Sunday, July 5, 2015

Germanic Mercenaries – Friend or Foederati?

by Elaine S. Moxon

From the 1stC to the 5thC AD Britain was the northern-most province of the Roman Empire: the land of Prydain or the people of the designs. It was a green and prosperous land.

Its most coveted commodity was the Birrus Britannicus, an exceptionally well-made hooded cloak of the finest wool found in the Empire – from the sheep farms of central Britain. Long before the Saxons gave it the name Cotes Wolds (sheep on uncultivated open land) it was an area synonymous with a thriving wool trade and famous for its longhorn sheep.

However, it was not a peaceful province. Legions stationed at Glevum (the busy fort at Gloucester on the mouth of the river Severn) and Vindolanda (Hadrian’s Wall) had to contend with barbarian incursions from the Pictii and Scotii of the north and the Menapii and Silures of North Gymraeg (Wales). These invasions required large numbers of men permanently stationed at these troubled outposts. Rome’s solution was to bolster the numbers with Limitanei, or second-class troops consisting mostly of Germanic mercenaries.

The Huns in Asia were forcing their way west, and rising sea levels were destroying farmland, so entry into the Roman army provided opportunity and security for many Germanic people. Given the title Foederati (from the Latin ‘foedus’ meaning ‘treaty’, by which these tribes and their leaders were bound), these mercenaries received land on which to settle in return for their services, and tribes could fight under their own Germanic leaders.

This was the spark of inspiration for the back story of my Saxon tribe, the ‘Wolf Sons’ who give their name to my novel Wulfsuna; a young leader, seeking self-advancement and adventure abroad leaves behind his troubled homeland to enlist his war-band in the Roman army on the isle of Bryton.

However, for the Foederati in Britain things would soon turn sour. In 408/9AD Saxons invaded the east coast of the isle. Rome decreed Limitanei should defend the shore forts there and hold back the increasing threat from across the Germanic Ocean. Numbers in the Roman garrisons had dwindled as the Empire had sought to bring back as many soldiers as possible. Alaric I, leader of the Visigoths (a Germanic tribe with Foederati status) had repeatedly held siege on Rome, eventually succeeding in sacking the city after three days of looting and pillaging in August 410AD. Thus back in Britain Germanic mercenaries were left to fight Germanic invaders. Kin was pitted against kin. Needless to say this might have sat uncomfortably with many.

Knowing the Empire was abandoning the isle and leaving them to their fates I wondered if these Foederati fought or joined the invaders. I wondered where their loyalties would lie. It is noted many returned to Rome when the legions were recalled. There is a story that when one such legion arrived in Rome, the city closed the gates on them, believing them to be an approaching army of invading barbarians, for they wore their own garments and not that of the Roman Empire.

But what if not all of these Foederati went back to Rome? It is known that many soldiers of Rome married native women from where they were posted. It was feasible these Germanic mercenaries could have done the same. After a decade or so on the isle with Brytonic wives, families, homes and livelihoods would these men have wanted to leave? Probably not. Although there would be some, perhaps young men, who may have chosen to return to the Fatherland. All of these factors became my inspiration for Lord Wulfric and his Wolf Sons of Germania.

Life for native Britons in AD433 varied greatly depending on where you had been living at the time of the Roman Empire’s departure. Rising seas had affected coastal forts like Glevum where the inhabitants were eventually flooded out and trade ceased. Brytonic tribal leaders who had welcomed trade with the Romans and exported their Birrus Britannicus throughout the Empire, like my character Huweyn, would now have to seek fortunes elsewhere. Clients closer to home such as the Menapii for instance in North Gymraeg would have to suffice; They had links with the Irish port of Dublin, popular with men from Nord Veg, or ‘North Way’. And perhaps settling Saxons, who continued to arrive on the east coast, may have provided custom. Not all Germanic tribes came to trade though, and so the question for Huweyn would be, are they friend or foe?


Living near Icknield Street, one of the ancient trade routes crossing central England, inspired Elaine to investigate who traversed these roads and for what purpose. Bordering the kingdom of the Hwicce and living in close proximity to Alfred the Great’s Wessex further ignited her interest. From these influences and two simple rune stones the Wolf Spear Saga was born. Wulfsuna, first in the series, is a tale of blood, betrayal and brotherhood steeped in magic, folklore and that most feared lady who holds our destiny in Her hands – fate.

Elaine is currently writing book two of the series, set in AD460.

Book purchasing links:
Silverwood Books
Amazon (International)
Kobo (e-book)

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