Warrior Bands, War Lords, and the Birth of Tribes and States in the First Millennium AD in Middle Europe

Warrior Bands, War Lords, and the Birth of Tribes and States in the First Millennium AD in Middle Europe

By Heiko  Steuer

Warfare and society : archaeological and social anthropological perspectives, edited by Ton Otto, Henrik Thrane and Helle Vandkilde (Aarhus, 2006)

Introduction: It is my intention to formulate a model on war. But it is not warfare itself that will be considered in all its aspects (Steuer 2001; Jorgensen and Clausen 1997), but rather the causes and effects of wars conducted by war lords and their warrior bands. Wars from the 4th century BC to the 10th/11th century AD will be considered in devising the model – wars spanning a period of more than a thousand years, from the ancient Celts to the Normans. Based upon the reports in the written sources, characteristic phenomena (Erscheinungen) will be singled out as criteria for defining this type of warfare. Not all criteria will be obtainable for every epoch, but in the overall view a varied number of criteria can confirm the comparability of the armed conflicts and therefore also their socio-political backgrounds. (This model is not a newly formulated thesis. Most of it can be found in Wells 1999). The question of the expression of these events in the archaeological sources will only be raised in the second place, and it will be shown that, contrary to general opinion, warrior bands can never, or rarely, be recognised using archaeological methods. On the contrary, following the conclusion of the socio-political process – the birth of tribes and states – the later occupation of land as a result of these wars would leave marks on the archaeological remains.

The Celtic and Germanic societies of central Europe of the first millennium were permanently changing. These variations appeared regularly, to some extent in waves or phases. We can abstract the rules; but history does not repeat itself, that is why the various epochs are not completely identical. The different reports in the written sources describe this change in an indirect manner. The recorded names of the active groups – we will call them tribes following Caesar, Tacitus and the later Ammianus Marcellinus – emerge and disappear again. The names of tribes during the time of Caesar (100-44 BC) (De Bello Gallico, 58-52 BC) differ from those of the time of Tacitus (55-116/120 AD) (Germania, 98 AD) or those of Ammianus Marcellinus (second half of the 4th century), Gregory of Tours (ca. 540-594) (Historia Francorum), or the time of the Carolingian and Ottonian historians. 150 to 250 years lie between each of these reports, the equivalent of five to eight generations.

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