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From A Source Book of Mediæval History by Frederic Austin Ogg; American Book Company, New York; pp. 19-21.




1. A Sketch by Cæsar

ONE of the most important steps in the expansion of the Roman Republic was the conquest of Gaul by Julius Cæsar just before the middle of the first century B.C. Through this conquest Rome entered deliberately upon the policy of extending her dominion northward from the Mediterranean and the Alps into the regions of western and central Europe known to us to-day as France and Germany. By their wars in this direction the Romans were brought into contact with peoples concerning whose manner of life they had hitherto known very little. There were two great groups of these peoples — the Gauls and the Germans — each divided and subdivided into numerous tribes and clans. In general it may be said that the Gauls occupied what we now call France and the Germans what we know as Belgium, Holland, Denmark, Germany, and Austria. The Rhine marked a pretty clear boundary between them.

During the years B.C., Julius Cæsar, who had risen to the proconsulship through a long series of offices and honors at Rome, served the state as leader of five distinct military expeditions in this country of the northern barbarians. The primary object of these campaigns was to establish order among the turbulent tribes of Gauls and to prepare the way for the extension of Roman rule over them. This great task was performed very successfully, but in accomplishing it Cæsar found it necessary to go somewhat farther than had at first been intended. In the years 55 and 54 B.C., he made two expeditions to Britain to punish the natives for giving aid to their Celtic kinsfolk 20 in Gaul, and in 55 and 53 he crossed the Rhine to compel the Germans to remain on their own side of the river and to cease troubling the Gauls by raids and invasions, as they had recently been doing. When (about 51 B.C.) he came to write his Commentaries on the Gallic War, it is very natural that he should have taken care to give a brief sketch of the leading peoples whom he had been fighting, that is, the Gauls, the Britons, and the Germans. There are two places in the Commmentaries where the Germans are described at some length. At the beginning of Book IV. there is an account of the particular tribe known as the Suevi, and in the middle of Book VI. there is a longer sketch of the Germans in general. This latter is the passage translated below. Of course we are not to suppose that Cæsar’s knowledge of the Germans was in any sense thorough. At no time did he get far into their country, and the people whose manners and customs he had an opportunity to observe were only those who were pressing down upon, and occasionally across, the Rhine boundary — a mere fringe of the great race stretching back to the Baltic and, at that time, far eastward into modern Russia. We may be sure that many of the more remote German tribes lived after a fashion quite different from that which Cæsar and his legions had an opportunity to observe on the Rhine-Danube frontier. Still, Cæsar’s account, vague and brief as it is, has an importance that can hardly be exaggerated. These early Germans had no written literature and but for the descriptions of them left by a few Roman writers, such as Cæsar, we should know almost nothing about them. If we bear in mind that the account in the Commentaries was based upon very keen, though limited, observation, we can get out of it a good deal of interesting information concerning the early ancestors of the great Teutonic peoples of the world to-day.

Source — Julius Cæsar, De Bello Gallico [“The Gallic War”], Bk VI., Chaps. 21-23.

21.  The customs of the Germans differ widely from those of the Gauls;1 for neither have they Druids to preside over religious 21 services,2 nor do they give much attention to sacrifices. They count in the number of their gods those only whom they can Their
see, and by whose favors they are clearly aided; that is to say, the Sun, Vulcan,3 and the Moon. Of other deities they have never even heard. Their whole life is spent in hunting and in war. From childhood they are trained in labor and hardship. . . .

22.  They are not devoted to agriculture, and the greater portion of their food consists of milk, cheese, and flesh. No one Their system
of land tenure
owns a particular piece of land, with fixed limits, but each year the magistrates and the chiefs assign to the clans and the bands of kinsmen who have assembled together as much land as they think proper, and in whatever place they desire, and the next year compel them to move to some other place. They give many reasons for this custom — that the people may not lose their zeal for war through habits established by prolonged attention to the cultivation of the soil; that they may not be eager to acquire large possessions, and that the stronger may not drive the weaker from their property; that they may not build too carefully, in order to avoid cold and heat; that the love of money may not spring up, from which arise quarrels and dissensions; and, finally, that the common people may live in contentment, since each person sees that his wealth is kept equal to that of the most powerful.

  It is a matter of the greatest glory to the tribes to lay waste, as widely as possible, the lands bordering their territory, thus making them uninhabitable.4 They regard is as the best 22 proof of their valor that their neighbor are forced to withdraw from those lands and hardly any one dares set foot there; at the same time they think that they will thus be more secure, since the fear of sudden invasion is removed. When a tribe is either repelling an invasion or attacking an outside people, magistrates Leaders and
officers in war
and peace
are chosen to lead in the war, and these are given the power of life and death. In times of peace there is no general magistrate, but the chiefs of the districts and cantons render justice among their own people and settle disputes.5 Robbery, if committed beyond the borders of the tribe, is not regarded as disgraceful, and they say that it is practised for the sake of training the youth and preventing idleness. When any one of the chiefs has declared in an assembly that he is going to be the leader of an expedition, and that those who wish to follow him should give in their names, they who approve of the undertaking, and of the man, stand up and promise their assistance, and are applauded by the people. Such of these as do not then follow him are looked upon as deserters and traitors, and from that day no one has any faith in them.

To mistreat a guest they consider to be a crime. They protect German
from injury those who have come among them for any purpose whatever, and regard them as sacred. To them the houses of all are open and food is freely supplied.


1  In chapters 11-20, immediately preceding the present passage, Cæsar gives a comparatively full and minute description of Gallic life and institutions. He knew more about the Gauls than about the Germans, and besides, it was his experiences among them that he was writing about primarily.

2  The Druids were priests who formed a distinct and very individual class among the Gauls. They ascertained and revealed the will of the gods and were supreme in the government of the tribes. Druids existed also among the Britons.

3  By Vulcan Cæsar means the German god of fire.

4  Of the Suevi, a German tribe living along the upper course of the Danube, Cæsar says: “They consider it their greatest glory as a nation that the lands about their territories lie unoccupied to a very great extent, for they think that by this it is shown that a great number of nations cannot withstand their power; and thus on one side of the Suevi the lands are said to lie desolate for about six hundred miles.” — Gallic War, Bk. IV., Chap. 3.

5  This statement is an instance of Cæsar’s vagueness, due possibly to haste in writing, but more likely to lack of definite information. How large these districts and cantons were, whether they had fixed boundaries, and how the chiefs rendered justice in them are things we should like to know but are not told.


2. A Description by Tacitus

TACITUS (54-119),6 who is sometimes credited with being the greatest of Roman historians, published his treatise on the Origin, Location, Manners, and Inhabitants of Germany in the year 98. This was about a century and a half after Cæsar wrote his Commentaries. During this long interval we have almost no information as to how the Germans were living or what they were doing. There is much uncertainty as to the means by which Tacitus got his knowledge of them. We may be reasonably sure that he did not travel extensively through the country north of the Rhine; there is, in fact, not a shred of evidence that he ever visited it at all. He tells us that he made use of Cæsar’s account, but this was very meager and could not have been of much service. We are left to surmise that he drew most of his information from books then existing but since lost, such as the writings of Posidonius of Rhodes (136-51 B.C.) and Pliny the Elder (23-70). These sources were doubtless supplemented by the stories of officials and traders who had been among the Germans and were afterwards interviewed by the historian. Tacitus’s essay, therefore, while written with a desire to tell the truth, was apparently not based on first-hand information. The author nowhere says that he had seen this or that feature of German life. We may suppose that what he really did was to gather up all the stories and reports regarding the German barbarians which were already known to Roman traders, travelers, and soldiers, sift the true from the false as well as he could, and write out in first class Latin the little book which we know as the Germania. The theory that the work was intended as a satire, or sermon in morals, for the benefit of a corrupt Roman people ahs been quite generally abandoned, and this for the very good reason that there is nothing in either the treatise’s contents or style to warrant such a belief. Tacitus wrote the book because of his general interest in historical and geographical subjects, and also, perhaps, because it afforded him an excellent opportunity to display a literary skill in which he took no small degree of pride. That it was published separately instead of in one of his larger histories may have been due to public interest in the subject during Trajan’s wars in the Rhine country in the years 98 and 99. The first twenty-seven 24 chapters from which the selections below are taken, treat of the Germans in general — their origin, religion, family life, occupations, military tactics, amusements, land system, government, and social classes; the last nineteen deal with individual tribes, and are not so accurate or so valuable. It will be found interesting to compare what Tacitus says with what Cæsar says when both touch upon the same topic. In doing so it should be borne in mind that there was a difference in time of a century and a half between the two writers, and also that while Tacitus probably did not write from experience among the Germans, as Cæsar did, he nevertheless had given the subject a larger amount of deliberate study.

Source — C. Cornelius Tacitus, De Origine, Situ, Moribus, ac Populis Germanorum [known commonly as the “Germania”], Chaps. 4-24 passim. Adapted from translation by Alfred J. Church and William J. Brodribb (London, 1868), pp. 1-16. Text in numerous editions, as that of William F. Allen (Boston, 1882) and that of Henry Furneau (Oxford, 1894).

4.  For my own part, I agree with those who think that the tribes of Germany are free from all trace of intermarriage with Physical
foreign nations, and that they appear as a distinct, unmixed race, like none but themselves. Hence it is that the same physical features are to be observed throughout so vast a population. All have fierce blue eyes, reddish hair, and huge bodies fit only for sudden exertion. They are not very able to endure labor that is exhausting. Heat and thirst they cannot withstand at all, though to cold and hunger their climate and soil have hardened them.

6.  Iron is not plentiful among them, as may be inferred from the nature of their weapons.7 Only a few make use of swords or long lances. Ordinarily they carry a spear (which they call a framea), with a short and narrow head, but so sharp and easy to handle that the same weapon serves, according to circumstances, for close or distant conflict. As for the horse-soldier, he is satisfied with a shield and a spear. The foot-soldiers also scatter 25 showers of missiles, each man having several and hurling them to an immense distance, and being naked or lightly clad with a little cloak. They make no display in their equipment. Their shields alone are marked with fancy colors. Only a few have corselets,8 and just one or two here and there a metal or leather Their weapons
and mode of
helmet.9 Their horses are neither beautiful nor swift; nor are they taught various wheeling movements after the Roman fashion, but are driven straight forward so as to make one turn to the right in such a compact body that none may be left behind another. On the whole, one would say that the Germans’ chief strength is in their infantry. It fights along with the cavalry, and admirably adapted to the movements of the latter is the swiftness of certain foot-soldiers, who are picked from the entire youth of their country and placed in front of the battle line.10 The number of these is fixed, being a hundred from each pagus,11 and from this they take their name among their countrymen, so that what was at the outset a mere number has now become a title of honor. Their line of battle is drawn up in the shape of a wedge. To yield ground, provided they return to the attack, is regarded as prudence rather than cowardice. The bodies of their slain they carry off, even when the battle has been indecisive. To abandon one’s shield is the basest of crimes. A man thus disgraced is not allowed to be present at the religious ceremonies, or to enter the council. Many, indeed, after making a cowardly escape from battle put an end to their infamy by hanging themselves.12


7.  They choose their kings13 by reason of their birth, but their generals on the ground of merit. The kings do not enjoy unlimited or despotic power, and even the generals command more by example than by authority. If they are energetic, if they take a prominent part, if they fight in the front, they lead because they are admired. But to rebuke, to imprison, even to flog, is allowed to the priests alone, and this not as a punishment, or at the general’s bidding, but by the command of the god whom they believe to inspire the warrior. They also carry with them The Germans
in battle
into battle certain figures and images taken from their sacred groves.14 The thing that most strengthens their courage is the fact that their troops are not made up of bodies of men chosen by mere chance, but are arranged by families and kindreds. Close by them, too, are those dearest to them, so that in the midst of the fight they can hear the shrieks of woman and the cries of children. These loved ones are to every man the most valued witnesses of his valor, and at the same time his most generous applauders. The soldier brings his wounds to mother or wife, who shrinks not from counting them, or even demanding to see them, and who provides food for the warriors and gives them encouragement.

11.  About matters of small importance the chiefs alone take counsel, but the larger questions are considered by the entire tribe. Yet even when the final decision rests with the people the affair is always thoroughly discussed by the chiefs. Except in the case of a sudden emergency, the people hold their assemblies on certain fixed days, either at the new or the full moon; 27 for these they consider the most suitable times for the transaction Their popular
of business. Instead of counting by days, as we do, they count by nights, and in this way designate both their ordinary and their legal engagements. They regard the night as bringing on the day. Their freedom has one disadvantage, in that they do not all come together at the same time, or as they are commanded, but two or three days are wasted in the delay of assembling. When the people present think proper, they sit down armed. Silence is proclaimed by the priests who, on these occasions, are charged with the duty of keeping order. The king or the leader speaks first, and then others in order, as age, or rank, or reputation in war, or eloquence, give them right. The speakers are heard more because of their ability to persuade than because of their power to command. If the speeches are displeasing to the people, they reject them with murmurs; if they are pleasing, they applaud by clashing their weapons together, which is the kind of applause most highly esteemed.15

13.  They transact no public or private business without being armed, but it is not allowable for any one to bear arms until he has satisfied the tribe that he is fit to do so. Then, in the presence of the assembly, one of the chiefs, or the young man’s father, or some kinsman, equips him with a shield and a spear. These arms are what the toga is with the Romans, the first honor with which a youth is invested. Up to this time he is regarded as merely a member of a household, but afterwards as a member of the state. Very noble birth, or important service rendered by the father, secures for a youth the rank of chief, and such lads attach themselves 28 to men of mature strength and of fully tested valor. It is no shame to be numbered among a chief’s companions.16 The companions The chiefs and
their compan-
have different ranks in the band, according to the will of the chief; and there is great rivalry among the companions for first place in the chief’s favor, as there is among the chiefs for the possession of the largest and bravest throng of followers. It is an honor, as well as a source of strength, to be thus always surrounded by a large body of picked youths, who uphold the rank of the chief in peace and defend him in war. The fame of such a chief and his band is not confined to their own tribe, but is spread among foreign peoples; they are sought out and honored with gifts in order to secure either alliance, for the reputation of such a band may decide a whole war.

14.  In battle it is considered shameful for the chief to allow any of his followers to excel him in valor, and for the followers not to equal their chief in deeds of bravery. To survive the chief and return from the field is a disgrace and a reproach for life. To defend and protect him, and to add to his renown by courageous fighting is the height of loyalty. The chief fights for victory; the companions must fight for the chief. If their native state sinks into the sloth of peace and quiet, many noble youths The Germans
love of war
voluntarily seek those tribes which are waging some war, both because inaction is disliked by their race and because it is in war that they win renown most readily; besides, a chief can maintain a band only by war, for the men expect to receive their war-horse and their arms from their leader. Feasts and entertainments, though not elegant, are plentifully provided and constitute their only pay. The means of such liberality are best obtained from the booty of war. Nor are they as easily persuaded to plow the earth and to wait for the year’s produce as to challenge an enemy and earn the glory of 29 wounds. Indeed, they actually think it tame and stupid to acquire by the sweat of toil what they may win by their blood.17

15.  When not engaged in war they pass much of their time in the chase, and still more in idleness, giving themselves up to sleep and feasting. The bravest and most warlike do no work; they give over the management of the household, of the home, and of the land to the women, the old men, and the weaker Life in times
of peace
members of the family, while they themselves remain in the most sluggish inactivity. It is strange that the same men should be so fond of idleness and yet so averse to peace.18 It is the custom of the tribes to make their chiefs presents of cattle and grain, and thus to give them the means of support.19 The chiefs are especially pleased with gifts from neighboring tribes, which are sent not only by individuals, but also by the state, such as choice steeds, heavy armor, trappings, and neck-chains. The Romans have now taught them to accept money also.

16.  It is a well-known fact that the peoples of Germany have no cities, and that they do not even allow buildings to be erected close together.20 They live scattered about, wherever a spring, or 30 meadow, or a wood has attracted them. Their villages are not arranged in the Roman fashion, with the buildings connected and joined together, but every person surrounds his dwelling with an open space, either as a precaution against the disasters of Lack of cities
and towns
fire, or because they do not know how to build. They make no use of stone or brick, but employ wood for all purposes. Their buildings are mere rude masses, without ornament or attractiveness, although occasionally they are stained in part with a kind of clay which is so clear and bright that it resembles painting, or a colored design. . . .

23.  A liquor for drinking is made out of barely, or other grain, and fermented so as to be somewhat like wine. The dwellers Their food
and drink
along the river-bank21 also buy wine from traders. Their food is of a simple variety, consisting of wild fruit, fresh game, and curdled milk. They satisfy their hunger without making much preparation of cooked dishes, and without the use of any delicacies at all. In quenching their thirst they are not so moderate. If they are supplied with as much as they desire to drink, they will be overcome by their own vices as easily as by the arms of an enemy.

24.  At all their gatherings there is one and the same kind of amusement. This is the dancing of naked youths amid swords and German
lances that all the time endanger their lives. Experience gives them skill, and skill in turn gives grace. They scorn to receive profit or pay, for, however, reckless their pastime, its reward is only the pleasure of the spectators. Strangely enough, they make games of chance a serious employment, even when sober, and so venturesome are they about winning or losing that, when every other resource has failed, on the final throw of the dice they will stake even their own freedom. 31 He who loses goes into voluntary slavery and, though the younger and stronger of the players, allows himself to be bound and sold. Such is their stubborn persistence in a bad practice, though they themselves call it honor. Slaves thus acquired the owners trade off as speedily as possible to rid themselves of the scandal of such a victory.


6  All dates from this point, unless otherwise indicated, are A.D.

7  In reality iron ore was abundant in the German’s territory, but it was not until long after the time of Tacitus that much use began to be made of it. By the fifth century iron swords were common.

8  Coats of mail.

9  Defensive armor for the head and neck.

10  See Cæsar’s description of this mode of fighting. — Gallic War, Bk. I. Chap. 48.

11  The canton was known to the Romans as a pagus and to the Germans themselves as a gau. It was made up of a number of districts, or townships (Latin vicus, German dorf), and was itself a division of a tribe or nation.

12  A later law of the Salian Franks imposed a fine of 120 denarii upon any man who should accuse another of throwing down his shield and running away, without being able to prove it [see p. 64].

13  Many of the western tribes at the time Tacitus wrote did not have kings, though in eastern Germany the institution of kingship seems to have been quite general. The office, where it existed, was elective, but the people rarely chose a king outside of a privileged family, assumed to be of divine origin.

14  Evidently these were not images of their gods, for in another place (Chap. 9) Tacitus tells us that the Germans deemed it a dishonor to their deities to represent them in human form. The images were probably those of wild beasts, as the wolf of Woden (or Odin), or the ram of Tyr, and were national standards preserved with religious care in the sacred groves, whence they were brought forth when the tribe was on the point of going to war.

15  The German popular assembly was simply the periodical gathering of free men in arms for the discussion and decision of important points of tribal policy. It was not a legislative body in the modern sense. Law among the Germans was immemorial custom, which, like religion, could be changed only by a gradual shifting of popular belief and practice. It was not “made” by any process of deliberate and immediate choice. Nevertheless, the assembly constituted an important democratic element in the government, which operated in a measure to offset the aristocratic element represented by the principes and comitatus [see p. 28]. Its principal functions were the declaring of war and peace, the election of the kings, and, apparently, the hearing and deciding of graver cases at law.

16  This relation of principes (chiefs) and comites (companions) is mentioned by Cæsar [see p. 22]. The name by which the Romans designated the band of companions, or followers, of a German chieftain was comitatus.

17  Apparently the Germans did not now care much more for agriculture than in the time of Cæsar. The women, slaves, and old men sowed some seeds and gathered small harvests, but the warrior class held itself above such humble and unexciting employment. The raising of cattle afforded a principal means of subsistence, though hunting and fishing contributed considerably.

18  Compare the Germans and the North American Indians in this respect. The great contrast between these two peoples lay in the capacity of the one and the comparative incapacity of the other for development.

19  The Germans had no system of taxation on land or other property, such as the Romans had and such as we have to-day. It was not until well toward the close of the Middle Ages that the governments of kingdoms built up by the Germanic peoples in western Europe came to be maintained by anything like what we would call taxes in the modern sense.

20  The lack of cities and city life among the Germans struck Tacitus with the greater force because of the complete dominance of city organization to which he, as a Roman, was accustomed. The Greek and Roman world was made up, in the last analysis, of an aggregation of civitates, or city states. Among the ancient Greeks these had usually been independent; among the Romans they were correlated under the greater or lesser control of a centralized government; but among the Germans of Tacitus’s time, and long after, the mixed agricultural and nomadic character of the people effectually prevented the development of anything even approaching urban organization. Their life was that of the forest and the pasture, not that of forum, theatre, and circus.

21  That is, on the Rhine, where traders from the south brought in wines and other Roman products. The drink which the Germans themselves manufactured was, of course, a kind of beer.

[For the rest of Tacitus' Germania, go HERE — Elf.Ed.]


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