by J. Pry, J. Edwards, R. Marois, and R. Fung

The first mention of the concept of “German” came in the writings of the Romans, however, the first use of Germany in the name of a country did not arise until 1871 with the advent of the German Empire. How then did the people living in Germania (modern day Germany and Scandinavia) during the times of the Romans when this label first came about see themselves? Did they see themselves as a unified ethnic group or did Roman authors attempt to classify a diverse group of peoples under an umbrella term that did not quite fit? This paper will argue that the latter of these options is correct. We argue that the Germanic tribes from before Roman contact until around a thousand years after did not see themselves as one ethnicity as Roman authors attributed to them. Rather, they saw themselves as independent tribes or groups of tribes that had their own ethnicity. The Germanic tribes did, however, take this Roman idea of “German” and adapt it through their own processes thereby accepting some of Roman culture while maintaining important aspects of their own that would have consequences for their descendants.

The ancient Germanic people were spread out throughout northern and Central Europe in Individual tribes. Each of these tribes had their own independent identity. It was not until well after Roman contact that the Germanic tribes started identifying themselves as one unified culture.

Not much is known about the ancient Germanic tribes because they left no written records. To go along with this, not many people around the Mediterranean even knew that the Germanic people existed before around the second century BC. The first real account of the German came around the year 320 BC, Pytheas of Marseilles sailed around Britain and into the Baltic sea. Malcolm Todd writes, “His journey was so astonishing an achievement that contemporary and later writers refused to believe his account, and what survives of it amounts only to quotations by others” (Todd 1). While many people do not believe his account, Pytheas was believed to have been the first person to distinguish the Germanic tribes from the Celts. He was also known for being the first person to collect knowledge of the north to the Greeks.

The next account of the Germanic tribes came about 200 years after Pytheas’ journey from Poseidonius of Apamea. Like Pytheas, Poseidonius also made a distinction between the Germans and their southern neighbors. While Poseidonius was believed to have visited Gaul and Northern Italy, his knowledge of the Germanic tribes were still at a minimum. There is no way to determine what his sources were, but we should not assume that they were well informed (Todd, 2). Although his information might not be totally accurate, there is little to no doubt that future writers used it in their own works.

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Figure 1:  Bronze Age rock carvings in Tanum, Sweden (color added to the carvings). Depicts men with sheathed swords, birds, and ships (Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rock_Carvings_in_Tanum)

While there is essentially no record from written sources about the Germanic tribes before the Romans and therefore little information about their society through these means, there is material evidence that can help inform how Germanic tribes functioned. For instance, the rock carvings from figure 1 were made during the Bronze Age. These rock carvings help demonstrate to historians certain things such as that Germanic soldiers would use large spears in frontline combat as depicted in the rock carvings and corroborated by historians such as Cassius Dio and Tacitus (Speidel, 2004, 87-88). The rock carving also shows German warriors with sheathed swords, which seems to indicate that spears were one of the main weapons of the Germanic period much like figure 2 demonstrates. From all this, the carvings seem to indicate that the Germanic tribes were rather interested in warfare by depicting mostly soldiers and warships with a few animals interspersed. No druids or civilians seem to be depicted, so there is an indication that Germanic tribes favored those skilled in warfare.

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Figure 2: Iron and Bone spearheads found at Hjortspring, Denmark (National Museum of Denmark, The Army from Hjortspring, https://en.natmus.dk/historical-knowledge/denmark/prehistoric-period-until-1050-ad/the-early-iron-age/the-army-from-hjortspring-bog/the-army-from-hjortspring/)

Figure 2, dating from around 350 BCE, shows spearheads found with a large cache of weapons. These included iron swords, wooden shields, and the earliest known form of chainmail. These weapons were sunken with a ship meant to carry twenty warriors and the weapons combined could outfit a band of eighty soldiers. This seems to indicate that there was organized warfare that constituted more than one village. One village could not produce the resources nor manpower in a large enough quantity to form an eighty man warband and outfit each of them. Likely, large political structures existed that tied many villages together (Wells, 2011, 220). Further, the fact that the weapons are made explicitly from bonehead and iron indicates that the ancient Germanic tribes lacked the resources that Romans had such as steel.

While making these sweeping claims about Germanic tribes, it is important to note that not all Germanic tribes were the same. So in talking about the ancient Germans before their contact with Rome, it would be best to mention each tribe separately because that is how they lived. No one exactly knows when the first appearance of the Germanic tribes occurred in the Mediterranean, but some people believe that the Bastarnae, a tribe mentioned by Tacitus and Pliny, arrived at the lower Danube somewhere around the third century BC. The Bastarnae, along with a few other tribes throughout the years, ended up migrating south due to promises of fertile lands. The Bastarnae supposedly received an embassy from the king of Macedonia asking for troops and an alliance
(Todd, 23).

The earliest written records of the Germanic people date back to the first century AD, which makes it almost impossible to understand the language of the pre-Roman contact Germanic tribes. There were Scandinavian rune inscriptions that were found that dated back to the third century BC, but the earliest Germanic inscriptions came much later (Ekkehard & Van der Auwera, 2013, 1). The earliest Germanic inscription appears on a helmet that was found in Negau, Austria. Todd writes, “The inscription reads from right to left “HARIXASTITEIVA/// IP” (or IL) in a North Italic alphabet which had gone out of use by the beginning of the Christian era and probably before the first century BC (Todd, 13). There is not one clear interpretation of the inscription, but the most notable one believes that it is an invocation of Teiva, a Germanic war god. Again, this seems to indicate a martial preference amongst Germanic tribes.

Tacitus, known for writing the largest description of the Germanic tribes in his work, Germania, has an interesting view of the people. While a majority of the Roman writers described the Germanic people as barbaric savages, Tacitus focuses on many of their positive characteristics. For example, he respects their strict marriage code, saying “Almost alone among barbarians they are content with one wife, except a very few among them” (Tacitus ch 18.2). Tacitus also viewed the Germanic people as strong but rather simple in that they use antiquated techniques and practices (Tacitus ch 5.6-7)

Another important account of the Germanic people was from Julius Caesar himself during his war with the Gauls. He believed that the Germans were the most barbaric out of the northern groups of people. Unlike the Gauls, Caesar did not believe that the Germans could be civilized and so they were a threat to Roman Gaul (Caesar & Edwards, 5). Caesar points out the differences between the Germans and Gauls, primarily making the claim that the Germanic tribes were east of the Rhine, while the Gauls were on the west. He compares them, saying that the Germans were less civilized as the Gauls, and more simple. According to Caesar one distinction  that stands out is that the Germans had no Druids (Isaac, 427). It was important to note that Caesar was trying to conquer the Gauls at the time, so some people believe that he tried to portray them as more civilized compared to the Germans, which would make them easier to conquer. As Wolfram observes, “it is certainly correct and necessary to evaluate every written source first in its entirety as a testament to the period in which it was created” (Wolfram, 15).

It is important to note here that due to lack of textual material from the Germanic tribes themselves, Roman textual sources must be relied on. This is not without problems, however. As is obvious from both Tacitus and Caesar, Romans were severely biased against those who they did not conquer or were not in control of. They also seemed to have agendas of their own in writing about the Germanic tribes. That is, these accounts are not wholly objective and must be taken with a critical eye (Wells, 2011, 215). The only way to do this is with material evidence, which can only corroborate so much. As indicated by the material evidence, Caesar and Tacitus were correct about certain things such as them favoring martial aspects of society, but wrong about other.

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Figure 3: Recreation of Haltern, one of the Roman legionaries bases Easy of the Rhine River. The base was constructed in the year 10 B.C., but abandoned in the year 9 B.C. (historyin172.blogspot.com)

After Caesar defeated the Gauls and settled his civil war, there were a series of invasions across the Rhine River in the years 12-7 B.C. during the reign of Augustus. With these campaigns the Romans built up numerous fortifications housing several legions on the upper Rhine River. Following the sudden appearance of this new populace many Gauls and Germans within Roman territory grew prosperous, due to the fact that the Romans usually established their bases in the most sought out regions. The Gauls and Germans took advantage of the Romans’ needs for foodstuff and raw materials establishing communities near their outpost for trade, known as vici (singular,vicus). This exchange of goods is when Germans began to use currency instead of goods as medians of exchange and started to produce large settlement to meet new demands of both Roman and German peoples. The types of goods and services that were commonly provided in these small towns were usually, repairs to armors and uniforms, the distribution of both beer and wine, trade of trinkets and other goods available in the region. Material evidence further provides examples of newfound trade and services (Ladner 16).

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Figure 4: Votive offerings from Nydam and Thorsberg, Germany. (Todd, 1992, 44)

Figure 4 is a specific instance of this. In war, long spears and javelins remained staples of German weaponry, however, Germans began to implement entirely new weapons as a result of trade with the Romans. For example, after Roman contact, Germans began to use bows and arrows where they had not previously (Shown by the Nydam votive offering). They also began to use less common weapons as a result of this newfound Roman trade. This included weapons such as swords, axes, and throwing axes. These weapons had been used prior to Roman contact, but not in the level of abundance they would be used after. So, it can be concluded that warfare significantly changed for the Germanic tribes as a result of Roman contact with the advent of new technologies and a newfound diversity of weapons. (Todd, 1992, 43).

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Figure 5: Silver dish with emblem of Athena found in Hildesheim, Germany (Todd, 1992, 93)

In addition to warfare changing as a result of Roman contact and trade, diplomacy and interaction began to change as well. The silver Athena dish depicted in figure 5 is likely of Roman origin due to its high quality and depiction of Athena and was found with other silver dinnerware. This finding of silverware in middle Germany is likely not the result of trade due to its clear high quality (silver goods that were traded in the Germanic tribal regions were generally of lower quality), nor is it the remnants of a defeated Roman commander because it would simply be too cumbersome to carry around. It was likely then a gift to the leaders of a specific tribe by the Romans indicating that Romans engaged in active diplomacy with certain tribes (Todd, 1992, 92-94).

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Figure 6: Found at Gudme, Denmark: 9 bracteates, sword stud, finger ring, Roman denarius, and two pendants. From around 500-550 AD (National Museum of Denmark, Gudme – Gold and Silver Treasure, https://en.natmus.dk/historical-knowledge/denmark/prehistoric-period-until-1050-ad/the-late-iron-age/gudme-gold-gods-and-people/gold-and-silver-treasure/)

Finally, figure 6 depicts golden works that could not have been made before Roman contact indicating that Roman contact allowed for Germanic tribes to create and trade new goods. Gold was not a natural resource in Germany, so in order for gold goods to be made, Germanic tribes had to rely on trade with the Romans. This seems to indicate that Romans did trade with Germans and provided them with new resources (Todd, 1992, 126). A further consequence of this is presented by the fact that these items do not depict Roman figures. Rather, they depict German styles of art. Most Roman art was representational and focused on important figures such as the emperor (Todd, 1992, 140). But the items depicted are not directly representational, but more abstract. This shows that Germans adopted their own type of art style that does not mimic the Romans, but matches their traditions and styles. For instance, the largest bracteate matches the golden horn etches in figure 12.

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Figure 7: Battle of the Teutoburg Forest, depicting the Germanic forces overwhelming the Roman assault in 9 A.D. (https://www.learning-history.com/ancient-roman-wars-battle-teutoburg/)

Once their positions along the Rhine were secure, the Roman army made attempts to conquer the lands on the southeastern side of the Rhine River. These plans came crashing down, however, when the local populace resisted the army’s progress in the Teutoburg Forest. Both Roman and Greek records describe a Germanic leader known as Arminius leading his men in an attack against three Roman legions and slaughtering them all. After suffering such a great defeat, toward the end of the year 9 A.D., the Romans ceased any attempts of conquering the lands east of the lower Rhine River. Instead, the land would remain as the Roman frontier while Rome strengthened its fortifications west of the Rhine River. (Bogucki 586)      

When it was made clear to the Romans that taking the land southeast of the Rhine River would prove a more daunting task than they had initially anticipated, they decided to focus on building up the settlements they still had. One of these settlements is the well-known Roman colonial city of the region Colonia Claudia Ara Agrippinensium, which is now modern-day Cologne, Germany. It was the largest city north of the Alps and was established in the region due to the influx of both local Germans and Romans seeking economic opportunities. This mainly had to do with the Roman navy stationed just south of Cologne bringing in a flow of troops that marched past the city in order get to a military outpost just outside of the city. As time progressed the city’s population grew to around fifteen thousand people, and was made into the capital of what is to be known as Germania Inferior in the year 85 A.D. When scholars arrived to the city, they began to identify its citizens as Romans, even those local to the area, more so because they saw them having adopting Roman culture and not because they saw them as citizens of Rome (Ozment & Beaver 13).

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Figure 8: This image shows the foundation of the Roman governor’s residence of Cologne dating back between the 1st and the 4th century A.D. (cologne.de)

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Figure 9: During Germanic burial ritual jewelry like this usually would be buried with the dead. This practice ended once Christianity arrived to the area in around 8 A.D. (https://www.langantiques.com/university/Germanic_Jewelry)  

Through archeological excavations there is now evidence that suggests that pre-Roman practices was still going on during this colonization. In the Wederath cemetery near the Moselle River, the graves from 2-3 A.D. reveal that traditional Germanic funerary rituals were being practiced. Roman culture seemed to blend into the German populace, to the point where they mixed their culture with that of the Romans. Places of worship began to meld into the Roman theme with the construction of several Gallo-Roman rectangular temples where the Germans would place metal trinkets and coins as offerings to the gods. Their gods even showed signs of German and Roman merging with a god called Hercules Magusenus, a god with a name that was both of Roman and Germanic origin discovered in Empel, Netherlands. Along with this the Rhineland’s goddess, Nehalennia, was given a special place within Germania Inferior’s provisional pantheon. (Bogucki 587-588)         

Figure 10: A carving of Nehalennia with her seated in between a dog and a basket filled with loaves of bread. Nehalennia is usually depicted as the deity of commerce, sailing, agriculture, and fertility. (Voltarief van de Godin Nehalennia 150-250 na)

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While Rome establishes itself in the region west of the Rhine River, the people east of the river maintained the small communities they had prior to Roman appearance in the region. Most of these people lived in small villages and farms raising livestock to trade to the Romans. Evidence from Rijswijk in the Netherlands shows that these people eventually picked up on Roman agriculture, pottery, and metallic tools. Eventually signs of Germanic writings surfaced and were dated back to the either the first or second century A.D. These writings were usually inscribed onto metallic objects, such as women’s jewelry or weaponry, and were made by those who were familiar with the Latin alphabet. The locations of these early engravings suggest that the development of writing took place in either northern Germany or in Denmark.

While the Roman Empire fell around the 4th century, the idea of a united German identity continued to grow and expand well after the Roman contact. Material evidence seems to distinctly indicate this well. The Wodin metal plate depicted in figure 11 was made in the sixth or seventh century and demonstrates that well after Roman contact, the Germanic tribes and people still worshipped their ancestral gods and maintained certain features of their culture from before Roman contact they perceived as important. The metal plate shows Wodin (a pre-Roman god), a wolf-warrior, and long spears. This seems to indicate that the Germanic tribes still defined themselves in certain ways such as martial capabilities. This specific image also fits into the larger art program developed by the Germanic tribes. Most art depictions found from Germanic tribes after Roman contact and on (art is not often found from before Roman contact) show some sort of martial aspect of society. They often depict soldiers or gods with weapons. As such, it would seem that important aspects of their culture from before Roman contact is presented after Roman contact as well (Speidel, 2004, 27-28).

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Figure 11: Wodin depicted with a wolf-warrior drawing his sword (6th or 7th century). Found in Torslunda, Sweden (Speidel, 2004, 28, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Torslunda_plates)

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Figure 12: Etchings of golden horns found in Gallehus, Denmark (From around 5th century) likely depicting ceremonies and cult festivals (J.R. Pauli, 1734, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Golden_Horns_of_Gallehus)

Figure 12 also demonstrates the point that Germanic tribes maintained certain aspects of their culture from before Roman contact. Figure 12 is an etching derived from a golden horn made in the 5th century and depicts specific religious ceremonies and rituals of the Germanic tribes. It seems to indicate that Germans had cults and rituals that had a sequential order. One possible explanation is that these images depict different rituals corresponding to different season, but this is not confirmed. Certain gods such as Wodan, Freyr and Tiwaz could possibly be identified, but again this is not certain. It is obvious from this, however, that Germans clearly respected and cherished warrior culture well after Roman contact. Every image depicts either gods, priests, or warriors with weapons. Again, this seems to indicate that Germanic tribes maintained and kept parts of their culture from before Roman contact and shaped their identity through this (Todd, 1992, 116-118).

By the 8th century, Germans would again feel the presence of Roman contact that would influence their culture through Charlemagne, who mimicked Roman rule. Coins were made that celebrated his rule, with KAROLVS IMP(erator) AVG(ustus), ushering back to the Roman princeps such as Nero and Augustus. A Roman-like culture also flourished under Charlemagne, particularly language regions west and south of the Rhineland continued to speak a crude version of Latin, that would slowly morph into the romance languages. Charlemagne himself spoke Latin, and encouraged it to be learned beyond the religious context (Krebs 60). His rule also brought back the rediscovering of lost Roman texts which included letters, books, manuscripts, and plays. This Roman literature would be reproduced and for some texts, remain the only known copies historians still have. It’s clear then, that even after multiple centuries devoid of Roman rule, the Germans were still heavily intertwined with Roman history, culture, and philosophy. Throughout the middle ages, Roman culture continued to be an underlying part of German culture.

Charlemagne’s rule also brought together the Germanic tribes under a ‘German Nation’. While previously separated, the German people began to form a more cohesive identity from this point onwards. Centering around the ‘German Nation’, the Holy Roman Empire helped to expedite the process. Under invasion from the Ottomans, the Holy Roman Empire, along with the Germans, were required to band together to fight against the invaders. Thus, in 1425 when Roman historian Cornelius Tacitus’ work Germania was rediscovered, the church immediately elected a member to gain the favors of the Germans so that they would, “seize arms and throw itself at the savage enemy for the preservation of the Christian faith” (Krebs 92). The one chosen to fill that role was Giannantonio Campano, a member of the cardinal’s circle, a cleric, and accomplished orator. He would effectively use the words of Tacitus in order to paint a portrait of a pristine German people. In an address towards a German audience, he reminded them of their history “I beseech you by the most glorious shadows of your ancestors: make sure that Germany is Germany and that it commands those fighters now whom it commanded then” (Krebs 94). However, it must also be emphasized that while Tacitus’ work heavily influenced Campano, his adaptations were never direct citations. Campano would cleverly use any means necessary—reorganization, embellishment, and occasionally falsification— in order to gain the favor of the Germans. Undeterred by his own lies, Campano continued to emphasize the harmony of the German people,

“You are called Germani because of your brotherly spirit . . . You have not mingled with other but bonded among yourselves, you have scored commerce abroad and foreign marriages; born under this very sky, you have always been the indigenous people of Germany, not immigrants from elsewhere; and the lifestyle that your forefathers had from the very beginning, you keep till the last” (Krebs 95-96).

The tremendous efforts of Campano in bringing together the German people could not be emphasized less. In the centuries to come, German purity and Tacitus would become one of the foundations contributing towards a heavily nationalistic Germany.

Beginning in the 19th century, German nationalism grew while under the subjugation of Napoleon’s French Empire. Prominent German speakers, politicians, speakers, thinkers and more began express a new idea of a perfect human race: the Aryan race. Their ideals were based off of the writings of Roman historian Tacitus and his Germania. Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, Tacitus would be referred to over and over again, used to influence generations of Germans into believing they were part of the perfect Aryan race. Nationalists continued to use Tacitus to validate their beliefs and push their agendas. It’s clear that ancient Rome was still affecting modern Germany.

At the forefront of the nationalist movement was Johann Gottlieb Fichte. He was a leading philosopher and had called for national reeducation. Particularly, he wanted the nation to embrace the qualities of Germans as described by Tacitus: “loyalty, uprightness, honor, and simplicity”. Tacitus had been the main inspiration of Fichte’s fourteen Addresses to the German Nation, where he described the occupation and subjugation of the German peoples by Napoleon’s French Empire. With Germany under partial control of the French, Fichte was afraid that German culture would be lost. As a call to arms, Fichte cited ancient chieftain Arminius, a German general in the Roman army that led a revolt and wiped out three Roman Legions under Varus. Just as Arminius had fought for freedom over a thousand years ago, “Now freedom required fighting once more, the more so as shaking off the French yoke would advance all of humanity” (Krebs 185).

Fichte’s Addresses was a success, but its influence was limited to “the minds of the cultivated class” as described by Prussian statesman Karl vom und zum Stein (Krebs 186). The next logical step was to voice nationalistic ideals to the general populous. Fichte looked towards his apprentice, Friedrich Kohlrausch, a renowned administrator and author. In 1816, Kohlrausch released the first volume of German History for School and Home. In it included a 30-page adaptation of Tacitus’ Germania, in which Kohlrausch claims “Our fatherland owes its freedom to this great victory in the Teutoburg Forest, and we, the descendants of those races, are indebted to it for the unmixed German blood which flows in our veins” (Krebs 191). However, in the adaptation, “Tacitus’s paragraph on Germanic purity and physiognomy received a racial taint and a vivid biological simile; both reflect anthropological and (para)scientific views” (Krebs 183). It was clear that he believed German purity justified his belief in their superiority. Kohlrausch’s book would go on to become one of Germany’s most popular books, reaching sixteen editions by 1875 along with various other successful translations and abridged versions. It contributed massively to sending the message of a united Germany to many households and the growth of the nationalist movement.

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Figure 13: A portrait of Heinrich Friedrich Theodor Kohlsrausch circa. 1820 (de.wikipedia). He we largely responsible for bringing the German nationalist movement into the homes of the middle class.

Unfortunately, Tacitus’ Germania would continue to be used as anecdotal evidence confirming the superiority of the Aryan race. The mid 18th century had seen a dramatic increase in scientific classifying from botanists and zoologists. Naturally, this led itself to the classification of humans as well. Through examining the skulls of various peoples, German scientists Johann Friedrich Blumenbach and Christoph Meiners came to the conclusion that Caucasians were the pinnacle of the human type, only strengthened by Tacitus’ ‘claims’ within the Germania. Fichte even went so far as to believe that the fate of the human race would be determined by the German people, “If you perish…, then there perishes together with you every hope of the whole human race for salvation” (Krebs 186). This was exacerbated by Ernst Moritz Arndt, whom wrote pamphlets on Tacitus’ chapter regarding the physiognomy and purity of the German people. In particular, he highlighted the section linking the decline of a people with the degeneration caused by miscegenation.

The rapid increase in German nationalism continued into the 20th century in full force. The völkisch movement, translated as the ‘excessive purity’ movement would become the basis for Hitler’s rise to power. The Germania in essence became the “bible that every thinking German should possess, as this booklet by the Roman patriot fills us with pride in our forefathers’ superior character” (Krebs 217) for the Nazi Party. It wouldn’t be until after World War II did Germany’s nationalism begin to see decline, more than one and a half millenniums after Roman contact began the intermingling of these drastically diverse cultures and over a centuries of quoting Tacitus.

With the intertwining of the German and Roman peoples, the Germans adopted much of Roman traditions. For example, we see a silver dish with the figure of Athena in Figure 1, a god that the Germans would have adopted while under Roman rule. However, Germans also kept parts of their own culture identity as well. Romans had bought wine into Germanic territories originally as a means to make their stay a little more welcome. While there are some wineries in Germany, it still holds true today that German drink more traditional beer compared to ‘only’ 20 litres of the former per year. As such, Germanic culture continued to change, with some traditions being replaced by Roman ones, and other kept in favor of Roman traditions. It’s clear then that Germanic culture inexplicably has Roman aspects, but also has elements distinct to itself.

All in all, this paper has shown that Germanic tribes initially did not see themselves as German, but rather identified themselves as whatever tribes or connection of tribes they belonged to. It first explored how pre-Roman contact Germanic tribes conducted their societies and how they viewed themselves. Following this, it showed how what occurred during Roman contact and how this affected the way Germans viewed themselves. Finally, it showed how the aftereffects of Roman contact formed German ethnicity and the way the Germanic peoples viewed themselves. Placing this thesis within modern day where Germany is a unified country separated from Scandinavia where many Germanic people lived during the Roman times, this notion that Germanic tribes considered themselves separate from one seems strange. This holds especially true contextualizing the way Nazi Germany appropriated Tacitus’ works and used it for their own purpose. However, this separation of ethnicity does seem to be how Germanic tribes viewed themselves based on textual and material evidence. No matter how Roman’s, or anyone else for that matter, portrayed them, one cannot deny this.

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