Ampsivarii – The Doomed Tribe

Ampsivarii – A Tribe on The Run

Today the topic of “Ancient Northern Tribes A-Z” has taken me to the story of the tragic end of the tribe known as Ampsivariii, a tribe that fell between all the chess-pieces of war and was dissolved forever into the tribes that were to become the Franks. As slaves.

A little lazy, perhaps, but it is not always easy to find literature on those ancient northern tribes. At the present I do not even keep a translation of Tacitus´ “Annales” in my library (I know, it´s shocking!).  So this time, I cheated and just copied what Wikipedia has to say about the Ampsivarii. Wikipedia is mainly just copying and summarizing what Tacitus wrote about them back in the 1st century AD anyway, and it is well written. The only words I have added myself are those in (caption).

(The Photo Image shows us the shield pattern of the Ampsivari warriors according to “Notitia Dignitatum.”


(Of their name, Wikipedia says nothing. Being no professional linguist I am too cautious to use an Old Norse dictionary to speculate on the meaning of names in the case of an earlier, continental, Germanic language that has even been Latinized in writing. But just as a thought, “varii” could have something to do with “guardians” and “ampsi” could possibly be related to the ON “amban” – “price”, “salary”, “atonement”, “compensation”. “Guardians of the Atonement” would, for example, make sense – atonement was another way of saying sacrifice and ritual.)


“The Ampsivarii, were a Germanic tribe mentioned by ancient authors. Their homeland was originally around the middle of the river Ems, which flows into the North Sea, at the Dutch-German border. Most likely they lived between the Bructeri minores ,located at the delta of the Yssel, and the Bructerii maiores that were living south of them at the end of the Ems. The name for them is supposed to be a Latin rendering of the Germanic “Ems-werer”, meaning “men of the river Ems”. Reconstruction of the location of other tribes in the area places the Ampsivarii at the lower Ems. In fact at least two modern cities are names after the Ems there: Emden (German) and Emmen (Dutch).

The first history tells us of this Germanic identity is very nearly its end. Tacitus in Annales Chapter 13.54,56, relates the sad fate of the men of the Ems, at which they arrived because they refused to accept a greater identity than that of a tribesman; i.e., to become part of a nation.

The problem began with their refusal to support Arminius in his surprise attack on three Roman legions at the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest in the year 9 (where the Roman army was annihilated and the borders between Germania and the Empire were set – in favor of the Germans). The tribes that did support him later became the greater alliance of the Franks and Saxons.

Subsequently the Chauci attacked them (the year 58) and drove them from their lands on the Ems. They became refugees, hosted by various tribes in the west of Germany. Meanwhile, the Roman army had cleared out the lower Rhine, which they were using as a no-man’s land between Germany and Belgium. The principate had resolved to stop imperial expansion at the Rhine.

The Frisii, however, misinterpreted Roman inaction. Believing a rumor that the Roman army had been ordered not to move against them, they occupied some lands along the Rhine, and were told in no uncertain terms to get out. When they refused a troop of Roman cavalry swept them out.

The Ampsivarii now made a bid for the land, petitioning the Roman commander in the region. Their chief, Boiocalus, having personally refused Arminius (spending some time in prison for it and then serving Rome in some capacity) had received the status of friend of Rome. The petition went sour, but Tacitus does not clarify the reason. The Romans were insisting on the meliorum imperia, the “authority of betters”, which seems to imply that the Ampsivarii were being invited to throw in their lot with the Romans.

Privately Boiocalus, as a memento of his 50-year friendship, was promised land though he felt obliged to reject on the grounds that it would make him a traitor. It is possible that his Celtic name reflects a Celtic origin of his family, in which case the question of betrayal might have been an issue, or it might simply have been that he was known to have been loyal to Rome. As it turned out the Roman offer was to be the last the Ampsivarii would receive.

They now formed a defensive alliance with the Tencteri and Bructeri, two more tribes of the future Franks, but this hasty relationship was too little and too late. The Romans entered the lands of the Tencteri and threatened to annihilate them. Both allies withdrew from the alliance, the Romans withdrew from their country, and the Ampsivarii stood alone. Having chosen to join neither side at the critical moment, they now had all sides against them.

They went on up the Rhine, hosted by some tribes, resisted by others, until the fighting men were all dead. The survivors were distributed as praeda, booty, meaning slaves, to various tribes and so the identity did not go on to appear in Ptolemy” (a later source. This means that the surviving Ampsivarii had already become absorbed into other tribes as slaves when Tacitus wrote around the end of the 1st century AD).


“The name appearing in the title belonged to a historian of Germanic tribes, Sulpicius Alexander, whose works are all lost except for quotes in Gregory of Tours. In one quote the Ampsivarii appear again some few hundred years after their loss in Tacitus. In the quote, a Roman general of Frankish family, Arbogastes (died 394), attacked the Franks across the Rhine and works some devastation. A force of Chatti and Ampsivarii under Marcomer was seen on a distant hill, but the two did not engage. The circumstances imply that some Ampsivarii had found refuge among the Chatti and still held a tribal identity.

Not long after the death of Arbogastes the emperor, Honorius, had little time to spend on the Franks, as Italy was being overrun by Goths. Honorius was the emperor who replied to the British request for help against Anglo-Saxon invaders that they should defend themselves as best they could. The Notitia Dignitatum, which lists Roman units and their heraldry, indicates that the Franks were taken as auxiliaries into the Roman army. A unit of Ampsivarii appears there.”

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