Germanic peoples, Roman Empire period

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Summary

The Germanic peoples (also called Teutonic, Suebian or Gothic in older literature) are an Indo-European ethno-linguistic group of Northern European origin, identified by their use of the Germanic languages which diversified out of Proto-Germanic starting during the Pre-Roman Iron Age.

Details

In the Augustean period there was — as a result of Roman activity as far as the Elbe River — a first definition of the "Germania magna": from Rhine and Danube in the West and South to the Vistula and the Baltic Sea in the East and North. In 9 CE, a revolt of their Germanic subjects headed by the supposed Roman ally, Arminius, (along with his decisive defeat of Publius Quinctilius Varus and the destruction of 3 Roman legions in the surprise attack on the Romans at the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest) ended in the withdrawal of the Roman frontier to the Rhine. Occupying Germany had proven too costly and with it, ended 28 years of Roman campaigning across the North European plains. At the end of the 1st century, two provinces west of the Rhine called Germania inferior and Germania superior were established by the Emperor Damitian, "so as to separate this more militarized zone from the civilian populations farther west and south". Important medieval cities like Aachen, Cologne, Trier, Mainz, Worms and Speyer were part of these two "militarized" Roman provinces.

The Germania by Gaius Cornelius Tacitus, an ethnographic work on the diverse group of Germanic tribes outside of the Roman Empire, is our most important source on the Germanic peoples of the 1st century.

Germanic expansions during early Roman times are known only generally, but it is clear that the forebears of the Goths were settled on the southern Baltic shore by 100 CE.

The early Germanic tribes are assumed to have spoken mutually intelligible dialects, in the sense that Germanic languages derive from a single earlier parent language. No written records of such a parent language exist. From what we know of scanty early written material, by the 5th century the Germanic languages were already "sufficiently different to render communication between the various peoples impossible".Lucien Musset, The Germanic Invasions, the Making of Europe 400–600 AD, ISBN 1-56619-326-5, 1993 Barnes & Noble Books, pp. 12–13 Some evidence point to a common pantheon made up of several different chronological layers. However, as for mythology only the Scandinavian one (see Germanic mythology) is sufficiently known. Some traces of common traditions between various tribes are indicated by Beowulf and the Volsunga saga. One indication of their shared identity is their common Germanic name for non-Germanic peoples, *walhaz (plural of *walhoz), from which the local names Welsh, Wallis, Walloon, Vlach and others were derived. An indication of an ethnic unity is the fact that the Romans knew them as one and gave them a common name, Germani (this is the source of our German and Germanic, see Etymology above), although it was well known for the Romans to give geographical rather than cultural names to peoples. The very extensive practice of cremation deprives us of anthropological comparative material for the earliest periods to support claims of a longstanding ethnic isolation of a common (Nordic) strain.

In the absence of large-scale political unification, such as that imposed forcibly by the Romans upon the peoples of Italy, the various tribes remained free, led by their own hereditary or chosen leaders. Once Rome faced significant threats on its borders, some of the Germanic tribes who once guarded its periphery chose solace within the Roman empire itself, implying that enough assimilation and cross-cultural pollination had occurred for their societies not only to cooperate, but to live together in some cases.

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