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A fight between a Roman and a Germanic warrior.

Raiders of Hispania: Unravelling the Secrets of the Suebi

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In the 5th century AD, the reign of the Roman Empire in the west came crashing down with a series of barbarian invasions. Visigoths, Franks, and other groups laid waste to the villas and cities of Gaul, Roman Spain, and Italy. Among them was a group referred to as the Suebi. The Suebi originated in a region east of the Rhine River in modern-day Germany. In the beginning of the 5th century AD, they invaded Gaul and may even have attempted to invade the British Isles; but the invasion that they are best known for is their invasion of north-western Spain. There, they carved out one of the first stable barbarian kingdoms within the boundaries of the former western Roman Empire. Their Spanish domain was also one of the first Germanic kingdoms to be ruled by a Christian monarch who believed in the Nicene Creed.

Origins of the Suebi

The Suebi are first mentioned by ancient writers around the 1st century BC as one of the tribes that Julius Caesar fought against in his campaign in Gaul. It is unclear whether the term referred to a specific Germanic people or if it was an umbrella term referring to several different Germanic tribes.

Suebi and other Germanic tribes in the winter. (Arre caballo)

Suebi and other Germanic tribes in the winter. ( Arre caballo )

Earlier scholarship maintained that the Suebi were a specific tribe or ethnic group that originated in Denmark and the southwestern Scandinavian Peninsula during the Bronze Age. By the Iron Age, around 800 BC, they had arrived in northwest Germany and the southern Danish islands. The Suebi soon encountered the Celts and displaced them. Recent scholarship, however, disputes this narrative of a unified migration of people and takes the view that the Suebi represent several different Germanic groups called by one name, some of whom originated from Scandinavia in the above manner.

A 1st century BC Suebian chieftain named Ariovistus fought with and was defeated by Julius Caesar. It is said that after this defeat the Suebi retreated to the region of modern-day Slovakia before moving west again a couple of centuries later.

Modern representation of a Suebi warrior. (Caminando por la Historia)

Modern representation of a Suebi warrior. (Caminando por la Historia )

Culture of the “pre-Hispanic” Suebian Tribes

The Suebian tribes and other Germanic groups were described by ancient authors as being primarily pastoral nomads, though the accuracy of these early accounts is uncertain. Another distinctive cultural trait among the Suebi was wearing a Suebian knot . The Suebian knot was a hairstyle where long hair was tied in a knot along the side of the head. Suebi of higher status, such as chieftains, would have more elaborate knots than Suebi of lower status. The Suebian knot was also considered the mark of a free man.

Osterby Man with hair tied in a Suebian Knot. At Archäologisches Landesmuseum. (CC BY 3.0)

Osterby Man with hair tied in a Suebian Knot. At Archäologisches Landesmuseum. ( CC BY 3.0 )

The presence of this hairstyle reveals a surprising amount about the culture of the Suebi since it tells us about the social structure of the Suebi as well as the fact that they practiced slavery. Other than this, not much is known of the Suebi of that period.

Kingdom of the Suebi

The Suebi appear again in history in the year 405. According to historical accounts, they passed through Gaul, pillaging as they went. When there was nothing left to pillage in Gaul, they and other barbarian factions entered Hispania in the year 409.

Early Years of the Kingdom (410-456 AD)

From about 410 to 456, the Suebi established a stable kingdom in north-western Spain and enjoyed dominance in that region. Rather than developing their own administration, the Suebi simply used the surviving Roman system and modified it as needed. Although the Suebian elites used Roman law to govern the native Hispano-Romans, most Suebian commoners continued to follow Germanic common law instead.

Roman bronze figure, discovered in the National Library in Paris, France, in the late 19th century. The Germanis is wearing a typical Suebian knot hairstyle and a characteristic cloak. Bibliothèque Nationale de France Paris, Cabinet des Bédailles Paris, Inventory No. 915. Dating to 2nd half 1st century to 1st half 2nd century AD. (Bullenwächter/CC BY 3.0)

Roman bronze figure, discovered in the National Library in Paris, France, in the late 19th century. The Germanis is wearing a typical Suebian knot hairstyle and a characteristic cloak. Bibliothèque Nationale de France Paris, Cabinet des Bédailles Paris, Inventory No. 915. Dating to 2nd half 1st century to 1st half 2nd century AD. (Bullenwächter/ CC BY 3.0 )

This divided the Suebian kingdom into two separate and parallel societies, one that was Christian and abided by Roman civil law and another that was pagan and abided by Germanic common law. The last king of this period, Rechiarius (reigned circa 448-456), was a convert to Christianity, but the Suebi for the most part remained pagan until after the middle of the 5th century.

Crisis of 456 AD

In 456, the kingdom of the Suebi was plunged into civil war after the death of King Rechiarius. During this time, there was an attempt by the Visigoths to take over the kingdom under their king Theodoric II. The kingdom was re-stabilized after 468 when a new king, Remismund, was able to unite the factions, suppress rebels against the Suebi, and defy the Visigoths.

Statue of Rechiar, Suebic King of Galicia (sculpted 1750–1753), Royal Palace of Madrid, Spain. (Basilio/CC BY SA 3.0)

Statue of Rechiar, Suebic King of Galicia (sculpted 1750–1753), Royal Palace of Madrid, Spain. (Basilio/ CC BY SA 3.0 )

Conversion to Arian Christianity

During the reign of Remismund, a priest by the name of Ajax spread the Arian Christian faith among the Suebi. The Suebian nobility quickly adopted Arian Christianity possibly because of political influences. Arianism was also the dominant form of Christianity among the Visigoths. This represented a shift away from the paganism of the earlier Suebi as well as from the orthodox Christianity to which King Rechiarius had subscribed. Orthodox Nicene Christians were those Christians who confessed belief in the Nicene Creed formulated at the Council of Nicaea in 325, which deemed Arianism to be heresy.

Terracotta mask of the head of German with Suebian knot hairstyle. Two holes for the eyes and two bore holes at the ears for fixing the mask. Whitely yellowish clay with residues of white and red colors. British Museum London, Blacas-Collection. Probably originating from Italy. Dating to 2nd Century AD. (Bullenwächter/CC BY 3.0)

Terracotta mask of the head of German with Suebian knot hairstyle. Two holes for the eyes and two bore holes at the ears for fixing the mask. Whitely yellowish clay with residues of white and red colors. British Museum London, Blacas-Collection. Probably originating from Italy. Dating to 2nd Century AD. (Bullenwächter/ CC BY 3.0 )

Conversion to Orthodox Christianity and the Suebi Legacy

Orthodox Christianity was established as the predominant religion of the Suebi during the reign of Theodomir in the 560s. The reason for this conversion may have been to align with other enemies of the Visigoths, such as the Franks and Byzantines, who also adhered to the Nicene faith. This conversion to orthodox Christianity allowed the Suebi to be integrated into the growing Christian civilization, which would eventually become western Christendom.

Over the centuries, the Suebi became integrated into the Visigothic and Hispano-Roman populations of Hispania. Today, the Suebi are remembered as part of the Germanic heritage of Spain. The Suebi live on in the life and culture of modern Spaniards.

Suebian king Miro and Martin of Braga from an 1145 manuscript of Martin's ‘De virtutibus quattuor.’ (CC0)

Suebian king Miro and Martin of Braga from an 1145 manuscript of Martin's ‘De virtutibus quattuor.’ ( CC0)

Top Image: A fight between a Roman and a Germanic warrior.     Source: Angus McBride

By Caleb Strom

References

Arias, Jorge C. 2007. Identity and interaction: The Suevi and the Hispano-Romans. University of Virginia.

Ausenda, G. 2003. After empire: towards an ethnology of Europe's barbarians. Vol. 1. Boydell & Brewer.

Hummer, H.J. 1998. The fluidity of barbarian identity: the ethnogenesis of Alemanni and Suebi, AD 200–500. Early Medieval Europe.

Strom, C. 2017. Osterby Man Still Has a Great Hairdo Nearly 2,000 Years On! Available at:

https://www.ancient-origins.net/history-ancient-traditions/osterby-man-still-has-great-hairdo-nearly-2000-years-007683

Széll, G. 2017. The crisis of the Kingdom of the Suebi relations with the Visigoths and the romans (456–468). Chronica.

Comments

It's quite curious that you constantly refer to many regions as being part of Spain like "northwestern Spain", for example, when Spain was not in existence at that time. And no mention about Lusitania...it just puzzles me. From what I've studied, the Visigoths ruled what is now Spain and the Suebi ruled what is now Portugal. The Visigoths did end up ruling the Iberian peninsula, eventually. Reading your text, it's almost as if Portugal's history, or Lusitania never existed. Why the exclusion?

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