Shrouded within the uncertainty of Europe’s distant past are many mysteries. Whilst we are relatively well informed about the Mediterranean with its mighty empires we know comparatively little about the heartland and the fringes of the European continent. It wasn’t until the days of Julius Caesar that a new player stepped up onto the stage of European and – by extension to the modern age – World History: The Ancient Germanic Peoples. Caesar described them as even more brutish and uncivilized than the in the eyes of the Mediterranean World already savage Gauls and justified his campaigns into Gaul partially by claiming that they needed protection from the Germans. But before we venture too far into historical events involving these peoples the term “German” and its use in the context of Antiquity has to be clarified.
2 The Term “German”
The term “German” in the English language is a somewhat unfortunate one, as it meant different things at different times in history. Nowadays the term is usually employed to describe a person from Germany or of German heritage. Only a century ago, however, the term could be used more broadly to describe a person who speaks the German language natively and would often include Austrians as well as other German-Speaking groups of Europe and beyond.
The term was first popularized by the aforementioned Caesar to describe a group of peoples roughly living beyond the rivers Rhine and Danube, the former of which supposedly divided Celtic Gaul from Germania, although Caesar himself did admit that Celts could also be found east and Germans west of the Rhine. Ethnic divisions don’t seem to have been as clean-cut as Caesar would have liked us to believe.
Rome would eventually conquer parts of Germania and incorporate them into the provinces of Germania Inferior and Superior. Contrary to what the names of these provinces suggest their inhabitants were not exclusively Germanic, however. In both cases, it can be assumed that Gauls made up a sizeable part if not the majority of the population. Over time settlers from other parts of the Empire arrived as well, adding to the ethnic diversity of the region.
Towards the end of the Roman Empire and after its fall most of what constitutes modern Germany, as well as parts of neighbouring countries, became Germanized through a combination of an influx of Germanic settlers and the gradual assimilation of the previously Gallo-Roman inhabitants into the now dominant Germanic culture. To what degree displacement, assimilation and intermixing occurred is a matter of debate and no consensus has been reached yet.
Although Germanic languages and culture came to dominate Germany and much of its immediate surroundings the varying Germanic tribes were also subject to change induced by the inclusion of Celtic and Roman elements into their society. Most prominent among them was the adoption of Roman Christianity as well as the use of Roman Law and parts of the infrastructure the Romans left behind.
Despite the fact that the ancient Germans contributed to the decline and eventual fall of the Western Roman Empire they also took it upon themselves to carry its legacy into the future. The most prominent among the Germanic tribes of post-Roman Europe was undoubtedly the Franks. Originating along the Lower Rhine and made up of a number of smaller, older ethnopolitical units, some of which date to the days of Augustus, the Franks first rose to power under the Merovingian King Clovis, probably known as Chlodwig to his contemporaries, after defeating and subjugating the Germanic Alamanni and conquering most of what used to be the Roman province of Gaul in the 6th century. Almost 300 years later Charles the Great, better known by his French moniker Charlemagne, would complete the Frankish conquest and bring almost all of the Western or Latin Christian Realm into the fold of the Frankish Empire. On Christmas Day of the year 800 Charlemagne was crowned Emperor of the Romans by the Pope in Rome, thus reinstituting the Roman Empire in the West with a German at its helm. It has to be stated, however, that the term German was barely used by the time of Charlemagne anymore. In fact, since the waning days of the original Roman Empire, the Germanic tribes came to be referred to by their tribal names more often than by the older terms German or Germanic.
The Frankish Empire was eventually split into three under Charlemagne’s grandsons, the eastern third of which was centered around the “Regnum Teutonicum”, the “Teutonic” or German Realm. This realm would eventually develop into what modern historians usually refer to as the Holy Roman Empire, a political entity which – at least in its early days – was simply referred to as “The Empire” by contemporaries. This might ring a bell with fans of the Warhammer franchise. Although the Empire was far from being exclusively German almost all of its Emperors were of German stock and Germany lay at the heart of the realm.
During the early days of the Empire the Germanic inhabitants of the realm didn’t refer to themselves as German. In fact, as far as we know, they never have. Caesar postulates that one particular tribe before even his time had been called “The Germans” and that their name had been applied to all related peoples. Whether this is true or not can’t be verified but who he and modern historians refer to as Germans in Antiquity certainly didn’t see themselves as part of a larger German world. Even tribal affiliations were fluid and could change over time. Old tribes vanished and new ones emerged. Whilst they lasted there is evidence that people did identify with their tribe, as is attested on tombstones of Germanic mercenaries who identified as Suebian or Frankish.
Over time a sense of belonging together slowly emerged and the people of Germany started referring to themselves as “diutisc”, an early form of the modern German “Deutsch” (and the modern English “Dutch”). Strong regional identities, sometimes tied to old tribal affiliations remained, however, and it would take until 1871 to finally unify most of the German-Speaking World into a more centralized state and provide a stronger reference point for German identity.
This short overview of the people who in the past or present were referred to as German goes to show why the term is unfortunate to describe what is commonly referred to as the early or even ancient Germans. Whilst Caesar and the Romans understood the peoples of Central and Northern Europe as German the people described by this term had no clue that they supposedly belonged together and never referred to themselves as such. On the other hand, the term is also used to refer to a variety of peoples who lived during the Middle Ages and Modernity, some of which are not considered to be German anymore today. And again, none of thse have actually referred to themselves as German and only few primarily as Deutsch, preferring terms such as the aforementioned “Frankish”, as well as “Bavarian”, “Saxon”, “Thuringian” and others which appeared and vanished from history over the course of centuries. So when we speak about the early Germans it’s important to keep in mind that nothing and no one who was ever described as German saw themselves as such in the sense of the original meaning and use of the term German popularised by Caesar. Furthermore one has to remember that anything resembling a feeling of belonging together or ethnic or political unity only slowly started to emerge during the Middle Ages and wouldn’t manifest until as recently as the 1800s.
So why use the term in the first place?
The answer is simple: Convention.
Despite the ambiguity of the term German, it is the term that still is and most of the time has been employed when talking about the inhabitants of Iron Age Central and Northern Europe and I won’t attempt to come up with a better term and confuse everyone. Beyond that, there is, in fact, an argument to be made that despite the early Germans not seeing themselves as one they might be seen as related in several regards in hindsight. These reasons will be explored in the next chapter.
3 Being “German” in the Iron Age
The best argument for postulating the existence of a relationship between the groups described as Germans or Germanic by Greek and Roman authors is language. The modern German language, as well as English, Dutch, and the Scandinavian languages (as well as a few others, such as Afrikaans, which evolved from Dutch, and Yiddish and Luxembourgish, which evolved from Middle High German) are all closely related to each other and do in fact descend from the same language dubbed Proto-Germanic, which was supposedly spoken from roughly 500 BC to 500 AD, before developing into distinct dialects which would give rise to the modern Germanic languages we are familiar with today.
Linguistic evidence drawn from topo- and hydronyms points to Northern Germany and Southern Scandinavia as the most likely candidate for a Germanic place of origin. Archaeologically these areas were dominated by the Jastorf Culture in Germany and the Nordic Bronze Age in Scandinavia and Jutland. Although there is no direct written evidence from these cultures it has often been assumed that they were the speakers of an early form of Proto-Germanic, distinct from the Celtic languages to the south, often identified with the archaeological Hallstatt and later La Tene Cultures. It should be pointed out, however, that there are scholars which oppose the idea of identifying archaeological cultures with languages as material cultures and language don’t have to correlate. There are others, however, among them David Anthony, the author of “The Horse, Wheels and Language”, who are certain that persistent material culture frontiers do in fact reflect linguistic frontiers as well and as such the distinction between the Jastorf Culture on the one hand and the Hallstatt/La Tene Culture on the other may indeed reflect differences in language. If this is true it may have been one of the reasons why Mediterranean authors saw the early Germans as a distinct group from other barbarians, such as the Celts or the Scythians, based on the fact that they spoke a language different from the latter two.
Apart from language, the aforementioned material culture of the people of the Jastorf Culture and the Nordic Bronze Age differed substantially from those of the Hallstatt and La Tene Cultures, although the latter undoubtedly influenced the former. Caesar described the Germans as more savage and uncivilized than the Gauls and according to archaeological findings, this holds true. Neither in regards to their settlements, nor their craftsmanship nor the technologies employed in agriculture could the peoples of the North compare to their southern neighbors. The technological and cultural superiority of the Celts may have been part of the reason why the early Germans expanded into their territory, lured in by what they may have perceived as a better, easier, more luxurious life, eventually bringing them into direct contact with the even more advanced inhabitants of the Mediterranean world, such as the Etruscans and later the Romans. The first recorded Germanic word was in fact written in an Etruscan alphabet, leading some scholars to believe, that the Runes, an unique form of writing first attested in the second century AD and at first exclusive to the Germanic world, was at least in part inspired by Etruscan scripts.
Lastly, there is a point to be made for certain spiritual commonalities among the early Germans. Many of the gods commonly known from Norse myth are also attested among the Anglo-Saxons and the Continental Germanic tribes and their descendants, suggesting that they were worshipped or at least known wherever Germanic languages were spoken. Tacitus even suggests that at least the continental Germanic peoples believed to have a common origin in Mannus, whose three sons were the originators of three tribes known as the Ingaevones, Herminones, and Istvaeones. All other Germanic tribes were supposedly descendants of these original three. Although neither Mannus nor his sons are mentioned elsewhere when it comes to the ancient Germans the myth has parallels in other Indo-European legends from as far away as India, which speaks for its authenticity.
All of this points to a common origin of the early Germans and thus suggests a close relation of the early Germanic peoples to each other, justifying the usage of a term to describe them as a group distinct from the neighboring Celts, although the ambiguity of the chosen name of the term in the English language is – as has been mentioned – unfortunate.
That being said it is important to stress again that the early Germans, despite what Tacitus’ myth might be suggesting, most likely did not see themselves as part of a greater ethnic group but – if anything – as part of their tribe. As has been pointed out tribal affiliations could change over time as well and who one identified as and associated with was probably inspired by pragmatism as much as by tradition and heritage.
Now that the term German and what made somebody or something Germanic in the Iron Age – from the perspective of Mediterranean visitors as well as modern Historians – have been clarified it is time to consider the original question: What are the Origins of the Early Germanic Tribes?
4 The Origins of the Early Germanic Tribes
It has already been discussed where the early Germans most likely originated. But how they ended up there and what processes led to their emergence is a different story which I shall try to tell in brevity in the following.
As has been pointed out the Germanic languages are all related to each other. These languages, however, are but a branch of a tree of languages referred to as the Indo-European Language Family. As the name suggests, many of the languages of India, as well as most of the languages of Europe and some of the languages in between are part of the same language family. This means, just as has been the case with Germanic, that these languages share a common ancestor dubbed Proto-Indo-European.
For a long time, it was unclear where this ancient language was spoken but recent genetic evidence in conjunction with linguistic and archaeological analysis suggests the Pontic-Caspian Steppe of Southern Ukraine and Russia to be the most likely candidate for an Indo-European place of origin.
Through the use of horse-drawn carts and chariots, technologies that could be considered revolutionary at the time, the speakers of Proto-Indo-European managed to spread their language and culture from the Atlantic to the Indian Ocean over the first four millennia BC. In the area of interest to us this spread seems to correlate with the expansion of the archaeological Corded Ware Culture over most of Central and Eastern Europe, as well as Southern Scandinavia. Thus it is often assumed, that the Corded Ware people spoke one or multiple Indo-European languages, still relatively close to Proto-Indo-European. Genetic analysis of individuals belonging to the Corded Ware Culture were found to have high degrees of steppe ancestry, further strengthening this hypothesis.
Where the early Indo-Europeans went they encountered natives with which they interacted and intermixed. In the case of Northern and Central Europe these may have been the people of the Funnelbeaker Culture, although it is unknown whether they spoke one or multiple related or unrelated languages or whether there were ethnic or cultural connections between them beyond a shared material culture. Some of these people may have been the cause for the changes in phonetics within the Germanic languages as well as some distinctively Germanic cultural elements. It has been suggested in the past that the Vanir, one of the two main clans of deities within the Nordic pantheon, may have been the gods of the Pre-Indo-European inhabitants of Northern and Central Europe.
In conclusion, the Germanic tribes of the Iron Age were the result of the mixing of native Old European elements with newer influences from the steppe. This is most apparent within the Germanic languages which underwent a characteristic sound shift differentiating them from the other Indo-European languages. Some scholars assume that apart from the differences in pronunciation some pre-Indo-European vocabulary also survived within the Germanic languages.
Other Elements, such as the importance of the horse in religion and mythology, many of the gods worshipped by the early Germans, as well as the distinction of Germanic society into different classes, are typically Indo-European.
The process of becoming distinctly Germanic is usually assumed to have been completed by 500 BC, at least if the changes in phonetics are concerned. The process of ethnogenesis, i.e. the process of becoming an ethnically and culturally distinct group, by definition cannot end. It is an ongoing process and as history has shown the ancient Germans would migrate from their homes in the north and come into contact with their Indo-European cousins, the Celts, Romans, and Slavs, to form new peoples and tribes, just as had been the case with their ancestors before them.
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