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Map of ancient Germany created in 1849.

The name Germania was given by the Romans to the areas east of the Rhine and north of the upper and middle Danube. The term “Germans”, the Romans borrowed from the Gauls, but no one knows where the name really came from, or why the Gauls called their neighbours across the Rhine so. Germania was inhabited mainly by Germanic tribes. The Germanic tribes themselves are well described in the 1st century CE, Tacitus “Germania” (De origine et situ Germanorum, literally “On the Origin and Country of the Germans”). This is one of the tribes that was never completely subjugated to the Roman Empire. The Romans managed to cross the Rhine only a few times, but they never managed to subjugate the territory of today’s Germany for a long period of time. The Rhine became the contractual border of Rome in the east, and no later emperor sought to expand the territory to the east. The provinces that were created were called: Germania Superior (Upper Germany) and Germania Inferior (Lower Germany), which were created at the end of the first century CE on the left bank of the Rhine.

The Germans were a group of Indo-European peoples separated at the turn of the 2nd and 1st millennium BCE in the Jutland Peninsula, Schleswig-Holstein, Danish islands and southern Scandinavia. From these areas, the Germans began to expand to the north (Scandinavia) and south (Germania). The West Germans reached the Rhine and the upper Danube. The tribes that can be distinguished are: Ingweoni (tribes of the Angles, Varynes, and Frisians), Istewoni (tribes of the Batavians, Cheruscans, Ubii and others) and Herminoni (tribes of the Suevi, Marcomanni, Quadi, Lombards and others). East Germans: Goths, Gepids, Vandals and others reached the shores of the Black Sea.

Author of Germania – Publius Cornelius Tacitus.

Germania covered an area of about 500,000 square kilometres, between the Baltic Sea from the north, the Danube from the south, the Vistula from the east and the Rhine from the west. The population of these lands in the 1st century BCE was about 5 million people.

The first contact between the Germans and the Romans began at the end of the 2nd century BCE The Cimbri and Teutons on northern Italy stopped in 101 BCE Gaius Marius. In the 1st century BCE, the Germans occupied central Europe and fought the Romans, who sought to control the area between the Rhine and the Elbe. In 15 BCE, Roman legions occupied southern Germany through the victorious campaigns of the adopted sons of Emperor Octavian Augustus: Tiberius and Drusus. In 7 CE, Publius Quinctilius Varus was appointed governor of Germany, from whom successes and the creation of the province were expected. For the position of commander of the auxiliary forces, he appointed a certain Arminius – a young nobleman who was a German brought up in the land of the Romans. As it turned out, the years spent outside his homeland did not deprive him of his patriotism. Having gained the trust of Varus, he lured the Roman army into a trap, which resulted in the famous defeat of the Romans in 9 CE in the Teutoburg Forest. Six years later, in CE 16, the great general Germanicus defeated Arminius’ forces, found the site of defeat, and buried the remains of the three legions.

Triumph of Germanicus. Tiberius was extremely jealous of Germanicus’ successes. After defeating Arminius on the Weser in 16 CE, the young commander returned to Rome and received the right to triumph. The march was attended by Arminius’ wife, Thusnelda, and their children.

In the 1st and 2nd centuries CE, the Romans launched expeditions against the Germans, without much success; using a policy of intrigue and bribery, however, they managed to impose their supremacy on the frontier tribes of Frisians, Batavians, Cheruscans, Marcomanni and others. The Romans around 75 CE located the border and based it on many forts, including Waldmoessingen and Rottweil. The long-term proximity of Rome influenced the economic, social and cultural development of the Germans, which was manifested in the adoption of many achievements of an ancient civilization.

Over time, Rome began to weaken. In the years 260-455 CE, we are dealing with the growing pressure of the Germans, who forced the Romans to settle more tribes in the border areas and to accept barbarians into the army. At the end of the fourth century, Hunnic pressure forced the Goths, and then other Germans, to new and successful attempts to break through the Roman frontiers; great migrations of German peoples. led to their gradual settlement in the territory of the Roman Empire and the establishment of independent kingdoms, including: Vandals in Africa, Suvia and Visigoths in Spain, Franks and Burgundians in Gaul, Ostrogoths and Lombards in Italy, Angels, Saxons and Jutes in Britain; outside of Britain, where the invaders formed the ethnic basis of the English nation. The settlement of tribes within the borders of the Empire led to the creation of future European states.

In 410 CE, the capture of Rome by the Visigoths took place; and in 455 by the Vandals. It was the triumph of the Germans over the Romans and a symbol of the changing times.

Map of the Roman Empire and Germania in the 2nd century CE, with the location of some tribes described by the historian.
By: D. Bachmann | Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 license.

Germanic army and armaments

Germanic warriors were almost always equipped with spears. The mere acquisition of warrior status was most likely associated with receiving this weapon.

But no one is allowed to bear arms according to custom until he is declared fit by the community. Then in the assembly itself, either one of the elders, or the father, or relatives adorn the young man with a shield and a frame.

Tacitus, Germania

This type of weapon was not only of military importance. It also symbolized position in the tribe. The owner of the spear was a full participant in the thing, whereby vapnatak (shaking the weapon) he could express his will. There is even a hypothesis that there were parade copies of this weapon, intended only for non-military purposes. Archaeological finds seem to confirm this. The intricate decorations of some arrowheads are a good example of this.
In the beginning, a few words about the construction of pole weapons, which, as the name suggests, must have a shaft – a wooden stake, a bar on which the spearhead is mounted on one side, and on the other there can be a toque. A toque is the metal finish on the shaft, most likely used to lock the weapon to the ground, but it can also be used in combat when the spear loses its main blade. The tip itself consists of several elements: a sleeve (a metal tube that is an extension of the blade into which the shaft is inserted), a leaf (i.e. the main, combat part of the tip), or a rib (a protuberance located in the long axis of the tip in the middle) and barbs (making it difficult to extract the arrowhead from the body). In general, polearms can be divided into three groups: the first – used only for throwing, the second – adapted to close combat and the third group – combining the features of the first two.

[…] but they generally carry a spear, (called in their language framea) which has an iron blade, short and narrow, but so sharp and manageable, that, as occasion requires, they employ it either in close or distant fighting.

Tacitus, Germania, 6

The invaluable “Germania” (a chapter of Tacitus’s work) brings us closer to the description of the main weapon of the barbarians of that time. It is clear that the Germanic framea is universal. In other fragments of the quoted work, the author also mentions other types of pole weapons, calling them misilla, or projectiles. This suggests that Germanic foot warriors were most often armed with two types of such weapons: a javelin for ranged combat and a spear for close combat, which could also be thrown if necessary. According to the author, mounted warriors are content with a frame and a shield. Another source confirming the possession of javelins by the tribes beyond the Rhine is the speech Germanica contained in “Annales” by Tacitus. Speaking to the troops and wanting to boost their morale, Germanicus says that only the first rank of the barbarians have hasta-spears, and those that follow are only armed with bundles of fire-scorched spears.

Archaeological research seems to confirm the observations of Tacitus. Spearheads are the most common military archaeological find. The diversity of their morphology is incredible. You can find single, unique pieces, as well as entire series, produced as if to order. They also differ in size. Some researchers adopt a conventional division into arrowheads up to 15 cm long, most often with barbs – this group may correspond to javelins; and points longer than 15 cm, without barbs, corresponding to spear points. Such a division has a logical justification. Well, the barbs, as it is known, serve to make it difficult to pull out of the body or the shield – that is, rather, they concern javelins. The point of the spear, intended for close combat, had to easily slip out of the opponent’s body in order to be able to use it further. There is also an opinion that broad-leaf arrowheads were used to fight an unprotected opponent, while narrow ones with greater penetrating power were more suitable to hit effectively covered with armour. In the graves of Germanic warriors of the first century CE, two heads of different morphology were found, roughly equivalent to a javelin and a spear. Over time, i.e. from the end of the 1st century CE, identical or very similar caves can be found in the remains of the burial. This may suggest the emergence of a universal weapon – framei – described by Tacitus, whose work comes from this period. The above arguments seem to be confirmed by the fact that close combat with two spears plus a shield is very inconvenient. Rather, the first spear was thrown from a distance, so that with only one spear it was convenient to stumble with the enemy.

In written sources dealing with the Germans, there is one more type of pole weapon, referred to as hastae prolongae or enormes hastae. It is assumed that this applies to a spear with a very long shaft. In the speech mentioned above, Germanicus raises this issue by undermining the fighting qualities of the barbarians, saying that their long spears get caught in the branches of trees, making them unwieldy in battle. Was there such a kind of very long spear? Currently, it is difficult to answer this question unequivocally. Finds of preserved shafts of Germanic spears are unique. Their actual length is currently determined based on the location of the arrowhead in the warrior’s grave. Of course, this is an estimate. The archaeological research in the Danish marshes in the town of Thorsbeg turned out to be a breakthrough in this respect. Preserved wooden elements of a spear and a javelin were found there. Their dimensions are different, ranging from 0.5 to 3 meters. Generally, it can be assumed that they most often measured from 2.7 to 3 meters. These data concern the so-called northern barbaricum. It might be different elsewhere. It is believed that near the borders of Rome, weapons of almost a standardized length of about 2 m were used. On the other hand, iconographic analysis, e.g. of the column of Marcus Aurelius, leads to the assumption that the pole weapon had a length corresponding to the height of the owner. To sum up – the current state of knowledge does not allow to clearly determine what type of pole weapon, in a specific part of the barbaricum, and what length it was. In conclusion, I would like to add that modern sports javelins are 2.6-2.7 meters, which is close to the German average.

The above-mentioned mud discoveries also called the discoveries from the Illerup swamp, also suggest that the Germanic spears had a loop, i.e. a kind of thong attached to the shaft, which served to increase the range of the throw and stabilize the flight. The old stereotype that the spears of the barbarians were mounted on shafts of branches has also crumbled into “rubble”. Copies found in swamps indicate that the spars were cut from boards obtained from thick tree trunks. Some spearheads had holes on the sleeve, presumably used to attach decorations to the weapon. It could have been horsehair or other ornaments not very resistant to time, which have not survived to this day. The aesthetic passions of barbarian warriors are perfectly illustrated by numerous finds of spearheads with rich ornamentation. Various techniques were used here. There are punched pieces, they are also inlaid with other metals, as well as etched with acids. The engraving was also valued – sometimes runic inscriptions or magical signs are found on them – concentric circles, spherical triangles, forks, and even the image of a fish.

Another weapon that was willingly used by the Germans was the sword. It is obvious that not everyone could afford such a weapon. Tacitus writes: “They seldom use swords.” And no one is surprised. Even in the Middle Ages, the cost of the sword made it the weapon of the upper classes. According to archaeological research, every fourth grave of a Germanic warrior is equipped with a sword. This statistic even worsens over the years, reaching every tenth warrior in later centuries. So far, it is not known whether this is related to the impoverishment of the population or, for example, to increased birth rate. Germanic warriors used two types of swords: single-edged and double-edged. It is generally assumed that single-edged specimens are older, so I will start with them.

Very often, this type of weapon is identified with the breves gladii, i.e. short swords, described by Tacitus, and it is possible that this view is correct, as single-edged weapons are usually much smaller than double-edged ones. Their length ranged from 57-75 cm, and the width of the blade was 2.3-6 cm. The genesis of this weapon is usually derived from combat knives-cords, already known in the Hallstatt and early La Tène periods (Celtic culture). Many researchers, based on archaeological discoveries, associate this weapon closely with the Baltic Sea basin. This theory, although widely accepted, does not rule out Iberian and Balkan influences. Although the similarity of some single-edged swords with a C-shaped hilt from the above-mentioned geographical locations is striking, according to T. Bochnak, the highly developed differentiation of the blade excludes a common origin of the weapon. It can therefore be assumed that single-edged swords developed independently in several geographical locations. Among the various forms of the described weapon, you can find copies whose construction allows inflicting only cuts (their point is rounded at the end), there are also those that allow both cuts and thrusts (triangular point on the cross-section, pointed. This weapon was also decorated. Most often ornaments made using engraving techniques can be found, but it is interesting that single-edged swords were never decorated with the etching technique, which proves that they were made in centres that did not have advanced blacksmithing techniques.

The second type of sword used by the Germans is a double-edged weapon. Its copies, which were in the possession of tribes from across the Rhine, clearly refer to La Tène design, i.e. Celtic culture. Like the prototype, these are long swords, exceeding even 100 cm in length. Also, the build quality is identical to Celtic weapons. Perhaps this proves that this weaponry was imported from a people with much higher knowledge of metallurgy. Along with the development of their own technology, the Germans produced their own double-edged swords and even their construction solutions refer to Celtic sources. As in the case of single-edged weapons, here too there are copies with a construction that allows inflicting only cuts (swords with a rounded point, quite a wide blade, often expanding towards the point, which shifted the centre of gravity to the end of the weapon while allowing for very strong cuts) and items intended for cutting and thrusting (blade tapering towards the point, pointed and the centre of gravity shifted to the handle, which made it easier to guide the weapon and make a precise push). Swords intended for thrusting usually have an extended head (knob, ball at the end of the handle), which additionally burdened the handle (the centre of gravity shifted) and made it easier to pull the blade out of the pierced opponent (hand support). The shortest copies of this weapon were about 70 cm long, and the longest were 108-106 cm, their width ranged from 3.5 to 5.8 cm. Double-edged swords are often found, very richly decorated. In principle, all ornamental techniques available at that time were used in their ornamentation. Some researchers attempt to distinguish the weapons carried by foot warriors from mounted ones. So far, the only objective feature that can serve this purpose is the length of the weapon – the longest copies would probably drag behind a foot warrior, and this is unacceptable.

In principle, one more group of double-edged swords could be distinguished: weapons characterized by all the features of Roman blades. Here, we can distinguish models that resemble gladius or spata (or are identical) and long swords with inscriptions (stamps) proving that they were made in Roman forges. Although trade in arms with barbarians was forbidden in the Empire, it seems that Roman arms could come into possession of the Germans in three ways. The first, the most obvious, is as war booty – difficult to verify because on the other hand, the Germans tried not to use captured weapons for probably religious reasons. The second way is illegal to trade, i.e. smuggling. As written by Prof. Kokowski, a Roman gladius could be at that time what the AK-47 (Kalashnikov) is now – a tool for resolving all conflicts – reliable, easy to use, and mass-produced. Certainly, not one of them thought to exchange some “surpluses” from the army, for example, for amber and live decently until the end of his days. This hypothetical scenario could have really happened, and knowing the imperfection of our nature – it had to happen. There is still a third way, i.e. the Empire’s supplying certain tribes with weapons as part of long-range diplomacy. Such decently equipped barbarians could be skillfully used to wreak havoc (and war) between tribes. There is a popular (and rightly so) theory that the Scandinavian wars, relics of which have been found in the muds of Illerup, were sparked by such aid. In these swamps, not only were Roman weapons found, but also traces of equipment typical of Roman officers, which is interpreted as the presence of imperial military instructors.

To conclude my discussion of the Germanic sword, I would like to add that single-edged swords are usually considered inferior in terms of utility to their double-edged cousins. And the proof of this is the fact that in the areas where the lands of the Celts bordered on the Germanic ones, archaeologists have not encountered single-edged weapons so far, which clearly defines the preferences of ancient warriors.

The Germans were also familiar with other forms of weapons mounted on a shaft. It is true that the real “golden age” was yet to come, but traces of its use date back to the beginning of Celtic domination. It is from them that the warriors from across the Rhine most likely got their axes. Unfortunately, it is very difficult to determine how often they were used because axes are a rare archaeological find. It seems that the then customs related to the burial of the dead excluded them from the circle of weapons placed in graves. Most copies come from Alpine areas – areas of modern Austria, Switzerland and northern Italy. The same is true in the Elbe regions. On the other hand, they occur sporadically across the Oder.

Iconography is also familiar with images of warriors armed with axes, both on horseback and on foot. It is now believed that this type of weapon was used by the Germanic tribes much more often than archaeological discoveries suggest. In my opinion, this is the most correct theory. Since such tools were already known, why not use them militarily? Or – francisa did not appear in this form right away, she must have had some ancestors. Some tribes, as research shows, used this type of weapon more willingly, others less often. The former include, among others, the Burgundians. Perhaps economic factors were associated with this choice – weapons for the poor. Sometimes attempts were made to distinguish axes from battle axes, but the lack of objective distinguishing features between the two types meant that they are currently included in the same group. Generally, axes of this period are referred to as halberd axes, which largely reflect the shape of their blade. Most often, this weapon had a rather massive head. They were forged both from one piece of iron and from two separate ones.

Another type of weapon, often attributed to the Germans, is maces and clubs. Their use by the barbarians is recorded by Tacitus and they are visible in the column of Marcus Aurelius. Unfortunately, archaeologists have not recorded significant discoveries of this type of weapon with stone or metal warheads so far. Although the finds include wooden objects that may correspond to maces. The simplicity of this weapon, however, allows us to assume that, as in the case of axes, it was a weapon more commonly used than indicated by current excavation achievements.

The bow and arrows were also known among the Germanic tribes. It seems that the warriors had a certain aversion to this weapon. Unworthy, because it might seem to hit the enemy with arrows from a distance, instead of a real face-to-face fight. Of course, this does not exclude the hunting use of the bow, which has been known since the Stone Age. This is also confirmed by archaeology. Finds of arrowheads in larger clusters are rare. It seems that it was only under the influence of contacts with the Roman Empire and steppe nomads that the Germans appreciated the advantages of long-range weapons. This can also be seen in the form of arrowheads used at that time. Initially, broadly used leaf arrowheads (hunting, possibly to fight an unarmed opponent), give way to shank arrowheads, with barbs (greater penetrating power). There are very few finds concerning the arches themselves. The weapons found in the Scandinavian sacrificial site – Nydam are most often described. These arcs belong to the group of long equatorial arcs, the size of which reaches human height and even exceeds it (190 cm). In terms of combat qualities, the examples from Nydam are very diverse and generally have quite “low performance”. They are also often considered hunting weapons (or at least some of them). In order to analyze this weapon, 8 of them (out of 23) were reconstructed, with a pull of 25-27 kg. It was found that arrows from a distance of 25-130 meters did not pierce the replicas of Germanic shields (so that the arrowhead fully came out with the inner surface). In addition, it turned out that a lot depends on the types of arrowheads used – leaf-shaped arrowheads were effective only when they hit parallel to the grain of the target boards, the firepower of the shank arrowheads was not affected. Looking at the effects obtained in shooting quite primitive shields, one can suspect that in the confrontation with the legionary scutum, the German arrows had practically no chance. Another long-range weapon known to the ancient peoples of Europe is the slingshot. There is no doubt that it was known to the Germans. However, its combat use is currently not confirmed in the sources. Although it is known that the Celts did not shun it. Occasionally found round pebbles are only hypothetically associated with the military use of the sling by Germanic warriors.

The most common protective equipment of the Germans was the shield. This, of course, does not preclude its offensive use – stabbing/hitting the opponent with an umb. It seems that every barbarian warrior had this type of equipment, perhaps they differed only in the elements of workmanship. Most Germanic shields were made of boards. Various types of wood were used, taking advantage of their natural properties. There are examples of linden wood, birch – light with good absorption properties, although soft, as well as ash, and alder – heavier, more resistant to direct impacts. The dimensions of the Germanic shields were approximately 30-50 by 50-90 cm. There are specimens of various shapes. Reconstructing the form of this weapon is based on the study of the proportions of metal fittings (from excavations) and on the evaluation of amulets depicting their miniatures. From these analyses emerges a picture of elongated, rectangular or close to a rectangle with arched sides. There were also hexagonal models. Round copies were also immortalized in the column of Marcus Aurelius.

Each type of shield in the central part had a hole in which a handle was attached to hold it – a gripper. Most often it was made of wood and reinforced with metal fittings. At the same time, the hand holding the shield required solid protection from the outside. This role was played by a metal umbo – an arch in the centre of the outer surface of the shield. It had various forms. From pointed, pointed shapes to blunt, flat-arched. In its construction, we can usually distinguish a spike (as above) and a calotte (umba vault). The shape of the calotte is divided into tape umba (open, extending into a metal rib reinforcing the discs in the long axis) and circular umba (closed umba, closely adhering to the centre of the disc). In general, tape-shaped forms are more common in the La Tène culture, and circular ones are usually associated with the Germans, although both types were known and used by both the Celts and their neighbours. Among the metal parts of the shield, it is impossible not to mention the fittings. It is known that the upper edge of the shield, most exposed to blows, had to be the most resistant. Thus, it was here that the most massive reinforcements were found, most often gutter-shaped. There were also transverse fittings, which additionally bonded the boards of the shield and, of course, increased its resistance to blows. Not all shields had metal structural elements. Many researchers believe (and this is confirmed by sources) that copies made only of organic materials (wicker, leather, wood) were also used. As unstable, they have not survived our times in their entirety, although their hypothetical traces have been recorded. According to the speech of Germanicus and the account of Tacitus himself, the Germans painted their shields. Unfortunately, we do not know what exactly these paintings represented, except for one exception described in “Germania” – the Hari painted them black.

[…] and their horsemen, fifteen thousand strong, rode out in splendid style, with helmets made to resemble the maws of frightful wild beasts or the heads of strange animals, which, with their towering crests of feathers, made their wearers appear taller than they really were; they were also equipped with breastplates of iron, and carried gleaming white shields. For hurling, each man had two lances; and at close quarters they used large, heavy swords.

Plutarch, Life of Marius, 25

This is how the driving of the Cimbri and Teutons was presented to us. It is difficult to say whether it is only literary fiction, which elevates the bravery of the Romans as a counterbalance, or a real picture. Most likely, the described warriors had many direct contacts with the Celtic tribes, among whom helmets were much more common. With the rest, the description itself is very similar to the helmets of Gallic warriors from a later period. Other written sources (Tacitus) (and archaeology also confirms this) indicate that helmets were occasionally used by the Germans. Most of the few finds are specimens of Celtic or Roman provenance (Hagen model). The importance of this type of equipment was therefore marginal. It is suspected that leather helmets were also used. However, there is currently no clear confirmation of this hypothesis. On this occasion, it is worth mentioning the armour right away. Like head protection, they were the margin of equipment of warriors from across the Rhine and, like them, bear traces of Roman and Celtic influences. Probably chain mail (the most common) was an indicator of the high position of the owners (tribal elite). An archaeological curiosity is the discovery of small fragments of mail in women’s graves. It is believed that it was a kind of protective amulet.

  • Tacitus, Germania

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