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Roman interaction with the numerous tribes of Germania was predominantly a militaristic, power struggle. The very structure of the organisation system employed by the Germanic tribes resulting in the lack of major settlements in combination with the almost non-existent infrastructure present in the region proved to be a combination that caused the inability of Rome to conquer and incorporate Germania into the Empire as had been done with Gaul and Britannia. What arose from this stalemate instead was four centuries of economic, cultural, political and militaristic interaction between the Roman Empire and the peoples of Central and Northern Europe. This interaction brought around changes in the Germanic tribes in areas such as the organisation of leadership, military doctrines and structures, economic practices, the concept of being Germani and began the process of early Christianisation of the Germanic tribes. In order to effectively discuss the changes interactions with the Roman Empire had on the Germanic societies it is important to have an understanding of the nature of their existence at the early stages of their relations so as to have a frame of reference within which the changes that took place may be aptly viewed. In terms of primary sources on the discussion of the Germanic tribes and their way of life the most famous is Tacitus’ foray into ethnographic work with his Germania.
Firstly, it is important to understand that Germani or Germanus and Germania are Gallic and Roman creations, not Germanic. As Tacitus states, the name Germani is of Gallic origin and was the name given by the Gauls to a group of successful conquerors who had crossed the Rhine into Gallic lands and ousted them. The word was then taken by the Romans and attributed to the peoples that existed in Northern and Central Europe. However, Tacitus states that this was the name attributed to one nation and not the race, but it came to refer to the race. The word Germani and the Romanised Germanus became the name that the peoples of Northern Europe came to be known as in the Roman Empire. As far as a Roman was concerned a German either lived in Germania or had come from there, it was one gens or race to a Roman. This would seemingly suggest then some form of Germanic unity, but it is not the case, evident by the disagreement on the origin of the Germanic peoples provided by natives to Tacitus. A German would likely only refer to himself as Germanus when in the Empire, when outside of Roman territories this would not have been the case and the German would have instead identified more with their particular tribe of origin.
In Germania, Tacitus claims that the Germanic tribes would appoint not only a King of noble birth but also a commander or commanders who are selected for their valour. At first look this would seem to describe a dual existence of both a royal and military authority within the Germanic tribes. Caesar also describes the occurrence of this system which in modern scholarship is referred to as the “Gallic-West Germanic revolution”. It refers to the time around 50 B.C. when many of the more advanced Germanic tribes situated around the Rhine transitioned towards a more oligarchic form of leadership while maintaining a royal family. A more traditional form of kingship was still practiced amongst the Eastern Germanic tribes as well as those in Scandinavia. Interestingly, the Germanic kingship of the pre-migration tribes often manifested themselves in dual kingships, holding sacral responsibilities over small, ethnically homogenous tribal groups.
Roman influence on this transition from kingships to oligarchical tribal leadership was present but in a somewhat covert way. The Romans would not have been the ultimate force in the change of kingship to oligarchy in the Germanic tribes but they were involved in maintaining it at the early stages. Initially, it was Roman policy to support the oligarchical factions and oppose the return of a royal family to a position of king. Certainly there are examples of a few old Germanic royals meeting their end due to their efforts to see themselves become kings of the Germanic tribes once again, a notable example being Arminius, who was poisoned by his own people who once considered him a hero under this pretext. Though Roman policy was initially one of supporting the oligarchs against the idea of kingship, it soon turned to Rome supporting the formation of Germanic kingdoms provided it was Rome was involved in the choosing of the king. This form of kingship would also have differed to the traditional Germanic form.
The dual kingship system discussed by Tacitus that was present in the West Germanic societies in the first century appears to have eventually given way to a system where the previous separation of a military and royal authority figure disappeared by the fourth century. The philological basis for this can be found in the root words from which the Germanic tribes drew their names for their leadership and the frequency of their usage as time progressed. These three root words being thiudans, truthin and kuning; the oldest of these three words being thiudan and meaning “ruler of a people”, which by the late Roman period had been replaced with truthin. The word, kuning, meant “leader of a warband” and by the later Roman period had become the primary term attributed to the leaders across all the Germanic tribes, signifying the transition to a more military oriented form of leadership manifesting itself among the Germanic tribes.
An explanation that may be given of this transition and consolidating of authority in the form of military leaders is due to the ever increasing conflicts Germanic tribes were facing with the Roman Empire as well as from other tribes. Much like the confederations that formed in opposition to Rome and Attila, it would follow that in the face of escalating military actions from Rome that the authority over the tribes would be resigned and given up primarily to successful militaristic leaders of warbands, whose influence would then spread over several tribes and peoples. The reasoning for this is the commonality of the leaders that arose and are recorded in histories of Rome were in fact opponents of Roman expansionism into the Germanic regions.
It is reasonable to argue that it was due to the interactions with the Roman Empire that certain notable Germanic figures rose to prominence that is linked to this system of king and war-leader and most notably the eventual consolidation of power in the hands of the military authority. As Tacitus said, the position of the war-leader was entirely dependent on his own personal ability as a military leader in conjunction with his continued successes as leader. So if it the case that the military authority began to take precedence over the noble authority in Germanic societies, it would follow that these leaders would have risen due to their opposition to Roman expansion into the Germanic regions, who would have been the primary threat to the Germanic societies before the arrival of Attila and the Huns.
Concerning a somewhat interesting case in the development of Germanic leadership structures and the influence Rome had over them, we can look to the Alamannic Confederation. Ammianus’ account of the Alamannic army before the battle of Strasbourg in 357 AD tells that the Alamanni practiced a form of kingship that seemed to create for itself a hierarchical set of superior kings, kings, lesser kings and princes. It is arguable that the development of confederations in the fourth century came about at least in part to oppose Rome and the other dangers the Germanic tribes began to face as well as the unification of smaller tribes under more militaristic tribes that again likely arose in opposition to Rome. The Alamannic Confederation at least clearly employed a different form of leadership, likely to accommodate the various tribal leaders uniting together. The Alamanni also seemed to be at least partially hereditary, which is possibly due to Roman interference with the idea that Rome may be able to control the Alamanni through influencing future generations. Yet, while Rome appeared to support the somewhat hereditary nature of the Alamannic Confederation and the leadership system it maintained, it was also ensured that no individual ruler became the equivalent of a Great King.
In terms of military practices, Tacitus makes two claims that are of importance. The first being that there existed no form of professional standing army in the Germanic tribes. This would appear to be true. It was the case that Germanic warlords and tribal leaders could maintain small personal retinues and raise warbands for times of conflict, but these were not permanent entities and the upkeep of the men was personal as opposed to donation or tribute from others. This changed in the fourth century and the concept of a professional army began to appear in the Germanic tribes. An archaeological example of this would be the discovery at Esbjol Mose of the remnants of a defeated Germanic army. The discovery of a large, singular deposit of military equipment and its contents suggest a well organised and well equipped professional standing army, with a structured hierarchy. The stratigraphy of this discovery places the defeat of the army and the following ritualistic destruction of their equipment at some time after 300 AD, which coincides with the literary evidence stating that the Germanic kings began to develop and maintain personal and standing household armies.
The second claim that Tacitus makes of the Germanic tribes in regards to military practices is his reference to their basic military tactical abilities. It is the case that the Germanic military leadership was primitive in comparison to the Roman military tradition in the earlier periods of their interactions. Successful military leaders like Ariovistus, who found success when combating Germanic and Celtic tribes, were unable to overcome Roman military leaders like Julius Caesar in command of Roman armies. Provided that the terrain was accommodating, Roman military doctrine was vastly superior to its Germanic counterpart. It is in this area of military leadership and military doctrine where Rome can be seen early to be influencing the Germanic tribes, on a very individualistic level, most notably in the examples of the two most eminent Germanic leaders in the early first century AD, Arminius of the Cherusci and Maroboduus of the Marcomanni. Both of these individuals, like other Germanic leaders who aimed for leadership over their own people, served in the Roman army and were trained in Roman military doctrine. Both knew that Germanic tribal warfare could not face the Roman war machine head on. If a Germanic army was ever going to be able to challenge Rome it would have to be heavily disciplined, efficiently commanded and exist as an entity for a long period of time. Out of these two, Maroboduus placed particular emphasis upon tactics, level of training and the equipment.
These two are particular examples of the permeation of Roman military ideals into the Germanic tribes through individual agents who experienced Roman military training. However, Germanic tactics as a whole remained at an elementary level through most of the migration period, with a reliance on the combative ability of the Germanic warrior as singular entity as opposed to the discipline of cohesive units of the Roman tradition. While the tactics of the Germanic militaries remained somewhat the same, the weaponry utilised changed due to the requirement for some form of adaption necessary to combat the Roman armies, indicating the influence the Roman Empire was having on the military practices of the Germanic tribes. The general theme was an increased use of weaponry that would allow engagement from a greater distance. Axes, especially throwing axes, became the favoured weapon of the migration period Germanic warriors as well as javelins and long spears. These weapons would have allowed the Germanic armies to be better equipped to deal with offensive measures against armoured Roman enemies.
In terms of economic practices, Tacitus states that the early Germanic tribes primarily used a barter system and had no formal currency of their own Tacitus also states that the southern Germanic tribes were open to the usage of Roman denarii. However, Tacitus makes no mention of the rest of the Germanic tribes in relation to their economic system. At the very least, archaeological evidence does show that Roman imports found their ways to the Northern European tribes. Whether these goods were a result of economic exchange or raids is unknown. It is possible that the Roman currency found its way back into the Germanic societies with Germanic individuals returning from service as auxiliary troops in the Roman military. The fact that Roman denarii were found in large amounts in the Northern European regions with a stratigraphic date being in the later third century would suggest that the use of Roman currency had begun to be used across the Germanic world.
As a further aspect of Roman effect on the Germanic economic system, there is example of the intensification of Germanic agriculture through a process of large scale expansion due to transfer of agricultural practices from the Roman Empire to develop the previous subsidence level of agriculture present in the Germanic regions as Tacitus states. This intensification of the agricultural potential of the Germanic regions would have allowed for an increase in population size and following that economic and military growth. Finally, Christianity is likely to have found its entry into the Germanic tribes through the Roman Empire. Tacitus states that the early Germanic tribes practiced a form of paganism interlinked with their origin tradition and worshipping earth-born gods. The most notable example of Germanic tribes coming into contact through their interaction with the Roman Empire would be the Goths at the Danube and Crimea. The Goths at this time were carrying out raids and attacks on the Balkans and Asia Minor which at this time would have been the region of the Empire that had been most heavily Christianised. If it is assumed on these raids that they took prisoners, it is likely through this practice that the Goths were exposed to Christianity in the mid second century, and through the descendants of these Roman Christian prisoners would have resulted in the beginning of the conversion of the Goths to the Christian faith.
In conclusion, the interactions the Germanic tribes had with the Roman Empire over the course of four centuries shaped the development of their societies including that of the transition from a traditional noble system of kingship to one favouring military authority. There are also the changes in the Germanic military organisation both in terms of equipment, the permeation of Roman tactical ideas through individuals trained in Roman military service and in conjunction with changing forms of leadership also the rise of confederations. The economic changes brought about through interaction with the Roman Empire include that of an intensification of agricultural practices, the use of Roman coinage across the Germanic regions and the employment of Germanic warriors in the Roman military as auxiliary troops. Lastly, the interaction of the Germanic tribes with Rome brought about the introduction of Christianity into the Germanic societies which eventually took complete hold and replaced their traditional paganism entirely. While it is not accurate to say that the Germanic tribes had been living in a state of stagnation in terms of technological, social or militaristic change, it is a fair assertion to make that at the very least the Roman Empire sped up the rate of advancement in certain areas and forced the hand of the Germanic tribes in others.
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