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THE EARLY GERMANS: Wild Tribes of the North

By Adrian Garbett

German Society: We are very lucky to have some first-hand commentaries about the Germans from their initial contacts with the Romans and these appear to be borne out by archaeological evidence as accurate. From these commentaries we can build up a picture of the complex tribal society that was in place between the 1st century BC and the mid-3rd Century AD before the influences of Roman ‘civilisation’ took hold.

The Warlords: German society at this time was remarkably democratic with all free men meeting to vote on important issues and elect leaders in times of war. These warlords would attract a following of committed retainers (named the comitatus by the Romans) who provided the cutting edge of any tribal army. To ensure the loyalty of his followers a warlord had to provide them with wealth and this came from raiding neighbouring tribes for cattle and slaves. The status of a tribe was measured by the extent of the depopulated “no-go” area around their lands. Sometimes entire tribes would be driven from their lands and this is recorded by contemporary writers as not uncommon.

In direct opposition to the stereotypes of today the ancient Germans are remarked on for their lack of punctuality, the Romans were often kept waiting for days when parleys were arranged much to their annoyance. This did have a military effect as invaders would often have entered and plundered an area before the warriors had assembled, this caused consternation for the Romans who would be happily marching home only to find a German army sitting on their line of march. 

The tribes only began to appoint “kings” quite late in their development, the dispersed nature of the population and distances over difficult terrain meant that warlords only had local influence. When faced with an external threat from the expanding Roman Empire they formed confederations of tribes headed by their warlords. Men of ability began to gain long term power which held the armies together for longer periods than before, enabling the tribes to repulse organised enemies much better.

In battle the warlord and his retinue would form up with their tribal warriors behind them. The Romans describe the formation of a German army as a cuneus (wedge), it would be natural for the keenest and best equipped warriors to stand ahead of the mass of the army so this wedge may not have been a conscious tactic. During a battle it was considered shameful for a warlord to be outdone by any of his followers, they would be vying to outdo each other in feats of bravery and martial prowess, another characteristic noted by their opponents.

The retainers of a famous warlord would not be solely members of his own tribe. The restless martial spirit of these peoples is shown by the fact that if your tribe was at peace and there was no immediate threat you would go and seek another opportunity to go to war. These warriors were mercenaries in the strictest sense of the word but were not viewed as such. They would join the warband of another tribe just to get a good fight. This is again in contradiction to another characteristic reported by ancient authors, namely that German men were incredibly lazy when at home. They are recorded as lounging around in front of the hearth fire dressed only in a cloak eating, drinking and gambling.

The Warriors: All free men in German society had the right and responsibility to bear arms and fight. The level of equipment they carried could vary enormously from individual to individual, the warlord’s retainers might have a much prized sword or even rarer a helmet, body armour was almost unknown. Every man would carry a shield, even these would be of greater or lesser quality with the worst simple basketwork affairs up to large well-made warboards with metal bosses and brightly painted designs. The weapon of choice was the framea, a light javelin with a narrow point (sometimes simply fire-hardened wood). This could be thrown or used in combat and several would be carried.

The framea was not universally used as some Germans could not even afford these simple weapons, poor warriors would carry a hardwood club and these are attested as being used by German mercenary symmachii in Roman service. Some tribes used a longer spear in their front ranks and advanced shoulder-to-shoulder in a dense mass. Bows were primarily hunting weapons but it is possible that the very poorest members of society would have skirted the battle and skirmished with them. Young men not considered ready for hand-to- hand combat may have gained experience by throwing javelins from a distance and then retiring to safety as the main event kicked off.

One interesting tactic used was to have the young men run with the few German cavalry who might be present and support them in combat. This, plus the greater aggression of the Germans, is recorded as frightening off Gallic cavalry fighting with Julius Caesar’s army. The character of the Germans in battle is well illustrated by the comment that “they considered any cavalry riding with a saddle effeminate and would immediately charge them!” Interestingly there is also a report that German horsemen would only wheel to their right in battle so as never to present their unshielded side to an enemy. Whether these events happened often is not known, but it would be an interesting rule to add to a German wargames army that they always charge cavalry with saddles (even if you do not want them to!) and only wheel to the right!

Appearance: This was very important to the Germans, it showed what tribe you belonged to, your status within that group and, at times, your intent in battle. The best known distinguishing characteristics are hairstyles; the Suebi even gave their name to one which became known as the Suebian Knot. To think that each tribe adhered to one “look” however might be wrong, the Suebi for instance were so well respected for their military ability other warriors copied their hairstyle, eventually this became an early fashion statement!

Hair also had religious significance, warriors who had given a holy oath might not shave or cut their hair until they had killed a certain number of enemies or performed a specific task. This is initially recorded amongst the Chatti but soon spread. Dyeing the hair red was another, originally religious, custom and the ancient commentators mention specifically the frightening aspect of redheaded German warriors. It actually cost one group of German raiders dear as when a pursuing Roman force caught up with them many were down at a river dyeing their hair red while others dressed their hair with combs and the rest gambled.

The ubiquitous German garment was the cloak, this was often the only item of clothing worn, although the more affluent might add a pair of tight-fitting trousers;
shoes and tunics were rare. Archaeological 
finds from this period reveal that while the clothing was dyed with natural colourings they would be patterned with simple checks and stripes (not as bright as Gallic clothing, which used imported dyes). The main colours would be dull reds, yellows, browns and greens with light shades of creamy whites.

Battle Tactics: The terrain of ancient Germany dictated the tactics of the tribes, much of the land was heavily forested with wide areas of marsh, while some areas had open flat places. This led to two distinct ways of fighting, one when there was inter-tribal conflict and the other against external enemies such as the Romans.

When a large tribal conflict ensued there would be a high level of co-operation between the two sides as to where the battle was fought. This was due to the length of time it took to muster the warriors on both sides. They would meet in an open area and fight a quite ritualistic series of combats with the warlords and their retainers indulging in single combats with their peers. Behind them the tribal masses would present a solid front and advance to fight while to the rear the families of the combatants would ensure that the proper code of battle was maintained. The most shameful act was to discard one’s shield and this would have been noted by the spectators. Women and children would drag their wounded relatives from the fray while fighting continued and the Germans seem to have been particularly careful to get the injured away quickly.

When one side gave way the victors would not pursue but would loot the vanquished people’s camp. The loser would acknowledge the victory and give up the land or feature that had been contested. The ritualistic nature of these conflicts did not mean there was not serious bloodshed and there is a record from a Roman writer, Ammianus, who tells what happened when two tribes, the Chatti and Hermunduri, fought over a salt resource that was also a sacred river. They swore oaths to the Gods before battle commenced to sacrifice the booty gained. The Hermunduri won and set about killing all captured Chatti warriors and their horses then destroying the weapons and loot. This must have been unusual to be recorded, but shows the savagery of German warfare.

When facing a Roman army the instinct was to attack. As mentioned before the Germans took a long time to muster and would not take adequate supplies for a drawn-out conflict so would seek battle as soon as possible. This was when the geography made a difference, some tribes came from the wooded marshy areas and would happily launch huge ambushes on Roman columns (as in the infamous Teutoberger Forest in 9AD) which could be very successful against early Roman armies lacking Auxilia support. Tribes like the Batavi and Cherusci favoured this. Other tribes would follow their traditional ways and block the advance or retreat of an army, then attack frontally. In 105BC this enabled the Cimbri to defeat two Roman armies at Arausio on the River Rhone. As soon as the Early Imperial Roman army was reorganised it became almost impossible for a German army to defeat Legions frontally so they began setting large ambushes (especially in woods) and hiding contingents from view. Unfortunately Roman generals had good scouts and light troops that could spot ambushes and then engage the tribesmen on equal terms. The Romans did recognise the fighting prowess of the warriors and comment on their ability to stand and trade blows face-to-face. The Chatti tribe stands out in Roman records as a particularly difficult foe, they were the closest the Germans ever came to an organised force and would advance in solid ranks towards the enemy and fight with exceptional ferocity.

The Romans eventually decided to leave the Germans to their own devices, not because they could not defeat the warriors in the field but because they could not kill the individual who held them together. This was the warlord Arminius who used his personal prowess, charisma and skill to unite a massive tribal confederation, which was organised so that it could fight more than one battle in a campaign. At Idistaviso and Agrivarii the Romans won the battles but could not break up the confederation even though they wounded Arminius. Eventually the Emperor Tiberias decide it was too much effort for too little gain and Rome turned her attention elsewhere. Ironically soon afterwards Arminius was murdered by some of his confederates, but Germany was not invaded again until the time of the Goths and Huns. 

Collecting German Armies: This is a fascinating army to collect as the different levels of activity can be depicted as your collection grows. Starting with a warlord and his comitatus you can play out cattle raids into another tribe’s territory, take on opposing warlords for supremacy or fight ritualistic combats in an almost gladiatorial style. While the command and personality packs will give provide the bulk of the figures any of the veterans and warriors with swords are suitable, remember individuals from different tribes would be present so mix them as you wish.

The next level to add is the tribal warriors; the range is divided into suggested tribal styles and you can have the mass of your tribe looking quite similar. Collecting your own tribe gives a real feel of “knowing” your army and you can personalise many of the figures so that you recognise their exploits in each battle. This can lead to lower status warriors being promoted to the warlord’s retinue if they perform particularly well. You will also need a few cavalry and youngsters with javelins or bows. You could include skirmishers on the cavalry bases to represent the fleet-footed adolescents who accompanied them. The women and children should stand at the rear urging on the menfolk and in campaign games be used to drag out casualties who would otherwise die of their wounds.

As a final act you can repeat the whole process with a different warlord modelling them on another tribe, this could equal the chieftain’s tribe in size but would probably be smaller. If you add more than one allied contingent you can represent the confederations that leaders like Arminius built up. This is an excellent vehicle for campaigns where the German warlords have to muster their troops to defend against an invader. On paper they may have an overwhelming superiority, but when only half the contingents turn up on time do you fight or wait?

The Chauci tribe were infamous for raiding as far west as Britain and down the Gallic coast so if you fancy some pre-Viking sea-wolves causing mayhem these might be for you.

Allies and Oddities: During the early part of the period covered some Germanic tribes were quite nomadic and interacted with several Celtic tribes who may have allied with them. In fact one tribe that gave it’s name to anything Germanic, the Teutones, may even have been Celts themselves! The Cimbri and Teutones can therefore have an allied Gallic contingent between 113BC and 102BC (see the separate entry for continental Celts). From the early 1st Century AD Sarmatian cavalry occasionally joined German armies so a few packs from the Dacian range would not go amiss.

The other main diversion from the tribal warbands is the revolt of Civilis in 69AD. He led several Batavian Auxiliary cohorts and an ala of the Roman Army and allied them with Batavian, Chatti, Mattiaci and Usipi tribes. The Auxiliary foot and horse are available in the Early Imperial Roman range along with their organisation. A must for the figure converters among you is the man himself. Civilis wore the grand uniform of a Roman general but kept his long red hair, which flowed freely from beneath his helmet and, to set off this barbaric splendour, he only had one eye! Use figures from the Early Imperial Roman command packs to model him.



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