Germans, Suebians, Marcomannians, and Kimbrians: Poseidonios and Strabo on customs and rumours about the tides (first century BCE)

Citation with stable link: Philip A. Harland, 'Germans, Suebians, Marcomannians, and Kimbrians: Poseidonios and Strabo on customs and rumours about the tides (first century BCE),' Last modified January 3, 2023, http://philipharland.com/Blog/?p=7325.

Authors: Poseidonios of Apameia (Kidd, fragment 72), Ephoros, and Kleitarchos as cited by Strabo, Geography 7.1-2 (link to Greek text and full translation)

Comments: In this passage, Strabo outlines the geographical setting and peoples of the area he here labels “Germany” (“Germania,” on which go to this link for the origins of the terminology beginning with Julius Caesar). Strabo discusses numerous peoples under this rubric of Germans, most of which are placed beyond the Rhine river or even beyond the Elbe river.

Strabo also joins with Poseidonios in attempting to refute several Greek ethnographic traditions that circulated about peoples beyond the Rhine, particularly the Kimbrians. In particular, there were legends about such peoples being so war-like and stupid that they would engage in a campaign against the flood-tides (e.g. see Philo of Alexandria’s acceptance of such traditions at this link). Strabo’s discussion implies that Ephoros also focussed on the tides in his discussion of peoples in this region. Strabo then goes on to explore other aspects of the customs of these peoples.

Source of the translation: H.L. Jones, Strabo, 8 volumes, LCL (Cambridge, MA: HUP, 1917-28), public domain (passed away in 1932), adapted by Harland.

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[For Strabo’s preceding discussion of peoples in Liguria south of the Alps, go to this link]

Book 7

[Geographical survey of the area]

1 (1) Now that I have described Iberia and the Celtic and Italian peoples, along with the islands near by, it will be next in order to speak of the remaining parts of Europe, dividing them in the approved manner. The remaining parts are: first, those towards the east, being those which are beyond the Rhenos river [Rhine] and extend as far as the Tanais [Don] river and the mouth of Maiotis lake [Sea of Azov]. There are also all those regions lying between the Adrias​ [Adriatic] sea and the regions on the left of the Pontic sea [Black Sea] that are closed off by the Ister [Danube] river and extend towards the south as far as Greece and the Propontis. For this river [Danube] divides very nearly the whole of the previously mentioned land into two parts. It is the largest of the European rivers, at the outset flowing towards the south and then turning straight from the west towards the east and the Pontos [Black Sea]. It rises in the western limits of Germany, as also near the recess of the Adriatic (at a distance from it of about one thousand stadia), and comes to an end at the Pontos not very far from the outlets of the Tyras​ and the Borysthenes,​ bending from its easterly course approximately towards the north.

Now the parts that are beyond the Rhenos [Rhine] river and the Celtic region are to the north of the Ister [Danube]. These are the territories of the Galatian and the Germanic peoples, extending as far as the Bastarnians and the Tyregetans and the river Borysthenes. The territories of all the peoples between this river and the Tanais and the mouth of lake Maiotis extend up into the interior as far as the ocean [North Sea or Baltic Sea (?)]​ and are washed by the Pontic sea. But both the Illyrian and the Thracian peoples, and all peoples among the Celtic or other peoples that are mingled with then, as far as Greece, are to the south of the Ister. But let me first describe the parts outside the Ister, for they are much simpler than those on the other side.

[Physical differences between Germans and Celts]

(2) Now the parts beyond the Rhenos [Rhine], immediately after the country of the Celts, slope towards the east and are occupied by the Germans.  Although the Germans vary slightly from the Celtic tribe (phylē) in that they are wilder, taller, and have hair that is more blonde, they are in all other respects similar, for in build, habits, and modes of life they are such as I have said​ the Celts are. And I also think that it was for this reason that the Romans assigned to them the name “Germani,” as though they wished to indicate by this term that they were “genuine” Galatians, for in the language of the Romans “germani” means “genuine.”

[Germanic peoples and their land: Suebians, Marcomannians]

(3) The first parts of this country are those that are next to the Rhenos, beginning at its source and extending as far as its outlet. This stretch of river-land taken as a whole is approximately the width of the country on its western side. Some of the peoples of this river-land were transferred by the Romans to the Celtic region, whereas the others anticipated the Romans by migrating deep into the country, for instance, the Marsians. Only a few people, including a portion of the Sougambrians [including Oubians, as we find later], remain there.

After the people who live along the river come the other peoples that live between the Rhenos [Rhine] and the Albis [Elbe] river, which flows approximately parallel to the former, towards the ocean [North Sea], and traverses no less territory than the former. Between the two are other navigable rivers also (among them the Amasias [Ems],​ on which Drusus won a naval victory over the Broukterians), which likewise flow from the south towards the north and the ocean. For the country is elevated towards the south and forms a mountain chain​ that connects with the Alps and extends towards the east as though it were a part of the Alps. In fact, some claim that they actually are a part of the Alps, both because of their above mentioned position and of the fact that they produce the same timber. However, the country in this region does not rise to a sufficient height for that.

Located here is the Herkynian forest [Black Forest],​ and also the peoples of the Suebians, some of which dwell inside the forest, as, for instance, the peoples of the Koldouians, in whose territory is Boihaimon, the domain of Marabodos [king of the Suebians, died ca. 37 CE]. Marabodos arranged for several other peoples, but particularly the Marcomannians, his own people (homoethneis), to migrate from here. For after his return from Rome this man, who before had been only a private citizen, was placed in charge of the affairs of state, because as a youth he had been at Rome and had enjoyed the favour of Augustus. On his return he took the rulership and acquired, in addition to the peoples mentioned already, the Lugians (a large people), the Zumians, the Butonians, the Mugilonians, the Sibinians, and also the Semnonians, a large people of the Suebians themselves.

However, while some of the peoples of the Suebians dwell inside the forest, as I was saying, others dwell outside of it, and have a common boundary with the Getians (Getai).​ Now as for the people of the Suebians,​ it is the largest, for it extends from the Rhenos to the Albis. A portion of them even dwell on the far side of the Albis, as, for instance, the Hermondorians and the Langobardians. At present, at least, these peoples have, to the last man, been driven in flight out of their country into the land on the far side of the river [beyond the Elbe].

[Nomadic lifestyle of the peoples]

It is a common characteristic of all the peoples in this part of the world​ that they migrate easily, because of the meagerness of their livelihood and because they do not farm or even store up food, but live in small huts that are merely temporary structures. They live for the most part off their flocks like nomads do, so that, in imitation of the nomads, they load their household belongings on their wagons and with their beasts turn wherever they think best. But other German peoples are still more indigent. I mean the Cheruscians, the Chattians, the Gamabrivians and the Chattuarians, and also, near the ocean, the Sougambrians, the Chaubians, the Broukterians, and the Kimbrians, and also the Kaukians, the Kaolkians, the Campsianians, and several others.

Both the Visourgis​ [Weser] and the Lupias​ [Lippe] rivers run in the same direction as the Amasias, the Lupias being about six hundred stadia away from the Rhenos and flowing through the country of the Lesser Broukterians. Germany has also the Salas [Sasle] river. It was between the Salas and the Rhenos that Drusus Germanicus, while he was successfully carrying on the war, came to his end [ca. 9 CE]. He had subjugated, not only most of the peoples, but also the islands along the coast, among which is Bourchanis, which he took by siege.

[Germanic peoples’ relations with the Romans and supposed untrustworthiness]

(4) These peoples have become known through their wars with the Romans, in which they would either yield and then later revolt again, or else abandon their settlements. They would have been better known if Augustus had allowed his generals to cross the Albis [Elbe] river in pursuit of those who emigrated there. But as a matter of fact he thought that he could conduct the war in hand more successfully if he could hold off from those outside the Albis, who were living in peace. He thought he should not incite them to make common cause with the others in their enmity against him.

It was the Sougambrians, who live near the Rhenos, that began the war, Melo being their leader. From that time on, different peoples at different times would cause a breach, first growing powerful and then being put down, and then revolting again. They betrayed both the hostages they had given and their pledges of good faith. In dealing with these peoples distrust has been a great advantage, whereas those who have been trusted have done the greatest harm. For instance, the Cherouskians and their subjects, in whose country three Roman legions, with their general Quintilius Varus, were destroyed by ambush in violation of the treaty. But they all paid the penalty, and afforded the younger Germanicus a most brilliant triumph [ca. 17 CE].

[Digression on Germanicus’ triumph]

In that triumph, their most famous men and women were led captive: I mean Segimountos, son of Segestes and chieftain of the Cherouskians, and his sister Thusnelda, the wife of Armenios, the man who at the time of the violation of the treaty against Quintilius Varus was commander-in‑chief of the Cherouskan army and even to this day is keeping up the war, and Thusnelda’s three-year‑old son Thumelicus; and also Sesithakoss the son of Segimeros and chieftain of the Cherouskians, and Rhamis, his wife, and a daughter of Oukromiros chieftain of the Chattians, and Deudorix,​ a Sougambrian, the son of Baitorix the brother of Melo. But Segestes, the father-in‑law of Armenios, who even from the outset had opposed​ the purpose of Armenios and had deserted him at an opportune time, was present as a guest of honour at the triumph over his loved ones. And Libes too, a priest of the Chattians, marched in the procession, as also other captives from the plundered peoples: the Kaolkians, Kampsanians, Broukterians, Ousipians, Cherouskians, Chattians, Chattuarians, Landians, and Tubattians. Now the Rhenos is about three thousand stadia away from the Albis, if one had straight roads to travel on. However, as it is one must go by a circuitous route, which winds through a marshy country and forests.

[Peoples near the Herkynian forest]

(5) The Herkynian forest [Black Forest] is not only rather dense, but also has large trees, and comprises a large circuit within regions that are fortified by nature. In the centre of it, however, lies a country (of which I have already spoken)​ that is capable of affording an excellent livelihood. And near it are the sources of both the Ister and the Rhenos, as well as the lake​ [Bodensee] between the two sources, and the marshes [Untersee] into which the Rhenos spreads.​ The perimeter of the lake is more than three hundred stadia, while the passage across it is nearly two hundred.​

There is also an island in it which Tiberius used as a base of operations in his naval battle with the Ouindelikians. This lake is south of the sources of the Ister, as is also the Herkynian forest, so that necessarily, in going from the Celtic region to the Herkynian forest, one first crosses the lake and then the Ister [Danube], and from there on advances through more passable regions (plateaus) to the forest. Tiberius had proceeded only a day’s journey from the lake when he saw the sources of the Ister.

The country of the Rhaitians adjoins the lake for only a short distance, whereas that of the Helvetians and the Ouindelikians, and also the desert of the Boians, adjoin the greater part of it. All the peoples as far as the Pannonians, but more especially the Helvetians and the Ouindelikians, inhabit plateaus. But the countries of the Rhaitians and the Norikians extend as far as the passes over the Alps and verge toward Italy, a part thereof bordering on the country of the Insubrians and a part on that of the Karnians and the legions around Aquileia. And there is also another large forest, Gabreta; [Bohemian Forest]. It is on this side of the territory of the Suebians, whereas the Herkynian Forest, which is also held by them, is on the far side.

[Contesting the notion that Kimbrians were overly focused on tides]

2 (1) As for the Kimbrians [Cimbri, if Latinized], some things that are told about them are incorrect and others are extremely improbable. For instance, one could not accept such a reason for their having become a wandering and bandit-like (lēstrikoi) people as this: that while they were dwelling on a peninsula they were driven out of the places where they lived by a great flood-tide. For, in fact, they still hold the land which they held in earlier times. They also sent as a present to Augustus the most sacred cauldron​ in their land, with a plea for his friendship and for an amnesty in relation to their earlier offences. When their petition was granted they set sail for home.

It is also ridiculous to suppose that they departed from their homes because they were incensed on account of a phenomenon that is natural and eternal, occurring twice every day [i.e. the tides]. The assertion that an excessive flood-tide once occurred looks like a fabrication, for when the ocean is affected in this way it is subject to increases and diminutions, but these are regulated and periodical. As well, the man who said that the Kimbrians took up arms against the flood-tides was not right, either. Nor was the statement that the Celts, as a training in the virtue of fearlessness, meekly abide the destruction of their homes by the tides and then rebuild them, and that they suffer a greater loss of life as the result of water than of war, as Ephoros claims.

Indeed, the regularity of the flood-tides and the fact that the part of the land subject to inundations was known should have precluded such absurdities. For since this phenomenon occurs twice every day, it is of course improbable that the Kimbrians did not so much as once perceive that the reflux was natural and harmless, and that it not only occurred in their land but also in every land that was on the ocean. Neither is Kleitarchos right, for he says that the horsemen, on seeing the onset of the sea, rode away. And even though they were in full flight, they came very near to being cut off by the water. Now we know, in the first place, that the invasion of the tide does not rush on with such speed as that, but that the sea advances imperceptibly. Secondly, we know that what takes place daily and is audible to all who are about to draw near it, even before they witness it, would not have been likely to prompt in them such terror that they would take to flight, as if it had occurred unexpectedly.

[Poseidonios’ perspective on Kimbrians, on which Strabo agrees]

(2) Poseidonios is right in criticizing the historians for these assertions. Also, his conjecture is not a bad one: namely that the Kimbrians, being bandit-like (lēstrikoi) and wandering people, made an expedition even as far as the region of lake Maiotis [Sea of Azov, north of the Black Sea], and that also the “Kimmerian” Bosporos [straits of Kertch] was named after them, being equivalent to “Kimbrian,” the Greeks naming the Kimbrians “Kimmerians.” Poseidonios goes on to say that, in earlier times, the Boians lived in the Herkynian forest, and that the Kimbrians invaded this place. But on being repulsed by the Boians, the Kimbrians went down to the Ister river [Danube] and the land of the Scordiskan Galatians. Then the Kimbrians went to the land of the Teuristians and Tauriskians (who are also Galatians), and then to the land of the Helvetians, people who are rich in gold but peaceable. However, when the Helvetians saw the wealth which the Kimbrians had received from acts of banditry (lēstēria), their robberies surpassed that of their own land, they, and particularly the Tigyrenians and Toygenians among them, were so excited that they set out together with the Kimbrians. All of them were subdued by the Romans, however, both the Kimbrians themselves and those who had joined their expeditions, in part after they had crossed the Alps into Italy and in part while still on the other side of the Alps.

[Strabo goes on to other aspects of Germanic peoples without naming authors]

[Priestesses and human sacrifice of enemies]

(3) Writers report a custom of the Kimbrians to this effect: Their wives, who would accompany them on their expeditions, were attended by priestesses who were seers. These seers were grey-haired, wore white with flaxen cloaks fastened on with clasps, wore girdles of bronze, and went bare-footed. Now these priestesses would meet with the prisoners of war throughout the camp with sword in hand, and having first crowned them with wreaths would lead them to a brazen vessel the size of twenty amphorai. They had a raised platform which the priestess would mount and then would cut the throat of each prisoner after he had been lifted up as the priestess bent over the kettle. From the blood that poured out into the vessel some of the priestesses would read a prophecy, while still others would split open the body and from an inspection of the entrails would utter a prophecy of victory for their own people. During the battles they would beat on the hides that were stretched over the wicker-bodies of the wagons and in this way produce an unearthly noise.

[Other Germanic peoples]

(4) Among the Germans, as I have said,​ those towards the north extend along the ocean. Beginning at the outlets of the Rhenus [Rhine], they are known as far as the Albis [Elbe] river. The best known among these ones are the Sougambrians and the Kimbrians. But those parts of the country beyond the Albis that are near the ocean are completely unknown to us. For I do not know any earlier writer who has made this voyage along the coast to the eastern parts that extend as far as the mouth​ of the Caspian sea. The Romans have not yet advanced into the parts that are beyond the Albis. Likewise no one has made the journey by land either. However, it is clear from their latitude and parallel distances that if one travels longitudinally towards the east, one encounters the regions that are around the Borysthenes [Dnieper] river and that are to the north of the Pontos [Black Sea].

[Largely unknown peoples beyond Germany]

But what is beyond Germany and what is beyond the countries which are next after Germany it is not easy to say. It is hard to know whether one should say the Bastarnians are next, as most writers suspect, or that one should say that other peoples lie in between, either the Iazygians, Roxolanians, or certain other wagon-dwellers (Hamaxoikoi). It is hard to know whether they extend as far as the ocean along its entire length, or whether any part is uninhabitable by reason of the cold or other cause, or whether even a different descent group (genos) of men, succeeding the Germans, is situated between the sea and the eastern Germans. This same ignorance prevails also in regard to the rest of the peoples that come next in order on the north. For I do not know about the Bastarnians, nor the Sauromatians, nor, in a word, any of the peoples who dwell above the Pontos. Nor do I know how far away they are from the Atlantic Sea, nor whether their countries border upon it.

[For Strabo’s subsequent discussion of the Getians, Dacians, and Scythians, go to this link.]

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