What Are the Origins of the Germanic Tribes?

Modern Rendition of Gothic Warriors

The fall of the Western Roman Empire in AD 476 was certainly one of the most events in world history, but unfortunately, it is often misrepresented in popular histories. The collapse is generally depicted as taking place due to the immense pressure and attacks of numerous Germanic tribes – Visigoths, Ostrogoths, Vandals, and Franks, to name a few – and some non-Germanic tribes, most notably the Huns.

Although these tribes were the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back, Rome had by the late fifth century done an efficient job of destroying itself through numerous internal problems, including epic levels of corruption, economic malfeasance, demographic stagnation, and a general decline in culture and the social order, to name a few. Outside of the halls of academia, the perspectives and backgrounds of the numerous Germanic tribes who issued the coup de grace are rarely considered.

The somewhat menacing and often colorful names of these tribes referred to collectively as “barbarians” due to Roman historiographical influences, are well-known. Yet, their origins and early movements are understudied and rarely discussed in popular media. Why these Germanic tribes began migrating and settling Europe, attacking and sometimes cooperating with the Romans, remains a mystery. Still, details of the process and how they attained the names they are known by today are known.

Archaeological and historiographical sources show that the Germanic tribes originated in Scandinavia and began moving south into Continental Europe after 1,000 BC. The mass of Germans then broke into two major branches. As centuries passed, those two branches further divided into smaller tribes that sometimes coalesced with other tribes into federations and new tribes, becoming the tribes that were later identified by the names for which they are known today.

The East and West Germanic Tribes

Map Depicting the Movement of the Germanic Tribes out of Scandinavia and into Continental Europe. The Arrows Show the Division of the Tribes into East and West

The ultimate geographic origin of the Germanic tribes was Scandinavia, with the restlessness of those tribes beginning sometime just after 1,000 BC. Still, it was between 600 and 300 BC when waves of Germans began leaving places such as Gotland en masse.

Archaeological and philological/linguistic evidence has aided scholars in narrowing down the chronology. Still, primary source documents written towards the end of the migrations have also helped shed light on this often dark period. The sixth century AD historian Jordanes, who was himself of Germanic background, wrote about Scandinavia as the wellspring of the Germanic tribes.

“Now from this island of Scandza, as from a hive of races or a womb of nations, the Goths are said to have come forth long ago under their king, Berig by name. As soon as they disembarked from their ships and set foot on the land, they straightway gave their name to the place. And even today, it is said to be called Gothi-scandia. Soon they moved from here to the abodes of the Ulmerugi, who then dwelt on the shores of Cocean, where they pitched camp, joined in battle with them, and drove them from their homes.” [1]

By the third century, the initial surge of Germanic peoples into Continental Europe had become a steady process that lasted well into the ninth century. This process came to be known by many different names, including the “Great Migrations,” “Barbarian Invasions,” and the German term, Völkerwanderung. [2]

The reason for the Germans’ initial movement out of Scandinavia are not clear, but once on the Continent the tribes found themselves fighting over land, creating a domino effect that added constant pressure to the Roman Empire’s borders. The arrival of the Huns in Europe in the fifth century proved to upend Europe's demographics even more, which eventually led to the formation of the early medieval European kingdoms. [3]

As the Germans divided into East and West groups, those who became the West Germans moved in a westerly direction from the Oder and Elbe rivers, displacing the Celts east of the Rhine and north of the Main rivers by about 200 BC. The Western Germans more readily adopted farming, sedentary lifestyles, and cooperation with the Romans than their more bellicose East German cousins.

The Romans assigned Latin names to these peoples who lived in today's nation-states of Belgium, the Netherlands, and western Germany, calling them the Tencteri, Cherusci, Chatti, Frisians, and Batavians, among many others. Some of those names persisted and can still be found in parts of the Low Countries, but many of these groups coalesced into larger, more organized tribes such as the Alamanni, Franks, Angles, and Saxons. [4]

In contrast to the West Germans, the East Germans were tribes that formed east of the Elbe River and tended to be more migratory and martial orientated, including Vandals, Goths, Gepids, and Burgundians. Among these, the Goths and Vandals are probably the best known and had the most impact on Rome in the fourth and fifth centuries. The Goths became a distinct group when they moved from the Vistula River region in Poland south to the Black Sea in AD 214. After arriving on the Black Sea's northern coast, the Goths split into the Visigoth (western) and Ostrogoth (eastern) tribes. [5] Jordanes wrote about how the division took place.

“Now Ablabius the historian relates that in Scythia, where we have said that they were dwelling above an arm of the Pontic Sea, part of them who held the eastern region and whose king was Ostrogotha, were called Ostrogoths, that is, eastern Goths, either from his name or from the place. But the rest were called Visigoths, that is, the Goths of the western country.” [6]

The Vandals were another notable Eastern German people, although they were a conglomeration of different Germanic tribes, and they became most prominent in Western Europe and North Africa. The Vandals were primarily comprised of two Germanic tribes – the Asdings and the Silings – who made a permanent alliance in the third and fourth centuries. By the early fifth century, the Vandals had entered Gaul (France) and were fighting a conglomeration of Western Germanic tribes known as the Franks. [7] After the Romans left Gaul in AD 406, the Vandals temporarily filled the void but were driven south into Spain by the Franks in 409. [8] By the early fifth century, Germanic culture became more widespread and influential in Europe. Still, it was also the beginning of an era of constant conflict between Germans and Romans.

Challenging Rome

Reconstruction of a Germanic Palisade Style Fort

As is so often the case throughout history, cultural differences were often the cause of conflict between the Germans and Romans. Although the Germans often wanted the luxuries of Rome and even be Roman to a certain extent, they wished to retain many cultural attributes. For their part, the Romans thought of the Germans as barbarians, but they were often willing to employ them in their military.

Although ancient German culture varied from tribe to tribe, there were many commonalities, which were often contrasted sharply with Rome’s culture. In terms of government, some Germanic tribes were republics that elected kings, while others were absolute hereditary monarchies. Most tribes had an assembly of freemen who were sovereign, with veto power over the king. [9] To the Romans, the ideal leader was diplomatic and statements, but to the Germans, he was a warlord whose position was safe as long as he showed bravery and won on the battlefield.

As much as the Germans’ style of kingship may have differed from the Romans’ form of government, religion divided the communities the most and was often the cause of conflict. The Germans originally followed an ancient warrior religion similar to that practiced by the Vikings until the late tenth century. In fact, many of the Franks were still practicing this religion into the fourth century. [10] Most Germans, though, had accepted Christianity in the third and fourth centuries, but it was a theology considered heretical by the Roman Church.

Most ancient Germans followed the Christian theology known as Arianism, named for the theologian Arius of Alexandria. Arius disputed the Trinity and believed that Jesus was human, causing quite a rift with the Church and its official doctrine, especially when the “Arian heresy” as it became known as gained in popularity with the Germans. [11] To the Germans, Arianism seemed more than reasonable, as they were a people not impressed with abstract ideas. Arianism may not have been the primary cause of conflict between the Germans and Romans, but it was often a contributing factor to the constant tensions and was at times a casus belli war.

Conflict and Resolution

Map of Europe Showing the Geographical Distribution of the Germanic Tribes and Some other Peoples in AD 460

One of the earliest and most impactful conflicts between Rome and the Germanic tribes took place in AD 247 when the Visigoths challenged the Roman rule in southeastern Europe. As the Visigoths began claiming more Roman land in the region, Emperor Decius (ruled 249-251) personally led an army to defeat the Germans in 251, but the Romans were decimated, and the emperor was killed. [12] The Visigoths continued to move westward across the limes of the Roman Empire, sieging Rome in 408 and sacked it in 410 before moving farther west. The Visigoths' actions opened the frontier up for their Ostrogoth cousins to establish themselves just north of Italy, in Pannonia, in the fifth century. [13]

As noted earlier, the West Germans generally took a more peaceful approach in their relations with the Romans, but they were always willing to gain more land by taking advantage of Roman weakness. The Franks were among the first of the Germanic tribes to take political advantage of Rome’s deterioration. The Frankish King Childeric (d. 481) allied with Rome against the Visigoths in 463 or 464, which earned the Franks status as a federate of Rome. [14] Federated status essentially gave the Franks and Gaul autonomy, and many of the Frankish elite were able to earn Roman citizenship.

The Visigoths had already attained federate status during the rule of Constantine the Great (324-337), when they agreed to quit attacking the empire in return for the status and a yearly supply of grain. [15] Obviously, the Visigoths were not entirely pleased with the deal, but the Romans later gave them Spain in the fourth century when they decided that the Visigoths were easier to deal with than the Vandals.

The Ostrogoths also adopted a sedentary life when their ruler Odovacar (ruled 476-493) accepted the Eastern Roman Emperor Zeno’s authority (ruled 474-491) after Augustulus abdicated the throne in the West in 476. [16] Other Germanic tribes continued to wander and clash in central Europe, but the Goths and Franks had evolved from tribes to medieval kingdoms by the sixth century.

Conclusion

The ancient Germanic tribes and their migrations throughout Europe in the first millennium AD are a pivotal period in world history, but the origins of those tribes are often misunderstood. From their primordial home in Scandinavia, the Germanic tribes flowed into Continental Europe after 1,000 BC and had divided into the West Germans and East Germans within a few hundred years. From those two divisions arose many tribes – such as the Franks, Vandals, Goths, and others – who would battle each other and Rome on their way to establishing the foundations of medieval Europe.

References

  1. Jordanes. Getica. Translated by Charles Christopher Mierow. (Cambridge, United Kingdom: Speculum Historiale, 1960), IV, 25-26
  2. Goffart, Walter. Barbarian Tides: The Migration Age and the Later Roman Empire. (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006), p. 13
  3. Goffart, p. 21
  4. Bury, J. B. The Invasion of Europe by the Barbarians. (New York: W. W. Norton, 1967), pgs. 5-9
  5. Bury, p. 16
  6. Jordanes, XIV, 82
  7. Bury, pgs. 81-82
  8. Bury, 103
  9. Bury, pgs. 12-12
  10. Miller, David Henry. “Ethnogenesis and Religious Revitalization beyond the Roman Frontier: The Case of the Frankish Origins.” Journal of World History 4 (1993) p. 282
  11. Haugaard, William P. “Arius: Twice a Heretic? Arius and the Human Soul of Jesus Christ.” Church History 29 (1960) p. 252
  12. Bury, p. 21
  13. Bury, p. 178
  14. Bury, p. 225
  15. Bury, p. 24
  16. Bury, p. 167