Tacitus mentions the people Fenni in Germania (46), and this people lived somewhere near modern Finland. I am interested in the etymology of this word.

Do we know where Tacitus got the word Fennus? Is this a first appearance, or does it have written predecessors? Is the word believed to have been borrowed from some other language? If yes, do we know which one?

The origin of the English word Finn is also unclear, and it is not at all clear to me if it is related to Tacitus' word. The Finnish word for Finland or Finns is unrelated, but also of unclear meaning or origin.

  • 1
    Relevant article on the Fenni and, as mentioned by Ptolemy, Φίννοι.
    – brianpck
    Commented Feb 7, 2017 at 15:22
  • @brianpck I noticed that one, and I assume Ptolemy took the word from (the same source as?) Tacitus. An explanation of either of these words would be good.
    – Joonas Ilmavirta
    Commented Feb 7, 2017 at 15:37

2 Answers 2


For the current scholarly thinking on this subject see this article in “Der neue Pauly”:

Fenni (122 words)


Ein für Tacitus ‘unzivilisiertes und sehr armes’ (mira feritas, foeda paupertas), aber ‘glückliches’ (beatius arbitrantur) Jägervolk im Norden, dessen Zuordnung zu den Germanen oder Sarmaten offen bleibt (Tac. Germ. 46). Sie waren gewiß mit den als “Nachbarn” der Goten angesehenen Phínnoi (Φίννοι) in Nordskandinavien identisch (Ptol. 2,11,16: Hs. X; 3,5,8; vgl. Iord. Get. 3,22: mitissimi), nicht aber mit den Suomi-Finnen, die erst in der 2. H. des 12. Jh. so benannt wurden. Aufgrund der bei Tac. Germ. 46 geschilderten Lebensgewohnheiten wurden die F. mit den Lappen gleichgesetzt, doch ist auch das nicht unumstritten.


According to Tacitus ‘an uncivilized and very poor’ (mira feritas, foeda paupertas) but ‘happy’ (beatius arbitrantur) northern people of hunters, whose classification as Germans or Sarmatians was left uncertain (Tac. Germ. 46). They undoubtedly were identical with the Phínnoi (Φίννοι) in northern Scandinavia, who were considered ‘neighbours’ of the Goths (Ptol. 2,11,16: Hs. X; 3,5,8; cf. Jord. Get. 3,22: mitissimi), but not Suomi Finns, who were only named thus in the 2nd half of the 12th cent. Because of the customs described in Tac. Germ. 46, the F. have been equated with the Sami (Lapps) but this is disputed.

Dietz, Karlheinz (Würzburg)


  • H.H. Bartens, s.v. Finnische Völker, RGA 9, 70-77
  • A.A. Lund, Kritischer Forsch.-Ber. zur Germania des Tacitus, in: ANRW II 33.3, 1989-2222, bes. 2182-2188.

(Caution: almost all my personal views about etymologies)

Fenni, finnoi or phinnoi can be originally from "fen" ("suomi" can be from "suo-maa", fen-land, which is main feature of finnish coast landscape from the beach inlands). Finnoi might be nordic origin, from the word "finna", to find -- describing hunter-gatherer. First instance in nordic literature is in Snorri Sturlusson's sagas; some mentions in viking age runestones (900-1000).

The origin of "suomi" term is wildly debated, beginning from loan from estonian, name for finnish folk group "hämäläiset", (people of häme region) --> estonian dsämä --> back to protofinnish --> sämi, suomi. One version would be "saami", original inhabitants of far north -- in maps "ruthenian mountains". Saami as a term is still used today.

So my conclusion is, there is no latin origin for fenni or finnoi. It is local term picked from travelling. See also

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gesta_Hammaburgensis_ecclesiae_pontificum --> the book in latin.

  • Kiitos vastauksesta ja tervetuloa sivustolle! These are interesting ideas, and it would be great if anyone found support for any of the theories. It would be very interesting if Tacitus really used a word of Nordic origin.
    – Joonas Ilmavirta
    Commented Dec 21, 2017 at 20:36

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