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Germanic peoples

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

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

The Germanic peoples were a historical group of people living in Central Europe and Scandinavia. Since the 19th century, they have traditionally been defined by the use of ancient and early medieval Germanic languages and are thus equated at least approximately with Germanic-speaking peoples, although different academic disciplines have their own definitions of what makes someone or something "Germanic".[1] The Romans named the area in which Germanic peoples lived Germania, stretching West to East between the Vistula and Rhine rivers and north to south from Southern Scandinavia to the upper Danube.[2] In discussions of the Roman period, the Germanic peoples are sometimes referred to as Germani or ancient Germans, although many scholars consider the second term problematic, since it suggests identity with modern Germans. The very concept of "Germanic peoples" has become the subject of controversy among modern scholars.[3] Some scholars call for its total abandonment as a modern construct, since lumping "Germanic peoples" together implies a common group identity for which there is little evidence. Others scholars have defended the term's continued use.[3]

The earliest material culture that may be confidently ascribed to Germanic-speaking peoples is the Iron Age Jastorf Culture (6th to 1st centuries BCE), located in what is now Denmark and northeastern Germany; during this period metallurgic technology expanded in several directions. In contrast, Roman authors first described Germanic peoples near the Rhine at the time the Roman Empire established its dominance in that region. Under their influence the term came to cover a broader region stretching to the Elbe and beyond, which developed close relations both internally, and with the Romans. From the beginning of the Roman empire, the Germanic peoples were recruited into the Roman military where they often rose to the highest ranks. Roman efforts to integrate the large area between Rhine and Elbe ended around 16 CE, following the major Roman defeat at the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest in 9 CE. After their withdrawal from Germania, the Romans built a long fortified border known as the Limes Germanicus to defend against any incursions.[4] Further conflicts with the Germanic peoples include the Marcomannic Wars of Marcus Aurelius (166-180 CE). In the 3rd century the Germanic-speaking Goths dominated the Pontic Steppe, outside Germania, and launched a series of sea expeditions into the Balkans and Anatolia as far as Cyprus.[5][6] From the late 4th to the mid 6th century CE, often termed the Migration period, many Germanic peoples entered the Roman Empire, where they eventually established their own independent kingdoms.

Archaeological sources suggest that Roman-era sources are not entirely accurate in their depiction of the Germanic way of life, which they portray as more primitive and simpler than it was. Archaeology instead shows a complex society and economy throughout Germania. Germanic-speaking peoples originally shared a common religion, Germanic paganism, which varied widely throughout the territory occupied by Germanic-speaking peoples. Over the course of Late Antiquity, most continental Germanic peoples and the Anglo-Saxons of Britain converted to Christianity, with the Saxons and Scandinavians only converting much later. Traditionally, the Germanic peoples have been seen as possessing a law dominated by the concepts of feuding and blood compensation. The precise details, nature, and origin of what is still normally called "Germanic law" are now controversial. Roman sources say that the Germanic peoples made decisions in a popular assembly (the thing), but also had kings and war-leaders. The ancient Germanic-speaking peoples probably shared a common poetic tradition, alliterative verse, and later Germanic peoples also shared legends originating in the Migration Period.

The publishing of Tacitus's Germania by humanists in the 1400s greatly influenced the emergent idea of "Germanic peoples". Later, scholars of the Romantic period such as Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm developed several theories about the nature of the Germanic peoples that were highly influenced by romantic nationalism. For such scholars, the "Germanic" and modern "German" were identical. Ideas about the early Germans were also highly influential among—and influenced and co-opted by—the Nazis, leading in the second half of the 20th century to a backlash against many aspects of earlier scholarship.



The etymology of the Latin word "Germani", from which Latin Germania and English "Germanic" are derived, is unknown, although several different proposals have been made for the origin of the name. Even the language from which it derives is a subject of dispute, with proposals of Germanic, Celtic, and Latin, and Illyrian origins.[7] Herwig Wolfram, for example, thinks "Germani" must be Gaulish.[8] Historian Wolfgang Pfeifer more or less concurs with Wolfram and surmises that the name Germani is likely of Celtic etymology, related in this case to the Old Irish word gair (neighbors) or could be tied to the Celtic word for their war cries gairm, which simplifies into "the neighbors" or "the screamers".[9] Regardless of its language of origin, the name was transmitted to the Romans via Celtic speakers.[10]

It is unclear that any people group ever referred to themselves as Germani.[11] Among German historians of classical antiquity, it is commonly supposed that Julius Caesar either invented or redefined the term as an ethnographical category.[12] By late antiquity, only peoples near the Rhine, especially the Franks, and sometimes the Alemanni, were called Germani by Latin or Greek writers.[13] By the end of the twentieth century, scholarship had demonstrated that authors in antiquity used the terms Germani, gentes Germani or Germania from ill-defined tradition rather than as a description of actual circumstances, basing them on very limited contemporary knowledge of the peoples described and their actual geographical locations.[14] Germani subsequently ceased to be used as a name for any group of people, and was only revived as such by the humanists in the 16th century.[11] Previously, scholars during the Carolingian period (8th-11th century) had already begun using Germania and Germanicus in a territorial sense to refer to East Francia.[15]

In modern English, the adjective "Germanic" is distinct from "German": while "German" is generally used when referring to modern Germans only, "Germanic" relates to the ancient Germani or the broader Germanic group.[16] In modern German, the ancient Germani are referred to as Germanen and Germania as Germanien, as distinct from modern Germans (Deutsche) and modern Germany (Deutschland). The direct equivalents in English are, however, "Germans" for Germani and "Germany" for Germania,[17] although the Latin "Germania" is also used. To avoid ambiguity, the Germani may instead be called "ancient Germans" or Germani, using the Latin term in English.[18][16]

Modern definitions and controversies

The modern definition of Germanic peoples developed in the 19th century, when the term "Germanic" was linked to the newly identified Germanic language family, giving a new way of defining the Germanic peoples which came to be used in historiography and archaeology.[19][1] While Roman authors did not consistently exclude Celtic-speaking people, or have a term corresponding to Germanic-speaking peoples, this new definition, by using the Germanic language as the main criterion, understood the Germani as a people or nation (Volk) with a stable group identity linked to language. As a result, some scholars treat the Germani or Germanoi of Roman-era sources as non-Germanic if it seems they spoke non-Germanic languages.[20] For clarity, Germanic peoples, when defined as "speakers of a Germanic language", are sometimes referred to as "Germanic-speaking peoples".[1] Today, the term "Germanic" is widely applied to "phenomena including identities, social, cultural or political groups, to material cultural artefacts, languages and texts, and even specific chemical sequences found in human DNA".[21]

Apart from the designation of a language family (i.e., "Germanic languages"), the application of the terms "Germanic" has become controversial in scholarship since 1990,[1] especially among archaeologists and historians. Scholars have increasingly questioned the notion of ethnically defined people groups (Völker) as stable, basic actors of history.[22] The connection of archaeological assemblages to ethnicity has also been increasingly questioned.[23] This has resulted in different disciplines developing different definitions of "Germanic".[1] Beginning with the work of the "Toronto School" around Walter Goffart, various scholars have denied that anything such as a common Germanic ethnic identity ever existed. Such scholars argue that most ideas about Germanic culture are taken from far later epochs and projected backwards to antiquity.[24] Historians of the Vienna School, such as Walter Pohl, have also called for the term to be avoided or used with careful explanation,[25] and argued that there is little evidence for a common Germanic identity.[26] English historian Guy Halsall has argued that it is "fundamentally absurd" to assume that Germanic peoples as geographically distant as the Frisians and Goths all shared a mentality and cultural traits, just as much as it would be to assume this between geographically distant modern Romance-speakers such as the Portuguese and Romanians.[27] Whether a scholar favors the existence of a common Germanic identity or not is often related to their position on the nature of the end of the Roman Empire.[28]

Defenders of continued use of the term "Germanic" argue that the speakers of Germanic languages can be identified as Germanic people by language regardless of how they saw themselves.[29] Linguists and philologists have generally reacted skeptically to claims that there was no Germanic identity or cultural unity,[30] and may view "Germanic" simply as a long-established and convenient term.[31] Some archaeologists have also argued in favor of retaining the term "Germanic" due to its broad recognizability.[32] Archaeologist Heiko Steuer defines his own work on the Germani in geographical terms (covering Germania) rather than in ethnic terms.[2] He nevertheless argues for some sense of shared identity between the Germani, noting the use of a common language, a common runic script, various common objects of material culture such as bracteates and gullgubber (small gold objects), and the confrontation with Rome as things that could cause a sense of shared "Germanic" culture.[33] While cautious of the use of "Germanic" to refer to peoples, Sebastian Brather, Wilhelm Heizmann, and Steffen Patzold nevertheless refer to further commonalities such as the widely attested worship of deities such as Odin, Thor, and Frigg, and a shared legendary tradition.[31]

Classical terminology

The first author to describe the Germani as a large category of peoples distinct from the Gauls and Scythians was Julius Caesar, writing around 55 BCE during his governorship of Gaul.[34] In Caesar's account, the clearest defining characteristic of the Germani people was that they lived east of the Rhine,[35] opposite Gaul on the west side. Caesar sought to explain both why his legions stopped at the Rhine and also why the Germani were more dangerous than the Gauls and a constant threat to the empire.[36] He also classified the Cimbri and Teutons, peoples who had previously invaded Italy, as Germani, and examples of this threat to Rome.[37][38] Caesar's division of the Germani from the Celts was not taken up by most writers in Greek.[39]

Although Caesar described the Rhine as the border between Germani and Celts, he also describes a group of people he identifies as Germani who live on the west bank of the Rhine in the northeast of Gall, the Germani cisrhenani.[40] It is unclear if these Germani spoke a Germanic language, and they may have been Celtic speakers instead. Some of their names do not have good Celtic or Germanic etymologies, leading to the hypothesis of a third Indo-European language in the area between the rivers Meuse and Rhine.[41] According to the Roman historian Tacitus in his Germania (c. 98 CE), it was among this group, specifically the Tungri, that the name Germani first arose, and was spread to further groups.[42] Tacitus continues to mention Germanic tribes on the west bank of the Rhine in the period of the early Empire, such as the Tungri, Nemetes, Ubii, and the Batavi.[43]

Caesar and authors following him regarded Germania as stretching east of the Rhine for an indeterminate distance, bounded by the Baltic Sea and the Hercynian Forest.[44] Pliny the Elder and Tacitus placed the eastern border at the Vistula.[45] The Upper Danube served as a southern border. Between there and the Vistula Tacitus sketched an unclear boundary, describing Germania as separated in the south and east from the Dacians and the Sarmatians by mutual fear or mountains (Latin: Germania omnis... a Sarmatis Dacisque mutuo metu aut montibus separatur).[46] This undefined eastern border is related to a lack of stable frontiers in this area such as were maintained by Roman armies along the Rhine and Danube.[39] The geographer Ptolemy (2nd century CE) applied the name Germania magna ("Greater Germania", Greek: Γερμανία Μεγάλη) to this area, contrasting it with the Roman provinces of Germania Prima and Germania Secunda (on the west bank of the Rhine).[47] In modern scholarship, Germania magna is sometimes also called Germania libera ("free Germania"), a name that became popular among German nationalists in the 19th century.[48]

Caesar and, following him, Tacitus, depicted the Germani as sharing elements of a common culture.[49] A small number of passages by Tacitus and other Roman authors (Caesar, Suetonius) mention Germanic tribes or individuals speaking a language distinct from Gaulish. For Tacitus (Germania 43, 45, 46), language was a characteristic, but not defining feature of the Germanic peoples.[50] Many of the ascibed ethnic characteristics of the Germani represented them as typically "barbarian", including the possession of stereotypical vices such as "wildness" and of virtues such as chastity.[51] Tacitus was at times unsure whether a people were Germanic or not, expressing his uncertainty about the Bastarnae, who he says looked like Sarmatians but spoke like the Germani, about the Osi and the Cotini, and about the Aesti, who were like Suebi but spoke a different language.[50] When defining the Germani ancient authors did not differentiate consistently between a territorial definition ("those living in Germania") and an ethnic definition ("having Germanic ethnic characteristics"), although the two definitions did not always align.[52]

The Romans did not regard the eastern Germanic-speakers such as Goths, Gepids, and Vandals as Germani, but rather connected them with other non-Germanic-speaking peoples such as the Huns, Sarmatians, and Alans.[39] Romans described these peoples, including those who did not speak a Germanic language, as "Gothic people" (gentes Gothicae) and most often classified them as "Scythians".[53] The writer Procopius, describing the Ostrogoths, Visigoths, Vandals, Alans, and Gepids, derived the Gothic peoples from the ancient Getae and described them as sharing similar customs, beliefs, and a common language.[54]

Subdivisions in classical sources

The approximate positions of the three groups and their sub-peoples reported by Tacitus. .mw-parser-output .legend{page-break-inside:avoid;break-inside:avoid-column}.mw-parser-output .legend-color{display:inline-block;min-width:1.25em;height:1.25em;line-height:1.25;margin:1px 0;text-align:center;border:1px solid black;background-color:transparent;color:black}.mw-parser-output .legend-text{}  Ingvaeones   Istvaeones   Hermiones and Suebi
The approximate positions of the three groups and their sub-peoples reported by Tacitus.

Several ancient sources list subdivisions of the Germanic tribes. Writing in the first century CE, Pliny the Elder lists five Germanic subgroups: the Vandili, the Inguaeones, the Istuaeones (living near the Rhine), the Hermiones (in the Germanic interrior), and the Peucini Basternae (living on the lower Danube near the Dacians).[55] In chapter 2 of the Germania, written about a half-century later, Tacitus lists only three subgroups: the Ingvaeones (near the sea), the Hermiones (in the interior of Germania), and the Istvaeones (the remainder of the tribes).[56] Tacitus says the three groups claimed descent from the three sons of a god named Mannus, who was himself the son of Tuisto, as recorded in their "ancient songs" (carminibus antiquis).[57] Tacitus also mentions a second tradition that there were four sons from whom the groups of the Marsi, Gambrivi, Suebi, and Vandili claim descent,[58] leaving it unclear if the four groups claimed descent from Mannus or Tuisto.[59] Ludwig Rübekeil argues that Pliny's version appears to be a synthesis of the two subgroups mentioned by Tacitus.[55]

There are a number of inconsistencies in the listing of Germanic subgroups by Tacitus and Pliny. While both Tacitus and Pliny mention some Scandinavian tribes, they are not integrated into the subdivisions.[55] While Pliny lists the Suebi as part of the Hermiones, Tacitus treats them as a separate group.[60] Additionally, Tacitus's description of a group of tribes as united by the cult of Nerthus (Germania 40) as well as the cult of the Alcis controlled by the Nahanarvali (Germania 43) and the Tacitus's account of the origin myth of the Semnones (Germania 39) all suggest different subdivisions than the three mentioned in Germania chapter 2.[61] Some other writers mention different subgroups or relationships between the tribes than Pliny and Tacitus, but these are often obviously fictitious and inconsistent.[62] The Hermiones are also mentioned by Pomponius Mela, but otherwise these divisions do not appear in other ancient works on the Germani.[58]

The division of the Germanic tribes into three or five subgroups found in Pliny and Tacitus have been very influential for scholarship on Germanic history and language up until recent times.[55] However, these subgroups are not visible linguistically or archaeologically, nor are the classifications of Pliny and Tacitus internally consistent nor do they agree with one another.[60] The divisions mentioned by Tacitus are not used by him elsewhere in his work and there are no other indications that they were important groups.[59] Nevertheless, various aspects such as the alliteration of many of the tribal names and the name of Mannus himself suggest that the descent from Mannus was an authentic Germanic tradition.[63] It is possible that the genealogy from Mannus was only followed by a small group in the time before Caesar and afterwards became obsolete.[64]



All Germanic languages derive from the Proto-Indo-European language (PIE), which is generally reckoned to have been spoken between 4500 and 2500 BCE.[65] The ancestor of Germanic languages is referred to as Proto- or Common Germanic,[66] and likely represented a group of mutually intelligible dialects.[67] They share distinctive characteristics which set them apart from other Indo-European sub-families of languages, such as Grimm's and Verner's law, the conservation of the PIE ablaut system in the Germanic verb system (notably in strong verbs), or the merger of the vowels a and o qualities (ə, a, o > a; ā, ō > ō).[68] During the Pre-Germanic linguistic period (2500–500 BCE), the proto-language has almost certainly been influenced by linguistic substrates still noticeable in the Germanic phonology and lexicon.[69][a] Shared grammatical innovations suggest also very early contacts between Germanic and the Indo-European Baltic languages.[72] The leading theory, suggested by archaeological and genetic evidence,[73] postulates a diffusion of Indo-European languages from the Pontic–Caspian steppe towards Northern Europe during the third millennium BCE, via linguistic contacts and migrations from the Corded Ware culture towards modern-day Denmark, resulting in cultural mixing with the indigenous Funnelbeaker culture.[74][b]

Between around 500 BCE and the beginning of the Common Era, archeological and linguistic evidence suggest that the Urheimat ('original homeland') of the Proto-Germanic language, the ancestral idiom of all attested Germanic dialects, was primarily situated in the southern Jutland peninsula, from which Proto-Germanic speakers migrated towards bordering parts of Germany and along the sea-shores of the Baltic and the North Sea, an area corresponding to the extent of the late Jastorf culture.[75][c] One piece of evidence is the presence of early Germanic loanwords in the Finnic and Sámi languages (e.g. Finnic kuningas, from Proto-Germanic *kuningaz 'king'; rengas, from *hringaz 'ring'; etc.),[76] with the older loan layers possibly dating back to an earlier period of intense contacts between pre-Germanic and Finno-Permic (i.e. Finno-Samic) speakers.[77] There is also a great deal of influence in vocabulary from the Celtic languages, but most of this appears to be much later,[78] with most loanwords occurring either before or during the sound shift described by Grimm's Law.[79] Germanic also shows some similarities in vocabulary to the Italic languages, similarities which are often shared with Celtic.[72] An archeological continuity can also be demonstrated between the Jastof culture and populations defined as Germanic by Roman sources.[80]

Although Proto-Germanic is reconstructed without dialects via the comparative method, it is almost certain that it never was a uniform proto-language.[81] The late Jastorf culture occupied so much territory that it is unlikely that Germanic populations spoke a single dialect, and traces of early linguistic varieties have been highlighted by scholars.[82] Sister dialects of Proto-Germanic itself certainly existed, as evidenced by the absence of the First Germanic Sound Shift (Grimm's law) in some "Para-Germanic" recorded proper names, and the reconstructed Proto-Germanic language was only one among several dialects spoken at that time by peoples identified as "Germanic" by Roman sources or archeological data.[80] Although Roman sources name various Germanic tribes such as Suevi, Alemanni, Bauivari, etc., it is unlikely that the members of these tribes all spoke the same dialect.[83]

Early attestations

Definite and comprehensive evidence of Germanic lexical units only occurred after Caesar's conquest of Gaul in the 1st century BCE, after which contacts with Proto-Germanic speakers began to intensify. The Alcis, a pair of brother gods worshipped by the Nahanarvali, are given by Tacitus as a Latinized form of *alhiz (a kind of 'stag'), and the word sapo ('hair dye') is certainly borrowed from Proto-Germanic *saipwōn- (English soap), as evidenced by the parallel Finnish loanword saipio.[84] The name of the framea, described by Tacitus as a short spear carried by Germanic warriors, most likely derives from the compound *fram-ij-an- ('forward-going one'), as suggested by comparable semantical structures found in early runes (e.g., raun-ij-az 'tester', on a lancehead) and linguistic cognates attested in the later Old Norse, Old Saxon and Old High German languages: fremja, fremmian and fremmen all mean 'to carry out'.[85]

The inscription on the Negau helmet B, carved in the Etruscan alphabet during the 3rd–2nd c. BCE, is generally regarded as Proto-Germanic.[86]
The inscription on the Negau helmet B, carved in the Etruscan alphabet during the 3rd–2nd c. BCE, is generally regarded as Proto-Germanic.[86]

In the absence of evidence earlier than the 2nd century CE, it must be assumed that Proto-Germanic speakers living in Germania were members of preliterate societies.[87] The only pre-Roman inscriptions that could be interpreted as Proto-Germanic, written in the Etruscan alphabet, have not been found in Germania but rather in the Venetic region. The inscription harikastiteiva\\\ip, engraved on the Negau helmet in the 3rd–2nd centuries BCE, possibly by a Germanic-speaking warrior involved in combat in northern Italy, has been interpreted by some scholars as Harigasti Teiwǣ (*harja-gastiz 'army-guest' + *teiwaz 'god, deity'), which could be an invocation to a war-god or a mark of ownership engraved by its possessor.[86] The inscription Fariarix (*farjōn- 'ferry' + *rīk- 'ruler') carved on tetradrachms found in Bratislava (mid-1st c. BCE) may indicate the Germanic name of a Celtic ruler.[88]

The earliest attested runic inscriptions (Vimose comb, Øvre Stabu spearhead), initially concentrated in modern Denmark and written with the Elder Futhark system, are dated to the second half of the 2nd century CE.[89] Their language, named Primitive Norse, Proto-Norse, or similar terms, and still very close to Proto-Germanic, has been interpreted as a northern variant of the Northwest Germanic dialects and the ancestor of the Old Norse language of the Viking Age (8th–11th c. CE).[90] Based upon its dialect-free character and shared features with West Germanic languages, some scholars have contended that it served as a kind of koiné language in (parts of) the Northwest Germanic area.[91] However, the merging of unstressed Proto-Germanic vowels, attested in runic inscriptions from the 4th and 5th centuries CE, also suggests that Primitive Norse could not have been a direct predecessor of West Germanic dialects.[92]

Longer texts in Germanic languages post-date the Proto-Germanic period. They begin with the Gothic Bible, written in the Gothic alphabet in the 6th century, and then with texts in the Latin alphabet beginning in the 8th century in modern England and shortly thereafter in modern Germany.[93]

Linguistic disintegration

By the time Germanic speakers entered written history, their linguistic territory had stretched farther south, since a Germanic dialect continuum (where neighbouring language varieties diverged only slightly between each other, but remote dialects were not necessarily mutually intelligible due to accumulated differences over the distance) covered a region roughly located between the Rhine, the Vistula, the Danube, and southern Scandinavia during the first two centuries of the Common Era.[94] East Germanic speakers dwelled on the Baltic sea coasts and islands, while speakers of the Northwestern dialects occupied territories in present-day Denmark and bordering parts of Germany at the earliest date when they can be identified.[95]

In the 2nd and 3rd centuries CE, migrations of East Germanic gentes from the Baltic Sea coast southeastwards into the hinterland led to their separation from the dialect continuum.[96] By the late 3rd century CE, linguistic divergences like the West Germanic loss of the final consonant -z had already occurred within the "residual" Northwest dialect continuum.[92] The latter definitely ended after the 5th- and 6th-century migrations of Angles, Jutes and part of the Saxon tribes towards modern-day England.[97] In view of the later linguistic situation of modern-day Denmark, populated by North Germanic-speakers, it is assumed that the original dialects of Jutland were assimilated by speakers of a more northerly dialect (Danes) after the Anglo-Saxon migrations, breaking the continuum between Scandinavia and the more southerly Germanic-speaking regions; however, this cannot be shown in the archaeological or historical record.[98][99]


Replica of an altar for the Matrons of Vacallina (Matronae Vacallinehae) from Mechernich-Weyer, Germany
Replica of an altar for the Matrons of Vacallina (Matronae Vacallinehae) from Mechernich-Weyer, Germany

Although they have certainly influenced academic views on ancient Germanic languages up until the 20th century, the traditional groupings given by contemporary authors like Pliny and Tacitus are no longer regarded as reliable by modern linguists, who base their reasoning on the attested sound changes and shared mutations which occurred in geographically distant groups of dialects.[55] The Germanic languages are traditionally divided between East, North and West Germanic branches.[100] The modern prevailing view is that North and West Germanic were also encompassed in a larger subgroup called Northwest Germanic.[101]

Further internal classifications are still debated among scholars, as it is unclear whether the internal features shared by several branches are due to early common innovations or to the later diffusion of local dialectal innovations.[112][d] The West Germanic group remains somewhat problematic linguistically, and appears more diverse in the early period than North or East Germanic.[113] Seebold Elmar proposes the existence of an English, Frisian, and Continental group within West Germanic.[114] According to Ludwig Rübekeil, if Old English and Old Frisian certainly share distinctive characteristics such as the Anglo-Frisian nasal spirant law, attested by the 6th century in inscriptions on both sides of the North Sea, and the use of the fuþorc system with additional runes to convey innovative and shared sound changes, it is unclear whether those common features are really inherited or have rather emerged by connections over the North Sea.[115]

The linguist Friedrich Maurer rejected the traditional three-way division of the Germanic languages by breaking up West Germanic and proposed a five-way division, partially following then current archaeological finds, and partially following divisions among the ancient Germanic peoples found in Tacitus. Thus Maurer proposed the existence of Rhine-Weser Germanic (Tacitus's Istvaeones), North Sea Germanic (Tacitus's Ingvaeones), Elbe Germanic (Tacitus's Irminones), Oder-Vistula Germanic (East Germanic), and North Germanic. Although influential, Maurer's thesis failed to replace the older model.[116] Aside from "North Sea Germanic", Maurer's groupings within West Germanic ("Rhine-Weser" "Elbe Germanic") do not hold up to linguistic scrutiny.[117]


The pre-Roman Iron Age Jastorf culture (sixth to first centuries BCE), which was located on the North German Plain and in Jutland is associated with Germanic-speaking peoples.[118] Assuming that the Jastorf Culture is the origin of the Germanic peoples, then the Scandinavian peninsula would have become Germanic either via migration or assimilation over the course of the same period.[119] Alternatively, Hermann Ament has stressed that two other archaeological groups must have belonged to the people called Germani by Caesar, one on either side of the Lower Rhine and reaching to the Weser, and another in Jutland and southern Scandinavia. These groups would thus show a "polycentric origin" for the Germanic peoples.[120] The neighboring Przeworsk culture in modern Poland is also taken to be Germanic, while the La Tène culture, found in southern Germany and the modern Czech Republic, is taken to be Celtic.[121] The identification of the Jastorf culture with the Germani has been criticized by Sebastian Brather, who notes that it seems to be missing areas such as southern Scandinavia and the Rhine-Weser area, which linguists argue to have been Germanic, while also not according with the Roman era definition of Germani, which included Celtic-speaking peoples further south and west.[122]

For later periods, archaeologists, following a terminology developed by the philologist and linguist Friedrich Maurer, divide the Germanic area roughly following Tacitus's divisions of the Germanic peoples, into Rhine-Weser Germanic, North Sea Germanic, Elbe Germanic, and East Germanic. This division does not, however, accurately represent the archaeology of the Germanic area.[123] The distributions of distinct material cultures discovered by archaeologists working in Germania do not correspond to the locations of Germanic tribes as given by Tacitus.[124] New archaeological finds have tended to show that the boundaries between these groups were very permeable, and scholars now assume that migration and the collapse and formation of cultural units were constant occurrences within Germania.[125]

According to Heiko Steuer, archaeology shows that, contrary to the assertion of Roman authors, only about thirty percent of Central Europe was covered with thick forest in Antiquity, about the same percentage as today. Villages were not distant from each other but often within sight, revealing a fairly high population density.[126] Germanic wooden construction was not "primitive", but rather adapted to the local conditions. Although Roman authors claimed that the Germani had no fortresses or temple structures, archaeology has revealed the existence of both. Archaeology also shows that from at least the turn of the 3rd century CE larger regional settlements existed that were not exclusively involved in an agrarian economy, and that the main settlements of the Germani were connected by paved roads. The entirety of Germania was within a system of long-distance trade.[127] Nor was the Germanic economy too primitive to be worth conquering by the Romans; every village seems to have produced its own iron, which sometimes was even exported to Rome, and frequently produced its own salt and lead as well.[126] Steuer argues that Rome failed to conquer Germania after Tiberius not because of the uselessness of such a conquest, but rather because the population was too large and could assemble too many warriors, either as opponents or as foreign auxiliaries for the Roman army.[128]


The Germanic cultural area appears to have become established in the first millennium BCE with the crystallization of the archaeological Jastorf culture and the Germanic consonantal shift.[129] Generally, scholars agree that it is possible to speak of Germanic-speaking peoples after 500 BCE, although the first attestation of the name "Germani" is not until much later.[130]

Earliest contacts with the Greco-Roman World

Migrations of the Cimbri and the Teutons (late 2nd century BCE) and their war with Rome (113–101 BCE)
Migrations of the Cimbri and the Teutons (late 2nd century BCE) and their war with Rome (113–101 BCE)

Before Julius Caesar, Romans and Greeks had very little contact with northern Europe itself. The Romans and Greeks had contact with northerners who came south, but for the Greco-Romans, these "barbarians" were conceived in archetypal terms as being poor, brutish, uncivilized, and ignorant of higher civilization, albeit physically hardened by their rugged lives.[131] Caesar first used the term "Germanic" to classify the Suevi as well as the Cimbri and Teutons during the Gallic Wars (58-50 BCE).[132]

The Bastarnae or Peucini are mentioned in historical sources going back as far as the 3rd century BCE through the 4th century CE.[133] These Bastarnae were described by Greek and Roman authors as living in the territory east of the Carpathian Mountains, and north of the Danube's delta at the Black Sea. According to some authors then, the Bastarnae and Sciri were the first Germani to reach the Greco-Roman world and the Black Sea area.[134] Another eastern people known from about 200 BCE, and sometimes believed to be Germanic-speaking, are the Sciri (Greek: Skiroi), because they appear in the text of a decree of Olbia, a city on the Black Sea, which records the names of the barbarians who threatened the city, including the Galatians, Sciri, and Scythians (Galatai, Skiroi, and Skythia), among others.[135]

Late in the 2nd century BCE, Roman and Greek sources recount the migrations of the far northern "Gauls", i.e., the Cimbri, Teutones and Ambrones whom Caesar later classified as Germanic.[136] The movements of these groups through parts of Gaul, Italy and Hispania resulted in the Cimbrian War, led primarily by its Consul, Gaius Marius.[137] In Gaul, the Cimbri and Teutons inflicted several defeats on the Romans.[138] Their further incursions into Roman Italy were repelled by the Romans at the Battle of Aquae Sextiae (Aix-en-Provence) in 102 BCE, and the Battle of Vercellae in 101 BCE (in Vercelli in Piedmont).[139]

40 years after the end of the Cimbrian Wars, in 63 BCE, Ariovistus, king of the Suevi, led a force across the Rhine into Gaul to aid the Sequani against their enemies the Aedui.[140] The Suevi were victorious at the Battle of Magetobriga, and initially were considered an ally of Rome.[141] Caesar claims that 120,000 Suevi and their allies crossed the Rhine with the intention of settling in Gaul. Among the tribes Caesar lists as accompanying the Suevi are the Harudes, Marcomanni, Tribocci, Vangiones, Nemetes, and Eudosi.[142][143] The Aedui were Roman allies and Caesar, the governor of the Roman province of Transalpine Gaul in 58 BCE, was looking for an excuse to conquer the entirety of Gaul.[140] Caesar subsequently defeated Ariovistus at the Battle of Vosges.[144] In 55 BCE, Caesar crossed the Rhine into Germani, massacring massacring a large migrating group of Tencteri and Usipetes who crossed the Rhine from the east.[145] In the winter of 54/53 the Eburones—the largest group of "Germans on the near-bank of the Rhine"—accompanied the Treveri leader, Indutiomarus in a revolt against the Romans during which an entire Roman garrison was slaughtered.[146] Caesar had effectively pacified and conquered Gaul and the territory up to the Rhine by 50 BCE.[147]

Roman Imperial Period to 370

Julio-Claudian dynasty (27 BCE – 68 CE) and the Year of Four Emperors (69 CE)

The Roman province of Germania, in existence from 7 BCE to 9 CE. The dotted line represents the Limes Germanicus, the fortified border constructed following the final withdrawal of Roman forces from Germania.
The Roman province of Germania, in existence from 7 BCE to 9 CE. The dotted line represents the Limes Germanicus, the fortified border constructed following the final withdrawal of Roman forces from Germania.
Roman sculpture of a young man sometimes identified as Arminius
Roman sculpture of a young man sometimes identified as Arminius

Throughout the reign of Augustus—from 27 BCE until 14 CE—the Roman empire expanded into Gaul, with the Rhine[e] as a border. Starting in 13 BCE, there were Roman campaigns across the Rhine for a 28-year period.[149] First came the pacification of the Usipetes, Sicambri, and Frisians near the Rhine, then attacks increased further from the Rhine, on the Chauci, Cherusci, Chatti and Suevi (including the Marcomanni).[150] These campaigns eventually reached and even crossed the Elbe, and in 5 CE Tiberius was able to show strength by having a Roman fleet enter the Elbe and meet the legions in the heart of Germania.[151] Once Tiberius subdued the Germanic people between the Rhine and the Elbe, the region at least up to Weser—and possibly up to the Elbe—was made the Roman province Germania and provided soldiers to the Roman army.[152][153]

However, within this period two Germanic kings formed larger alliances. Both of them had spent some of their youth in Rome; the first of them was Maroboduus of the Marcomanni,[f] who had led his people away from the Roman activities into Bohemia, which was defended by forests and mountains, and had formed alliances with other peoples. In 6 CE, Rome planned an attack against him but the campaign was cut short when forces were needed for the Illyrian revolt in the Balkans.[152][155] Just three years later (9 CE), the second of these Germanic figures, Arminius of the Cherusci—initially an ally of Rome—drew a large Roman force into an ambush in northern Germany, and destroyed the three legions of Publius Quinctilius Varus at the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest.[156] Marboduus and Arminius went to war with each other in 17 CE; Arminius was victorious and Marboduus was forced to flee to the Romans.[157]

Following the Roman defeat at the Teutoburg Forest, Rome gave up on the possibility of fully integrating this region into the empire.[158] Rome launched successful campaigns across the Rhine between 14 and 16 CE under Tiberius and Germanicus, but the effort of integrating Germania now seemed to outweigh its benefits.[159] In the reign of Augustus's successor, Tiberius, it became state policy to expand the empire no further than the frontier based roughly upon the Rhine and Danube, recommendations that were specified in the will of Augustus and read aloud by Tiberius himself.[160] Roman intervention in Germania led to a shifting and unstable political situation, in which pro- and anti-Roman parties vied for power. Arminius himself was murdered in 21 CE as a result of these tensions as well as resistance to his attempts to claim supreme kingly power.[157]

Following the death of Arminius, Roman diplomacy sought to keep the Germanic peoples divided and fractious.[161] Rome established relationships with individual Germanic kings that are often discussed as being similar to client states; however, the situation on the border was always unstable, with rebellions by the Frisians in 28 CE, and attacks by the Chauci and Chatti in the 60s CE.[162] The most serious threat to the Roman order was the Revolt of the Batavi in 69 CE, during the civil wars following the death of Nero known as the Year of the Four Emperors.[163] The Batavi had long served as auxiliary troops in the Roman army as well as in the imperial bodyguard as the so-called Numerus Batavorum, often called the Germanic bodyguard.[164] The uprising was led by Gaius Julius Civilis, a member of the Batavian royal family and Roman military officer, and attracted a large coalition of peoples both inside and outside of Roman territory. The revolt ended following several defeats, with Civilis claiming to have only supported the imperial claims of Vespasian, who was victorious in the civil war.[165]

Flavian and Antonine dynasties (70–192 CE)

A bog body, the Osterby Man, displaying the Suebian knot, a hairstyle which, according to Tacitus, was common among Germanic warriors.[166]
A bog body, the Osterby Man, displaying the Suebian knot, a hairstyle which, according to Tacitus, was common among Germanic warriors.[166]

The century after the Batavian Revolt saw mostly peace between the Germanic peoples and Rome. In 83 CE, Emperor Domitian of the Flavian dynasty attacked the Chatti north of Mainz (Mogontiacum).[167] This war would last until 85 CE. Following the end of the war with the Chatti and a failed revolt by the army in the Roman province of Germania superior, Domitian reduced the number of Roman soldiers on the upper Rhine and shifted the Roman military to guarding the Danube frontier, beginning the construction of the limes, the longest fortified border in the empire.[168] The period afterwards was peaceful enough that the emperor Trajan reduced the number of soldiers on the frontier.[169] According to Edward James, the Romans appear to have reserved the right to choose rulers among the barbarians: the Quadi asked Roman permission to install Furtius as their king. When the Quadi later expelled and replaced Furtius with a new king without Roman approval, the Romans attacked and captured the new king, sending him into exile.[170]

Following sixty years of quiet on the frontier, 166 CE saw a major incursion of peoples from north of the Danube during the reign of Marcus Aurelius, beginning the Marcomannic Wars.[171] A large number of peoples from north of the Danube were involved, not all Germanic-speaking, and there is much speculation about what events or plans led to this situation. Many scholars believe causative pressure was being created by aggressive movements of peoples further north, for example with the apparent expansion of the Wielbark culture of the Vistula, probably representing Gothic peoples who may have pressured Vandal peoples towards the Danube.[172] By 168 (during the Antonine plague), barbarian hosts consisting of Marcomanni, Quadi, and Sarmatian Iazyges, attacked and pushed their way to Italy.[173] They advanced as far as Upper Italy, destroyed Opitergium/Oderzo and besieged Aquileia. Eventually, the Roman armies were able to push the barbarians back, but it was not until 178/179 that the Emperor succeeded in forcing the Marcomanni and Quadi north of the Danube and got the situation under control.[174] The wars were completed by 180, by a combination of Roman military victories, the resettling of some peoples on Roman territory, and by making alliances with others.[175]

Marcus Aurelius's successor Commodus chose not to permanently occupy any territory conquered north of the Danube, and the following decades saw an increase in the defenses at the limes.[174] The Romans renewed their right to choose the kings of the Marcomanni and Quadi, and Commodus forbid them to hold assemblied unless a Roman centurion was present.[176]

New names on the frontiers (170–370)

Gothic invasions of the Roman Empire in the 3rd century
Gothic invasions of the Roman Empire in the 3rd century

The period after the Marconmannic Wars saw the emergence of peoples with new names along the Roman frontiers, which probably formed by the merger of smaller groups.[175] These new confederacies or peoples tended to border the Roman imperial frontier.[177] Many ethnic names from earlier periods disappear. The political situation beyond the Roman frontier became increasingly fluid.[178] The Alamanni emerged along the upper Rhine and are mentioned in Roman sources from the 3rd century onward.[179] The Goths begin to be mentioned along the lower Danube, where they attacked the city of Histria in 238.[180] The Franks also come to be mentioned, originally occupying territory between the Rhine and Weser.[181] The Longabards seem to have moved their center of power to the central Elbe.[59] Groups such as the Alamanni, Goths, and Franks were not unified polities; they formed multiple, loosely associated groups, who often fought each other and some of whom sought Roman friendship.[182] The Romans also begin to mention seaborne attacks by the Saxons, a term used generically in Latin for Germanic-speaking pirates. A system of defenses on both sides of the English Channel, the Saxon Shore, was established to deal with their raids.[183][184]

From 250 onward, the Gothic peoples formed the "single most potent threat to the northern frontier of Rome.".[181] In 250 CE a Gothic king Cniva led Goths with Bastarnae, Carpi, Vandals, and Taifali into the empire, laying siege to Philippopolis. He followed his victory there with another on the marshy terrain at Abrittus, a battle which cost the life of Roman emperor Decius.[180] In 253/254, further attacks occurred reaching Thessalonica and possibly Thrace.[185] In approximately 255-257 there were several raids from the Black sea coast by "Scythian" peoples, apparently first led by the Boranes, who were probably a Sarmatian people.[186] These were followed by bigger raids led by the Herules in 267/268, and a mixed group of Goths and Herules in 269/270. Gothic attacks were abruptly ended in the years after 270, after a Roman victory in which the Gothic king Cannabaudes was killed.[187]

From 235 to 284, Rome experienced the Crisis of the Third Century (235-284), a period of instability and frequent civil war during which the emperor changed frequently.[59] This resulted in a weakened frontier as soldiers were taken from the limes to fight in internal Roman power struggles.[188] As a result, the limes largely collapsed in 259/260,[189] and Germanic raids penetrated as far as northern Italy.[188] The limes on the Rhine and upper Danube was brought under control again in 270s by the emperors Aurelian and Probus, and by 300 the Romans had reestablished control over areas they had abandoned during the crisis.[188] From the later third century onward, the Roman army relied increasingly on troops of Barbarian origin, often recruited from Germanic peoples.[190] By the mid fourth century, Germani were functioning as senior commanders in the Roman army, such as the Frank Arbogast.[191] For the 4th century, warfare along the Rhine frontier between the Romans and Franks and Alemanni seems to have mostly consisted of campaigns of plunder, during which major battles were avoided. Small groups of Franks were also resettled across the Rhine by the Romans, providing both farmers and soldiers[192] The Romans generally followed a policy of trying to prevent strong leaders from emerging among the barbarians, using treachery, kidnapping, and assassination, paying off rival tribes to attack them, or by supporting internal rivals.[193]

Migration Period (ca. 375–568)

2nd century to 6th century simplified migrations
2nd century to 6th century simplified migrations

The Migration Period is traditionally said to begin in 375 CE, under the assumption that the appearance of the Huns in that year caused the Visigoths to invade the Roman Empire in 376.[194] The end of the migration period is usually set at 586, when the Longabards invaded Italy. During this time period numerous barbarian groups invaded the Roman Empire and established new kingdoms within its boundaries,[195] and traditionally marks the transition between antiquity and the beginning of the Middle Ages.[196] The reasons for the migrations of the period are unclear, but scholars have proposed overpopulation, climate change, bad harvests, famines, and adventurousness as possible reasons.[197] Migrations were probably carried out by relatively small groups rather than entire peoples.[198]

Early Migration Period (before 375–420)

The Greuthungi, a Gothic group in modern Ukraine under the rule of Ermanaric, were among the first peoples attacked by the Huns, apparently facing Hunnic pressure for some years.[199] Following Ermanaric's death, the Greuthingi's resistance broke and they moved toward the Dniester river.[200] A second Gothic group, the Tervingi under King Athanaric, constructed a defensive earthwork against the Huns near the Dniester.[201] However, this was unable to stop the Huns, and the majority of the Tervingi abandoned Athanaric; both they and a large part of the Greuthingi fled to the Danube in 376, seeking asylum in the Roman Empire.[202] The emperor Valens chose only to admit the Tervingi, who were settled settled in the Roman provinces of Thrace and Moesia.[201][203]

Due to mistreatment by the Romans, the Tervingi revolted in 377, starting the Gothic War. During the fighting, the Greuthingi refugees forced their way across the Danube.[204][201] The Goths, with the help allied Alans and others, defeated the Romans first at Marcianople, then defeated and killed emperor Valens in the Battle of Adrianople in 378, destroying two-thirds of Valens' army.[205][206] The Tervingi then moved into the province of Pannonia, and defeated the army of the new co-emperor Theodosius I. Following Roman victories under the co-emperor Gratian, peace was negotiated in 382, granting the Goths considerable autonomy within the Roman Empire.[207]

The Goths whom Theodosius had settled within the empire—who would be known as the Visigoths—revolted again in 387 and 392/3, when Theodosius mobilized the Goths to fight against Western imperial usurpers.[208] By 395, when Theodosius died, leadership of the Visigoths had become centralized under Alaric, who revolted and attacked Greece and Illyricum.[209] Alaric sought to renegotiate the treaty of 382 and demanded to become a Roman general.[210] In 397, the disunited eastern Empire submitted to some of his demands, possibly giving him control over Epirus.[211] In the aftermath of the large-scale Gothic entries into the empire, the Franks and Alemanni became more secure in their positions in 395, when Stilicho, the barbarian generalissimo who held power in the western Empire, made agreements with them; these treaties allowed him to withdraw the imperial forces from the Rhine frontier in order to use them in his conflicts with Alaric and the Eastern empire.[212]

Reconstruction of the 407–409 sack of Gaul, based on Peter Heather (2005)
Reconstruction of the 407–409 sack of Gaul, based on Peter Heather (2005)

In 401, Alaric invaded Italy, coming to an understanding with Stilicho in 404/5.[213] This agreement allowed Stilicho to fight against the force of Radagaisus, who had crossed the Middle Danube in 405/6 and invaded Italy, only to be defeated outside Florence.[214] That same year, a large force of Vandals, Suevi, Alans, and Burgundians crossed the Rhine, fighting the Franks, but facing no Roman resistance.[215] In 409, the Suevi, Vandals, and Alans crossing the Pyrenees into Spain, where they took possession of the northern part of the peninsula.[216] The Burgundians seized the land around modern Speyer, Worms, and Strasbourg, territory that was recognized by the Roman Emperor Honorius.[217] When Stilicho fell from power in 408, Alaric invaded Italy again and eventually sacked Rome in 410; Alaric died shortly thereafter.[218] The Visigoths withdrew into Gaul where they faced a power struggle until the succession of Wallia in 415 and his son Theodoric I in 417/18.[219] Following successful campaigns against them by the Roman emperor Flavius Constantius, the Visigoths were settled in Gaul between modern Toulouse and Bourdeaux.[220] They became Roman allies against the Vandals, Alans, Suevi, defeating but not destroying them in Spain.[221]

Other Goths, including those of Athanaric, continued to live outside the empire, with three groups crossing into Roman territory after the Tervingi.[222] The Huns gradually conquered Gothic groups north of the Danube, of which at least six are known, from 376 to 400. Those in Crimea may never have been conquered.[223] The Gepids also formed an important Germanic people under Hunnic rule, who were largely conquered by 406.[224] One Gothic group under Hunnic domination was ruled by the Amal dynasty, who would form the core of the Ostrogoths.[225] The situation outside the Roman empire in 410s and 420s is poorly attested, but it is clear that the Huns continued to spread their influence onto the middle Danube.[226]

Aetius and Attila (420–453)

Rome experienced a new political crisis in 420/1, following the death of Emperor Flavius Constantius that year. Then in 423, the emperor Honorius died, leading to the ascent of the patrician Flavius Aetius as the most powerful general and statesman in the western Roman Empire, eventually becoming magister militum in 429.[227] Aetius spent the 420s campaigning against various barbarian peoples who had occupied Roman territory, including against the Visigoths in Aquitania and Franks and Alamanni on the Rhine.[228] Nevertheless, the Rhine frontier had collapsed, and in order to restore it, Aetius engineered the destruction of the Burgundian kingdom in 435/436, possibly with Hunnic mercenaries, and launched several successful campaigns against the Visigoths.[229]

The Romans army under Castinus was defeated by the Vandals in Spain in 422, allegedly due to treachery by his Visigothic allies.[230] In 428, the Vandal leader Geiseric moved his forces across the strait of Gibraltar into north Africa, where they had been invited to help the local Roman comes, Bonifatius. Within two years, they had conquered most of north Africa. In 439, the Vandals conquered Carthage, which served as an excellent base for further raids throughout the Mediterranean and became the basis for the Vandal Kingdom.[231] The loss of Carthage forced Aetius to make peace with the Visigoths in 442, effectively recognizing their independence within the boundaries of the empire.[232] During the resulting peace, Aetius resettled the Burgundians in Sapaudia in southern Gaul.[233] In 430s, Aetius negotiated peace with the Suevi in Spain, leading to a practical loss of Roman control in the province.[234] Despite the peace, the Suevi expanded their territory by conquering Merida in 439 and Seville in 441.[235]

By 440, Attila and the Huns had come to rule a multi-ethnic empire north of the Danube; two of the most important peoples within this empire were the Gepids and the Goths.[236] The Gepid king Ardaric came to power around 440 and participated in various Hunnic campaigns.[224] In 450, the Huns interfered in a Frankish succession dispute, leading in 451 to an invasion of Gaul. Aetius, by uniting a coalition of Visigoths, part of the Franks, and others, was able to defeat the Hunnic army at the Battle of the Catalaunian Plains.[237] In 453, Attila died unexpectedly, and an alliance led by Ardaric's Gepids rebelled against the rule of his sons, defeating them in the Battle of Nedao.[224] Either before or after Attila's death, Valamer, a Gothic ruler of the Amal dynasty, seems to have consolidated power over a large part of the Goths in the Hunnic domain.[238] For the next 20 years, the former subject peoples of the Huns would fight among each other for preeminence.[239]

The arrival of the Saxons in Britain is traditionally dated to 449, however archaeology indicates they had begun arriving in Britain earlier.[240] Latin sources used "Saxon" generically for seaborne raiders, meaning that not all of the invaders belonged to the continental Saxons.[183] According to Gildas, this group had been recruited to protect the Romano-British from the Picts, but had revolted.[241] They quickly established themselves as rulers on the eastern part of the island.[242]

After the death of Attila (453–568)

Germanic kingdoms and peoples after the end of the Western Roman Empire in 476 CE
Germanic kingdoms and peoples after the end of the Western Roman Empire in 476 CE

In 455, in the aftermath of the death of Aetius in 453 and the murder of emperor Valentinian III in 455,[243] the Vandals invaded Italy and sacked Rome in 455.[244] In 456, the Romans persuaded the Visigoths to fight the Suevi, who had broken their treaty with Rome. The Visigoths and a force of Burgundians and Franks defeated the Suevi at the Battle of Campus Paramus, reducing Suevi control to northwestern Spain.[235] The Visigoths went on to conquer all of the Iberian Peninsula but the small part controlled by the Suevi by 484.[245]

The Ostrogoths, led by Valamer's brother Thiudimer, invaded the Balkans in 473. Thiudimer's son Theodoric succeeded him in 476.[246] In that same year, a barbarian commander in the Roman Italian army, Odoacer, mutinied and removed the final western Roman emperor, Romulus Augustulus.[247] Odoacer ruled Italy for himself, largely continuing the policies of Roman imperial rule.[248] He destroyed the Kingdom of the Rugians, in modern Austria, in 487/488.[249] Theodoric, meanwhile, successfully extorted the Eastern Empire through a series of campaigns in the Balkans. The eastern emperor Zeno agreed to send Theodoric to Italy in 487/8.[250] After a successful invasion, Theodoric would kill and replace Odoacer in 493, founding a new Ostrogothic kingdom.[251] Theodoric died in 526, amid increasing tensions with the eastern empire.[252]

Toward the end of the migration period, in the early 500s, Roman sources portray a completely changed ethnic landscape outside of the empire: the Marcomanni and Quadi have disappeared, as have the Vandals. Instead the Thuringians, Rugians, Sciri, Herules, Goths, and Gepids are mentioned as occupying the Danube frontier.[253] From the mid 5th century onward, the Alamanni had greatly expanded their territory in all directions, while also launching numerous raids into Gaul.[254] The territory under Frankish influence had grown to encompass northern Gaul and Germania to the Elbe.[255] The Frankish king Clovis I united the various Frankish groups in 490s,[256] and conquered the Alamanni around 506.[257] From the 490s onward, Clovis waged war against the Visigoths, finally defeating them in 507 and taking control of most of Gaul.[256] Clovis's heirs conquered the Thuringians around 530 and Burgundians in 532.[258] The continental Saxons, composed of many subgroups, were made tributary to the Franks, as were the Frisians, who faced an attack by the Danes under Hygelac in 533.[259]

The Vandal and Ostrogothic kingdoms were destroyed in 534 and 555 respectively by the Eastern Roman (Byzantine) empire under Justinian.[260] Around 500, a new ethnic identity appears in modern southern Germany, the Baiuvarii (Bavarians), under the patronage originally of Theodoric's Ostrogothic kingdom and then of the Franks.[249] The Lombards, moving out of Bohemia, destroyed the kingdom of the Heruli in Pannonia in 510. In 568, after destroying the Gepid kingdom, the last Germanic kingdom in the Carpathian basin,[249] the Lombards under Alboin invaded northern Italy, eventually conquering most of it.[261] This invasion has traditionally been regarded as the end of the migration period.[195] The eastern part of Germania, formerly inhabited by the Goths, Gepids, Vandals, and Rugians, was gradually Slavicized, a process enabled by the invasion of the nomadic Avars.[262]

Early Middle Ages

Frankish expansion from the early kingdom of Clovis I (481) to the divisions of Charlemagne's Empire (843/870)
Frankish expansion from the early kingdom of Clovis I (481) to the divisions of Charlemagne's Empire (843/870)
Anglo-Saxon and British kingdoms c. 800
Anglo-Saxon and British kingdoms c. 800

When Merovingian rule eventually weakened, they were supplanted by another powerful Frankish family, the Carolingians, a dynastic order which produced Charles Martel, and Charlemagne.[263] The coronation of Charlemagne as emperor by Pope Leo III in Rome on Christmas Day, CE 800 represented a shift in the power structure from the south to the north. Frankish power ultimately laid the foundations for the modern nations of Germany and France.[264] For historians, Charlemagne's appearance in the historical chronicle of Europe also marks a transition where the voice of the north appears in its own vernacular thanks to the spread of Christianity, after which the northerners began writing in Latin, Germanic, and Celtic; whereas before, the Germanic people were only known through Roman or Greek sources.[265]

In England, the Germanic Anglo-Saxon tribes reigned over the south of Great Britain from approximately 519 to the 10th century until the Wessex hegemony became the nucleus for the unification of England.[266][267]

Scandinavia was in the Vendel period and eventually entered the Viking Age, with expansion to Britain, Ireland and Iceland in the west and as far as Russia and Greece in the east.[268][269][270] Swedish Vikings, known locally as the Rus', had ventured deep into Russia, where they founded the state of Kievan Rus'. In cooperation with Crimean Goths, the Rus' destroyed the Khazar Khaganate and became the dominant power in Eastern Europe. They were eventually assimilated by the local East Slavic population.[271] By CE 900 the Vikings secured for themselves a foothold on Frankish soil along the Lower Seine River valley in what is now France that became known as Normandy. Hence they became the Normans. They established the Duchy of Normandy, a territorial acquisition which provided them the opportunity to expand beyond Normandy into Anglo-Saxon England.[272]

The various Germanic tribal cultures began their transformation into the larger nations of later history, English, Norse and German, and in the case of Burgundy, Lombardy and Normandy blending into a Romano-Germanic culture. Many of these later nation states started originally as "client buffer states" for the Roman Empire so as to protect it from its enemies further away.[273] Eventually they carved out their own unique historical paths.


Germanic paganism

Germanic paganism refers to the traditional, culturally significant religion of the Germanic-speaking peoples.[274] It did not form a uniform religious system across Germanic-speaking Europe, but varied from place to place, people to people, and time to time. In many contact areas (e.g. Rhineland and eastern and northern Scandinavia), it was similar to neighboring religions such as those of the Slavs, Celts, or Finnic peoples.[275] The term is sometimes applied as early as the Stone Age, Bronze Age, or the earlier Iron Age, but is more generally restricted to the time period after the Germanic languages had become distinct from other Indo-European languages. From the first reports in Roman sources to the final conversion to Christianity, Germanic paganism thus covers a period of around one thousand years.[276]

Like their neighbors and other historically related peoples, the ancient Germanic peoples venerated numerous indigenous deities. These deities are attested throughout literature authored by or written about Germanic-speaking peoples, including runic inscriptions, contemporary written accounts, and in folklore after Christianization. As an example, the second of the two Merseburg charms (two Old High German examples of alliterative verse from a manuscript dated to the ninth century) mentions six deities: Woden, Balder, Sinthgunt, Sunna, Frija, and Volla.[277]

With the exception of Sinthgunt, proposed cognates to these deities occur in other Germanic languages, such as Old English and Old Norse. By way of the comparative method, philologists are then able to reconstruct and propose early Germanic forms of these names from early Germanic mythology. Compare the following table:

Old High German Old Norse Old English Proto-Germanic reconstruction Notes
Wuotan[278] Óðinn[278] Wōden[278] *Wōđanaz[278] A deity similarly associated with healing magic in the Old English Nine Herbs Charm and particular forms of magic throughout the Old Norse record. This deity is strongly associated with extensions of *Frijjō (see below).
Balder[279] Baldr[279] Bældæg[279] *Balđraz[279] In Old Norse texts, where the only description of the deity occurs, Baldr is a son of the god Odin and is associated with beauty and light.
Sunne[280] Sól[280] Sigel[280] *Sowelō ~ *Sōel[281][282] A theonym identical to the proper noun 'Sun'. A goddess and the personified Sun.
Volla[283] Fulla[283] Unattested *Fullōn[283] A goddess associated with extensions of the goddess *Frijjō (see below). The Old Norse record refers to Fulla as a servant of the goddess Frigg, while the second Merseburg Charm refers to Volla as Friia's sister.
Friia[284] Frigg[284] Frīg[284] *Frijjō[284] Associated with the goddess Volla/Fulla in both the Old High German and Old Norse records, this goddess is also strongly associated with the god Odin (see above) in both the Old Norse and Langobardic records.

The structure of the magic formula in this charm has a long history prior to this attestation: it is first known to have occurred in Vedic India, where it occurs in the Atharvaveda, dated to around 500 BCE.[285] Numerous other beings common to various groups of ancient Germanic peoples receive mention throughout the ancient Germanic record. One such type of entity, a variety of supernatural women, is also mentioned in the first of the two Merseburg Charms:

Old High German Old Norse Old English Proto-Germanic reconstruction Notes
itis[286] dís[286] ides[286] *đīsō[286] A type of goddess-like supernatural entity. The West Germanic forms present some linguistic difficulties but the North Germanic and West Germanic forms are used explicitly as cognates (compare Old English ides Scildinga and Old Norse dís Skjǫldunga).[287]

Other widely attested entities from the North and West Germanic folklore include elves, dwarfs, and the mare. (For more discussion on these entities, see Proto-Germanic folklore.)

The great majority of material describing Germanic mythology stems from the North Germanic record. The body of myths among the North Germanic-speaking peoples is known today as Norse mythology and is attested in numerous works, the most expansive of which are the Poetic Edda and the Prose Edda. While these texts were composed in the 13th century, they frequently quote genres of traditional alliterative verse known today as eddic poetry and skaldic poetry dating to the pre-Christian period.[288]

West Germanic mythology (that of speakers of, e.g., Old English and Old High German) is comparatively poorly attested. Notable texts include the Old Saxon Baptismal Vow and the Old English Nine Herbs Charm. While most extant references are simply to deity names, some narratives do survive into the present, such as the Lombard origin myth, which details a tradition among the Lombards that features the deities Frea (cognate with Old Norse Frigg) and Godan (cognate with Old Norse Óðinn). Attested in the 7th-century Origo Gentis Langobardorum and the 8th-century Historia Langobardorum from the Italian Peninsula, the narrative strongly corresponds in numerous ways with the prose introduction to the eddic poem Grímnismál, recorded in 13th-century Iceland.[289][290]

Very few texts make up the corpus of Gothic and other East Germanic languages, and East Germanic paganism and its associated mythic body is especially poorly attested. Notable topics that provide insight into the matter of East Germanic paganism include the Ring of Pietroassa, which appears to be a cult object (see also Gothic runic inscriptions), and the mention of the Gothic Anses (cognate with Old Norse Æsir '(pagan) gods') by Jordanes.[291]

Practices associated with the religion of the ancient Germanic peoples see fewer attestations. However, elements of religious practices are discernable throughout the textual record associated with the ancient Germanic peoples, including a focus on sacred groves and trees, the presence of seeresses, and numerous vocabulary items. The archaeological record has yielded a variety of depictions of deities, a number of them associated with depictions of the ancient Germanic peoples (see Anthropomorphic wooden cult figurines of Central and Northern Europe). Notable from the Roman period are the Matres and Matronae, goddess, some having Germanic names, to whom devotional altars were set up in in regions of Germania, Eastern Gaul, and Northern Italy (with a small distribution elsewhere) that were occupied by the Roman army from the first to the fifth century.[292]

Germanic mythology and religious practice is of particular interest to Indo-Europeanists, scholars who seek to identify aspects of ancient Germanic culture—both in terms of linguistic correspondence and by way of motifs—stemming from Proto-Indo-European culture, including Proto-Indo-European mythology. The primordial being Ymir, attested solely in Old Norse sources, makes for a commonly cited example. In Old Norse texts, the death of this entity results in creation of the cosmos, a complex of motifs that finds strong correspondence elsewhere in the Indo-European sphere, notably in Vedic mythology.[293]

Conversion to Christianity

Page from the Codex Argenteus containing the Gothic Bible translated by Wulfila.
Page from the Codex Argenteus containing the Gothic Bible translated by Wulfila.

Germanic peoples began entering the Roman Empire in large numbers at the same time that Christianity was spreading there, [294] and this connection was a major factor encouraging conversion.[295] The East Germanic peoples, the Langobards, and the Suevi in Spain converted to Arian Christianity,[296] a form of Christianity that rejected the divinity of Christ.[297] The first Germanic people to convert to Arianism were the Visigoths, at the latest in 376 when they entered the Roman Empire. This followed a longer period of missionary work by both Orthodox Christians and Arians, such as the Arian Wulfila, who was made missionary bishop of the Goths in 341 and translated the Bible into Gothic.[298] The Arian Germanic peoples all eventually converted to Nicene Christianity, which had become the dominant form of Christianity within the Roman Empire; the last to convert were the Visigoths in Spain under their king Reccared in 587.[299]

The areas of the Roman Empire conquered by the Franks, Alemanni, and Baiuvarii were mostly Christian already, but it appeared Christianity declined there.[300] In 496, the Frankish king Clovis I converted to Nicene Christianity. This began a period of missionizing within Frankish territory.[301] The Anglo-Saxons gradually converted following a mission sent by Pope Gregory the Great in 595.[302] In the 7th century, Frankish-supported missionary activity spread out of Gaul, led by figures of the Anglo-Saxon mission such as Saint Boniface.[303] The Saxons initially rejected Christianization,[304] but were eventually forcibly converted by Charlemagne as a result of their conquest in the Saxon Wars in 776/777.[305]

While attempts to convert the Scandinavian peoples began in 831, they were mostly unsuccessful until the 10th and 11th centuries.[306] The last Germanic people to convert were the Swedes, although the Geats had converted earlier. The pagan Temple at Uppsala seems to have continued to exist into the early 1100s.[307]

Society and culture

Germanic law

Germanic bracteate from Funen, Denmark
Germanic bracteate from Funen, Denmark

Until the middle of the 20th century, the majority of scholars assumed the existence of a distinct Germanic legal culture and law.[308] Early ideas about Germanic law have come under intense scholarly scrutiny since the 1950s, and specific aspects of it such as the legal importance of sibb, retinues, and loyalty, and the concept of outlawry can no longer be justified.[309][310] Besides the assumption of a common Germanic legal tradition and the use of sources of different types from different places and time periods,[309] there are no native sources for early Germanic law.[311][312] The earliest written legal sources, the Leges Barbarorum, were all written under Roman and Christian influence and often with the help of Roman jurists,[313] and contain large amounts of "Vulgar Latin Law", an unofficial legal system that functioned in the Roman provinces. Additionally, the Leges contain large amounts of "Vulgar Latin law", an unofficial legal system that functioned in the Roman provinces.[314]

Although Germanic law never appears to have been a competing system to Roman law, it is possible that Germanic "modes of thought" (Denkformen) still existed, with important elements being an emphasis on orality, gesture, formulaic language, legal symbolism, and ritual.[315] Some items in the "Leges", such as the use of vernacular words, may reveal aspects of originally Germanic, or at least non-Roman, law. Legal historian Ruth Schmidt-Wiegand writes that this vernacular, often in the form of Latinized words, belongs to "the oldest layers of a Germanic legal language" and shows some similarities to Gothic.[316][317]


Modern scholarship no longer posits a common Germanic marriage practice,[318] and there is no common Germanic term for "marriage".[319] Until the latter 20th century, legal historians, using the Leges and later Norse narrative and legal sources, divided Germanic marriages into three types:

  1. Muntehe, characterized by a marriage treaty, the granting of a bride gift or morning gift to the bride, and the acquisition of munt (Latin: mundium, "protection", originally "hand"),[320] or legal power, of the husband over the wife;[321]
  2. Friedelehe, (from Old High German: friudila, Old Norse: friðla, frilla "beloved"), a form of marriage lacking a bride or morning gift and in which the husband did not have munt over his wife (this remained with her family);[322]
  3. Kebsehe (concubinage), the marriage of a free man to an unfree woman.[322]

According to this theory, in the course of the early Middle Ages, the Friedelehe, Kebsehe, and polygamy were abolished in favor of the Muntehe through the attacks of the Church.[323][324]

None of the three forms of marriage posited by older scholarship appear as such in medieval sources.[325] Academic works in the 1990s and 2000s rejected the notion of Friedelehe as a construct for which no evidence is found in the sources,[326] while Kebsehe has been explained as not being a form of marriage at all.[327]

Poetry and legend

The ancient Germanic-speaking peoples were a largely oral culture. Although runes existed as a writing system, they were not used to record poetry or literature and literacy was probably limited. Written literature in Germanic languages is not recorded until the 6th century (Gothic Bible) or the 8th century in modern England and Germany.[328] The philologist Andreas Heusler proposed the existence of various genres of literature in the "Old Germanic" period, which were largely based on genres found in high medieval Old Norse poetry. These include ritual poetry, epigrammatic poetry (Spruchdichtung), memorial verses (Merkdichtung), lyric, narrative poetry, and praise poetry.[329] Heinrich Beck suggests that, on the basis of Latin mentions in late antiquity and the early Middle Ages, the following genres can be adduced: origo gentis (the origin of a people or their rulers), the fall of heroes (casus heroici), praise poetry, and laments for the dead.[330]

Some stylistic aspects of later Germanic poetry appear to have origins in the Indo-European period, as shown by comparison with ancient Greek and Sanskrit poetry.[331] Originally, the Germanic-speaking peoples shared a metrical and poetic form, alliterative verse, which is attested in very similar forms in Old Saxon, Old High German and Old English, and in a modified form in Old Norse.[332] Alliterative verse is not attested in Gothic, and Rafael Pascual has suggested that it may not have been metrically possible in that language, in which case alliterative verse would be a wholly North-West Germanic phenomenon.[333] Nelson Goering, however, has argued that alliterative verse is in fact linguistically possible as early as Proto-Germanic, and therefore it is possible if not provable that it existed in Gothic as well.[334] The poetic forms diverge among the different languages from the 9th century onward.[335]

Later Germanic peoples shared a common legendary tradition. These heroic legends mostly involve historical personages who lived during the migration period (4th-6th centuries AD), placing them in highly ahistorical and mythologized settings;[336] they originate and develop as part of an oral tradition.[337][338] Some early Gothic heroic legends are already found in Jordanes' Getica (c. 551).[339] The close link between Germanic heroic legend and Germanic language and possibly poetic devices is shown by the fact that the Germanic speakers in Francia who adopted a Romance language, do not preserve Germanic legends but rather developed their own heroic folklore—excepting the figure of Walter of Aquitaine.[340]


Image of Romans fighting the Marcomanni on the Column of Marcus Aurelius (193 CE).
Image of Romans fighting the Marcomanni on the Column of Marcus Aurelius (193 CE).

Warfare seems to have been a constant in Germanic society,[341] including conflicts among and within Germanic peoples.[342] There is no common Germanic word for "war", and it was not necessarily differentiated from other forms of violence.[343] Historical information on Germanic warfare almost entirely depends on Greco-Roman sources,[344] however their accuracy has been questioned.[345] The core of the army was formed by the comitatus (retinue), a group of warriors following a chief.[346] As retinues grew larger, their names could become associated with entire peoples. Many retinues functioned as auxilia (mercenary units in the Roman army).[347]

Roman sources stress, perhaps partially as a literary topos, that the Germanic peoples fought without discipline.[348][349] Germanic warriors fought mostly on foot,[350] in tight formations in close combat.[351] Tacitus mentions a single formation as used by the Germani, the wedge (Latin: cuneus).[352] Cavalry was rare: in the Roman period, it mostly consisted of chiefs and their immediate retinues,[350] who may have dismounted to fight.[353] However, East Germanic peoples such as the Goths developed cavalry forces armed with lances due to contact with various nomadic peoples.[354] Archaeological finds, mostly in the form of grave goods, indicate that most warriors were armed with spear, shield, and often with swords.[351] Higher status individuals were often buried with spurs for riding.[353] The only archaeological evidence for helmets and chain mail shows them to be of Roman manufacture.[355]


The Vimose Comb, the oldest extant runic inscription from c. 160 CE. The inscription is harja, a name from hari ("army").[356]
The Vimose Comb, the oldest extant runic inscription from c. 160 CE. The inscription is harja, a name from hari ("army").[356]

The earliest writing system used by the Germanic-speaking peoples were the runes, an alphabet of unclear origins that is based on a Mediterranean alphabet.[357] The precise date that the runic alphabet was adopted is unknown, with estimates varying from 100 BCE to 100 CE.[358] Inscriptions in the oldest attested from, called the elder futhark, date from 200 to 700 CE.[359] The word "rune" is attested in multiple Germanic languages, coming from Proto-Germanic *rūna and having a primary meaning of secret,[357] but also other meanings such as "whisper", "mystery", "closed deliberation", and "council".[360] Runes appear not to have been used for everyday communication and knowledge of them was probably limited to a small group,[358] for whom the term erilaR is attested from the sixth century onward.[361]

The letters of the elder futhark are arranged in an order that is called the futhark, after its first six characters.[362] The alphabet is supposed to have been extremely phonetic, and each letter could also represent a word or concept, so that, for instance, the f-rune also stood for *fehu (cattle, property).[363] Runic inscriptions are found on organic materials such as wood, bone, horn, ivory, and animal hides, as well as on stone and metal.[364] Inscriptions tend to be short,[358] and are difficult to interpret as profane or magical. They include names, inscriptions by the maker of an object, memorials to the dead, as well as inscriptions that religious or magical in nature.[365]

Economy and material culture


Unlike agriculture in the Roman provinces, which was organized around the large farms known as villae rusticae, Germanic agriculture was organized around villages. When Germanic peoples expanded into Northern Gaul in the 4th and 5th centuries CE, they brought this village-based agriculture with them, which increased the agricultural productivity of the land; Heiko Steuer suggests this means that Germania was more agriculturally productive than is generally assumed.[366] Based on pollen samples and the finds of seeds and plant remains, the chief grains cultivated in Germania were barley, oats, and wheat (both Einkorn and emmer), while the most common vegetables were beans and peas. Flax was also grown.[367] Agriculture in Germania relied heavily on animal husbandry, primarily the raising of cattle, which were smaller than their Roman counterparts[368] Both cultivation and animal husbandry methods improved with time, with examples being the introduction of rye, which grew better in Germania, and the introduction of the three-field system.[369]


It is unclear if there was a special class of craftsmen in Germania, however archaeological finds of tools are frequent.[370] Many everyday items such as dishes were made out of wood, and archaeology has found the remains of wooden well construction.[371] The 4th-century CE Nydam and Illerup ships show highly developed knowledge of ship construction, while elite graves have revealed wooden furniture with complex joinery.[372] Products made from ceramics included cooking, drinking, and storage, vessels, as well as lamps. While originally formed by hand, the period around 1 CE saw the introduction of the potter's wheel.[373] Some of the ceramics produced on potter's wheels seem to have been done in direct imitation of Roman wares,[374] and may have been produced by Romans in Germania or by Germani who had learned Roman techniques while serving in the Roman army.[375] The shape and decoration of Germanic ceramics vary by region and archaeologists have traditionally used these variations to determine larger cultural areas.[376] Many ceramics were probably produced locally in hearths, but large pottery kilns have also been discovered, and it seems clear that there were areas of specialized production.[374]


A 5th-century CE gold collar from Ålleborg, Sweden. It displays Germanic filigree work.[377]
A 5th-century CE gold collar from Ålleborg, Sweden. It displays Germanic filigree work.[377]

Despite the claims of Roman writers such as Tacitus that the Germani had little iron and lacked expertise in working it, deposits of iron were commonly found in Germania and Germanic smiths were skillful metalworkers.[378] Smithies are known from multiple settlements, and smiths were often buried with their tools.[379] An iron mine discovered at Rudki, in the Łysogóry mountains of modern central Poland, operated from the 1st to the 4th centuries CE and included a substantial smelting workshop; similar facilities have been found in Bohemia.[380] The remains of large smelting operations have been discovered by Ribe in Jutland (4th to 6th century CE),[381] as well as at Glienick in northern Germany and at Heeten in the Netherlands (both 4th century CE).[382] Germanic smelting furnaces may have produced metal that was as high-quality as that produced by the Romans.[383] In addition to large-scale production, nearly every individual settlement seems to have produced some iron for local use.[381] Iron was used for agricultural tools, tools for various crafts, and for weapons.[384]

Lead was needed in order to make molds and for the production of jewelry, however it is unclear if the Germani were able to produce lead. While lead mining is known from within the Siegerland across the Rhine from the Roman Empire, it is sometimes theorized that this was the work of Roman miners.[385] Another mine within Germania was near modern Soest, where again it is theorized that lead was exported to Rome.[386] The neighboring Roman provinces of Germania superior and Germania inferior produced a great deal of lead, which has been found stamped as plumbum Germanicum ("Germanic lead") in Roman shipwrecks.[387]

Deposits of gold are not found naturally within Germania and had to either be imported[388] or could be found having naturally washed down rivers.[389] The earliest known gold objects made by Germanic craftsmen are mostly small ornaments dating from the later 1st century CE.[388] Silver working likewise dates from the first century CE, and silver often served as a decorative element with other metals.[390] From the 2nd century onward, increasingly complex gold jewelry was made, often inlaid with precious stones and in a polychrome style.[391] Inspired by Roman metalwork, Germanic craftsmen also began working with gold and silver-gilt foils on belt buckles, jewelry, and weapons.[377] Pure gold objects produced in the late Roman period included torcs with snakeheads, often displaying filigree and cloisonné work, techniques that dominated throughout Germanic Europe.[392]

Clothing and textiles

A pair of trousers with attached stockings found in the Thorsberg moor (3rd century CE).[393]
A pair of trousers with attached stockings found in the Thorsberg moor (3rd century CE).[393]

Clothing does not generally preserve well archaeologically. Early Germanic clothing is shown on some Roman stone monuments such as Trajan's Column and the Column of Marcus Aurelius, and is occasionally discovered in finds from in moors,[394] mostly from Scandinavia.[395] Frequent finds include long trousers, sometimes including connected stockings, shirt-like gowns (Kittel) with long sleeves, large pieces of cloth, and capes with fur on the inside.[396] All of these are thought to be male clothing, while finds of tubular garments are thought to be female clothing. These would have reached to the ankles and would likely have been held in place by brooches at the height of the shoulders, as shown on Roman monuments.[397] On Roman depictions, the dress was gathered below the breast or at the waist, and there are frequently no sleeves. Sometimes a blouse or skirt is depicted below the dress, along with a neckerchief around the throat.[398] By the middle of the 5th century CE, both men and women among the continental Germanic peoples came to wear a Roman-style tunic as their most important piece of clothing. This was secured at the waist and likely adopted due to intensive contact with the Roman world.[399] The Romans typically depict Germanic men and women as bareheaded, although some head-coverings have been found. Although Tacitus mentions an undergarment made of linen, no examples of these have been found.[398]

Surviving examples indicate that Germanic textiles were of high quality and mostly made of flax and wool.[393] Roman depictions show the Germani wearing materials that were only lightly worked.[400] Surviving examples indicate that a variety of weaving techniques were used.[398] Leather was used for shoes, belts, and other gear.[401] Spindles, sometimes made of glass or amber, and the weights from looms and distaffs are frequently found in Germanic settlements.[393]


The Minerva Bowl, part of the Hildesheim Treasure, likely a Roman diplomatic gift.[402] The treasure may date from the reign of Nero (37-68 CE) or the early Flavian dynasty (69-96 CE).[403]
The Minerva Bowl, part of the Hildesheim Treasure, likely a Roman diplomatic gift.[402] The treasure may date from the reign of Nero (37-68 CE) or the early Flavian dynasty (69-96 CE).[403]

Roman trade with Germania is poorly documented.[404] Roman merchants crossing the Alps for Germania are recorded already by Caesar in the 1st century BCE.[402] During the imperial period, most trade probably took place in trading posts in Germania or at major Roman bases.[405] The most well-known Germanic export to the Roman Empire was amber, with a trade centered on the Baltic coast.[406] Economically, however, amber is likely to have been fairly unimportant.[407] The use of Germanic loanwords in surviving Latin texts suggests that besides amber (glaesum), the Romans also imported the feathers of Germanic geese (ganta) and hair-dye (sapo). Germanic slaves were also a major commodity.[408] Archaeological discoveries indicate that lead was exported from Germania as well, perhaps mined in Roman-Germanic "joint ventures".[409]

Products imported from Rome are found archaeologically throughout the Germanic sphere and include vessels of bronze and silver, glassware, pottery, brooches; other products such as textiles and foodstuffs may have been just as important.[410] Rather than mine and smelt non-ferrous metals themselves, Germanic smiths seem to have often preferred to melt down finished metal objects from Rome, which were imported in large numbers, including coins, metal vessels, and metal statues.[411] Tacitus mentions in Germania chapter 23 that the Germani living along the Rhine bought wine, and Roman wine has been found in Denmark and northern Poland.[402] Find of Roman silver coinage and weapons might have been war booty or the result of trade, while high quality silver items may have been diplomatic gifts.[412] Roman coinage may have acted as a form of currency as well.[413]

One particularly rich archaeological site for trade goods, particularly glass, is at Gudme on the Danish island of Fyn, suggesting that it may have been a major trading emporium.[414] Migration-period seaborne trade is suggested by Gudme and other harbors on the Baltic.[415]


In the 21st century, genetic studies have begun to look more systematically at questions of ancestry, using both modern and ancient DNA. However, the connection between modern Germanic languages, ethnicity and genetic heritage is considered by many scholars as unlikely to ever be simple or uncontroversial. Guy Halsall for example writes: "The danger, barely addressed (at best dismissed as a purely 'ideological' objection), is of reducing ethnicity to biology and thus to something close to the 19th-century idea of race, at the basis of the 'nation state'."[416] Sebastian Brather, Wilhelm Heizmann, and Steffen Patzold write that genetics studies are of great use for demographic history, but cannot give us any information about cultural history.[417]

In a 2013 book which reviewed studies made up until then, it was remarked that: "If and when scientists find ancient Y-DNA from men whom we can guess spoke Proto-Germanic, it is most likely to be a mixture of haplogroup I1, R1a1a, R1b-P312 and R1b-U106". This was based purely upon those being the Y-DNA groups judged to be most commonly shared by speakers of Germanic languages today. However, as remarked in that book: "All of these are far older than Germanic languages and some are common among speakers of other languages too."[418]

Modern reception

Tacitus's Germania was rediscovered by German humanists in the 1450s and first printed in 1473; its publication allowed German scholars to claim a glorious classical past for their own nation that could compete with that of Greece and Rome,[419] and to equate the "Germanic" with the "German".[420] Initially, their notion of Germanic was, however, very vague, and might include peoples such as the Huns and Picts.[421] Later, reading Tacitus's claim that the ancient Germans were a people indigenous to Germania and unmixed with other nations, this reading narrowed and was used by the humanists to support a notion of German(ic) superiority to other peoples.[422] Equally important was Jordanes's Getica, rediscovered by Aeneas Sylvius Piccolomini in the mid-15th century and first printed in 1515 by Konrad Peutinger, which depicted Scandinavia as the "womb of nations" (Latin: vagina nationum) from which all the historical northeastern European barbarians migrated in the distant past.[423] While treated with suspicion by German scholars, who preferred the indigenous origin given by Tacitus, this motif became very popular in contemporary Swedish Gothicism, as it supported Sweden's imperial ambitions.[424] Peutinger printed the Getica together with Paul the Deacon's History of the Lombards, so that the Germania, the Getica, and the History of the Lombards formed the basis for the study of the Germanic past.[425] The Viking revival of 18th century Romanticism created a fascination with anything "Nordic" in disposition.[426] Scholars did not clearly differentiate between the Germanic peoples, Celtic peoples, and the "Scythian peoples" until the late 18th century with the discovery of Indo-European and the establishment of language as the primary criterion for nationality. Before that time, German scholars considered the Celtic peoples especially to be part of the Germanic group.[427]

The beginning of Germanic philology proper begins around the turn of the 19th century, with Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm being the two most significant founding figures. Their oeuvre included various monumental works on linguistics, culture, and literature.[428] The development of Germanic studies as an academic discipline in the 19th century ran parallel to the rise of nationalism in Europe after the end of the Napoleonic Wars and the search by the developing nascent nation states for their own national histories.[429] Jacob Grimm offered many arguments identifying the Germans as the "most Germanic" of the Germanic-speaking peoples, many of which were taken up later by others who sought to equate "Germanicness" (German: Germanentum) with "Germanness" (German: Deutschtum).[430] Grimm also argued that the Scandinavian sources were, while much later, more "pure" attestations of "Germanness" than those from the south, an opinion that remains common today.[431] A "Germanic" national ethnicity offered an intellectual rationale for the unification of Germany, contrasting the emerging German Empire with its neighboring rivals of differing ancestry.[432] The nascent belief in a German ethnicity was subsequently founded upon national myths of Germanic antiquity.[433] These tendencies culminated in a later Pan-Germanism Alldeutsche Bewegung movement, which had as its aim the political unity of all of German-speaking Europe (all Volksdeutsche) into a German nation state.[434][435] Contemporary Romantic nationalism in Scandinavia placed more weight on the Viking Age, resulting in the movement known as Scandinavism.[436]

In the late 19th century, Gustaf Kossinna developed several widely-accepted theories tying archaeological finds of specific assemblages of objects. Kossina used his theories to extend Germanic identity back to the Neolithic period and to state with confidence when and where various Germanic and other peoples had migrated within Europe.[437] Theories of race were developed in the same period, using Darwinian evolutionary ideals and pseudo-scientific methods in the identification of Germanic peoples (members of a Nordic race) as being superior to other ethnicities.[438] The Nazi Party made use of notions of Germanic "purity" reaching back into the earliest prehistoric times.[7] It also used the "Germanic" nature of peoples such as the Franks and Goths to justify territorial annexations in northern France, Ukraine, and the Crimea.[439] This led to a scholarly backlash and re-examining of Germanic origins after 1945.[7]

See also


  1. ^ The reconstruction of such loanwords remains a difficult task, since no descendant language of substrate dialects is attested, and plausible etymological explanations have been found for many Germanic lexemes previously regarded as of non-Indo-European origin. The English term sword, long regarded as "without etymology", was found to be cognate with the Ancient Greek áor, the sword hung to the shoulder with valuable rings, both descending from the PIE root *swerd-, denoting the 'suspended sword'. Similarly, the word hand could descend from a PGer. form *handu- 'pike' (< *handuga- 'having a pike'), possibly related to Greek kenteîn 'to stab, poke' and kéntron 'stinging agent, pricker'.[70] However, there is still a set of words of Proto-Germanic origin, attested in Old High German since the 8th c., which have found so far no competing Indo-European etymologies, however unlikely: e.g., Adel 'aristocratic lineage'; Asch 'barge'; Beute 'board'; Loch 'lock'; Säule 'pillar'; etc.[71]
  2. ^ Iversen & Kroonen 2017, p. 521: "In the more than 250 years (ca. 2850–2600 B.C.E.) when late Funnel Beaker farmers coexisted with the new Single Grave culture communities within a relatively small area of present-day Denmark, processes of cultural and linguistic exchange were almost inevitable—if not widespread."
  3. ^ Ringe 2006, p. 85: "Early Jastorf, at the end of the 7th century BCE, is almost certainly too early for the last common ancestor of the attested languages; but later Jastorf culture and its successors occupy so much territory that their populations are most unlikely to have spoken a single dialect, even granting that the expansion of the culture was relatively rapid. It follows that our reconstructed PGmc was only one of the dialects spoken by peoples identified archeologically, or by the Romans, as 'Germans'; the remaining Germanic peoples spoke sister dialects of PGmc." Polomé 1992, p. 51: "...if the Jastorf culture and, probably, the neighboring Harpstedt culture to the west constitute the Germanic homeland (Mallory 1989: 87), a spread of Proto-Germanic northwards and eastwards would have to be assumed, which might explain both the archaisms and the innovative features of North Germanic and East Germanic, and would fit nicely with recent views locating the homeland of the Goths in Poland."
  4. ^ Rübekeil 2017, pp. 996–997: West Germanic: "There seems to be a principal distinction between the northern and the southern part of this group; the demarcation between both parts, however, is a matter of controversy. The northern part, North Sea Gmc or Ingvaeonic, is the larger one, but it is a moot point whether Old Saxon and Old Low Franconian really belong to it, and if yes, to what extent they participate in all its characteristic developments. (...) As a whole, there are arguments for a close relationship between Anglo-Frisian on the one hand and Old Saxon and Old Low Franconian on the other; there are, however, counter-arguments as well. The question as to whether the common features are old and inherited or have emerged by connections over the North Sea is still controversial."
  5. ^ These boundaries were not entirely firm and in 17/16 BCE at the Battle of Bibracte the Sugambri, Usipetes, and Tencteri crossed the Rhine and defeated the 5th legion under Marcus Lollius, capturing the legion's eagle.[148]
  6. ^ Tacitus referred to him as king of the Suevians.[154]


  1. ^ a b c d e Steuer 2021, p. 30.
  2. ^ a b Steuer 2021, p. 3.
  3. ^ a b Steuer 2021, p. 28.
  4. ^ Drijvers 2011, p. 17.
  5. ^ Beckwith 2009, pp. 82–83.
  6. ^ Wolfram 1988, pp. 86–89.
  7. ^ a b c Todd 1999, p. 9.
  8. ^ Wolfram 1988, p. 5.
  9. ^ Pfeifer 2000, p. 434.
  10. ^ Pohl 2004a, p. 58.
  11. ^ a b Pohl 2004a, p. 1.
  12. ^ Pohl 2020, p. 318.
  13. ^ Steinacher 2020, pp. 48–57.
  14. ^ Schutz 2001, p. 1.
  15. ^ Pohl 2004a, p. 4.
  16. ^ a b Green 1998, p. 8.
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  • Caesar, Julius (2019). The War for Gaul: A New Translation. Translated by James O'Donnell. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press. ISBN 978-0-69117-492-1.
  • Tacitus, Cornelius (2009). Agricola and Germany. Translated by Anthony R. Birley. New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19953-926-0.

External links

Classical and medieval sources

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