The Heruli (spelled variously in Latin and Greek) were an East Germanic tribe who migrated from Scandinavia to the Black Sea in the third century AD. They were part of the series of raids and incursions carried out by Gothic groups in the Balkans and Greece from the 250s AD.
In 267 AD, together with the Goths they sacked and razed Byzantium, Sparta and Athens. They were defeated by the Romans in 269 AD at or near Naissus (modern Niš in present-day Serbia). In the 4th century, they were subjugated by the Ostrogoths and later the Huns. Breaking free from the Huns after the Battle of Nedao in 454 AD, they established their own kingdom and joined Odoacer, the commander of the Imperial foederati troops who deposed the last Western Roman Emperor Romulus Augustus in 476 AD. In 508 they were defeated by the Lombards and are reported to have migrated back to Scandinavia. Their name is related to earl (see erilaz) and was probably an honorific military title.
The 6th-century AD chronicler Jordanes reports a tradition that they had been driven out of their homeland by the North Germanic Dani, which places their origins in the Danish isles or southernmost Sweden. According to Procopius, they maintained close links with their kinsmen in Thule (Scandinavia). He relates that the Heruls killed their own king during their stay in the Balkans (cf. Domalde), and that they sent an emissary to Thule requesting a new king. Their request was granted, and a new king arrived with 200 young men.
The Heruls are first mentioned by Roman writers in the reign of Gallienus (260-268 AD), when they accompanied the Goths ravaging the coasts of the Black Sea (today southern Ukraine) and the Aegean. The mixed warbands sacked Byzantium in 267 AD, but their eastern contingent was decimated in the Balkans at the Battle of Naissus two years later. A western contingent of Heruli are mentioned at the mouth of the Rhine in 289 AD. From the end of the 3rd century AD, Heruls are also mentioned as raiders in Gaul and Spain, together with Saxons, Franks and Alamanni. These Heruls are usually regarded as Western Heruls; their settlements are assumed to have been somewhere at the lower Rhine. By the end of the 4th century the Heruls were subjugated by the Ostrogoths. When the Ostrogothic kingdom of Ermanaric was destroyed by the Huns in about 375, the Heruls became subject to the Huns.
Independent Kingdom and later years
After the fall of the Hunnic realm in 454 at the Battle of Nedao, in which the Heruls participated, they created their own kingdom at the March and Theiss rivers, (in the region of today's southern Slovakia). The Heruli later joined Odoacer, the commander of the Imperial foederati troops who deposed the last Western Roman Emperor Romulus Augustus in 476 AD.
After the Herulian kingdom was destroyed by the Lombards, Herulian fortunes waned. Remaining Heruls joined the Lombards and some of them sought refuge with the Gepids. Marcellinus comes recorded that the Romans (meaning the East Romans or in modern naming the Byzantines) allowed them to resettle depopulated "lands and cities" near Singidunum (modern Belgrade); this was done "by order of Anastasius Caesar" sometime between June 29 and August 31, 512. After one generation, this minor federate kingdom disappeared from the historical records.
Records indicate that the Heruli served in the armies of the Roman emperors for a number of years, in particular in the campaigns of Belisarius, when much of the old Roman territory, including Italy, Syria, and North Africa was recaptured. Pharus was a notable Herulian commander during this period. Several thousand Heruli served in the personal guard of Belisarius throughout the campaigns. They disappeared from historical records by the mid-6th century.
According to Procopius, many Heruli migrated back to Scandinavia and settled beside the North Germanic Geats (Gautoi). The places where they are assumed to have resettled have been identified with Värmland or the provinces of Blekinge and Värend, two districts where the women had equal rights of inheritance with their brothers. Some noble Swedish families in the area also claim to be descendants of the returning Heruli. Such identifications are not widely accepted. It has also been suggested that it was Heruli who first colonized Iceland or were assimilated among the people of Uppland initiating the drastic changes there in the 6th century.
No "Heruli" are mentioned in Anglo-Saxon, Frankish or Norse chronicles, so it is assumed they were known in the north and west by another name. Encyclopædia Britannica 1911 suggested that, since the name Heruli itself is identified by many with the Anglo-Saxon eorlas ("nobles"), Old Saxon erlos ("men"), the singular of which (erilaz) frequently occurs in the earliest Northern inscriptions, that "Heruli" may have been a title of honor. (See also Earl)
According to Procopius, the Heruli were a polytheistic society known to practice human sacrifice. He claims that the Heruli also practiced a form of senicide, having a non-relative kill the sick and elderly and burning the remains on a wood pyre. Following the death of their husbands, Heruli women were expected to commit suicide by hanging. With the ascent of Justinian, Procopius says that the Heruli within the empire converted to Christianity and "adopted a gentler manner of life."
In terms of combat tactics, the Heruli carried no protective armor save a shield and thick jacket. Heruli slaves are known to have accompanied them into combat. Slaves were forbidden from donning a shield until having proven themselves brave on the battlefield.
- Review of "The Origin of the Icelanders by Barthi Guthmundsson, Lee M. Hollander" in Speculum, Vol. 43, No. 1 (Jan., 1968), pp. 154-156
- Troels Brandt: The Heruls
- Procopius (January 4, 2008). History of the Wars: The Gothic War. Books V and VI. Dodo Press. ISBN 1-4065-6655-1.
- Procopius (December 28, 2007). History of the Wars: The Persian War. Books I and II. Dodo Press. ISBN 1-4065-6655-1.
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