Denmark and the Roman Empire

The “Roman Iron Age” in Denmark - 0 – 400 AD - has traditionally been largely overshadowed by the Viking period from 900 – 1200 AD. And too many Danes the “Roman Iron Age” is still a dark chapter in the Danish history.

But in recent years a new history of this period is being written. And a special breakthrough for the public in Denmark, was the exhibition “The Triumph of Victory” at the National Museum of Denmark in Copenhagen in 2003. A special exhibition on the Danish-Roman relationships and the many Danish Bog-finds from this period.

This event, combined with many new reconstructed Danish Iron Age villages, also established through recent decades, have made way for a brand new view of the South Scandinavian relations to the Roman Empire.

Many of the Roman finds in Denmark, especially from the first and second Century, are grave finds and finds of Roman goods that clearly have been cherished by their owners. They are not prizes of war, but goods that have been traded and perhaps given to their owners. Things that apparantly show, that the Danish tribes in these centuries had a friendly relationship with Rome. A friendship which counted trading and maybe a wide support from the tribes to the Romans. A support that also encounted Danish tribesmen participating in the Roman wars against other Germanic tribes, probably as Auxillia – supporting troops – or, in the later periods, as regular troops in the Roman Army as Limitanii.


Augustus and Tiberius

On “Monumentum Acyranum”, Augustus own descriptions of his "Divine Deeds", it is told that in the year 5 AD he sent Tiberius on a major clearing expedition to the most northern parts of Germania. With a fleet from the Rhine and a supporting land-army he advanced to the Cimbrian Peninsula, and made peace agreements with the local tribes here.

This first official contact with the “Danes*”, since the Cimbrian and Teutonian migrations in the second century BC shows, that there apparently was an active interest in Rome in an annexation of the southern parts of Scandinavia into the Roman Empire.

But this interest was brutally stopped in year 9 AD, when the Roman General Quintillius Publius Varus was beaten in a Germanic ambush in Teutoburgerwald at Kalkriese in Germany where three Roman legions were annihilated; Approx. 30.000 men.

The mission for Varus was to secure the advance of the Imperial border to the river Elb. But after this major loss, the Romans resignated and gave up any further offensives beyond the Rhine, and the northern border of the Empire stayed at the Rhine.

*(The names “Danes” and “Denmark” first appeared in 800 AD. Before that a multitude of tribal names was used for the citizens of the Cimbrian Peninsula and the Danish isles Zealand, Funen and more. Among these tribes were Teutons and Cimbrians, names that still are found in present day places like “Thy” (Teuto) and “Himmerland” (Cimberland), both locations in Jutland. But, on a map of Germania, based on the scriptures of the Roman geographer Claudius Ptolemy a tribe of DANDUTI is noted, placed in the area of later Sachsen in Germany).


Trading and Alliances

Though the plans for the northern Germanic territories were abandoned by the Romans, it seems that a broad contact was established between the Romans and the tribes of southern Scandinavia. Especially famous are the trading expeditions to the Baltic coasts in Denmark and Poland for amber to emperor Neros palace after the burning of Rome in 64 AD. A palace that later were demolished by Vespasian, when he and his sons Titus and Domitian erected the Colloseum in its place.

The finds in Denmark from this period is really interesting. Especially the great grave finds from Himlingoje on Zealand, Gudme on Funen and the rich Hoby grave on Lolland. In Hoby a wide range of fine Roman kitchenware was found. Especially two silver cups from Hoby are of great interest.

Not only because of their superb quality, but also because of the name “Silius” which is ingraved in the bottom of the Cups.

This “Silius” could be the Roman commander who were stationed with the Rhine Army in the years 14 – 21 AD with the purpose to find the locations for the Varus disaster and conduct punitive expeditions into the Elb-german territories.

If Silius is the former owner of the Hoby Cups, the idea that Danish tribes were hired as Auxilia to the Romans seems obvious. Which also explains the finds of other Roman military equipment in Denmark from this period. For instance a beautiful 1st century Pugio found in a grave near Horsens in Jutland.

Together with this Pugio, was also a Roman style Hamata and a Roman military Balteus and other personal Roman equipment.

A find that appearantly show the presence of a kind of Roman military activity in Denmark or “Danes” that served with the Roman Army.

Finds from all over Southern Scandinavia, of especially Fibulas, indicate that a small “Empire” may have been present here in the first and second Century. With a “Himlingoje Dynasty” as rulers. Excavations in Himlingøje, south of Copenhagen, shows that here lived a mighty family that not only traded with Rome, but apparently also lived a very “Roman” style of life. 

That a Danish Chieftain takes on a Roman lifestyle is also found near Herning in central Jutland. Here a recent escavation found traces of a farm laid out exactly like a Roman Villa Rustica. Complete with romanlike round grave houses.

If there were such a small “Empire” ruled from Himlingoje, it is obvious that the Romans could benefit from this regional structure, and seek alliances with this regime. Alliances that can be described as Denmark beeing a kind of “Client State” of Rome. A supportive territory to the Romans where they traded and recruited auxillia for the wars down south.


Marcus Aurelius and the Marcomannic wars

As Client States the tribes north of the Danube had traditionally been a very peaceful territory for the Romans. But in the 150’s this area was destabilized by a range of migrations from the north, pressing the Marcomanians, the Quades and the Sarmatians downwards against the Roman Danube border in the present Czech Republic.

Regular wars between some of these tribes and the Romans broke out in the year 166 AD, in the fifth year of Marcus Aurelius as Emperor. Not ending before 180, in the time of Commodus. 

Today there is no doubt, that also South Scandinavians participated in these wars. Grave finds from Müsov in Mähren indicate this, with the finds of jewelry and fibulas that are obvious Scandinavian. And in Himlingoje two Roman silvercups, showing Roman soldiers with Ringpommel swords, were found. These Roman Gladii had their prime in the Marcomanian Wars. Also the find of a gold Kolb Torch in Himlingoje is evidence of a “Danish” participation. The Kolb Torch were a sign of dignity among the Sarmatians. The Sarmatians participated in the wars on the Roman side. Wich indicates, that also the “Danish contingents” were on the roman side.

That the Roman – South Scandinavian relationship were well established and continiued to the 5th century is indicated by the many finds from this period. Most of all by the great bog finds from 300 – 500 AD. Among these are the Illerup finds and the Thorsbjerg finds, which counts the largest finds of Roman weapons in the World.

These weapons was not in use by the Romans themselves, but blades produced in Roman Fabricas and purchased by the Scandinavians in the Roman Empire.

That Roman merchants sailed the waters of Southern Scandinavia for several centuries are clear. Worth mentioning are the Egyptian Geografer Claudius Ptolemy journeys from the 2. Century, which describes the naval route from The Rhine around Jutland and through the Danish sea of Isles to the coast of Poland. A route, also described by many other Roman Scribes, Tacitus. A route apparently commonly used by the Romans.

It appears, by the writings of Marcus Aurelius, that it was his plan to establish two new provinces north of the Danube. The provinces Marcomannia and Sarmatia. And so push the border of the Roman Empire all the way to the Baltic Sea.

In such an enterprise, the Romans would have has the need for good and loyal “Clients”.  In South Scandinavia - in the ”Danish territories” -  it now appears that Romans had just that.