Julius Caesar’s Commentaries on the War in Gaul,published in 51 BC, gives us a glimpse of Germany at the very moment when the Romans reached it; while Tacitus’ monograph on Germany appeared in AD 98, when Roman civilization had long been established on its western and southern borders, and contact between Gemany and the Roman Empire had been direct and unbroken for many years. It is not surprising, then, that the social life of the Germans which Tacitus described was in many ways different from what Caesar had seen 150 years earlier.
In Caesar’s time, Germanic society was rather primitive. The private ownership of land was still unknown. The Germans were ardent hunters, but they did not hunt for sport only. They did so of necessity, and the game which they took formed an integral part of their food supply and provided them with some of their clothing. They were also food-gatherers: they collected and ate wild fruits and berries as a staple part of their diet. The life of the early Germans was one of poverty, want, and hardship.
The early Germans also possessed flock and herds. These together with hunting supplied them with the greater part of their foodstuffs — meat, milk, cheese.
The Romans knew that, although some Germanic tribes resembled the nomads in certain ways, the Germans were nonetheless distinct from the ordinary nomads. True, they were hunters, food-gatherers and stock-breeders in the first place, but their primitive agriculture was by no means negligible: its importance will have varied from place to place according to local conditions but if a more fertile tract of land than their own were found to be lying empty or weakly defended beyond their frontier, a whole tribe might be expected to migrate into it.
Although Tacitus believed that the Germans grew corn crops only, a wide variety of root-crops and vegetables was in fact known to them. In a word, although crop-raising was subordinate to stock-breading, it was nevertheless an essential part of the Germanic economy.
In the middle of the first century BC a Germanic people was composed of a number of kindreds or clans. These clans were grouped together in larger units which have been called ‘tribes’. Of these little is known, but it seems that the elders or leading men of each tribe formed a council which allocated the arable land every year and that they acted as mediators in disputes which broke out within the tribe. There is no clear evidence, however, for the existence of a central, confederate council of the elders of the whole people, except in wartime.
In time of war an unknown number of chieftains was elected.
They led the forces of the people, for some tribes federated to such an extent that they put their military forces under some sort of central leadership. Caesar gives no hint that any one of the chieftains had greater authority than the others: they were joint leaders. As long as the war lasted, they are said to have had the power of life and death over the warriors whom they led.
It was still the case among some Germanic tribes of Tacitus’ time and among the Visigoths in the time of Ulfila (4th c.) that there was normally no one over-all peacetime chieftain. The process of development of the Germanic ethnos covering many centuries culminated for most tribes in the stage of military democracy which was retained up to the period of the Great Migration. Later on, the social organization of the Germans took different forms: the tribes moving eastwards (mostly the East Germanic tribes) had already introduced a kingship confined to certain families while the western tribes merely had a warrior nobility heading the broad mass of the common freemen. “However, even Tacitus in his Germania indicates that a rapid further differentiation took place in this nobility through contact with the Romans. A particular characteristic of the warrior nobility of higher rank was their following or retinue, in which younger warriors, bound by oath, acquired warlike qualities in the service of a proven leader. These followings … frequently consisted of hundreds of men and naturally enhanced the power and reputation of their individual chiefs who, in many cases, was also the commander of a tribal contingent (dux) or, with the development of larger tribes, even king (rex) ”[Diesner 1978].