1902 Encyclopedia > Germany > German History - Ancient Times

(Part 18)


Ancient Times

The people whom we call the "Germans," and who call themselves "die Deutschen," are a branch of the Teutonic race, which, again, belongs to the great Aryan family. At what time the Teutons broke away from their Aryan kinsfolk we have no means of knowing. In the 4th century B.C., when they are first mentioned, they were settled along the shore of the Baltic Sea; but long before that time the race must have scattered itself far and wide over the countries now known as Scandinavia and Germany, and the Scandinavians and the Germans were gradually marked off from each other by important differences in languages, in customs, and in institutions.

At the time of Tacitus, whose Germania is our chief authority as to the condition of ancient Germany, central Europe was in the possession of a large number of German tribes. These tribes did not call themselves by a common name. The word "German" is of Celtic origin, meaning, according to some philologers, "shouters," according to other, "neighbours." It seems to have been applied by the Gauls in the first instance to a particular German tribe with which they were in conflict, and afterwards to the whole people. The word "Deutsch" (Goth, Thiuda, the people) does not occur till the 9th century, and was not used in the sense now given to it for time later. Although without a common name, the ancient Germans believed that they had a common origin, all of them regarding as their forefather Mannus, the first man, the son of the god Tuisco. Mannus was supposed to have had three sons, from whom had sprung the Istaevones, the Ingaevones, and the Herminones. These groups were without political significance, but they seem to have marked real distinctions. The Istaevones were the tribes with whom the Romans were brought most into contact, occupying, as they did, both banks of the Rhine. The lands held by those of them on the left bank were divided by the Romans into "Germania Superior" and "Germania Inferior," the chief tribe of the latter being the Ubii, who had an important settlement on the site of what is now Cologue. On the right bank, from the Lippe to the Ruhr, were the Usipetes and Tencteri, and to the north of them the Sicambri and the Bructeri; the land now called Hesse appears to have been inhabited by the Chatti. On the island formed by the Meuse and an arm of the Rhine were the Batavi. The second great group, the Ingaevones, among whom were the Frisii, the Chauci, and the Cherusci, were settled along the shores of the North Sea, and inland along the banks of the Wesser and the Ems. The Herminones were much more numerous than either of the two other groups; they held the greater part of central and eastern Germany, reaching as far as the Vistula and the Carpathians. Most prominent among them were the Suevi, a great confederation of tribes which included the Marcomanni, the dwellers in what is now Bohemia, and the Semnones, who held what is now Lusatia and Brandenburg. Oether Herminones were the Hermunduri, in and around the Thuringian forest; the Lombards, at the mouth of the Elbe; the vandals, at the upper parts of the same river; the Heruli, to the west of the Vistula; and the Quadi, in what is now Moravia.

The ancient Germans were a tall and vigorous race, with long fair hair and what Tacitus calls "fiercely blues eyes." They wore mantles of fur or of coarse woolen stuff, thrown over the shoulders and fastened by a thorn or a pin. Their dwellings were wooden huts of slight construction, the inner walls of which they roughly coloured, and in which cattle were sometimes accommodated with the family. War and the chase were the favourite occupations of the men; and when engaged neither in fighting nor in hunting they often lay idly by the hearth, leaving peaceful work to women and to males incapable of bearing arms. They liked social gatherings, but after a time conversation usually gave place to drunkenness, quarreling, or excessive gambling. Although violent and cruel in moments of excitement, they were rarely treacherous, and in the ordinary intercourse of life they appear to have been kindly and considerate. They cherished the memory of illustrious ancestors, and listened often and with delight to songs celebrating their famous deeds.

The bulk of the people were freemen, who alone exercised political rights. They inherited their position, and the sign of their dignity was that they always carried arms. A limited class of freemen where nobles, whole sole privilege seems to have been that they were more respected on account of their birth than their neighbours, and more easily acquired a leading place in public life. Each freeman had slaves, who were chiefly prisoners of war and their offspring, and persons condemned to slavery for crime. They had no legal rights as against their owners, but in practice they were well treated. The Liti, composed mostly of freedmen, stood between freemen and slaves. A freeman necessarily either possessed land or was a member of a family that did; the Liti could only hold land of a superior with whom they shared the produce. If any one killed a noble, a freeman, ort one of the Liti, he had to pay to the relatives a fine called afterwards the wergild, and the amount was determined by the class to which the murdered man belonged.

Great importance was attributed to family relations. Instead of the bridegroom, looking for a dowry, he was expected to present his bride with a valuable gift which should remain her property throughout life. The wife was completely subject to her husband, and is she proved unfaithful, custom allowed him to cut of her hair and to whip her through the village in which she lived; but this punishment had seldom to be inflicted, the German women being famous for their chastity. They were treated as friends by their husbands, who had a high respect for their judgment, and whom they often accompanied in distant expeditions. The children, over whom the father had absolute control were hardily trained, boys being early taught the use of weapons, and girls devoting themselves to domestic duties. Relatives were held in great esteem, and, when the head of a household died, it was considered their duty to guard the interests of his family.

Many freemen lived apart from all others with their families and dependents, but the majority were grouped in villages. The land around a village—its "mark"—originally belonged to the community, and was periodically divided among the inhabitants. About the beginning of the Christian era, however, the arable land was mostly in the possession of individual freemen, the forest and waste places being almost the only common property. A number of villages made a hundred, and the "gau," if the word existed so early, may have been a higher division, although it was more probably the name for the whole land of the tribe. Each village had its chief, elected by the freemen, but the important chiefs were the heads of the hundreds and the head of the tribe, whom the power had not other source than that of other, now was it more extensive; their only distinction was that they were chosen from particular noble families supposed to have sprung from the gods. The chiefs of the hundreds and of the tribes had the right of gathering around them hands of followers; and they never failed to exercise it, vying with each other in the number and quality of the young men whom they attracted to their service. These young men whom they attracted to their service. These young men were generally eager for active duty, and if the tribe was at peace an adventurous chief would often give them an opportunity of distinguishing themselves by taking part in the wars of other communities. They swore to be faithful to him, and he in return supplied them with horses, with armour, and with food. The authority of the chief was extremely limited, the constitution of ancient German society being essentially democratic. Every village, hundred, and tribe had its periodical assembly, and those assemblies were attended by all freemen, no one of whom had higher rights than his fellows. Before the meeting of the assembly of the tribe, the king or other supreme chief would consult with the chiefs of the hundreds, whom formed his council; but the final decision rested with the freemen, whom they could influence only by persuasion. At this assembly the chiefs were elected; and in its presence freemen clad their sons in the armour which indicated that they had attained the rights of citizenship. It declared war and made peace, permitted the chiefs with their followers to undertake war-like expeditions, and settled all disputed cases of justice.

The army was not distinct institution; it was made up of the whole body of freedmen, all of whom were liable at any moment to be called to service. Each had a long shield and spear, the cavalry having no other armour. The infantry were provided also with missile weapons, of which they made dexterous use, and occasionally wielded clubs and battle-axes. The men of each hundred kept together in war, and were commanded by their chief, the supreme command being undertaken by the head of the tribe, or entrusted to a "Herzog" appointed by the army. In the event of several tribes uniting, a Herzog was chosen by the chiefs of the allied communities. The Germans rushed upon their enemies with fury, shouting or chanting as they did so, and adding to the noise by putting their shields to their months. To throw away the shield in panic was perhaps the worst crime of a German; and most persons guilty of it committed suicide in an agony of remorse and shame.

The religion of the ancient Germans was essentially the same as that of their Scandinavian kinsmen, but our sources of information respecting it are few and imperfect. The highest place among the gods was held by Wuotan or Wodan, the Scandinavian Odin. The Romans identified him with Mercury, and the mediaeval German writers, in referring to him, follow their example. He was the god on the air and of the sky, and was looked upon as the giver of the fruits of the earth. He delighted in battle and in the chase, and was represented as an imposing figure in a large white mantle, riding upon white horse. Along with him the Germans worshipped Donar, the Scandinavian Thor, to whom Tacitus seems to refer in speaking of Hercules as a German divinity. He was the god of thunder and of the weather, and was armed with a hammer or thunderbolt. In later times the Germans supposed him to be Jupiter. He presided over marriage, and controlled the operations of agriculture; and to him were sacred the oak and the mountains ash, the bear and the ram. Another great divinity was Ziu or Tiu, the Scandibavian Tyr, the god of war, whom Tacitus speaks of as Mars, and whose symbol was the sword. Tacitus says that a powerful goddess called Nerthus was worshipped on the shores of the Baltic; he also mentions Isis as a goddess of the Suevic tribea. Both names evidently refer to the same divinity. On the coasts her symbol was a ship; inland, it was a wagon; in some districts she was represented with the plough. Like Donar, she presided over marriage; she also watched over the house and the fields, was the giver and protector of children, and ruled the world of the dead. At a later time she was known to the Saxons as Fria or Frigg, to the Franks as Holds, to the Bavarians as Perchta,—the first name indicating her freedom of manner, the second her kindness, the third her splendour. In the Scandinavian mythology Frigg is the wife of Odin; and to this day, it is said, the peasants in certain parts of Low Germany speak of Fru Fricke, the wife of the wild hunter Wod. The mythology of the Germans, like that of the Scandinavians, included the three sisters of fate, two of whom were fair and good, and third dark and evil. Beneath the gods were giants, elves, and dwarfs. After death, it was believed, good men were received into Walhalla; any by good men were meant warriors who never shrank in battle—above all, warriors who died fighting. The Germans were profoundly influenced by their religious faith, and both in daily life and on special occasions attended scrupulously to the duties and precautions it was supposed to involve. Each god and goddess had its and her own festival, and their images were preserved in sacred groves. Sacrifices were offered to them, and their will was discovered by means of lots, the neighing of wild horses, and the flight of birds. Priests, without dominating the whole of life, exercised considerable influence, especially when the freemen met in public assembly, and when they were advancing against an enemy.

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