Ancient Germans

Territory Occupied By Germanic Tribes

Germania was, in the time of antiquity, far from a unified territory, but was composed of different tribes living on the right side of the river Rhine, which was their natural western border that separated them from Gaul (mostly modern France). To the East, it stretched to the Vistula river in modern day Poland, and from the Baltic sea on the North, to the rivers Danube and Main to the south. Germania itself is a Latin term.

Etymology Of The Term Germania

The etymology of this term is still uncertain, but there is an interesting speculation.

Strabo (64 BC-24 AD), the Greek geographer from Amaseia in Asia Minor (today Amasia, Turkey), in his work Geographica, proposed that the term “Germani”, itself meaning “genuine”, was referred to the Germanic tribes as being the “genuine Gauls". To back this theory up, he mentions the obvious similarities between the Celts and the Germans in their way of living and culture, and the fact that some Gallic tribes claimed that themselves were of German origin and migrated across the Rhine from Germania to Gaul.

This theory is not proven, but the chosen term "genuine" to refer to the Germans is still interesting.

Looks And Living Habits

All accounts describe them as people with red or blond hair, tall and warlike, which to their enemies made them formidable and hard to conquer. Also, they dwelled in non-urbanized areas, making it easier for them to migrate. Mainly made a living of the spoils taken from the defeated enemies. Cattle was deemed most valuable to them, and instead of gold, preferred silver.

Publius Cornelius Tacitus (56 AD-120 AD), a Roman historian, in his work Germania, from 98 AD, writes that the Germans loved singing, and their songs were called "baritus", through which they gained their courage for fighting, and used them for religious rites.

Politics And Night Counting

The German chieftains were chosen hereditary, but the generals were picked for their fighting prowess and skills. The army was following their leader in his example, instead of receiving orders from him.

When it came to politics and the greater good for the tribe, the people altogether decided the fate of matters of greater concern; only the smaller ones were decided solely by the Germanic chiefs.

During a state of emergency, the Germans were assembling before, or after the moon appeared. This was because the Germanic people didn't count the number of days, but those of the nights.

The Germanic youths were assigned with the task of searching other tribes which were at war, to join or confront them, because they couldn't stand the stability and peace. Riches and spoils from other people must be taken, since hard work for a living wasn't considered prudent.

The people were giving gifts to the kings, mostly cattle, and other things that were not splendid, as long as they were useful and practical.

The different tribes, however, also were practicing to send gifts to each other: weapons, horses, and, as Tacitus happily boasts, the Germans were taught by the Romans to send and receive money as gifts.

Law Enforcement And Religion

Their priesthood issued punishments for the committed crimes of the people. Depending on the gods they thought were present among them during war, the Germans imagined that the deity, through their priests, carried out the sentence.

The Germanic tribes practiced animal and human sacrifice to the gods. Some of the Suebi, according to Tacitus, even paid their respects to Isis, the eastern goddess. How this came to occur, it is not known. The horses were deemed as sacred animals.


The Germans built houses from timber, and unlike the Medditerenean style of connected houses, they created space between them, so they would protect their homes from fire.

They were digging holes in the underground, where they would hide their supplies from a likely enemy invasion. On top of these holes, they were putting manure in order to protect the stash caves from the enemy, so when the latter would plunder the settlement, would not be able to find the hidden cattle and crops.

On the fields, they would work only to provide themselves with corn. Apparently, of all four seasons, they didn’t know of autumn.

Family Matters

During antiquity, the Germans were people representing a rare example of practicing monogamy. A few exceptions were known, if a nobleman was more lustful, or he only had too many offers from other noble families, so he couldn't refuse them for political sake. The dowry was given from the husband to the wife-to-be. The marriage vows were very stern-the wife and husband alike sworn to protect each other in wars or other perils, hence the wives themselves coming to cheer on the battlefields. The gifts which the families, bride and groom were giving to each other weren't out of luxury but rather of need: horses, weapons, and oxen.

Adultery was rare, and punishable by flogging.

Tacitus commends the Germans that vices of this sort among them are looked down upon without exception: no one is beyond morality, being common or noble-born.

He has an excellent description of this: Unwritten moral code in Germania is better than any written law elsewhere in the world.

The uncles of the children were as good as being their fathers; and when a man died, his sons inherited his belongings, one couldn't have made a will. The funerals were not pompous, but the grief after the dead was long-lasting.

Entertainment And Guest Friendliness

You could enter any house without even an invitation, and would be received most honourably and with plenty. After a feast, the host and the guest together would go to visit another neighbour uninvited and the party continues there.

They were big on drinking alcohol, and decided on important matters while being drunk, such as arranging marriages and discussing politics. Oftenly the debates ended in bloodshed.

When they were discussing business while being drunk, they would continue talks the next day, when sober. If the decision is the same on the two different days, it means it's the correct one. 
Some sources claim that the Germans and Gauls are the first in Europe to introduce beer, around 3000 BC. Tacitus writes that they were making a liquid of barley, fermented to reach a taste close to that of a wine.

Some of them were gambling to a level that is unheard of. When they would lose the money or other material goods, they would put their very freedom at stake. So, when one lost his bet, he'd put himself voluntarily into slavery of the winner, no matter how stronger would the loser would have been. Afterwards, the winners, ashamed of what they have achieved in this manner, would sell the slave to avoid public scorn.

No Lending Money With Interest

Loan sharking didn't exist; not that it was prohibited, but because it was not known as a thing among them. On this, again, Tacitus brilliantly comments that ignorance of bad practices is better than the written law which forbids them.

Military Life And Customs

Their songs on the battlefields, however, were actually horyffing shouts, intended to terrify their enemies. Supposedly, they were putting their shields in front of their mouths, for when they were roaring, the sounds were echoing back, producing unearthly, terrible noise, and men both in their ranks and their opponents trembled from the very sound.

In the arts of war, their infantry was key. In the front lines, fought the youngest men, a hundred of each district. Unlike the fighting manners of Greeks or Romans, giving ground to the enemy, among the Germans was not a sign of weakness or one of an incoming defeat; for they were able to gain advantage of it if the soldiers planned to return to the front lines.

Losing the shield, according to Tacitus, was the ultimate shame for the Germans. If one fails to keep it, after the battle, he loses citizen rights: he wouldn't be able to practice religious rites or take part in the people's assembly. Many were deciding to commit suicide after they lost their shield.

Women Were Crucial During Fighting

During the time of battles, the women and children weren’t sitting at home, but were going with the men as spectators and cheered for their tribe’s victory.

The women's presence was especially important to their husbands, and their counsel, both during war and peace, was respected and observed.

Apparently, many times, when an army would be losing the fight, and began to run away, warrior's wives brought them back: this they did by stopping their escape, running with naked breasts into them, reminding them of what they would lose if they let their women fall in the hands of their enemies. This is reported to be effective on many occasions.

Germanic Tribes, And Who Were Their Enemies?

Some of the notable Germanic tribes are the Suebi, who according to Strabo, partly lived in the Hercynian Forest, east of the Rhine. This is today the Black forest (in the Baden-Württemberg state, southwestern Germany, near the border with France), but it represents only the western part of the once known Hercynian, due to it being reduced.

The Germans, besides fighting among themselves, were making constant incursions into Gallic territory against the Gauls; and invaded the Roman territories both in Cisalpine Gaul (Northern Italy) and Gallia Proper (most of France) on several occasions.

In the era of first Roman emperor Octavian Augustus, the tribe known as Cherusci, led by Arminius (18 BC-21 AD), ambushed three Roman legions in the Teutoburg Forest (Lower Saxony and North Rhine-Westphalia) using their deep forest for hit-and-run tactics, and setting up trap after a trap, massacred them, almost all, if not to a single man.

After that, the Romans, led by Julius Caesar Germanicus (15 BC-19 AD), father of the later emperor Caligula, took revenge on the Germans in a series of campaigns, and although Arminius evaded captivity, his wife Thusnelda and his son Thumelicus, along with many others of the Cheruscan nobility, were captured and paraded on a Triumph, where the defeated were traditionally led in a procession through the streets of Rome.

Segestes, who was a father-in-law of Armenius, deserted him, and for this was "rewarded" by Rome as a guest at the triumph, as if it was an honour to watch his family dragged down the streets.

The Cimbri, as a request for friendship from Augustus, sent him a present of their sacred brazen kettles, where they kept the throats cut from the fallen enemies, and their wish was granted from the emperor.

The Chatti grew their beard and hair until they would kill an enemy, and those who were not warlike, were considered cowards, so they kept their hair uncut.

Tacitus claims that himself, along with other Romans were witnesses of a battle between two Germanic tribes, who gave them permission to be spectators. Around sixty-thousand people were slain on the battlefield.

Other famous Germanic tribes are the Marcomanni, Teutones, Bructeri, and many more.

The loyalty of the Germanic warriors was noticed by the Roman emperors themselves: each emperor used to employ Germans as his personal bodyguards, who served as their special elite force.

What Did They Accomplish?

Tacitus openly admits that Romans were fighting the Germans all the time, and they were the most formidable enemies, resistant to any significant conquest. For, he says, neither the Gauls, the Carthaginians, Spaniards, or Parthians, didn’t teach them more lessons in war than the Germans themselves.

Truly, the Germans were never entirely conquered by Romans, who managed to subdue almost every other known part of Europe during the time, the island of Britain, and large portions of Asia and Africa.

Further, their monogamous marriage habits clearly have influenced our modern point of view on matrimony.

The voice of women was more respected and listened to, in contrast to many other cultures.

The first drinkers of beer in Europe, along with the Gauls.

If you want to find out more, read Strabo's parts on the Germans in Geographica, Germania by Tacitus, and search for other works in which the Germanic tribes are mentioned.