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The Germanic peoples (Latin: Germani[a]; also called Teutons, Suebian, or Gothic in older literature) were a collection of ethnic groups of Northern European origin identified by Roman-era authors as distinct from neighbouring Celtic peoples, and identified in modern scholarship as speakers, at least for the most part, of early Germanic languages.
A Proto-Germanic population is believed to have emerged during the Nordic Bronze Age, which developed out of the Battle Axe culture in southern Scandinavia. During the Iron Age various Germanic tribes began a southward expansion at the expense of Celtic peoples, which led to centuries of sporadic violent conflict with ancient Rome. It is from Roman authors that the term "Germanic" originated. The decisive victory of Arminius at the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest in 9 CE is believed to have prevented the eventual Romanization of the Germanic peoples, and has therefore been considered a turning point in world history.[b] Germanic tribes settled the entire Roman frontier along the Rhine and the Danube, and some established close relations with the Romans, often serving as royal tutors and mercenaries, sometimes even rising to the highest offices in the Roman military. Meanwhile, Germanic tribes expanded into Eastern Europe, where the Goths subdued the local Iranian nomads and came to dominate the Pontic Steppe, simultaneously launching sea expeditions into the Balkans and Anatolia as far as Cyprus.
The westward expansion of the Huns into Europe in the late 4th century CE pushed many Germanic tribes into the Western Roman Empire. Their vacated lands were filled by Slavs. Many of these territories were reclaimed in following centuries. Other tribes settled Great Britain and became known as the Anglo-Saxons. With the collapse of the Western Roman Empire, a series of Germanic kingdoms emerged, of which Francia gained a dominant position. This kingdom formed the Holy Roman Empire under the leadership of Charlemagne, who was officially recognized by Pope Leo III in 800 CE. Meanwhile, North Germanic seafarers, commonly referred to as Vikings, embarked on a massive expansion which led to the establishment of the Duchy of Normandy, Kievan Rus' and their settlement of the British Isles and the North Atlantic Ocean as far as North America. Historical Germanic paganism, the indigenous religion of the Germanic peoples, ended with Christianization in the 11th century. Elements of Germanic paganism continued into post-Christianization folklore, and today Germanic paganism sees a modern revival in Heathenry, a new religious movement. The descendants of the original Germanic peoples are still known as the Germanic peoples.
- 1 Ethnonym
- 2 Classification
- 3 Linguistics
- 4 History
- 5 Culture
- 6 Genetics
- 7 Later Germanic studies and their influence
- 8 See also
- 9 Notes
- 10 References
- 11 Bibliography
In about 222 BCE, the first use of the Latin term "Germani" appears in the Fasti Capitolini inscription de Galleis Insvbribvs et Germ(aneis). This may simply be referring to Gaul or related people; but this may be an inaccurate date since the inscription was erected in about 18 BCE despite referencing an earlier date. The term Germani shows up again, allegedly written by Poseidonios (from 80 BCE), but is merely a quotation inserted by the author Athenaios who wrote much later (around 190 CE). Somewhat later, the first surviving detailed discussions of Germani and Germania are those of Julius Caesar, whose memoirs are based on first-hand experience.
From Caesar's perspective, Germania was a geographical area of land on the east bank of the Rhine opposite Gaul, which Caesar left outside direct Roman control. This word provides the etymological origin of the modern concept of "Germanic" languages and Germany as a geographical abstraction. For some classical authors Germania also included regions of Sarmatia, as well as an area under Roman control on the west bank of the Rhine. Additionally, in the south there were Celtic peoples still living east of the Rhine and north of the Alps. Caesar, Tacitus and others noted differences of culture which could be found on the east of the Rhine. But the theme of all these cultural references was that this was a wild and dangerous region, less civilized than Gaul, a place that required additional military vigilance.
Caesar also used the term Germani for a very specific tribal grouping in northeastern Belgic Gaul, west of the Rhine, the largest part of whom were the Eburones. He made clear that he was using the name in the local sense. These are the so-called Germani Cisrhenani, whom Caesar believed to be closely related to the peoples east of the Rhine, and descended from immigrants into Gaul. Tacitus suggests that this was the original meaning of the word "Germani" – as the name of a single tribal nation west of the Rhine, ancestral to the Tungri (who lived in the same area as the earlier Germani reported by Caesar), and not the name of a whole race (gens) as it came to mean. However, Tacitus adds that in due time, the name Germani "gradually acquired a wider usage" and that "once they had got to know the name, they all called themselves Germani." Caesar described this group of tribes both as Belgic Gauls and as Germani. Gauls are associated with Celtic languages, and the term Germani is associated with Germanic languages, but Caesar did not discuss languages in detail (though he did say that Belgic Gaul was different from Celtic Gaul in language). The geographer Ptolemy described the place where these people lived as Germania, which according to his accounts was bordered by the Rhine, Vistula and Danube Rivers, but he also circumscribed into Greater Germania an area which included Jutland (Cimbrian peninsula) and an enormous island known as Scandia (the Scandinavian peninsula).
While saying that the Germani had ancestry across the Rhine, Caesar did not describe these tribes as recent immigrants, saying that they had defended themselves some generations earlier from the invading Cimbri and Teutones. (He thereby distinguished them from the neighbouring Aduatuci, whom he did not call Germani, but who were descended from those Cimbri and Teutones.) It has been claimed, for example by Maurits Gysseling, that the place names of this region show evidence of an early presence of Germanic languages, as early as the 2nd century BCE. The Celtic culture and language were however clearly influential also, as can be seen in the tribal name of the Eburones, their kings' names, Ambiorix and Cativolcus, and also the material culture of the region.[c]
The etymology of the word Germani is uncertain. The likeliest theory so far proposed is that it comes from a Gaulish compound of *ger "near" + *mani "men", comparable to Welsh ger "near" (prep.), Old Irish gair "neighbor", Irish gar- (prefix) "near", garach "neighborly". Another Celtic possibility is that the name meant "noisy"; cf. Breton/Cornish garm "shout", Irish gairm "call". However, here the vowel does not match, nor does the vowel length (contrast with inscriptional Garmangabi (UK) and Garma Alise, G-257)). Others have proposed a Germanic etymology *gēr-manni, "spear men", cf. Middle Dutch ghere, Old High German Ger, Old Norse geirr. However, the form gēr (from PGmc *gaizaz) seems far too advanced phonetically for the 1st century, has a long vowel where a short one is expected, and the Latin form has a simplex -n-, not a geminate.
The term Germani, therefore, probably applied to a small group of tribes in northeastern Gaul who may or may not have spoken a Germanic language, and whose links to Germania are unclear. It appears that the Germanic tribes did not have a word to describe themselves, although the word Suebi, used by Caesar to broadly classify Germanic speakers, was likely Germanic in origin.[d] They did however use the term walhaz to describe outsiders (mainly Celts, Romans and Greeks). Roman authors frequently employed the term "barbarian" from the Latin derivative barbarus (inherited from the Greek barbaros which means "foreign") when describing Germanic peoples. Such a term presupposed a distinctive Roman intellectual and cultural superiority and their ethnographic treatises on the various barbarian tribes ascribed specific attributes of barbarism to each one so as to delineate the dichotomy between barbarism and civilization. The more the Romans increased their presence along the periphery of their Empire, the more trade and employment for the barbarians became available, resulting in an economic boom along the corridors of the Danube River, which subsequently increased the Roman focus upon the Germanic peoples. Use of the modern term German or Germanic is the result of 18th and 19th century classical philology which "envisioned the Germanic language group as occupying a central branch of the Indo-European language tree."
Latin scholars of the 10th century used the adjective teutonicus (a derivative of Teutones) when referencing East Francia, which in their vernacular was connoted "Regnum Teutonicum", for that area and all of its subsequent inhabitants. Modern speakers of English still use the word "Teutons" to describe Germanic peoples. Historically, the Teutones were only one specific tribe, and may not even have spoken a Germanic language. For example, some scholars postulate that the original Teutonic language may have been a form of Celtic. The source of this confusion, whereby Teutons are lumped into the same category as German-speaking tribes, comes from their contact with the Romans in the 2nd century BCE, when they, along with the Cimbri and the Ambrones, led a frightening attack against the Romans. Teuton was the byword the Romans applied to the barbarians from the north and which they used to describe subsequent Germanic peoples. Under the leadership of Gaius Marius, who built his career on barbarian antagonists (like many who followed), the Teutones became one of the archetypal enemies of the Roman Republic.
By the 1st century CE, the writings of Pomponius Mela, Pliny the Elder, and Tacitus indicate a division of Germanic peoples into large groupings who shared ancestry and culture. This division has been appropriated in modern terminology describing the divisions of Germanic languages.
Tacitus, in his Germania, wrote that:
In the ancient songs...they celebrate Tuisto, an earth-born god. To him they attribute a son, Mannus, the forefather and founder of their people, and to Mannus three sons, after whom were named the Ingvaeones, nearest to the Ocean, the Herminones in the interior, and the remainder Istvaeones.
Tacitus also specifies that the Suebi are a very large grouping, with many tribes within it, with their own names. The largest, he says, is the Semnones, who he says, "claim that they are the oldest and the noblest of the Suebi." He goes on to remark that the Langobardi are fewer, but despite being "surrounded by many mighty peoples" they managed to defend themselves "not by submissiveness but by battle and boldness; and in remoter and better defended areas live the Reudigni, Aviones, Anglii, Varini, Eudoses, the Suardones, and Nuithones.
Pliny the Elder, on the other hand, names five races of Germans in his Historia Naturalis, not three, by distinguishing the two more easterly blocks of Germans, the Vandals and further east the Bastarnae, who were the first to reach the Black Sea and come into contact with Greek civilization. He is also slightly more specific about the position of the Istvaeones, though he also does not name any examples of them:
There are five German races; the Vandili, parts of whom are the Burgundiones, the Varini, the Carini, and the Gutones: the Ingævones, forming a second race, a portion of whom are the Cimbri, the Teutoni, and the tribes of the Chauci. The Istævones, who join up to the Rhine, and to whom the Cimbri [sic, repeated] belong, are the third race; while the Hermiones, forming a fourth, dwell in the interior, and include the Suevi, the Hermunduri, the Chatti, the Cherusci,[e] and the Peucini, who are also the Basternæ, adjoining the Daci. The remote Varini are listed by Tacitus as being in the Suebic or Hermionic group by Tacitus, above, but by Pliny in the eastern Vandalic or Gothic group, so the two accounts do not match perfectly.
These accounts and others from the period often emphasise that the Suebi and their Hermione kin formed an especially large and mobile nation, which at the time were living mainly near the Elbe, both east and west of it, but they were also moving westwards into the lands near the Roman frontier. Pomponius Mela in his slightly earlier Description of the World, places "the farthest people of Germania, the Hermiones" somewhere to the east of the Cimbri and the Teutones, and further from Rome, apparently on the Baltic.[f] Strabo however describes the Suebi as going through a period where they were pushed back east by the Romans, in the direction from which they had come:
the nation of the Suevi is the most considerable, as it extends from the Rhine as far as the Elbe, and even a part of them, as the Hermonduri and the Langobardi, inhabit the country beyond the Elbe; but at the present time these tribes, having been defeated, have retired entirely beyond the Elbe.
By the end of the 5th century the term "Gothic" was used more generally in the historical sources for Pliny's "Vandals" to the east of the Elbe, including not only the Goths and Vandals, but also "the Gepids along the Tisza and the Danube, the Rugians, Sciri and Burgundians, even the Iranian Alans."
Linguists postulate that an early proto-Germanic language existed and was distinguishable from the other Indo-European languages as far back as 500 BCE. The earliest known Germanic inscription was found at Negau (in what is now southern Austria) on a bronze helmet dating back to the first century BCE. Some of the other earliest known physical records of the Germanic language appear on stone and wood carvings in Runic script from around 200 CE. Runic writing likely disappeared due to the concerted opposition of the Christian Church, which regarded runic text as heathen symbols which supposedly contained inherent magical properties that they associated with the Germanic peoples' pagan past. Unfortunately, this primitive view ignores the abundance of "pious runic writing found on church-related objects" (ranging from inscriptions in the doorways of churches, on church bells and even those found on baptismal fonts) when Christianity was introduced into the Germanic North.[g] An important linguistic step was made by the Christian convert Ulfilas, who became a bishop to the Visigoths in CE 341; he subsequently invented an alphabet and translated the scriptures from Greek into Gothic, creating the earliest known translation of the Bible into a Germanic language.
From what is known, the early Germanic tribes may have spoken "mutually intelligible dialects" derived from a common parent language but there are no written records to verify this fact. Despite their common linguistic framework, by the 5th century CE, the Germanic people were linguistically differentiated and could no longer easily comprehend one another. Nonetheless, the line between Germanic languages and Romance speakers in central Europe remained at the western mouth of the Rhine river and while Gaul fell under German domination and was firmly settled by the Franks, the linguistic patterns did not move much. Further west and south in Europe-proper, the linguistic presence of the Germanic languages is almost negligible. Despite the fact that the Visigoths ruled what is now Spain for upwards of 250 years, there are almost no recognizable Gothic words borrowed into Spanish.
The Germanic tribes moved and interacted over the next centuries, and separate dialects among Germanic languages developed down to the present day. Some groups, such as the Suebi, have a continuous recorded existence, and so there is a reasonable confidence that their modern dialects can be traced back to those in classical times. By extension, but sometimes controversially, the names of the sons of Mannus, Istvaeones, Irminones, and Ingvaeones, are also sometimes used to divide up the medieval and modern West Germanic languages. The more easterly groups such as the Vandals are thought to have been united in the use of East Germanic languages, the most famous of which is Gothic. The dialect of the Germanic people who remained in Scandinavia is not generally called Ingvaeonic, but is classified as North Germanic, which developed into Old Norse. Within the West Germanic group, linguists associate the Suebian or Hermionic group with an "Elbe Germanic" which developed into Upper German, including modern German.
More speculatively, given the lack of any such clear explanation in any classical source, modern linguists sometimes designate the Frankish language (and its descendant Dutch) as Istvaeonic, although the geographical term "Weser-Rhine Germanic" is often preferred. However, the classical "Germani" near the Rhine, to whom the term was originally applied by Caesar, may not have even spoken Germanic languages, let alone a language recognizably ancestral to modern Dutch. The close relatives of Dutch, Low German, English and Frisian, are in fact sometimes designated as Ingvaeonic, or alternatively, "North-Sea Germanic". Frankish, (and later Dutch, Luxembourgish and the Frankish dialects of German in Germany) has continuously been intelligible to some extent with both "Ingvaeonic" Low German, and some "Suebian" High German dialects, with which they form a spectrum of continental dialects. All these dialects or languages appear to have formed by the mixing of migrating peoples after the time of Caesar. So it is not clear if these medieval dialect divisions correspond to any mentioned by Tacitus and Pliny. Indeed, in Tacitus (Tac. Ger. 40) and in Claudius Ptolemy's Geography, the Anglii, ancestors of the Anglo-Saxons, are designated as being a Suebic tribe.
By 500 CE, the West Germanic speakers had apparently developed a distinct language continuum with extensive loaning from Latin (due to their ongoing contact with the Romans), whereas the East Germanic languages were dying out.[h] West Germanic languages include German, Yiddish, Dutch, Afrikaans, Luxemburgish, Frisian, and English. Combined, these languages are today spoken as a native tongue by more than 450 million people worldwide. North Germanic languages are Swedish, Danish, Norwegian, Faroese and Icelandic. Roughly 20 million people currently speak the North Germanic languages as their native tongue. Later manifestations of the West Germanic languages and their pursuant typological characteristics are due in part to the activities of the Hanseatic League where trade necessitated a lingua franca from the mainland of Scandinavia all along the navigable shores of the North Sea, and within the Baltic Sea.[i]
Archaeological and linguistic evidence from a period known as the Nordic Bronze Age indicates that a common material culture existed between the Germanic tribes that inherited the southern regions of Scandinavia, along with the Schleswig-Holstein area and the area of what is now Hamburg, Germany. Additional archaeological remnants from the Iron Age society that once existed in nearby Wessenstedt also show traces of this culture. Exactly how these cultures interacted remains a mystery but the migrations of early proto-Germanic peoples are discernible from the remaining evidence of prehistoric cultures in Hügelgräber, Urnfield, and La Tene. Climatic change between 850 BCE and 760 BCE in Scandinavia and "a later and more rapid one around 650 BCE might have triggered migrations to the coast of eastern Germany and further toward the Vistula.
The cultural phase of the late Bronze Age and early Iron Age in Europe (c. 1200–600 BCE in temperate continental areas), known in contemporary terms as the Hallstatt culture expanded from the south into this area and brought the early Germanic peoples under the influence of early Celtic (or pre Celtic) culture between 1200 BCE and 600 BCE, whereupon they began extracting bog iron from the available ore in peat bogs. This ushered in the Pre-Roman Iron Age. Stretching from central France all the way to western Hungary and then from the Alps to central Poland, the Hallstatt culture also constructed sophisticated structures and the archaeological remains across parts of France, Germany and Hungary suggest their trade networks along the North Atlantic, Baltic Sea and up and down central Europe's river valleys were fairly elaborate as well.
The earliest sites at which Germanic peoples per se have been documented are in Northern Europe, in what now constitutes the plains of Denmark and southern Sweden. However, in even this region, the population had been, according to Waldman & Mason, "remarkably stable" – as far back as Neolithic times, when humans first began controlling their environment through the use of agriculture and the domestication of animals. Given this stability, the population of the region necessarily preceded the arrival in Europe of the precursors of the Germanic languages – which most likely began with the Corded Ware culture.
As early as 750 BCE, archeological evidence gives the impression that the proto-Germanic population was becoming more uniform in its culture. The Germanic peoples at the time inhabited southern Scandinavia and the Northern Sea and Baltic coasts from modern-day Netherlands to the Vistula. As this population grew, it migrated south-west, into coastal floodplains due to the exhaustion of the soil in its original settlements.
Early Iron Age
By approximately 250 BCE, additional expansion further southwards into central Europe had begun to take place and five general groups of Germanic people emerged, each employing distinct linguistic dialects but sharing similar language innovations — they are distinguished from one another as: North Germanic in southern Scandinavia; North Sea Germanic in the regions along the North Sea and in the Jutland peninsula NW Europe, which forms the mainland of Denmark together with the north German state of Schleswig-Holstein; Weser-Rhine Germanic along the middle Rhine and Weser river (which empties into the North Sea near Bremerhaven); Elbe Germanic spoken by the people living directly along the middle Elbe river; and East Germanic between the middle of the Oder and the Vistula rivers.[j]
Concomitantly, during the 2nd century BCE the advent of the Celts of Halstatt and La Tene arose in nearby territories further west but the interactions between the early Germanic people and the Celts is thought to have been minimal based on the linguistic evidence. Despite the absence of the Celtic influence further eastwards, there are a number of Celtic loanwords in Proto-Germanic, which at the very least indicates contact between the people of Gaul and the early Germanic cultures that resided along the Rhine river. Nonetheless, material objects such as metal ornaments and pottery found near the areas east of the lower Rhine are connoted as Jastorf in nomenclature and are characteristically distinguishable from the Celtic objects found further west.
It is not clear if the first occurrence of the term Germani in Roman ethnography is either a reference to Germanic or Celtic according to modern linguists, but it is probable that the clear geographic demarcation appearing between the two peoples may have been made for the sake of political convenience by Caesar. Caesar described some tribes more distinctly than others but generally considered most of them as being from Germanic stock. However, the archaeological evidence in some of the regions creates an ethnographic problem in clearly delineating the indigenous people based strictly on Roman classification. Nonetheless, there are scholars who assert that there was an eventual linguistic "Germanization" that occurred during the 1st century BCE through something they call the "elite-dominance" model. Archaeologists are unable to make definitive judgments which accord the observations of the Roman writer Tacitus. Enough cultural absorption between the various Germanic people occurred that geographically defining the extent of pre-Roman Germanic territory is nearly impossible from a classification standpoint.
Some recognizable trends in the archaeological records exist, as it is known that, generally, West Germanic people while still migratory, were more geographically settled, whereas the East Germanic peoples remained transitory for a longer period. Three settlement patterns and solutions come to the fore, the first of which is the establishment of an agricultural base in a region which allowed them to support larger populations; second, the Germanic peoples periodically cleared forests to extend the range of their pasturage; thirdly (and the most frequent occurrence), they often emigrated to other areas as they exhausted the immediately available resources. War and conquest followed as the Germanic people migrated bringing them into direct conflict with the Celts who were forced to either Germanize or migrate elsewhere as a result. Evidence suggest that these were Germanized rather than displaced. West Germanic peoples eventually settled in central Europe and became more accustomed to agriculture and it is those people that are described by Caesar and Tacitus. Meanwhile, the East Germanic people continued their migratory habits. Roman writers characteristically organized and classified people and it may very well have been deliberate on their part to recognize the tribal distinctions of the various Germanic people so as to pick out known leaders and exploit these differences for their benefit. For the most part however, these early Germanic people shared a basic culture, operated similarly from an economic perspective, and were not nearly as differentiated as the Romans implied. In fact, the Germanic tribes are hard to distinguish from the Celts on many accounts simply based on archaeological records.
One of the earliest known written records of the Germanic world in classical times was in the lost work of Pytheas. Pytheas traveled to Northern Europe, some time in the late 4th century BCE, and his observations about the geographical environment, traditions and culture of the northern European populations became a central source of information for later historians – often the only source.[k] Authors such as Strabo, Pliny and Diodorus cite Pytheas in disbelief, although Pytheas' observations appear to have been accurate. Though Pytheas was not the first Mediterranean to explore those lands (note for example Himilco (5th century BCE), and possibly Phoenicians and Tartessians (c. 6th century BCE), his became the first substantial surviving description of these populations. Much of the Germanic peoples' early history enters into view through Pytheas, particularly since he was also possibly the first to distinguish the Germanoi people of northern and central Europe as distinct from the Keltoi people further west. Along with the records of a couple of other classical writers (namely Polybius (2nd century BCE) and Posidonius (c. 135 BCE – c. 51 BCE), the work of Pytheas on the Celts and early Germans influenced scores of future geographers, historians and ethnographers.
An early Germanic people known as the Bastarnae were identified by Roman authors and were allegedly the first to reach the Greco-Roman world, living in the area north of the Danube's mouth in the Black Sea. They resided primarily in the territory east of the Carpathian Mountains between the Dniester River valley and the delta of the Danube in what is now the Ukraine, Moldova and Romania and are considered the easternmost of the Germanic tribes. The Bastarnae are mentioned in historical sources going back as far as the 3rd century BCE all the way through the 4th century CE. In 201–202 BCE, the Macedonians under the leadership of King Philip V, conscripted the Bastarnae as soldiers to fight against the Roman Republic in the Second Macedonian War. They remained a presence in that area until late in the Roman Empire while some settled on Peuce Island at the mouth of the Danube on the Black Sea which is why the name Peucini is also associated with the Bastarnae. King Perseus enlisted the service of the Bastarnae in 171–168 BCE to fight the Third Macedonian War. By 29 BCE, they were subdued by the Romans and those that remained began merging with various tribes of Goths into the second century CE. Historian Thomas Burns references the Bastarnae but only as an aside from the Latin poet Claudian, claiming that they were among "the oldest of the various Scythian people". Burns further elaborates in stating that there are no "specific references" to the Bastarnae and that remarks about them by Claudian and later third century writers "must give us pause" for the mention of such people might merely have been a "convenient poetic device." Historian Peter Heather disagrees with this position and identifies the Bastarnae as one of the Germanic tribes and asserts that they once "dominated substantial tracts of territory at the mouth of the Danube." Along similar lines, the late classical scholar, Theodor Mommsen, recognized the Bastarnae and placed them in the geographic regions of Moldavia and Bessarabia during the reign of Tiberius.[l] This is the same region where Tacitus placed them. Another historian of antiquity, J. B. Bury, counted the Bastarnae along with the Goths, Vandals, Gepids, Burgundians, Lombards, Rugians, Heruls and Scirii among the East Germanic peoples.
Late in the 2nd century BCE, Roman sources recount the migrations of the Cimbri, Teutones and Ambrones into Gaul, Italy and Hispania. This cultural confrontation resulted in the Cimbrian War between the Roman Republic and the Germanic tribes; particularly those of the Roman Consul under Gaius Marius. The Cimbri crossed into Noricum (Austria) in 113 BCE looking for food and usable land when they confronted and defeated a Roman army at the Battle of Noreia. A combined force of Cimbri[m] and Teutoni squared off against additional armies from Rome in 107 (Battle of Burdigala, 105 (Battle of Arausio) and 102 BCE (Battle of Tridentum), vanquishing them in the process. Their further incursions into Roman Italy were thrust back by the Romans at the Battle of Aquae Sextiae in 102 BCE, and the Battle of Vercellae in 101 BCE.
Encounter with Julius Caesar
These earlier invasions were written up by Caesar and others as presaging of a Northern danger for the Roman Republic, a danger that should be controlled.
Julius Caesar describes the Germani and their customs in his Commentarii de Bello Gallico, though in certain cases it is still a matter of debate if he refers to Northern Celtic tribes or clearly identified Germanic tribes. Caesar notes that the Gauls had earlier dominated and sent colonies into the lands of the Germans, but that the Gauls had since degenerated under the influence of Roman civilization, and now considered themselves inferior in military prowess.[n][o]
[The Germani] have neither Druids to preside over sacred offices, nor do they pay great regard to sacrifices. They rank in the number of the gods those alone whom they behold, and by whose instrumentality they are obviously benefited, namely, the sun, fire, and the moon; they have not heard of the other deities even by report. Their whole life is occupied in hunting and in the pursuits of the military art; from childhood they devote themselves to fatigue and hardships. Those who have remained chaste for the longest time, receive the greatest commendation among their people; they think that by this the growth is promoted, by this the physical powers are increased and the sinews are strengthened. And to have had knowledge of a woman before the twentieth year they reckon among the most disgraceful acts; of which matter there is no concealment, because they bathe promiscuously in the rivers and [only] use skins or small cloaks of deer's hides, a large portion of the body being in consequence naked.
They do not pay much attention to agriculture, and a large portion of their food consists in milk, cheese, and flesh; nor has any one a fixed quantity of land or his own individual limits; but the magistrates and the leading men each year apportion to the tribes and families, who have united together, as much land as, and in the place in which, they think proper, and the year after compel them to remove elsewhere. For this enactment they advance many reasons-lest seduced by long-continued custom, they may exchange their ardor in the waging of war for agriculture; lest they may be anxious to acquire extensive estates, and the more powerful drive the weaker from their possessions; lest they construct their houses with too great a desire to avoid cold and heat; lest the desire of wealth spring up, from which cause divisions and discords arise; and that they may keep the common people in a contented state of mind, when each sees his own means placed on an equality with [those of] the most powerful.[p]
Tacitus described the Germanic people as ethnically uniform or "unmixed" with "a distinct character" and he even generalized them by claiming that "a family likeness pervades the whole." He also reported that the peoples of Germany have fierce blue eyes, red hair, and large bodies" that rendered them capable of "violent" outbursts, unable to tolerate heat or thirst but well accustomed to the cold. This image portrayed them as a fearsome people deserving Rome's attention. Caesar was wary of these barbaric people of Germania and invoked the threat of expansions such as that by Ariovistus' Suebi as justification for his brutal campaigns to annex Gaul to Rome in 58–51 BCE.
An intense Roman militarization, greater than ever before, was begun under Caesar to deal with the barbarian tribes along the frontier — particularly since he feared that the Celtic Gauls between Rome and the Germanic people would not be able to defend themselves. One major Celtic people who were forced from their homeland in modern southwest Germany and Bohemia were the Boii, a migration which had major impacts on Rome and many other peoples. Later, Caesar's attention in 58 BCE was drawn to the movements of the Boii's old neighbours the Helvetii, another population group forced into Gaul from the direction of modern southwest Germany and western Switzerland.[q] When the Gaulish Arverni and Sequani elicited assistance from the Germanic Suebi (who came to them from east of the Rhine into Gaul) against their Aedui enemies in 71 BCE, the Suebi essentially remained in situ and were able to expand further into the territory along the periphery of the Roman frontier. Meanwhile, Celtic culture and influence in Gaul began to wane during the first century BCE as a result.
Roman expansion along the Rhine and Danube rivers resulted in the incorporation of many indigenous Celtic societies into the Roman Empire. Lands to the north and east of the Rhine emerge in the Roman records under the name Germania. Population groups from this area had a complex relationship with Rome; sometimes the peoples of Germania were at war with Rome, but at times they established trade relations, symbiotic military alliances, and cultural exchanges with one another. Nevertheless, the Romans made concerted efforts to divide the Germanic tribes when the opportunity presented itself, encouraging intertribal rivalry so as to diminish the threat of an otherwise formidable enemy. Over the following centuries, the Romans sometimes intervened, but often took advantage as their neighbors slaughtered one another using Roman-influenced techniques of war. More instances of Germani fighting Germani appear in the works of Tacitus than between Romans and Germani. But it was Caesar's wars against the Germanic people that helped establish and solidify the use of the term Germania. The initial purpose of the Roman military campaigns was to protect Trans-Alpine Gaul from further incursions of the Germanic tribes by controlling the area between the Rhine and the Elbe.
Early Roman Empire period
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 the Rhine and Danube rivers in the West and South to the Vistula and the Baltic Sea in the East and North. In 9 CE, a revolt of their Germanic subjects headed by Arminius resulted in a decisive defeat of Publius Quinctilius Varus and the destruction of three Roman legions in a surprise attack at the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest), which caused withdrawal of the Roman frontier to the Rhine. Occupying Germany had proven costly and Arminius' attack helped bring about the end of 28 years of Roman campaigning across the North European plains. Both Arminius and another contemporary Germanic warrior king named Maroboduus, attempted to rule these warrior-based peoples in autocratic fashion but were deposed or outright killed through the treachery of other warrior-nobles, who strove for their own glory.
During the reign of Augustus, Germanic warriors, particularly men of the Batavi, were recruited as personal bodyguards to the Roman emperor, forming the so-called Numerus Batavorum. In 69 AD, the turbulent Year of the Four Emperors, Gaius Julius Civilis, a Roman military officer of Batavian origin, orchestrated the Revolt of the Batavi. The revolt lasted nearly a year and while it was ultimately unsuccessful, Civilis managed to evade Roman capture.
"Let Syria, Asia Minor, and the East, habituated as it is to despotism, submit to slavery... Freedom is a gift bestowed by nature even on the dumb animals. Courage is the peculiar excellence of man, and the Gods help the braver side." - Gaius Julius Civilis
At the end of the 1st century, two provinces west of the Rhine called Germania inferior and Germania superior were established by the Emperor Domitian, having previously been military districts, "so as to separate this more militarized zone from the civilian populations farther west and south". Important medieval cities like Aachen, Cologne, Trier, Mainz, Worms and Speyer were part of these two "militarized" Roman provinces.
"Neither the Samnites nor the Carthaginians nor Spain nor Gaul nor even the Parthians have taught us more frequent lessons. The freedom of the Germans does indeed show more aggression than the despotism of the Arsacids." - Tacitus
The Germania by Gaius Cornelius Tacitus, an ethnographic work on the diverse group of Germanic tribes outside of the Roman Empire, is our most important source on the Germanic peoples of the 1st century. Germanic expansions during early Roman times are known only generally, but it is clear that the forebears of the Goths were settled on the southern Baltic shore by 100 CE. According to historian Thomas Burns, major hostilities between the external Germanic peoples of the north and Rome did not commence in "earnest" until the reign of Trajan (CE 98—117), who used the "full weight of Roman might" to attack the Dacians.
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. Once Rome faced significant threats on its borders, some of the Germanic tribes who once guarded its periphery chose solace within the Roman empire itself, implying that enough assimilation and cross-cultural pollination had occurred for their societies not only to cooperate, but to live together in some cases. The 4th century Gothic Thervingi are most famous among scholars of classical Rome and pre-modern Europe because the majority of them sought asylum inside the heart of the Roman Empire in 376 CE.[r]
Conflict and co-existence with the Roman Empire
By the middle to late second century CE, migrating Germanic tribes like the Marcomanni and Quadi pushed their way to the Roman frontier along the Danube corridor, movements of people which resulted in conflicts known as the Marcomannic Wars; these conflicts ended in approximately CE 180. Not long thereafter, larger confederations of Germanic people appeared, groups led by tribal leaders acting as would-be kings. The first of these conglomerations mentioned in the historical sources were the Alamanni (a term meaning "all men") who appear in Roman texts sometime in the 3rd century CE. This change indicated that the tribalism of the Germanic people was being abandoned for consolidated rule. Meanwhile, Rome adapted itself due to the arrival of the Germanic tribes. Emperor Severus Alexander was killed by his own soldiers in CE 235 for example (for negotiating peace with the tribes of Germania through diplomacy and bribery against the wishes of his men) and the general Maximin elected in his place. Maximin was himself not Roman but was ethnically the child of a Germanic Alan and a Goth. Military expediency trumped aristocratic privilege when it came to securing the Empire and a series of professional military emperors followed as a result.
The first recorded great migration of a Germanic tribe occurred sometime at the end of the 2nd century when the Goths left the lower Vistula for the shores of the Black Sea. For the next couple hundred years, the restless Goths were a menace to the Roman Empire. Between the 2nd and 4th centuries the Goths slowly filtered deeper into the south and eastwards, making their way to what is now Kiev in Ukraine and pressuring Rome in the process. Around CE 238, the Goths make their first clear impact on Roman history, having moved from the Baltic sea to the area of the modern Ukraine. Sometime in CE 250, the Gothic king Cniva employed the assistance of the Bastarnae, Carpi, various Goths, and the Taifali when he eventually laid siege to Philippopolis; he followed this victory up with another on the marshy terrain at Abrittus, a battle which cost the life of Roman emperor Decius and inaugurated a series of consecutive barbarian invasions of the northern Balkans and Asia Minor. Close to the same time that the Goths were fighting the Romans in the Balkans, there is also the first mention of the Franks around CE 250. Perennial internal conflicts among several successive emperors of both the eastern and western Empire during the 4th century CE resulted in civil wars and damaged the overall quality of the Roman army; the fighting also depleted the elite from within their officer corps. To compensate for their losses the Romans recruited inferior untried Roman civilians and sought replacements from across the frontier region by militarily proficient barbarian troops, a development which further strengthened the position of the Germanic peoples. Attempting to control the periphery of the Roman empire meant finding innovative ways of dealing with the Germanic people, so the Romans enlisted them as foederati (federates) and by the late fourth century, the majority of the Roman military was made up of Germanic warriors. Federating whole tribes of Germanic people into the Empire marked a whole new phase of encroachment and facilitated the fragmentation of Rome from within its own borders.
In 260 AD, as the Crisis of the Third Century reached its climax, Postumus, a Germanic soldier in Roman service, established the Gallic Empire, which claimed suzerainty over Germania, Gaul, Hispania and Britannia. Postumus was eventually assassinated by his own followers, after which the Gallic Empire quickly disintegrated.
Among the Romans, the Germanic presence in the military was so extensive for example, that the word barbarus became a synonym for "soldier" and the imperial budget of the military was known as the ficus barbarus.[s][t] Barbarians (Germanics) composed the mobile army of emperor Constantine with many of them, particularly the more organized ones like the Franks and Alamanni, reaching levels of high command. Constantine credited the military victories which enabled his rise to power to his Germanic troops, and is said to have recruited 40,000 Goths alone, who were tasked with guarding Constantinople. By this time, conventional Roman troops where rapidly losing military value.[u] Despite Germanic peoples in many cases being enemies of the Romans, Germanic warriors in Roman service enabled the Roman Empire to survive longer than it would under other circumstances.[v] Earlier accounts from Julius Caesar and Tacitus suggest ancient Germanic warriors considered themselves superior to the Romans. Suebian king Ariovistus and the Frisian kings Malorix and Verritus are recorded by Roman historians boasting of supposed Germanic military superiority.[w][x]
An example of Germanic prominence in the Roman army shows in the fact that in CE 350 the Frankish general Claudius Silvanus was the high military commander of Gaul. Warriors and leaders among the Germanic peoples had an advantage over their Roman counterparts as they knew and could dexterously traverse both worlds, whereas the Romans despised barbarian culture and customs and were unable to secure trust amid the Germanic soldiers on their payrolls. In this way, the ethnic and regional ties within the evolving bureaucratic Roman-Germanic world began to favor the barbarians.
Roman Britannia was contemporaneously under constant threat during the 3rd and 4th centuries CE by northern Picts as well as the Germanic Saxons who sailed from north of Gaul to the eastern coast of the British Isles. Late in CE 367, the Roman garrisons in Britannia collapsed as the Germanic barbarians poured into the region from all directions. Attempting to permanently reestablish control on Britannia, the emperor Valentinian I sent an experienced Roman commander who was able to beat the invaders back after a year-long war and gain control of Londonium, but it was a Pyrrhic victory, for the Germanic invaders had burned down standing settlements, ravaged cities on the isles, interrupted trade and annihilated entire Roman garrisons. By the middle of the 5th century, the Picts, Scots and Anglo-Saxons began to dominate the once Roman Britannia.
During the fourth and fifth centuries CE Roman emperors did their best to stave off the advance of the Germanic tribes. While the rulers in the Eastern Empire were able to endure the frequent clashes without serious consequences to their territorial dominion, this was not the case in the Western Roman Empire. For upwards of two centuries, the Roman emperors fought and confined the Germanic tribes to Rhine-Danube frontier and in far-away Britain, but all that changed in CE 378 when the Visigoths destroyed as much as two-thirds of the Roman army of the East under emperor Valens at the Battle of Adrianople. Roman historian Ammianus Marcellinus referred to the damage inflicted by the Germanic tribes at Adrianople as an "irreparable disaster" and ended his account of Roman history with this battle. Subsequent historians like Sir Edward Gibbon (among others) ascribe a similar significance to this event and call the Battle of Adrianople a watershed moment between the ancient world and the medieval one that followed; for not only did this battle reveal Rome's weakness to the Germanic tribes and inspire them accordingly, never again were they to leave Roman soil. Evidence of the trauma suffered at the hands of the ransacking Visigoths shows up in the writings of the former bishop of Milan, Ambrose, who wrote about melting down golden church plates early in his episcopate so as to help the victims of the calamity at Adrianople.
The arrival of the nomadic Huns along the Black Sea corridor in CE 375 further caused a Germanic exodus across the Roman border. Germanic people from the northern coasts of Europe had been making their way into Britain for several centuries before the larger-scale incursions took place. Some Germanic tribes, in particular the Gepids and the Ostrogoths, joined the Huns, and played a prominent role in the Hunnic Empire, where Gothic became the lingua franca.[y] These Germanic tribes fought with Attila against the Western Roman Empire and other Germanic tribes at the Battle of the Catalaunian Plains, in which Attila was defeated. After the death of Attila soon afterwards, a coalition of Germanic tribes led by the Gepid king Ardaric broke loose from Hunnic control at the Battle of Nedao.
By the 5th century CE, the Western Roman Empire was losing military strength and political cohesion; numerous Germanic peoples, under pressure from population growth and invading Asian groups, began migrating en masse in far and diverse directions, taking them to Great Britain and 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. Roaming tribes of Germanic people 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. Ostrogoths, Visigoths, and Lombards made their way into Italy; Vandals, Burgundians, Franks, and Visigoths conquered much of Gaul; Vandals and Visigoths also pushed into Spain; Vandals additionally made it into North Africa; the Alamanni established a strong presence in the middle Rhine and Alps. In Denmark the Jutes merged with the Danes, in Sweden the Geats and Gutes merged with the Swedes. In England, the Angles merged with the Saxons and other groups (notably the Jutes), as well as absorbing some natives, to form the Anglo-Saxons (later known as the English). Essentially Roman civilization was overrun by these variants of Germanic peoples during the 5th century.
A direct result of the Roman retreat was the disappearance of imported products like ceramics and coins, and a return to virtually unchanged local Iron Age production methods. According to recent views this has caused confusion for decades, and theories assuming the total abandonment of the coastal regions to account for an archaeological time gap that never existed have been renounced. Instead, it has been confirmed that the Frisian graves had been used without interruption between the 4th and 9th centuries and that inhabited areas show continuity with the Roman period in revealing coins, jewellery and ceramics of the 5th century. Also, people continued to live in the same three-aisled farmhouse, while to the east completely new types of buildings arose. More to the south in Belgium, archaeological evidence from this period indicates immigration from the north.
Fall of the Western Roman Empire
Some of the Germanic tribes are frequently credited in popular depictions of the decline of the Roman Empire in the 5th century. Many 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.[z] Germanic tribes nonetheless fought against Roman dominance when necessary. When the Roman Empire refused to allow the Visigoths to settle in Noricum for instance, they responded by sacking Rome in CE 410 under the leadership of Alaric I. Oddly enough, Alaric I did not see his imposition in Rome as an attack against the Roman Empire per se but as an attempt to gain a favorable position within its borders, particularly since the Visigoths held the Empire in high regard.
Alaric certainly had no intentions to destroy the great city which was symbolic of Roman power, but he needed to pay his army and the spoils of the city not only afforded the ability to do that, its wealth made him "the richest general in the empire." For the next year, Alaric extracted vast sums from the city; this included 5,000 pounds of gold, 30,000 pounds of silver, 5,000 pounds of oriental pepper, gilded statues from the Forum, and even the one-ton solid silver dome which Constantine once placed over the baptismal basin next to the Lateran basilica. Not only was Alaric able to bleed Rome, he also established a Gothic confederation consisting of Theruingian and Greuthungic peoples, and he played the eastern and western Roman Empires off against one another for his benefit.
At about the same time Alaric was sacking the Empire's capital, there was a Roman exodus from the British Isles, a departure which provided the Germanic Angles and Saxons the opportunity to occupy and control the eastern coastlands of Britain, the southern regions of Sussex, and move into the valley of the Thames. While Germanic tribes overran the once western Roman provinces, they also continued to strive for regional ascendancy closer to Rome's center; meanwhile the threat along the periphery from the Huns created additional difficulties for the Empire. Sometime during the 4th or 5th century CE, the Bastarnae were defeated by the Huns, ending their regional domination.
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. The Rhine and Danube provided the bulk of geographic separation for the Roman limes. On one side of the limes stood 'Latin' Europe, law, Roman order, prosperous trading markets, towns and everything that constituted modern civilization for that era; while on the other side stood barbarism, technical backwardness, illiteracy and a tribal society of fierce warriors. Then the Empire recruited entire tribal groups under their native leaders as military officers. Historian Evangelos Chrysos argues the implications concerning the recruitment of the barbarians into the Roman army during the migration period were enormous and relates that:
it offered them experience of how the imperial army was organized, how the government arranged the military and functional logistics of their involvement as soldiers or officers and how it administered their practical life, how the professional expertise and the social values of the individual soldier were cultivated in the camp and on the battlefield, how the ideas about the state and its objectives were to be implemented by men in uniform, how the Empire was composed and how it functioned at an administrative level. This knowledge of and experience with the Romans opened to individual members of the gentes a path which, once taken, would lead them to more or less substantial affiliation or even solidarity with the Roman world. To take an example from the economic sphere: The service in the Roman army introduced the individual or corporate members into the monetary system of the Empire since quite a substantial part of their salary was paid to them in cash. With money in their hands the "guests" were by necessity exposed to the possibility of taking part in the economic system, of becoming accustomed to the rules of the wide market, of absorbing the messages of or reacting to the imperial propaganda passed to the citizens through the legends on the coins. In addition the goods offered in the markets influenced and transformed the newcomers' food and aesthetic tastes and their cultural horizon. Furthermore Roman civilitas was an attractive goal for every individual wishing to succeed in his social advancement.
Assisting with defense eventually shifted into administration and then outright rule, as Roman government passed into the hands of Germanic leaders. Odoacer (who commanded the German mercenaries in Italy) deposed Romulus Augustulus, the last emperor of the West in CE 476. Odoacer ruled from Rome and Ravenna, restored the Colosseum and assigned seats to senatorial dignitaries as part of the process of consolidating his rule. 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.
Theodoric ruled from CE 493–526, twice as long as his predecessor, and his rule is evidenced by an abundance of documents. Under the Ostrogoths a considerable degree of Roman and Germanic cultural and political fusion was achieved. Germanic kings worked in-tandem with Roman administrators to the extent possible to help ensure a smooth transition and to facilitate the profitable administration of once Roman lands. Slowly but surely, the distinction between Germanic rulers and Roman subjects faded, followed by varying degrees of "cultural assimilation" which included the adoption of the Gothic language by some of the indigenous people of the former Roman Empire but this was certainly not ubiquitous as Gothic identity still remained distinctive. Theodoric may have tried too hard to accommodate the various people under his dominion; indulging "Romans and Goths, Catholics and Arians, Latin and barbarian culture" resulted in the eventual failure of the Ostrogothic reign and the subsequent "end of Italy as the heartland of late antiquity."
According to noted historian Herwig Wolfram, the Germanic peoples did not and could not "conquer the more advanced Roman world" nor were they able to "restore it as a political and economic entity"; instead, he asserts that the empire's "universalism" was replaced by "tribal particularism" which gave way to "regional patriotism". Nonetheless, the entry of the Germanic tribes deep into the heart of Europe and the subsequent collapse of the western Roman Empire resulted in a "massive disruption" to long established communication networks, a system that had in many ways "bound much of the continent together for centuries." Trade networks and routes shifted accordingly, Germanic kingdoms and peoples established boundaries and it was not until the appearance of the Arabs in Iberia and into Anatolia that Europeans began reestablishing their networks to deal with a new threat. The Germanic peoples who overran the Western Roman Empire probably numbered less than 100,000 people per tribe, including approximately 15,000-20,000 warriors. They constituted a tiny minority of the population in the lands over which they seized control.[aa][ab][ac]
Early Middle Ages
The transition of the Migration period to the Middle Ages proper took place over the course of the second half of the 1st millennium. It was marked by the Christianization of the Germanic peoples and the formation of stable kingdoms replacing the mostly tribal structures of the Migration period. Some of this stability is discernible in the fact that the Pope recognized Theodoric's reign when the Germanic conqueror entered Rome in CE 500, despite that Theodoric was a known practitioner of Arianism, a faith which the First Council of Nicaea condemned in CE 325. Theodoric's Germanic subjects and administrators from the Roman Catholic Church cooperated in serving him, helping establish a codified system of laws and ordinances which facilitated the integration of the Gothic peoples into a burgeoning empire, solidifying their place as they appropriated a Roman identity of sorts. The foundations laid by the Empire enabled the successor Germanic kingdoms to maintain a familiar structure and their success can be seen as part of the lasting triumph of Rome.
In continental Europe, this Germanic evolution saw the rise of Francia in the Merovingian period under the rule of Clovis I who had deposed the last emperor of Gaul, eclipsing lesser kingdoms such as Alemannia. The Merovingians controlled most of Gaul under Clovis, who, through conversion to Christianity, allied himself with the Gallo-Romans. While the Merovingians were checked by the armies of the Ostrogoth Theodoric, they remained the most powerful kingdom in Western Europe and the intermixing of their people with the Romans through marriage rendered the Frankish people less a Germanic tribe and more a "European people" in a manner of speaking. Most of Gaul was under Merovingian control as was part of Italy and their overlordship extended into Germany where they reigned over the Thuringians, Alamans, and Bavarians. Evidence also exists that they may have even had suzerainty over south-east England. Frankish historian Gregory of Tours relates that Clovis converted to Christianity partly as a result of his wife's urging and even more so due to having won a desperate battle after calling out to Christ. According to Gregory, this conversion was sincere but it also proved politically expedient as Clovis used his new faith as a means to consolidate his political power by Christianizing his army.[af] Against Germanic tradition, each of the four sons of Clovis attempted to secure power in different cities but their inability to prove themselves on the battlefield and intrigue against one another led the Visigoths back to electing their leadership.
When Merovingian rule eventually weakened, they were supplanted by another powerful Frankish family, the Carolingians, a dynastic order which produced Charles Martel, and Charlemagne. The coronation of Charlemagne as emperor by Pope Leo III in Rome on Christmas Day, CE 800 represented a shift in the power structure from the south to the north. Frankish power ultimately laid the foundations for the modern nations of Germany and France. For historians, Charlemagne's appearance in the historical chronicle of Europe also marks a transition where the voice of the north appears in its own vernacular thanks to the spread of Christianity, after which the northerners began writing in Latin, Germanic, and Celtic; whereas before, the Germanic people were only known through Roman or Greek sources.
In England, the Germanic Anglo-Saxon tribes reigned over the south of Great Britain from approximately 519 to the tenth century until the Wessex hegemony became the nucleus for the unification of England. Scandinavia was in the Vendel period and eventually entered the Viking Age, with expansion to Britain, Ireland and Iceland in the west and as far as Russia and Greece in the east. By CE 900 the Vikings secured for themselves a foothold on Frankish soil along the Lower Seine River valley in what is now France that became known as Normandy. Hence they became the Normans. They established the Duchy of Normandy, a territorial acquisition which provided them the opportunity to expand beyond Normandy into Anglo-Saxon England. The subsequent Norman Conquest which followed in CE 1066 wrought immense changes to life in England as their new Scandinavian masters altered their government, lordship, public holdings, culture and DNA pool permanently.
By the late 9th century AD, Swedish Vikings, known locally as the Rus', had ventured deep into Russia, where they founded the state of Kievan Rus'. In cooperation with Crimean Goths, the Rus' destroyed the Khazar Khaganate and became the dominant power in Eastern Europe. They were eventually assimilated by the local East Slavic population.
The various Germanic tribal cultures began their transformation into the larger nations of later history, English, Norse and German, and in the case of Burgundy, Lombardy and Normandy blending into a Romano-Germanic culture. Many of these later nation states started originally as "client buffer states" for the Roman Empire so as to protect it from its enemies further away. Eventually they carved out their own unique historical paths.
The interactions of the migrating Germanic peoples and the deteriorating Roman empire formed the basis of the history and society of most of Western Europe from the Early Middle Ages and up to the present day. By the Middle Ages, Germanic tribes were no longer seen as a single ethnic grouping, and instead we can only speak of peoples who speak Germanic languages, though these are no longer mutually intelligible.
The territory of modern Germany was divided between Germanic- and Celtic-speaking groups in the last centuries BCE. The parts south of the Germanic limes came under Latin influence in the early centuries CE but were swiftly conquered by Germanic groups such as the Alemanni after the fall of the Western Roman Empire. The Germanic tribes of the Migration period had settled down by the Early Middle Ages, the latest series of movements out of Scandinavia taking place during the Viking Age.
The Goths and Vandals were linguistically assimilated to their Latin (Romance) substrate populations. Evidence exists that for 2nd- and 3rd-century Goths as well as for 4th- and 5th-century Lombards that significant population displacement throughout Roman-occupied Europe occurred. This quite likely contributed to their linguistic assimilation. An exception to this pattern was the Crimean Goths, who preserved their dialect into the 18th century). Burgundians and Lombards were assimilated into both Latin (French and Italian) and Germanic (German-speaking Swiss) populations.
The Viking Age Norse people split into an Old East Norse and an Old West Norse group, which further separated into Icelanders, Faroese and Norwegians on one hand and Swedes and Danes on the other. In Scandinavia, there is a long history of assimilation of and by the Sami people and Finnic peoples, namely Finns and Karelians. In today's usage, the term "Nordic peoples" refers to the ethnic groups in all of the Nordic countries. In Great Britain, Germanic people coalesced into the Anglo-Saxon (or English) people between the 8th and 10th centuries.
The various Germanic peoples of the Migrations period eventually spread out over a vast expanse stretching from contemporary European Russia to Iceland and from Norway to North Africa. The migrants had varying impacts in different regions. In many cases, the newcomers set themselves up as overlords of the pre-existing population. Over time, such groups underwent ethnogenesis, resulting in the creation of new cultural and ethnic identities (e.g., the Franks and Gallo-Romans becoming the French). Thus, many of the descendants of the ancient Germanic peoples do not speak Germanic languages, as they were to a greater or lesser degree assimilated into the cosmopolitan, literate culture of the Roman world. Even where the descendants of Germanic peoples maintained greater continuity with their common ancestors, significant cultural and linguistic differences arose over time, as is strikingly illustrated by the different identities of Christianized Saxon subjects of the Carolingian Empire and pagan Scandinavian Vikings.
More broadly, early Medieval Germanic peoples were often assimilated into the walha substrate cultures of their subject populations. Thus, the Burgundians of Burgundy, the Vandals of Northern Africa, and the Visigoths of France and Iberia, lost some Germanic identity and became part of Romano-Germanic Europe. For the Germanic Visigoths in particular, they had intimate contact with Rome for two centuries before their domination of the Iberian Peninsula and were accordingly permeated by Roman culture. Likewise, the Franks of Western Francia form part of the ancestry of the French people.
The Anglo-Saxon settlement of Britain resulted in Anglo-Saxon (or English) displacement and cultural assimilation of the indigenous culture, the Brythonic-speaking British culture, causing the foundation of a new kingdom, England. As in what became England, indigenous Brythonic Celtic culture in some of the south-eastern parts of what became Scotland (approximately the Lothian and Borders region) and areas of what became the Northwest of England (the kingdoms of Rheged, Elmet, etc.) succumbed to Germanic influence c.600—800, due to the extension of overlordship and settlement from the Anglo-Saxon areas to the south. Cultural and linguistic assimilation occurred less frequently between the Germanic Anglo-Saxons and the indigenous people who resided in the Roman dominated areas of England, particularly in the regions that remained previously unconquered. Anglo-Saxons occupied Somerset, the Severn valley, and Lancaster by c. 700 where they remained dominant. Over time, the Anglo-Saxons, with their distinct culture and language, displaced much of the extant Roman influence of old.
Perhaps the final incursions by Germanic people which altered in some ways the ethnographic map of Europe was made by the Vikings. Between the 8th and 11th centuries, these Scandinavian/Norse traders and pirates ravaged most of north and central Europe as well as the British Isles, spreading eastwards as far as Russia and into Byzantium. While their initial exploits were generally raids for plunder, they later settled and mixed with the local peoples, which resulted in both conquest and colonization. Other examples of assimilation during the Viking Age include the Norse, who settled in Normandy along the French Atlantic coast, and the societal elite in medieval Russia; among whom, many were the descendants of Slavified Norsemen (a theory contested by some Slavic scholars in the former Soviet Union, who named it the Normanist theory). Known for their unique ships, there is evidence of the Viking presence all over mainland Europe, as no lands with navigable waters or coastlines escaped their pillaging. Vast territories in eastern England were overrun and occupied by the Vikings and the Danish King, Canute, eventually succeeded to the English crown. Archeological remains as far as North America exist, giving evidence to the dynamism and territorial ambitions of the Norse.
Common elements of Germanic society can be deduced both from Roman historiography and comparative evidence from the Early Medieval period. A main element uniting Germanic societies was kingship, in origin a sacral institution combining the functions of military leader, high priest, lawmaker and judge. Germanic monarchy was elective; the king was elected by the free men from among eligible candidates of a family (OE cynn) tracing their ancestry to the tribe's divine or semi-divine founder.
Caesar notes than in wartime, Germanic tribes would select a "magistrate" with supreme authority to wage war. Those who refused to follow him were considered traitors, and were subjected to social isolation:
When a nation either defends itself in war or wages it, magistrates are selected to be in charge of the war with power of life and death... Those unwilling to follow are thought as deserters and traitors and are no longer trusted in anything.[ak]
According to Tacitus, traitors were on occasion hanged in trees, while cowards were disposed of by drowning them in swamps:
"Traitors and deserters are hanged on trees. Cowards, those who will not fight, and those who have defiled their bodies, are plunged into a boggy mire, with a wicker hurdle pressed on top of them."
To a large degree, many of the extant legal records from the Germanic tribes seem to revolve around property transactions. In early Germanic society, the free men of property each ruled their own estate and were subject to the king directly, without any intermediate hierarchy as in later feudalism. Free men without landed property could swear fealty to a man of property who as their lord would then be responsible for their upkeep, including generous feasts and gifts. This system of sworn retainers was central to early Germanic society, and the loyalty of the retainer to his lord generally replaced his family ties.
Early Germanic law reflects a hierarchy of worth within the society of free men, reflected in the differences in weregild. Among the Anglo-Saxons, a regular free man (a ceorl) had a weregild of 200 shillings (i.e. solidi or gold pieces), classified as a twyhyndeman "200-man" for this reason, while a nobleman commanded a fee of six times that amount (twelfhyndeman "1200-man"). Similarly, among the Alamanni the basic weregild for a free man was 200 shillings, and the amount could be doubled or tripled according to the man's rank. Unfree serfs did not command a weregild, and the recompense paid in the event of their death was merely for material damage, 15 shillings in the case of the Alamanni, increased to 40 or 50 if the victim had been a skilled artisan.
The social hierarchy is not only reflected in the weregild due in the case of the violent or accidental death of a man, but also in differences in fines for lesser crimes. Thus the fines for insults, injury, burglary or damage to property differ depending on the rank of the injured party.[al] They do not usually depend on the rank of the guilty party, although there are some exceptions associated with royal privilege.[am]
Free women did not have a political station of their own but inherited the rank of their father if unmarried, or their husband if married. The weregild or recompense due for the killing or injuring of a woman is notably set at twice that of a man of the same rank in Alemannic law.
All freemen had the right to participate in general assemblies or things, where disputes between freemen were addressed according to customary law. The king was bound to uphold ancestral law, but was at the same time the source for new laws for cases not addressed in previous tradition. This aspect was the reason for the creation of the various Germanic law codes by the kings following their conversion to Christianity: besides recording inherited tribal law, these codes have the purpose of settling the position of the church and Christian clergy within society, usually setting the weregilds of the members of the clerical hierarchy parallel to that of the existing hierarchy of nobility, with the position of an archbishop mirroring that of the king.
In the case of a suspected crime, the accused could avoid punishment by presenting a fixed number of free men (their number depending on the severity of the crime) prepared to swear an oath on his innocence. Failing this, he could prove his innocence in a trial by combat. Corporal or capital punishment for free men does not figure in the Germanic law codes, and banishment appears to be the most severe penalty issued officially. This reflects that Germanic tribal law did not have the scope of exacting revenge, which was left to the judgement of the family of the victim, but to settle damages as fairly as possible once an involved party decided to bring a dispute before the assembly. A fascinating component of early Germanic laws were the varying distinctions concerning the physical body, as each body part had a personal injury value and corresponding legal claims for personal injury viewed matters like gender, rank and status as a secondary interest when deliberating cases.
Generally speaking, Roman legal codes eventually provided the model for many Germanic laws and they were fixed in writing along with Germanic legal customs. Traditional Germanic society was gradually replaced by the system of estates and feudalism characteristic of the High Middle Ages in both the Holy Roman Empire and Anglo-Norman England in the 11th to 12th centuries, to some extent under the influence of Roman law as an indirect result of Christianisation, but also because political structures had grown too large for the flat hierarchy of a tribal society. The same effect of political centralization took hold in Scandinavia slightly later, in the 12th to 13th century (Age of the Sturlungs, Consolidation of Sweden, Civil war era in Norway), by the end of the 14th century culminating in the giant Kalmar Union. Elements of tribal law, notably the wager of battle, nevertheless remained in effect throughout the Middle Ages, in the case of the Holy Roman Empire until the establishment of the Imperial Chamber Court in the early German Renaissance. In the federalist organization of Switzerland, where cantonal structures remained comparatively local, the Germanic thing survived into the 21st century in the form of the Landsgemeinde, albeit subject to federal law.
Historical records of the Germanic tribes in Germania east of the Rhine and west of the Danube do not begin until quite late in the ancient period, so only the period after 100 BCE can be examined. What is clear is that the Germanic idea of warfare was quite different from the pitched battles fought by Rome and Greece. Instead the Germanic tribes focused on raids. Warfare of varying size however was a distinctive feature of barbarian culture.
The purpose of these was generally not to gain territory, but rather to capture resources and secure prestige. These raids were conducted by irregular troops, often formed along family or village lines, in groups of 10 to about 1,000. Leaders of unusual personal magnetism could gather more soldiers for longer periods, but there was no systematic method of gathering and training men, so the death of a charismatic leader could mean the destruction of an army. Armies also often consisted of more than 50 percent noncombatants, as displaced people would travel with large groups of soldiers, the elderly, women, and children. War leaders who were able to secure ample booty for their retainers were able to grow accordingly by attracting warrior bands from nearby villages.
Large bodies of troops, while figuring prominently in the history books, were the exception rather than the rule of ancient warfare. Thus a typical Germanic force might consist of 100 men with the sole goal of raiding a nearby Germanic or foreign village. Thus, most warfare was at their barbarian neighbors. According to Roman sources, when the Germanci tribes did fight pitched battles, the infantry often adopted wedge formations, each wedge being led by a clan head. Legitimacy for leaders among the Germans resided in their ability to successfully lead armies to victory. Defeat on the battlefield at the hands of the Romans or other barbarians often meant the end of a ruler and in some cases, being absorbed by "another, victorious confederation."
Though often defeated by the Romans, the Germanic tribes were remembered in Roman records as fierce combatants, whose main downfall was that they failed to join together into a collective fighting force under a unified command, which allowed the Roman Empire to employ a "divide and conquer" strategy against them. On occasions when the Germanic tribes worked together, the results were impressive. Three Roman legions were ambushed and destroyed by an alliance of Germanic tribes headed by Arminius at the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest in 9 CE, the Roman Empire made no further concentrated attempts at conquering Germania beyond the Rhine.
During the 4th and 5th centuries CE, Visigoths and Vandals militarily organized themselves to sufficiently challenge and sack Rome in CE 410 and again in CE 455. Then in CE 476, the last Roman emperor was deposed by a German chieftain, an event which effectively ended Roman predominance in western Europe. Germanic tribes eventually overwhelmed and conquered the ancient world. That military transition was additionally spurred by the arrival of the Vikings from the 8th to 10th centuries, giving rise to modern Europe and medieval warfare.
For an analysis of Germanic tactics versus the Roman empire see: Roman infantry versus Gallic and the Germanic tribes
Weapons used by the Germanic tribes varied. Some of them used axes, throwing javelins, spears, bows and arrows along with swords. Most of the swords used by the Germanic warriors were those captured from Roman soldiers until the 4th century when German blacksmiths began making the best steel in Europe. Body armor was rarely worn and when it was, it was light by comparison to what the Romans employed; only war leaders wore helmets on the battlefield. Commandeering of Roman weaponry was widespread and the acquisition of the superior Roman armaments allowed the Germanic leaders to exert their power in ways not previously available. It also meant fierce inter-Germanic rivalry which constituted the larger power blocks of the Germanic world. Much like their predecessors, the Vikings too used axes, swords, long knives, spears, oblong shields, leather or metal helmets and mail or leather coats for protection; the latter being luxuries most could not afford.
To the greatest extent, Germanic fighting units consisted of infantry who would emerge from cover and attack, but they also utilized skilled cavalrymen at times, something the Visigoths used decisively to aid in their victory at Adrianople. Cavalry warfare was limited in northern Europe due to the lack of suitably large horses for mounted troops. Caesar provided his Germanic armies with Roman mounts to enable them greater mobility and to enhance their fighting efficiency. Unlike their western Celtic neighbors, the use of chariots was not picked up by the early Germans. Notwithstanding the use of an occasional fortified position, the Germanic warriors preferred to fight in the open and normally assumed the offensive rather than fight defensively. Emboldening themselves for fierce attacks, the Germanic warriors would rouse themselves to a high-pitched level of excitement and charge headlong against their enemies, which while effective for ambush operations, lacked in terms of the organizational skill needed for prolonged siege warfare. The berserker mentality employed by the Germanic tribes against Rome was still in effect during the Viking era of the 8th and 9th centuries as they too believed that by summoning their gods and working themselves up, they would possess superhuman strength and be protected during battle. Such resolution led them to believe that dying in such a manner was heroic and would transport the fallen fighter straight into Valhalla where they would be embraced by the warrior maidens known as the Valkyries.[an] The later military development of armored knights and fortified castles was a response in part to the relentless plundering and raiding by the Vikings, which meant that the Germanic tribes who had settled mainland Europe and the British Isles had to adapt themselves so as to combat another Germanic tribe of interlopers.
Traces of the earliest pastoralism of the Germanic peoples appear in central Europe in the form of elaborate cattle burials along the Elbe and Vistula Rivers from around 4000–3000 BCE. These archaeological remnants were left by the Globular Amphora culture who cleared forests for herding cattle and sometime after 3000 BCE began using wheeled carts and plows to cultivate their lands. Central to survival for their assistance in tilling the soil and supplying food, cattle became an economic resource to these early people. Germanic settlements were typically small, rarely containing much more than ten households, often less, and were usually located by clearings in the woods.[ao] Settlements remained of a fairly constant size throughout the period. The buildings in these villages varied in form, but normally consisted of farmhouses surrounded by smaller buildings such as granaries and other storage rooms. The universal building material was timber. Cattle and humans usually lived together in the same house.
Although the Germanic tribes practiced both agriculture and husbandry, the latter was extremely important both as a source of dairy products and as a basis for wealth and social status, which was measured by the size of an individual's herd. The diet consisted mainly of the products of farming and husbandry and was supplied by hunting to a very modest extent. Barley and wheat were the most common agricultural products and were used for baking a certain flat type of bread as well as brewing beer. Evidence from a Saxon village known as Feddersen Wierde near Cuxhaven, Germany (which existed between BCE 50 to CE 450) shows that the Germanic people cultivated oats and rye, used manure as fertilizer, and that they practiced crop rotation.
The fields were tilled with a light-weight wooden ard, although heavier models also existed in some areas. Common clothing styles are known from the remarkably well-preserved corpses that have been found in former marshes on several locations in Denmark, and included woolen garments and brooches for women and trousers and leather caps for men. Other important small-scale industries were weaving, the manual production of basic pottery and, more rarely, the fabrication of iron tools, especially weapons. The Corded Ware culture and the Funnelbeaker culture (circa. 2900–2300 BCE) of these north and central European peoples coincide one another and provide evidence of how they lived, traded and buried their dead.
After 1300 BCE the societies of Jutland and Northern Germany along with the Celtic people experienced a major revolution in technology during the Late Bronze Age, shaping tools, containers and weapons through the improved techniques of working bronze. Both the sword and the bow and arrow as well as other weaponry proliferate and an arms race of sorts between the tribes ensued as they tried to outpace one another. Trade was taking place to a greater degree and simple gems and amber from the Mediterranean indicate that long-distance exchange of goods was occurring. When the Iron Age arrived, the Germanic people showed greater mastery of ironworks than their Celtic contemporaries but they did not have the extensive trade networks during this period that their southern neighbors enjoyed with the Greco-Roman world.
The Germanic tribes appear to have been the first peoples to use the heavy plough, which enabled them to farm the rough forested lowlands of Northern Europe. In certain their respects their technology was superior to that of the Romans.[ap] They excelled particularly at metalwork.[aq] In many cases in fact, ancient Germanic smiths and other craftsmen produced products of higher quality than the Romans.[ar][as]
Caesar notes that certain warlike Germanic tribes, such as the Nervii and Suebi, practiced teetotalism, banning the import of alcoholic beverages to their territories.[at][au] Early Germanic peoples are recorded as being opposed to taxation. For this reason, it is noted by Salvian, native Romans in many cases preferred "barbarian" rule over Roman rule.
"For in the Gothic country the barbarians are so far from tolerating this sort of oppression that not even Romans who live among them have to bear it. Hence all the Romans in that region have but one desire, that they may never have to return to the Roman jurisdiction. It is the unanimous prayer of the Roman people in that district that they may be permitted to continue to lead their present life among the barbarians."
Widening trade between the Germanic tribes and Rome started later following the Empire's wars of conquest when they looked to the Germanic people to supply them with slaves, leather and quality iron. One of the reasons the Romans may have drawn borders along the Rhine, besides the sizable population of Germanic warriors on one side of it, was that the Germanic economy was not robust enough for them to extract much booty nor were they convinced they could acquire sufficient tax revenue from any additional efforts of conquest. Drawing a distinctive line between themselves and Germanic people also incentivized alliances and trade as the Germanic people sought a share of the imperial wealth. Roman coinage was coveted by the Germanic people who preferred silver to gold coins, mostly likely indications that a market economy was developing. Tacitus does mention the presence of a bartering system being observable among the Germanic people, but this was not exclusive, as he also writes of their use of "gold and silver for the purpose of commerce", adding rather sardonically in his text, that they preferred silver for buying cheap everyday goods. Such observations from Tacitus aside, fine metalwork, iron and glassware was soon being traded by the Germanic peoples along the coast of the North Sea of Denmark and the Netherlands.
The writings of Tacitus allude to the Germanic peoples being aware of a shared ethnicity, in that, they either knew or believed that they shared a common biological ancestor with one another. Just how pervasive this awareness may have been is certainly debatable, but other factors like language, clothing, ornamentation, hair styles, weapon types, religious practices and shared oral history were likely just as significant in tribal identity for the Germanics. Members of a Germanic tribe told tales about the exploits of heroic founding figures who were more or less mythologized. Village life consisted of free men assembled under a chieftain, all of whom shared common cultural and political traditions. Status among the early Germanic tribes was often gauged by the size of a man's cattle herd or by one's martial prowess.
Before their conversion to Christianity, the Germanic peoples of Europe were made up of several tribes, each functioning as an economic and military unit and sometimes united by a common religious cult. Kinship, especially close kinship, was very important to life within a tribe but generally was not the source of a tribe's identity. In fact, several elements of ancient Germanic life tended to weaken the role of kinship: the importance of the retinues surrounding military chieftains, the ability of strong leaders to unite people who were not closely related, and feuds and other conflicts within a tribe that might lead to permanent divisions. The retinue (often called "comitatus" by scholars, following the practice of ancient Roman writers) consisted of the followers of a chieftain, who depended on the retinue for military and other services and who in return provided for the retinue's needs and divided with them the spoils of battle. This relationship between a chieftain and his followers became the basis for the more complicated feudal system that developed in medieval Europe. A chieftain's retinue might include close relatives, but it was not limited to them. Eventually the rising power of individual chieftains and kings from among the military leadership of Germanic tribes and confederations curtailed and in many ways replaced the power once enjoyed by tribal assemblies. A code of ethics in battle prevailed among the Germanic kin. According to Tacitus, the greatest disgrace that can befall a warrior of a clan among the Germanic tribes was the abandonment of their shield during combat, as this almost certainly resulted in social isolation. Within tribal Germanic society, their social hierarchy was linked intrinsically to war and this warrior code maintained the fidelity between chiefs and their young warriors.
Feuds were the standard means for resolving conflicts and regulating behavior. Peace within the tribe was about controlling violence with codes identifying exactly how certain types of feuds were to be settled. Those closely related to a person who had been injured or killed were supposed to exact revenge on or monetary payment from the offender. This duty helped reaffirm the bonds between extended family members. Yet such feuds weakened the tribe as a whole, sometimes leading to the creation of a new tribe as one group separated from the rest. Clans of Germanic people consisted of groupings of about 50 households in total with societal rules for each specific clan. Recent scholarship suggests that, despite the obligation to take part in feuds and other customs involving kinship ties, extended families did not form independent units among the early Germanic peoples. Though most members of a tribe would have been more or less distantly related, common descent was not the main source of a tribe's identity, and extended families were not the main social units within a tribe. Traditional theories have emphasized the supposedly central role in Germanic culture of clans or large groups with common ancestry. But there is little evidence that such clans existed, and they were certainly not an important element of social organization. As historian Alexander C. Murray concludes, "kinship was a crucial factor in all aspects of barbarian activity, but its uses and groupings were fluid, and probably on the whole not long lasting." Internal competition within the factions of a tribe occasionally resulted in internecine warfare which weakened and sometime destroyed a group, as appears to have been the case for the Cherusci tribe during Rome's earlier period.
The most important family relationships among the early Germanic peoples were within the individual household, a fact based on the archaeological evidence from their settlements where the long-houses appeared to be central in their existence. Within the household unit, an individual was equally bound to both the mother and the father's side of the family. Fathers were the main figures of authority, but wives also played an important and respected role. Some Germanic tribes even believed that women possessed magical powers and were feared accordingly. Tacitus describes how, during battles, Germanic warriors were encouraged and cared for by their wives and mothers. He also notes that during times of peace, women did most of the work of managing the household. Along with the children, they apparently did most of the household chores as well. Children were valued, and according to Tacitus, limiting or destroying one's offspring was considered shameful. Mothers apparently breast-fed their own children rather than using nurses. Besides parents and children, a household might include slaves, but slavery was uncommon, and according to Tacitus, slaves normally had households of their own. Their slaves (usually prisoners of war) were most often employed as domestic servants. Polygamy and concubinage were rare but existed, at least among the upper classes.[av] When a certain number of families resided on the same territory, this constituted a village (Dorf in German). The overall territory occupied by people from the same tribe was designated in the writings of Tacitus as a civitas, with each of the individual civitas divided into pagi (or cantons), which were made up of several vici. In cases where the tribes were grouped into larger confederations or a group of kingdoms, the term pagus was applied (Gau in German). Extensive contact with Rome altered the egalitarian structure of tribal Germanic society. As individuals rose to prominence, a distinction between commoner and nobility developed and with it the previous constructs of folkright shared equally across the tribe was replaced in some cases by privilege. As a result, Germanic society became more stratified. Elites within the Germanic tribes who learned the Roman system and emulated the way they established dominion were able to gain advantages and exploit them accordingly.
Important changes began taking place by the 4th century CE as Germanic peoples, while still cognizant of their unique clan identities, started forming larger confederations of a similar culture. Gathering around the dominant tribes among them and hearkening to the most charismatic leaders brought the various barbarians tribes closer together. On the surface this change appeared to the Romans as welcome since they preferred to deal with a few strong chiefs to control the populations that they feared across the Rhine and Danube, but it eventually made these Germanic rulers of confederated peoples more and more powerful. While strong, they were still not federated to one another since they possessed no sense of "pan-Germanic solidarity", but this started to change noticeably by the 5th century CE at Rome's expense.
Based on the writings of Tacitus, most of the barbarians were content with one wife, which indicates a general trend towards monogamy. For those higher within their social hierarchy however, polygamy was sometimes solicited on account of their rank. Of note, Tacitus observed that "The dowry is not brought by the wife to the husband but by the husband to the wife" and wedding gifts related to a marriage consisted of things like oxen, saddles and various armaments. Revealing the warlike nature of their society, Tacitus also reported that wives came to their husbands as a partner in toils and dangers; to suffer and to dare equally with him, in peace and in war.
Caesar notes that early Germanic peoples believed sexual abstinence increased physical growth. For a young Germanic man, having had sexual relations with a woman before the age of twenty was considered a disgrace:
Life is all in hunting and military exercise. From childhood they train for labor and hardship. They have great praise among them for those who remain longest without sexual experience. Some think this makes for height, muscle, and strength. Indeed to have had knowledge of a woman before age twenty they think very shameful, and there is no hiding it..."
The young men are slow to mate, and reach manhood with unimpaired vigour. Nor are the virgins hurried into marriage. Being as old and as tall as the men, they are equal to their mates in age and strength, and the children inherit the robustness of their parents.
Tacitus notes that the Germanic tribes were strictly monogameous, and that adultery was severely punished:
Considering the great size of the population, adultery is very rare. The penalty for it is instant and left to the husband. He cuts off her hair, strips her naked in the presence of kinsmen, and flogs her all through the village. They have no mercy on a woman who prostitutes her chastity. Neither beauty, nor youth, nor wealth can find her another husband. In fact, no one there laughs about vice, nor is seducing and being seduced called "modern"... To limit the number of their children or to kill one of the later-born is regarded as a crime. 
For Germanic women of later antiquity, marriage obviously had its appeal since it offered greater security and better placement in their social hierarchy. Where Aristotle had set the prime of life at 37 years for men and 18 for women, the Visigothic Code of law in the 7th century placed the prime of life at twenty years for both men and women, after which both presumably married. Thus it can be presumed that ancient Germanic brides were on average about twenty and were roughly the same age as their husbands. Tacitus, however, had never visited the German-speaking lands and most of his information on Germania comes from secondary sources. In addition, Anglo-Saxon women, like those of other Germanic tribes, are marked as women from the age of twelve onward, based on archaeological finds, implying that the age of marriage coincided with puberty. Generally, there were two forms of marriage among the Germanic peoples, one involving the participation of the parents and the other, those that did not. Known as Friedelehe, the latter form consisted of marriage between a free man and a free woman, since marriage between free persons and slaves was forbidden by law. Evidence of Germanic patriarchy is evident later in the 7th century CE Edict of Rothari of the Lombards, which stated that women were not allowed to live of their own freewill and that they had to be subject to a man and if no one else, they were to be "under the power of the king".
For Germanic kings, warrior chieftains, senators and Roman nobility, a certain degree of intermarriage was undertaken to strengthen their ties to one another and to the Empire, making marriage or connubium as the Romans connoted the bond, an instrument of politics. Earlier treaty terms in the late 4th century CE had forbidden "foreign" Goths to intermarry with Romans. Some of the marriage attempts of the 6th century CE were deliberately planned for the sake of royal succession. Imperial policy had to be carefully charted between the Roman-Germanic claimants to kingship and the maintenance of Roman imperial administration, as the federated Germanic kings attempted to put their stamp on Roman rule and replace Roman armies with their own warriors. Roman leaders were not oblivious to the clever tactics (intermarriage and offspring) employed by Germanic chieftains and adopted creative treaties to either appease them or temper their ambitions.
Prior to the Middle Ages, Germanic peoples followed what is now referred to as Germanic paganism: "a system of interlocking and closely interrelated religious worldviews and practices rather than as one indivisible religion" and as such consisted of "individual worshippers, family traditions and regional cults within a broadly consistent framework". It was polytheistic in nature, with some underlying similarities to other Indo-Germanic traditions. Despite the unique practices of some tribes, there was a degree of cultural uniformity among the Germanic people concerning religion.[aw] Germanic ideology and religious practices were pervaded and colored to a large degree by war, particularly the notion of a heroic death on the battlefield, as this brought the god(s) a "blood sacrifice."[ax] Early Germanic society was characterized by a rigorous code of ethics, which above all valued trust, loyalty and courage.[ay]
Archaeological findings suggest that the Germanic barbarians practiced some of the same 'spiritual' rituals as the Celts, including human sacrifice, divination, and the belief in spiritual connection with the natural environment around them. Germanic priestesses were feared by the Romans, as these tall women with glaring eyes, wearing flowing white gowns often wielded a knife for sacrificial offerings. Captives might have their throats cut and be bled into giant cauldrons or have their intestines opened up and the entrails thrown to the ground for prophetic readings. Spiritual rituals frequently occurred in consecrated groves or upon islands on lakes where perpetual fires burned.
Many of the deities found in Germanic paganism appeared under similar names across the Germanic peoples, most notably the god known to the Germans as Wodan or Wotan, to the Anglo-Saxons as Woden, and to the Norse as Óðinn, as well as the god Thor – known to the Germans as Donar, to the Anglo-Saxons as Þunor and to the Norse as Þórr. Pagan beliefs amid the Germanic tribes were reported by some of the earlier Roman historians and in the 6th century CE another instance of this appears when the Byzantine historian and poet, Agathias, remarked that the Alamannic religion was "solidly and unsophisticatedly pagan." Christianity had no relevance for the pagan barbarians until their contact and integration with Rome.
While the Germanic peoples were slowly converted to Christianity by varying means, many elements of the pre-Christian culture and indigenous beliefs remained firmly in place after the conversion process, particularly in the more rural and distant regions. Of particular note is the survival of the pagan fascination with the forest in the retention of Christmas tree even today. Many of the Germanic tribes actually revered forests as sacred places and left them unmolested. Conversion to Christianity broke this pagan obsession with protecting the forest in some locations and allowed once migrant tribes to settle in places where they previously refused to cultivate the soil or chop down trees based on religious belief. To that end, the Christianisation of Germanic peoples facilitated the clearing of forests and therewith provided "a broad and stable basis for the medieval economy of Central Europe" by leveraging the vast forest resources available to them. The Ostrogoths, Visigoths, and Vandals were Christianized while they were still outside the bounds of the Empire; however, they converted to Arianism rather than Catholicism, and were soon regarded as heretics by Catholics. The one great written remnant of the Gothic language is a translation of the Bible made by Wulfila, the Arian missionary who converted them. Goths, Vandals, and other Germanic peoples often offered political resistance prior to their conversion to Christianity. The Lombards were not converted until after their entrance into the Empire, but received Christianity from Arian Germanic tribes sometime during the 5th century.
Paganism and Christianity were still being practiced across the empire when Constantine died in CE 337, despite his conversion; he did however ban pagan rituals at select religious temples. Sometime between CE 391–392, the barbarian king Theodosius I made an official proclamation which outlawed pagan religions in his region of influence with various successors like Justinian doing likewise. The Franks were converted directly from paganism to Catholicism under the leadership of Clovis in about CE 496 without an intervening time as Arians. Eventually the Gothic tribes turned away from their Arian faith and in CE 589 converted to Catholicism. Several centuries later, Anglo-Saxon and Frankish missionaries and warriors undertook the conversion of their Saxon neighbors. A key event was the felling of Thor's Oak near Fritzlar by Boniface, apostle of the Germans, in CE 723. When Thor failed to strike Boniface dead after the oak hit the ground, the Franks were amazed and began their conversion to the Christian faith.[az]
Eventually for many Germanic tribes, the conversion to Christianity was achieved by armed force, successfully completed by Charlemagne, in a series of campaigns (the Saxon Wars), that also brought Saxon lands into the Frankish empire. Massacres, such as the Bloody Verdict of Verden, where as many as 4,500 people were beheaded according to one of Charlemagne's chroniclers, were a direct result of this policy.
It is suggested by geneticists that the movements of Germanic peoples has had a strong influence upon the modern distribution of the male lineage represented by the Y-DNA haplogroup I1, which is believed to have originated with one man, who lived approximately 4,000 to 6,000 years ago somewhere in Northern Europe, possibly modern Denmark (see Most Recent Common Ancestor for more information). There is evidence of this man's descendants settling in all of the areas that Germanic tribes are recorded as having subsequently invaded or migrated to.[ba] Haplogroup I1 is older than Germanic languages, but may have been present among early Germanic speakers. Other male lines likely to have been present during the development and dispersal of Germanic language populations include R1a1a, R1b-P312 and R1b-U106, a genetic combination of the haplogroups found to be strongly-represented among current Germanic speaking peoples. Peaking in northern Europe, the R1b-U106 marker seems particular interesting in distribution and provides some helpful genetic clues regarding the historical trek made by the Germanic people.
Haplogroup I1 accounts for approximately 40% of Icelandic males, 40%–50% of Swedish males, 40% of Norwegian males, and 40% of Danish Human Y-chromosome DNA haplogroups. Haplogroup I1 peaks in certain areas of Northern Germany and Eastern England at more than 30%.
Later Germanic studies and their influence
The Renaissance revived interest in pre-Christian Classical Antiquity and only in a second phase in pre-Christian Northern Europe. The Germanic peoples of the Roman era are often lumped with the other agents of the barbarian invasions, the Alans and the Huns, as opposed to the civilized "Roman" identity of the Holy Roman Empire.
Early modern publications dealing with Old Norse culture appeared in the 16th century, e.g. Historia de gentibus septentrionalibus (Olaus Magnus, 1555) and the first edition of the 13th century Gesta Danorum (Saxo Grammaticus), in 1514. Authors of the German Renaissance such as Johannes Aventinus discovered the Germanii of Tacitus as the "Old Germans", whose virtue and unspoiled manhood, as it appears in the Roman accounts of noble savagery, they contrast with the decadence of their own day.
The pace of publication increased during the 17th century with Latin translations of the Edda (notably Peder Resen's Edda Islandorum of 1665). The Viking revival of 18th century Romanticism created a fascination with anything "Nordic" in disposition. The beginning of Germanic philology proper begins in the early 19th century, with Rasmus Rask's Icelandic Lexicon of 1814, and was in full bloom by the 1830s, with Jacob Grimm's Deutsche Mythologie giving an extensive account of reconstructed Germanic mythology and composing a German dictionary (Deutsches Wörterbuch) of Germanic etymology. Jacob Grimm also coauthored with his brother Wilhelm, the famous Grimm's Fairy Tales. Apart from linguistic studies, the subject of what became of the Roman era Germanic tribes, and how they influenced the Middle Ages and the development of modern Western culture was a subject discussed during the Enlightenment by such as writers as Montesquieu and Giambattista Vico.
Later still, the development of Germanic studies as an academic discipline in the 19th century ran parallel to the rise of nationalism in Europe and the search for national histories for the nascent nation states developing after the end of the Napoleonic Wars. A "Germanic" national ethnicity offered itself for the unification of Germany, contrasting the emerging German Empire with its neighboring rivals of differing ancestry. The nascent belief in a German ethnicity was subsequently founded upon national myths of Germanic antiquity. These tendencies culminated in a later Pan-Germanism, Alldeutsche Bewegung which had as its aim, the political unity of all of German-speaking Europe (all Volksdeutsche) into a Teutonic nation state.
Contemporary Romantic nationalism in Scandinavia placed more weight on the Viking Age, resulting in the movement known as Scandinavism. The theories of race developed in the same period, which used Darwinian evolutionary ideals and pseudo-scientific methods in the identification of Germanic peoples (members of a Nordic race), as being superior to other ethnicities. Scientific racism flourished in the late 19th century and into the mid-20th century, where it became the basis for specious racial comparisons and justification for eugenic efforts; it also contributed to compulsory sterilization, anti-miscegenation laws, and was used to sanction immigration restrictions in both Europe and the United States.[bb] Following World War II, as a response to political influences of the past, government support for the study of ancient Germanic history and culture was significantly reduced both in Germany and Scandinavia.[bc]
- The Latin term is sometimes translated as Germans.
- "Mommsen referred to the Battle of the Teutoburg forest as a turning-point in world history."
- In these early records of apparent Germanic tribes, tribal leader names of the Cimbri and Sigambri, and tribal names such as Tencteri and Usipetes, are also apparently Gaulish, even coming from the east of the Rhine.
- See: L. Rübekeil, Suebica. Völkernamen und Ethnos, Innsbruck 1992, 187–214.
- The Cherusci people are the progenitors of Arminius, who once a Roman general, betrayed his erstwhile Roman legions by attacking them using the combined forces of Germanic tribes in 9 CE at Teutoberg Forest, a move which ended the Roman Empire's efforts to expand east of the Rhine.
- See: Pomponius Mela, Description of the World, trans. F.E. Romer (Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1998), 109–110, 3.31–3.32
- As late as the 10th century there is evidence of runic writing on a stone monument erected by the first Christian king of Denmark, Harald Bluetooth. In the text, Harald honors his parents using runic script and on the other side of the stone is a depiction of 'Christ in His Glory', incorporating a runic inscription which extolls Harald for acquiring Denmark and Norway and for converting the Danes into Christians. See: Moltke (1985). Runes and Their Origin: Denmark and Elsewhere, pp. 207–220.
- Of the Germanic languages, the only well-attested east Germanic language was Gothic. See: Don Ringe, A Linguistic History of English: From Proto-Indo-European to Proto-Germanic (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006), 213.
- For more on this, see: Kurt Braunmüller, "Was ist Germanisch heute?" Sprachwissenschaft 25 (2000): 271–295.
- See: The New Encyclopædia Britannica, 15th edition, 22: pp. 641–642.
- Ancient authors we know by name who saw Pytheas' text were Dicaearchus, Timaeus, Eratosthenes, Crates of Mallus, Hipparchus, Polybius, Artemidorus and Posidonius, as Lionel Pearson remarked in reviewing Hans Joachim Mette, Pytheas von Massalia (Berlin: Gruyter) 1952, in Classical Philology 49.3 (July 1954), pp. 212–214.
- A preserved report from the Governor of Moesia indicates that Nero released a notable number of Bastarnae captives in recompense for their tribal King's willingness to submit before the Roman standards.
- Plutarch writes of these Cimbrian warriors with "sky blue" colored eyes, see: Truces et cærulei oculi. -- Germ. IX. Plutarch (in Marius, XI). Cited from Francis B. Gummere, Germanic Origins: A Study in Primitive Culture (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1892), 58 fn.
- "Proximity to our provinces and familiarity with seaborne imports bring the Gauls many things to use and keep, so they gradually grew accustomed to defeat, losing many battles and not even claiming to be the Germans' equals in courage now."
- "[O]ur men inquired and heard Gauls and merchants describing the Germans' huge bodies, their incredible strength, and their experience in arms. They had often encountered them and could not stand the sight of them or endure their gaze. Great fear suddenly seized our whole army..."
- This derives from Gaius Julius Caesar, Commentarii De Bello Gallico, VI. XX–XXI
- The tribal Helvetii lend their namesake to the formal epithet for the nation of Switzerland – the Helvetic Confederacy (or Helvetia). See: The Encyclopædia Britannica (2015), "Helvetii". Stable URL: http://www.britannica.com/topic/Helvetii
- The texts of the chronicler Marcellinus demonstrate that, at the very least, military cooperation between the Germanic tribes and the Romans took place at times since he makes reference to a "pactum vicissitudinus reddendae".
- "By the late fourth century Germanics constituted most of the Roman military."
- "In basic organization, values, tactics, and weaponry, the “Roman” army had become largely Germanic."
- "Constantine credited his victories against Maxentius in 311–312 principally to his barbarian troops, who were honoured on the triumphal Arch of Constantine in Rome. In opposition to him, Licinius mustered drafts of Goths to strengthen his army. Goths were also brought in by Constantine, to the number of 40,000, it is said, to help defend Constantinople in the latter part of his reign, and the palace guard was thenceforward composed mostly of Germans, from among whom a great many high army commands were filled. Dependence on immigrants or first-generation barbarians in war was to increase steadily, at a time when conventional Roman troops were losing military value."
- "Germanic peoples were the scourge of the Western Empire. Nevertheless, it was only with German help that the empire was able to survive as long as it did. The Roman army received an ever-growing number of recruits from the German tribes..."
- "If caesar wished, let him join battle, but he should know what strength unbeaten Germans possessed, a people tested in arms, now living in the open fourteen years."
- "In point of valour and integrity, the Germans, they said, were second to no people on earth."
- "In the polylingual camp of Attila, Gothic had the rank of a lingua franca...."
- Recent academic work from the likes of Peter Heather supports this argument. (See: Heather, Peter. (2012) Empires and Barbarians: The Fall of Rome and the Birth of Europe). Conversely, historian Bryan Ward-Perkins paints a different picture altogether. Ward-Perkins states that, "The invaders were not guilty of murder, but they had committed manslaughter." (See: Ward-Perkins, (2005) The Fall of Rome: And the End of Civilization, p. 134.) The two titles alone speak to their divergent positions.
- "So much for the conventional notions. In real life, these tribes were surprisingly small: fifteen to twenty thousand warriors—which means a total of about one hundred thousand people in a tribe—was the maximum number a large people could raise. In defiance of the facts, we hear to this day of barbarian hordes. These people are likewise presented as conquerors of the Roman Empire, even though they constituted a vanishing minority within it."
- "The barbarians were everywhere a small minority. They established themselves on the great estates and divided the land to the benefit of the federates without doing much harm to the lower classes or disturbing the economy."
- "Despite the collapse of imperial rule in Spain, Roman influence remained strong. The majority of the population, probably about six million, were Hispano-Romans, as compared with 200,000 barbarians."
- "[H]is people could not legally intermarry with Romans."
- "The Visigothic king was theoretically ruler of only his own people, whereas the Hispano-Romans continued to profess allegiance to a rapidly vanishing imperial authority. A Roman law that prohibited intermarriage between the two peoples was, however, abolished in the late 6th century."
- For a period of upwards of 1,300 years since the Frankish king Clovis was converted to Christianity (he ruled Gaul in what eventually became modern France), eighteen monarchs of France have been Christened with a French derivation of his Latin name Ludovicus or "Louis" in modern French. See: Diarmaid MacCulloch, Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years (New York: Penguin, 2011), p. 324.
- "During Roman times. Germanic peoples arrived from the east conquering whatever Celtic lands the Romans had not taken, namely the areas just north of the Danube and east of the Rhine. These tribes continually threatened the Roman Empire, sacking Rome itself for the first time in a.d. 410. By the end of the 400s. Gaul was taken over by the Franks, eventually to be renamed for them (France). The Burgundians lent their name to a province (Burgundy) that was eventually absorbed into France. The Visigoths and Lombards moved into the Italian peninsula. The latter name is found in the modern Italian provincial name of Lombardy. The Angles and Saxons moved into the British Isles, pushing the Celtic peoples farther into the fringes of Europe. Even today, the English are considered Anglo-Saxons. Other Germanic tribes moved north into Scandinavia. By the a.d. 800s, they developed a distinct Viking culture... Germanic culture is still prevalent today. Though the Franks, Burgundians. and Lombards adopted the Romance languages of the Roman provinces they conquered, other Germanic peoples, like the Vikings, maintained their Germanic languages through the centuries and are clearly seen on the map today (see Figure 3.4a). Germans. Austrians, Dutch, and the Scandinavians (such as Danes, Norwegians, and Swedes) are the most numerous of today's Germanic peoples. The Germanic peoples also converted to Christianity and later became the driving force behind the creation of the branch of Christianity known as Protestantism."
- "Germanic peoples (3A). A broadly defined group of peoples from northern Europe who began to move south into Germany and other areas of Europe around 500 B.C. Modern Germans, Austrians, Dutch, and the Scandinavians (Danes, Norwegians, Swedes) are the most numerous of today's Germanic peoples."
- "Germanic... is a collective term referring to the peoples who speak the modern Germanic languages, Swedes, Danes, Norwegians, Icelanders, English, Frisians, Dutch and Germans, and to the ancestors of these peoples."
- "Germanic... group of N European peoples including the Germans, Scandinavians, Dutch, English, etc., or the peoples from whom they are descended."
- "When a nation either defends itself in war or wages it, magistrates are selected to be in charge of the war with power of life and death... Those unwilling to follow are thought as deserters and traitors and are no longer trusted in anything."
- E.g. "If a freeman steal from the king, let him pay ninefold", in the Law of Æthelberht, paragraph 4.
- E.g. reduction of the weregild to half the regular amount if the man responsible for the killing is employed by the king in the laws of Æthelberht of Kent, paragraph 7.
- Warriors were physically adept and owed much of their esprit de corps to the loyalty existing between themselves and their tribal chieftains. After forming a shield wall, they would then hurl a single spear in unison as a sacrifice to Odin. Fighting thereafter normally devolved to a gang raid and individual combat. See: Waldman & Mason 2006, p. 837.
- This and the following information is based on P.J. Geary, Before France and Germany. The Creation and Transformation of the Merovingian World (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988), 44 ff. and M. Innes, Introduction to Early Medieval Western Europe, 300–900 (Abingdon 2007), 71–72.
- "Teutonic tribes who moved into a large part of western Europe did not come empty-handed, and in some respects their technology was superior to that of the Romans. It has already been observed that they were people of the Iron Age, and although much about the origins of the heavy plow remains obscure these tribes appear to have been the first people with sufficiently strong iron plowshares to undertake the systematic settlement of the forested lowlands of northern and western Europe, the heavy soils of which had frustrated the agricultural techniques of their predecessors. The invaders came thus as colonizers. They may have been regarded as “barbarians” by the Romanized inhabitants of western Europe who naturally resented their intrusion, and the effect of their invasion was certainly to disrupt trade, industry, and town life. But the newcomers also provided an element of innovation and vitality."
- "The Teutonic tribes who conquered and divided the Roman Empire were little versed in the monumental arts and unskilled in figure representation; but in metalworking, in the making of weapons and other utilitarian objects, and in the delicate ornament of the goldsmith’s art they excelled.."
- "Some smiths were able to rework iron into high-quality steel and make sword blades with a core of softer steel for flexibility and harder steel on the exterior to keep a sharp edge, far finer weapons than those used in the Roman army at the time."
- "Furthermore, the skills of Germanic smiths and other craftsmen were as good as, or better than those found inside the Roman empire."
- "[T]hey allowed import of no wine or other luxury goods, because they thought these things weakned spirits and diminshed courage..."
- "They do not let wine be imported to them, for they think it softens men for hard work and makes them womanly."
- See: Young, Bruce W. (2008). Family Life in the Age of Shakespeare. Greenwood Press, pp. 16–17.
- Many groups of Germanic peoples shared one form or another of a creation story where a divine being emerges from nothingness only to be sacrificed and torn to pieces; the bones of this divine creature (named Ymir) produced the rocks, his flesh became the earth, his blood formed the seas, the clouds emerged from his hair, and his skull made up the sky. In this creation story, a mighty tree called Yggdrasill is situated at the center of the earth, its top touching the sky, its branches covering the earth, and the great tree's roots plunging into hell. Connecting the three planes of "Heaven, Earth, and Hades", this "Universal Tree" symbolized the universe itself.
- The principle shared deity among the Germanic tribes, Odin-Wodan, (in varying name forms) was not only the god of war, but of the dead as well. Odin-Wodan protected great heroes in combat but often killed his "protégés", who were led to him by the Valkyries and gathered together to practice fighting in preparation for the final eschatological battle of the Ragnarök.
- "The rigorous ethics of early Germanic society, based on trust, loyalty, and courage, and the perhaps somewhat idealized picture of the moral code given by Tacitus, had a divine sanction..."
- See: Levison (1905). Vitae Sancti Bonifatii archiepiscopi moguntini, pp. 31–32.
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