The Suebian Spearman

The Suevi were the strongest known confederation about the time of Caeasar, as written by historians such as Tactitus. Published around 98 AD and called initially "On the Origin and Situation of the Germans" this work was a historical and ethnographic study on the Germanic tribes which is extremely precious today as our only link with these forgotten peoples, not writing their deeds and not having stone momuments that captured them. But the type of infantry which formed the backbone of the Suebians, and arguably of most Germanic tribes, as they were with the Celts already, was the spearman. Tacitus went in lenght however to describe a particular type of spearman, probabmy proper to the Suebian and their warring traditions: Having a harpoon-like short spear and thick and large chiton, or cape, and of course the particular hair knot which was confirmed by the find of such warrior sacrificed in a bog in Denmark. Beyond that, this was all about social order an ancient Germanic warfare through their best known people.
Suebi troops catw

About the Suebians and ancient Germania

The very name "germania" of course was given by the Romans at some point to make a distinction with the nearby Gauls. Being barbarians, they were different, yet clearly close, like distant brothers. This was a bit reducing and of course a reflection of the contempt, irrespect or hate from the Romans to these unwashed savage northerners. Roman presence in these lands and interest from Latin literrature really arose at the time Roman Legions, already present in Gaul were creating coloniae and garrison settlements well beyond the Rhine. The idea was originally to prevent any further incursion in Gaul by securing a chain of outposts beyond the Rhine, and using traditional tactics of the Romans, carrot and stick, wonderland cities and hostages to enforce their presence in these lands, bringing civilization with them.

Suebi troops catw

This seemed to work, at least until one particularly unscupulous governor came, Varrus, which brutality and greed pushed the local tribe, the Cherusci, to the brink of open revolt. Afterwards, through the will of one of these young noble hostages, raised in the shadow of Rome as an auxilia cavalryman, turned bitter enemy and knowing the Roman tactics, all presence of the Romans beyond he Rhine was erased in a matter on months, after a climactic three-days battle, which site is still debated: Teutoburg forest. In this epic fight, thousands of spearmen made the bulk of the Germanic armies throughout the tribes. How could they be successful against well trained legionaires ? In any case, this event changed the map for the first time, going back to the Rhine itself, while later it was fixed in Britain to the famous Hadrian wall until the fall of the Empire, caused chiefly by mass migrations from these germnic tribes.
Suebi troops catw

Localisation in ancient sources

We will focus here on the Suebi in particular. They were the best-known, most often referred to of these, and appeared at an early age, and not later in the context of Imperial Rome and early "barbarian invasions". The Suebi were a Germanic tribal group associated with, or called the Irminones. Also called as Herminones or Hermiones they were settled West of the Elbe and also encompassed many several-sub-groups like the Suevi or the Chatti. After the 1st century AD they spread in Bavaria, Swabia and Bohemia. The Marcomanni ("men of the marches") were just one particular sub-group which appeared on the borders.

There is also a mention of a Suebi kingdom, but the latter appeared much later, established about 409 AD in Western Spain (Including modrn Portugal). The ancient Suebi were heared and wrote upon when they started migrating in the 1st century BC south-westwards from the Baltic Sea and the Elbe into Gaul, across the Rhine, then under Roman rule. Julius Caesar mentioned also the invading Suebian chieftain Ariovistus. In the south, about this period, King Maroboduus did the same through the Danube and established the first confederation of Germanic tribes in Bohemia, under the common name of "Marcomanni", chasing or integrating the Celtic Boii. To define the Suebi as a singular entity as Caesar did was probably an oversimplification, as contrary to him, Tacitus, Pliny the Elder and his own geographer and writer, Strabo, all believed the Suebi were an ensemble of tribes and nations, a confederation, occupying more than half of Germania.

The nations most often included in this group were the Hermunduri, Chatti and Cherusci as the largest. Further south, Celtic Nations came under pressure and had to move, the Helvetii in modern Schwaben and the Boii further east (near the Hercynian forest). Tacitus cites the Hermunduri, (near the sources of the Elbe) and across the Danube into Rhaetia. The Naristi, Marcomanni, and Quadi also established in this region. One of the rare Greek geographer to relate about the Suevi was Ptolemy (c. AD 90 – c. AD 168). Speaking of "Greater Germany" he mentioned Suebi settled between the Rhine and Elbe, their position stretching out from the Elbe to the northern Rhine were they bordered the Sugambri (or Sicambri). The Langobardi were a sub-tribe closest to the Rhine and closing the easter border of this confederation. He also described the "Suevi Angili" on the the middle Elbe. The Allemanni moved in modern Schwaben, previously under Roman control and trying to cooperate with Burgundians. The Langobardi worshiped Nertha (Mother Earth) a sacred grove located on an island (presumably on the Baltic) and honored by small tribes such as the Reudigni, Aviones, Anglii, Varini, Eudoses, Suarini and Nuitones. According to pomponius Mela, other Baltic tribes included kingdoms of the Lugii, Gothones (Goths), Rugii, and Lemovii (also confirmed by Tacitus).
Suebi troops RTW2 Suebi troops RTW2 Suebi troops RTW2
RTW 2 Germanic warriors - Ancient Empire mod (AAE)

Caesar's Suevi

"These tribes spent time on husbandry and hunting, wearing animal skins" (*Roman caritcature - Many examples of ancient textiles, with elaborate patterns and finitions, had been found so far. Animal skins were probably more added for psychological effect in wartime) "(...), bathing in rivers, and consuming milk and meat products" (*It was assumed they practiced no agriculture, perhaps only allowed from slaves) (It was also said they prohibited wine as making them weak) and considered trade only to dispose of their booty, but making no export themselves" (In fact, Baltic amber was very popular for jewelry throughout the Mediterranean and it is safe to assume that whale oil was also known and used). "They had no private ownership of land and were not permitted to stay resident in one place for more than one year. They were divided into 100 cantons, each of which had to provide and support 1000 armed men for the constant pursuit of war." The theme of 100-men levies, later known during the so-called "barbarian invasions" as the hundradeflocc was indeed an old institution. We can only guess these levies were famers, shop-keepers, hunters, etc, not professional soldiers, or even slaves in some form. Probably armed with simple spears and javelins, maces, hammers and whatever they can find. They were probably then "framed", led and trained by seasoned warriors, a bit like the Celtic Bagaudoi.
Hattisku Framannoz

Strabo's Suevi

Strabo describes the Suebi as highly mobile and nomadic, so having no agricultural traits that shared tribes such as the Chatti and Cherusci: "(...) they do not till the soil or even store up food, but live in small huts that are merely temporary structures; and they live for the most part off their flocks, as the Nomads do, so that, in imitation of the Nomads, they load their household belongings on their wagons and with their beasts turn whithersoever they think best." A common mention by most authors, conformed by archaeology is the "Suebi Knot". This was a social symbol, to "distinguishes the freeman from the slave". He also noted that chiefs "use an even more elaborate style".

This can be compared to the Dacians, which had a cap as a symbol of Social status. However Tacitus also reports human sacrifices by the Semnones in a sacred grove. Slaves were also sacrificed in the rites of Nerthus. He also noted that the chief priest of the Naharvali dressed as a woman. On the warfare side, he noted the the Harii which fight at night dyed black. It was apparebtly a distinct tribe and not a warfare practice. The Suiones were noted for having large fleets of small symmetrical rowing vessels ("with prows at both ends") such as the Hjostpring vessel, ancestors of the famous Drakkars.

Tacitus's Suevi

The ancient Germans seems to have celebrated an earth-born god called Tuisto. His son was though to be at the origin of ancient tribes such as the Ingaevones, nearest the sea, Herminones in the interior, and Istaevones. As for precious metals, they seemed to have no fondness for Gold, prefering Silver in all cases. For what we are interested in, about German warfare, Tacitus insists that it was overall an infantry army, using few armor and iron in limited quantity for weaponry.

Here is the original text, and following are some remarks:
"Even iron is not plentiful; this has been inferred from the sort of weapons they have. Only a few of them use swords or large lances: they carry spears - called frameae in their language - with short and narrow blades, but so sharp and easy to handle that they can be used, as required, either at close quarters or in long-range fighting. Their horsemen are content with a shield and a spear; but the foot-soldiers also rain javelins on their foes: each of them carries several, and they hurl them to immense distances, being naked or lightly clad in short cloaks. There is nothing ostentatious about their equipment: only their shields are picked out in the colours of their choice. Few have breastplates, and only one here and there a helmet of metal or hide. Their horses are not remarkable for either beauty or speed, and are not trained to execute various evolutions as ours are; they ride them straight ahead, or with just a single wheel to the right, keeping their line so well that not a man falls behind the rest. Generally speaking, their strength lies in infantry rather than cavalry. So foot-soldiers accompany the cavalry into action, their speed of foot being such that they can easily keep up with the charging horsemen. The best men are chosen from the whole body of young warriors and placed with the cavalry in front of the main battle line. The number of these is precisely fixed: a hundred are drawn from each district, and 'The Hundred' is the name they bear among their fellow-countrymen. Thus what was originally a mere number has come to be a title of distinction. The battle-line is made up of wedge-shaped formations. To give ground, provided that you return to the attack, is considered good tactics rather than cowardice. They bring back the bodies of the fallen even when a battle hangs in the balance. To throw away one's shield is the supreme disgrace, and the man who has thus dishonoured himself is debarred from attendance at sacrifice or assembly. Many such survivors from the battlefield have ended their shame by hanging themselves."

-The passage about iron is true, as natural occurence of this metal was relatively rare in the sandy regions of Northern Germany. The bulk of the armament, which is why the kind of infantry discussed here is the Gerimannoz (From prefix Ge- for weapon/spear, literraly "speamen"). But the term "Frameani" could have been used in latin for the same, after the "Frameae", the particular spear wielded by these troops. Accorded to Tacitus's description, the spearpoint was small and narrow so to optimize little iron that was available. The fact that they can be thrown or manned in close-quarters indicates relatively short ones, about two meters, so indicating a very dynamic, very mobile style of fighting, far from any static formation.

ancient bear and wolf warriors
-He also point out the horsemen ("Ridanaz", "Ridanz") probably used the ancient European breed of horses (which had disappeared) that are related to modern poneys. Small, agile, nervous, yet not very robust as to carry heavily cladded horsemen like in the Eastern tradition of the Persians, Sarmatians or Parthians. These horsemen are decsribed using simple charge tactics with spears and shiels robably similar to thos carried by the infantry. This conveys the idea of a mounted spearman, and it is said also about a mixed tactic (like the Trimaschia) or infantry and cavalry working together like described by Caesar at Alesia. This infantry was exactly 100 (the future "hundradeflocc" or more probably called then "Herthaganautaz") and they were picked-up and probably trained to attack with cavalry, so lightly cladded and/or protected. For more about tactics, see below:

Suebi Gaizoz/Ridanz

-He also noted that, probably to soften the enemy's numbers, the bulk of the infantry is suppose to carry javelins (as for the 'immense distances' noted.). The probable most common type is the one shared by Greek Akontistai, simple wooden stick with a pointy bit hardened by fire. No iron involved here. Each infantryman then carried a single, larger spear for close combat, this one probably iron-tipped.

General appearance

-About their appearance in combat, he pointed out the fact they fought "naked" (which could signify "bare-chested", but does not implies entirely naked like celtic warriors and for the same reasons, see the chapter on the Gaesatae. He also mention "in short cloaks"; This confirm the use of the "chiton" and a smaller version of it, not to be encombered in combat. The Gerimannoz decribed in the illustration had such Chiton. The latter was apparebtly a classic in German men wear, being thick and used as a cloak and warm blanket when sleeping out on the open. This recalls the Thracian Zeira. Germanic warriors had trousers, as shown in many statuettes of latin depictions, but always bare-chested. Contrary to the Gauls they wore no gold. Neither bracelets, arm bands, or torques. Perhaps the only precious item was the Chiton's brooch/fibula/thorn. These trousers seems not baggy in the eastern sense but closer to the legs. The idea of leather leggins and the modern interpretation of trousers tightened with crossed strips around the legs are also a possibility at that time. Since we have no depiction of more ancient Germans it is difficult to conjecture if like the Celts, trousers were a scythian importation. As for tacitus "undergarments, which are not loose like those of the Sarmatians and Parthians, but fit tightly and follow the contour of every limb."

Ancient Germanic shields

About shields

-The passage about the shields is interesting, showing they usually painted their shields, probably in simple and non-ostentatious ways, which indicates utilitarian motives and patterns as a way of distinguishing between tribes and specific groups in large battles for example. The usual way we decribed german shields is coming from a specific finds in Denmark, well-preserved in a bog with the typical acidic mix that killed bacterias and preserved wood (the same way entire ships from pre-medieval times were preserved). They were flat, and generally less rounded than Celtic ones, but with the same central boss, directly made in wood and not in metal, although some shows holes, so we can assume these possible metal parts had been long corroded or picked up and reused. On the photos above, the second one from the left shows a small model probably used by more specialized skirmishers. For the colors, since no pigment survived, we can assume natural ones were used depending on their affordability: Brassicae blue, white, several shades of brown ranging from sand yellow to dark reddish brown. Precious fancy colors like Tyran purple or Vermillion red made with tons of murex would have been only worn on precious textiles by the Nobles, imported at great price. Nothing such as this could have find its way on something expandable like a shield.

About Helmets

Bronze Age Viskø Helmets, found in Denmark and dated to 900 BC-He confirms the lack of body armour and of metal helmets, but also that helmets could have been made of hides. Indeed archaeology confirms that few helmets had been found overall in this area, other than Roman helmets. After the Teutoburg disaster, the Germans found indeed a treasury of Roman metal gear and probably used these numerous swords and helmets for dozens of years and more. About the helmet "made with hides", it iis assumed that the lack of metal led to develop about the time of early Germanic invasions a sort of composite helmet that would led to the famous Spangenhelm model. The frame was made of three metal bands: One circling the head, and the two others folded at the top, both sides, to form a cone shape. The intervals were made of leather, or a leather cap was worn under the metal bands, that were used to deflect sword blows. Also hardened leather can be indeed very strong, as many tests were made to test its capabilities to hold the impact of some projectiles. Agreed, an arrowhead would have no problem piercing it, but not penetrating very far. It could absorb schocks and deflect sword and spears however. So it is likely hardened leather helmets, cheaper and lighter, were commonplace. Saxon warriors invading Britain still used these composite helmets, which were cheaper and faster to make. One of these early bronze helmets dates back 900 BC - The Bronze Age Viskø Helmet which is horned and had two "eyeball"-like front protuberances. There is also a late "macomanni" helmet resembling a tall Phrygian model but ending with a bird's head, and the Krefeld model, with front straps to place two feathers (Ref).

Ancient Germanic warriors
Ancient Germanic warrior reenacter group SIPPE ULFSON ( from Italy.

About Tactics

The passage about the 100 men that were picked-up and mixed with cavalry to attack probably meant these were skirmishers, using a very german tactic: Perhaps inspired by Celtic chariots, the way infantry and cavalry worked together was perhaps because in case this infantry was threatened or hard-pressed, this infantry could jump on the ccompanying horseback and retreat; So this tactic was well-suited for skirmishing it seems, which is compounded by the fact the accompanying infantry had to travel light to follow the horses. It is also said these units fought in wedges. So the combination of all these traits negates any allusion of primitive or nonexistant battle tactics. And it was even way before Roman tactics started to permeate "barbarian warfare" at the end of the Empire. But since Infantry made the bulk of these armies, we can suppose standard "squares" were loosely formed by tribes and affinities behind the front battle line made up of a series of wedges. These "hunderd-men" units as we saw were probably light, young, agile but skilled and not-so young skismishers, while the bulk of the infantry was made of versatile spear-carriers.

By versatile, this was about close-quarter combat with a moredately short spear (about two meters), enough to hold an enemy ared with a sword at a distance, but light enough to be used with agility, and thrown if necessary, but also a provision of lighter javelins, probably not metal-tipped. Another recurring theme was the use of blunt force weapons such as the axe, mace, hammer and club. The latter is especially true, as well as all wooden weaponry such as hammers and maces in all forms and shape ("Slaganaz"). However, axes for the reasons which are already linked to metal rarity, were probably reserved to nobles ("Athalingaz"). Slingers ("slingwonaz"?) and Archers ("Skutjanaz") were also part of the mix. Long spear tactics are probably a late import during the se-called "barbarian invasions".

Tacitus also speaks later of the role of women in combat ("...armies already wavering and on the point of collapse have been rallied by the women"), showing their "bared bosoms" in order to evoke their possible enslavement. This implied nomadic way to do battles, with chariots and families left nearby. It is also said that nobles we could be respected by birth but had also to show their worth to the tribe by leading at the front and accumulating great deeds for their reputation, so as it was an oral culture. This was also true for their administration "admiration they win by showing conspicuous energy and courage". They had limited powers in time but also in scope, and capital punishment and justice was dispensed instead by the priest class, which included for example flogging for cowardice "in obedience to the god they believed in was on battle with them". Cowardice made any warrior met a punishment ranginf from social degradation (not being allowed to ceremonies, fests, etc. leading often to suicide or self-banishment) up to execution by drowning in a bog "pressed down under a wicker hurdle", just as thirkers and sodomites whereas traitors and deserters were hanged on a tree.

About social class and retinue, Tacitus speaks multiple times of a nobleman's own retinue and followers, emphasizing the level of apparent opulence and equipment a nobleman granted to his follower, a bit like Celts and their client system. Nothing is said if this retinue had several degrees of clientelism, such as the Gallic Ambactos. A young non-slave in such society reaching maturity and being recognised by its peers reeived a cloak, which makes him a citizen. We can imagine that for warriors it was extended to the symbolic gift of one's spear (Framea) and the right to have the hair tightened in the characteristic Suebian knot.

"There are grades of rank even in these retinues, determined at the discretion of the chief whom they follow; and there is great rivalry, both among the followers to obtain the highest place in their leader's estimation and among the chiefs for the honour of having the biggest and most valiant retinue. Both prestige and power depend on being continually attended by a large train of picked young warriors, which is a distinction in peace and a protection in war. And it is not only in a chief's own nation that the superior number and quality of his retainers brings him glory and renown. Neighbouring states honour them also, courting them with embassies and complimenting them with presents. Very often the mere reputation of such men will virtually decide the issue or a war."

About the Harii

"As for the Harii, not only are they superior in strength to the other peoples I have just mentioned, but they minister to their savage instincts by trickery and clever timing. They black their shields and dye their bodies, and choose pitch dark nights for their battles. The shadowy, awe-inspiring appearance of such a ghoulish army inspires mortal panic; for no enemy can endure a sight so strange and hellish. Defeat in battle starts always with the eyes."

Sources/Read More

Tacitus's Germania Video abour ancient germanic warriors
About the Irminones Documentary about German tribes

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