Germanic Tribes

History of Germany between 250 BC - 486 AD

Germanic Tribes

The Germanic tribes originated in Scandinavia, from which they moved south around 1000 BCE. By 100 BCE they had reached the Rhine area, and about two hundred years later, the Danube Basin, both Roman borders. The western German tribes consisted of the Marcomanni, Alamanni, Franks, Angles, and Saxons, while the Eastern tribes north of the Danube consisted of the Vandals, Gepids, Ostrogoths, and Visigoths. The Alans, Burgundians, and Lombards are less easy to define.

In approximately 222 BCE, the first use of the Latin term "Germani" appears in the Roman inscription which may simply be referring to Gaul or related people. Caesar first observed the Germanic tribes in 51 BCE, and marked them as a possible threat. German tribes were clan-based, with blood-loyalty the basis for all bonds. Living intermittently in settled forest clearings called hamlets, they engaged in mixed subsistence cultivation of crops and animals. Cultivation was rudimentary given the hard clay soil and use of implements more suited to Mediterranean areas. There were no food surpluses, so population remained small, around one million. Without much occupational specialization, they were an iron-age culture emphasizing war.

The Roman historian Tacitus described the Germans again about 100 CE. After Caesar had conquered Gaul up to the Rhine, expansion space was curtailed for the nomadic tribes, causing demographic pressure on the borders. Some Germans began to come into contact with Roman civilization at border garrisons. They greatly admired the material aspects of Roman culture, such as arms, domestic wares, etc. Small numbers were accepted for service with Roman legions, and small scale German-Roman trade relations emerged involving cattle and slaves.

Germans on the move

Trier Porta Nigra BW 1
Porta Nigra in Trier, best preserved
Roman building north of the Alps.

Gradually, changes occurred in the tribes over the first centuries AD: Though kinship remained the primary bond, a new kind of political formation evolved: the Comitatus. Older, successful warrior chieftains took in younger aspirants, who then raided and shared the booty with each other. This arrangement produced a professional, more lethal warrior group, where bonds were now between man and lord, the latter signaling the beginning of a small aristocracy. At the same time, as inter-tribe conflict increased, spurred in part by the desire to partake of Roman material culture, tribes began electing fewer, longer serving war-chiefs. Eastern German tribes, Goths and Vandals, also gradually migrated from North Poland to the Ukraine, pressuring the Danube frontier; they also settled north of the Black Sea, to the West of the Huns.

Around 200, small tribes began to coalesce into supra-tribal groups. Southern Germans came together into the Alamanni, while middle Rhine groups incorporated into the Franks, and the North Germans coalesced as Saxons. By the 300s there was a continual belt of barbarian tribes all along the Roman limes from the North Sea to the Black Sea. Increasing numbers

of Germans began to serve as Roman auxiliary forces just beyond the Roman borders, learning new tactics, acquiring better materials, coming to admire Roman society even more. Some even underwent a process of partial Romanization. Some, the Visigoths in particular, were gradually converted to Christianity from the 340s by Ulfillias, son of a captured slave. Converting to the Arian form of Christianity soon to be branded heresy, the Visigoths slowly communicated it to the Ostrogoths, Vandals, and Burgundians.

By the early 4th century, in the reign of Constantine, an element of stability has been achieved to the benefit both of the Romans and of their more primitive neighbours. But it is about to be upset, from about AD 370, by devastating incursions from the east.

The arrival of the Huns

Invasions of the Roman Empire 1

The Huns, whose name has come to rival the Vandals as an emotive term for destructive violence, arrive in history with an impact as sudden as it is mysterious. They appear from the steppes north of the Black Sea in the late 4th century. In about 370 the Huns defeat the Ostrogoths. Six years later they descend upon the Visigoths, driving them south over the Danube. For a while they bide their time in the territories of the Ostrogoths and Visigoths. But they have already set in motion a chain reaction called as Migration Period. It was a period of human migration that occurred roughly between 300 to 700 CE in Europe, marking the transition from Late Antiquity to the Early Middle Ages. These movements were catalyzed by profound changes within both the Roman Empire and the so-called 'barbarian frontier'. Migrating peoples during this period included the Huns, Goths, Vandals, Bulgars, Alans, Suebi, Frisians, and Franks, among other Germanic and Slavic tribes.

The first phase, between 300 and 500 CE, put Germanic peoples in control of most areas of the former Western Roman Empire. The first to formally enter Roman territory — as refugees from the Huns — were the Visigoths in 376. Tolerated by the Romans on condition that they defend the Danube frontier, they rebelled, eventually invading Italy and sacking Rome itself in 410 CE, before settling in Iberia and founding a kingdom there that endured 300 years. They were followed into Roman territory by the Ostrogoths led by Theodoric the Great, who settled in Italy itself. In Gaul, the Franks, a fusion of western Germanic tribes whose leaders had been strongly aligned with Rome, entered Roman lands more gradually and peacefully during the 5th century, and were generally accepted as rulers by the Roman-Gaulish population. Fending off challenges from the Allemanni, Burgundians and Visigoths, the Frankish kingdom became the nucleus of the future states of France and Germany. Meanwhile, Roman Britain was more slowly invaded and settled by Angles and Saxons.

References: Wikipedia,,

Previous historical period: Iron Age (-800--251) | Next historical period: Part of The Frankish Empire (487-843)

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