Gepidic Society in the 6th Century

Although traces of the Merovingian culture have been found in many settlements and graves in Transylvania, it is difficult to draw firm conclusions. Only a few gold coins — tokens of the alliance {1-214.} with Byzantium — indicate the existence of a small class of nobles in the 6th century: a solidus of Iustinus I (518–527), found at Mezőcsávás, and those of Justinian I (527–565) from Nagysomkút, Abafája, Uzdiszentgyörgy, Csáklya, Vecel, Pécska, and the outskirts of Marosvásárhely. These coins were probably funeral oboluses from graves that were despoiled in modern times. The burial grounds were despoiled or ravaged, in some cases repeatedly, at various points in time, and there is insufficient evidence to say when and by whom. One likely period was the 540s, when turmoil and internal opposition must have marked the overthrow of Elemund's dynasty by Thorisind; the pretender, Ostrogotha, and his followers sought refuge with the Langobards. As noted earlier, Mezőbánd was found in a thoroughly plundered state; the first act of despoliation must have taken place around, or soon after 567. The sites at Beszterce, Marosvásárhely, and Marosveresmart fared better only in so far as looters left behind the apparently worthless iron weapons. At Malomfalva, only half of the graves can throw some light on social history.

Despite the devastation, it can be established that Gepids in Transylvania were garbed in a manner similar to their fellows on the Hungarian Plain. Women and girls wore fine-tooth combs in their bun, as well as necklaces of glass beads, although these were slightly more common in Transylvania. Both sexes wore belts fastened with bronze, iron, or — more rarely — silver clasps. On their belt, at the back, men wore a leather purse that contained flint, scissors, tweezers, and a knife. Women used ornamental fibulae of cast bronze (which, in rare cases, was gilded) or, if they were less affluent, iron or bronze pins to fasten their clothes at the front. The iron draw-knife was a distinctive status symbol throughout the area of Merovingian culture, and examples have been found only in the graves of wealthy freewomen. A woman's tool, the clay knob from the spindle, has surfaced on many sites.

{1-215.} In the 6th century, the free warriors of Merovingian culture were buried fully armed, with sword, spear, and iron-bound shield, yet such weapons are found even more rarely in Transylvania than in the Gepidic graves of the Hungarian Plain. Contemporary sources indicate that the Gepids had few 'heavily-armed warriors': in 552, they contributed only 400 such soldiers to Narses' war against Totila, while the Pannonian Langobards sent 3,000.

In Transylvania, sets of swords and spears are scarce, and shield bosses from iron-bound shields even scarcer. It may be surmised, therefore, that the Gepidic military class was small in number, and that the Transylvanian Gepids felt secure. Free warriors equipped with only a spear are more numerous. Some of the sword- and spear-bearing soldiers also had a bow and arrows. The bow alone was the common equipment of 'semi-free' people, who were obliged to serve as archers. Generally speaking, social stratification was more pronounced among the Gepids of Transylvania than among those of the Hungarian Plain, for the remains of armed men, free and semi-free, were found in only 10–15 per cent of the graves. If the despoiled graves of women are also taken into account, it appears that women buried with jewels account for a similar proportion. Seventy per cent of the population was made up of unarmed paupers and domestics, a fact that foreshadows the emergence of the early feudal Gepidic state.

In terms of social rank, the goldsmith who was buried with his tools at Mezőbánd belonged to the nobility; this was the case with Germanic goldsmiths in Barbarian Europe, and indeed with the goldsmiths of the forthcoming, Avar period. Looters had taken his ornaments and weapons, but his iron helmet, which they left behind, indicated that in life as well as in death, he was a man worthy of protection.

In the course of the 6th century, the Gepidic society in Transylvania became a pale reflection of its counterparts in the Hungarian Plain and Sirmia. There are no longer any traces of the {1-216.} 'petty kings' who used to lead them, although, until the end of the century, lesser chieftains may have continued to enjoy a certain autonomy and pretend at independence from the mother country. The sole 'inner' coin treasure found in Gepidia dates from this period — the 50 (or, according to some sources, 80 to 140) gold solidi buried at Kisselyk, which lies across from Mikeszásza in the Nagy-Küküllő valley. The owner's family had been accumulating this fortune ever since the 440s, the era of 'Hun prosperity,' and thus the trove includes gold coins of all the Eastern Roman emperors from Theodosius II to Iustinus I. The man who concealed the treasure may well have lost his life soon after the reign of Iustinus I (518–527), thus missing the 'new age of prosperity' that began under Justinian I. It may be inferred from the treasure that at some point in the late 520s or early 530s, Elemund put an end to the rule of one of Transylvania's petty kings. This would explain the destruction of some other early nobiliary manor houses and the abandonment of their burial grounds (Kolozsvár-Kardosfalva, Magyarvalkó) and, perhaps, the first wave of looting as well.

Beginning in the 530s, the Transylvanian Gepids were led by a nobility that was neither numerous nor particularly wealthy. The women who wore 'eagle clasps' (Szamosjenő [formerly Kisjenő], Maroscsapó) belonged to this class. In the smaller villages, only one noble family had an estate, and it appears that this family acted as leader of the community of freemen (Malomfalva); few localities bear traces of more numerous armed nobles or of several generations of nobles (Marosveresmart, Baráthely no. 3). The greater number of warriors in some locations (as revealed by graves at Marosvásárhely and Beszterce) may be explained by the borderguard function of the inhabitants.

A chain of villages and farmsteads, most of them populated by semi-free people and servants engaged in farming and stock-breeding, stretched from the middle reaches of the Szamos across the valleys of the Maros and Küküllő rivers to the Háromszék Basin. {1-217.} Little is known about the villagers' way of life, far less than about similar aspects of the Visigothic era. However, it is clear that the Gepids' settlement generated an improvement over the dismal conditions that prevailed in the Hun period. Although the area of habitable and cultivable land shrank even in comparison to the Visigothic age, the Gepids bear no blame. To the contrary, it was thanks to their labour that the Transylvanian Plain as well as the more important valleys and basins remained at all habitable.


Driven by 'foreign policy' considerations, the political and military activities of the Gepidic kingdom before 567 were concentrated in the Danube valley, far from Transylvania. At the time of Justinian the Great, the Gepids occasionally gave assistance to Slavic raiders in the Lower Danube region, but momentarily these attacks were not aimed at Transylvania's borders. According to an uncorroborated source, the Gepidic king Kunimund, who had reverted to a pro-Byzantine policy, waged war in ca. 565 against the Slavs of the Lower Danube region. In all probability, Kunimund and his army traversed the Vöröstorony Pass to attack the Slavs in the Olt valley; the latter had been harassing the Gepids' onetime 'Olt limes', and, by then, they had won the support of the Avars. The retaliation against this futile campaign would lead to the collapse of Gepidic power.