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The term Germanic peoples or Germanic tribes applies to the ancient Germanic peoples. The concept of "Germanic" as a distinct ethnic identity was hinted at by such early geographers as Strabo and Ptolemy, who distinguished a barbarian group in northern Europe separate from the Celts. Julius Caesar, to our knowledge, is the first to have used the name, in his work on The Gallic Wars (De bello Gallico).
In ancient times, many barbarian tribes were given the broad label of Germanic (Latin: Germanicus) by the Romans. In the absence of large-scale political unification, such as that imposed by the Romans upon the peoples of Italy, it is doubtful that most of these groups viewed themselves as connected in any direct political sense. The idea of a single German people, or Volk, is a relatively recent development, largely invented by 19th century Nationalist writers after the disastrous Napoleonic Wars.
They did, however, have a name for non-Germanic peoples, Walha, from which the local names Welsh, Wallis, Walloon, and Wallachia have been derived. They also spoke mutually intelligible dialects and shared a common mythology and story telling as testified by f.i. Beowulf and the Saga of the Volsungs.
Regarding the question of their origins, evidence developed by both archaeologists and linguists suggests that a people or group of peoples sharing a common material culture dwelt in northernmost Germany, Jutland, the Danish Islands and southern Scandinavia (southern Norway and Sweden) during the late European Bronze Age (1000-500 B.C.E.). This area is also the only part of Europe which only shows place names of Germanic origin. This west-Baltic cultural grouping, which emerges, without sudden breaks, in the archaeological record of the Northern European Plain, can be distinguished from the culture of the Celts inhabiting the more southerly Danube and Alpine regions during the same period. Cultural features at that time included small, independent settlements and an economy strongly based on the keeping of livestock.
Many details of early movement and change within this group remain obscure, but by the late 2nd century, B.C.E., Roman authors recount, Gaul, Italy and Spain were invaded by migrating Germanic tribes, culminating in military conflict with the armies of republican Rome. Julius Caesar, six decades later, invoked the threat of such attacks as one justification for his annexation of Gaul to Rome. By the 1st century of the Common Era, the writings of Caesar, Tacitus and other Roman and Mediterranean writers indicate a division of Germanic-speaking peoples into tribal groupings centred on:
- the lower Rhine river,
- the river Elbe,
- the river Vistula (Poland),
- Jutland, Scania and the Danish islands.
As Rome advanced her borders to the Rhine and Danube, incorporating many Celtic societies into the Empire, the tribal homelands to the north and east emerged collectively in the records as Germania, whose peoples were sometimes at war with the Empire but who also engaged in complex and long-term trade relations, military alliances and cultural exchanges with their neighbours to the south.
During the 5th century, as the Roman Empire drew toward its end, numerous Germanic tribes began migrating en masse (Völkerwanderung) in far and diverse directions, taking them to England and northern Scandinavia at the northern tip of Europe and as far south through present day Continental Europe to the Mediterranean and Africa. Over time, the wandering meant intrusions into other tribal territories and the ensuing wars for land claims escalated with the dwindling amount of unoccupied territory. Nomadic tribes then began the staking out of permanent homes as a means of protection. Much of this resulted in fixed settlements from which many, under a powerful leader, expanded outwards. A defeat meant either scattering or merging with the dominant tribe and this continued to be how nations were formed. In England, for example, we now most often refer to the Anglo-Saxons rather than the two separate tribes.
Role of the Germanics in the Fall of Rome
Some of the Germanic tribes are frequently blamed in popular conceptions for the "Fall" of the Roman Empire in the late 5th century. Professional historians and archaeologists have since the 1950s shifted their interpretations in such a way that the Germanic peoples are no longer seen as invading a decaying empire but as being co-opted into helping defend territory the central government could no longer adequately administer. Individuals and small groups from Germanic tribes had long been recruited from the limes (i.e. the border regions) of the Roman world, and had risen high in the command structure of the army - Odoacer, who deposed Romulus Augustulus, is an example. Later the government of the Empire began to recruit whole tribal groups under their native leaders as officers. Assisting with defence eventually shifted into administration, and then outright rule, as Roman traditions of government passed into the hands of Germanic tribal leaders.
The presence of successor states controlled by a nobility from one of the Germanic tribes is evident in the 6th century - even in Italy, the former hearth of the Empire, where Odoacer was followed by Theodoric the Great, leader of the Ostrogoths, who was regarded by Roman citizens and Gothic settlers alike as a legitimate successor to the rule of Rome and Italy.
The concept of Volk
Perhaps more important in the last decade of the 20th century and the first decade of the 21st has been the debate about exactly what "tribe" or "people" meant to these groups, whose fluidity and willingness to sometimes blend is seen while at the same time forced mergers as a result of war were taking place and the tribe as it has been known vanished. The late classical sources are especially clear in the matter of the blended nature of the Alamanni.
The Ostrogoths, Visigoths, and Vandals were converted to Christianity while they were still outside the bounds of the Empire; however, they were converted to the Arianism rather than to orthodox Catholicism, and were soon to be seen as heretics. The one great written remnant of the Gothic language is a translation of portions of the Bible made by Ulfilas, the missionary who converted them. The Lombards were not converted until after their entrance into the Empire, but received Christianity from Arian Germanic groups.
The Franks were converted directly from paganism to Catholicism without an intervening time as Arians. Several centuries later, Frankish missionaries and warriors led by Charlemagne undertook the conversion of their northern Saxon neighbours by armed force, in a series of campaigns directly parallel with the incorporation of Saxon lands into the Frankish empire.
See also: Confederations of Germanic Tribes