Origins and Culture of the Ancient Germanic Tribes

Expansion of Germanic Tribes

Table of Contents:

  1. Proto-Germanic Origins
    1. Culture
    2. Society
  2. The Migration Period

Other than the name may suggest at first glance for anyone who isn’t familiar with linguistics Germanic doesn’t equal German. The Germanic peoples today are considered Germanic because they speak a Germanic language. German is part of this branch of Indo-European languages but not the sole ‘twig’, so to speak. Among it’s sister languages are Dutch, English, Afrikaans and Yiddish, belonging to the West Germanic languages, as well as the Scandinavian or North Germanic languages, including Icelandic and Faroese.. All these languages are descendant from a common Proto-Germanic language, spoken by multiple closely related Proto-Germanic peoples with their own dialects. Over time, different sound changes occurred in different groups, leading to the development of different, not mutually intelligible languages, although there are exceptions (notably the continental Scandinavian languages, as well as Icelandic and Faroese; before the standardisation of Dutch and German in the 19th century there was a fluent transition from German to Dutch, leading some linguistics to consider both languages to be part of a greater “West Germanic Dialect Continuum”).

Proto-Germanic Origins

Where exactly the Proto-Germanic language formed is the topic of ongoing debate. It is assumed, based on the fact that the Germanic languages today are clearly Indo-European, that Proto-Germanic is at least in part descendant of the hypothetical Proto-Indo-European language, which expanded westward from their assumed origin within the Eurasian steppe, todays southern Ukraine and Russia. In the west the Indo-European migrants encountered what Marija Gimbutas called the “Old Europeans”, the indigenous population of Europe bevor the arrival of the nomadic pastoralists from the steppe. This was by no means a homogenous population, as is evident in the archaeological record; we have to imagine a rather fractured Europe into family groups, clans and tribes, for the most part, although there were some signs of an advanced civilization in the Balkans already. There were no indications for developments like this in the north, however, and this is where Proto-Germanic language and culture most likely first emerged. According to linguist Harald Haarmann the homeland of the Germanic peoples lies somewhere in north-central Germany whilst some Archaeologists believe the history of the Germanic peoples and their language as a distinct branch of the Info-European languages began with the Nordic Bronze Age in southern Scandinavia. Under Influence of the Nordic Bronze Age from the north and the Celtic La Tene Culture from the south the Jastorf Culture took hold of large parts of northern Germany and the Jutland peninsula gradually spread southward. Whether these people can be associated with Germanic-Speaking peoples already remains somewhat speculative, as no written records of or about the inhabitants of northern Europe from this time period exist.

Expansion Germanic Tribes
Expansion of Germanic populations in central Europe, by Sveriges fana – Own work, CC BY 3.0,

Albeit not the first person to call the tribes east of the river Rhine and north of the river Danube Germani, it was Iulius Caesar who popularised the term, as he tried to describe the difference between the Celtic Gauls and the other barbarians, who he considered (or at least wanted to portray them as such) to be much less inclined to Mediterranean culture and thus had to be enemies to the Empire. In his book De Bello Gallico or the Gallic Wars the sixth chapter is centred around the differences between people living in Gaul and people living in what would come to be known as Germania. In fact Caesar started his invasion of Gaul at least in part under the pretext of supporting an allied Gallic tribe which suffered from a Germanic Invasion in modern-day Alsace. The people that we consider Germanic, if in the past or present, never considered themselves as such. They viewed themselves as members of their own tribe and other “Germanic” tribes where possibly just as strange or as hostile towards them as the Celtic tribes to the west or as the Romans to the south. If there was a real sense of belonging together or even a common identity at this stage is highly unlikely, although Tacitus mentions an interesting myth after which all Germanic peoples are descendant of Mannus. How widespread this myth was is unknown, however the name Mannus is cognate with Vedic Manu, who also fathered mankind in the ancient Vedic traditions of India, which speaks for the legitimacy and the age of this tale. Given the current state of research it seems unlikely that different tribes from different areas considered themselves part of a bigger group of related peoples, unless they served in the Roman army and where confronted with that notion there. In a way the Romans can be seen as the creators of the Germanic peoples as such.

To conclude, the exact location of the homeland of the Germanic peoples, if there was such a thing, is unknown, however it probably lay somewhere around southern Scandinavia and northern Germany. They gradually expanded both southward and northward and displaced, assimilated and intermixed with the native populations. There never had been one Germanic People that all Germanic Peoples of today descend from but rather many more or less slightly different tribal groups.

Map showing the Germanic Tribes and the Roman Empire.
Germanic Tribes and the Roman Empire. By Modification · Bearbeitung · Prilaboro: D. Bachmann – File:Romia Imperio.png, originally by Jani Niemenmaa., CC BY-SA 3.0,


The culture of the early Germanic tribes was of course highly influenced by that of the Proto-Indo-Europeans, just as their language was. Many of their customs, their myths and gods can be traced back to these people as is shown by the first encounters of the Romans with the barbarians to the north. Tacitus recognized Greco-Roman gods like Iupiter, Mars and Hercules in the deities of the ancient Germanic peoples. The horse seems to have played a big role in the rites of these tribes as well, as is shown by the myth of Hengist and Horsa, literally meaning stallion and horse, the first Germanics to land in Britain and the heralds of the Anglo-Saxon settlement of what is now England. They didn’t build temples for their gods as they thought they were supposed to be worshiped in remarkable natural landmarks, like forests, mountains, rivers, bogs and lakes and not hemmed in by walls.

The Germanic tribes lived in rather small settlements, barely the size of villages and even rarer were actual towns. According to Tacitus they preferred to live on their own or in small family groups, rather than in large cities. Although Tacitus described the early Germanics as a semi-nomadic people, archaeologists discovered that they were an agrarian society, living off of crops for the most part, substituted by meat mainly from domesticated animals from time to time.

Only for the purpose of raiding other tribes or Roman territory they banded together in larger groups to achieve their more or (most of the time) less ambitious goals. It would take until the migration period for the Germanic peoples to form their first proper kingdoms.

For the first few centuries or even millennia of their existence, depending to what point in time the ethnogenesis of the Germanic peoples is dated they most likely were illiterate, before some learned the Latin alphabet from the Romans and later developed their own script, the famous runes, which exact origins are still shrouded in mystery.


Until the beginning of the Migration Period, which we shall be looking into shortly, the Germans didn’t know kingdoms in the classical sense. Although there was a recorded king of the Suebians, which had settled in modern-day Alsace by 55 BC, the translation and interpretation of the word “rex” (usually lat. “King”) is disputed. For the most part it seems like the early Germanics were divided into tribes and probably furthermore into family groups or clans with their own leaders. As mentioned before, they only banded together for raiding other tribes or defending themselves from such raids. In times like these a supreme military leader might’ve been chosen, who ruled the tribe(s) for the duration of the raid and perhaps for a bit longer, but usually their rule didn’t last too long. A good example for this is the famous Arminius who united many north-western Germanic tribes to drive the Romans out of Germania. Even though Arminius certainly intended to rule these tribes and possible even to unite all Germanic tribes against the Romans his ambition was his downfall and he was probably poisoned by his own people.

The tribal landscape of Germania is usually divided into three major branches, following the division made by Tacitus in the late 1st century AD: The Ingaevones, the Istaevones and the Irmiones. They supposedly settled around the North Sea, the Weser-Rhine region and along the river Elbe respectively, although their equation with these archaeological cultures is disputed today. Also controversial is the identification of Tacitus proposed groups with modern linguistic classifications, such as the Low German and Anglo-Frisian, Low Franconian (Dutch) and High German dialects. Recent archaeological studies have painted a much more diverse picture of early Northern and Central Europe with more than just three different archaeological groups. The linguistic and cultural differences between the Germanic speaking populations today probably formed much later, starting with the Migration Period in the 3rd and 4th centuries AD.

The Migration Period

Although the early Germanic trines were certainly less sophisticated than their contemporary Romans, Greeks, Egyptians or even the neighbouring Celts, which to the Mediterranean world were already considered barbarians, they were, at least in part, responsible for the fall of the Western Roman Empire. The kingdoms which they built upon the ruins of the Imperium gave Europe a new face which can still be recognized today in countries such as France, which was the kingdom and later the Empire of the Franks under Charlemagne (as was Germany) or England, literally the country of the Angles, a tribe from northern Germany which gradually settled England together with the Saxons, Jutes and Frisians.

Map showing the Germanic Kingdoms after the Fall of the Western Roman Empire.
The earliest Germanic kingdoms after the Fall of the Western Roman Empire.

The East Germanic tribes left their homelands in east-central Europe under pressure from the Huns to found kingdoms of their own in Italy, Spain and even North Africa, none of which survived until the present day, however, and their culture and language vanished with them, apart from a possible remnant on the Crimean peninsula, called Crimean Gothic, up until the 17th century.

The tribes that remained in Germania and Scandinavia gave rise to kingdoms and Empires of their own, which eventually developed into today’s Germany, Austria, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and the Scandinavian countries.

The history of the Germanic tribes is a difficult one, as the word German itself is probably an invention and was at no point in time used as an endonym. It may make more sense to speak of the history of individual tribes, which were probably related or at least connected to each other, but never formed a unified ethnic group. Going over each particular tribe, however, would go beyond the scope of this article and will be dealt with separately another time.

Featured Image: CC BY-SA 3.0,

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  1. hans faber says:

    Good read! I worte recently a piece about the Germanic gene R-S21:

    Liked by 1 person

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