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  • Writer's pictureHans Faber

Barbarians riding to the Capital to claim rights on farmland

This is not a post about the current agriculture and nitrogen debates between the government in Brussels and farmers in Flanders, Germany and the Netherlands. Not about farmers driving to The Hague capital with their tractors. No, this is the two-millennia-old story of two Frisian kings who travelled all the way to Rome, the capital of the great Roman empire, to obtain the right to cultivate fertile fallow land along the River Rhine. We cannot predict the outcome of the current debates of the 'farmers defence forces' with their capitals, but back in the year AD 58 the results of the talks with the central government on the use of land were extremely disappointing. With their own leaders having a part in it.

In this blogpost we firstly explore and re-define the true meaning of the journey of the two Frisian kings to Rome. Secondly, we will explain that those Frisians of the Later Iron Age were not Germanics at all, as the Romans wanted us to believe, but Celts.

1. Démarche to Rome

The mission to Rome of Verritus and Malorix, as the names were of the two Frisian kings, is a well-known history in the province of Friesland and even wider in the Netherlands. To quote Tacitus' Annales: auctore Verrito et Malorige qui nationem eam regebant, in quantum Germani regnantur ('under leadership of Verritus and Malorix, who ruled over this tribe, as far as Germanics are under kings'). That two kings of a small tribe had dared to démarche (viz. diplomatic intercession) to Emperor Nero. Moreover, during their stay in Rome they had the guts to take seats between the powerful senators that were reserved for guests of honour in the imposing Theatre of Pompeius.

Facts and a story that appeal to the imagination of many people today. Even cultural-nationalistic statements have been made that one can recognize in the actions of the two kings the ambition of modern Frisians; the ancient and immutable (freedom-loving) nature of this people (De Vries & Meertens 1938, Jensma 2019). Also, one of the murals (see further below) of the House of the States of the province of Friesland, the so-called Statenzaal 'states hall', visualizing the history of Friesland, depicts the supposed heroic visit of Verritus and Malorix.

A history to be proud of, is it not?

Truth is the two kings were sent on a wild goose chase by a clever Roman military commander guarding the limes ‘border’. And not only that. The two men have let themselves be taken in by the Romans during their stay in Rome. Visiting the theatre and all, and accepting Roman franchise (i.e. citizenship) as personal gifts, but otherwise returning to their people empty-handed. Everything smoothly organized by the Romans, who actually regarded them as nothing more than impulsive barbarians, including an emperor who was 'too busy' to receive them. Long-haired primitive giants without the slightest knowledge of what culture is (Arrighi 2021). Perhaps it is safer to say Verritus and Malorix were no match for the well-oiled Roman diplomacy machine, and, in fact, both leaders had betrayed their own tribe.

Verritus and Malorix departing for Rome by Mats Minnhagen

It is the Romans Cornelius Tacitus (ca. AD 56-117) and Gaius Suetonius Tranquillos (born shortly after ca. AD 70) who documented the story of Verritus and Malorix. Tacitus did this in book 13 of his Annales, and Suetonius in his De Vita Caesarum. According to Tacitus it all started after the Roman army had given up expansion north of the River Rhine. Peace was cherished by Rome and the legions stayed behind the newly erected limes along the River Rhine. Therefore, rumour had been spreadin' round among tribes in the region that the army commanders no longer were allowed to engage in war north of the river. The rumour also reached the Frisians, called Frisii or Fresones by the Romans.

Part of the limes defence system was that the riverbanks of the Rhine were cleared and depopulated. This was for military strategic reasons. Only some sheep and cows of the imperial army were allowed to graze. It was young Frisians from the woods and the swamps who established themselves in the river area. Under the leadership of the Verritus and Malorix. The young men built houses and started to cultivate the land. According to their (natural) laws, land that lay fallow belonged to everyone (Zijlmans 2016). This all happened in the year AD 58.

When the governor of Germania Inferior, Lucius Duvius Avitus, heard of the violation of the limes by the Frisians, he gave them the following choices. Either withdraw from the buffer zone of the limes voluntarily or be removed with an iron fist. Another option he gave was to submit a request in person with the emperor in Rome to be granted the right to occupy the banks of the River Rhine. If Emperor Nero agrees, Avitus would be overruled. The Frisians decided to travel to Rome. In a good mood off they went that same year. A journey of several weeks riding horseback.

Nero is remembered in history as the most sadistic and cruel leader of the Roman Empire. What knew Governor Avitus of Nero’s reputation when he ‘generously’ offered the Frisians this choice, we wonder?

Note that the Annales of Tacitus differ from the De Vita Caesarum of Suetonius concerning who Verritus and Malorix wanted to speak in Rome. Suetonius wrote that both kings wanted to speak with Emperor Claudius, who ruled from AD 41 until 54, instead of Emperor Nero who ruled from AD 54 until 68. With that also placing the events a few years earlier than Tacitus did. As most scholars do, we stick in this post with the (more extensive) version of Tacitus.

Emperor Nero

Once in Rome, Emperor Nero was too busy to receive the Frisian delegation. Indeed, surprise surprise. And the Romans knew very well what they were doing. They actively took care of these barbarian officials from the wet north and offered the two kings a so-called cultural program by taking them to the Theatre of Pompeius. That more interesting sights in the city were shown cannot be ruled out.

The Theatre of Pompeius was a magnificent structure built by general Gnaes Pompeius Magnus in the year 55 BC, which could house more than 20,000 spectators. It was located between the modern streets Via Dei Giubbonari, Via del Biscione, Via del Sudario, Via di Torre Argentina and Piazzo Benedetto Cairlo. A building that showed the grandeur and power of the Roman Empire, and always succeeded in making a big impression on foreign delegations. Making them feel a bit smaller before the talks and negotiations would start. It is during the visit to the theatre that the famous words were spoken by the two Frisians.

Verritus and Malorix inquired with their escorts who sat where in the theatre. They were told that the senators sat down below close to the stage; the so-called bisellia. Verritus and Malorix noticed also foreigners sat below, namely Armenians and Parthians. It was explained to them that these were representatives of foreign tribes known for their bravery and their loyalty to Rome. This is when Verritus and Malorix exclaimed that:

“No men on earth surpassed the Germanics in arms or in loyalty!”

Next, they descended to the seats and boldly sat down among the senators. The public in the theatre loved it, which they regarded as “impulsiveness of an uncivilized, primitive people and honourable rivalry.” You better be proud of it...

Theatre of Pompeius in Rome

After all the sightseeing and excitement in the city, Verritus and Malorix learned that Nero would not permit them to settle on the land along the limes. A bummer they did not see coming. To make up with, both men were given the Roman franchise, which they apparently accepted, and returned empty-handed to their people. The young Frisians back home did not accept the outcome and continued to live on the land. Now Governor Avitus decided it was time for the iron fist and had the Frisians driven out by auxiliary forces. Back into the woods and swamps where they came from. Those who still resisted were taken captive or killed. So, everything but all’s well that ends well.

Whether or not Verritus and Malorix were ever received by Emperor Nero remains unclear in the accounts of Tacitus and Suetonius. Maybe Nero never did and preferred to spent his time in his private theatre. The private theatre recently (2023) has been located on the territory of the Vatican, and which Pliny the Elder (ca. AD 23-79) described as “large enough to satisfy even Nero’s desire to sing before a full house.” Rumour has it that when the Great Fire burned down much of the city of Rome in the year AD 64, Nero sang from his private theatre.

We do not know how the reactions and emotions were when Verritus and Malorix returned to their people in the Central Netherlands, if they ever did since they were granted the Roman franchise by Nero. It is very probable that accepting this gift was considered an act of treason. Not long after the failed mission of the two Frisians, Tacitus reports that yet another tribe occupied lands bordering the banks of the River Rhine. This was the Ampsivarii tribe under leadership of Boiocalus. A tribe in search of land. When Avitus and Boiocalus were negotiating, Avitas offered Boiocalus land as a personal gift. Only unlike Verritus and Malorix, he refused the bribe. Boiocalus clearly said it would be treason. To further quote Boiocalus' strong but desperate reaction to Avitus: "We may lack a land to live in, but not one to die in." When the Ampsivarri went to war they could not find any other allies and had to face the Romans alone, and were defeated.

By the way, Netherlands' chroniclers in the seventeenth century turned steadfast Boiocalus into a Frisian duke: Titus Boiocalus, the third duke of Frisia, who ruled over Frisia from AD 187 until AD 240. He succeeded his half-brother Adelboldus (Jacobs 2020).

Below the not-too-woke mural in the Statenzaal of the House of States of the province of Friesland constructed in the late nineteenth century. Displaying Verritus and Malorix, guided by a black slave, in the Theatre of Pompeius. One of the four big paintings behind the seats of the Gedeputeerde Staten 'provincial executive'. The inscription reads: "Geen sterveling overtreft de Friezen in dapperheid of trouw" ('no mortal surpasses the Frisians in bravery or loyalty'). In folklore, Waling Dykstra 1895, the phrase even became: "Geen volk onder de zon overtreft de Friezen in dapperheid en trouw" ('no nation under the sun surpasses the Frisians in bravery and loyalty'). Not exactly the words in Tacitus' or Suetonius' accounts. Neither are the cow horns on one of their heads. But who is counting?

Much more relevant is to ask yourself: does it depict the first known heroes of Frisia in history or its first traitors? But also, going to Rome expecting they could bother the emperor over this? Seriously? What were they thinking?

mural of Verritus and Malorix in the Statenzaal at the province of Friesland

2. Who were Verritus and Malorix?

The names of these two men are intriguing. Albeit Tacitus speaks of Germanics their names are, in fact, Celtic of origin. General opinion is that the name Verritus means something like ‘strong runner’ and Malorix means something like ‘praised king’ (Schrijver 2017).

Also other names of the Late Iron Age associated with Frisians that have been documented by the Romans point to a Celtic language, namely the farmer Criptorix and the goddess Baduheanna mentioned by Pliny in the first century AD, and the names Caturix and Iulia Secunda mentioned on the writing tablet at the hamlet of Tolsum in the province of Friesland dated the first century AD as well (Looijenga 2021). Another personal name of a Frisian, albeit from the Early Middle Ages, with Celtic origin is Æpa. His name was written in (mirrored) runes ᚫᛈᚪ on a silver coin (viz. sceatta) found at the village of Midlum in the province of Friesland, dated ca. 750. Æpa derives from the Celtic word epo, meaning horse (Looijenga 2003).

Another personal name of a Frisian, albeit of the Early Middle Ages, with Celtic origin is Æpa. His name was written in (mirrored) runes ᚫᛈᚪ on a silver coin (viz. sceatta) found at the village of Midlum in province Friesland, dated ca. 750. Æpa derives from the Celtic word epo meaning horse (Looijenga 2003).

All these (personal) names already raise the question of whether Frisians were part of the Celtic culture instead of the Germanic culture, or an admixture thereof. More and more evidence points to at least a Germanic culture (strongly) influenced by the Celts, if they were not, in fact, predominantly Celtic. Besides names, other arguments supporting this view of a (partly) Celtic heritage are the following.

Before we start listing the arguments why Frisians may have a (partly) Celtic heritage, we should understand that the Romans were not concise when classifying peoples belonging to the Germanic or Celtic culture and used these terms interchangeable. The Greek named all peoples in northwest and central Europe Keltoi ‘Celts’ (Looijenga, Popkema & Slofstra 2017, Nieuwhof & Nicolay 2018, Van de Bunt 2022). Julius Caesar, who made the distinction between the Germanics and Celts in the first place, was not consistent either. He discriminated between the two peoples mainly for geographical reasons and not for ethnic or cultural reasons (Clerinx 2023). All tribes conquered by the Romans were Celtic. The rest outside the Roman empire north and east of the River Rhine was simply Germanic. Very nice and clear, and as a general you do not want to much grey.

A first argument is that historical language research on vowel systems shows traces of Celtic speech in modern Mid-Frisian language. This concerns avoiding the a-sound and using the e- or o-sound instead. Also, the uu-sound is of Celtic origin. Furthermore, the verb worden ‘to be/to become’ has its origin in an older Celtic language (Clerinx 2023).

Burial rituals of Iron-Age Frisians also show parallels with those of the Celts, namely sky burials. Corpses of deceased persons were left in the open air to decompose until all the flesh was either rotten away or eaten by wild animals or their own dogs. Examples of these rituals can be found in the Celtic culture in Ribemont-sur-Ancre and Gournay in northern France. Once the bones were ‘clean’ they were buried, or what was left of it (Clerinx 2023). Archaeological research in the terp region in northern Netherlands indicates here too the sky burial was one of the burial practices (Nieuwenhof 2015). Read our post How to bury your mother-in-law for more about this practice. The idea is that in order to free the spirit of a human being, the body must have decomposed. Indeed, the expression being freed from the flesh has ancient roots. Parallels can be found in modern Tibet where the body is cut into pieces and fed to vultures.

Related to burial practices, like the Celts, Late-Iron-Age Frisians showed a fascination for human skulls. Celts are even known as headhunters. Already the Greek writer Posidonius (ca. 135-51 BC) told us so. Heads of slain enemies were trophies and exhibited on sticks near entrances of their settlements. Again, archaeological research in the terp region reveals that human bones, with an over-representation of cranial bones and mandible fragments, were deposited everywhere in the living parts of the settlement. Often these bones were found in so-called wet areas, like a sweet water pond or in ditches. Besides buried skull fragments, skulls were worked as well. Out of human skulls, bowls and discs were made. Often with a little hole made in it. They have been found throughout the terp region, from the village of Arum to that of Wierhuizen. Maybe to put a cord through it and to hang it around your neck. Who knows, Frisian warriors with a collection of skull discs of defeated enemies around their neck, albeit this is speculation. Not only human crania, but skulls of calves were being worked in a comparable fashion too (Tuin 2015, Nieuwhof 2015, Prummel & Hullegie 2016).

Celt or Celtic god wearing and holding a torc, detail from the Gundestrup cauldron, 150 BC–1 BC

Part of the burial practice in both cultures also seems to have been smashing of pottery. Possibly used containers containing wine or other liquids that were smashed during the burial rites. We can only guess the reason why. Perhaps to prevent these attributes would be reused in daily life. This is known from research in Clémency in northern France (Clerinx 2023). Smashing pottery during (burial) rites in the terp region is proved at Englum in the terp region in northern Netherlands (Nieuwhof 2015). Referring to the former argument concerning the fascination with skulls, archaeological research at the terp of Englum also revealed the (re-)burial of eight separate human skulls.

Another parallel between Celts and Frisians is the many buried wheels, whether in wells, buried under hearths, or complete war chariots or funeral carriages. In Celtic culture the wheel was an important symbol and represented the solar disc. A funeral carriage was believed to pull the sun from east to west, a metaphor for rebirth (Clerinx 2023). In our post Celtic-Frisian heritage: There’s no dealing with the Wheel of Fortune we already dived into the divine wheels.

Furthermore, one of the weapons seen as typically Celtic is the sling. During the uprise against the Romans in the year AD 28, the so-called Battle of Baduhenna in the modern province of Noord Holland, the Frisians fought (also) with slings. Archaeological research identified a total of 520 lead sling bullets. Read our post Pagare il fio the read more about this big battle in which the Frisians were victorious. Therefore, the use of the sling is an argument Frisians of the Late Iron Age were (partly) Celtic.

Concerning warfare too, both the Celts and the Frisians went into battle naked. Antique writers described how Celts fought naked only wearing a weapon belt and their torc (Clerinx 2023). About the Frisians exist several medieval legends telling how they freed Rome from the Saracens by charging at the enemy naked as well. If interested in these legends, see our post Magnus’ Choice. The Origins of the Frisian Freedom.

The same legend, but also other legends, tells that the Frisians received their freedom from Charlemagne. From then on, Frisians could take off the (wooden) nooses around their necks, which symbolized that Frisians lived under the yoke of heathen tribes in the dark north, and were allowed to wear collars of silver and gold. In other words, Frisians had gained the status of ‘free-necks’. Read our post With a Noose through the Norsemen’s Door for this legend. Interestingly, this has parallels with the torcs of the Celts. Torcs, also written as torques, were neck-rings worn by Celtic warriors, associated with gods and nobility, often very elaborately worked (see image of the Gundestrup cauldron above). At the terp of Hogebeintum in the province of Friesland, two bronze torcs have been excavated that date to the Late Iron Age or Roman Period (Vereniging voor Terponderzoek 2021).

bronze torc of Hogebeintum, 600-0 BC

A bit of a side step is the mythical neck-ring Brísingamen that King Hygelac of the Geats was wearing during battle when he was killed at the mouth of the River Rhine in Frisia in the year AD 516. A story we know from the epic poem Beowulf. For more, check our post Ornament of the Gods found in a mound of clay. It illustrates the relevance of neck jewellery to warriorship.

3. Pride falls, eventually

Despite the attitude of inferiority of the Romans towards Verritus and Malorix, it was those same impulsive, primitive barbarians who brought the mighty Roman Empire on its knees in the early fifth century. Again barbarians riding to the capital but not with friendly request this time. Below some paintings of the Sack of Rome in the year 410 by the Visigoths.


Note 1 – Other names of Frisians from the Roman era, besides Verritus and Malorix, which have been preserved, are: Hnaudifridus, Sextus Valerius Genialis, Bassus, Hilarus, and Frissiaus. All in service of the Roman army. Either as a legionnaire in auxiliary troops or as a horse guard of the emperor in Rome. Read our post Frisian mercenaries in the Roman Army. Another name is Cruptorix, who had a farmstead in the area of the River IJ. His name is mentioned in the account of the Battle of Baduhenna in AD 28. Probably a Frisian who had served in the Roman army before and granted the Roman franchise (citizenships) as a reward. Lastly, we add, is the name of a slave known from the writing tablet found at Tolsum in the province of Friesland, dated AD 29, namely Caturix (Galestin 2009).

Note 2 – More Frisian kings: Next after Verritus and Malorix, is King or dux Corsold. He lived around the year 500. He was, in fact, not a king of Frisians but had a small kingdom in Brittany. King Finn Folcwaldin of Frisia, known from the epic Beowulf and who lived in the early sixth century. Of course, Finn's father Folcwald might have been a king too, but nothing is known about him. King Audulfus who lived around the turn of the sixth and seventh centuries, is known from golden coins found in Central Netherlands. Another early-medieval king is King Aldgisl who lived in the Central Netherlands in the seventh century. Maybe the father of King or Duke Radbod, who lived also in the Central Netherlands at turn of the seventh and eighth centuries. A final king on the list is King or Duke Poppo, who lived in the north of the Netherlands in the beginning of the eighth century.

Other Frisian names that arouse curiosity about who they were, because their names are stamped on costly early-medieval golden coins, are Skanomodu, Weladu, and Hada. Most likely, they are names of masters of coin and not those of rulers or other important men (Düwel & Nedoma, 2023).

Note 3 – Concerning the etymology of the name Malorix meaning ‘praise king’, there is an old minority report from the year 1900, namely that the names are Germanic. The part mal might stem from ma(t)hal meaning ‘gathering’ or from amal meaning ‘labour’, and the part rix from ricj which means ‘rich’. Concerning the name Verritus, this might be composed of the elements vera meaning ‘gold’ and rid meaning ‘to ride’ (Förstemann 1900, Nieuwenhuijsen 2017). In addition, supposedly the modern family names Werrett and Verrity stem from Verritus, and the family names Mallory stems from Malorix (Fergusen 1864).

Note 4 - Of course we should mention that other Frisian who travelled all the way to Rome in order to settle a dispute, namely scholar Emo of Friesland (student at Oxford and Paris) and later abbot of monastery at Wittewierum (in the modern province of Groningen). Emo made his journey to Rome in the years 1211 and 1212.

Note 5 - Another Capitol invaded by Barbarians in hauling bison outfits and all, was Washington DC, USA in January 2021.

Suggested music

Elvis Presley, Heart of Rome (1970)

Further reading

Ancient Theatre Archive, Pompey Theatre (modern Rome, Italy) (website)

Arrighi, C., Itinerarium Barbaricum. The Latin Narratives about the Other (2021)

Boer, de D., Emo's reis. Een historisch culturele ontdekkingstocht door Europa in 1212 (2011)

Bunt, van de A., Wee de overwonnenen. Germanen, Kelten en Romeinen in de Lage Landen (2022)

Bus, B., Malorix en de Romeinen (1998)

Clerinx, H., De god met de maretak. Kelten en de Lage Landen (2023)

Dijk, van W., De eerste Nederlandse toeristen in Rome (website)

Düwel, K. & Nedoma, R., Runenkunde (2023)

Dykstra, W., Uit Friesland's volksleven van vroeger en later (1895)

Fergusen, R., The Teutonic name-system applied to the family names of France, England and Germany (1864)

Fries Museum, the Tolsum writing tablet (website)

Galestin, M., Het Romeinse schrijfplankje uit het Friese Tolsum eindelijk ontcijferd (2009)

Jacobs, A., Friese vorsten (2020)

Jensma, G., Vrijheid als innerlijke deugd. De paradox van de 'Friese vrijheid' in de negentiende eeuw (2019)

Keijser, D., Cloth as Currency: Clothing and the Naked in Old Frisian Law (2015)

Lendering, J., Friezen in Rome (2017)

Looijenga, T., Runic literacy in north-west Europe, with a focus on Frisia (2021)

Looijenga, T., Texts and Contexts of the Oldest Runic Inscriptions (2003)

Looijenga, A., Popkema, A. & Slofstra, B., Een meelijwekkend volk. Vreemden over Friezen van de oudheid tot de kerstening (2017)

Nieuwhof, A., Eight human skulls in a dung heap and more. Ritual practice in the terp region of the northern Netherlands 600 BC – AD 300 (2015)

Nieuwhof, A. & Nicolay, J., Identiteit en samenleving: terpen en wierden in de wijde wereld (2018)

Nowakowski, T., Have Archaeologists Finally Found Emperor Nero’s Lost Theater? (2023)

Pelegero, B., Who were the Celts? (2021)

Penning, Y., Emo's labyrint (2010)

Perseus (Hopper) Digital Library, Cornelius Tacitus. The Annals (website)

Prummel, W. & Hullegie, A.G.J., Bewerkte voorhoofdsbeenderen van pasgeboren kalveren uit drie terpen (2016)

Renswoude, van O., Hoe Keltisch waren de Friezen? (2017)

Salo, J., US Capitol building invaded for the first time since War of 1812 (2021)

Saltzwedel, J., Land der Biertrinker (2013)

Schrijver, P., Frisian between the Roman and the Early Medieval Periods: Language contact, Celts and Romans (2017)

Tuin, B., Rondslingerend menselijk bot? (2015)

Vereniging voor Terponderzoek, Nieuw kennis- en informatiecentum Hegebeintum/Hogebeintum geopend (2021)

Vries, de A. & Meertens, P.J., De Nederlandse volkskarakters; Wiersma, J.P., De Friezen (1938)

Zijlmans, R.F.G.M., Troebele betrekkingen. Grens-, scheepvaart- en waterstaatkwesties in de Nederlanden tot 1800 (2016)


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