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209 - Beyond the Helvetian Desert: Ancient, Mysterious Germany



The proximity to, the ‘otherness’ of and the seemingly eternal conflict with the barbarian tribes across the Rhine stoked Imperial Rome’s interest in all matters German. To get a sense of the horror and fascination the Germans exerted on the Romans, think cowboys (Rome) and indians (Germany). One of the earliest ethnographic works was Tacitus’ Germania, dedicated entirely to those wild men on the other side of the river. The source for this map of Germania Magna (Greater Germany), however, is Ptolemaeus’ Geographia, which, while dealing with the whole known world and not specifically with Germany, gives very determinate coordinates for all the tribes, mountains, rivers and islands mentioned.


The Geographia is a compilation of what was known of all the world’s geography in the 2nd century AD. Although the knowledge of regions outside the Empire is sometimes quite sketchy, Ptolemy’s atlas (the original maps were lost, and reconstituted in later centuries based on the coordinates provided by Ptolemy for each locality) remained authoritative up until the age of Discovery.


This map is quite defective by modern standards: the course of the rivers, notably the Rhine, is oversimplified, the Jutland peninsula is the wrong shape, some of the islands appear fictional and there’s no sign of the Scandinavian peninsula.


Another issue rendering this map ‘unreadable’ to modern eyes is the proliferation of tribal names that more often than not have failed to make a lasting (or at least recognisable) mark on people and places today; many German tribes were exterminated, or were known by several names, or were absorbed by other tribes. Still, here follows an attempt to describe the map.


The neighbours


Gallia – in Antiquity, the Rhine was the traditional border between Gaul and Germany – and by extension between the Roman Empire and the ‘barbarians’. Remarkably, later policy of the French kings was to establish natural borders between themselves and the Germans, often aiming for the Rhine.
\n• Raetia (often also Rhaetia) – united present-day eastern and central Switzerland with southern Bavaria, Upper Swabia, Voralberg, the better part of Tirol and part of Lombardy. In Roman times, it was bounded by the Limes Germanicus along the Danube in the north, by the Helvetii on the west, by Cisalpine Gaul in the south and by Noricum in the east. Little is known of the Raetians, apart from suggestions that they were related to the Etruscans and the fact that they probably were celtified to a large degree by the time of the Roman invasion. The mountain-dwelling Raetians subsisted on cattle-farming and timber-cutting, but some valleys also produced wine so good that Julius Caesar preferred Raetian to Italian wine. The name Raetia survives in Raeto-Roman, the name for Switzerland’s smallest and only native language.
\n• In between Gallia and Rhaetia is located the Fons Rheni, the source of the Rhine (nowadays, the Rhine is considered to have two sources: Lake Tuma near the Oberalp Pass, leading to the Vorderrhein; and the Paradies glacier near the Rheinquellhorn, both in present-day Switzerland.
\n• Noricum – Name of a Celtic federation of possibly 12 tribes, in 16 BC absorbed by Rome as a province, between Raetia in the west, the Danube on the north, Pannonia on the east and Italia and Dalmatia in the south, roughly corresponding to Styria and Carinthia, provinces of modern Austria, and other parts of Austria and Bavaria. Their area was fabled for its richness in gold, salt and iron ore. Noricum was the staging ground for almost all Celtic attacks on Italy. Before the Celts, Noricum was inhabited by the Illyrians and before that, as attested by the Hallstatt-culture relics, by a vigorous culture that made the transition from Bronze to Iron Age. The Achaeans referred to by Homer might even have originated here.
\n• Panonnia – the plains of central Europe in later times associated with Hungary. In ancient times inhabited by Panonnians, related to the Illyrians, in the 4th century BC invaded by Celts and around the beginning of the CE subdued by the Romans.
\n• Sarmatia – the region of Eastern Europe inhabited in Antiquity by the Sarmatians, a collection of tribes of Persian stock, in their greatest range around 100 BC occupying land from Barentsz Sea (north) to the Danube (south) and from the Vistula (west) to the Caspian Sea (east). The Sarmatians may be the origin of the centuries-old legends about women-warriors, as their females enjoyed an uncommon degree of participation in social life. The Sarmatians were related to the Scythians, allied themselves with the Huns in the 4th century and only disappeared from view at the time of the Gothic ascendancy in the Black Sea area. The modern-day Ossetians (in Georgia and Russia) might well be descendents of the Scythians/Sarmatians.


The Rivers


Albis – the Elbe
\n• Amasius – unkown
\n• Chalusus – the Treve
\n• Danuvius – the Danube
\n• Rhenus – the Rhine
\n• Suebus – unknown
\n• Viadua – the Oder
\n• Vidrus – exact location unknown
\n• Vistula – the Vistula
\n• Visurgis – the Weser


The Seas, Islands and Peninsulas


Chersonesus Cimbrica – the Cimbrian peninsula, nowadays known as Jutland.
\n• Alociae insulae – "Above the Cimbrian peninsula there are three other islands which are called the Alociae islands."
\n• Saxonum insulae – the Saxon islands… Judging from their position, possibly Helgoland etc.?
\n• Scandiae insulae – first used by Greeks to denote different islands in the Mediterranean, it came to refer to various uncharted islands in Northern Europe, according to Pliny the Elder one island north of Britannia, according to Ptolemy a group of islands east of the Cimbrian peninsula, the largest of which was named Scandia.
\n• Oceanus Germanicus – obviously meaning both the North and Baltic Seas, not to be confused with the Oceanus Britannicus (the English Channel).
The MountainsMelibocus mons: at 517 metres, the Melibokus or Mal(s)chen is the highest mountain of the Bergstrasse in southern Hesse, overlooking the Rhine valley. According to Ptolemy, it divided the Cheruski from the Chamavi (which would make this map an inaccurate representation of that division).
\n• Abnoba montes: the Gaulish forest or river goddess Abnoba, often identified with Diana, was worshipped in the Black Forest and, according to Ptolemy, also gave her name to the mountain (and by extension, the whole mountain range) close to the source of the Danube. The Abnobae montes have been identified as the Baar foothills of the Swabian Alp near Furtwangen im Schwarzwald.
\n• Alpii montes: the Alps, originally from the Latin albus (white) or altus (high), or from an earlier Celtic or Ligurian name.
\n• Sudeti montes: northern Czech mountains described by Ptolemy as being above the Gabreta Forest. The etymology might refer to ‘Mountains of Wild Boars’, but this is very debatable.
\n• Asciburgius mons: location unknown today, but Ptolemy’s description enables some educated guesswork. He describes the mountain(s) as to the northeast of the Sudeti, near the city of Stragona (usually identified with Strzegom/Striegau west of Wroclaw/Breslau), making the Gora Sleza/Zobtenberg a likely candidate. The Slavic name might be a reference to the Silingi tribe, who lived there (and who also gave their name to Silesia). The Germanic root of the latinized name probably translates as ‘Ash Mountain’.
\n• Luna montes: no information found.
\n• Sarmatici montes: although Ptolemy also mentions the Carpathes (the first recorded use of the name, incidentally), he uses this term to describe what is now known as the Eastern Carpathian Mountains.
\nThe Tribes


Adrabaecampi – "a tribe of Greater Germany, dwelling on the north bank of the Danube, south of the Gabreta Fortest after the Marcomanni and Sudini."
\n• Angrivarii – mentioned briefly in Ptolemy’s Geographia, they are believed to be synonymous with the 8th century Angrarii, one of three subdivisions of Saxony. Their district was named Angria, Engaria, etc., nowadays known as Engern, west of the Weser river, not far from the Teutoburger Forest. The name literally means ‘Men of Engern’.
\n• Avarpi – mentioned in Ptolemy’s Geographia as the Auarpoi, which was transliterated into Latin as Avarpi. Some also used Avarni, assuming the name referred to the Varni (in Mecklenburg). Ptolemy describes them as the Farodeinoi, however, and clearly specifies them as one of the neighbouring tribes to the Auarpoi (the others being the Teutonikai and Sueboi). This would place the Avarpi in or near Pomerania.
\n• Baemi – only mentioned by Ptolemy, he describes them as living between the Luna forest and the Danube river, corresponding more or less with modern Slovakia.
\n• Baenochaemae – Ptolemy places them east of the Chamavi, near the Elbe river.
\n• Bateni (Batini) – located east of the Banochaemae. Possibly the place-name Bautzen in Eastern Germany refers to them.
\n• Buguntes – no information found.
\n• Busacteri – no information found.
\n• Caritni – generally thought to inhabit western Bavaria, little more is known of them.
\n• C(h)asuari – dwelled ‘beyond the Chamavi and Agrivarii’ according to Tacitus, placing them in the vicinity of present-day Hannover. Ptolemy mentions them as east of the Abnoba mountains, close to Hesse. They might be the same people sometimes referred to as the Chattuari.
\n• Chaemae – Ptolemy mainly mentions they lived close to the Bructeri, which might suggest the Chaemae were in fact synonymous with the Chamavi. Both names derive from the Germanic root haimaz, ‘home’.
\n• Chaetvori – no information found.
\n• Chali – mentioned by Ptolemy as the Khaloi, another Germanic tribe occupying Jutland. No more is heard of them, but their name can probably be connected to Chalusus Fluvius (the River Trave, in Schleswig-Holstein) and maybe even to Halland, an historically Danish province in the south of Sweden.
\n• Chamavi – first mentioned by Tacitus, who locates them west of the Frisians, the Chamavi (or Hamavi) lived along the north bank of the Lower Rhine – the region even today is named after them: Hamaland, in the Dutch province of Gelderland. Tacitus mentions that the Chamavi displaced the Bructeri, of whose history and eventual fate no more than that oblique reference is known. The Chamavi themselves probably came from the north, as attested by several place-names, notably Hamm and more famously Hamburg. The etymology of the tribal name might mean ‘settlers’ (cham/ham being related to ‘heim’ and ‘home’). Later, the Chamavi became an important constituent of the Salian Franks (salian as in ‘salt-water people’, since they then lived close to the sea), but reminders of their separateness lingered on until at least the 9th century (e.g. the Lex Chamavorum Francorum).
\n• Charudes – lived on the eastern side of the Chersonesus Cimbrica (Jutland). Mentioned by Caesar in De Bello Gallico: 24.000 Harudes under Ariovistus crossed the Rhine to assist the Sequani against the Aedui (both Celtic tribes), but after defeating the latter, Ariovistus started resettling his troops also on territory of the Sequani, who appealed for help to Caesar, who routed the Germans. The Jutland district (syssel) of Hardsyssel is believed to be named after them. They were later replaced by Angles and Jutes, and may have migrated to Norway, where Hordaland and Hardanger fjord are believed to refer to them. The name also survives in Harding, a 9th century king in Norway and also still a family name. Post-invasion Britain knows them as the Heardingas, and in Iceland they are known as Haddings. Etymologically, the name means ‘pineforest-dwellers’.
\n• C(h)attae (Chatti) – occupying central and northern Hesse (its name derived from this tribe) and parts of Lower Saxony, they were the mother tribe of the Batavians, who were expelled after a quarrel. They were one of the tribes banding together to defeat Varrus’ legions at the Herrmannschlacht in 9AD, thus keeping Rome out of Germany. Later, they were incorporated into the Franks.
\n• Chauci – a populous tribe occupying the northern coast between the Frisians and the river Elbe, like the Frisians living on artificial mounds above the oft-flooded coastal plains near the North Sea. Pliny the Elder has a first-hand account of their way of life, Tacitus mentions they were respected among the German tribes for their levelheadedness. The Chauci became closely allied to the Romans, to whose legions they often contributed auxiliaries. The first known map of Ireland (by Ptolemy) shows Chauci colonisation of eastern Ireland, by the 1st or 2nd century AD. By the end of the 3rd century, the main body of the Chauci had merged with the Saxons, although it’s unclear how voluntarily this went about.
\n• Cherusci – inhabited parts of the northern Rhine valley and the plains and forests of northwestern Germany between Osnabrück and Hannover at the beginning of the Common Era. The name refers to a deer (Hirsch in German). Their finest hour was the defeat of Roman legions under Varrus at the Teutoburger Wald in 9AD, preventing the Romanisation of Germany. The shock was so great that the numbers of the ‘lost legions’ were never used again (XVII, XVIII, XIX). The leader at the time was Arminius (Herrmann) the Cherusc. The Cherusci were later absorbed by the Saxons.
\n• Cimbri – a Germanic tribe traditionally located in northern Jutland, that threatened the Roman republic in late 2nd century BC but still were to be found in Jutland at the beginning or our era. The modern name ‘Himmerland’ there preserves their name. The Cimbri are not to be confused with the Welsh, whose name for themselves is Cymri. In spite of their location in lands traditionally associated with (proto-)Germanic tribes, the Cimbri might well have been Celtic-speakers.
\n• Cobandi – mentioned by Ptolemy as the Kobandoi, this tribe occupied Jutland. Not much more is known about them.
\n• Cogni – only briefly mentioned by Ptolemy.
\n• Curiones – no information found.
\n• Danduti – no information found.
\n• Etvaeones – no information found.
\n• Farodini – no information found.
\n• Fundusii – only mentioned in passing.
\n• Frisii – coast-dwellers along the entire eastern edge of the North Sea, the Frisians managed to avoid conquest by concluding a treaty with the Romans, but later rebelled against Roman taxes. The Frisians are today still recognisable as the same people in roughly the same place as when described by Ptolemy – practically the only one of all tribes mentioned here. Their language is the closest surviving relative of English.
\n• Ineriones – no information found.
\n• Intuergi – no information found.
\n• Jazyges – a nomadic branch of the Sarmatians, and therefore also of Iranian stock. First known to reside near the Sea of Azov, later settled on the Pannonian plain. Often fighting with, and sometimes for Rome, Jazygian cavalry in Britain may have contributed to the formation of the Arthurian legend. Their name is preserved in that of the Romanian city of Iasi.
\n• Langobardi – reached the apex of their fame after they migrated south from their homeland near the Elbe estuary and conquered Byzantine Italy, establishing a kingdom and giving their name to the northern Italian region of Lombardy. Their name literally means ‘longbeards’, and refers to the mythical origin of the tribe, in which the women tied their long hair in front of their faces to intimidate the Vandals (up until then, they were known as the Winniler)… although another theory states that Langbardr (also meaning ‘longbeard’) was their name for the supreme Germanic god Odin, hence their own beards and their name.
\n• Lugi Buri – Tacitus mentions the Buri, not linking them to the Lugii. Ptolemy, however, calls them Lugi Buri, placing them between the Sudetes and the upper Vistula. They are distinct from the Silingi on the upper Oder. Some Buri accompanied the Suebi when invading Iberia, giving their name to the Terras de Bouro (‘Lands of the Buri’) in Portugal.’Lugi’ might indicate that the tribe(s) concerned were Slavic (as lyudi is Slavic for ‘people’); other alliances seem to be with the Omani and the Didunii.
\n• Marcomanni – probably related to the Buri or Suebi, their name is thought to derive either from the ancient Germanic for borderland (cf. ‘march’); or from Marcus Fabius Romanus, a Roman legate deserting Drusus’ legions to band together a ragtag group of tribes into a unified fighting force. This force would found powerful kingdoms and threaten the Danube border of the Empire for many years to come.
\n• Marvingi – no information found.
\n• Nerleanae – no information found.
\n• Parmaecampi – no information found.
\n• Quadi – one of the smaller, lesser-known tribes of which no material evidence remains. In the 1st century, they were the fellow-travellers of the more numerous Marcomanni, migrating towards Moravia, Slovakia and Austria, displacing local Celts and coming into fleeting contact with the nearby Roman Empire. They might have been mentioned in Strabo’s Geographia (as the Koldouoi) and briefly figure in Tacitus’ Germania. Marcus Aurelius fought them in the Marcomannic Wars, defeating them in 174 AD. The Emperor’s death in 180 prevented a further routing of the Quadi – and an extension of Roman territory over the Danube to the Carpathian Mountains. Reputedly, Emperor Valentinian died in 375 AD while receiving a delegation of Quadi seeking a peace treaty – so enraged was he by their insolent behaviour. The Quadi would later dissolve into the Bavarian ethnos.
\n• Racatae – no information found.
\n• Racatriae – no information found.
\n• Ruticlei – no information found.
\n• Sabalingii – only mentioned in passing.
\n• Saxones - positioned by Ptolemy approximately in the area still called Niedersachsen, the Saxons rose to prominence many centuries after his Geographia. They constitute not only an important part of German ethnos, but also of ‘native’ Dutch, Norman, French and English peoples. As a constituent of the Anglo-Saxon society in Britain, their name survives in the epithet of today’s globally dominant culture. The tribal name is thought to derive from seax, which refers to a category of single-edged knives. The Saxons, not surprisingly, were considered very warlike. Only via the so-called Saxon Wars was Charlemagne (ca. 800 AD) able to defeat and (forcibly) convert them to Christianity.
\n• Sidini – no information found.
\n• Sidones – no information found.
\n• Sigulones – Ptolemy mentions they live in the western part of the Cimbrian peninsula, north of the Saxons.
\n• Silingae – an East Germanic tribe, probably part of the larger Vandal group, located in Lower Silesia. The name of that area, now mainly in Poland, is possibly derived from them.  Many Silingae took part in the Vandal migration through Iberia (cf. [V]andalusia) into North Africa.
\n• Sudini – only known from the quote about the Adrabaecampi.
\n• Sugambri – occupying an area around the Rhine delta in what is now the Netherlands at the beginning of the Common Era, the Sugambri (or Sicambri) were absorbed by the Franks around the 4th century. Caesar thought the Sugambri were ‘born for war and raids’, and indeed they raided the Eburones at the invitation of the Romans and then made war on the Romans themselves. They were part of the tribes that defeated Varrus’ three legions in the Herrmannschlacht. Although absorbed into the Frankish ethnos, the tribe’s name survived as a poetic distinction, recall St Remigius’ exhortation of Clovis at the latter’s baptism: "Bend down your head, Sicamber. Honour what you have burnt, burn what you have honoured." An obscure, patently unhistorical legend holds the Sugambri to be descendents of 12.000 Trojans led by Priam to Pannonnia, their descendants later migrating to the Rhine.
\n• Suebi – Ariovistus’ defeat by Caesar got the Suebi their first mention. They remained a threat to Roman rule in the north, eventually settling in the Alsace, Bavaria and Switzerland. Others migrated to Portugal and Spain. Before all these migrations, they occupied a large swathe of central Germany. As Tacitus explains: "The Suebi do not, like the Chatti or Tencteri, constitute a single nation. They actually occupy more than half of Germany, and are divided into a number of distinct tribes under distinct names, though all generally are called Suebi." The Suebi comprise (among others) the Semnones ("the oldest and noblest of the Suebi"), the Langobardi, the seven tribes of Jutland and Holstein ("Reudigni, Aviones, Anglii, Varini, Eudoses, Suarini, Nuitones), the Hermunduri on the Elbe, three along the Danube ("Naristi, Marcomanni, Quadi"), the Marsigni and Buri, etc. etc.
\n• Tenct(e)ri – probably dwelled on the eastern bank of the Lower Rhine, defeated by Caesar in 55 BC, expelled from their homelands by the Suebi across the Rhine to where the Menapii lived.
\n• Teuriochaemae – no information found.
\n• Teutones – mentioned by Strabo, Marcus Velleius Paterculus and Ptolemy, usually in close connection with the Cimbri, they migrated from Jutland (or even Scandinavia) south, eventually clashing with the expanding Roman Empire. They were defeated in 102 BC at Aquae Sextae (Aix-en-Provence), at which point the Teutonic women committed mass suicide. The term Teutonic has in later centuries been applied to all Germanic tribes, or even the whole of (modern-day) Germany – not always favourably.
\n• Teutonovari – probably just means ‘Teutonic Men’, a variation on Teutones.
\n• Tubanti – no information found.
\n• Turoni – no information found.
\n• Vargiones – no information found.
\n• Varisti – no information found.
\n• Viruni – no information found.
\n• Visburgii – placed in an area possibly conforming with modern northern Slovakia.
\n• Vispi – no information found.
\nOther features


Helvetiorum desertum – deserted Helvetia (Switzerland) or the Helvetian Desert. No further information found.
\n• Silva Orcynia – the ancient and dense ‘Hercynian Forest’ stretched from the Rhine eastward across southern Germany, although it’s not clear how far east (Caesar has it stretching all the way to Dacia, present-day Romania). The Black Forest is a remnant of its western edge. The mountains associated with it (Aristotle mentions the Orkynios mountains in his Meteorologica) might be the Mittelgebirge. The forest, described by Caesar as 9 days’ march from south to north, effectively blocked a Roman conquest of Germania. Its gloomy, mysterious nature was mentioned by Pliny the Elder. The oak-strewn woods, teeming with reindeer, elk and aurochs, might be considered as the original ‘scary forest’. The name Hercynian derives from Celtic meaning ‘mountain forest’, and might have given rise to the name of the Harz mountains.


This map (found here) was an inset to a larger map (here), positioning the tribes on a modern map of Germany, in professor G. Droysen’s Allgemeiner historischer Atlas, published in 1886 in Bielefeld and Leipzig.


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