The Germans

All illustrations Samson Goetze

While Julius Caesar and his legions humbled the Celts during his Gallic campaign, a warlike people who migrated into the region from the east during the first century B. C. E. proved more difficult for the Romans to bring to heel. Across the Roman frontier that ran along the Rhine and the Danube, these peoples, known as the Germanic tribes, built a society marked by its egalitarian nature and martial power. Fearing the military threat posed by these belligerent tribes, the Romans invaded their homeland in 12 B. C. E., in an attempt to conquer and pacify the region. Despite committing thousands of troops to the campaign, the Roman armies spent decades battling the Germanic tribes without gaining the upper hand. Finally, in 9 C. E., a decisive battle took place deep in the Teutoburg Forest.

Unfortunately for the Romans, the battle proved to be the worst defeat they ever suffered in centuries of imperial expansion. The fierce Germanic warriors they encountered were drawn from a number of tribes and commanded by a Cheruscan chieftain known to the Romans as Arminius (ca. 18 B. C. E.-19 C. E.), who had fought as a mercenary for the Romans and understood their tactics. Ambushed and attacked from all sides in a woodland glade, three Roman legions under the command of Publius Quinctilius Varus (d. 9 C. E.), the cream of the Roman military, were butchered. The attack was the culmination of a revolt against Roman occupation by the Germanic tribes, and the heavy losses that the Romans suffered in the Teutoburg Forest convinced Emperor Augustus (63 B. C. E.-14 C. E.) to abandon the costly conquest of Germany. In the 19th century, Arminius, known to modern Germans as Hermann, became a potent symbol of nationalistic pride and German military might, celebrated in scores of patriotic songs and nationalistic books.

The Germanic Tribes

In the first century B. C. E., life in central Europe was transformed when the Germanic peoples, newcomers to the region, migrated into the area of modern-day Germany. Defined by their shared language, a cluster of Indo-European tongues classified as Germanic by linguists, this ethnolinguistic group seems to have originated in northern Europe. These various tribes did not form a cohesive group, waging constant warfare among themselves and living alongside and intermingling with other peoples during their extensive migrations. The most important of these interactions was with the Celts, who had dominated the region before the appearance of the Germanic tribes.

While sources are hazy for the ancient period, and archaeology has not been able to provide conclusive information, it appears that the migrating Germanic tribes moved from the area that is today southern Scandinavia and northern Germany. In the course of their migrations, they moved to the south, east, and west, coming into contact with Celtic tribes in Gaul and Iranian, Baltic, and Slavic peoples in eastern Europe. During this period, Germanic languages became dominant along the Roman frontier in the area of modern Germany, as well as Austria, the Netherlands, and England. In the western provinces of the Roman Empire, namely, in the Roman province of Gaul, situated in modern-day France and Belgium, the Germanic immigrants were influenced deeply by Roman culture and adopted Latin dialects. The descendants of the Germanic-speaking peoples became the ethnic groups of northwestern Europe, not only including the Germans, but also the Danes, Swedes, Norwegians, and Dutch.

Roman sources are often confused and contradictory in their attempts to identify the menacing Germanic “barbarians” they encountered along their borders. Thus, Roman authors such as Julius Caesar used vague terms such as Germani to describe the various Germanic tribes that settled in the area. While scholars are unsure about the extent to which these diverse peoples represent distinct ethnic groups or cohesive cultures, Roman sources mention a range of Germanic tribes including the Alemanni, Cimbri, Franks, Frisians, Saxons, and Suebi.

Caesar marched against the latter of these tribes, the fearsome Suebi, in his conquest of Gaul. In his account of this campaign, he describes these Germanic warriors, whom he compares explicitly with the Celts. According to Caesar, the Germanic tribes he encountered gave primacy to war, rather than to religion or domestic life. Their religion apparently lacked an organized priesthood and centered upon the veneration of nature, and Caesar suggested that the Germanic tribesmen devoted all of their energies to gaining renown in battle.

Caesar also describes the pastoral economy of the seminomadic Germanic tribes that he encountered across the Danubian frontier. Again, he highlighted the Germanic tribes’ single-minded focus on warfare, recording that-unlike the Romans-they eschewed both wealth and luxury, living off conquest and raiding. For Caesar, this warrior ethos made the Germanic tribes into formidable enemies, and he contrasted the military vigor of the Germanic tribes with that of the more civilized Celts. Accentuating the bellicosity of the Germanic peoples, he found the once formidable Celts, seduced by Roman luxury, lacking by comparison:

There was formerly a time when the Gauls excelled the Germans in prowess, and waged war on them offensively, and, on account of the great number of their people and the insufficiency of their land, sent colonies over the Rhine . . . but their proximity to the Province [the Roman province of Gaul] and knowledge of commodities from countries beyond the sea supplies to the Gauls many things tending to luxury as well as civilization. Accustomed by degrees to be overmatched and worsted in many engagements, they do not even compare themselves to the Germans in prowess. (Caesar in M’Devitta 1853: 153)

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.

By around 100 C. E., the time of Tacitus’s Germania, numerous Germanic tribes had settled along the Rhine and the Danube, along the Roman frontier, occupying most of the area of modern Germany. The Roman-Germanic frontier, known as the Limes Germanicus, thus became a site of vibrant cultural exchange, as the Germanic tribes encamped along it bartered for Roman goods and absorbed elements of Roman culture. Roman garrison towns such as Moguntiacum (Mainz), Augusta Treverorum (Trier), and Augusta Vindelicorum (Augsburg) sprang up in pacified areas, fostering further assimilation and providing the foundations for Germany’s rich urban life of the Middle Ages. Meanwhile, as the might of Rome began to falter in the late 300s C. E., and Roman troops were pulled from the border defenses, Germanic peoples began raiding the Roman provinces along the frontier. Some Germanic tribes even migrated across the frontier and settled in Roman territory, providing military service in exchange for land grants.

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.