Rome’s Enemies-the Germans

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A furious attack of Early Germanic warriors. Ariovistus’ Suebi were one of the most aggressive Germanic tribes (artwork by G. Rava)

The Germanic armies that the Romans encountered in their efforts to subdue the territory between the Rhine and Elbe were products of a social order far less developed than that of the Gauls. The social order of the Germanic tribe was essentially premodern in that it was not strongly articulated and lacked a varied specification of social roles. The bonded male warrior group became the dominant form of military organization. Every German male was first and foremost a warrior, and the entire society was formed around the conduct of war. Prowess in war was the road to social advancement, and behavior on the battlefield was the primary determinant of social rank and status.

Tacitus’s description of the Germans as “fierce looking with blue eyes, reddish hair, and big frames” recalls earlier Roman descriptions of the Gauls, and it is likely that, like the Gauls, the average German was much taller than the average Roman. The Germans had not yet reached a level of political development where state institutions had come into existence. The German peoples were divided into tribes (volkerschaften); twenty-three different tribes lived between the Rhine and the Elbe. An average tribe numbered about 25,000 people living on a land area of approximately 2,000 square miles. Some of the larger tribes comprised 35,000-40,000 people and occupied a comparatively larger land area. The tribes were divided into extended family clans called “Hundreds” (Hundertschaften) comprised of 400-1,000 people living in a single village and controlling an area of twenty square miles. Agriculture was not extensively practiced by the Germans, and what cultivation was undertaken was done by women, the men contributing to the food supply by hunting and fishing. Land was held in common, as were some cattle herds, and their utilization was determined by the head of the community, the altermann or hunno.

The Germanic Armies

Within each tribe were a small number of richer noble families who met in assembly with the clan hunni to address major issues, including war and peace. In wartime, however, it was common for the council to select a war chief, usually from the most powerful warrior noble families, to command the tribal army. An average German tribe could put 5,000-7,000 warriors in the field under the command of the war chief. The actual fighting units, however, were centered around the clans, and a Germanic army of 5,000 warriors would have at least twenty and as many as fifty subordinate unit leaders, the clan chiefs.

In assessing the fighting quality of German tribal armies it must be kept in mind that Germanic tribes were warrior societies in which all other social roles were defined by or influenced by the warrior ethos. Thus Germanic men did not farm because it was beneath them (women’s work), but they did hunt because hunting improved their combat skills. The relationship between man and wife and family was also conditioned by the warrior ethos. It was the woman who brought weapons to her husband as a gift of her dowry. Germanic women acted as the tribe’s “military medical corps,” and it was to these wilde weiber (literally, “wild women”) that the wounded turned for medical aid. Women accompanied their men into battle, urging them on to greater efforts by reminding them of the cost of enslavement to themselves and children. The German soldier was a professional warrior whose very social existence was defined by war.

In times of war, each clan provided its own coterie of warriors under the leadership of the village hunno. The cohesion of the family and clan was extended to the warrior group with the result that German combat units were highly cohesive, strongly disciplined, self-motivated, well led, and well trained in the skills of individual close combat. They could be relied on to make murderous charges on command and to fight well in dispersed small groups. While blood ties usually assured that clan units remained loyal to the larger tribal military command, in fact, there was probably only the most rudimentary command and control exercised by the war chief over the behavior of the clan units. Once the tribal levy had been assembled and a general battle plan decided on, implementation was left to local units with little in the way of any ability to direct the battle.

German weaponry was the result of many years of intertribal wars, the lack of contact with any other culture from which new weapons could be acquired, and, as Tacitus and others tell us, the German difficulty in working with iron. Tacitus does not tell us why the Germans were poor iron smiths, but it is clear that they were far behind the Celts and Gauls, who were making chain mail armor superior to the Romans’ in the second century b. c. e . Roman sources note as well that only a few of the German warriors, probably their nobles or the best warriors, wore body armor or metal helmets.

The basic protection from wounds was afforded by a large shield of wood or braided reeds covered with leather. Some troops wore a covering of leather or hide on their heads as well. The basic weapon of the German was the framea, the seven- to ten-foot spear of the type used by the Greek hoplite tipped with a short, sharp blade. The spear was used in close combat or could be thrown. It seems likely as well that German units carried somewhat longer spears, which might have been used by the front rank of a charging infantry formation to break through the enemy. Once inside the enemy formation, the framea was used as the primary killing weapon. The sword was not commonly used by German combat units. The German warrior also carried an assortment of short, wooden javelins with fi re-hardened tips that, as Tacitus tells us, they could hurl long distances. Other missiles, most probably stones and sharpened sticks, were also salvoed at the enemy. Although some German tribes developed into excellent cavalrymen, for the most part German cavalry was limited in numbers and used rather poorly. Battle accounts note that German cavalry moved at such a slow pace in the attack that the infantry had little difficulty in keeping up. The primary strength of the German tribal levy was infantry.

The Germanic infantry fought in a formation that the Romans called cuneus, or “wedge.” Vegetius described the cuneus as “a mass of men on foot, in close formation, narrower in front, wider in the rear that moves forward and breaks the ranks of the enemy.” This formation, also called the Boar’s Head formation by the Romans, was not a wedge with a pointed front, but more resembled a trapezoid, with a shorter line in front, followed by a thick formation of closely packed troops with a rear rank somewhat longer than the front rank. The formation was designed to deliver shock and to carry it through to a penetration of the enemy ranks.

The use of the wedge against the Roman open phalanx explains other Germanic battlefield habits. If the object of the wedge was penetration, then there was no need to armor the men in the center of the wedge. Those German warriors who had body armor and helmets probably fought in the front rank and in the outside fi les of the wedge. Fourteen centuries later, it became the Swiss practice to armor only the front and outside ranks, while the men in the center of the Swiss pike phalanx had only leather armor or none at all. If the wedge did its job and broke the enemy formation, the fight was reduced to either a pursuit or a scramble of individual combats. Under these conditions, the troops least encumbered by armor and other weighty equipment had the advantage.

The German strength lay in the highly disciplined and cohesive nature of its clan combat groups (kampgruppen). These groups could move quickly through the forest and swamps and could fall with terrible ferocity on an enemy not yet deployed for battle. They could break contact and withdraw just as rapidly for group discipline was central to the clan fighting unit. The Germans were particularly competent in scattered combat, surprise attacks, ambushes, feigned withdrawals, rapid reassembly, and most other aspects of guerrilla war.

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