Who were the Heruli?

The ‘Germanic’ barbarian tribe, the Heruli, comes up regularly when discussing the famous sites of Classical Athens. The Heruli sacked much of Athens sometime around 267-9 CE, an event which was in no way an isolated incident at the time. It was part of what historians call the ‘Crisis of the Third century’ when they discuss the gradual decline of the might of the Roman Empire. Whether due to climate change in Gaul or the destruction of their culture by the Romans, by the middle of third century, the tribes of northern Europe (Carpians, Goths, Vandals, Alamanni ) were on the move, looking for food, land and perhaps revenge. Called the ‘Gothic Invasions’, various tribal armies headed down to the Black Sea to begin their movement into the wealthy areas of Greece, Macedonia and the islands of the Mediterranean. They even managed to settle down for a while in Sicily.

The Heruli tribe were not ‘the biggest dog in the fight’ but apparently they supplied the fleet that carried the huge armies down along the Black Sea coast where they ravaged the coastal cities without too much local resistance. It seemed that this barbarian fleet broke into separate groups and chose different targets around the Aegean sea. The map below gives a good idea of the different directions the tribes took. The history of the period provides little solid information about this era but it seems that the Heruli kept Athens for themselves. After they left, Athens kept the rubble scattered around their city for the next 1800 years.

When the Roman Armies got their act together, they eventually defeated the Gothic invasion at Naissus in modern day Croatia.


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