Germanic peoples

Roman bronze statuette representing a Germanic man with his hair in a Suebian knot

The Germanic peoples (Latin: Germani, sometimes referred to imprecisely as "Germans"), were a category of ethnic groups of continental Northern European origin, identified by Roman-era authors as distinct from neighbouring Celtic peoples.[a][failed verification] They are also called Teutonic, Suebian, or Gothic peoples in older literature, though the latter two terms are now mainly used to refer to specific groups of Germanic peoples.[2]

The Germanic peoples are strongly associated with "Germanic languages" as they are defined in modern linguistics. In recent times the idea that the early Germanic peoples originally shared any single core culture or language before their contact with Romans is denied by some[which?] historians.[a][3] On the other hand, during the Roman era the migrating Suebian-related "Elbe Germans", became increasingly dominant among the continental western Germani, as did their Germanic language.[4][5][failed verification] There has been a tendency therefore in recent times, to refer to Germanic-speakers in other periods and regions as Germanic peoples, such as the later Anglo-Saxons and Vikings, or the southeastern European Goths, even using the Roman era term Germani. Contemporary authors called the Goths a Scythian people.[6][failed verification]

The decisive victory of Arminius at the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest in 9 CE was a major factor in stopping Roman imperial expansion, and has therefore been considered a turning point in world history.[b] Germanic tribes did however settle the entire Roman frontier along the Rhine and the Danube, and some established close relations with the Romans, often serving as royal tutors and soldiers, sometimes even rising to the highest offices in the Roman military.

In Eastern Europe, the Germanic-speaking Goths came to dominate the area which is today the Ukraine, eventually launching sea expeditions into the Balkans, Anatolia, and as far as Cyprus.[8][9][10] Goths began to become a major presence in the military of the Eastern Roman Empire, leading to resentment and eventual conflict. The goth Alaric I was a Roman general in the east, who was eventually forced to move his army and its people to the Western Roman Empire, becoming king of a mobile Gothic army in Italy.

The westward expansion of the Huns into the territory of today's Ukraine and the Danubian area in the late 4th century CE pushed, involved many Germanic tribes and led to large population changes, throughout Europe, both inside and outside the empire. This occurred at a moment when the Western Roman Empire was in its last phase, and many of the standing military forces it had were already Germanic, and settled within the empire. Like Alaric's Visigoths, these Romanized armies, who identified themselves under various ethnic designations, took over the rule of many parts of the empire. The Visigoths were granted control of southwestern Gaul and later ruled Iberia. The Anglo-Saxons are first found ruling in southern England, Franks in northern France, and Burgundians in southeastern France.

Of the Germanic kingdoms which emerged, Francia gained a dominant position in Western Europe, eventually incorporating the less Romanized continental Germanic speaking groups outside the empire such as the Saxons, Frisians and Bavarians. This kingdom formed the Holy Roman Empire under the leadership of Charlemagne, who was officially recognized by Pope Leo III in 800 CE. As the new medieval institutions began to reunify continental western Europe, North Germanic seafarers, commonly referred to as Vikings, embarked on a last massive expansion which led to the establishment of the Duchy of Normandy, Kievan Rus' and settlements in the British Isles and North Atlantic Ocean as far as North America.



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 [14][15]; 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.[16]
  • Another Celtic possibility is that the name meant "noisy"; cf. Breton/Cornish garm "shout", Irish gairm "call".[17]
  • Others have proposed a Germanic etymology *gēr-manni, "spear men", cf. Middle Dutch ghere, Old High German Ger, Old Norse geirr.[18] 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.[citation needed]
  • 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).[19]

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.[20] 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.[21] 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.[22] 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.[23][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.[24]

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).[25][better source needed]

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.[27] Andrew Gillett has emerged as a leading figure among these scholars, whom Liebeschuetz considers revisionists.[27] 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."[28]


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.[29] Teuton was the byword the Romans applied to the barbarians from the north and which they used to describe subsequent Germanic peoples.[30] 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.[31]