Germanic tribes

The term Germanic tribes applies to the ancient Germanic peoples of Europe.

The Germanic tribes spoke mutually intelligible dialects and shared a common mythology (see Germanic mythology) and storytelling as testified by, for example, Beowulf and the Volsunga saga. The existence of a common identity is testified by the fact that they had a name for non-Germanic peoples, *walha, from which the local names Welsh, Wallis, Walloon, and Wallachia have been derived.

In the absence of large-scale political unification, such as that imposed forcibly by the Romans upon the peoples of Italy, the various tribes remained free, led by their own hereditary or chosen leaders.




Missing image
Map of the Nordic Bronze Age culture, ca 1200 BC

Regarding the question of ethnic origins, evidence developed by both archaeologists and linguists suggests that a people or group of peoples sharing a common material culture dwelt in northern Germany and southern Scandinavia during the late European Bronze Age (1000 BC-500 BC). This culture group is called the Nordic Bronze Age and had spread from southern Scandinavia into northern Germany. The long presence of Germanic tribes in southern Scandinavia (an Indo-European language probably arrived ca 2000 BC) is also testified by the fact that no pre-Germanic place names have been found in this area.

Linguists, working backwards from historically-known Germanic languages, suggest that this group spoke proto-Germanic, a distinct branch of the Indo-European language family. Cultural features at that time included small, independent settlements and an economy strongly based on the keeping of livestock.

Missing image
Map of the Pre-Roman Iron Age culture(s) associated with Proto-Germanic, ca 500 BC-60 BC. The area south of Scandinavia is the Jastorf culture

The southward movement was probably influenced by a deteriorating climate in Scandinavia ca 600 BC - ca 300 BC. The warm and dry climate of southern Scandinavia (2-3 degrees warmer than today) deteriorated considerably, which not only dramatically changed the flora, but forced people to change their way of living and to leave settlements.

At around this time, this culture discovered how to extract bog iron from the ore in peat bogs. Their technology for gaining iron ore from local sources may have helped them expand into new territories.

The Germanic culture grew to the southwest and southeast, without sudden breaks, and it can be distinguished from the culture of the Celts inhabiting the more southerly Danube and Alpine regions during the same period.

The details of the expansion are known only generally, but it is clear that the forebears of the Goths were settled on the southern Baltic shore by 100 AD. Along the lower and middle Rhine, previous local inhabitants seem to have come under the leadership of Germanic figures from outside, according to some scholars.

Collision with Rome

By the late 2nd century, B.C., Roman authors recount, Gaul, Italy and Spain were invaded by migrating Germanic tribes, culminating in military conflict with the armies of the Roman Empire. Six decades later, Julius Caesar invoked the threat of such attacks as one justification for his annexation of Gaul to Rome.

, author of the , an  work on the diverse group of Germanic tribes outside of the Roman Empire.
Gaius Cornelius Tacitus, author of the Germania, an ethnographic work on the diverse group of Germanic tribes outside of the Roman Empire.

As Rome advanced her borders to the Rhine and Danube, incorporating many Celtic societies into the Empire, the tribal homelands to the north and east emerged collectively in the records as Germania, whose peoples were sometimes at war with the Empire but who also engaged in complex and long-term trade relations, military alliances and cultural exchanges with their neighbours to the south.

The wars against the Cimbri and Teutoni whose military incursion into Roman Italy was thrust back in 101 BC were written up by Caesar and others as historical prototypes of a Northern danger for the Empire to be controlled. In the Augustean period there was - as a result of Roman activity as far as the Elbe River - a first definition of the "Germania magna": from Rhine and Danube in the West and South to the Vistula and the Baltic Sea in the East and North.

Caesar's ethnographic excurses finally established the term Germania. The initial purpose of the Roman campaigns was to protect Gaul by controlling the area between the Rhine and the Elbe. In 9 AD a revolt of their subject Germanics headed by Arminius (decisive defeat of Quintilius Varus in the Teutoburg Forest) ended in the withdrawal of the Roman frontier to the Rhine. At the end of the 1st century two provinces west of the Rhine called Germania inferior and Germania superior were established. Important medieval cities like Aachen, Cologne, Trier, Mainz, Worms and Speyer were part of these Roman structures.

Migration period (V?rwanderung)

During the 5th century, as the Roman Empire drew toward its end, numerous Germanic tribes, under pressure from invading Asian peoples and/or population growth and climate change, began migrating en masse in far and diverse directions, taking them to England and as far south through present day Continental Europe to the Mediterranean and northern Africa. Over time, this wandering meant intrusions into other tribal territories, and the ensuing wars for land escalated with the dwindling amount of unoccupied territory. Wandering tribes then began staking out permanent homes as a means of protection. Much of this resulted in fixed settlements from which many, under a powerful leader, expanded outwards. A defeat meant either scattering or merging with the dominant tribe, and this continued to be how nations were formed. In Denmark the Jutes merged with the Danes, in Sweden the Geats merged with the Swedes. In England, for example, we now most often refer to the Anglo-Saxons rather than the two separate tribes.

Role of the Germanics in the Fall of Rome

Some of the Germanic tribes are frequently blamed in popular conceptions for the fall of the Roman Empire in the late 5th century. Professional historians and archaeologists have since the 1950s shifted their interpretations in such a way that the Germanic peoples are no longer seen as invading a decaying empire but as being co-opted into helping defend territory the central government could no longer adequately administer. Individuals and small groups from Germanic tribes had long been recruited from the territories beyond the limes (i.e., the regions just outside the Roman Empire), and some of them had risen high in the command structure of the army; Odoacer, who deposed Romulus Augustulus, is an example. Later the government of the Empire began to recruit entire tribal groups under their native leaders as officers. Assisting with defense eventually shifted into administration and then outright rule, as Roman traditions of government passed into the hands of Germanic leaders.

The presence of successor states controlled by a nobility from one of the Germanic tribes is evident in the 6th century - even in Italy, the former heart of the Empire, where Odoacer was followed by Theodoric the Great, king of the Ostrogoths, who was regarded by Roman citizens and Gothic settlers alike as legitimate successor to the rule of Rome and Italy.


, god of thunder, one of the major figures in .
Thor, god of thunder, one of the major figures in Germanic mythology.

See: Germanic mythology, Germanic Paganism

Conversion to Christianity

The Ostrogoths, Visigoths, and Vandals were Christianized while they were still outside the bounds of the Empire; however, they converted to Arianism rather than to orthodox Catholicism, and were soon regarded as heretics. The one great written remnant of the Gothic language is a translation of portions of the Bible made by Ulfilas, the missionary who converted them. The Lombards were not converted until after their entrance into the Empire, but received Christianity from Arian Germanic groups.

The Franks were converted directly from paganism to Catholicism without an intervening time as Arians. Several centuries later, Anglo-Saxon and Frankish missionaries and warriors undertook the conversion of their Saxon neighbours. A key event was the felling of Thor's Oak near Fritzlar by Boniface, apostle of the Germans, in 723. Eventually, the conversion was forced by armed force, successfully completed by Charlemagne, in a series of campaigns (the Saxon Wars), that also brought Saxon lands into the Frankish empire.


See: Germanic languages

List of Germanic tribes


The concept of "Germanic" as a distinct ethnic identity was hinted at by the early Greek geographer Strabo [1] (;query=section%3D%2341;chunk=section;layout=;loc=7.1.1), who distinguished a barbarian group in northern Europe similar to, but not part of, the Celts. Posidonius, to our knowledge, is the first to have used the name.

By the 1st century A.D., the writings of Caesar, Tacitus and other Roman era writers indicate a division of Germanic-speaking peoples into tribal groupings centred on:

The Istvaeones, Irminones, and Ingvaeones are collectively called West Germanic tribes. In addition to this those Germanic people who remained in Scandinavia are referred to as North Germanic. These groups all developed separate dialects, the basis for the differences among Germanic languages down to the present day.

The divison of peoples into west-Germanic, east-Germanic, and north-Germanic was a 19th century hypothesis of linguists. Many Greek scholars only classified Celts and Scyths in the Northwest and Northeast of the Mediterranean and this classification was widely maintained in Greek literature until Late Antiquity. Latin-Greek ethnographers (Tacitus, Pliny, Ptolemy, and Strabo) mentioned in the first two centuries AD the names of peoples they classified as Germanic along the Elbe, the Rhine, and the Danube, the Vistula and on the Baltic Sea. Tacitus mentioned 40, Ptolemy 69 peoples. Classical ethnography applied the name Suebi to many tribes in the first century. It appeared that this native name had all but replaced the foreign name Germanic. After the Marcomannic wars the Gothic name steadily gained importance. Some of the ethnic names mentioned by the ethnographers of the first two centuries AD on the shores of the Oder and the Vistula (Gutones, Vandali) reappear from the 3rd century on in the area of the lower Danube and north of the Carpathian Mountains. Modern scholarship has no explanation for the ethnic processes causing this continuity. For the end of the 5th century the Gothic name can be used - according to the historical sources - for such different peoples like the Goths in Gaul, Spain and Italy, the Vandals in Africa, the Gepids along the Tisza and the Danube, the Rugians, Sciri and Burgundians, even the Iranian Alans. These peoples were classified as Scyths and often deducted from the ancient Getae (most important: Cassiodor/Jordanes, Getica approx. 550 AD).

The concept of Volk

In the last decade of the 20th century and the first decade of the 21st there has been debate about exactly what "tribe" or "people" meant to these groups, whose fluidity and willingness to sometimes blend is seen while at the same time forced mergers as a result of war were taking place and the tribe as it had been known vanished. The late classical sources are especially clear in the matter of the blended nature of the Alamanni.

The idea of a unified German people, or Volk, was expressed openly in print by 19th century Ethnic Nationalist writers and thinkers after the Napoleonic Wars. Such an identity, however, had existed more implicitly since the Middle Ages, helping to fuel the Protestant Reformation, when many Germanic lands pulled away religiously and politically from the Roman Catholic Church.

See also

Further reading

  • Beck, Heinrich and Heiko Steuer and Dieter Timpe, eds. Die Germanen. Studienausgabe. Reallexikon der germanischen Altertumskunde. Berlin, New York: Walter de Gruyter 1998. Xi + 258 pp. ISBN 3-11-016383-7.
  • Collins, Roger. Early medieval Europe. 300-1000. 2nd ed. Basingstoke: Macmillan 1999. XXV + 533 pp. ISBN 0-333-65807-8.
  • Geary, Patrick J. Before France and Germany. The creation and transformation of the Merovingian world. Oxford: Oxford University Press 1988. Xii + 259 pp. ISBN 0-195-04458-4.
  • Geary, Patrick J. The Myth of Nations. The Medieval Origins of Europe. Princeton: Princeton University Press 2002. X + 199 pp. ISBN 0-691-11481-1.
  • Herrmann, Joachim. Griechische und lateinische Quellen zur Fr?hichte Mitteleuropas bis zur Mitte des 1. Jahrtausends unserer Zeitrechnung. I. Von Homer bis Plutarch. 8. Jh. v. u. Z. bis 1. Jh. v. u. Z. II. Tacitus-Germania. III. Von Tacitus bis Ausonius. 2. bis 4. Jh. u. Z. IV. Von Ammianus Marcellinus bis Zosimos. 4. und 5. Jh. u. Z. Berlin: Akademie Verlag 1988 -1992. I: 657 pp. ISBN 3-05-000348-0. II: 291 pp. ISBN 3-05-000349-9. III: 723 pp. ISBN 3-05-000571-8. IV: 656 pp. ISBN 3-05-000591-2.
  • Pohl, Walter. Die Germanen. Enzyklop䤊e deutscher Geschichte 57. M?: Oldenbourg 2004. X + 156 pp. ISBN 3-486-56755-1.
  • Pohl, Walter. Die Voelkerwanderung. Eroberung und Integration. Stuttgart: Kohlhammer 2002. 266 pp. ISBN 3-170-15566-0. Monograph, German.
  • Todd, Malcolm. The Early Germans. Oxford: Blackwell 2004. Xii + 266 pp. ISBN 0-631-16397-2.
  • Wolfram, Herwig. History of the Goths. Berkeley: University of California Press 1988. Xii + 613 pp. ISBN 0-520-6983-8.
  • Wolfram, Herwig. The Roman Empire and its Germanic peoples. Berkeley: University of California Press 1997. XX + 361 pp. ISBN 0-520-08511-6.

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