The Suebi or Suevi (from Proto-Germanic *swēbaz based on the Proto-Germanic root *swē- meaning "one's own" people, from an Indo-European root *swe-, the third person reflexive pronoun) were a group of Germanic peoples who were first mentioned by Julius Caesar in connection with Ariovistus' campaign, c. 58 BC; Ariovistus was defeated by Caesar.
Some Suebi remained a periodic threat against the Romans on the Rhine, until, toward the end of the empire, the Alamanni, including elements of Suebi, brushed aside Roman defenses and occupied Alsace, and from there Bavaria and Switzerland. Except for a pocket in Swabia, and migrants to Gallaecia (modern Galicia, in Spain, and Northern Portugal), no more was heard of the Suebi.
In the classical sources, the ethnonym Suebi is used with two different meanings: the specific tribe of Caesar's campaign, "dwelling on the Main", and "broadly, to cover a large number of tribes in central Germany." The broad view is expressed in Tacitus' Germania, a basic written source for the Suebic peoples that states:
We must come now to speak of the Suebi, who 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.
For Tacitus, the Suebi comprise the Semnones, who are "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 tribes along the Danube: Naristi, Marcomanni, Quadi; the Marsigni and Buri. Then there is a mountain range, and beyond that, in the drainage system of the Vistula, Tacitus places five tribes of the Lugii including the Harii, Helvecones, Manimi, Helsii and Naharvali; the Gothones, Rugii, Lemovii along the Baltic Sea; all the states of the Suiones, located in peninsular Scandinavia; and finally the non-Germanic Aestii, and the Sitones, beyond the Aestii along the Baltic yet "continuous with the Suiones". Says Tacitus then: "Here Suebia ends."
But few clues to the identity of the Suebi are given by Tacitus . They can be identified by their fashion of the hair style called the "Suebian knot", which "distinguishes the freeman from the slave"; in other words, was intended as a badge of social rank. The same passage points out that chiefs "use an even more elaborate style."
For Tacitus, a second criterion for being Suebian is residence in a territory recognized as Suebia, not identified by any linguistic coherence, apparently: Tacitus' modern editor Arthur J. Pomeroy concludes "it is clear that there is no monolithic 'Suebic' group, but a series of tribes who may share some customs (for instance, warrior burials) but also vary considerably." The Suebia of Tacitus comprises the entire periphery of the Baltic Sea, including within it tribes not identified as Suebi by modern historians: the Sitones, for instance, who must have resided where Lapland and Finland are now, where Finno-Ugrian has been spoken since Antiquity. In addition, on the south shore of the Baltic are the Aestii, in the territory of modern-day Baltic language speakers, or where they have been (Prussia), again equally as ancient as the Germanic-speakers.
A third criterion for Suebi simply involves sharing in the name Suebi, which is "indeed genuine and ancient" Tacitus reports.
Friedrich Maurer, based on the archaeological and literary analysis of Germanic tribes done earlier by Gustaf Kossinna and his own linguistic work with isoglosses, divided the Germanic folk of the first century BC through the fourth century AD into five Kulturkreise or "culture-groups": the North, Oder-Vistula, Elbe, Weser-Rhine and North-Sea Germanics. The Herminones comprising the Suebi (in the narrow sense), Hermunduri and others, were the Elbe group. Their linguistic descendants speak modern Upper German. These five groups formed in the Pre-Roman Iron Age after about 800 BC.
Maurer attributes Proto Germanic to the Nordic Bronze Age, which he dates 1200-800 BC according to the information available to him then. The dates have changed a little and a Pre-Roman Iron Age has been broken out since then to which some assign the Proto Germanic language. It ranged over a region forming a rough triangle, with vertices in south Scandinavia, the mouth of the Rhine river and the mouth of the Vistula. In fact the Baltic Sea was known to the Romans as the Mare Suebicum, a name which it no doubt inherited from times when the Suebi inhabited the shores of the Baltic and were probably one with the Suiones.
The Suebi eventually migrated south and west to reside for a while in the Rhineland area of modern Germany, where their name survives in the historic region known as Swabia. The Suebi under Ariovistus were invited into Gaul by the Sequani but soon came to dominate them and were finally defeated by Julius Caesar in 58 BC.
The Suebi of Julius Caesar's De Bello Gallico live in 100 cantons of arable land, of which each canton retains ownership, parceling farm lots to individuals to use for up to one year. They wear animal skins, bathe in rivers, and prohibit wine. They allow trade only to dispose of their booty and otherwise have no goods to export.
They are of a military disposition, drafting yearly 1000 men per canton for service of one year. With these troops they raid Gaul on the other side of the Rhine river frequently, thus involving Gaul's protector, the Roman Republic, whose agent in the field is one of its greatest generals, Julius Caesar. Lacking a central government and disrespecting all authority, they rely on the services of war chiefs, who in the age of migrations will become Suebian kings.
As to their location, they live next to the Cherusci, which places them between the Rhine river and the middle Elbe river. Their innermost refuge is Silva Bacenis, "Beech Wood", which various authors take to be some section of the Hercynian Forest, such as the Thuringian Forest, the Harz Mountains or the Black Forest. In ancient times Germany was heavily forested and these three forests were more or less continuous. They could not have farmed the forests, however, leaving the Main River bottom and the upper Elbe as the only possibilities.
In addition to their first known incursion under Ariovistus in 58 BC, the Suebi posed another threat in 55 BC. The Germanic Ubii, who had worked out an alliance with Caesar, were complaining of being harassed by the Suebi. Caesar bridged the Rhine, the first known to do so, with a pile bridge, which though considered a marvel, only stood for eighteen days. The Suebi abandoned their towns closest to the Romans, retreated to the forest and assembled an army. Caesar moved back across the bridge and broke it down, stating that he had achieved his objective of warning the Suebi. They in turn stopped harassing the Ubii.
Cassius Dio—who wrote the history of Rome for a Greek audience—starts his account of the Suebi with Caesar's short stay over the Rhine in 55 BC. In Dio it is the Sugambri who retire to strongholds, but Caesar retreats on hearing that the Suebi were collecting an army to help the Sugambri.
A generation later, shortly before 29 BC the Suebi crossed the Rhine, only to be defeated by Gaius Carrinas who along with the young Octavian Caesar celebrated a triumph in 29 BC. Shortly after they turn up fighting a group of Dacians in a gladiatorial display at Rome celebrating the consecration of the Julian hero-shrine. Dio says that they "dwell across the Rhine (though many cities elsewhere claim their name)" and that they were anciently called Celts: Earlier he had explained "...very anciently both peoples dwelling on ether side of the river were called Celts."
A generation later, in 9 BC, consul Nero Claudius Drusus crossed the Rhine and proceeded against the Germans, starting with the Chatti. He traversed country "as far as that of the Suebi" and then attacked the Cherusci to the north of the Suebi. He reached the Elbe. There is no evidence in Dio that he subdued the Suebi. Like Julius Caesar he withdrew to the Rhine shortly but "died on the way of some disease" with the wolves running howling through the camp.
Florus gives a more detailed view of the operations of 9 BC. He reports that the Cherusci, Suebi and Sicambri formed an alliance by crucifying twenty Roman centurions, but that Nero Claudius Drusus defeated them, confiscated their plunder and sold them into slavery. Presumably only the war party was sold, as the Suebi continue to appear in the ancient sources.
Florus' report of the peace brought to Germany by Drusus is glowing but premature. He built "more than five hundred forts" and two bridges guarded by fleets. "He opened a way through the Hercynian Forest", which implies but still does not overtly state that he had subdued the Suebi. "In a word, there was such peace in Germany that the inhabitants seemed changed ... and the very climate milder and softer than it used to be."
The peace did not outlast the year. After the death of Drusus the Cherusci annihilated three legions at the Battle of Teutoburg Forest and thereafter "... the empire ... was checked on the banks of the Rhine."
Suetonius gives the Suebi brief mention in connection with their defeat in 9 BC. He says that the Suebi and Sugambri "submitted to him and were taken into Gaul and settled in lands near the Rhine" while the other Germani were pushed "to the farther side of the river Albis." He must have meant the temporary military success of Drusus, as it is unlikely the Rhine was cleared of Germans. Elsewhere he identifies the settlers as 40,000 prisoners of war, only a fraction of the yearly draft of militia.
Strabo in Book IV of his Geography—a text in Greek—says of the Soēboi that they live "beyond this whole river-country" (the Rhineland) and "excel all the others in power and numbers." He also places them near the Hercynian Forest, which, in the words of Edward Gibbon, "overshadowed a greater part of Germany and Poland." In Book VII Strabo connects all the tribes between the upper Rhine, Danube and Elbe to the Soēboi: the tribes of the Coldui, including those in Bohemia, where the Marcomanni were located; the Lugii, Zumi, Butones, Mugilones, Sibini and Semnones, who were "a large tribe of the Suevi themselves." Some of these tribes were "inside the forest" and some "outside of it."
This passage is the first distinction between narrowly and broadly-conceived Suebi, but even Strabo's broad conception is not as broad as Tacitus, for whom "the tribe of the Suevi ... extends from the Rhenus (Rhine) to the Albis (Elbe); and a part of them even dwell on the far side of the Albis, as, for instance, the Hermondori and the Langobardi." These latter are portrayed as migrants living in small temporary huts and porting their belongings in wagons, living "off their flocks."
Pliny the Elder wrote a now lost History of the German Wars and consequently has little to say of the Germans in Naturalis Historia, but as much of his military service was on the German frontier he is probably authoritative and is believed to have been a source for Tacitus, although the latter does not follow what Pliny does say exactly. Pliny divides the Germans into five genera or "kinds", including the Hermiones, containing the gentes or "tribes" of the Suebi, Hermunduri, Chatti and Cherusci. Elsewhere in Pliny is only brief scattered mention.
The Suevi Langobardi are located north of the Sugambri, who are on the Rhine, a location to the west of Strabo's, perhaps the source of Strabo's migrant wagoneers. To the east of the Longobardi, possibly the same as or continuous with the Suevi Langobardi, are the Suevi Angili, but these are in the interior to the south, extending as far north as the middle Elbe, upstream from the Chauci, later a constituent of the Saxons. To the east are the Suevi Semnones between the Elbe and a mysterious river apparently named after them, the Suevus, which empties into the Baltic between the Oder and the Elbe. And finally there is a tribe called just the Suevi, which appears to be on the Rhine east of the Ems, about where Swabia was later located.
Though offering coordinates for rivers, towns and mountains, Ptolemy is imprecise in the location of peoples; certainly, some are repeated with different spellings. He leaves us to guess which towns are associated with which peoples. His list of some 94 towns makes it clear that Tacitus' view of Germanics as rustics is not quite accurate in fact, although it may have been in values.
Marcus Annaeus Lucanus gives the location and appearance of the Suebi: "... let the Elbe and Rhine's unconquered head let loose from furthest north the blond (flavi) Suebi; ... only ward off civil war." This locates the Suebi in a narrow sense and gives a variation on a theme of Tacitus, who asserted the Germans were entirely red-headed.
Tacitus' Germania is the main source for the earliest known Suebi (see above under Classification in classical sources). Tacitus mentions the sacrifice of humans practiced by the Semnones in a sacred grove and the murder of slaves used in the rites of Nerthus practiced by the tribes of Schleswig-Holstein. The chief priest of the Naharvali dresses as a woman and that tribe also worships in groves. The Harii fight at night dyed black. The Suiones own fleets of rowing vessels with prows at both ends.
The Suebi also are mentioned in the Annales. After the defeat of 9 BC Augustus divided the Germans by making a separate peace with the Sugambri and Suebi under their king Maroboduus. This is the first mention of any permanent king of the Suebi. Subsequently Augustus placed Germanicus, the son of Drusus, in charge of the forces of the Rhine and he after dealing with a mutiny of the troops proceeded against the Cherusci and their allies, breaking their power finally at the battle of Idistavisus, a plain on the Weser. All eight legions and supporting units of Gauls were required to do that. Germanicus' zeal led finally to his being replaced (17 AD) by his cousin Drusus, Tiberius' son, as Tiberius thought it best to follow his predecessor's policy of limiting the empire. Germanicus certainly would have involved the Suebi, with unpredictable results.
Arminius, leader of the Cherusci and allies, now had a free hand. He accused Maroboduus of hiding in the Hercynian Forest while the other Germans fought for freedom, and accused Maroboduus of being the only king among the Germans. The two groups "turned their arms against each other." The Semnones and Langobardi rebelled against their king and went over to the Cherusci. Left with only the Marcomanni and Herminius' uncle, who had defected, Maroboduus appealed to Drusus, now governor of Illyricum, and was given only a pretext of aid.
The resulting battle was indecisive but Maroboduus withdrew to Bohemia and sent for assistance to Tiberius. He was refused on the grounds that he had not moved to help Varus. Drusus encouraged the Germans to finish him off. A force of Goths under Catualda, a Marcomannian exile, bought off the nobles and seized the palace. Maroboduus escaped to Noricum and the Romans offered him refuge in Ravenna where he remained the rest of his life.
Closely related to the Alamanni and often working in concert with them, the Suebi for the most part stayed on the right bank of the Rhine until December 31 406, when much of the tribe joined the Vandals and Alans in breaching the Roman frontier by crossing the Rhine, perhaps at Mainz, thus launching an invasion of northern Gaul.
The "northern Suebi" were mentioned in 569 under Frankish king Sigebert I in areas of today's Saxony-Anhalt which were known as Schwabengau or Suebengau at least until the 12th century. In connection to the Suebi, Saxons and Lombards, returning from the Italian Peninsula in 573, are also mentioned.
While the Vandals and Alans clashed with the Roman-allied Franks for supremacy in Gaul, the Suebi under their king Hermeric worked their way to the south, eventually crossing the Pyrenees and entering the Iberian Peninsula which was out of Imperial rule since the rebellion of Gerontius and Maximus in 409.
Passing through the Basque country, they settled in the Roman province of Gallaecia, in north-western Hispania (modern Galicia and northern Portugal), swore fealty to the Emperor Honorius and were accepted as foederati and permitted to settle, under their own autonomous governance. Contemporaneously with the self-governing province of Britannia, the kingdom of the Suebi in Gallaecia became the first of the sub-Roman kingdoms to be formed in the disintegrating territory of the Western Roman Empire. Suebic Gallaecia was the first kingdom separated from the Roman Empire to mint coins.
The Suebic kingdom in Gallaecia and northern Lusitania was established at 410 and lasted until 584. Smaller than the Ostrogothic kingdom of Italy or the Visigothic kingdom in Hispania, it reached a relative stability and prosperity—and even expanded military southwards—despite the occasional quarrels with the neighbouring Visigothic kingdom. After the kingdom of the Suebi was conquered by the Visigoths in 585, Braulio of Zaragoza (590 - 651) depicted the region as "the edge of the west in an illiterate country where naught is heard but the sound of gales".
The Germanic invaders settled mainly in the areas of Braga (Bracara Augusta), Porto (Portus Cale), Lugo (Lucus Augusti) and Astorga (Asturica Augusta). Bracara Augusta, the modern city of Braga and former capital of Roman Gallaecia, became the capital of the Suebi. Orosius, at that time resident in Hispania, shows a rather pacific initial settlement, the newcomers working their lands or serving as bodyguards of the locals. Another Germanic group that accompanied the Suebi and settled in Gallaecia were the Buri. They settled in the region between the rivers Cávado and Homem, in the area know as Terras de Bouro (Lands of the Buri).
The irruption of Visigoths in the Iberian Peninsula from 416 sent from Aquitania by the Emperor of the West to fight the Vandals and the Alans resulted into an ephemeral expansion of the Suebi Kingdom: at its heyday Suebic Gallaecia extended as far as Mérida and Seville, and Suebic expedition reached Zaragoza and Lérida.
In 438 Hermeric ratified the peace with the Hispano-Roman local population and, weary of fighting, abdicated in favour of his son Rechila, who proved to be a notable general, defeating Andevotus, Romanae militiae ducem, and later Vitus magister utriusque militiae.
In 448, Rechila died, leaving the crown to his son Rechiar who had converted to Roman Catholicism circa 447. Soon, he married a daughter of the Gothic king Theodoric I, and began a wave of attacks on the Tarraconense, still a Roman province. By 456 the campaigns of Rechiar clashed with the interests of the Visigoths, and a large army of Roman federates (Visigoths under the command of Theodoric II, Burgundians directed by kings Gundioc and Chilperic) crossed the Pyrenees into Hispania, and defeated the Suebi near modern day Astorga. Rechiar was executed after being captured by his brother-in-law, the Visigothic king Theodoric II. The Suebic kingdom then became cornered in the northwest, in Gallaecia and northern Lusitania, where political division and civil war arose among several pretenders to the royal throne.
In 561 king Ariamir called the catholic First Council of Braga, which dealt with the old problem of the Priscillianism heresy. And eight years after, in 569, king Theodemir called the First Council of Lugo, in order to increase the number of dioceses within his kingdom.
In 570 the Arian king of the Visigoths, Leovigild, made his first attack on the Suebi. Between 572 and 574, Leovigild invaded the valley of the Douro, pushing the Suebi northwards. In 575 the Suebic king, Miro, made a peace treaty with Leovigild in what seemed to be the beginning of a new period of stability. Yet, in 583 Miro supported the rebellion of the Catholic Gothic prince Hermenegild and even engaged in military action against the Visigoths, with some success, but he was eventually overthrown. The kingdom could not survive Leovigild's response. First Andeca in 585 and then Malaric were defeated and the Suebic kingdom was no more.
The Suebi remained mostly pagan and their subjects Priscillianist until an Arian missionary named Ajax, sent by the Visigothic king Theodoric II at the request of the Suebic unifier Remismund, in 466 converted them and established a lasting Arian church which dominated the people until the conversion to Catholicism in the 560s.
Mutually incompatible accounts of the conversion of the Suebi to Catholicism are presented in the primary records:
Most scholars have attempted to meld these stories. It has been alleged that Chararic and Theodemir must have been successors of Ariamir, since Ariamir was the first Suebic monarch to lift the ban on Catholic synods; Isidore therefore gets the chronology wrong. Reinhart suggested that Chararic was converted first through the relics of Saint Martin and that Theodemir was converted later through the preaching of Martin of Dumio. Dahn equated Chararic with Theodemir, even saying that the latter was the name he took upon baptism. It has also been suggested that Theodemir and Ariamir were the same person and the son of Chararic. In the opinion of some historians, Chararic is nothing more than an error on the part of Gregory of Tours and never existed. If, as Gregory relates, Martin of Dumio died about the year 580 and had been bishop for about thirty years, then the conversion of Chararic must have occurred around 550 at the latest. Finally, Ferreiro believes the conversion of the Suebi was progressive and stepwise and that Chararic's public conversion was only followed by the lifting of a ban on Catholic synods in the reign of his successor, which would have been Ariamir; Thoedemir was responsible for beginning a persecution of the Arians in his kingdom to root out their heresy.
The name of the Suebi also appears in Norse mythology and in early Scandinavian sources. The earliest attestation is the Proto-Norse name Swabaharjaz ("Suebian warrior") on the Rö runestone and in the place name Svogerslev. Sváfa, whose name means "Suebian", was a Valkyrie who appears in the eddic poem Helgakviða Hjörvarðssonar. The kingdom Sváfaland also appears in this poem and in the Þiðrekssaga.