After the Celts the second major linguistic and cultural grouping encountered by the Graeco‐Roman world in northern Europe. It was the Romans' failure, between 12 bc and ad 9 (when a German chieftain, Arminus, destroyed the three legions of Quinctilius Varus near the Teutoburgian forest), to absorb the Germanic peoples of the Elbe that compelled them to centre the defence of their western empire on the Rhine (Rhenus) and upper Danube (Danuvius).
Modern research has shown how much our two best informants about the Germanic peoples, Caesar and Tacitus, were influenced by their cultural prejudices and their literary strategies. (For example, Caesar's emphasis on the Rhine as a distinct boundary between Celts and Germans is now recognized as political, not ethnographic, in origin.)
Combining our best literary information about Germanic society (esp. Tacitus' Germania) with modern archaeological research produces a picture of a simple (by comparison with the Celtic) but developing iron age society, with permanent farms and villages. Agriculture was both arable and pastoral, and produced raw materials which could be traded for the finished goods of the Roman empire. Though there might be nominal kings, real political power was diffused among local clan chiefs: unlike the Celtic, the Germanic peoples produced no proto‐urban settlements which might accommodate central administrations. They were effectively unified only in time of war, under a battle‐leader—the final decision on whom, as with all matters of importance, was taken by the warriors in a tribal assembly. This absence of a clearly defined state‐structure afforded the Germans a highly flexible response to Roman aggression, and protected them from conquest.
Subjects: Classical studies