Germanic Tribes

By: Cassie Varrige and Thomas Herrmann

The Germanic Tribes, an ancient nomadic civilization with incredible diversity and military strength, laid the foundation for modern European language and heritage. Their military strengths and victories changed history. Their leaders became the first non-Roman kings of Italy, paving the way for future conquerors. Their unique culture, highly influenced by the Romans, is reflected in European language and customs.


Germanic people were fierce in battle, creating a strong military. The warriors were very strong and had great fighting abilities making the tribes almost unbeatable. Germans were warlike, as suggested by their religious practices, making them especially suited to battle and combat. Men began battle training at a young age. They were given a shield and a spear upon manhood, illustrating the importance of combat in Germanic life. The loss of the shield or spear meant a loss of honor. The Germanic warriors' intense devotion to his tribe and his chieftain led to many important military victories throughtout their existance.


Chieftains were the leaders of clans. The clans were divided into groups by family ties. The earlier Germans elected the chieftain, but as time went on it became hereditary. The chieftain of a clan gave the warriors a leader, weapons, and a chance for wealth and adventure. One of the chieftains jobs was to keep peace in the clans, and they did this by keeping the warriors together and united. The warriors of the clan admired the chieftain so much sometimes they gave him credit for what the warriors did. The warriors and the chieftains were fighting for two different things, the chieftains were fighting for victory whereas the warriors are fighting for the chieftain. The clans had no set plan for fighting. The warriors went into battle and just used their skills instead of plans. The different clans fought apart from the others on their own. The clans made surprise raids with the foot and cavalry warriors.(Greenblat,267) To scare and distract enemies the early German clans screamed as they went into battle expecting to either win or die.(268) In battle, chieftains would fight for a victory, and German warriors would fight for their chieftains.


The later Germanic tribes were formed into armies with the whole tribe united instead of smaller clans. The militaries of the tribes were all different and had different strengths. The Germanic tribes did not fear Caesar like the other people that inhabited the Roman Empire. They stood tall and felt anyone should be able to as they pleased. Sometimes a king of a tribe would die in battle so the German warriors chose another to lead them. Warriors in ancient Germany had the choice to go into battle. If they chose not to they would be considered foolish and cowardly.( Sometimes the individual tribes would launch surprise attacks. The Goths, a powerful tribe, invaded the eastern Roman Empire into Turkey and Persia. While they were in those areas they learned new military technology. The Gothic cavalry was considered unbeatable.(Hooker) Another strong branch of military was in the Vandals tribe. Their naval power dominated the Mediterranean. They had captured the islands of Corsica, and Sardinia. The Vandals had a treaty with the island of Sicily. After awhile the Vandals broke the treaty and tried to capture the island but did not succeed. The Visigoths also had a strong military. They sent two expeditions into Italy to determine who ruled there. The Visigoths ended up becoming the leaders of Italy. Then when a marriage between two Visigothic royal families, the Amali and Balth, occured it united the two most noble Gothic people.(Wolfram) If the Germans lost while fighting they would seek refuge in a more dominant tribe or group. The tribes were recruiting people from areas right around the Roman Empire. The Romans were also recruiting to help the Germans with the defense of the Roman Empire. Before the Romans became friends with the Germans they were engaged in a huge battle, the battle of Teutonberg forest.( The Germans pressured the Romans. The Germanic tribes sent "slaves" to the Romans as spies. During the third to fourth century the Germanic invasions weren't very violent but at the end of the fourth century the invasions became violent and weakened the Roman Empire. 150 years later the western Roman Empire was distributed through the Germanic tribes. The Visigoths got Iberia, the Alamans got Alsace, the Burgundians got Savoy, and the Ostrogoths got Italy.(Anitei) The Visigoths had an amazing cavalry which was the core of their forces. Large numbers of Goths were sent to serve in the Roman army. It was a disaster at Adrianople because of the enormous number of Goths and the incompetence of the Roman Officials. Before the approval of the Roman Emperor the Goths set their sights on Thrace and got their way. The Burgundians suffered heavy losses during the great Gothic war. They lost all of their conquered land and their setbacks were slow to heal. The Goths became a superpower. The Burgundians then looked for help from the Byzantine Empire. Then the Goths and the Burgundians had peace for 15 years. After a Gothic king's wife died and a Burgundian king killed his son who was born to a Gothic wife the Goths stopped defending the Burgundians. The Burgundians were surrounded by the Goths and the Franks. The Goths finally attacked when the Burgundians let their guard down to push back the Franks.(Wolfram) Tribal armies were small, with only about 3,000 men in each. The Germanic people were elite soldiers. Armies could be raised by an individual leader or an entire tribe.

Religious Practices

Their love of battle was linked to ther religious practices. Two very important gods, Wodan and his son, Thor, were both believed to be gods of war. The Germans started training when they were very young. When the people became men they were taken into a sacred grove during a full moon. The newly made men recieved a sword and a shield at keep forever. The men carried both with them at all times and if they lost the sword and shield they lost all of their honor. This showed how much they loved their army and battle. They were very serious about their military. After a warrior's death, they believed goddesses carried them to the afterlife. They went to the hall of Wodan, or Valhalla, where they could feast and fight forever.(Greenblat 267,268)
Slain warrior going to Valhalla(Flickr)

Infantry and Warriors

Warriors fought in small bands with no organized plans of fighting. They would often make suprise raids against their enemies. They would charge wildly, mainly on foot, yelling loudly to frighten the enemy. A warrior was expected to succeed, or die trying. A successful battle would provide a warrior with slaves, cattle and other riches. Military strength depended on the infantry, having a limited use of mounted troops, due to a lack of suitably large and fast steeds. The Germans were a warrior society geared to waging war. Most were foot soldiers equipped with a spear.

Battle of Teutoberg Forest

A Germanic victory at the battle of Teutoberg Forest changed the course of European history. This battle was one of the most important events in ancient Europe. Varus was forced to fight Arminius, who had learned to fight in the Roman military. He tricked the Romans into a dense area of the forest where he and his men decimated them. 3 Roman legions were obliterated, and Roman ambition to conquer east of the Rhine ended. This defeat shattered the Roman world, creating a language barrier that shaped the later European civilizations. People who lived west of the Rhine developed Romance languages and distinctly Roman customs, whilst people living east of the Rhine kept Germanic languages and customs. The general of the Germans, Arminius, also known as Hermann, was a very strong man and a great leader. Arminius led the Germans to a victory over the Romans.(Hargrove)
A picture of the battle field at Teutoburg Forest(Flickr)

Weapons and Armor

German soldiers had a wide arsenal of weapons and armor. They used daggers and swords for combat. They also used metal and stone axes while fighting. They used wooden shields and wore leather for protection.(Greenblat 267) The Germanic tribes also learned to process iron. They used the iron to create conic helmets, and round shields for defense.(Anitei) Shields were made of wood. They were light and easy to carry. In attack they used double bladed straight sword, single edged sword, spears, bows and arrows, and the Franks use throwing axes the Roman's called "securis francisa".(Anitei) The Germans did not use chariots, due to a lack of large or fast horses. Many carried lances, or "frameae". They were normally equipped with javelins, lances, and shields. Most tribes did not wear body armor. (Todd)
A Germanic Single Edged Sword(

Major Historical Figures

Their great military and diplomatic leaders shaped the later European civilizations. War heroes such as Ariminius and Alaric are remembered for their clever tactics and success at rallying the tribes together. Political and diplomatic leaders, such as Odoacer and Theodoric the Great changed the course of history and paved the way for later kings and conquerors.


Also known as Hermann, this Teutonic soldier cleverly defeated three Roman legions in the Battle of Teutonberg Forest. Varus was forced to fight against Ariminius, who had learned to fight in the Roman military. He exploited the Roman troops, enticing them into the dense Teutonberg Forest. Three Roman legions were annihilated and Roman ambitions of expansion east of the Rhine were crushed. (Todd 52) Ariminius is regarded as the first national German hero. Two of his most remembered quotes are "In unity there is strength" and "Rather death than slavery". (Hargrove 26-27)
A statue of Arminius (Wikipedia)


Alaric, king of the Visigoths, commanded Gothic troops in the Roman Empire. In the late 390's Alaric plundered the Balkan of the eastern Roman Empire. Alaric and his troops invaded Italy and the western Roman Empire but stopped because the bribes from Italy and the empire were to high to resist. In 410 he captured Rome but did very little damage. He then wanted to move his troops to Africa but a storm destroyed his fleet. He then died in Italy of an illness.(Worldbook)


Odoacer, or Odovacar, the first barbarian king of Italy, led the way for other Germanic leaders. Odoacer was born in the area that bordered the middle Danube.His father was Aedico, or Idico. Many tribes, such as the Rugii, the Scyrii, the Turcilingi and the Herculii, claimed Odoacer to be descended from them. Odoacer was forty-two years old when he became king, and ruled for thirteen years. He was defeated at the Isontius and at Verona by Theodoric, a Ostrogothic leader. Theodoric agreed to joint kingship but betrayed Odoacer later. At a feast, Odoacer was murdered, supposedly by Theodoric's hand. His brother Onulf and his son Thelan were later killed by the order of Theodoric. Therefore, the entire line of Odoacer died out, making way for the new king, Theodoric, and his people. (NNDB)

Theodoric the Great

This Germanic king of Italy is remembered for an act of violence that brought thirty years of peace in Italy. Theodoric was born approximately 451 A.D in Pannonia which is in present day Austria, Hungary, and Slovenia. He was the son of Thiudimir, one of three brothers who ruled over the Ostrogoths. When he was eight, he was sent to Constantinople as a royal hostage. This was no dishonor, and Theodoric was treated as you might expect a son of a king to be treated. Because he grew up in the Roman Empire, Theodoric appreciated Roman culture and law, something that would be reflected in the future. But back at home, another man, called Strabo, had become popular among the Ostrogoths. This suggested the very thing that the Roman empire was most afraid of: Ostrogothic unity under one leader. Theodoric was sent home to encourage his father and uncles to counter Strabo's
A statue of Theodoric(Wikipedia)
rise of power. Now a young man, Theodoric was given a command of warriors. He won a battle against a rebellious town and was elevated to the joint kingship. 4 years later, he was the sole king of the Ostrogoths, due to his father's death and his uncle's interest in other things. Strabo, however, still threatened Theodoric's authority. The two powerful men vied for the loyalty of the Ostrogoths. Luckily for Theodoric, Strabo's death granted him the final victory. This achieved the thing that the Romans had feared, and so they appointed Theodoric consul, the highest honor that a Roman could recieve. The Ostrogothic people were also offered land to fill their needs. The current emperor, Anastasis, delayed the agreement for a while. A final agreement was reached. Theodoric would reclaim Italy for the empire. The last Roman emperor had been deposed by Odoacer. Theodoric and his people journeyed to Italy to rule in Anastasis's name. After 2 years of fighting and siege, Theodoric agreed to share leadership with Odoacer. However, Odoacer was killed 10 days later at a banquet, allegedly by Theodoric's hand. Such violence intiated three decades of peace to Italy. Theodoric is also remembered as a patron of learning. He fostered the scholar Cassiodorus and the philosopher Boethius, who became a good friend of his. He put significant effort into building throughout Italy. This effort was especially concentrated in Ravenna, Theodoric's capital. He built the church of San Apollinaire, a place of worship that stands to this day and is renowned for mosiac artwork. Theodoric was an Arian Christian himself. Theodoric had to be constantly on guard against Frankish expansion. In 507, he became the king of Spain and Italy, uniting all Goths. He married Audofleda, the sister of Clovis. He had no sons. Theodoric married his daughters off to Germanic kings. He also gave his daughters an education in classical literature. One of his daughters, Amalasuintha, married Eutharic, a Visigothic prince, in an effort to further unite the Gothic tribes. They had a young son named Athalaric. Unfortunately, Eutharic died prematurely, but Athalaric was named as heir, and his mother as regent. Even more unluckily, the emperor, Anastasis, died as a result of poor health. His successor Justin was not young, but he had a young nephew named Justinian. Theodoric's only heir, Athalaric, was a mere infant. The Catholic Church also turned against the Arian Christian Theodoric. Theodoric died in 526 A.D. His kingdom didn't last more than ten years after his death, but he is remembered as great because he managed to unite the Goths and the Romans for 30 years of peace. (de Bracton) In Italy, Theodoric let the Romans hold office in the government and because of this and many other deeds he became a very respected man.(Worldbook)


Germanic culture was not organized between the different tribes, but they all shared common characteristics. Their many myths and stories give us insight into their religious ceremonies and practices.


Germans believed in a pantheon of anthropomorphic gods. This means that their gods resembled humans or humanoid figures. There was no organized cult between the tribes, but they shared many traits. They also believed in the magic power of nature and spirits. Many natural elements were given shape and worshiped. Giants from the mountains, nixies, Kobolds, trolls, elves, brownies and merpeople were considered unfriendly, while Norns(Norse Fates) and the Valkyrie
A Valkyrie(
(choosers of the dead) were friendly. The pantheon of gods was headed by Odin, or Wodan. Odin was the lord of the battlefield and important in the affairs of men. He was the Germanic god of war, poetry, learning and magic. His son with Earth, named Thor or Donar, was the god of thunder. Thor could also possibly have been a sky god. Thor's treasures were his belt, his hammer and his gloves. His hammer was named Mjollner. Thor was also a god of war, as was his father. The Germans thought thunder came from the wheels of Thor's chariot. Other gods included Tiwaz or Tyr, who was honored for his wisdom and his dominance in battle, Njord, the god of the sea and the winds and a supervisor of seafaring, Freyr, who controlled the sun and the rain, and Freyja, a goddess who held sway over love, marriage and the dead. Another well-known myth is Yggdrasil, the World Tree. It was a great ash tree in the center of the universe with branches that spread over heaven and earth. This tree had three roots, one leading to the world of giants, one more to the land of the gods and the last to the world of the dead. The Germanic people believed that the universe had come from a deep abyss. First came Niflheim, the frozen reaches, then Muspellsheim, the arid reaches and then finally gods, giants and men. They thought the world would end in a bloody battle where all gods, giants and men would perish. The stars would fall from the sky and the earth would sink into the oceans. They also believed that a new and better world would be born from the ashes.(Selmer). Romans did not have an organized attempt to convert the Germans at first, but they eventually were successful. The Gothic tribes were the first Christian Germanics. Most German people were pagan within entering the Roman world, but were quickly converted within one or two generations. (Todd)

Everyday Life

The Germans wore simple clothes. They believed strongly in hospitality, so much so that there was a law that banned the refusal of it to any passing stranger who asked for it. The Germanic people also believed in having a good time. They enjoyed feasting, drinking and dancing. Men liked to gamble with dice. Sometimes they boxed or wrestled. Germans could skate on frozen lakes and ponds during the winter with skates made of flat bone. Men were primarily warriors and spent a lot of time hunting, making weapons or fighting. Many Germanic people also farmed, or herded cattle. Cattle provided food and clothing for the Germans. The Germanic peoples could also trade cattle for Roman glasswork, jewelry or table articles. Farm work was done by women and children, and the occasional slave, though slavery was not common in ancient Germania. Most slaves were prisoners of war. The Germans grew barley, rye, wheat, beans and peas. They also wove cloth on upright looms. (Greenblatt) The Germanic society was patriarchal in nature. The father held all authority in a family. German families were closely bound together, especially to the mother's family. Inheritance would pass to your children, to your brothers, to your paternal uncles and then to the maternal uncles. Strong Germanic family ties defined kinship. Men practiced resource polygamy, where you could have multiple wives if you could afford it. The Germania, written by a Roman historian named Tacitus, is a major source for much of what we know about German daily life. Tacitus said that Germanic people had "fierce" eyes and "reddish" hair. He also said that Germans usually carry spears and that they lived "scattered about." Germans also created a language that is now modern German. The Germanic people originally had no alphabet, and were not able to read or write their language until they invented runes. Runes, though effective, had limited uses, and they eventually began to use Roman letters. Some people also learned to speak and write Latin.

Political Systems

The political systems of the tribes was very sophisticated and helped demand the law. The system created peace within the tribes. The political systems used a court and a set of laws that kept the tribes from getting corrupt. The system was very much like the ones today but a little more primitive.

Kings and Duces

Kingship was hereditary, but war leaders were selected for success and martial powers. The tribes had many kings and each tribe had their own mythical founders. Usually the name of the founder was in some part of the name of the tribe. Early kingship was obscure, with most sources reported nothing or scarcely anything. The tribal society was not dominated by kings. War leaders, also called a dux, could only keep their position if they were successful in battle. A family connection would not be able to save their position.

Mythical Founders List

  • Aurvandil founded the Vandals
  • Burgundis founded the Burgundians
  • Cibidus founded the Cibidi
  • Dan founded the Danes
  • Gotus.jpg
    A Picture of Gothus
    Gothus founded the Goths
  • Ingve founded the Ynglings
  • Irmin founded the Irminones
  • Longobardus founded the Lombards(


The Germans believed that law came from the people, a major difference from the Romans, who thought that law came from the emperor. A leader, whether he be king or dux, would not be able to change a law without the approval of his people. Germanic peoples did not write down laws, instead opting to memorize them. Laws were passed down generation to generation. Many laws were made to combat blood feuds. Reckless fighting within a village caused these feuds, which went on for years or even decades. They set up courts to prevent blood feuds. In a court, a judge would listen to both sides of the story and tried to find a settlement that would bring peace. Guilt or innocence to a crime could be decided by a few ways. One of them, called oath-taking, was when a witness swore that a certain person was innocent to a crime. However, if there were no witnesses, the accused would have to endure an ordeal. If someone was decided guilty by the ordeal, a fine, called wergeld, would be imposed. The fine would not go to the government, but to the family of the victim or wronged person. This system was not always fair, but it successfully prevented blood feuds and kept the peace.


The ordeal, or severe trial, determined the guilt or innocence of an accused person. An example is that the accused had to walk barefoot over hot coals, or stick their arm into boiling water. The burns of the innocent supposedly healed within three days of the burning. Another example is that the accused was tied hand and foot and thrown into a lake or a river. As water was a symbol of purity, the innocent was supposed to sink, and the guilty floated. This may seem brutal, but it kept the peace in Germanic villages. (Greenblat)


As all things have to come to an end, many tribes began a slow decline. The Gothic Empire had a decline but the tribe did not end completely. The Huns invaded the Empire and destroyed everything in their way. The Goths could not destroy the Huns. The Hun invasions destroyed the Gothic Empire so the Goths then had to move to the Roman territories in Bulgaria.
A Hunic Warrior(

Works Cited

Cassie's Works Cited

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