The Germans

Who were the Germans in 9 CE? It seems a simple enough question, but upon closer examination of the question, the answer which at first seems simple becomes rather complicated. In 9 CE there was no specific group of people who used the title of German; it is indeed quite the opposite; Germania is not a German word at all. Rather Germania is a Latin exonym for the geographical area east of the River Rhine, including the Sarmatia region and the region on the west bank of the Rhine under Roman control. It was first used by Julius Caesar as an adaptation from Gaulish referring to the "peoples east of the Rhine", in other words the Gaulish term for neighbour.

Since there is clearly no one group that can claim to be German, then who exactly was in "Germania"? Germania consisted of several tribes of Germanic peoples; however there were incursions by Celtic, Baltic, Scythian and proto-Slavic tribes between 750 BCE and 1 CE. Due to the large number of tribes and even peoples, there was no single language spoken: there were several dialects within Germania during the time around 9 CE.

Pytheas of Massalia is credited as being the first Mediterranean person to make a distinction between Germanic and Celtic people when he sailed around Britain and the northern coasts of Europe in 320 BCE. It was not until Caesar that the next set of differences between the Germanic tribes and Celtic peoples would be seen again. Caesar noted based on his own observation and analysis that although the Gauls were warlike they could be civilized and tamed by Rome, but the Germanic people were far more savage and warlike and posed a great threat to Rome. Today the most complete account of Caesar's analysis is found in Tacitus's Germania.

Rome regarded Germania with awe and fear. To the Romans there were two parts of Germania: Lesser Germania, which included the regions west and south of the Rhine that were occupied by the Romans, and Greater Germania, which encompassed all areas of Germania east of the Rhine. Within Lesser Germania the Romans created two provinces: Germania Inferior, the southern region around the delta of the Rhine, Scheldt and Meuse rivers that today are in modern-day Belgium and the Netherlands, and Germania Superior, which corresponds to modern-day Alsace (2 counties in northeastern France) and Switzerland. By 6 CE, after the campaigns of Augustus, the Romans had seized lands in Germania as far east as the River Elbe. This set the stage for the final conquest of Germania, bring Roman full Roman provincial status.

The Germanic tribes can be divided into 3 regional groups: the Northern, Western and Eastern tribes. Each tribal region had its own unique culture and dialect, making them independent but still associated to the other tribes. This three-region classification is a modern linguistic approach to distinguishing the different tribes within the region. In the 1st century CE and before, the Greeks and Romans had little knowledge of the Germanic tribes of Northern Europe and ignorantly labeled many tribes "Suebi".

During the Nordic Bronze Age (1700 BCE - 600 BCE) there is a large body of both archeological and linguistic evidence that there was a single large group of people or a federation of groups that shared a common culture. At this point the Germanic tribes were located only in southern Scandinavia and in Schleswig. Other areas of consideration for a common culture and language are the areas of pre-Roman Iron Age found at Wessenstedt dating to 800 BCE - 600 BCE and at Jastorf. In 850 BCE the climate in Scandinavia began to deteriorate, forcing the migration of peoples from Scandinavia south into the western, central and eastern regions of Europe. In 650 BCE in one such migration, the Goths moved rapidly south, likely into Eastern Germany and to the Vistula River. These migrations from Scandinavia placed these people in regions inhabited by the Celtic and Elp cultures between 1800 BCE - 800 BCE. Thus they were influenced by the Celtic Hallstatt culture and learned how to extract bog iron from ore in the peat bogs, thus dawning the pre-Roman Iron Age culture.

Archaeological evidence shows a relatively uniform Germanic people in 750 BCE settled in an area extending from the Netherlands to the Vistula River and north to southern Scandinavia. During this time period the first settlements were founded on the coastal floodplains on the western edge of this area as a result of population increases and soil exhaustion at higher elevations. By 250 BCE, individual tribal distinctions were beginning to appear in the region: North Germanic in Scandinavia excluding Jutland, North Sea Germanic along the North Sea and in Jutland, Rhine-Weser Germanic alomg the middle Rhine and Weser Rivers, along the middle Elbe River were the Elbe Germanic and East Germanic between the middle Oder and Vistula Rivers.

During the Roman period, by 5 CE, the dialects or languages spoken by these geographical groups were already different enough to make communication difficult if not impossible without the aid of translation. However, their religious beliefs were still unified with a fairly uniform pantheon of Gods and Goddesses. Another unifying aspect was the common Germanic name applied to non-Germanic people, *walhaz or for more than one person *walhoz; local names such as Welsh, Wallis and Walloon are derived from this word. The Romans clearly saw the Germanic tribes as different from the Celtic people, for it was the Romans who gave us the name Germani, the source for the English words "German" and "Germanic", following the practice of applying geographical names to peoples rather than addressing them by tribal / cultural names. There was no king or emperor ruling over Germania, each tribe was free and independent of the others: they were each led by their own leaders, either hereditary or elected.

In 102 BCE Roman Consul Gaius Marius defended Italy against invasion by the Cimbri and the Teutons, who had decided to work together. The Teutons were to head south and advance on Italy along the Mediterranean coast while the Cimbri would attempt an attack from the Alps through the Brenner pass with the aid of the Celtic tribe of the Tigurini. The plan was ill-fated because the Romans, with short lines of communication, were able to focus on the different groups of Germanic warriors at their commanders' leisure. In the end the Romans were narrowly victorious against this Germanic invasion. However, it instilled fear in the hearts of the Romans. What if the Germani reorganized and were better prepared? Julius Caesar used the Cimbri and Teuton invasion to play on the fears of the Romans and emphasize the danger of another invasion from the peoples to the north and thus to justify the annexation of Gaul by Rome. Caesar is also credited with helping to establish the term Germania through his extensive campaigns in Gaul: the original goal was to protect the area between the Rhine and Elbe. The militarization of the Rhine would last until 9 CE, when Arminius led the allied collation of Germanic tribes against the might of three Roman legions commanded by the Governor of Gaul and Germania, Publius Quinctilius Varus. The defeat of Varus saw the withdrawal of Roman expansion  back to the Rhine and the creation of the two Roman provinces west of the Rhine, Germania Inferior and to the south Germania Superior.

9 CE was a time in Germania when the Germanic tribes faced their greatest threat, of annexation by Rome and the consequent loss of their freedom, language, culture and heritage. In tribal meetings between the Cherusci, Marsi, Chatti, Bructeri, Chauci, Sicambri and Harii tribes, a plan of action to stop the Roman colonization plans was formulated. To understand this alliance it is important to know more about the individual tribes; unfortunately, we have little information about some of the tribes.

Map created by Cristiano64, Wikimedia Commons


Located from the 1st century BCE to the 1st century CE in the northern Rhine valley and the plains and forests of modern-day northwestern Germany, between Osnabrück and Hanover. They would be assimilated into the tribal confederation of the Saxons. The tribal name refers to a sword and in Proto-Germanic would likely have been *Xeruskōz.

Their first encounters with the Romans occurred in 53 BCE when Julius Caesar attempted to cross the Rhine to punish the Suebi for sending reinforcements to the Treveri. Caesar recounts how the Bacenis forest separated the territory of the Cherusci from the Suebi. By 12 BCE the Cherusci, along with several other Germanic tribes, found themselves being subjugated by the Romans.

In the subsequent years the Roman Empire tried to expand further north, exploiting divisions within the Cherusci, who during this period were considered an ally of Rome. By 7 CE, with the return of Arminius, the Cherusci tribe split into two factions: one under Arminius, who was against Roman occupation and the other under Segestes, who was for accommodation with Rome and who was Arminius's father-in-law. By 8 CE, Arminius had gained more support within the tribe and the planning for the rebellion was started. Segestes repeatedly betrayed Arminius by warning Varus on numerous occasions of the planned rebellion, but Varus did not take any actions until the rebellion had broken out in front of him.


Despite the many mentions of the Marsi by Tacitus, Tacitus never really wrote much about who the Marsi were. It is known that the Marsi resided between the Rhine, Ruhr and Lippe rivers located in modern northwestern Germany. One reason Tacitus mentions the Marsi is in relation to the subsequent wars after Teutoburg Forest with the Roman General Germanicus. In 9 CE, the Marsi were part of the alliance led by Arminius against Varus at the Battle of Teutoburg Forest.


One of the oldest of the Germanic tribes, the Chatti had their homeland in the upper Weser River region; they settled in the valleys and mountains of what are now central and northern Hesse and southern Saxony, roughly the modern-day Kesse-Kassel region.

Tacitus wrote that among the Chatti were Batavians, until a quarrel erupted between the two groups, resulting in the Chatti forcing the Batavians out of the tribe to move to lands at the mouth of the Rhine. Despite being well informed on the lands and tribes of the region, Caesar did not see fit to mention the Chatti in any of his correspondence.

The Chatti are one of the few tribes that completely resisted being incorporated into the Roman Empire. Tacitus wrote in Germania that the Chatti were disciplined warriors well known and famed for their infantry who used trenching tools and carried provisions when at war, unusual behavior for Germanic tribesmen. Tacitus mentions two tribes, the Usipi and the Tencteri, living north of the Chatti, but no known sources refer to them as playing any role in the Battle of Teutoburg Forest.


Located in what is now northwestern Germany between the Lippe and Ems Rivers, this tribe was strategically located just to the south of Teutoburg Forest. The best known of the Bructeri was Veleda, the prophetess of the tribe. She lived in a tower near the Lippe River and was regarded as a deity by most of the Central Germanic tribes. Her powers were even sought after by the Romans in the nearby settlement of Colonia Claudia Ara Agrippinesium, modern Cologne, when the Romans were engaged in war with the Germanic tribe called the Tencteri, whom they never defeated. When Veleda acted as arbitrator, the envoys were never permitted to see her; instead they interacted through an interpreter who in turn conveyed the messages to her and reported her words.


The name of the tribe derives from a Proto-Germanic word *xabukaz meaning "hawk". They were one of the more populous tribes involved in the Battle of Teutoburg Forest, and were located along the northwestern shore of modern Germany, between Frisia to the west and the Elbe estuary to the east. Much like the Frisi, the Chauci inhabited a terpen, which is an artificial dwelling hill that provides safe ground during high tide and river flooding. They were a common structure used throughout the Netherlands, Friesland, Groningen and Zeeland, in what are now the Low Countries, northern Germany, and southern Denmark, before the use of dikes. Terpens have also been found in the central area of the Netherlands on the Rhine and Meuse river plains. By the 1st or 2nd century the Chauci had colonized the eastern coast of Ireland, as depicted on the map made by the Greek geographer Ptolemy.

The lifestyle of the Chauci was so foreign to the Romans that many of them were mystified by it. Pliny the Elder, who met the Chauci, wrote that they were hunters relying on hunting and fishing to survive. However, although Pliny's account is based on first-hand observation, it is not completely correct. There is archeological evidence that proves the Chauci also raised cattle and supported military cavalry troops. Tacitus records that the Chauci were highly respected amoung the Germanic tribes, that they were peaceful, levelheaded and calm despite reports of piracy recorded in the Annales.

The Chauci were pro-Roman in the 1st century CE, providing cavalry auxiliaries for Germanicus's 2nd campaign against the Cherusci. This comes not only from Tacitus, who wrote as much, but also from archeological evidence of equestrian items found near the Praetorium located on the Klops-plateau, which is near Oppidum Batavorum as this was also the place that held the Roman headquarters in Germania Inferior.

The fame of the Chauci earned them a place in Beowulf as the Hugas, who form an alliance with the Frankish Hetware (Chatturaii) and the Frisians to fight against the Geatish raiding party. The repelling of the Geats resulted in King Hygelac's death and the death of all but one in the raiding party; only Beowulf survived.


Located in what is now called the Netherlands at the turn of the first millennium. The Sicambri originated in the Germanic-Celtic contact zone but are thought to have been a Germanic tribe. Claudius Ptolemy places the location of the Sicambri with the Germanic tribe Bructeri, sharing the most northern part of the Rhine south of the lands of the Frisians on the coast. However, the Greek geographer Strabo found the Sicambri next to the Menapii tribe; according to him the Sicambri occupied both sides of the Rhine near the mouth of the river, including the marsh and forest areas.

First contact with the Romans occurred in 55 BCE as Julius Caesar was conducting his conquest of Gaul. In his Commentarii de Bello Gallico, he writes that a great battle occurred at the confluence of the Rhine and Mosel Rivers in the land of the Menapii with the Germanic tribes of the Tencteri and Usipetes. When Caesar gained victory in battle, the cavalry of the Tencteri and Usipetes fled north across the river, taking asylum with the Sicambri; because the Sicambri did not turn back the survivors, Caesar then built a bridge to cross the river and bring punishment to the Sicambri.

Despite Caesar's punishment of the Sicambri for giving asylum to the fleeing Tencteri and Usipetes, when he defeated the Eburones, a tribe with a mixture of Germanic and Celtic descent located in the regions of upper northern Gaul, Caesar invited any tribe or party that was interested in aiding Rome in the complete destruction of the Eburones. Seizing the opportunity the Sicambri aided Caesar, taking large amounts of plunder in the form of cattle, slaves and valuable materials. Impressed with the ruthlessness of the Sicambri, Caesar commented on the war prowess of the tribe, saying they were born for war and raids, for no swamp or marsh could stop the Sicambri. Then, after seizing what they could, the Sicambri turned on the Romans, nearly destroying one of Caesar's legions as vengeance for Caesar's earlier punishment of them; when the legion retreated to the city of Atuatuca, the Sicambri returned across the Rhine.

Not until 16 BCE did the Sicambri confront the Roman military again, under the leadership of Melo the brother of Baetorix. Melo and the Sicambri attacked Marcus Lollius, the commander of the Roman army as well as the then governor of Gaul, and the battle ended in defeat for the Romans. In 11 BCE the tribe was forcibly split by Nero Claudius Drusus. Part of the tribe moved to the south side of the Rhine, later becoming part of the Franks. The main element of the Sicambri tribe moved much further into Gaul.

Even in the very heart of Rome, the Sicambri tribe left its mark:  Marcus Calerius Martialis from Hispania wrote in Liber De Spectaculis several epigrams to celebrate the games of Titus or Domitian in the Colosseumin which he noted among the numerous people in attendance Sicambri, who wore their hair twisted into a knot.


The Harii are one of the most mysterious Germanic warrior tribes: almost no information about them has survived. The tiny amount of information available today comes from Tacitus in Germania. There he wrote of the great strength of the Harii, that it often exceeded the strength of other Germanic tribes. He continues his description by saying that with their ferocious battle skills, their shields and bodies painted pitch black and their love of night warfare, the Harii were like a ghost army attacking in the night and then disappearing into the darkness. The Romans were terrified of the Harii for that reason alone, as the Roman military was not very adept at night warfare due to the need for regimental formations that are hard to form in the dark and harder to maintain. The Harii also used wooden weapons so that light would not reflect as it does from metal weapons.

Not specifically mentioned as having attended the meetings to rebel against the Romans, there is little doubt that the Harii did play an active role in the night raids during the Battle of Teutoburg forest during the first and second nights. There is general agreement on their role in the battle. They were the masters of night warfare and Arminius would have used the Harii to unleash the Roman perspective of Hell upon them.

Early Naval Power

Often overlooked in early European history is the significant naval might of the Germanic peoples. Their fleets could raid the coastline of the North Sea and the British Isles as well as sail up the Rhine, Elbe, Danube and many of the rivers in Gaul and Germania. The great seafaring Scandinavians did not just happen overnight; there is a long history of seafaring with many of the Germanic peoples even before contact with Rome. As Roman incursions into the North Sea, English Channel and the Rhine delta become more and more frequent, the Chauci, Canniefates, Usipi and several other Germanic tribes took to piracy of Roman vessels, thus becoming the precursors to the famed Viking Age of Scandinavia. Later in the life of the Roman Empire, the piracy spread to encompass the Black Sea, for the Goths, Heruls and Vandals launched many pirate raids on Roman vessels in the Mediterranean and the Black Sea. Despite the lopsidedness of history portraying the Vikings as the only Germanic seafaring people, archaeology and historical writings from Tacitus tell a different story about the Germanic tribes' ability on the seas.

In the period of the early Roman Empire, it is important to remember that naval warfare was not conducted in the same manner as it is done in the modern age or even how it was done in the Viking Age. The vessels were not built to withstand ramming or projectile attacks or even all that safe for conducting war on the open ocean. As for blockades and patrolling, they were rather difficult if not impossible; in addition, the actual interception of an enemy vessel at sea was rare. Most ship to ship combat took place in still waters of rivers, estuaries and harbours, with the offensive nature of the navy being the action of transporting an invading army or raiding party, thus the beginnings of amphibious warfare.

Early Germanic piracy dates back to the mid-first century CE and the beginnings of what is known of Germanic seafaring can be traced back to the first Roman contact with the Germanic people during the later part of the last century BCE. However the Germanic tribesmen were already active at seafaring before the Romans made contact with them along the North Sea coast. One of the earliest recorded events in Germanic naval activities involves an attack by a fleet of Bructeri vessels against a Roman fleet on the River Ems in 12 BCE. Augustus's stepson Drusus commanded the Roman fleet along the North Sea coast of Germany as far as the Elbe when he encountered the Bructeri on the River Ems and defeated them.

It was the Usipi tribe located between modern Cologne and the Lippe River who were the first to circumnavigate northern Britain in 83 CE; this voyage was the result of a rebellion by an auxiliary cohort of Usipi under the command of Agricola off the west coast of Britain. The Usipi killed the Roman officers and seized control of three Liburnian galleys with three helmsmen as hostages. Two of the helmsmen were later murdered after after one escaped. Despite being amongst the Roman fleet, before the rest of the fleet knew what had happened the three galleys had made their escape, sailing north up the British coast before they made their way back to the North Sea. Along the way the Usipi pillaged the coastal communities to take what supplies they could, but being in limited numbers the Usipi soon found it was very difficult to mount a raid in their dwindling numbers and starvation soon set in upon them. Their escape ended with the three galleys shipwrecking on the coast of Germany or Denmark trying to return to the Rhine. Survivors of the wrecks found themselves at the mercy of the Frisians, who dealt with them as if they were pirates, killing some and selling the rest into slavery, where they found themselves back in the hands of the Romans. It is from the Romans that we have the story of the Usipi.

It is from the Romans that we have the story of the Usipi from the constant need to navigate the marsh, rivers and coastal areas of the Rhine and North Sea coast of Germany. Like other Germanic tribes, the Chauci developed a taste for Roman goods, and to satisfy this taste they took to piracy when objects could not be obtained through trade. The earliest of the Chauci raids upon the Roman empire occurred in 41 CE when the Chauci raided the Roman settlement of Belgica. Although repelled, the Chauci tried again in 47 CE; this time the raid was led by Gannascus, who was a Roman deserter and member of the Canninefates tribe. His knowledge led the Chauci to several successful raids on Roman settlements and fortifications like the Roman auxiliary fort at Valkenburg that protected the mouth of the Old Rhine. After this string of successes, the Chauci were defeated by the Roman fleet stationed on the Rhine. Gannascus escaped capture but was later killed by a Roman expedition while he was with the Chauci.

In the rebellion of the Batavi and Canninefates in 69-70 CE, the Chauci and the Frisians joined with the Bructeri, Tencteri and Usipi to aid the Batavi and Canninefates tribes, the combined naval fleet of the Germanic tribal confederation was able to destroy Roman garrisons throughout the Rhine delta region. When the Batavian oarsmen in the Roman fleet rebelled against their Roman commanders, the Germanic confederacy was able to capture 24 galleys of the Roman Rhine fleet. This gave the Germanic confederacy an astounding victory over the Roman navy which was completed by the final engagement off the North Sea coast where most of the Roman fleet was sunk or captured, including the capture of the trireme flagship of the Roman Rhine fleet. This attack occurred during the night while the Romans were camped on the shore. The war spoil of the Rhine flag ship was taken up the Rhine and into the Lippe, where it was presented as a gift to the priestess of the Bructeri. Shortly after this battle the Germanic confederacy captured a Roman grain ship that had run aground. In the final engagement of the rebellion, the Germanic confederacy assembled their now massive fleet at the mouth of the Rhine, where they intercepted a Roman troop convoy crossing the English Channel. The Germanic navy consisted of a wide variety of vessel types, ranging from biremes through small galleys to multiple small ships that could carry about 40 crew. Most of the Germanic navy was sailing ships, as we know from Tacitus, who remarks on how the Germanic sailors used cloaks to make improvised sails to improve the performance and appearance of some of their captured ships from the Roman navy. Unfortunately for the Germanic navy, the engagement ended in victory for the Roman navy. Despite the Germanic navy being larger, the Roman navy had the advantage of current, larger ships and more disciplined battle formation. That is not to say it was an easy victory for the Romans; the two sides were evenly matched. After an exchange of missiles the Germanic commander Civilis withdrew to the north of the Rhine, allowing the Romans to ravage Batavia unopposed.

After the revolt the Chauci entered a time of peace with Rome, although it was short-lived; in the later part of the 2nd century CE the Chauci would return to piracy with a vengeance, being much harder than they had been before on Rome. Rome would be forced to build massive coastal defensive works to protect its settlements and ports, which became the precursor to the Saxon Shore defense works.


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