The Gepids before Hun Rule

The Victovals, the first Eastern Germanic tribe to settle in the region, reached the Szamos valley, on the northwestern border of Dacia Porolissensis, in 168. After clashing with their cousins the Vandals, the Victovals settled down as Rome's external allies in the valleys of the Lower Szamos and the Upper Tisza, where they left archaeological traces. These finds are without exception cremation graves with weapons. (They are not to be confused with similar graves of the Vandals' Hasding dynasty, which were found on the eastern bank of the Tisza bend as well as in the valleys of the rivers Bodrog, Hernád, Sajó, and Tarna!). The Victovals' graves lie in a swath beginning near the Tisza in Szabolcs county (Tiszakanyár, Kékcse) and continuing along the Kisvárda-Rakamaz-Nagyvarsány-Vásárosnamény line in the region of the Szamos River (Aranyosmedgyes, Apa, Bujánháza-Bélakirályvár); none are closer than eight Roman miles to Dacia's border. The graves have certain common features: a bossed shield with an iron handle covers the pit, which holds, along with the ashes, a spear, a halberd, or more rarely a bent sword, and (almost invariably) bronze or iron spurs {1-173.} that testify to mounted combat. The graves all fall within a period from the end of the 2nd century to the end of the 3rd century.

The cause of that sudden halt in Victoval burials was the arrival of another great Eastern Germanic people: the Gepids. In 269, for the first and the last time, the Roman empire had came under the joint attack of two Eastern Germanic peoples, the linguistically linked Goths and Gepids; the first written mention of the latter dates from this event. The only information concerning the origins of the Gepids comes from malicious and convoluted Gothic legends; between the 1st and the 3rd centuries they must have been the Goths' neighbours around the Vistula River. The Goths occupied Dacia ahead of them, and for a time the Gepids found themselves trapped among the Sarmatians, who maintained their dominance over the northeastern Carpathians (Sub-Carpathia, Tiszahát, Máramaros) and the northern part of the Hungarian Plain. King Fastida — the first Gepidic leader whose name survives — wished to extricate his people from this land 'enclosed by grim mountains and dense forests' ('inclusum se montium queritans asperitate silvarumque densitate constrictum'[8]8. Jordanes, Getica 98.), and urged the Visigothic King Ostrogotha to peacefully share his domain. The ensuing hostilities probably owed more to the manipulation of Diocletian's co-emperor, Maximianus, who persuaded Fastida, as leader of the Gepids and the Vandals, to attack the Visigoths. The war, as noted earlier, took place before 290; the main battle, as confirmed by the Goths, was cut short when darkness fell, and thus ended somewhat indecisively, whereupon Fastida chose to withdraw his troops to their starting point. Maximianus's crafty tactic of inciting conflict among the Danubian Germans is evoked in an official speech written in 291 as well as by two gold coins, minted under his reign, which had been given to Fastida and are the oldest part of the treasure discovered at Szilágysomlyó.

Following their withdrawal, the Gepids had no option but to expand southward, toward the Hungarian Plain. More and more of {1-174.} their burial sites are being discovered north-northeast beyond the Sarmatians' great earthwork; the graves, which hold skeletons, reveal rituals and goods different from those of the preceding Victoval period. The Gepids' graves commonly contain weapons (spears, swords, shields with iron boss) that distinguish them from those of their Gothic cousins. On the other hand, their bronze and silver clasps, bone combs with rounded handles, and fibulae, sheathed in silver and with downward curved pins, resemble those of the Marosszentanna culture.

In the middle third of the 4th century, this Gepidic population, which by then had absorbed the Victovals, advanced along the strip of land between the Sarmatic rampart, the Meszes mountains, and the Erzgebirge into the valleys of the rivers Kraszna and Ér, then crossed the branches of the Körös and reached the Maros River. There is clear archaeological evidence of their new settlements at (from north to south) Lázári and Nagykolcs (the latter site being dated by a 4th-century silver fibula); Genyéte, where intact vessels, some {1-175.} with stamped decoration, were found, probably originating in graves; Mezőfény and Domahida (graves containing skeletons); Érdengeleg-Érvölgy-sziget (a grave holding a skeleton on a north-south axis as well as plates, jars, and bone combs with rounded back); Ártánd-Nagyfarkasdomb and Ártánd-Kisfarkasdomb (burial grounds); Érkörtvélyes-Ligetdomb and, in Hajdú-Bihar county, Csökmő (graves holding iron shield bosses and spears); Bihar (a 4th-century bone comb with triangular handle, originating from a settlement or a grave); Nagyvárad-Szalkaterasz-Pece riverbank (a settlement, and a burial ground that remained in use in the Hun period); and Köröstarján-Csordásdomb (burial ground). These sites are dated by a solidus, minted under Honorius (395–424), and found at Székelyhíd. The sites further south include Rippa (an intact bone comb with rounded back and circular punched ornaments, probably from a grave); Muszka-Szászkút (graves, connected to a 4th-century site, containing pottery of the Beregsurány type with stamped decoration); Arad-Földvár and Szentanna (combs with rounded back, pottery of the Marosszentanna type with Sarmatic influences); and, finally, Kisiratos-Kistó, the Körös riverbank at Borosjenő, and Zimándújfalu (intact vessels, mainly jugs, originating in graves).

The Gepids' early history is known only from archaeological sources, but it can be inferred from the latter that these people played at least a supporting role in the political events of the Carpathian Basin. In 332, for instance, they must have participated in the ongoing wars; they attacked their longtime enemies, the Visigoths, from the rear, either along the Maros at Arad or from the direction of the Szamos and Kraszna rivers. The finest coins in the first find at Szilágysomlyó were probably minted on the occasion of the victory of Caesar Constantius II over the Goths (the inscriptions read GAVDIUM ROMANORUM and GLORIA ROMANO-RVM) and were sent to the joyful allies along with a triumphal gold medallion depicting Constantine the Great and, on the reverse, two Victorias flanking a shield. This uncommonly large medallion (of which only a Germanic replica survives) commemorates Valens' victory over the Goths, and bears a likeness of the holy emperor, riding over the corpse of a Goth, along with the inscription GLORIA ROMANORVM; it could scarcely have been intended as a present for the defeated Goths. In all likelihood, this and the seven other Valens medallions, along with the two medallions depicting Valentinian and Gratian, respectively, must have been intended as presents for the Gepidic allies' leaders.

In the 370s, the Gepids broke through the Sarmatians' earthworks and invaded a region bounded by the rivers Körös, Tisza, and Maros. This is corroborated, inter alia, by the grave at Sajtény, to the north of the Maros, which yielded a jug with typical smoothed decoration, a bronze fibula with downward curved pin, and a cut glass tumbler identical to one found at Hódmezővásárhely.

{1-176.} These pieces of evidence must be compared with the perceptive account of Ammianus Marcellinus. He wrote that Athanaric, having fled to 'Caucalanda', 'drove the Sarmatians out of that territory'. Yet no Sarmatians could have settled and survived in Transylvania or in the mountains. When Athanaric observed that Valens' officials had refused the request of the Greutung (Ostrogothic) King Vitheric and his escort (Alatheus and Saphrax) to be admitted, he independently looked for an alternative haven, probably in a part of the empire ruled by Gratian. Athanaric fled along the Maros valley out of Caucalanda; it must have been somewhere near Arad that he encountered, and succeeded in routing, the Sarmatians who lived along the river. And it was probably there that, somewhat later, in the second half of 380, he suffered the unexpected and overpowering onslaught of his deadly enemies, the Gepids. He had no choice but to kowtow to the 'Eastern Romans' and flee across the Lower Danube.

Archaeological findings to date do not indicate clearly whether the Gepids set up their princely center near Szilágysomlyó before, or only after the collapse of Visigoth rule in 376. The find at Szilágysomlyó included, in addition to the famous treasure, the grave of a high-ranking warrior (perhaps buried with his mount) who carried battle gear that may date from the turn of the 5th century. The splendid torque discovered a short distance to the north, at Szilágyújlak, is a late-4th century product of the Vandal 'workshop' of Osztrópataka. If it originates from a grave, it points to a 'princely' personage whose manor must have been located in Szilágysomlyó district. Manufactured in a similar workshop, a gold, half-moon shaped pendant, with filigree and granular decoration, that was unearthed near Zilah, points to a similar conclusion.

Once the Goths had withdrawn, the Gepids probably tried to move down the Szamos valley and occupy Dacia. Evidence for this early attempt at settlement is scarce. The most indicative pieces are a shield boss (similar to the one at Szilágysomlyó), sword, and {1-177.} earthen jug found in a grave at Budatelke, and a similar east-west grave at Somkerék, near Beszterce, that yielded a sword, a spear, and a vessel.

The fibulae, decorated with gems, and discovered in a rich woman's grave at Völc (Velz), near the Kis-Küküllő River, are of the same type as six rather more elaborate pairs in the second trove of Szilágysomlyó; others of equal quality have been found at Rábapordány and in the grave at Moult, in Normandy, while smaller and more modest versions formed part of the Gepidic treasure at Gelénes. The Völc find is unique in Transylvania. The other jewels — a pair of gold earrings ending in a polygonal button with inlaid red stones, a gold shoe buckle, and amber beads — are of an 'international' type that had been prevalent for at least two generations. They may have belonged to Gepids in the period before the Hun invasion, or, alternatively, to a Germanic noblewoman assimilated by the Huns.

The grave discovered near the village of Csépán, south of Naszód, is equally difficult to assess. According to its funeral obolus, a solidus, minted in 429-30 under Theodosius II, and bearing the inscription VOT XXX MVLT XXXX, the grave dates from the emergence of the Huns' Danubian empire; this is not belied by other objects in the grave, a gold ring and a solid gold bracelet with expanded ends.

The world-famous treasure of Szilágysomlyó marks the end of the pre-Hun, Gepidic period, which was a mere interlude in the history of the region. The splendid gold chain, sixteen gold medals, and other assorted jewels, discovered in a vessel in 1797, are closely related to another find at the same location in 1889: this consisted of a Roman imperial onyx fibula, a Germanic gold ring, three gold cups, and three pairs of beautiful gold fibulae as well as seven pairs of silver-gold fibulae, all of them decorated with cloisonné and precious stones. The Roman gold coins found in the first of these finds also serve to date the older, pure gold jewels of the two {1-178.} finds. However, the dating is not precise. The coins were collected over a period that spans close to eighty years. Very few of the jewels are contemporary with the early coins minted around 330; most of the jewels are either contemporary with, or of a much later date than the coins that were minted in the late 360s. When various historical and archaeological aspects are taken into account — wear-and-tear, breakages and repairs — it appears possible that the treasure, with the addition of the latest jewels, was buried as late as 425.

In terms of the history of Gepids, the treasure is significant in that it must have been hidden by their leaders when news arrived of an impending Hun attack. It could never be retrieved by the owners, for they lost their lives in the ensuing battles. Such was the case with a lesser notable who hurriedly buried his wife's fibulae (similar to those of Szilágysomlyó, but much smaller and plainer) in the Tiszahát, near today's Gelénes; and with another Gepid nobleman, who concealed an ancient silver jug and a silver-gilt jar at Tóti.

The Gepids were defeated and subjugated either, as Gothic legend has it, sometime around 405, by the Ostrogothic King Thorismund, who had been charged by the Huns with the task; or, in a version that has no written record, directly by Huns attacking across the eastern Carpathians; or, in the 420s, by Prince Ruga himself. Whichever version holds true, the treasures reveal at least one thing: the new rulers had no use for the Gepids' ruling family and aristocracy. After crushing the Gepids, the Huns chose new men to rule over the survivors. The initial choices may not have been the most felicitous, but by the time of Attila's reign, the Gepids were led by Ardaric, their greatest historical figure.