Angles, Aviones, Eudoses, Nuitones, Reudigni, Suardones, and Warini, then the Hermunduri on the Elbe, three tribes along the Danube, Marcomanni, Naristi, and Quadi, followed by the Buri and Marsigni.

Map of Scandinavia c.AD 100
Early Germanic peoples in Scandinavia were clustered for the most part along the coasts of southern Scandinavia, and only began to expand inland from around the third century AD or so (click or tap on map to view full sized)

Then there is a mountain range that separates part of the Suebi, beyond which, along the Vistula, are the constituent tribes of the Lugii, the Harii, Helisii, Helveconae, Manimi, and Naharvali. Then come the Cotini (or Gotini, as Tacitus calls them), Gutones (clearly the Cotini again, although perhaps a separate division of them), Lemovii, and Rugii along the Baltic Sea, the various divisions of the Suiones (Swedes), and last but not least the non-Germanic Aestii, and beyond them the Sitones, both of which are on the Baltic coast.


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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