They are first recorded in 6th-century historiography as having been allied with the Goths in the invasion of Dacia in c. 260. In the 4th century, they were incorporated into the Hunnic Empire. Under their leader Ardaric, the Gepids united with other Germanic tribes and defeated the Huns at the Battle of Nedao in 454. The Gepids then founded a kingdom centered on Sirmium, known as Gepidia, which was defeated by the Lombards a century later. Remnants of the Gepids were conquered by the Avars later in the 6th century.
Jordanes reports that their name comes from gepanta, an insult meaning "sluggish, stolid" (pigra). An Old English form of their name is recorded in Widsith, as Gefþ-, alongside the name of the Wends.
The Gepids were the "most shadowy of all the major Germanic peoples of the migration period", according to historian Malcolm Todd. Neither Tacitus nor Ptolemy mentioned them in their detailed lists of the "barbarians", suggesting that the Gepids emerged only in the 3rd century AD. The first sporadic references to them, which were recorded in the late 3rd century, show that they lived north of the frontier of the Roman Empire. The 6th-century Byzantine writer, Procopius, listed the Gepids among the "Gothic nations", along with the Vandals, Visigoths and Goths proper, in his Wars of Justinian. According to historian Walter Goffart, Jordanes' remark shows that Byzantine scholars had invented a concept of the "Gothic nations, sharing the same language, white bodies, blond hair, and Arian form of Christianity".
All information of the Gepids' origins came from "malicious and convoluted Gothic legends", recorded in Jordanes' Getica after 550. According to Jordanes' narration the northern island of "Scandza", which is associated with Sweden by modern scholars, was the original homeland of the ancestors of the Goths and Gepids. They left Scandza in three boats under the leadership of Berig, the legendary Gothic King. Jordanes also writes that the Gepids' ancestors traveled in the last of the three ships, for which their fellows mocked them as gepanta, or "slow and stolid". They settled along the southern shore of the Baltic Sea on an island at the mouth of the Vistula river, called "Gepedoius", or the Gepids' fruitful meadows, by Jordanes. Modern historians debate whether the part of Jordanes' work which described the migration from Scandza was written at least partially on the basis of Gothic oral history or whether it was an "ahistorical fabrication". Jordanes' passage in his Getica reads:
Should you ask how the [Goths] and Gepidae are kinsmen, I can tell you in a few words. You surely remember that in the beginning I said the Goths went forth from the bosom of the island of Scandza with Berig, their king, sailing in only three ships toward the hither shore of Ocean, namely to Gothiscandza. One of these three ships proved to be slower than the others, as is usually the case, and thus is said to have given the tribe their name, for in their language gepanta means slow. Hence it came to pass that gradually and by corruption the name Gepidae was coined for them by way of reproach. For undoubtedly they too trace their origin from the stock of the Goths, but because, as I have said, gepanta means something slow and stolid, the word Gepidae arose as a gratuitous name of reproach.
Modern historians who write of the Gepids' early history tend to apply a "mixed argumentation", combining Jordanes' narration with results of archaeological research. According to Jordanes, the Gepids decided to leave "Gepedoius" during the reign of their legendary king, Fastida. They moved to the south and defeated the Burgundians. After the victory, Fastida demanded land from Ostrogotha, King of the Visigoths, because the Gepids' territory was "hemmed in by rugged mountains and dense forests". Ostrogotha refused Fastida's demand and the Gepids joined battle with the Goths "at the town of Galtis, near which the river Auha" flowed, according to Jordanes. They fought until darkness when Fastida and his Gepids withdrew from the battlefield and returned to their land. Archaeologist Kurdt Horedt writes that the battle took place east of the Carpathian Mountains after 248 and before the withdrawal of the Romans from the province of Dacia in the early 270s. On the other hand, historian István Bóna says that the two armies clashed in the former province of Dacia around 290.
The Gepids invaded the Roman provinces in the Balkan Peninsula, in alliance with the Goths and other "tribes of the Scythians", in 269, but Emperor Claudius Gothicus routed them, according to the Augustan History. The same source also says that Emperor Probus, who ruled between 276 and 282, settled Gepid prisoners of war in the Roman Empire in the Balkans. According to a formal speech, delivered in praise of Emperor Maximian on 1 April 291, the Thervingi—a Gothic group—joined "battle with the Vandals and Gepids" around that time.
The Gepids' history in the 4th century is unknown, because no written source mentioned them during this period. The silence of the Roman sources suggests that their homeland did not border on the Roman Empire. On the basis of Jordanes' reference to the "rugged mountains" of the Gepids' land, historians locate it near the Carpathians, along the upper courses of either the Tisza or the Dniester rivers, in the late 3rd century. The exact date of the Gepids' settlement in the Carpathian Basin cannot exactly be determined. Archaeologist István Bóna says they were present in the northeastern region already in the 260s. According to Coriolan H. Opreanu, they seem to have arrived around 300. Archaeologists Eszter Istvánovits and Valéria Kulcsár write that no archaeological evidence substantiates the Gepids' presence before around 350.
Graves from the 4th century which yielded swords, lances and shields with iron boss were unearthed in cemeteries between the rivers Tisza and Körös (in present-day north-eastern Hungary and north-western Romania). Many scholars (including Kurdt Horedt, István Bóna and Coriolan H. Opreanu) attribute those graves to Gepid warriors. Graves of women from the same cemeteries produced artefacts—including bronze and silver clasps, bone combs, and fibulae—which are similar to objects found in the cemeteries of the nearby "Sântana de Mureș-Chernyakhov culture". István Bóna writes that the spread of these cemeteries shows that the Gepids subjugated the Germanic Victohali, who had previously inhabited the same region, before expanding towards the Mureș River in the middle of the 4th century.
A large group of diverse peoples from the region of the Middle Danube crossed the river Rhine and invaded the Roman Empire in 405 or 406. Although most contemporaneous sources only listed the Vandals, Alans and Sueves among the invaders, according to St. Jerome, who lived in Bethlehem around that time, Gepids also participated in the invasion. According to a scholarly theory, the westward migration of the Huns forced the tribes to flee from the Carpathian Basin and seek refuge in the Roman Empire.
Jordanes writes that Thorismund, King of the Ostrogoths, who was subjected to the Huns, "won a great victory over" the Gepids, but fell in the battle in about 405. Jordanes' report suggests that the Gepids were forced to accept the overlordship of the Ostrogoths, but the latter were representatives of the emerging Hunnic Empire. A treasure of gold jewels, which was found at Șimleu Silvaniei, was hidden in the first decades of the 5th century, most probably in connection with the struggles ending with the Gepids' subjection to the Huns, according to István Bóna.
The Gepid warriors fought along with the Huns during the next decades. Attila the Hun prized Ardaric, King of the Gepids, and Valamir, King of the Ostrogoths, "above all the other chieftains", who were subjected to the Huns, in the 440s, according to Jordanes. The Gepids' participation in the Huns' campaigns against the Roman Empire brought them much booty, contributing to the development of a rich Gepid aristocracy. Especially, the isolated graves of 5th-century aristocratic women evidence the Gepid leaders' wealth: they wore heavy silver fibulas on their shoulders, bead necklaces, silver bracelets, large gold earrings, and silver clasps on their clothes and belts. A "countless host" under the command of Ardaric formed the right wing of the army of Attila the Hun in the Battle of the Catalaunian Plains in 451. On the eve of the main encounter between allied hordes, the Gepids and Franks met each other, the latter fighting for the Romans and the former for the Huns, and seem to have fought one another to a standstill with 15,000 dead.
Attila the Hun died unexpectedly in 453. Conflicts among his sons developed into a civil war, enabling the subject peoples to rise up in rebellion. According to Jordanes, the Gepid king, Ardaric, who "became enraged because so many nations were being treated like slaves of the basest condition", was the first to take up arms against the Huns. The decisive battle was fought at the (unidentified) Nedao River in Pannonia in 454 or 455. In the battle, the united army of Gepids, Rugii, Sarmatians and Suebi routed the Huns and their allies, including the Ostrogoths.
After the Battle of Nedao, the Hunnic Empire disintegrated and the Gepids became the dominant power in the eastern regions of the Carpathian Basin. According to Jordanes, the Gepids "by their own might won for themselves the territory of the Huns and ruled as victors over the extent of all Dacia, demanding of the Roman Empire nothing more than peace and an annual gift" after their victory. Emperor Marcian confirmed their status as the allies of the empire and granted them an annual subsidy of 100 pounds of gold. The late-5th-century treasures excavated at Apahida and Someșeni show that the Gepid rulers accumulated great wealth in the second half of the century.
The Gepids joined a coalition formed by the Suebi, Scirii, Sarmatians and other peoples formed against the Ostrogoths who had settled in Pannonia. However, the Ostrogoths routed the united forces of their enemies in the Battle of Bolia in 469. After the Ostrogoths left Pannonia in 473, the Gepids captured Sirmium (now Sremska Mitrovica in Serbia), a strategically important town on the road between Italy and Constantinople. Thraustila, King of the Gepids, tried to hinder the Ostrogoths from crossing the river Vuka during Theoderic the Great's campaign against Italy, but the Ostrogoths routed Thraustila's army. The Gepids also lost Sirmium to the Ostrogoths, according to Walter Pohl. In short, according to Walter Goffart, Thraustila's son, Thrasaric, "regained control of Sirmium but possibly under Ostrogothic underlordship". Theoderic the Great dispatched one comes Pitzia to launch a campaign against the Gepids who either tried to capture Sirmium or wanted to get rid of Theoderic's suzerainty in 504. Comes Pitzia expelled the Gepid troops from Sirmium without much resistance.
The Gepids reached the zenith of their power after 537, settling in the rich area around Singidunum (today's Belgrade). For a short time, the city of Sirmium (present-day Sremska Mitrovica) was the center of the Gepid State and the king Cunimund minted golden coins in it.
In 546 the Byzantine Empire allied themselves with the Lombards, and in 552 the Gepids suffered a disastrous defeat from Alboin, king of the Lombards, in the Battle of Asfeld, after which Alboin had a drinking cup made from the skull of Cunimund.
The Gepids were finally overrun by the Avars in 567 (see Lombard–Gepid War (567)). Many Gepids followed Alboin to Italy in 568 (see Paulus Diaconus), but many remained. In 630, Theophylact Simocatta reported that the Byzantine Army entered the territory of the Avars and attacked a Gepid feast, capturing 30,000 Gepids (they met no Avars). Recent excavation by the Tisza River at Szolnok brought up a Gepid nobleman from an Avar period grave who was also wearing Turkic-Avar pieces next to the traditional Germanic clothes in which he was buried.
In the 8th century, Paul the Deacon lists Gepid, Bulgarian, Sarmatian, Pannonian, Suabian and Norican villages in Italy but we do not know if Paul means in his own day or is simply lifting the phrase from an older source.
For they all have white bodies and fair hair, and are tall and handsome to look upon.
In Vlaha, Cluj County, Romania, a necropolis was discovered in August 2004 with over two hundred tombs dated to the 6th century AD. Eighty-five percent of the discovered tombs were robbed in the same period. The remaining artifacts are ceramics, bronze articles and an armory. Also in Romania, at Miercurea Sibiului, there is another necropolis with rich artifacts. Other necropolises in Romania are:
For undoubtedly they too trace their origin from the stock of the Goths, but because, as I have said, gepanta means something slow and stolid, the name Giped arose as a spontaneous taunt. I do not believe the name itself is very far from wrong, for they are slow of thought and too sluggish for quick movement of their bodies.
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