Swedes and Romans

Anna  at the ABBA museum, Stockholm

Visiting Sweden on holiday recently was personally enormous fun, especially as my hostess was the ABBA singing historical fiction writer Anna Belfrage. But in a way it was spooky.

Something was missing – big time.

Sweden brims over with history and its impact on my home country can’t be underestimated; half of Britain has its DNA. I was impressed by beautiful buildings, hundreds of years of tradition, the rise of the Vasa dynasty, the Iron Age town of Uppåkra, the huge influence of the Hanseatic League and of course, the impressive conserved Vasa warship from 1628 (Sweden’s Mary Rose) .

The Vasa

 

But no Romans. This was what was troubling me.

We know that the northern lands of Britannia and Germania, and to an extent Batavia, were bothersome (and cold) so perhaps successive Roman senates and rulers didn’t want to chance their arm. But what about any non-conquest contact?

It’s all a bit sketchy. There are two sources from the 1st century AD that refer to the Suiones. The first one is Pliny the Elder who said that the Romans had rounded the Cimbric peninsula (Jutland) where there was the Codanian Gulf (possibly the Kattegat). (Let’s not talk about the Cimbric War (113–101 BC) – the Roman state nearly foundered before it had really got going.)

Anyway, in this Codanian Gulf there were several large islands among which the most famous was Scatinavia (Scandinavia). He said that the size of the island was unknown but in a part of it dwelt a tribe named the Hillevionum gens, in 500 villages, and they considered their country to be a world of its own.

Tacitus (Modern statue outside the Austrian Parliament)

Commentators find it striking that this large tribe is unknown to posterity, unless it was a simple misspelling or misreading of illa Svionum gente. (Typos happen to the best of us.) This would make sense, since a large Scandinavian tribe named the Suiones was known to the Romans.

Tacitus wrote in AD 98 in Germania (44, 45) that the Suiones were a powerful tribe distinguished not merely for their arms and men, but for their powerful fleets with ships that had a prow in both ends. He further mentions that they were much impressed by wealth, and the king was absolute. Further, he says the Suiones did not bear arms everyday, and that weapons were guarded by a slave.

After Tacitus’ mention of the Suiones, the sources are silent about them until the 6th century as Scandinavia was still in pre-historic times.

Europe 125 AD

 

The ‘Roman Iron Age’  is the name given to the period 1–400 AD in Scandinavia, reflecting the hold that the Roman Empire had begun to exert on the Germanic tribes of Northern Europe. Coins (more than 7,000) and vessels, bronze images, glass beakers, enameled buckles, weapons, etc. markedly Roman have been found in Scandinavia from that period. The main items of exports appear to have been slaves, furs and amber via Roman merchants. Through the 5th and 6th centuries, gold and silver become more and more common possibly not unconnected with the ransack of the Roman Empire by Germanic tribes, from which many Scandinavians returned with gold and silver.

On the island of Öland off Sweden’s south-eastern coast, two rings and a coin (below) were found in 2017, which confirmed a theory that the island was in close contact with the Roman Empire. Close by,  the team found pieces of Roman glass in an area which was once an important house. The coin was made in honour of Western Roman Emperor Valentinian III, who ruled between 425 and 455 AD. The emperor is depicted on one side of the coin, with his foot resting on the head of a barbarian – a common motif in coinage from the period. A similar coin commemorating Valentinian III was found three years ago.

In the 6th century Jordanes, 6th-century Eastern Roman bureaucrat turned historian of Gothic extraction, named two tribes he calls the Suehans and the Suetidi who lived in Scandza. They were famous for their fine horses. The Suehans were the suppliers of black fox skins for the Roman market. Then Jordanes names a tribe named Suetidi a name that is considered to refer to the Suiones as well and to be the Latin form of Sweþiuð. ‘The Suetidi are said to be the tallest of men together with the Dani who were of the same stock.’ (Tell that to the Swedes!)

University of Lund

The University of Lund, one of Sweden’s most prestigious, offers a short part-time course ‘Barbarians and Romans’:

This course studies the relationship between the Roman Empire and other cultures, especially Germanic and Celtic tribes, outside the realm of the Empire during the period 100 B.C to 400 A.D. We discuss the how the meeting between Romans and their neighbours took place materially and culturally and problematize central concepts like imperialism, civilization, ethnicity, social identity, Romanization and hybridity. Parts of the teaching will take place at the Historical Museum in Lund and at the National Museum and Glyptoteket in Copenhagen.

Looks like it’s on again next year as well…

But here’s a connection to the Romans, carved on the prow of the Vasa. Like the Turks, the Romans were universally acknowledged as tough and fearsome warriors and often used as symbols to frighten away enemies. This figure would have been holding a sword in his raised right hand. The lion and dog at his feet symbolise the clemency of the strong towards the weak.

Teasing out differences and connections between the Roman and Scandinavian worlds will fascinate forever and doubtless be fertile ground for historical novelists for some time to come. 😉

 

Alison Morton is the author of Roma Nova thrillers –  INCEPTIO,  PERFIDITAS,  SUCCESSIO,  AURELIA,  INSURRECTIO  and RETALIO.  CARINA, a novella, is available now.  Audiobooks are available for the first four of the series.

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