The Germanic tribes around AD 50. The tribes of the North Sea, the Rhine-Weser area and the Elbe had probably a strong pre-Teutonic (‘Germani’?) ethnic component.


By Periklis Deligiannis
[NOTE: This article is actually a part of my published  book  The Celts, Athens 2008, unfortunately available only in Greek.]
…. Apart from the most considerable Boii and Volcae peoples, other important Celtic tribes of central Europe were the Helvettii who originally were dwelling  in the valley of the river Main (modern Germany) before migrating to modern Switzerland, the Vendelici, the Norici, the Ambisontes, the Arabisci and others.
Of course, the Celts were not the only inhabitants of central Europe. In the 20th century, the study of place names and some archaeological data identified a large ethno-cultral group (and possibly linguistic) in the areas of modern Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxemburg and northern Germany, between the rivers Somme and Aller, which group did not speak neither Germanic nor Celtic (Gallic). These people possibly descended from the early Neolithic population of the region and they broadly adopted the Gallic culture but not the Celtic language (at least most of them). The people of the Lusatian culture in modern eastern Germany and Poland which was destroyed mainly by Scythian invaders (6th century BC), and the pre-Germanic inhabitants of Thuringia, northern Bohemia and other regions were possibly members of the same unknown ethnic group or groups. It was an unknown people (perhaps pre-Indo-European) who lived in a broad zone between the Celts and the Teutonics (Germanics) and most probably belonged to more than one linguistic group.

The third and youngest ethnic group in Central Europe was the Teutonic or Germanic. The Teutonics were named thus by the well-known Teutons (the tribal union, ally of the Cimbri), and I prefer to call them ‘Teutonics’ in order not to be confused with the Teutons. The Teutonics  were the ancestors of the modern Germans, Germano-Swiss, Austrians, Dutch, Flemish and Scandinavians, the warlike bearers of the Jastorf culture which was developed mainly in modern Denmark and the north coast of Germany. The modern national names Deutsch (Germans) and Dutch (rather an English/American name for the Niederlanders) are derived from the tribal name of the Teutons (Teutones, Deutones) – replacing the Celtic suffix ‘-ones’ with the German ‘-tsch’. But these were not the real ‘Germans’ or to be more accurate, the ‘Germani’. The Greek writer Posidonius (2nd-1st centuries BC) mentions that the Germani dwelled on the right bank of the Rhine bordering the Celtic areas. He also describes their habit to drink a ‘barbarian mixture of milk and wine accompanying roast meat’. However, Posidonius is not using the ethnic definition ‘Germani’ for his contemporary Cimbri and Teutons who came from Jutland and whom the later writers (Caesar, Polybius, Pliny and others) consider explicitly as Germans. The explanation lies in the reasonable hypothesis that the Germani of Posidonius was not the people we know today by this name (Germans) but the aforementioned ‘intermediary people’ between the Celts and the Teutonics. One or more of its tribes, or possibly the whole people, was bearing the ethnic name ‘Germani.’ It seems that at least the Tungri, a well-known tribe of this intermediate people, dwelling on the left bank of the Rhine (in the Belgic part of Gaul) were called ‘Germani’ as well (Tacitus).

Map of the pre-Celtic and pre-Germanic area of NW Europe between the Somme and the Aller (noted in red color).  The green arrows denote the Germanic expansion (The Times Atlas of World History, Edition in Greek, 2000).  Although I think that the following map of the same region from Wikipedia, is rather not accurate (the area is unreasonably limited), you can find it here.


germanic expansion
Germanic expansion, 500 BC-AD 1.
It seems that gradually the Teutonic intruders from the North conquered and assimilated the Germani, leading the Latin writers in the (false) ethnic equation of these two different peoples. The Russian archaeologist Shchukyn  aptly points out that the modern Germans never called themselves by that name and do not call themselves thus  not even nowadays, using always faithfully their own ancient name i.e. Deutsch, meaning Teutons/Teutonics. Only in recent centuries they have used sporadically the term ‘German’ (Germanen, Germania) and rather solely for political expediency. It was the Romans and most of their other neighbors who called them ‘Germans’ (as almost all the peoples of the world call them today) because of this “ancient misunderstanding.” In order for the reader to avoid confusion between the two ethnic groups, hereafter I shall call the indigenous  ‘intermediate people’ as ‘Germani’ and the invading people who migrated from modern Denmark by its usual names ‘Germanics’, ‘Germans’ and ‘Teutonics’.
It seems that Julius Caesar and his contemporary Romans complicated the problem by calling incorrectly ‘Germani’  the Teutonic newcomers. Caesar also mentions that the Belgae of Gaul and Britain had partially German descent. Many modern scholars thought that he meant that the Belgic tribes had partial Teutonic origin, but they do not seem to be right, misguided by Caesar’s error. The Belgae were possibly Celticized Germani who migrated in North Gaul because of the pressure of the Teutonic (Germanic) intruders. Caesar in his writings identifies the Germani with the Germanics rather because in his days most of the former had been assimilated by the latter. The fact is that the Romans used to call collectively ‘Germani’ all the peoples living east of the Rhine and north of the Upper Danube, without further investigating their origins. Since the days of Caesar, the ethnic names ‘Germani’ and ‘Teutons’ were identified (equated).

Spearheads, javelinheads and arrowheads, made of metal and animal bones by Germanic and other tribes of Northern Europe.
At the time of Caesar, the Tulingi or Tilangii (of modern Central Germany) seem to have been another originally Germani tribe. It was then that the Tulingi migrated south, in modern Switzerland, where they became a member of the Helvettian tribal federation.
The Germani seem to have been a considerable ethnic component of several Western Teutonic/Germanic peoples, and of some Northern and Eastern Germanic tribal unions as well such as the Cimbri, the Teutons and the Bastarnae.
The migrations of the Cimbri and the Teutons shocked the Roman and the Celtic world (but in reality these two tribal federations had a very strong Celtic ethnic component). But the real Germanic threat had not yet occurred to the Celts. On the other hand, the archeology of the Celtic regions denotes that this threat was already present and it was getting more and more menacing. Since the mid-2nd century BC, the Celts began to repair old forts and build new ones; evidence of their growing insecurity in the face of the Teutonic raids and migrations. At the beginning of the 1st century BC, the Germanics were expanding in all directions. To the North, using modern southern Sweden as their base area, they were driving off the indigenous Lapps. To the South they had assimilated many of the Germani and had ejected the Celtic Helvettii and Tigurini from the Main area towards  modern Switzerland. It was then that the Tigurini joined the Cimbri. It is mentioned that in the battle of Clastidium (222 BC) the Gallic army included a number of “Germani” warriors. Earlier researchers were quick to consider this report as the first appearance of the Germans in History, as mercenaries or allies of the Celts. However, it seems that these warriors were rather pre-Teutonic Germani and not Teutonic  Germans.
Periklis Deligiannis

Tacitus, Germania
Posidonius: fragments in Athenaeus, Strabo, Diogenes Laertius, Cleomedes.
Julius Caesar, De Bello Gallico
Livy, Ab Urbe Condita

Bronze Age

Most probable cradle area of the Germanic peoples.