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European Kingdoms

Germanic Tribes


MapSuardones / Suarines (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 Suardones were a relatively small group that was thought to be occupying territory in the area around that of the Langobards, in the southern Cimbric peninsula and along the east bank of the lower Albis (the modern Elbe). They were neighboured by the Langobards, Nuitones, Saxons, Eudoses, and others, but exact locations are unknown thanks to a paucity of information.

Also called the Svardones, the Suardones name has three possible meanings. The first could be 'turf', ie. grassland people from swarðu- (n), meaning 'turf, sward'. Or it may mean 'swordsmen' from *swerdan (sb.n.), which became Old Norse 'sverd', Old English 'sweord', Old Frisian 'swerd', Old Saxon 'swerd', and Old High German 'swert', all meaning 'sword'. Or perhaps they were 'the skinners', from *swarduz ~ *swardò (sb.m./f.), which became Old Norse 'svordr', meaning 'skin', Old English 'sweard, swearä', meaning 'skin, hide', Old Frisian 'swarde', meaning 'scalp', Middle Low German 'swarde', 'scalp', or Middle High German 'swart', 'scalp, bacon crust'. Ultimately the name was derived from *swerdanan. If the name was unchanged by the Romans who recorded it then the latter option is the one to go with, 'the skinners/scalpers'.

The Suardones formed one of the minor constituent tribes of the vast Suevi confederation. This came into existence by the first century AD, and perhaps earlier. Its 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 Suardones were only mentioned by Tacitus in Germania, as were a number of other Suebic tribes. He added that there was nothing noteworthy about these tribes individually, but that they shared a common worship of Nerthus, or 'Mother Earth'. Few of the tribes in the group that contains the Suardones can be located with any accuracy as it seems that Tacitus was merely given a list of names, possibly in order of descent, without any further details. Given that the location of the Angles is largely certain, the approximate positions of the others around them can be guessed, and a focus on the western part of the Baltic Sea seems to have been universal amongst them.

The historian Johann Martin Lappenberg was the first to connect the Svardones to the Sweodweras of the Old English poem Widsith, composed around AD 500. This requires amending Svardones to Sverdones, which is an entirely minor change. Widsith fails to mention a king of the Sweodweras, while the name itself is identical in meaning to 'Seaxe', the 'swordsmen' of the Saxons. For this reason the two have often been linked in their early days, although this seems to have been forgotten by the time at which Widsith was composed.

(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 Literary History of Hamlet, Volume 1, Kemp Malone, from Roman History by Cassius Dio, translation by Earnest Cary (1914-1927), 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 Links: Espadana-Walker.com (dead link), and A Theory of Civilisation, Philip Atkinson.)


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 seven tribes of Jutland and Holstein', which include the Angles, Aviones, Eudoses, Nuitones, Reudigni, Suardones, and Warini, are all part of the Suebic confederation.

Mandø Island
The islands between modern Denmark and Sweden were part of a little-known habitat for the early Suebic tribes of the Western Baltic Sea, including Mandø seen here, one of the islands in the Danish Wadden Sea off the south-west coast of Jutland

Of this group, Tacitus says: 'They believe that she [Mother Earth] interests herself in human affairs and rides through their peoples. In an island of Ocean [the islands of eastern Denmark] stands a sacred grove, and in the grove stands a car [carriage] draped with a cloth which none but the priest may touch. The priest can feel the presence of the goddess in this holy of holies, and attends her, in deepest reverence, as her car is drawn by kine. Then follow days of rejoicing and merry-making in every place that she honours with her advent and stay. No one goes to war, no one takes up arms; every object of iron is locked away [ie. weapons]; then, and then only, are peace and quiet known and prized, until the goddess is again restored to her temple by the priest, when she has had her fill of the society of men. After that, the car, the cloth and, believe it if you will, the goddess herself are washed clean in a secluded lake. This service is performed by slaves who are immediately afterwards drowned in the lake. Thus mystery begets terror and a pious reluctance to ask what that sight can be which is allowed only to dying eyes.'

The question of where the Suardones live is one that is yet to be satisfactorily answered. In fact, few of the tribes in the group that contains the Suardones can be located with any accuracy as it seems that Tacitus is merely given a list of names, possibly in order of descent, without any further details. Given that the location of the Angles is largely certain, the approximate positions of the others around them can be guessed, and a focus on the western part of the Baltic Sea seems to have been universal amongst them. As proposed above, if the Suardones are in fact Saxons, then it would account for the omission of the latter from Tacitus' work.


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.

c.500 - 600

Widsith seems not to mention the Suardones, but if they are in fact the Saxons, then their fate is very much known as a major Northern European group which retains a recognisable identity for centuries, while their neighbouring tribes are eventually subsumed by the growing power and dominance of the Danes.

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