By Terikel Grayhair
Long ago, before the coming of the Germanic Age, the River Rhenus marked the limits of civilization, separating the Romanized Gauls from the hairy, unwashed barbarians that lived in the dark forests east of the Rhenus.
To the cultured Roman, those men were hairy bogeymen with massive swords or clubs, who fought with reckless abandon and to whom lethal wounds were treated as scratches. It was commonly believed that a Germanic warrior stood head and shoulders above the average Roman, and possessed such strength that he could crush a man’s head down between his shoulders with a single blow from his cudgel. German cavalry was considered superior by far to anything west of the Rhenus, especially in the days after Caesar had reduced the once-proud and bellicose Gauls into docile creatures that never again posed a serious threat to Roman rule. Mention of these Germanic monsters was used by Roman mothers to cow unruly children, and the sight of a German warrior in full battle regalia was enough to soil the undergarments of any new recruit who had yet to face these men in battle.
Chief among these hairy barbarians was the Suebi, to whom Cornelius Tacitus ascribes reign over half of Germania Magna- from the Agri Decumates (approximates modern Baden-Wurtemburg) east to Bohemia and north to the Mare Suebicum (known today as the Baltic Sea). The Suebi were not a single tribe as the Bructeri or the Chatti or the Marsi, but rather an association of hundreds of tribes, each with their own king and ways. Later, more familiar confederations such as the Franks, the Saxons, the Alemanni would follow in Suebian footsteps and know success, but none had the unique cultural identity of the originals. They were merely unions of diverse tribes who elected a common king; the Suebi were a group of similar tribes comprising a single people.
So what made the Suebi unique and identifiable? First and foremost it was the Suebi Knot. The Chatti wore their hair long, and vowed not to cut it until they had killed a foe. The Suebi took it a step further- they pulled their hair back and to the side where they composed it into an intricate knot. Locations and styles of the knot meant different things in different tribes, but most seemed to agree that warriors of both proven and unproven skill would have their knot on the side of the head, while kings, veterans, and prized warriors could pile their knots atop their head. This had the added benefit of making the man appear taller and thus more fearsome- adding to his prestige. Other cultural identifiers were a lack of farming; Suebi preferred hunting and herding- and were forbidden from remaining in one place for more than a single year.
The Chatti, the Frisii, the Bructeri, and the other tribes along the Rhenus were mostly hostile to Rome. When they were not, they were neutral. The Suebi, however, were their own people who went their own way concerning Rome. It was Suebi pressure that forced the Helvetii to seek permission from Caesar to enter Gaul- his refusal led to their trying anyway. Evidently the Helvetii were more scared of the Suebi than they were of Caesar. The survivors may want to reconsider that. Caesar’s later reprisal against the Germans, a reconnaissance in force actually, occurred well north of known Suebi territory. Later, at the Second Battle of Bedriacum, historians report the presence of two Suebi kings and their men fighting on the side of the Flavians. Five years later, the Romans conquered the Agri Decumates- a Suebi stronghold, yet the slavers and other trappings of a crushing conquest were conspicuously absent from the records- almost as if the land was seized but the people simply absorbed into the growing Empire.
In the Germanic Age, which lesser scholars often call the Dark Ages, the Suebi joined the other Germanic tribes and confederations in moving from their ancestral homelands into the disintegrating Western Roman Empire to carve out a realm of their own. However, in this too, they followed their own way. Whereas the Franks, Alemanni, and Saxons picked up their belongings and moved out en masse, the Suebi merely sent off their excess populations to seek out new lands. Some of these joined the Alemanni in such numbers that some scholars consider the Alemanni a Suebic confederation, others joined the Franks or the Goths, and a group of tribes headed back northeast toward the Baltic.
After much wandering and battle, the Suebi expatriates heading into Roman territory found a new home in the western and northwestern third of Roman Hispania. They shared the peninsula with the Visigoths until their defeat and integration into the Visigothic kingdom some one hundred seventy years later.
And those that remained behind? They were conquered by the Franks before the beginning of the 6th century and became the Duchy of Swabia. Later it was one of the duchies of East Francia, which then became the Holy Roman Empire. The Hohenstaufen Dynasty, which produced such men as Frederick III Barbarossa, was the hereditary ruling family of Swabia until sixteen-year-old Conrad IV was beheaded by Charles I of Anjou in 1268, ending the line. Other famous dynasties emerging from Swabian roots include the Carolingian, Hapsburg, and Hohenzollern dynasties. Even the House of Windsor, current monarchs of the United Kingdom, have Swabian roots.
And today? Schwabia still exists, though not as a duchy or a political entity. There are two lovely cities whose centers were built in the Gothic half-timbered style: Schwabishe Gmünd and Schwabische Halle, both of which harken back to the days of olden glory. Schwab is still one of the most common names in the area, and Swabian dialects are unique and famous throughout Germany. Baden-Wurtemburg even had a tourism campaign a few years back: Wir können alles, ausser Hochdeutsch (We can do anything- except speak Standard German).
Thus the more things change, the more they stay the same. Suebi warriors made their own unique way through the ancient world, and today their descendants do much the same.