The term Germani was applied by the Romans too all inhabitants of the region they alled Germania, including Celts, Finnic peoples, Balts and the Germanic peoples themselves.[c][d] Certain Germanic peoples living outside of Germania, such as the Goths, were not considered Germani by the Romans.[e]
The term Germani was possibly taken over by the Romans from the Gauls ; the etymology and original meaning of the word is however uncertain.
- One hypothesis is that it comes from a Celtic word meaning "neighbour", cf. Old Irish gair.
- Another Celtic possibility is that the name meant "noisy"; cf. Breton/Cornish garm "shout", Irish gairm "call".
- 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 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.
- Classical writers believed that the origin might be Latin. In Latin the word "germanus" (plural germani) means brother or sibling.
In about 222 BCE, the first use of the Latin term "Germani" is said to have been in the Fasti Capitolini inscription de Galleis Insvbribvs et Germ(aneis), but the record is difficult to interpret and may even be falsified. 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).
The first surviving detailed discussions of Germani are those of Julius Caesar, whose memoirs are based on first-hand experience, but were also intended as a political document to explain his expensive and dangerous actions in far-away countries. His usage of the term Germani, which influenced all later writing, is the topic of much debate. Although, he associated the term with peoples east of the Rhine, the relevance of this was that he saw it as a defensible boundary. In contrast, he also made it clear that the Rhine boundary had not been the historical boundary between Gauls and Germani, with the Celtic Gauls including the Rauraci, Boii and Tectosages having living east of the southern Rhine in his time, and several Germani tribes living west of the northern Rhine among the Belgae, who he confusing also referred to as Gauls. Some generations later Tacitus even stated that Caesar's Germani Cisrhenani, had really been the first Germani, but the name "gradually acquired a wider usage", meaning that the first Germani were actually a tribe living west of the Rhine, in Gaul. It is not clear whether these original Germani were Germanic speakers in Caesar's time, nor even that their neighbours across the Rhine were. 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.[f]
Later classical authors nevertheless came to use the term Germania as an vaguely defined, large geographical and cultural region, extending far into eastern Europe. Tacitus and others noted differences of culture which could be found on the east of the Rhine. But the abstract theme they continued to follow was that of Caesar: this was a forested region, less civilized than Gaul, and a place that required additional military vigilance.
It appears that the Germanic tribes did not have a single word to describe themselves, although the word Suebi, used by Caesar to broadly classify a major block of Germanic language speakers, may have had such a connotation.[g] In the middle ages, the continental speakers of Western Germanic languages in these areas came to use the term theodiscus to refer to their language, and the term walhaz to describe local speakers of other languages (mainly Celts, Romans and Greeks).
In modern times, the term Germani has been applied to certain peoples speaking Germanic languages.[h] However, the modern concept of Germanic does not equate to the classical concept of Germani.[e]
Scholars of the what Liebeschuetz refers to as the "post-
Wenskus generation", deny that early Germanic peoples spoke related languages.
Andrew Gillett has emerged as a leading figure among these scholars, whom Liebeschuetz considers revisionists. According to Liebeschuetz, the theories of the so-called post-Wenskus generation are "very strongly ideological" and "flawed because they depend on a dogmatic and selective use of the evidence."
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. 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. 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.