History Files

European Kingdoms

Germanic Tribes


Taifali / Tayfals (Germanics? / Sarmatians?)

In the first century AD, vast areas of central, northern, and Eastern Europe were dark and unknown lands full of savage Germanic barbarians - at least according to the Romans. Little detail is known about many of those savage Germanic barbarians, but brief windows are opened onto their lives and organisation at various points during the existence of the Roman empire, while other Germanic groups went on to play major roles in the extinction of that empire.

FeatureThe Indo-European 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 Early Baltics and then enter southern Scandinavia (see feature link, right, for more detail).

MapBy the time in which the early Germanic tribes were becoming key players in Western European politics in the last two centuries BC, the previously dominant Celts were on the verge of being conquered and dominated by Rome (see map link for general locations).

Strabo says that the Romans introduced the name 'Germani' for these 'new' barbarians because their tribes were the 'authentic Celts', seeming to mean that they were what the Celts used to be - strong, aggressive, and bold.

Once they had begun to migrate southwards out of Scandinavia, Germanic tribes carved out homelands between the Rhine and the Pripet Marshes (modern Belarus). They slowly consolidated their positions (although migrations still occurred) until they had formed tribal kingdoms which eventually threatened the Roman empire itself.

Along the south-eastern edge of this occupied zone, in the northern Balkans and across the western steppe into Ukraine, these tribes became intermixed or influenced by Sarmatian groups. Prior to the Hunnic invasion, tribal identities often became confused, especially as Roman records for the later empire become more scarce.

The Taifali (Latin, but sometimes shown as Taifals or Tayfals) have an uncertain origin. They could be Germanics or they could be Sarmatians - or both. Their first mention in history - in the third century AD - has them located along the lower Danube, on its northern bank and seemingly close to the Victohali.

This was prime crossover territory between Germanics and Sarmatians, and the time period places it perfectly within a phase of integration and intermixing in the northern Balkans. The vast body of Goths was beginning to make its presence felt across the western steppe, with smaller tribes being jostled and squeezed together.

That first mention has them as a supporting part of the Gothic invasion across the Danube. The suggestion is generally that they are a small division of the great Goth host, but it is equally possible that they are Sarmatians who have been swept up by the arrival of the Goths on the steppe.

The fact that they are horsemen while the Goths are infantry suggests that they started out as Sarmatians. Towards the end of the same century they settled along the Danube as a Goth subsidiary tribe before being taken into the Roman empire.

Germanic tribes defeat the Romans in AD 9

(Information by Peter Kessler, with additional information by Edward Dawson, from Power and Status in the Roman Empire, AD 193-284, Inge Mennen, from The Harleian Miscellany: A Collection of Scarce, Curious and Entertaining Tracts Volume 4, William Oldys & Thomas Park, 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 Atlas historique mondial, Georges Duby (Larousse, 1978), from Geography, Ptolemy, and from External Links: Polybius, Histories, and Geography, Strabo (H C Hamilton & W Falconer, London, 1903, Perseus Online Edition), and Constantine's military operations against the Goths and the Sarmatians in 332 and 334, Stanislav Doležal (Eirene, Studia Graeca et Latina, LV, 2019, available for download via Academia.edu).)

AD 251

Kniva - claimed as a brother of Ovida and a chieftain rather than the ruling king of the Goths - leads his war party across the Danube to raid districts of Moesia and Thrace - the first occasion in which the Goths appear in any detail in the historical record. The Taifali form part of his fighting force, their first mention in history.

The River Danube
Lying at the extreme western end of the vast Pontic-Caspian steppe, the River Danube had provided an east-west migratory conduit since at least the Yamnaya horizon of the fourth millennium BC

Kniva is surprised by Roman Emperor Decius while besieging Nicopolis on the Danube. The Goths flee through the Balkans, but double back and surprise the Romans near Beroë (modern Stara Zagora).

Then they attack Philippopolis (modern Plovdiv in Bulgaria), which falls into their hands. Its commander, Titus Julius Priscus, declares himself emperor under Gothic protection.

The siege has so exhausted the numbers and resources of this vast Goth war party that it offers to surrender its booty and prisoners on condition of being allowed to retire unmolested. But Emperor Decius refuses to entertain such proposals and engages the Goths at the Battle of Abrittus. Decius' army is annihilated and the emperor is slain.

Ukrainian steppe
Migrating to the open steppeland of Ukraine (Scythia to the ancients, this photo being of Askania-Nova, immediately to the north of Crimea) also marked a return by the Goths to their Indo-European homeland of at least two thousand years previously, although they wouldn't have known anything about that

The Goths are eventually defeated by Aemilianus, Roman governor of Moesia Superior and Pannonia, but are allowed (and even helped) to leave the empire. Goths are already settling more permanently along the northern Black Sea coast, establishing controls and causing a degree of tribal movement and consolidation in the northern Balkans.

c.270s - 290s

Towards the end of the third century AD the Taifali are to be found settling territory along the Danube, on either side of the southern edge of the Carpathians, apparently not far from the Victohali and Tervingi.

Possibly the Goths are behind the move, setting them up as a buffer state on the edge of the Roman empire. Alternatively, as the date seems to coincide with the death of the great Goth leader, Cannabaudes, settlement could occur due to the Goths being distracted.

In the spring of 291 the Taifali form a close alliance with the Tervingi division of Goths (soon to be known as the Visigoths), perhaps providing confirmation that the Goths had been distracted and had loosened their grip on subservient tribes. This confederation survives until 376.

Ludovisi Battle Sarcophagus Goth depiction
The Ludovisi Battle Sarcophagus depicts a Roman victory over Goths around AD 250, but victory in the many Roman-Goth conflicts of this period was just as likely to go the other way


At a point late in the previous century or early in this, the Taifali gain Roman foederati status, being allowed to occupy Oltenia (western Wallachia, now in Romania). Two separate listings in the Notitia Dignitatum show that sooner or later they supply Rome with troops (see AD 395, below).

328 - 336

Emperor Constantine 'the Great' conquers Oltenia and the Taifali in 328. A number of them may be resettled in Phrygia, within the diocese of Nicholas of Myra. In 332 he sends Constantine II (his son) to attack the Tervingi who are routed.

Zosimus states that a Taifali cavalry unit engages the Romans in a running fight, but Roman control is largely confirmed in Oltenia, even though the Taifali briefly revolt in 336 and have to be subdued.

Emperor Constantine the Great
Emperor Constantine the Great is perhaps best known for confirming Christianity as the official religion of the Roman empire, but he also did a great deal to stabilise the empire and ensure that it survived into the next century

358 - 359

The Taifali are independent foederati by this stage, and Oltenia lies outside Roman control. Even so the Taifali continue to operate on behalf of Roman interests. They launch a campaign against the rebellious Limigantes between 358-359, while also attacking a body of Sarmatians in 358.


The Visigoth king, Athanaric, has refused to extend his defensive preparations into Taifali territory. The result is that attacking Huns force the Taifali to abandon Oltenia and western Muntenia by this year.


In extreme old age, Ermanaric of the Ostrogoths finds his dominions laid waste by the Huns as they overrun the Ostrogoths in their westwards push. Pained by the destruction of all he has built, he kills himself in the face of the Hunnic advance across Eastern Europe (possibly in a ritualistic manner as his final act).

Ermanaric's death
In the face of an unstoppable and destructive Hunnic invasion, Ermanaric's final act as king of the Goths was a (probable) ritualistic death ceremony in which he ended his own life

The Huns subjugate the Ostrogoths and their allies, the Rugii and Heruli, and their vassals or mercenary sources, such as the Venedi. In doing so they create a vast kingdom of their own which survives until the death of Attila in 453.


The Taifali ally with a Greutungi tribe which is led by Farnobius. With the entire western steppe being pressured by the Huns, they cross the Danube but are defeated in the late autumn of the year by General Frigeridus, dux of Pannonia. A Taifali presence amongst the survivors of the defeat remains notable.


The Visigoth victory under Fritigern at Adrianople seems to have released his Tervingi rival, Athanaric, to begin attacks on the Taifali. While other Gothic leaders seem to want to include the Taifali in their operations, Athanaric clearly opposes them. This certainly has the effect of ending the Taifali confederation and alliance with the Tervingi.

Frigeridus moves the Taifali to farm lands as coloni in northern Italy and Aquitaine. Oltenia is taken by the Huns within the next twenty years, but some remaining Taifali fight as part of Hunnic forces (so that Taifali can be found on both sides of the Battle of the Catalaunian Plains, in the former territory of the Catalauni, in 451).

Attila the Hun
Despite his great success over the barbarian tribes of eastern and Central Europe, Attila's stalemate against an allied Roman-led army in 451 was a blow to his prestige, and his death soon afterwards caused his empire to crumble


FeatureThe formal partition of the Roman empire into the Eastern Roman and Western Roman sections is undertaken by Honorius and Arcadian. An official register of all the offices, other than municipal, which exist in the Roman empire at this time is compiled in the Notitia Dignitatum.

Units of Taifali are mentioned on both sides of the divide. As part of the 'Master of Horse in the Emperor's Presence' they provide the Equites Honoriani Taifali iuniores for the west. For the 'First Master of the Soldiery in the Emperor's Presence' they form the Comites Taifali, the 'companion Taifalians'.

408 - 410

Alaric leads his forces back into northern Italy, still largely undefeated by the Romans. He collects the settled Taifali into his Visigothic host. In the following year Alaric's brother-in-law, Athaulf, brings another Visigothic army to reinforce Alaric.

In 410, communications (and intrigues) between Rome and the Visigoths break down, so Alaric leads the Visigoths to the sack of Rome. Shortly afterwards, he himself dies.

413 - 414

Athaulf's accession improves relations with Rome to an extent, and the Visigoths are instrumental in defeating the usurper, Jovinus, on the Rhine. The Visigoths subsequently move south, into Aquitaine in southern Gaul, accompanied by an important group of Alani and the general population of Taifali.

Alans fighting Romans
The Alani formed part of a major incursion into Roman territory in the fifth century AD, but there had already existed sizable pockets of them (or related groups) in southern-central Europe in the first century BC, in the form of the Alauni and Roxolani

The Visigoths come into renewed conflict with Emperor Honorius which culminates in the siege in 414 of Vasatis (modern Bazas). The Alani are persuaded to agree peace terms, so the Visigoths withdraw from Vasatis and retreat into Iberia while the Alani are settled as Roman allies.


Also noted in the Notitia Dignitatum is a Praefectus Sarmatarum et Taifalorum gentilium, Pictavis, a Sarmatian and Taifali prefect in Poitiers in Gaul. In this century the area around Poitiers is referred to as Thifalia, Theiphalia, or Theofalgicus pagus, all of which mean 'Taifal country'. The Taifali are instrumental in defeating Visigoth cavalry in hand-to-hand fighting at the Battle of Vouillé in 507.


Following the death of his brother, Chlodomer of Orleans, Frankish King Chlothar I marries his widow and has two of his children killed, although the third escapes. Much of Orleans is annexed by Childebert I, king of Paris, but Chlothar takes Turonensis (Tours, former capital of the Turones tribe) and Pictavia (Poitiers, former capital of the Pictavii but now home to the Taifali).

Map of Western Europe at the death of Clovis in AD 511
This map reveals the state of the Frankish kingdom at Clovis' death in 511 (click or tap on map to view full sized)

Gregory of Tours, the principal source for Taifali history in the sixth century, states that a certain Frankish dux named Austrapius 'oppressed' the Taifali (probably within the vicinity of Tiffauges).

The Taifali revolt and kill the errant dux. Taifali fortresses such as Tiffauges and Lusignan remain in use under the Carolingians, while various regional names continue to bear a Taifali influence as the western Carolingian empire develops into early France.

Images and text copyright © all contributors mentioned on this page. An original king list page for the History Files.