Tacitus and Jordanes overrated sources
Can we use Roman writers as sources to Germanic and Nordic culture? Maybe earlier generations have taken the books too literally since we have no original sources from Germania. Maybe it is time for sceptical analysis to see what it is about
Tacitus, JordanesJordanes | back to essays | links |litterature |sitemap | home |
Do not boost yourself for what you know.
Learn with the ignorant as well as the wise.
The art has no limits,
no artist creates the perfect.
Pthahotep ca 2500 BC.
True wisdom has less preconceived ideas than the false.
Wise men often doubt and change their conclusions.
Akhenaten ca 1375 BC.
I think we should learn from "The Oldies". We cannot reduce anyone to nothing just because we do not agree on many points. Then it is better to sort out what we can learn. Of course sometimes we do not find rational thinking and then we have put it to the category of metaphors and fantasy. Tacitus lived 1900 years ago and Jordanes 1450 years ago and they were nearer our ancestors than we are.
However my favourite theorem is "Truth fade out with the square on the distance from the source". In this case Tacitus as the observer and source. It is just an analogy from thermodynamics. The inverted formula is that imagination and romance increase with the square on the distance and lack of knowledge.
I think it has been normal in all times that many of the noble writers do not really see ordinary people. They do not know much about rural life. It began already with the Sumerians that told people are "legs/ tools of gods" and nobility were stand-in for the gods. If we want to know about majority of the people we should go beyond the noble facade.
Was it Pytheas that told about Hyperboreans as one-footed, one-eyed, with head in stomach and some with dog-head? It sounds funnier and more distinguished in Greek. Blessed Adam of Bremen in 1070 AD used the same method and borrowed Greek words for the land north of Stockholm despite of the fact that he visited the Danish king Svend Estridsen and should now better.
But maybe Svend did not want to tell the truth to the antagonists in Hamburg--Bremen so he told fairy tales. The suspicion towards the writers should search for their real intentions and what powers were behind. I found a golden bract with Constantine's head and the Roman Lupus with Remus and Romulus sucking. The text is "Howl with Lupus boys, that pays". The Nordic mercenaries saw on it with some distance.
As far as I know Tacitus was never north of Rhine. If he interviewed maybe 50 persons it is not the same as he know everything about Germans … and maybe they told fairy tales too. As I see it much of the stories he tells he could have get on a journey in rural Italy. He does not tell much about real culture and most of it is just rumours.
Let us first define the words Celt and German in historical sense. The Greeks gave the name "Keltoi" and we could maybe find different definitions. Some of them meant they were barbarians and then they surely had problems in understanding the real Celts. Others gave names and told they are stupid and it is hard to get friends that way. I see no need for using disparaging words about our ancestors and I think the stupid are those using such words.
The Ionian philosophers respected the druids however they did not really understand it all. I think it was mostly the language barrier. Compared with Germanic their syllable and word order is opposite and that surely lead to confusion.
Still they spoke about Original Europeans north of their normal trade sphere and we need a name of course. Scandinavians got a special name Northmost Northeners or Hyperboreans in Greek that sounds much more sophisticated of course. The an according to our sources the Romans gave names too a few hundred years later
On the timeline I find the first mentioning of Germania and Germans by Cesar in his "De bello gallico (Gallic Wars): Book I 58 BC [1.1.] They ( Belgae) are the nearest to the Germans, who dwell beyond the Rhine". Other neighbours in South were the Helvetii. He taught the Gauls to be Roman citizens in time.
Then we can step to Tacitus Germania:
"The name Germania, on the other hand, they say is modern and newly introduced, from the fact that the tribes which first crossed the Rhine and drove out the Gauls, and are now called Tungrians, were then called Germans. Thus what was the name of a tribe, and not of a race, gradually prevailed, till all called themselves by this self-invented name of Germans, which the conquerors had first employed to inspire terror."
The Roman writers swing between race and tribe for the individual tribe. In our days the concepts race and blood is inadequate because we know that the Europeans have been mixed so many times since Ice Age when many of our ancestors were trapped between the glaciers I north and south. It is meaningless to look for colour of eyes and hair and the shape of the face to make differences between people. We can not statistically grasp many people with their natural differences.
We Europeans belong to the Caucasian race they tell, sorry to the "Caucasian skull" since bones of early Caucasians are rare and only the skull is normally left. So the specialist measure skulls and differences. I saw they reconstructed on Neanderthal head and I believe I saw someone looking like him last year here in town. What do those small references really tell about mankind?
We can not check any of the racial differences in those days. We can only see what they meant when speaking about race and then not much is left. The word "tribe" is better but tell only about for us small numbers of people. Besides the geographical placement they distinguish the language of Celts and Germans. But the concept Germania meant generally the land between Rhine and Germanian Seas = Baltic Seas.
Tribes in Germania mentioned by Tacitus 55 - 120 AD
The listed tribes are a pick-out from the books about Germania with the number mentioned if given in brakes.
Angli third of seven tribes at Anglia (Aviones, Nuithones, Suardones, Teutones, etc.) 
Angrivari at Allers/Wesser together with Chamaves they banished the Brukts 
Chasuari and Chattuari inland Frisia
Batavi was a Chatti tribe on an island at the mouth of Rhine 
Burgundians at Weichsel pacified in 250 AD and in 277 AD north of Alamanni near Mainz
Chatti were the dominating tribe living on the other side of the Mattiakes. J Grimm tells they lived in Hessenin and were together with the Frisi the only survivors of the old tribes. 
Chauki inland of Frisia and neighbour to the Chatti
Cheruski in the same neighbourhood.
Dulgibini and Chattuari 
Fenni, Venede, Slav, Peucini 
Fosi neighbour to the Cheruski 
Hellusii and Oxioni with human face on animal body lived in Scandinavia
Hermundurii later called Thüringians live around the wells of Elbe at Werra and Saale 
Kvades in Mähren 
Lombards downstreams Elbe alied with the Kvades after being defeated by Tiberius
Lemovi and Rugi in Pommern
Lugi. Hari, Helvecons, Manimi, Helisi at Riesengebirge and the Sudets 
Marcomanni in Bohemia
Mattiaci south Batavians near Wiesbaden 
Nariski near the Hermunduri (Thuringians) 
Nemeti, Vangini, Tribokes on the shores of Rhine
Nervij at Eiffel near Sambre and Schelde
Semnoni most noble in the Suebian league
Suebi consisted of 54 tribes (Orosius) from Danube to the North Sea such as Alamanni, Kvades, Semnoni, Marcomanni 
Tenkteri near Cologne 
Ubians at Cologne
Usipetes at Bingen 
I am sorry if I have not get all the endings right. My Latin could be better. The texts are translated from Swedish.
I note that the tribes Chali, Charudes, Chedini have the same prefix CH as Cheruski, Chatti, Chauki whatever that means. Some question marks it sets ????? I think we generally should see most of the tribe names describing their ritual
Tacitus also mention Ingvaeones, Istvaenones an Hermiones but I think that was categories of ritual league Tacitus 
The Suebi were a great league of 54 tribes (Orosius). From Ptolemy we learn that Suevus = Svebian river was Oder and the league supposedly extended to southern Scandinavia. At least the noble used to make a "Suebian knot" in their hair. We find that pictured on some golden bract in Scandinavia. Such things put ants in the hair and give new questions.
Naharnavalian priests wore long shirt and were together with two Alces. Their rituals were hold in the woods. Still in the cellar of a church at Rügen we find that priest with a horn engraved in a stone. We find him also on one of the horns from Gallehus. Normally the attribute horn should connect him to the moon and fertility. Again more new questions.
Observe no specific German tribe ever existed. Exception is the Tungrians / Germans we never hear about after Tacitus. German means "brother" and is just a category and they could become "foederati" and work and own property in the Roman Empire. To be a citizen fast you needed a billion bugs.
Note that Tacitus "grip tree" when writing about the Scandinavians "What comes after them is the stuff of fables - Hellusii and Oxiones with the faces and features of men, the bodies and limbs of animals. On such unverifiable stories I shall express no opinion."
Sometimes I stand before the mirror looking on my "bullhead" and think he meant "cowboys".
Let us take a break and see on the mentality when mankind describes far places. I think it is important
‘Now that the Phoenician’s had seen the amber gathered from the sea, they determined to keep the secret for themselves and thus guard the lucrative trade. When the fleets returned to Syria, many were the tales told of perils to the north, of lodestones which would draw the ships to destruction on hidden reefs, of whirlpools which would suck them down to the bottom of the ocean, of witches who enchanted men by turning them into beasts, of terrible sea serpents, and awesome monsters. So well did these ancient sailors spin their yarns that for many centuries afterwards mariners feared these mythical perils’.
No wonder that ancient writers also wrote about ugly and odd beings with head in stomach, dog head, one-footed and one-eyed and so on. In our rock-carvings we see some Phoenician and their ships and other motifs telling about the visits in the Bronze Age: The Minoans were in Scandinavia earlier but did not tell anyone about the easily fetched silver in Norway either.
Tacitus wrote about Germanicus loosing a fleet in the North Sea much in the same way as the Phoenicians wrote aboutHyperboreans = northmost northerners. They wanted to protect the trade with amber and other stuff. Another thing is that "Could we be sure that northerners told as it is in Thule?" Think if the Romans got the idea of conquering Scandinavia? I doubt the Scandinavian were so honest and truthful those days … and as we are!
Maybe it is code and they simply tell that the northerners are fool and could be lured. On the other hand we civilised people usually have many fantasies about foreigners. Especially about the fugitives so generally we should take those rumours with salt and sometimes with strychnine. It is a funny thing once such a rumour is created it is repewated known and then so that we should not forget it … now I am telling those old rumours!!!
The list does not get them all but is still a time cut from the age of Tacitus. I see that Ptolemy tells about seven tribes on a little Island he call Scandza north of the Poland. Maybe he knew or at least heard about some Scandinavian that informed him about some of the tribes in Scandinavia. The Cimbri were naturally well known in Romaer since the war around 100 BC. I think they called all from Jutland and Angli Cimbri when they created the Cimbri Legion. Here a little excerpt about the Scandinavian sphere.
To the north the Cimbri and at the Cimbrian peninsula he has: "Sigulones, deinde Sabalingii, deinde Cobandi, supra quos Chali, et rursus supra hos ad occasum Fundusii, ad ortum Charudes, omnium vero maxime ad septentriones Cimbri; "
East of the Cimbrian peninsula there are four islands called the Scandian islands, three of them smaller, of which the one in the middle has the following position 31.00 : 57.20 (Ptolemy used as the first mapmaker a system with co-ordinates). But one of them very large and the most eastwards at the mouth of the river Vistula; its ends are located
It is properly called Scandia itself; and its western region is inhabited by the Chaedini, its eastern region by the Favonae and the Firaesi, its northern region by the Finni, its southern region by the Gutae (Gautae) and the Dauciones, and its central region by the Levoni.
We should also note northern Germany and Poland. He has the Saxon on islands at the mouth of Elbe and tells: "After the Saxons from the Chalusus river to the Suevian (Oder) river the Farodini, then the Sidini up to the Viadua river, and after these the Rugiclei up to the Vistula river.
Of the people of the interior and those who live inland the most important are the Suevi Angili, who are to the east of the Langobardi extending towards the north and up to the central part of the Albis river. The Suevi Semnones, whose boundaries beyond the Albis extend from the area we mentioned towards the east up to the Suevus river, and the Burguntae, who inhabit from there to the Vistula.
Those that inhabit Germany on the other side of the river Rhine, if we go towards the north, are the Bructeri minores and the Sygambri, below whom the Suevi Langobardi; then the Tencteri and the Incriones between the Rhine and the Abnobaei mountains; and then the Intuergi and the Vargiones and the Caritni, below whom the Vispi and the Desert of the Helvetii until those mountains we referred to as the AlpsFor the Gauls see map
But how much does a tribe name tell us. Only a few we can understand since we have no clear view of their rituals that gave names. Too often we forget that people / tribes in the Roman Age had their own deep history. For Europe above the Alps it was the Celtic culture that lived in Scandinavia to around 500 AD. This area has the "Celtic neckring" and the order of society in common and I have found at least 30 golden neckrings in the Scandinavian sphere. The upper class the Erils seems to belong to the Swebian league.
We can use Germanic as term for difference in language. But the original rituals and social culture was much the same above the Alps and I prefer to call it Celtic and original European. Some of the cultural symbols "lived" for maybe 20000 years. Only a minor part of the tribe names tell us anything about the society. We get much more by analysing place names and artefacts. They are more reliable than the rumour the Roman ethnographers wrote down.
They did not always understand what they saw or were told. They tell about the Celtic farmer telling that his "gods" in farming were Mac Cuill, Mac Checht, Mac Grene. Surely the Roman got something to think about since the framer did not tell that they were Son of Hazel-stick, Son of Plough and Son of Horse (also the sun) and they were all sons of Ogma = eloquence.
Another "misunderstanding" is when Jordanes tells that the Parthians were deserters. That interpreting surely came from the strategy of the Parthian cavalry. They used the strategy of fierce attack and the rider were archers that could shoot in all directions. Soon the fled and the soldiers were released. Then came the next attack as a second chock. Reality is not always what it seems to be.
But the real thinkable fact is that most of those 50 tribes Tacitus mentions were gone and forgotten only a few hundred years later. Some tribes were nearly killed to last person. Others were assimilated to other tribes. A few moved to another place without loosing their identity. Maybe that is part of the cause that the European blood is quite homogenous.
WE have some isolated people like the Basque and the Finns. The DNA technique seems to be useless sometimes. They tried to prove the Finns and Sames came from Ural, but only the male DNA fits that theory. Surely they will get problem when we extend the timeline to say 30000 years.
"The most important information, however, is proffered by the sixth-century writer Jordanes, who lived during the reign of the Emperor Justinian. Jordanes records that in the reign of King Berig, the Goths set sail from the Island of in three ships, alighting at the other side of the ocean, in a land which they called Gothiskandza, subjugating the neighbouring populations.
Under the reign of Berig V they embarked on a further voyage to the land of Oium, i.e. to the northern territories of the Black Sea coast. A variety of interpretations have been put forward in relation to the three ships. The number was considered by some to have been merely symbolic, whilst others believed that it stood for three tribes - the Ostrogoths, Visigoths and Gepidae - or took it literally to refer to three sailing vessels carrying the Amal royal family, of which Theoderic the Great was a descendant."
Tadeusz Makiewicz Poland about the Wielback culture
My first reading decades ago was much the same and later I was told by the Gutae from Gotland that they all came from that island. My scepticism was naturally feed since they have found only 1600 house foundations from that period on Gotland. Jordanes tell that Scandinavia was a people factory and the Goths were spread all over the world. To these mentioned tribes we should add the Dacians, Vandals, Burgundians, Balts, Getae and more once we read the entire book of Jordanes.
I think that Scandinavians usually stop their reading with his introduction and maybe just note the senseless names of tribes in Scandinavia. That is the way people read; Jordanes read and I must confess sometimes I am in a hurry and read only what I need. When we read more we discover that most of his search for his own roots concentrates on the Goths between Scythia and Balkan at his times. However he goes more than 1000 years back from his own time and the concept "Goth" widens. We have no real ancient sources that tell about these facts / fantasies? Here the excerpt from the version of Charles C. Mierow:
"Darius, king of the Persians, the son of Hystaspes, demanded in marriage the daughter of Antyrus, king of the Goths, asking for her hand and at the same time making threats in case they did not fulfil his wish. The Goths spurned this alliance and brought his embassy to naught."
"Then Philip, the father of Alexander the Great, made alliance with the Goths and took to wife Medopa, the daughter of King Gudila, so that he might render the kingdom of Macedon more secure by the help of this marriage. It was at this time, as the historian Dio relates, that Philip, suffering from need of money, determined to lead out his forces and sack Odessus, a city of Moesia, which was then subject to the Goths by reason of the neighboring city of Tomi."
"Then, as the story goes, Vesosis (Egyptian king) waged a war disastrous to himself against the Scythians, whom ancient tradition asserts to have been the husbands of the Amazons. Concerning these female warriors Orosius (around 417 AD) speaks in convincing language. Thus we can clearly prove that Vesosis then fought with the Goths, since we know surely that he waged war with the husbands of the Amazons."
We can buy that the Amazons probably are a fact and were established several hundred years in middle of last millennium BC up to recent excavations showing a society with woman warriors. But when Jordanes brings Hercules into battle and reality we are in the uncertain world of metaphors. I have not read Orosius so I cannot be convinced.
Certainly Jordanes expresses his own scepticism in some questions:
"Nor do we find anywhere in their written records legends which tell of their subjection to slavery in Britain or in some other island, or of their redemption by a certain man at the cost of a single horse. Of course if anyone in our city says that the Goths had an origin different from that I have related, let him object. For myself, I prefer to believe what I have read, rather than put trust in old wives' tales."
We have to recall the situation when he wrote before the Goths under Totila was defeated in Italy 552 AD. At that time the West Scandinavian Cimbri and theHeruli were established and honoured foedorati of the Roman Empire and at least the Ostrogoths were a part of the empire. Jordanes wanted his roots to be deep and wide in the Goths. Maybe he wanted to be a Herulian? He extended the roots in every direction he knew of.
In my turn I want to recall that there has been trade and cultural exchange with the Black Seas and the Greeks since Bronze Age. Modern Vikings have travelled some of the paths with suitable vessels and proved the same Heyerdahl did. People were travelling long before Columbus. We also know that the custom among traders and adventures were to send a few ships for recognition. So did Horsa and Hengest and in next wave they tell about 500 people.
We have to know the proportion of those days. I do not believe much in "wandering people" without substantial evidence step by step along the road. I believe more in people dropping in little by little with the trade or in arranged movements. Naturally people of today want to belong to a certain tribe. Sooner they want its origin to be from their own landscape.
However some tribes we can follow like the Burgundians with the special "face" on buckles and urns. The Langobards was a special tribe we also can follow. The Heruli were not a tribe but the warriors' league we can tie to their remains in Southern Scandinavia. But we cannot follow a special Gothic tribe from Scandinavia and the Goths existed already in south!
We have to be pleased with the fact that some people travelled surely to the Black Sea together with the Heruli. For those people the belonging to a tribe was not the important at that time. They just wanted easy money and a better life.
The history of the Europeans did not begin when the Greeks wrote down the tribes Achaean, Sparta, Beotioan and those north of them in Greece and Massilia were Celts and high in north were the northmost northeners called Hyperboreans.
A few hundred years later the Romans went north of the Alps and learnt something about the Celts. Then they gave the name Germans to those North of Rhine but no German tribe existed, but there were numerous folklands with different rituals. The concept German is fairly young in history of mankind and could not be used on race and blood since the time span is too short.
Tacitus saw it as difference in language. But did he know what he wrote. He told that the Estonian = Finnish language sounds like the English. As far as I understand the English were Celts at that time 100 AD
Some young fellows asked who were the Goths? I wrote we really do not know for sure. Different writers tell different rumours. We only know about the Gothic language they recorded in the Roman Empire and in the Bible of Wulfila. It has much in common with what we call Germanic language nowadays.
However I am a little puzzled by the Gothic word for "mother" that is áiþei, wf. Gothic OHG. eidî, MHG. eide. FI aeiti.
Such a word should be one of the first we learn and like a root into language and then we see that it is the same in Finnish???
I am working much with ritual and cultural items. Since they tell the Goths came from the area between Oder and Vistula I read an essay by Tadeusz Makiewicz about the excavations there and the Wielback culture is from that time. But he does not mention much of interest. I only noted "Bracelets, often with finials in the shape of stylized snake’s heads, also served as grave goods" those are found also as neckrings in entire Scandinavia including Finland. The snake was the womb of earth and important in the season ritual. There is also a find of male neckring from Peterfitz Poland that in fact is the biggest in Scandinavia more than 2 kilos. There is also one golden bract with a "sitting" wearing the "swebian knot" in his hair.
I think our timeline should start during Ice Age when North Europeans were trapped north of the Alps people moved out when the glacier left. But they also traded and intermarried all the time. Naturally they developed similar cultures. Almost every book about Bronze Age has the Gundestrup Cauldron. They think it was made at Balkan and they find several motifs we also find in France. The horned Cernunnos we find also in the Italian Alps.
Most of these are used as icons for Celtic culture and a few have noted the Bull in the bottom of the cauldron. I would not call it specific Nordic, but the cavalry and the foot soldier in swine phalanx become fashion with the swine in the helmet. However it was the same model everywhere.
I cannot see that we can create Germanic tribes now 2000 years later. The many tribes Tacitus mentions around 100 AD were gone after the Great Migration … so the races disappeared so to speak. I have seen some world map showing the "blood" variations. There is not much variation in Europe from Ural westward.
The difference between me an the orang-ou-tang in DNA is some percent and much less between me and the darkest Africans from Nigeria. Our ancestors 1500 years ago counted their heritage behind Odin meaning that the cultural heritage is much more important than the blood. Only when it comes to inheriting money and estate it could be good to show blood connection..