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This article is about Germanic peoples as an ethno-linguistic group. For the term Germanic as used in reference to Germanic-speaking countries in Europe, see Germanic-speaking Europe.
The Germanic peoples (also called Teutonic, Suebian, or Gothic in older literature) are an Indo-Europeanethno-linguistic group of Northern European origin. They are identified by their use of Germanic languages, which diversified out of Proto-Germanic during the Pre-Roman Iron Age.
The term "Germanic" originated in classical times when groups of tribes living in Lower, Upper, and Greater Germania were referred to using this label by Roman scribes. The Roman use of the term "Germanic" was not necessarily based upon language, but referred to the tribal groups and alliances that lived in the regions of modern-day Luxembourg, Belgium, Northern France, Alsace, Poland, Austria, the Netherlands and Germany, and which were considered less civilized and more physically hardened than the CelticGauls. Tribes referred to as "Germanic" by Roman authors generally lived to the north and east of the Gauls.
The Germanic tribes were chronicled by Rome's historians as having had a critical impact on the course of Europe's history during the Roman-Germanic wars, particularly at the historic Battle of the Teutoburg Forest, where Germanic tribal warriors, under the leadership of the Cherusci chieftain Arminius, routed three Roman legions and all their auxiliaries, which precipitated the Roman Empire's strategic withdrawal from Magna Germania.
Germanic tribes moving during the Migration Period included Goths (Ostrogoths and Visigoths), Burgundians, Lombards, Angles, Saxons, Jutes, Suebi, Alemanni, Gepids and Vandals among many others.
Modern ethnic groups descended from the ancient Germanic peoples include the Afrikaners, Austrians, Danes, Dutch, English, Faroe Islanders, Flemish, Frisians, Germans, Icelanders, Lowland Scots, Luxembourgers, Norwegians, and Swedes.
See also: Germania
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 civilised than Gaul, a place that required additional military vigilance.
Caesar used the term Germani for a very specific tribal grouping in northeastern BelgicGaul, 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. He also suggested that two large Belgic tribes neighbouring Caesar's Germani, the Nervii and the Treveri, liked to call themselves Germanic in his time, in order not to be associated with Gaulish indolence. 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.[a]
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 Welshger "near" (prep.), Old Irishgair "neighbor", Irishgar- (prefix) "near", garach "neighborly". Another Celtic possibility is that the name meant "noisy"; cf. Breton/Cornishgarm "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 Dutchghere, Old High GermanGer, Old Norsegeirr. 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.[b] 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."
Further information: German language, Theodiscus, and Teutonic (disambiguation)
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 Empire.
By the 1st century CE, the writings of Pomponius Mela, Pliny the Elder, and Tacitus indicate a division of Germanic-speaking 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 their ancient songs, their only way of remembering or recording the past, they celebrate an earth-born god, Tuisco, and his son Mannus, as the origin of their race, as their founders. To Mannus they assign three sons, from whose names, they say, the coast tribes are called Ingævones; those of the interior, Herminones; all the rest, Istævones.
Tacitus also specifies that the Suevi are a very large grouping, with many tribes within it, with their own names. The largest, he says, is the Semnones, the Langobardi are fewer, but living surrounded by warlike peoples, 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, [c] 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. 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."
Further information: Germanic substrate hypothesis, Proto-Germanic, and Spread of Indo-European languages
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.[d] 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 Suebians, 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, Anglo-Saxon and Frisian, are in fact sometimes designated as Ingvaeonic, or alternatively, "North-Sea Germanic". And Frankish, (and later Dutch, Luxembourgish and the Frankish dialects of German in Germany) have 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 CE 500 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.[e] West Germanic languages include: German, Yiddish, Dutch, Luxemburgish, Frisian, and English. These combined West Germanic languages are spoken as a primary tongue by more than 450 million people today. North Germanic languages are Swedish, Danish, Norwegian, Faroese and Icelandic. Only a mere 20 million people or so currently speak the North Germanic languages as their native tongue. Later manifestations of the western 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.[f]
See also: Indo-European migrations and Nordic Bronze Age
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 to 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 to 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.
Early Iron Age
Further information: Pre-Roman Iron Age
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 the Neolithic Age, 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.
During the 2nd millennium BCE, the so-called Nordic Bronze Age culture expanded eastward into the adjacent regions between the estuaries of the Elbe and Oder rivers.
As early as 750 BCE, archeological evidence gives the impression that the proto-Germanic population was becoming more uniform in its culture. As this population grew, it migrated south-west, into coastal floodplains due to the exhaustion of the soil in its original settlements.
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; Rhine-Weser 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.[g]
Concomitantly, during the 2nd century BCE the advent of the Celtic culture of Hallstatt 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 speaking, western Germanic people while still migratory, were more geographically settled, whereas the eastern Germanics 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. West Germanic people eventually settled in central Europe and became more accustomed to agriculture and it is the various western Germanic people that are described by Caesar and Tacitus. Meanwhile, the eastern 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 (fl.). It is believed that Pytheas traveled to northern Europe c. 325 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.[h] 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.
Main article: Bastarnae
An early Germanic people known as the Bastarnae were identified by Roman authors and were allegedly the first to reach the Graeco-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 Romans 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.