History of Me, Part 2: When Germans Met Romans

In this episode of History of Me, we take a peek at the earliest recorded accounts of “Germans” and their interactions with the Roman Empire. Intrigued? Let’s dive in

NOTE: I am looking into German/Germanic/European history as a function of my own familial cultural roots, and am attempting to do so in an anti-racist, anti-imperial way. For my full reading list and a further note about whiteness, see this post.

Meet the Germani…

For this section I started off by reading the introduction and first chapter of Steve Ozment’s A Mighty Fortress: A New History of the German Peoplefollowed by Rome’s Greatest Defeat: Massacre in the Teutoburg Forest.

Scene: It’s the first century BC. Caesar invades France (then known as Gaul) but mostly leaves the Germanic tribes to themselves, relying on intimidation to keep relative peace. Later after he dies Caesar Augustus (the next emperor) starts to look across the de facto border of the Rhine River toward the land occupied by “barbarians,” aka the yet unconquered Germanic tribes. A small conflict born out of misunderstanding gave Rome an excuse to invade; during the ensuing conflicts a Germanic force led by a Roman-trained Germanic commander called Arminius defeated an army of Roman legions at the Battle of Teutoburg Forest (also translated as the Teutoburg Pass).

I won’t talk much more about the battle in this post, but tuck Arminius’s name away for later. Both Fortress and Forest mentioned how the story of Arminius’s victory over Rome was rediscovered centuries later and became a focus point for German unification and nationalism. So I’m sure we’ll hear of him again.

As I read through the account of the battle and the history surrounding it, I loved learning more about the tribes that lived in present-day Germany/Europe before it was actually called Germany. Fun fact: just like we now call the tribes of this continent “Indians” or “Native Americans,” Romans (outside colonizers) were the first ones to call the tribes in this part of Europe “Germans” (Germani). (NOTE: There is much disagreement about where this name comes from, so the meaning is uncertain.)

A map of some of the tribes that made up “Germania” around the turn of the calendar (100 BC – 300 AD ish)

Steven Ozment notes that “at this time [ca. 100-0 BC] the tribes were neither racially uniform nor transregionally united but composites, ‘loose and shifting amalgams of peoples,’ who formed no coherent Germanic front” (p.17). I also found it interesting that of the tribes who had strong identities at this point, some like “the Franks, Goths, and Lombards developed historical identities by allying with leading, or royal, families and embracing their genealogical myths” (p.17). This actually shows the connection between the ancestral/mythical stories of the previous post and the Germanic tribes recorded here. Like many other peoples, Germanic tribes and leaders found ways to connect their stories to the lineage of the gods by making the gods their ancestors.

The Empire’s bargain…

Even more than the battle, though, the really compelling thing for me about these stories was reading about how the Roman Empire functioned.

Both Fortress and Forest went to great lengths to set the scene and describe what it was like to be a barbarian tribe (or just a barbarian) in the world of Rome. Here are some illustrative passages:

Over the last decades of the old millennium and the first of the new Christian Era, the Romans diminished the threat the tribes posed by brutally punishing their forays [across the Rhine] and finding ways to divide and coopt them. Among the latter were simple human temptations. … Before contact with the Romans, tribal leaders ruled more by persuasion than by coercion and maintained social peace by equitable divisions of land and wealth within the tribe. The new wealth gained from trade with the Romans worked to stratify tribal society, setting new rich against poor and encouraging disproportionate divisions of tribal land. (Ozment p.19, emphasis added)

The Romans sought to have their way with the tribes by transplanting the sons of leading men to Rome, where, to their material benefit, they grew up as Romans. Such transplantation was both by invitation and by hostage taking. Selected elite barbarians were in this way Romanized, many thereafter residing in Rome for the remainder of their lives, while others returned to their homelands as assimilated servants of the Roman Empire. It would be too much to call these repatriated tribesmen brainwashed, since as a rule they served the Roman Empire willingly, gaining new land and wealth for themselves while continuing to enjoy membership in the cosmopolitan Roman world… (Ozment p.20, emphasis added)

Rome promoted leading tribal leaders within Rome’s imperial aristocracy. By recognizing certain chiefs as allies, barbarians were flattered into becoming emissaries for the Roman way of life. It was a practice that first bound them to Rome, then made them dependent on her. (Forest p. 79, emphasis added)

Basically, the Romans came in with their giant empire and their power and their wealth and their military organization and offered tribes (or at least, tribal leaders) a bargain. If they pledged loyalty to Rome, and adopted Roman culture and Roman religion (aka emperor-worship – Romans connected themselves to their gods, too), they would receive power and wealth and move up in Roman society. (And of course, there’s the elephant in the room of “or else.”)

The problem, of course, was that even if they gave up everything that made them “Germanic”, there was only so far they could advance in Roman society. Even Germans or other barbarians who climbed high enough to achieve Roman citizenship still faced barriers:

Citizenship gave affiliated tribes the same legal protections and rights as native-born Italians. Yet, despite acculturation and success, Romanized barbarians, whether Africans, Germans, or Jews, could still find themselves treated as inferiors in the imperial city. That was especially true of the first generation to undergo assimilation. And while the Roman senate looked on tribal elites as occupying the same high position in native societies that senators held in Rome, there was no thought of parity between Roman and barbarian…. While social acceptance might come after full Latin fluency and the fading of native languages and customs, the transplanted barbarian was often, in the Roman perception, a “hyphenated” Roman…. (Ozment p.24)

So cooperating Germanic tribes/leaders gave up their culture, their community, their traditions, their languages, and sometimes their homes — all for a chance to play a game that they couldn’t win, because Romans would always be superior – but at least they got a piece of the pie, and could hope that their less-German, more-Roman children could climb higher than they.

Sound at all familiar? I thought it did, when I heard Pastor Ebony Adedayo, one of the pastors at my church, preaching last Sunday about how white supremacy was created in this country by dividing poor whites from poor/enslaved blacks:

Forsaking language, culture, and history, the newly created white race exchanged its identity for a baseless lie. And the only thing that remained was the lie, or rather the notion that whites were superior to everyone else. In order to preserve that lie, people, politicians, people in high places have gone to great lengths to dehumanize themselves to the extent that it is extremely daunting task to find our way out of it. Not impossible, but daunting.

(You can listen to the full sermon here. Highly recommended!)

Reading all this about the Romans coming to Germania was super eerie for me, because if I change the nouns it morphs into the history of this country — first what was imposed on indigenous tribes here, and then what was also enforced on later immigrants. Give up your tribal/cultural identity in exchange for power and/or survival. Be held back by your “hyphenated” status — until, for my ancestors, their light skin and distance from their “ethnic” past enabled their children to dissolve into whiteness. Or, as the author of Teutoburg Forest puts it: intimidate, conquer, assimilate.

A note about forests versus farms…

When faced with Roman threats (or enticements) of “assimilate or else”, some tribes resisted. Some were conquered. The significance of the Battle of Teutoburg Forest is that it, along with several other battles over the following years, sufficiently delayed the Romans so that their empire and army was too far-flung to fully conquer Germany. They ended up pretty much keeping to the west/south of the Rhine River, and while the tribes to the north/east did trade and integrate with Romans, they were never forcibly conquered. (And in fact later, Germanic tribes ended up overrunning and taking over much of the Roman Empire… but I’m guessing that’s for another post!)

Notice the dotted line — Rome never extended beyond the Rhine into Germania.

But one of the significant downstream effects of this Rhine border being held is that it reinforced the existing regional differences in Europe/Germany:

The battle also reinforced another effect, one less tangible, but one that has had a profound psychological and social impact on Europe and is still being felt today. It confirmed the fault-line between north and south. History could now be used to back up long-held prejudices. [As one historian wrote:] “The slaughter in the Teutoburg Forest divided Europe into the warm south, who forever saw forests as dreadful places to be avoided and cleared, homes to dragons and trolls, antitheses of the civilized city, and the north, who understood [forests] to be healing, protecting, mystical, spiritual places. How you feel about a silent birch forest at twilight says more about your blood and your kin than your passport. (Forest p.7)

We can see how this lays the groundwork for the process of Christianity later sweeping through the wealthier urban centers in the south and pushing Norse stories and traditions north, to the outskirts and the forests, where Snorri Sturleson finally wrote them down a thousand years later in the Edda. I’m interested to keep an eye out now for farm vs. forest and that north/south dynamic as we continue through this project.


I didn’t really expect things to get emotional this quickly, but it was actually really hard for me to read the parts about the tribes taking the Roman bargain, becoming co-opted into the empire, and giving up their ways in exchange for power, money, and influence. I wanted to reach back in time and tell them “No, don’t do it! You don’t know what it’s like to be rootless, without traditions or stories!” But of course, that was 2000 years ago, and now I just have to deal with the choices they made.

Don’t get me wrong — it’s not like they had much of a choice. (Though I’m sure some were more eager to sell out for influence than others.) Given the threat of Rome, I might have made the same decision in their place. Survival is primal, instinctual. But knowing they probably tried to make the best choice they could doesn’t take away my sadness that they took the first step toward losing something beautiful that I wish I could have back.

This, to me, is why Empire (which we talk about a lot at our church) is a perfect analogy for much that is wrong with the world and with how humans treat one another. Rome started this power-grabbing bargain on a large scale millennia ago — they figured out how to systematize power-mongering with their never-ending war-to-captive-to-citizen machine — and it’s kept going and going ever since, and we’re still doing it today. Personal advancement trumps the community. The power game has never stopped.

Anyway, this section has really felt to me like peering into a mirror or a pool and watching a past mistake. (“Noooo Isildor, throw the Ring into the fire!!!”) I know I have some grief and probably even some anger about it. But I’m still glad to have read it, because as Pastor Ebony says, it’s daunting to find a way out – but not impossible. Looking forward to continuing my search.

Tune in next time for a look at the coming of Christianity and The Barbarian Conversion (as well as Mists of Avalon for a fictionalized perspective). 


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