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Ancient history of the German peoples

The German peoples are defined by the common language group to which they belong. German history thus originates with the so-called first sound shift (or Grimm's law), which turned a Proto-Indo-European dialect into a new Germanic language group. The Proto-Indo-European consonants p, t, and k became the Proto-Germanic f, (th), and x (h), and the Proto-Indo-European b, d, and g became Proto-Germanic p, t, and k. The historical context of the shift is difficult to identify because it is impossible to date it conclusively. Clearly the people who came to speak Germanic must have been isolated from other Indo-Europeans for some time, but it is not obvious which archaeological culture might represent the period of the shift. One possibility is the so-called Northern Bronze Age, centred in northern Germany and Scandinavia, that flourished between about 1700 and 450 BC. Alternatives would be one of the early Iron Age cultures of the same region (e.g., Wessenstadt [800-600 BC], or Jastorf [600-300 BC]).

Solid historical information begins in about 50 BC when Julius Caesar'sGallic Wars brought him into contact with Germans as well as Celts. He did cross the Rhine in 55 and 53 BC, but the province of Gaul he created used the river as a boundary and most Germans lived beyond it. Direct Roman attacks on German tribes began again under Nero Claudius Drusus Germanicus, who pushed across the Rhine in 12-9 BC, while other Roman forces assaulted Germanic tribes through the middle Danube (in modern Austria and Hungary). Fierce fighting in both areas, and the famous victory of the German Arminius in the Teutoburger Forest in AD 9 (when three Roman legions were massacred), showed that conquering these tribes would require too much effort. The Roman frontier thus stabilized on the Rhine and Danube rivers, although sporadic campaigns (notably under Domitian in AD 83 and 88) extended control over Frisia in the north and some lands east of the confluence of the Rhine and the Danube.

Both archaeology and Caesar's own account of his wars show that German tribes then lived on both sides of the Rhine. The Romans also met Germans on the middle Danube. In fact, broadly similar archaeological cultures from this period stretch across central Europe from the Rhine to the Vistula River (in modern Poland), so that Germanic peoples probably dominated all of these areas. Germanic cultures extended from Scandinavia as far south as the Carpathians. These Germans led a largely settled agricultural existence. They practiced mixed farming, lived in wooden houses (working mainly in wood), did not have the potter's wheel, were nonliterate, and did not use money. The marshy lowlands of northern Europe preserve otherwise perishable wooden objects, leather goods, and clothing and shed much light on the Germanic way of life. These bogs were also used for ritual sacrifice and execution, and some 700 "bog people" have been recovered. Their remains are so well preserved that even dietary patterns can be established; the staple was a gruel made of many kinds of seeds and weeds.

Clear evidence of social differentiation appears in these cultures. Richly furnished burials (containing rich jewelry and sometimes weapons) have been uncovered in many areas, showing that a wealthy warrior-prince class was developing. These chiefs became a standard feature of Germanic society, and archaeologists have uncovered the halls where they feasted their retainers, an activity described in the Anglo-Saxon poem Beowulf. This warrior elite followed the cult of a war god (Tiu or Wodan). Tacitus describes in the Germania how in AD 59 the Hermunduri, in fulfillment of their vows, sacrificed defeated Chatti to this god. This elite was also the basis of political organization. The Germans were divided into numerous tribes, which were also united in leagues centred on the worship of particular cults. These cults were probably created by one locally dominant tribe and changed over time. Tribes belonging to such leagues came together for an annual festival, when weapons were laid aside. Apart from worship, these were also times for economic activity, social interaction, and settling disputes.

The following pages are references to the continuous methodical record of Ancient Germany.

Merovingians and Carolingians

Germany from 911 to 1250

The king and ideology

The king and ideology

The king and ideology

The king and ideology

The king and ideology

The king and ideology

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