Germans, Ancient

The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Germans, Ancient


an extensive group of tribes that belonged to the Indo-European language family and occupied the territory between the lower Rhine and the Vistula rivers, between the Danube River and the Baltic and North seas, and in southern Scandinavia.

The ancient Germans were first mentioned in a written document by Pytheas of Massilia in the fourth century B.C., but Julius Caesar was the first to recognize them as a distinct ethnic group separate from the Celts.

The first contact between the ancient Germanic tribes and Rome occurred in the late second century B.C., with the invasion of the Cimbri and the Teutoni. In 58 B.C., Caesar defeated the Suebi led by Ariovistus. Caesar also drove the Usipetes and the Tencteri beyond the Rhine in 55 B.C. In the first century B.C. the Romans won nominal rule over the ancient Germans who lived east of the Rhine as far as the Weser River. In the first century B.C., however, after the Cherusci and other ancient Germanic tribes revolted against Rome, the Rhine and Danube became the border separating Roman and German sovereignty. The Roman border rampart (limes romanus) was erected, extending from the middle Rhine to the upper Danube.

According to geographical indications, the ancient Germans were divided into tribes living between the Rhine, the Main, and the Weser rivers (the Batavi, Bruchteri, Chamavi, Chatti, Ubii, etc.), on the North Sea shore (the Chauci, Angles, Varini, and Frisians), from the middle and upper Elbe to the Oder (the Suebi, Marcomanni, Quadi, Lombards, and Semnones), between the Oder and the Vistula (the Vandals, Burgundians, and Goths), and in Scandinavia (the Suiones and Gauti).

In the first century B.C. the Germans’ social organization was tribal. Many Germanic tribes, especially in northern Germany and Jutland, were permanently settled and engaged primarily in agriculture. Some of the tribes had not yet settled in one place and lived chiefly by raising livestock. The predominant agricultural system consisted of allowing the land to lie fallow in certain years. In the first centuries A.D. plows with iron plowshares were already being used. The Germans raised barley, rye, oats, some vegetables, flax, hemp, indigo, and possibly wheat. The northern Germans extracted iron from ore and had copper and silver mines. They knew the crafts of weaving and pottery-making. There was trade among the Germanic tribes as well as with neighboring countries.

In the first century B.C. the basic economic unit of the Germans was the clan. Private ownership of the land did not exist. All the members of the clan worked the land together, and it was redivided every year among the various clans. In the first century (according to Tacitus) the agricultural commune developed among the Germans. Ownership of the land remained collective, but the individual extended family became the basic economic unit. There were still periodic redi-visions of the land, and all the members of the commune used the unparceled lands equally.

The Germans lived in villages or on farms. They built burgs (fortified cities), which served as refuges in time of war. Free commune members constituted the main force of production. These workers had rights and obligations equal to those of the other commune members: they could own land, bear arms, serve in the militia, and attend public meetings. But social differentiation had already begun. There was a patriarchal type of slavery that mainly consisted of prisoners of war. A hereditary nobility began to emerge from the masses of freemen. The nobility held more and more of the movable property (such as slaves and cattle) and eventually had more land than the other freemen. Leaders and nobles had retinues. Wars, which became a constant occupation, largely accounted for their accumulation of wealth. Nobles had different clothing and equipment from the ordinary freeman. The most significant social contradiction that arose among the Germanic peoples was that between the nobleman and the ordinary commune member. Intertribal alliances began to appear, but they were of a temporary nature.

The highest authority in a tribe was the public meeting; it decided questions of war and peace and other important problems, elected elders and military leaders, and administered justice. The tribal elder conducted the public meetings and managed the tribe’s external affairs. He received for his personal use a portion of the court fines, as well as voluntary gifts from the population. Military leaders commanded the militia during times of war; they were usually elected from among the nobility.

Some Germanic tribes had kings by the beginning of the first century A.D. The king combined the functions and rights of the tribal elder with the power of the military leader. The popular meeting and the council of elders, however, placed a limit upon the king’s power. He was elected by a vote of all the freemen, but from among the limited circle of noble families. In some cases there was an incipient hereditary kingship.

The members of the ordinary commune continued to participate in civil government, and the popular meeting still played a great role in tribal and clan life, but the council of elders also became more important. The hereditary nobility had the decisive influence in the council of elders. But in warfare the militia, which was drawn from the entire tribe, was the most important group, although the role of the retinue was increasing.

The third and fourth centuries saw a growth in the ancient Germans’ productive forces. The use of a plow with an iron plowshare, a plow on wheels with a wide blade, and a mold-board became very widespread. Forests were turned into cultivated lands. Arms (helmets and so forth) and metal utensils marked important advances in metalworking. The potters’ wheel came into use. Trade with Rome expanded. Some of the Germanic tribes entered into the service of Rome as confederates or settled on the Roman border as laeti. There was a regrouping of the tribes, with the formation of new alliances of the Alamanni, Saxons, Franks, Goths, and so forth; these new alliances were more stable than the earlier ones had been. The growth of productive forces led to the acceleration of the property differentiation process and the gradual decay of the tribal system. The hereditary royal power and hereditary nobility gained strength, and the role of the popular meeting declined in importance. An embryonic state power was created. The establishment of closer ties between the Germanic tribes and Rome in turn accelerated the decay of the tribal system.

During the second and third centuries the Germans stepped up their advance on the borders of the Roman Empire. In the second half of the second century the Marcomannic War occurred. Then the Alamanni and the Burgundians, who had been living east of the Elbe, advanced to the Rhine. In the third century the Alamanni seized the tithe fields (the land between the Rhine, Danube, and Neckar rivers). The Romans ceded Dacia to the Goths in the late third century. The Germanic tribes played a major part in the Great Migration of Peoples in the fourth through sixth centuries. This resettlement resulted in the formation of many barbarian Germanic kingdoms on the territory of the western Roman Empire.

The interaction between the social relations of the Germans and the decaying Roman slave-holding society had a strong influence on the development of feudalism in many Western European countries. Germanic tribes became the basis of the ethnogenesis of a whole series of Western European nationalities: Germans, Dutch, Flemish, Danes, Swedes, Norwegians, and some others. Many of the nationalities of Europe spoke Germanic languages.

The sources used to study ancient German culture are primarily the works of ancient authors and archaeological and literary monuments of the early Middle Ages (for example, barbarian writs and epics). The medieval writers indicate vestiges of the cultural life of their predecessors, the ancient Germans. The Germans had an oral literature. The heroic epic, a genre that had already been mentioned by Tacitus, was most important. There were also work, wedding, burial, and battle songs. Relations within the tribe were regulated by custom. The legal traditions that were applied in judicial proceedings were apparently codified in verse form.

By the first century A.D., and possibly earlier, the ancient Germans had written characters known as runes. Runes were originally used only for magical or cult purposes. The religion of the early Germans was based on the worship of natural forces (such as fire or the heavenly bodies) personified as gods (for example, Woden, Dunor, and Ziu). Some gods were tribal gods only, and the worship of them was geographically limited. On the northern coast of Germany, for example, a group of tribes worshipped the goddess Nerthus. According to Tacitus, the Germans tried to compile a genealogy of their gods, who they considered to be tribal ancestors. The three principal groups of Germanic tribes mentioned by Tacitus—the Ingvaeones, Istaevones, and Herminones— believed their common ancestor was the first human, Mannus, son of the god Twisto, born of the supreme goddess, Mother Earth. From the weapons and household articles found in graves, as well as from the ancestor cult, it can be seen that there was a belief in life after death. In the late third and fourth centuries the custom of cremation was replaced by burial. The Germans sacrificed humans and animals to the gods. There were seers and diviners. The written sources mention special cult places—sacred groves—but apparently there were no temples.

As a result of the social upheaval resulting from the decay of the tribal system and the influence of Roman civilization, the spiritual life and culture of the Germans underwent important changes in the third and fourth centuries. These included the spread of Christianity (among the Visigoths in the fourth century, the Burgundians and Franks in the fifth century, and so on) and the appearance of their own written language (among the Visigoths in the fourth century) and written law (the barbarian writs).

The arts began to flower. The filigree style of crafting gold with delicate openwork was replaced in the fourth century by the polychrome style, chiefly among the Goths. Gold articles, often in the shape of birds or cicadas, were encrusted with almandites or garnets and colored glass or enamel, with patterns of gold tracing the colorful insets. The animal style, which appeared in the mid-sixth century, featured an even more complicated interweaving of ornamental motifs, including fancifully designed outlines of animals and birds. The fine arts were relatively poorly developed and were represented mainly by a few relief sculptures of gods (fourth through seventh centuries). The dwellings of the Germanic peoples were sometimes huts and sometimes houses built on frames of vertical supports; later there were log houses. The beams, joists, and columns were decorated with carvings and paintings.


Drevnie germantsy. A collection of documents edited by A. D. Udal’tsov. Moscow, 1937.


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Gratsianskii, N. P. “K voprosu ob agrarnykh otnosheniiakh drevnikh germantsev vremeni Tsezaria.” In his book Iz sotsial’noekonomicheskoi istorii zapadno-evropeiskogo srednevekov’ia. Moscow, 1960.
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Neusykhin, A. “Voennye soiuzy germanskikh piemen okolo nachala n. e.” Ibid., 1929, vol. 3.
Udal’tsov, A. D. “Rodovoi stroi u drevnikh germantsev.” In the book Iz istorii zapadnoevropeiskogo feodalizma. Moscow-Leningrad, 1934. (Series Izvestiia Gos. Akademii istorii material’noi kul’tury, issue 107.)
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The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.