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The Aesti (also Aestii or Aests) were an ancient (most probably Baltic) people first described by the Roman historian Tacitus in his treatise Germania (circa 98 CE).[1] According to Tacitus, Aestui, the land of the Aestii, was located somewhere east of the Suiones (Swedes) and west of the Sitones (possibly the Kvens), on the Suebian (Baltic) Sea. This and other evidence suggests that Aestui was in a region around the later East Prussia (now Kaliningrad Oblast).

Geographical and linguistic evidence suggests that the Aestii were, ethnologically, a Baltic people and possibly synonymous with the Brus/Prūsa or Old Prussians (i. e. not a Germanic people such as the modern Prussians or a Finno-Ugric people, such as the Estonians). Tacitus almost certainly erred in implying that the Aestii were a hybrid Celtic-Germanic culture: he claimed that while the "Aestian nations" followed the "same customs and attire" as "the Suebians" (at the time a collective term for eastern Germanic peoples), their speech resembled that of the Britons (i. e. a Celtic language rather than the Germanic languages of the Suebii). Tacitus often utilised unreliable, secondary sources – and may not have been aware of such distinctions in any case.

In the modern Estonian language, Eesti is the endonym for "Estonia". Estonia was known as Estia or Hestia in some early Latin sources, and Eistland in ancient Scandinavian sagas. However, most Estonians referred to themselves as Maarahvas until the early modern era. These facts suggests that either: (1) Tacitus used a Latinised exonym for the people concerned, possibly derived from the Germanic *austa- ("east");[implausible] (2) the modern Estonian endonym is a loanword from the lost language of the Aestii (however, Eesti could equally simply be a borrowing from Swedish or Middle Low German, or directly from Latin), and/or; (3) that the proto-Estonians were a Baltic people who later adopted a Finno-Ugric language.

The only surviving example of the Aestian language was recorded by Tacitus: glesum, an apparently Latinised word for amber and similar to the later Latvian equivalent: glīsas. Both may be loanwords from a Germanic language, given their similarity to the Gothic word glas.[2]

There is evidence that the area around the Vistula Lagoon was strongly associated with the Aestii: the Old Prussian and modern Lithuanian names for the lagoon, Aistmarės and Aīstinmari respectively, appear to be derived from Aestii and mari ("lagoon" or "fresh water bay").[3] Therefore, the oldest known name of the body of the water was "lagoon of the Aestii".

Historical sources


The ancient writers, beginning with Tacitus, who was the first Roman author to mention them in his Germania, provide very little information on the Aestii.[4] Although Tacitus never travelled to Magna Germania himself and only recorded information he had obtained from others, the short ethnographic excursus below is the most detailed ancient account of the Aestii that we have:

Upon the right of the Suebian Sea the Aestian nations reside, who use the same customs and attire with the XLV).

The placement of the Tacitean Aestii is based primarily on their association with amber, a popular luxury item during the life of Tacitus, with known sources at the southeastern coast of the Baltic Sea. The Baltic amber trade, which appears to have extended to the Mediterranean Sea, has been traced by archaeologists back to the Nordic Bronze Age; its major center was located in the region of Sambia.

This trade probably existed prior to the historical Trojan War in the 13th century BCE, as amber is one of the substances in which the palace of Menelaus at Sparta was said to be rich in Homer's The Iliad.[5]


Cassiodorus' Variae, published in 537, contains a letter written by Cassiodorus in the name of Theodoric the Great, addressed to the Aesti:

It is gratifying to us to know that you have heard of our fame, and have sent ambassadors who have passed through so many strange nations to seek our friendship.
We have received the amber which you have sent us. You say that you gather this lightest of all substances from the shores of ocean, but now it comes thither you know not. But as an author named Cornelius (Tacitus) informs us, it is gathered in the innermost islands of the ocean, being formed originally of the juice of a tree (whence its name succinum), and gradually hardened by the heat of the sun. Thus us becomes an exuded metal, a transparent softness, sometimes blushing with the color of saffron, sometimes glowing with flame-like clearness. Then, gliding down to the margin of sea, and further purified by the rolling of the tides, it is a length transported to your shores to be cast upon them. We have thought it better to point this out to you, lest you should imagine that your supposed secrets have escaped our knowledge. We sent you some presents by our ambassadors, and shall be glad to receive further visits from you by the road which you have thus opened up, and to show you future favors.

The style of the letter proves that the nation was at that time independent, not ruled by the Ostrogoths. Apparently Cassiodorus considered it politically essential to establish friendly relations with the Nordic region. The letter also indicates that the Aesti were fully confident of the value of amber and had made out of it a trade secret. The sending of presents and the promise to show future favors were in ancient times a cordial way of giving de jure recognition to another power.[6]


Sixth Century historian Jordanes makes two references the Aesti in his book "The Origins and the Deeds of the Goths", which was a treatment of Cassiodorus' longer book (which no longer survives) on the history of the Goths. The first quote places the Aestii beyond the Vidivarii, on the shore of the Baltic: "a subject race, likewise hold the shore of Ocean." The next quote concerns the subjugation of the Aesti by Hermanaric, king of the Gothic Greuthungi: "This ruler also subdued by his wisdom and might the race of the Aesti, who dwell on the farthest shore of the German Ocean".

Alfred the Great

In an 11th-century manuscript of [1]

Adam of Bremen

During the 11th Century Adam of Bremen, citing Einhard (who in the Vita Caroli Magni states "the Slavs and the Aisti live on the shores of the Eastern Sea"), denotes the coastal tribe as the Haisti and refers to today's Estonia as Aestland.[9]

See also



  • Deutschler, Yorck: "Die Aestii - Bezeichnung für die heutigen Esten Estlands oder die untergegangenen Pruzzen Ostpreußens" , in: Deutschler, Yorck, "Die Singende Revolution" - Chronik der Estnischen Freiheitsbewegung (1987-1991), pp. 196–198. Ingelheim, March 1998/June 2000. ISBN 3-88758-077-X
  • link

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