Germania – Germany During the Roman Empire

Germania – Germany During the Roman Empire

Germania, an ancient region in Central and Northern Europe, is a land steeped in mystery and conflict, especially during the era of the Roman Empire.

This article delves into the historical interactions between Roman forces and the various Germanic tribes, exploring the complex dynamics of Roman expansion, conquest, and the eventual establishment of Roman provinces like Germania Inferior and Germania Superior.

Where Was Germania?

Situated on the eastern side of the Rhine River and north of the Danube, Germania encompassed a vast territory including modern-day Germany, Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary and Austria.

This region, known to the ancient Romans as Germania, was never fully conquered or controlled by Rome, making it a perpetual frontier of the Roman Empire.

Regions in Germania that remained outside of Roman rule were known as “Magna Germania.” Contemporary scholars of Roman history often call this area “Free Germania” (Latin: Germania Libera) or the Germanic Barbaricum.

The Germanic People

Archaeological evidence often links the early Germanic tribes to the Jastorf culture, prevalent in Denmark (southern Scandinavia) and northern Germany during the 6th to 1st centuries BCE.

This timeframe coincides with the hypothesized occurrence of the First Germanic Consonant Shift, a linguistic transformation contributing to the development of distinct Germanic languages.

Originating in northern Germany and southern Scandinavia, the Germanic peoples gradually expanded in various directions, encountering the Celtic, Iranic, Baltic, and Slavic communities.

Roman accounts from the 1st century BCE depict initial encounters between Roman forces and Germanic tribes along the Rhine as the Romans sought dominance in the region.

The Relationship between Rome and Germania

When we typically think of relations between Rome and the Germanic peoples across the Rhine, it tends to be colored by warfare, conquests, and the eventual fall of the Western empire around the fifth century.

Popular media and popular thought tends to depict those Germanic tribesman first as literal tribesman, complete with animal skins and a bestial mentality, and more as a rampaging horde that trampled science and progress beneath its heels as the more “progressive” people were driven out of their homes and cities.

Germania as a Roman Province

Given all this, I suppose it might come as a surprise when I tell you that there was once a point where Germania was a Roman province, and that they welcomed the empire with open arms into their forests and lands. They fought in the Roman armies, and they accepted Roman learning and culture, at least for a time.

Sound out of place?

Well it definitely was, and this period of Roman expansion into what is now modern-day Belgium, Luxembourg, and North Rhine Westphalia was equal parts experiment and expansion, and set the stage for the collapse of the powerful empire centuries later.

The Beginning of the Roman-Germanic Connection

Roman concerns with Germania stretch all the way back to Julius Caesar, who spent quite a bit of time exploring and beating up people who weren’t like him.

The name “Germania” itself (which may or may not have been directly used by Caesar) was used more as a catchall for the collectives of Germanic and Celtic tribes who lived beyond the Roman borders on the Rhine, the Germani cisrhenani– literally “this side of the Rhine.”

These peoples included the Teutonics, the Cherusci tribe, the Seubi, the Chatti, the Goths, and a bunch of other colorful names, and possessed their own diverse culture.

They were often considered by the Romans to be related to the Gauls who emigrated to Rome, but over time assumed a sense of “othering” that would set them apart from the Empire to their east and south.

The main ancient sources on the origin of the names Germania and Germani are from the book Germania (98 AD) by Tacitus, completed toward the end of the first century.

Germania - Germany during the Roman Empire

© Pixabay

The Roman Army

Julius Caesar (and later his nephew Augustus) saw these peoples as a further source of income and land. The Roman legions were famous for using warfare to generate profit and would conquer and assimilate outside peoples for financial, as well as tactical, advantage, and these Germani cisrhenani were seen no differently.

Germania Magna

Starting as early as 12 BC, Augustus began a series of campaigns to defeat the tribes and unite all of Germania into a single province, Germania Magna, much as his uncle had desired to do. So one by one, the armies of Rome began to defeat the tribes and bring them to heel.

Germania Inferior and Germania Superior

Germania Inferior, also known as “Lower Germania,” was established as a Roman province around AD 85, following the expansion campaigns under Emperor Domitian.

This province, renamed Germania Secunda in the 4th century AD, was situated on the western bank of the Rhine River, bordering the North Sea. Its capital was Colonia Claudia Ara Agrippinensium, present-day Cologne.

Geographically, as described by Ptolemy, Germania Inferior encompassed the Rhine from its mouth to the mouth of the Obringa River, likely the Aar or Moselle. This area included parts of modern-day Luxembourg, southern Netherlands, Belgium, and North Rhine-Westphalia in Germany.

The first contacts between Rome’s army and the local Germanic and non-Germanic peoples occurred during Julius Caesar’s Gallic Wars around 57 BC, leading to the defeat of several tribes, including the Eburones and Menapii.

Over time, Germanic influence grew, resulting in the assimilation of local tribes (Celtic and mixed Celtic-Germanic peoples) in the region.

Initially part of Gallia Belgica with Roman settlements from around 50 BC, the formal establishment of Germania Inferior as a Roman province under Domitian marked a significant phase in Roman expansion.

This move solidified Roman control and presence between the high valleys of the Rhine and the Danube, demonstrating the strategic importance of the region in the Roman Empire’s broader ambitions.

The Economy of Germania

The economic development and trade practices of German tribes during the Roman era were perceived as rudimentary based on Roman standards. Their economies primarily relied on agriculture, with a notable emphasis on livestock trade, particularly in cattle and horses.

According to Tacitus, the German tribes lacked substantial resources in precious metals, mines, or coins, and did not have a sophisticated financial system like Rome. Trade within the interior tribes largely operated on a barter system.

However, other tribes situated along the borders experienced more significant Roman influence, engaging in trade and political alliances with Rome.

This included trading in foreign coins, gold, and silver. Tribes such as the Marcomanni and the Quadi, seen as client states of Rome, received Roman military and financial support to help stabilize border regions.

The Batavi, known for their martial prowess, were important allies of Rome, contributing valuable auxiliary troops. Tacitus says in his book that warfare and competition for land and resources played a central part in Germanic tribal society.

Slavery was practiced among the Germanic tribes, with slaves obtained through warfare or debt, but their system differed markedly from Roman slavery. Tacitus highlights that Germanic elites managed their slaves as a sort of tenant farmers, allowing them to work independently while extracting a portion of their surplus, contrasting with the more direct and often harsher Roman approach to slavery.

Some Further Context

The German agricultural sector played a crucial role in the country’s economy. A majority of Germans engaged in farming, with a significant part of the population dedicated to herding.

The primary agricultural produce included cereal grains like wheat, barley, oats, and rye. In areas around the North Sea, cattle herding was particularly emphasized.

As the borders between Rome and Germanic lands became more defined, cultural and commercial exchanges grew in importance, rivaling the significance of military engagements. Despite the heavily fortified frontier, it did not impede trade or the movement of people.

Rome traded fine pottery, glass, and metalwork to the Germanic territories across the Rhine. In exchange, they received raw materials such as amber, leather, and slaves.

Amber was highly valued in Caesar’s Rome, being a luxury affordable only by the wealthy. A single small piece of amber could be more valuable than a healthy slave.

Germanic Tribes that Joined the Empire

Historian Bill Fawcett, when exploring Roman Germania, brings up a very interesting point right about now. While Germania was the subject of limited Roman conquest, as it was not a single, unified political entity, there were a fair number of tribes that simply joined Rome entirely due to the Empire’s reputation.

While Germanicus and Tiberius were busy wiping out those that resisted Roman incursion, tribes like the Cherusci were more than willing to “sign on” to the Roman way of life, even taking part in sending their young men to Rome as hostages, where they would be educated as Romans, with some even serving in the Roman troops and becoming citizens in their own right.

A New Governor

As the timeline shifted and BC became AD, Germania became a rough province governed by Publius Quinctilius Varus, former Governor of both Africa and Syria, and all-around politician from a political family.

Upon receiving an assignment from Rome to govern this new province, the Roman general took three legions and his own Roman arrogance across the Rhine and set up shop in these new lands, where he proceeded to levy taxes and run his “kingdom” like he had run both Africa and Syria.

Varus’ Miscalculation

This would be a mistake, and one that Quintilius Varus wouldn’t fully understand until his death several years later.

Fawcett points to his distinctly Roman style of governance as leading to his downfall- he treated the Germanic people in his province as subjugated foes, a common Roman practice in provinces that had been beaten down by force.

Rome comes in, Rome defeats your military, Rome upends your government, and you pay taxes for the privilege of being conquered. This is how it had worked when Varus was in Africa. This was how it worked when Varus was in Syria. This was one of the staples of the Roman economic machine, one of the things which allowed it to grow as large as it did.

Unfortunately, much of Varus’ “court” was comprised of Germans who had willingly allied with Rome – people who had joined the Roman cause because they either did not want to be wiped out, or because they saw Rome as the future and wanted to be part of such a storied, and respected, Empire.

The chieftain of the Cherusci, Arminius, was himself a naturalized Roman citizen who had grown up in the Empire and learned a great deal about their way of life. He had fought for Rome, and now was being treated by Varus as if he were less than human, there only for Rome’s treasury and nothing more.

Mix the pride of the Germani in with this blatant mistreatment by a career politician, and you can only imagine what comes next: the disastrous defeat at Teutoberg Wald.

The Battle of Teutoburg Forest

Arminius, chief of the Cherusci tribe, played a pivotal role in halting Roman attempts at expansion into the Germanic interior. Before leading the revolt, Arminius served as a Roman auxiliary, gaining Roman citizenship and equestrian status.

However, deteriorating conditions under Roman rule, including heavy taxation, turned the Germanic tribes against their occupiers. By 7 AD, Arminius had begun planning a large-scale revolt, uniting various Germanic tribes despite their traditional inter-tribal conflicts.

In 9 AD, the Roman governor Publius Quinctilius Varus, ignoring warnings of a potential uprising, led his legions through what he believed was friendly territory. However, Arminius and his allies had already planned an ambush in the Teutoburg Forest. Over several days of stormy weather, the Germanic tribes launched a series of attacks on the Roman legions, resulting in a catastrophic defeat for Rome and the suicide of Varus.

The aftermath saw quick defensive actions by other Roman generals, preventing further Germanic advances. Emperor Augustus, deeply affected by the loss, famously lamented the defeat.

Although later campaigns under Germanicus recovered the lost standards and offered some closure, the Battle of Teutoburg Forest marked the end of Roman territorial expansion into Germania and reduced the number of active Roman legions.

FAQs about Germany during the Roman Empire

Let’s answer some of the most frequently asked questions about Germania as part of Roman history.

Who defeated the Romans in Germania?

The Romans were famously defeated by the Germanic tribes led by Arminius, a chieftain of the Cherusci tribe, in the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest in 9 AD.

What did Romans think of Germania?

The Romans viewed Germania as a land of barbarians, largely unrefined and uncivilized compared to their own culture. They saw it as a region of strategic importance but also of significant challenge due to its harsh landscape and the fierce independence of its tribal inhabitants.

Did Caesar and the Roman legions invade Germania?

Yes, Julius Caesar did invade parts of Germania. During his Gallic Wars, which primarily focused on subduing the tribes in Gaul (modern-day France), Caesar also conducted several military campaigns across the Rhine River, the border between Gaul and Germania.

His forays into Germania, though limited in scope compared to his campaigns in Gaul, were significant in demonstrating Rome’s military might and in seeking to deter Germanic tribes from assisting their Gallic counterparts.

Summing Up: Germania – Germany During the Roman Empire

The ancient region of Germania, located in Central and Northern Europe, has long been a subject of intrigue and historical significance, particularly during the era of the Roman Empire.

Germania represented a challenging frontier that the Romans never fully conquered or controlled.

This piece tried to offer some insights into this complex and often tumultuous period, examining both the military confrontations and the cultural exchanges that shaped the history of Roman Germania.

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