Germany: Peeps at History - John Finnemore

The German Tribes

Two thousand years ago the land and people of Germany were a subject of deep interest to Roman writers. These set down in the Latin tongue descriptions of a great cold stretch of country, covered with desolate heaths and swamp, or matted with vast, wild, dark sweeps of forest. Among these naked heaths and through the dusky woodlands roamed men of giant stature, with fair skin, blue eyes, and long, yellow hair, the men who formed the many tribes of Old Germany. They were hunters and warriors. They were free men and loved to dwell apart, each in his own homestead or village, rather than to gather in towns. When they marched to battle they were led by the chief of their tribe, who was looked upon as king and head of the great family which the tribe formed.

It was about a hundred years before Christ when the Romans first began to feel the presence of these fierce warriors, coming down from their northern wilds in search of new homes and of plunder. There was desperate fighting when Roman legions were sent to bar the march of the Germans into Italy, and, though the march was checked, it was not until several Roman armies had been destroyed by the wild tribesmen.

Fifty years passed, and the great Roman general, Julius Caesar, subdued the German tribes dwelling along the Rhine. In later days the Roman legions were pushed forward until the land between the Rhine and the Elbe was made tributary to Rome. But the Germans, always lovers of freedom, were eager to throw off the Roman yoke, and in the year 9 A.D. they struck a terrible blow at the Roman power. The Emperor Augustus sent one of his friends, a general named Varus, into Germany with a vast army. The Germans, under a great leader named Herman, rose and attacked him on the march. There was a fierce battle, and the Roman army was cut to pieces. When Varus saw that all hope was lost, he threw himself on his sword and perished. When the news of the great disaster was brought to Rome it caused a panic in the city. Augustus himself was in an agony of distress, and wandered to and fro, calling out wildly: "O Varus, give me back my legions!" But they were lost beyond recall, and Varus with them. A few years later, the Roman leader Germanicus won his name for his exploits in Germany, but he returned to Rome in 17 A.D. and the Germans were once more left to themselves.

The Roman power was then employed to keep the fierce marauding tribes within their proper boundaries, and the Old Germans fought amongst themselves now that no foreign troops entered their land. Tacitus, the great Roman writer, tells us many things about these wild tribesmen. He praises them for their bravery in war, for the bold and hardy life to which their sons were bred, for the deep respect which they paid to their women, for their faithful conduct and their kindness to strangers. But, on the other hand, he points out their faults, saying that they loved to drink so deeply that a feast often ended in a fierce riot, and they were so fond of gambling that they would often throw away all they owned on the cast of the dice, even to the losing of their own freedom.

Three hundred years passed after the great victory of Herman, and then there began that strange and wonderful movement of the peoples which is called the Migration of the Nations. From the vast forests of Germany there began to pour in various directions great streams of adventurers seeking new abodes for themselves, north, west, or south of their old home-land. There were two reasons for this mighty movement. One was that the German tribes were being pressed upon by enemies from the east, but the second and chief was that the Roman power was failing, and the rich and fruitful lands hitherto guarded by the swords of the legions now began to lie open to attack.

The chief tribes of Germany were the Saxons, the Franks, the Goths, and the Alemanni. The Saxons sailed north and west, crossed to Britain, whence the Romans had now departed, and formed the kingdom of England. The Franks moved west-ward into Gaul, and in time gave their name to the land of France. The Goths formed a great and important tribe, famous among their kinsmen because they were the first Germans to become Christians, and to become polished and civilised in their mode of life. The Goths won wide lands for themselves in the south of Europe, marching as far east as Athens. They were the first German people to feel the assault of a new and terrible foe which appeared in Europe, the Huns.

The Huns were a wild barbarian race which came from Asia, and they swarmed westward in countless hordes, the warriors marching ahead, while vast trains of waggons rolled after them bearing their women and children. They were of Mongol blood, short, dwarf-like men, but thick-set and powerful in build. They were very hardy, caring nothing for cold, heat, hunger, or hardship. They were so ugly with their flat noses, yellow faces, tiny eyes, and big, upstanding cheek-bones that the people of Europe believed that they were the offspring of demons, and dreaded them as much for their horrible appearance as for their fury in attack.

Upon the Goths fell the first onset of these terrible little savages, and some of the chief Gothic tribes were conquered. A great branch of the Gothic people, the Visigoths, turned for help to their old enemies, the Romans, and were allowed by the Emperor Valens to cross the Danube, and settle on the Roman side, the southern bank, in order to be safe from the dreaded Huns. But the Goths were so badly treated by Roman officers that they rose against Valens and overthrew him in a great battle in 378. These were the people who were to strike the blow which shattered Roman authority, and showed that Roman power was but the shadow of its former greatness. In 408 they marched into Italy under their great commander Alaric, and sat down before the walls of Rome. The Romans, once so stern a fighting race, trembled at sight of the Gothic horde, and begged for peace. Alaric offered peace, but it must be paid for, and he demanded so vast a ransom for the safety of the city that the Romans were aghast. "What should we have left?" they cried. "Your life," was the grim answer of the Goth.

He received the money and went away, only to return the next year. Now the gates of the Eternal City were opened to him by treachery, and he and his Goths swept in and Rome was sacked. For six days the plundering hordes rifled the city and swept together a vast mass of treasure, then marched away to southern Italy. Here Alaric suddenly died, and the Goths gave their famous king a wonderful burial. A river was turned aside from its course, and in the dry river-bed a deep grave was dug and a great vault of masonry built in it. In this vault was placed Alaric clad in full armour and seated on his war-horse. Around him was heaped a vast pile of glittering treasure, the choicest of the immense spoil which he had taken. Then the river was turned into its former bed and rushed along over the grave, so that no one might know where the great King of the Goths was buried.

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The next great conquest of the Goths was the land of Spain, where another German tribe settled beside them. The latter was the tribe of the Vandals, who seized a province called by them Vandalusia, but now known as Andalusia. These Vandals also crossed over to Africa and seized the Roman possessions there, and formed a Vandal empire whose capital was the famous city of Carthage. The Vandals were a ferocious race who did such terrible mischief wherever they went that their name has lingered to this day, and we still use the term vandal for one who destroys for the mere pleasure of destruction.

The Huns now drove their way into the heart of Europe and settled in the land still called Hungary. But they pushed on westwards under the banner of their terrible leader Attila, known as the Scourge of God, and feared all over Europe and Asia. With a vast army Attila swept over Germany and marched deep into Gaul, till he was brought to bay in 451 on a great plain near Chalons, on the Marne. Here a great army of Romans, Goths, and Franks had gathered, the last hope of Europe in face of the swarming hordes of savage Huns. The battle was long and desperate, and vast numbers were slain on both sides. In the end the Huns were driven back and Europe was saved.

The next year saw Attila marching on Rome, but he turned aside on receiving a great ransom and retired to Hungary. In a short time he died, and after his day the Huns, having no great leader, were no longer a terror to their neighbours.