The Vandals are a curious people. They are apparently a Scandinavian group but rather a late comer to the light of history. What do we know of them? (For Part I of this series, see here).
Turns out rather little before their Rhine Crossing of 405 or 406.
But Aren’t Vandals an Ancient People known to Romans?
It depends on how one looks at this question. Let’s look at Strabo, Pliny, Tacitus and Ptolemy first.
Strabo – Not Really
Strabo, who was the earliest of the four, does not speak of Vandals. He does speak of the Vindelici who fought Tiberius on Lake Venetos but those were, supposedly, Celts and we have made a case that they may have been Slavs or a portion of pre-Slavs. (See also here). In any event, “mainstream” historians do not claim these Vindelici as Vandals…
Ptolemy – Don’t Know That Name
Ptolemy who wrote mid 2nd century and, therefore, closest to the appearance (reappearance?) of Vandals on the Danube, does not know of any Vandals. To be precise: Ptolemy does mention the Silingi.* However, he does not say that they were Vandals. The Silingi are called Vandals only later in the 5th century. In fact, this is the single mention of the Silingi before the 5th century. In truth we do not have proof that the Ptolemaic SiIingi were the same as the later Vandal Silingi. Nevertheless, we ought to mention them.
* Incidentally, Ketrzynski claims that the number of manuscripts that mention the Silingi is one, whereas 38 mention just Lingi. We have not confirmed this though, if true, that might put into question whether the Silingi even existed under that name… The below 1562 edition of Ptolemy seems to support Ketrzynski but, of course, according to Mommsen and his progeny, the rule is that German scholarship only has to show a single mention of the SIlingae – the other 38 are naturally immaterial:
And where did Ptolemy place the (Si)lingi? Silesia, surely? Not really. Ptolemy places the Suevi Semnones between the Albis (Elbe) and the Suevus (whatever river that was). South of (or rather “below”) them he places the Silingi. Then he says that “below the Silingae are the Calucones on both banks of the river Albis”. This means that the Silingi must have been somewhere west of the Oder – probably in the later Mark Brandenburg.
Where does the name Silingi come from? The obvious suggestion given the probable origin of all Germanic peoples would be in Scandinavia – specifically, the island of Sjælland in Denmark – a hypothesis supported by no less an authority on the Germanic peoples than Gustaf Kossina. Alternatively, also, Zeeland in the Netherlands would make a good candidate. (Whether either of these could be the Selentia of Gallus Anonymous is another question).
(Again, the Silingi are never heard from again in Germany and, if this indicates, a transitory character of their appearance there, all the more reason to believe that they and their name originated somewhere else. Of course, it is possible that Silesia was named after a passing Silingi but (A) we have a different etymology of the name Silesia in German chronicles, (B) there is no evidence so far for any Silingi in Silesia and (C) if the Silingi were in Brandenburg in the 2nd century and in Dacia in the 2nd/3rd (?) there would not have been much time for them to have spent in Silesia).
That’s all for Ptolemy.
Which leaves us with Tacitus and Pliny the Elder.
But Didn’t Tacitus Write of the Vandals?
In his “chapter” 2 of Germania, Tacitus says the following:
“The Germans themselves, I should regard as aboriginal, and not mixed at all with other races through immigration or intercourse. For, in former times, it was not by land but on shipboard that those who sought to emigrate would arrive; and the boundless and, so to speak, hostile ocean beyond us, is seldom entered by a sail from our world. And, beside the perils of rough and unknown seas, who would leave Asia, or Africa, or Italy for Germany, with its wild country, its inclement skies, its sullen manners and aspect, unless indeed it were his home? In their ancient songs, their only way of remembering or recording the past, they celebrate an earth-born god, Tuisco, and his son Mannus, as the origin of their race, as their founders. To Mannus they assign three sons, from whose names, they say, the coast tribes are called Ingævones; those of the interior, Herminones; all the rest, Istævones. Some, with the freedom of conjecture permitted by antiquity, assert that the god had several descendants, and the nation several appellations, as Marsi, Gambrivii, Suevi, Vandilii,* and that these are genuine old names. The name Germany, on the other hand, they say, is modern and newly introduced, from the fact that the tribes which first crossed the Rhine and drove out the Gauls, and are now called Tungrians, were then called Germans. Thus what was the name of a tribe, and not of a race, gradually prevailed, till all called themselves by this self-invented name of Germans, which the conquerors had first employed to inspire terror.”
“Ipsos Germanos indigenas crediderim minimeque aliarum gentium adventibus et hospitiis mixtos, quia nec terra olim, sed classibus advehebantur qui mutare sedes quaerebant, et inmensus ultra utque sic dixerim adversus Oceanus raris ab orbe nostro navibus aditur. Quis porro, praeter periculum horridi et ignoti maris, Asia aut Africa aut Italia relicta Germaniam peteret, informem terris, asperam caelo, tristem cultu adspectuque, nisi si patria sit? Celebrant carminibus antiquis, quod unum apud illos memoriae et annalium genus est, Tuistonem deum terra editum. Ei filium Mannum, originem gentis conditoremque, Manno tris filios adsignant, e quorum nominibus proximi Oceano Ingaevones, medii Herminones, ceteri Istaevones vocentur. Quidam, ut in licentia vetustatis, pluris deo ortos plurisque gentis appellationes, Marsos Gambrivios Suebos Vandilios* adfirmant, eaque vera et antiqua nomina. Ceterum Germaniae vocabulum recens et nuper additum, quoniam qui primi Rhenum transgressi Gallos expulerint ac nunc Tungri, tunc Germani vocati sint: ita nationis nomen, non gentis evaluisse paulatim, ut omnes primum a victore ob metum, mox etiam a se ipsis, invento nomine Germani vocarentur.”
* Other manuscripts of Germania have the following forms: Wandalios, vandalos, Vandilios, Vandalios, Vandilos, Vandileos.
So all Tacitus says is that – “with the freedom of conjecture permitted by antiquity” – some other people say the German nation had different names (including something like Vandals) sometime before but, apparently, this was not so during Tacitus’ own time since “modern” nomenclature was limited to Ingævones, Herminones and Istævones. That the freedom of conjecture or speculation regarding matters of antiquity is greater than permissible historical and scientific methods would otherwise allow, is obviously implicit from Tacitus’ statement. Tacitus does not name Vandals as a tribe or a tribal confederation or any other social grouping existing as of the time of the writing of Germania. He proceeds to name plenty of other tribes but never returns to the Vandal name. The above reference is it.
Ok, on Tacitus – But What About Pliny?
Pliny, supposedly, says the following:
“There are five German races; the Vandili, parts of whom are the Burgundiones, the Varini, the Carini, and the Gutones.”
Actually, however, the manuscripts primarily relay another name, that of Vindili – thus the above text becomes:
“Germanorum genera quinque: Vindili,* quorum pars Burgodiones, Varinnae, Charini, Gutones.”
* In some versions: Vandili, Vandali but also Vandalici, Vandilici
However, the VIndili appear similar to the Vindelici and the Vindelici are not otherwise unknown to history:
- as noted above, they are discussed by Strabo in the invasion of their lands around Lake Constance (e.g., at Bregenz) – the same report is also independently, though indirectly, confirmed on the Augusta Vindelicorum;
- in the Historia Augusta where the Emperor Aurelian is said to have freed them; and
- later as the pagan tribe worshipping Fortune (“quippe qui etiam Vindelicos et Leuticios“) alongside the Lusatians (?) in the writingsof William of Malmesbury (here they have been intepreted as Slavs).
(And, of course, the term Windische, i.e., with an “i”, is used throughout the Middle Ages to speak of the Slavs. And, strangely, the Lici-ka-viki are the tribe of the Polish ruler Mieszko I. (Putting aside the entire legend of the Lechites).
Considering that the manuscript versions include Vindili and also Vandilici, one question that would seemingly be in order would be whether these Vindili/Vandilici of Pliny’s could have anything to do with Strabo’s Vindilici? But such a question does not seem to be asked a lot. Why? There are at least two possibilities.
First, it may be that Pliny really is talking about the same people as Strabo and, therefore, this is not really a reference to “Vandals” (whoever they then were). If so, then Pliny would not be the first source talking about actual, “live” Vandal peoples.
Second, it is also possible that the Vindilici of Strabo were the future Vandals. But the problem is that we know the location of the Vindilici quite accurately – they were a people settled on Lake Venetos (i.e., Lake Constance). This connection may make sense since Lake Constance is a lot closer to the Danube than Poland is and when the Vandals actually make their (in this case less questionable appearance) appearance in the 2nd and 3rd centuries (see below), they do so precisely on the Danube. Certainly a migration, after their defeat by Tiberius, from Lake Constance downstream along the Danube towards Pannonia (with a slight detour in Bohemia perhaps) is not an out of the question scenario and, in many ways, seems more plausible than an unexplained Vandal migration from the North.
It is true that the people who supposedly constitute the Vandals in this account of Pliny’s include Burgodiones, Varinnae, Charini, Gutones. However, the ethnicity of Varinnae is unclear – we know that they may have been a German tribe at one point but later we see them to be a Slavic-speaking tribe – why they would have changed languages (if indeed they did) remains unclear. Their location is not given by Tacitus except in the most general terms but they are likely to have lived somewhere between Warnau just south of Kiel and Warnemuende near Rostock. In other words, assuming these are the same people, the relevant location would be the northwest portion of the former East Germany and into Schleswig-Holstein.
The Charini, likewise, are of uncertain provenance. Their name – at least in that form – does not appear anywhere else.
Both of those tribes exhibit in their names the characteristic Slavic -in ending.
The Burgodiones too are, surprisingly, difficult to trace. Ptolemy names the Buguntae “who occupy the region as far as the Vistula.” However, he also names the Burguntae “below” whom he locates the Lugi Omani. It is likely that these are the same tribe but even that is uncertain. In any event, if “below” means “south” and if the Lugi relate to the Lausitz, i.e., Lusatia/Łužica, and if Burgodiones means Burguntae then we should place them in the middle Oder region. If Burgodiones are the Buguntae then that location could be pushed “as far as the Vistula” and what that means may depend on what we think Vistula meant to Pliny (on which topic, see here and here).
Finally, the Gutones may be the Gotones (located by Tacitus “beyond the Lugii” next to the Rugians and Lemovians – so, potentially, at the mouth of the Oder but maybe at the mouth of the Vistula – again, see above) but they may also be the Cotini or Gotini or Gothini (located somewhere in Moravia or Slovakia by Tacitus).
Thus, the location of these “Vandalic” tribes – were we to use Ptolemy as a crutch in interpreting Pliny and were such a crutch a reliable one – would, perhaps, be somewhere between the Baltic Sea and further south but more likely in the former East Germany with, potentially, some spillover into Western Poland and the Carpathians.
All of this is, of course, further confused by the fact that Pliny wrote a generation before Tacitus (in the 70s) whereas Ptolemy wrote likely 70-80 years later. Whether Ptolemy’s Geography can be used to interpret the location of highly movable tribes such a long time before it itself was written should be at least slightly questionable.
Moreover, the problem with the Burgodiones, Varinnae, Charini, Gutones is that no other writer of antiquity – even if they claim a relation amongst the Goths, Vandals and others – asserts that Goths or Burgundians were Vandals. The Vandals feature as the mortal enemies of the Goths and Langobards – not as their cousins. The Burgundians are not spoken of as Vandals anywhere else. And neither are the Varini. (The Charini do not appear again).
Furthermore, the fact that the Goths, Varini and Burgundians later appear on the Danube and Rhein (and, separately named, so do the Vandals) suggests that a connection of the Vindili with the earlier Vindelici who lived south of the Danube (rather than with any tribes populating areas north of the Carpathians) may be more relevant than historians have, thus far, were willing to admit.
So Where Are We on All of This?
The concept of Vandals is fairly ancient but their origins are not to be found in the most ancient of geographers. Nor is their then location. Strabo speaks only of Vindelici on Lake Constance. Pliny the Elder names a people called Vindili who may have been Vandals but may also have been the Vindelici. Tacitus does not name any tribe existing in his time as Vandal. Ptolemy does not mention Vandals at all.
None of the above writers of antiquity, to the extent they even mention a name that may be interpreted as Vandals, provides any location for the group.
At best, stitching sources together as best as we can, we can say that if such a people were around in this early imperial period, they lived either (A) somewhere around the Danube or (B) in eastern Germany. In the latter case, some portion of Poland is also possible if we are talking about the upper or middle Oder/Odra. Even that much seems a highly variable guesstimate which, in case (A), is based on entirely on Strabo and, in case (B), is based entirely on Pliny identifying other tribes as “Vandalic” and Ptolemy – separately – listing similar sounding tribe names. Of course, it’s also possible that at some point they lived somewhere between (A) and (B) which would be Bavaria or Bohemia.
While they may have originally migrated out of Scandinavia (whatever their prior ethnicity or origin may have been before that migration), as the much later res gestae suggest, such a migration, properly set in time, is not incompatible with either case (A) or (B). In such a case, a straight shot path towards Rome would have led over current Denmark and through eastern portions of current Germany. Whether Vendsyssel in Denmark relates to the Vandals or the Wends (Slavs) is another mystery. How much time they actually spent in any of intermediate locations between Scandinavia and the Danube would be another question. And that question further assumes that the “same people” left Scandinavia as the people who are later reported on the Danube or in Gall – which is yet another unprovable assumption. Not to mention that we would also have, in case of such a migration, the question of who lived in the Vandals path across Germany.
We will not get more information on any of these topics as the chronicles, such as they are, are silent. What we are dealing with here is, at best, Vandal pre-history.
To get more information on the Vandals in later times we will have to look past these earliest of sources.
That, next time.
(Incidentally, Pliny does speak of the geographic location (if in only very vague terms) of the Veneti:
“Some writers state that these regions, as far as the river Vistula, are inhabited by the Sarmati, the Venedi, the Sciri [known later to be a Germanic (?) tribe in Pannonia], and the Hirri, and that there is a gulf there known by the name of Cylipenus, at the mouth of which is the island of Latris, after which comes another gulf, that of Lagnus, which borders on the Cimbri.”)
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