The concept of "Germanic" as a distinct ethnic identity was hinted at by the early Greek geographer Strabo, who distinguished a barbarian group in northern Europe similar to, but not part of, the Celts. Posidonius, to our knowledge, is the first to have used the name, around 80 BC, in his lost 30th book. Our knowledge of this is based on the 4th book of Athenaeus, who in ca. AD 190 quotes Posidonius as saying that "The Germani at noon serve roast meat with milk, and drink their wine undiluted".
By the 1st century A.D., the writings of Caesar, Tacitus and other Roman era writers indicate a division of Germanic-speaking peoples into tribal groupings centred on:
· the rivers Oder and Vistula (Poland) (East Germanic tribes), (the Vindili);
· the lower Rhine river (Istvaeones);
· the river Elbe (Irminones or Hermiones);
· Jutland and the Danish islands (Ingvaeones);
· the territory of Dacia, close to modern Rumania (the Peucini and Bastarnae);
· Scandinavia (the Hilleviones).
The Germanic tribes were each politically independent, under a hereditary king. The kings appear to have claimed descendancy from mythical founders of the tribes
Regarding the question of ethnic origins, evidence developed by archaeologists and linguists suggests that a people or group of peoples sharing a common material culture dwelt in northern Germany and southern Scandinavia during the late European Bronze Age (1000 BC-500 BC). This culture group is called the Nordic Bronze Age and spread from southern Scandinavia into northern Germany. The long presence of Germanic tribes in southern Scandinavia – an Indo-European language had probably arrived by 2000 BC – is also evidenced by the fact that no pre-Germanic place names have been found in this area.
Cultural features at that time included small, independent settlements, and an economy strongly based on the keeping of livestock.
Archaeological evidence suggests that before their language differentiation (into the individual Germanic branches), the Germanic peoples existed in a region covering from southern Scandinavia and all along North Sea and Baltic coasts from the Meuse river in the west to the Vistula in the east around 750 BC.
The southward movement was probably influenced by a deteriorating climate in Scandinavia ca 600 BC – ca 300 BC. The warm and dry climate of southern Scandinavia (2–3 degrees warmer than today) deteriorated considerably, which not only dramatically changed the flora, but forced people to change their way of living and to leave their settlements.
At around this time, this culture discovered how to extract bog iron from the ore in peat bogs. Their technology for gaining iron ore from local sources may have helped them expand into new territories.
The Germanic culture grew to the southwest and southeast, without sudden breaks, and it can be distinguished from the culture of the Celts inhabiting the more southerly Danube and Alpine regions during the same period.
The details of the expansion are known only generally, but it is clear that the forebears of the Goths were settled on the southern Baltic shore by 100 AD. According to some scholars, along the lower and middle Rhine, previous local inhabitants seem to have come under the leadership of Germanic figures from outside.
The early Germanic tribes spoke mutually intelligible dialects, and shared a common culture and mythology, as is indicated by Beowulf and the Volsunga saga. One example of their shared identity is their common Germanic name for non-Germanic peoples, *walhaz (plural of *walhoz), from which the local names Welsh, Wallis, etc. were derived. A second example of a recognized ethnic unity is the fact that the Romans knew them as one and gave them a common name, Germani, although it was well known for the Romans to give geographical rather than cultural names to peoples. This is the source of our German and Germanic.
In the absence of large-scale political unification, the various tribes remained free, led by their own hereditary or chosen leaders.
Solid historical information begins about 50 BC when Julius Caesar's Gallic Wars brought the Romans into contact with Germanic as well as Celtic peoples.
Both archaeology and Caesar's own account of his wars show that Germanic tribes then lived on both sides of the Rhine. In fact, broadly similar archaeological cultures from this period stretch across central Europe from the Rhine to the Vistula River (in modern Poland), and Germanic peoples probably dominated all these areas. Germanic cultures extended from Scandinavia to as far south as the Carpathians. These Germans led a largely settled agricultural existence. They practiced mixed farming, lived in wooden houses, did not have the potter's wheel, were nonliterate, and did not use money. The marshy lowlands of northern Europe have preserved otherwise perishable wooden objects, leather goods, and clothing and shed much light on the Germanic way of life. These bogs were also used for ritual sacrifice and execution, and some 700 “bog people” have been recovered. Their remains are so well preserved that even dietary patterns can be established; the staple was a gruel made of many kinds of seeds and weeds.
In general, all Germanic tribes were far less advanced than their Roman contemporaries. For example, they engaged in so little commerce that cattle, rather than money, sufficed as a measure of value. According to the Roman historian Tacitus, the Germans were notorious as heavy drinkers and gamblers.
On the other hand, Tacitus praised their courage, respect for women, and freedom from many Roman vices.
A favorite amusement was listening to the tribal bards recite old tales of heroes and gods.
Each warrior leader had a retinue of followers, who were linked to him by personal loyalty. According to Tacitus, on the field of battle it is a disgrace to the chief to be surpassed in valour by his companions, to the companions not to come up to the valour of their chief.
As for leaving a battle alive after your chief has fallen, that means lifelong infamy and shame. To defend and protect him, to put down one’s own acts of heroism to his credit – that is what they really mean by "allegiance." The chiefs fight for victory, the companions for their chief.
Clear evidence of social differentiation appears in these cultures. Richly furnished burials (containing jewelry and sometimes weapons) have been uncovered in many areas, showing that wealthy warrior elite was developing. Powerful chiefs became a standard feature of Germanic society, and archaeologists have uncovered the halls where they feasted their retainers, an activity described in the Anglo-Saxon poem Beowulf. This warrior elite followed the cult of a war god, such as Tyr (Tiu) or Odin (Wodan).
This elite was also the basis of political organization. The Germanic peoples comprised numerous tribes that were also united in leagues centred on the worship of particular cults. These cults were probably created by one locally dominant tribe and changed over time. Tribes belonging to such leagues came together for an annual festival, when weapons were laid aside. Apart from worship, these were also times for economic activity, social interaction, and settling disputes.
Find more about Germanic tribes at
· DUERINCK’S GERMANIC TRIBES PORTAL http://www.duerinck.com
· ENCYCLOPEDIA MYTHICA http://www.pantheon.org/articles/o/odin.html