Germanic peoples

  • roman bronze statuette representing a germanic man with his hair in a suebian knot

    the germanic peoples (german: germanen, from latin: germani) are a category of north european ethnic groups, first mentioned by graeco-roman authors. they are usually identified with speakers of germanic languages.[a] starting with julius caesar (100-44 bce), several roman authors placed their homeland, germania, roughly between the lower rhine and the vistula, and distinguished them from other broad categories of peoples better known to rome, especially the celtic gauls to their southwest, and "scythian" sarmatians to their southeast.[b] greek writers, in contrast, consistently categorized the germanic peoples from east of the rhine as a type of gaul.[c]

    with the possible exception of some tribes near the rhine, there is no evidence that the germanic peoples called themselves or their lands "germanic" (see below).[d]

    broad definitions of the "germanic peoples" include peoples who were not known as germani or germanic peoples in their own time, but who have been proposed to be part of the same group of cultures, especially because of their use of germanic languages, although not all scholars agree that this is a useful approach.[e] thus, in modern writing "germanic peoples" is a term which commonly includes the medieval or modern speakers of later germanic languages which are no longer mutually intelligible, for example the norse-speaking vikings, who did not appear in written records until long after the roman era. making such linguistic classification difficult, all the languages of the roman-era germanic peoples have left only fragmentary evidence if any at all, and the first long texts which have survived are written in languages of new mixed peoples outside germania: the gothic languages from the region that is today ukraine, and old english in england.[1] languages in this family are widespread today in europe, and have dispersed worldwide, the family being represented by major modern languages such as english, dutch, nordic languages and german. the eastern germanic branch of the language family, once found in what is now poland and the ukraine, is extinct.

    apart from language, proposed connections between the diverse germanic peoples described by classical and medieval sources, archaeology, and linguistics are the subject of on-going debate among scholars:

    • on the one hand there is doubt about whether roman-era germanic peoples were all unified by any single unique shared culture, collective consciousness, or even language.[f] even the idea that germanic-speaking groups maintained any meaningful idea of shared origins or culture has been criticized by scholars such as walter goffart, and become the subject of vigorous debate.
    • on the other hand, there is a connected debate concerning the extent to which any significant germanic traditions apart from language, even smaller scale tribal traditions, survived after roman times, when new mixed peoples formed new political entities in many strongly roman-influenced parts of europe. some of these new entities are seen as precursors of modern european nation states, such as the english and french. such proposed connections back to medieval and classical barbarian nations were important to many of the romanticist nationalist movements which developed in europe in modern times. the most controversial of these has been "germanicism" which saw especially germans as direct heirs of a europe-conquering germanic race and culture - a popular narrative which helped inspire nazism.[2]

    in the 21st century, genetic studies have begun to look more systematically at questions of ancestry, using both modern and ancient dna. however, the connection between modern germanic languages, ethnicity and genetic heritage is thought by many scholars to be unlikely to ever be simple or uncontroversial. guy halsall for example writes: "the danger, barely addressed (at best dismissed as a purely ‘ideological’ objection), is of reducing ethnicity to biology and thus to something close to the nineteenth-century idea of race, at the basis of the ‘nation state’."[3]

  • definitions of germanic peoples
  • languages
  • classical subdivisions
  • history
  • roman descriptions of early germanic people and culture
  • genetics
  • see also
  • notes
  • references
  • bibliography
  • external links for classical sources

Roman bronze statuette representing a Germanic man with his hair in a Suebian knot

The Germanic peoples (German: Germanen, from Latin: Germani) are a category of north European ethnic groups, first mentioned by Graeco-Roman authors. They are usually identified with speakers of Germanic languages.[a] Starting with Julius Caesar (100-44 BCE), several Roman authors placed their homeland, Germania, roughly between the Lower Rhine and the Vistula, and distinguished them from other broad categories of peoples better known to Rome, especially the Celtic Gauls to their southwest, and "Scythian" Sarmatians to their southeast.[b] Greek writers, in contrast, consistently categorized the Germanic peoples from east of the Rhine as a type of Gaul.[c]

With the possible exception of some tribes near the Rhine, there is no evidence that the Germanic peoples called themselves or their lands "Germanic" (see below).[d]

Broad definitions of the "Germanic peoples" include peoples who were not known as Germani or Germanic peoples in their own time, but who have been proposed to be part of the same group of cultures, especially because of their use of Germanic languages, although not all scholars agree that this is a useful approach.[e] Thus, in modern writing "Germanic peoples" is a term which commonly includes the medieval or modern speakers of later Germanic languages which are no longer mutually intelligible, for example the Norse-speaking Vikings, who did not appear in written records until long after the Roman era. Making such linguistic classification difficult, all the languages of the Roman-era Germanic peoples have left only fragmentary evidence if any at all, and the first long texts which have survived are written in languages of new mixed peoples outside Germania: the Gothic languages from the region that is today Ukraine, and Old English in England.[1] Languages in this family are widespread today in Europe, and have dispersed worldwide, the family being represented by major modern languages such as English, Dutch, Nordic languages and German. The Eastern Germanic branch of the language family, once found in what is now Poland and the Ukraine, is extinct.

Apart from language, proposed connections between the diverse Germanic peoples described by classical and medieval sources, archaeology, and linguistics are the subject of on-going debate among scholars:

  • On the one hand there is doubt about whether Roman-era Germanic peoples were all unified by any single unique shared culture, collective consciousness, or even language.[f] Even the idea that Germanic-speaking groups maintained any meaningful idea of shared origins or culture has been criticized by scholars such as Walter Goffart, and become the subject of vigorous debate.
  • On the other hand, there is a connected debate concerning the extent to which any significant Germanic traditions apart from language, even smaller scale tribal traditions, survived after Roman times, when new mixed peoples formed new political entities in many strongly Roman-influenced parts of Europe. Some of these new entities are seen as precursors of modern European nation states, such as the English and French. Such proposed connections back to medieval and classical barbarian nations were important to many of the Romanticist nationalist movements which developed in Europe in modern times. The most controversial of these has been "Germanicism" which saw especially Germans as direct heirs of a Europe-conquering Germanic race and culture - a popular narrative which helped inspire Nazism.[2]

In the 21st century, genetic studies have begun to look more systematically at questions of ancestry, using both modern and ancient DNA. However, the connection between modern Germanic languages, ethnicity and genetic heritage is thought by many scholars to be unlikely to ever be simple or uncontroversial. Guy Halsall for example writes: "The danger, barely addressed (at best dismissed as a purely ‘ideological’ objection), is of reducing ethnicity to biology and thus to something close to the nineteenth-century idea of race, at the basis of the ‘nation state’."[3]