Genealogia Bretius

Although the Bretz surname is clearly Germanic in its modern form, there are clues that its origin might extend back to antiquity. References from history, literature, and surname research have offered possible connections to a beginning in Italia. What is most exciting about these ideas are that they are now supported by the Bretz Y-DNA testing, which exposes a Mediterranean nature for the family.

They are also to be taken with a grain of salt, however; with so few actual records of specific individuals, and so much time having passed to allow a feasible connection to modern family trees, it is difficult to look upon these ideas as more than just exciting conjecture.

The most commonly cited Latin connection of the Bretz name is to a Fabius Bretius and his sons from the Late Roman Empire.

From An Incomplete Genealogy of the Family of John Bretz of Fairfield County, Ohio, 1949;

"An attempt has been made to connect these early Germans with a Fabius Bretius, or Britius, a Roman "Magister Equitum" (cavalry general) in the 18th Roman Legion, who came from the district of Capua and Tarento in southern Italy; married Olfa, daughter of a German tribal "duke"; was head of a family in the Roman city now called Trier or Treves on the Mosell about 224 A.D.; and died 263 A.D.

The information is said to have been taken from the "Genealogical Tables of the German Nobility" and "Books of Heraldry" in the City Library of Vienna. It is also stated that the descendants of Fabius Bretius, writing their name Bretz or Pretz, constituted a family of knights in the region for several centuries although no names are reported until Hugh Pretz appears in the time of Otto the Great. In 951 Otto "renewed" Hugo's "old title of nobility and family escutcheon and established them with instruments of writing at Augsburg", apparently as a reward of Hugo's valor in the battle of Leochfelde, (950) when Otto definitely disposed of the Magyar menace from the east. Hugo's wife was Bertha of Wartensleban. He had two sons, Cladius and Adolf.

Rome held the Teutonic tribes along the Rhine in subjection until the fifth century when the weakening Empire lost the last of its holdings in Gaul. Thereafter the Teutonic tribes warred among themselves; Saxons, Franks and Alamanni struggling for domination until Charlemagne imposed on authority in law and religion, and unified Germany for the first time. Only the existence and survival, through these vicissitudes, of a "coat-of-arms" could have made possible the family connection that is indicated across seven centuries. Where the record of royalty is questionable, what is the likelihood of direct tracing among lower social orders?"

And another record of the same reference from A Brief History of John and Christian Fretz, 1904;

It is recorded in the book of 'Heraldry,' found in the public library of Vienna, that the family of Bretz, as formerly written, had its origin at Trier, on the Lower Rhine, where Fabius Bretius, a Roman General of Cavalry, located about 224 A. D., having been a native of Capua, in Southern Italy. He married Olfa, daughter of a German Duke, and died 263 A. D. In the line of descent was Daniel Bretz, who died in 1681, leaving two sons, Felix and Christof, one of whom is the ancestor of John Philip Bretz, who was born in Windersheira, near Creutnacht-on-the-Rhine, in 1755, and who emigrated to America and settled in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, where he died and is buried. Members of this family now spell the name Pretz.

A similar quote is also used in History of the Counties of Lehigh and Carbon, in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, 1884, when discussing the Pretz family, and it likely can be found in other, still unknown, Bretz genealogical accounts of the era. Unfortunately our research has not yet been able to determine the first usage of the text (1884 is currently the earliest found), or locate it's supposed source, the Books of Heraldry. It would be useful to study the original German text for more information.

Now, disregarding for the moment that this story originates from a single source, the idea of a Roman nobleman from the south of Italy settling in Germany 1,800 years ago is certainly intriguing. At some point the Bretz patrilineal DNA had to make it northward from its homelands in the Mediterranean, and this account provides one possible source. The city of Trier, mentioned as the new home to the family, was a Roman city in what is the modern Rhineland-Palatinate region. An area which unto this day is home to the vast majority of German Bretz families, and has been the source of many Bretz immigrants to North America for several centuries. Given the relative obscurity of the Bretz surname and its variants, the idea that all Bretz families might trace their lineage back to a single Roman immigrant is incredible, but possible over 70 generations.

Up until around 395 Trier was the center of Roman administration for the province of Gaul. It was an important and prosperous city, and possibly grew to be 70,000 persons in size at the height of Roman rule. Our Fabius would have lived there near the peak of its power, and might have occasionally endured attacks by local German tribes. The Franks seized Trier in 459 and by 870 it became part of Eastern Francia, which later developed into the Holy Roman Empire. Roman rule around Trier would have ended about 8 generations after the time of Fabius Bretius, after which his descendants would have been part of the Frankish Kingdoms into the time of Charlemagne.

However, one problem with this story (as written in 1949) is there was no 18th Roman Legion around at that time. That Legion was, along with two others, destroyed in the Battle of Teutoburg Forest September 9, 9 or 215 years before the Fabius Bretius account. After their destruction, the Romans never used the three legion numbers again.

Perhaps the record is in error and it was actually another Legion attributed to Bretius. The discovery of what happened to the 18th is really a more modern discovery. But possibility the confusion is more regarding the title Magister Equitum (Latin: Cavalry Master). During the early Empire this term was used for a very high office of the Roman government, second only to the Dictator. A kind of Vice President who was also in charge of the military. But by year 80 the office was no longer used until resurrected under Constantine in the early 4th century as a military rank. This means there were no Roman officials with that title for the 200 years including Bretius's time. What happened linguistically however was that the term came to be more casually associated with the right hand military man of any local strongman or governor, and so more akin to a type of knight. Perhaps this is a more accurate interpretation of the title as applied to Bretius, but it would require seeing the original text to be more certain as to its context.

Despite this, one fascinating aspect of the story is in the correlation of the name Bretius to later versions of the surname in their meaning. The Latin proper name Bretius is associated here with an actual 'cavalry master' or person of a similar horse/military profession. While the later name Bretz, is linked to the Old High German noun for bridle, and by extension, either the maker of bridles or possibly a controller of horses. So the Bretz surname could very well be a Germanic pet or corrupted form of this Latin root, demonstrated by this association. If not it is certainly quite a coincidence.

And what of the proper name Bretius, is there anything to be learned of it? The account of Fabius Bretius indicates that he came from the south of Italy near Capua, where there was in fact a Roman family clan of the Imperial period which had a very similar name.

The clan was called Bruttius, also spelled Brittius, Brettius, etc. (Greek: Βρύττιος), and it was particularly widespread in the south, including around Capua. Given the name's similarity to Bretius or Britius, and it's location, it is certainly concievable that Fabius could have belonged to this clan. The timing is also correct as no records of the Roman clan name are found prior to the Imperial period, and individuals of this name date between 100-300, the time of Fabius in Trier.

The name Bruttius probably indicates that the ancestors of the clan were from ager Bruttium, the southernmost region of Italia. The original Bruttii were an Oscan people descended from the Lucani, from whom they asserted their independence during the fourth century BC. The rise of the Bruttii is assigned by Diodorus to the year 356 BC when they deafeated the Greek colonies, and their fall soon after the Second Punic War in 202 BC, when the Romans crushed and colonized them. They dissapeared as a distinct people by the 2nd century AD. The name of Bruttii, which they adopted for themselves, may be a pre-Sabellic name meaning 'runaways' or 'rebels'. The later Roman clan noman might have still had this association into Imperial times, but it also could simply have been a reference to the geographical region.

From the New Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography, Mythology, and Geography, 1851;

BRUTTIUM, Bruttius and Bruttiorum Ager (Bpern'a : Bruttius), more usually called Bruttn, after the inhabitants, the southern extremity of Italy, separated from Lucania by a line drawn from the mouth of the Laus to Thurii, and surrounded on the other three sides by the sea. It was the country called in ancient times Enotria and Italia. The country is mountainous, as the Apennines run through it down to the Sicilian Straits ; it contained excellent pasturage for cattle, and the valley produced good corn, olives, and fruit. The earliest inhabitants of the country were CEnotrians. Subsequently some Lucanians, who had revolted from their countrymen in Lucania, took possession of the country, and were hence called Brultii or Brettii, which word is said to mean -'rebels" in the language of the Lucanians. This people, however, inhabited only the interior of the land; the coast was almost entirely in the possession of the Greek colonies. At the close of the second Punic war, in which the Bruttii had been the allies of Hannibal, they lost their independence, and were treated by the Romans with great severity. They were declared to be public slaves, and were employed as lictors and servants of the magistrates.

There were a number of historical Roman figures which later shared the Bruttius name. Not all of them would have been closely related, but similar to Scottish, Irish and other clan names today, there was likely some level of heredity in their past. A name for male citizens of Rome consisted of three parts; praenomen (given name), nomen (the name of the gens or clan) and cognomen (name of a family line within the gens). The nomen, and later, cognomen were almost always hereditary.

The following were all members of the Bruttius clan, and so carried the same nomen. The spellings here have all been conformed to 'Bruttius'

And from The Histories by Polybius there is a record of the name Brettius during the Third Punic War around 148 BC. This would have been after the fall of the Bruttii as a people, but of interest because the Bruttii and the Cathaginians had shared dealings. Mago Brettius (Greek: Βρέττιον) was sent with a group of envoys to negotiate on behalf of Carthage in the face of Roman ultimatums and aggression. Unfortunately, when they reached Rome, they found war already decreed and the generals already started with their forces. At this juncture they say that Mago Brettius delivered a statesmanlike speech. He said:

"The Carthaginians had two opportunities of taking counsel in regard to themselves and their country, one of which they had let pass; for in good truth it was no use now to question what was going to be enjoined on them by the consuls, and why it was that the Senate had made no mention of the city: they should have done that when they made the surrender. Having once made that, they must clearly make up their mind to the necessity of submitting to every possible injunction, unless it should prove to be something unbearably oppressive or beyond what they could possibly expect. If they would not do this, they must now consider whether they preferred to stand an invasion and all its possible consequences, or, in terror of the attack of the enemy, accept without resistance every order they might impose upon them."

Although the real truth is hidden and very likely unknowable, these are fascinating lines of thought on our family surname tracing across 2,200 years of history.

Possible Bretz locations are shown below.