Germania was the Greek and Roman geographic term for the geographical regions in Europe inhabited mainly by peoples considered to be Germani. It was most often used to refer especially to the east of the Rhine and north of the Danube. The areas west of the Rhine were mainly Celtic (specifically Gaulish) and had become part of the Roman Empire.
Some Germani, perhaps the original people to have been referred to by this name, had lived on the west side of the Rhine. At least as early as the 2nd century BC this area was considered to be in "Gaul", and became part of the Roman empire. These were the so-called germani cisrhenani, who in modern terms lived in the region of modern eastern Belgium, the southeastern Netherlands, and stretching into Germany towards the Rhine. During the period of the Roman empire, more tribes were settled in areas of the empire near the Rhine, in territories controlled by the Roman Empire. Eventually these areas came to be known as Lesser Germania, while Greater Germania (Magna Germania; it is also referred to with names referring it being outside of Roman control: Germania libera, "Free Germany") was the larger territory east of the Rhine.
The Roman parts of Germania, "Lesser Germania", eventually formed two provinces of the empire, Germania Inferior, "Lower Germany", which came to eventually include the region of the original germani cisrhenani and Germania Superior, which in modern terms comprised an area of western Switzerland, the French Jura and Alsace regions, and southwestern Germany. Important cities were Besançon (Besontio), Strasbourg (Argentoratum), Wiesbaden (Aquae Mattiacae), and Mainz (Mogontiacum).
The Beginning in Europe
The people of Friesland, Frisians, came from the part of Europe that includes southern Scandinavia, Denmark and generally northwestern Europe. From 1750 to 700 BC they were part of the Germanic tribes, which were mainly Nordic, or “narrow-faced” people. Among the Nordics there was a smaller group of “broad-faced” people who were probably slaves. Around 1400 BC the Germanics split into three basic groups; West (Goths), East (Vandals), and North (Scandinavians). The differences can be traced in language and culture. By 700 BC, the end of the Bronze Age, the Goths had expanded into the coastal region of Germany (now the Hanover area.)
Goths can be divided into three tribal groups along religious lines; the Inguaeones, the Istuaeones, and the Irminones. The Inguaeones’ name was derived from the god Inguz (or Freyr), and included the Frisians. Other tribes in the Inguaeones group were the Jutes, Angles, and Saxons. Of these tribes the closest to the Frisians were the Saxons. The Inguaeones tribes settled along the coast of the North Sea, in area of the current German and Dutch provinces of Friesland and Groningen.
From 700 to 400 BC there was no separate Frisian group but between 400 and 200 BC major cultural changes happened. By 200 BC a distinctly Frisian culture had developed between the river Eems in Germany and Wijk-bij-Duurstede in the Netherlands. For the first time the Frisians were an ethnic group. By 47 AD the Roman Empire had partial control of Friesland, though there were various rebellions. The region remained in the Roman Empire until the Empire’s collapse in 410 AD.
The name “Frisian” has been found as far back as the end of the first century AD. The Germanic word “Freisias” comes from the Indo-European (Indo-Germanic) “Preisios,” meaning “to love.” Freya is the Germanic goddess of fertility and love and this name is considered the root of the tribal name. There are runes of the ancient alphabet used by the Germanic peoples. Words were carved in wood, making them have an angular shape. The earliest runes found were carved in Southern Juteland in Denmark. The runes were used for two main purposes, sending messages and for religious or magical purposes. Initially there were 24 letters in their alphabet but in areas populated by Angles, Saxons, and Frisians it was developed to a total of 26 letters, known as the Anglo-Frisian Futhorc.
From 250 AD to 100 AD some of the Frisians and Chaukians (the most numerous Germanic tribe) made a new tribal alliance called the Franks, which emigrated south to form the Frankish Empire. After 400 AD the rise of sea-level stopped and the Frisians returned to the coast of Germany, which by then had been settled by other tribes. These tribes became the Frisian tribe. The Saxons merged with some of the Chaukians also. This new group took the Saxons’, not the Chaukians’ name. Apparently the Saxons, though a smaller tribe, had done more to build up the union. They are mentioned as pirates in the North Sea starting in 286 AD.
Roman invasion of Germania
Germania was inhabited by different tribes, most of them Germanic but also some Celtic, proto-Slavic, Baltic and Scythian peoples. The tribal and ethnic makeup changed over the centuries as a result of assimilation and, most importantly, migrations. The Germanic people spoke several different dialects.
Classical records show little about the people who inhabited the north of Europe before the 2nd century BC. In the 5th century BC, the Greeks were aware of a group they called Celts (Keltoi). Herodotus also mentioned the Scythians but no other tribes. At around 320 BC, Pytheas of Massalia sailed around Britain and along the northern coast of Europe, and what he found on his journeys was so strange that later writers refused to believe him. He may have been the first Mediterranean to distinguish the Germanic people from the Celts.
Contact between German tribes and the Roman Empire did take place and was not always hostile. Recent excavations of the Waldgirmes Forum show signs that a civilian Roman town was established there, which has been interpreted to mean that Romans and Germanic tribesmen were living in peace, at least for a while.
Caesar described the cultural differences between the Germanic tribesmen, the Romans, and the Gauls. He said that the Gauls, although warlike, could be civilized, but the Germanic tribesmen were far more savage and were a threat to Roman Gaul and so had to be conquered. His accounts of barbaric northern tribes could be described as an expression of the superiority of Rome, including Roman Gaul. Caesar's accounts portray the Roman fear of the Germanic tribes and the threat they posed. The perceived menace of the Germanic tribesmen proved accurate. The most complete account of Germania that has been preserved from Roman times is Tacitus' Germania.
The occupied Lesser Germania was divided into two provinces: Germania Inferior (Lower Germania) (approximately corresponding to the southern part of the present-day Low Countries) and Germania Superior (Upper Germania) (approximately corresponding to present-day Switzerland and Alsace).
The Romans under Augustus began to conquer and defeat the peoples of Germania Magna in 12 BC, having the Legati (generals) Germanicus and Tiberius leading the Legions. By 6 AD, all of Germania up to the River Elbe was temporarily pacified by the Romans as well as being occupied by them. The Roman plan to complete the conquest and incorporate all of Magna Germania into the Roman Empire was frustrated when Rome was defeated by the German tribesmen in the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest in 9 AD. Augustus then ordered Roman withdrawal from Magna Germania (completed by AD 16) and established the boundary of the Roman Empire as being the Rhine and the Danube.
The Migration Period
350 to 550 AD was a migration period in Europe. In the seventh century the Frisian Kingdom extended from the coastal areas of north Belgium to southern Denmark. They controlled much of the North Sea trade routes from Friesland to England, Frankia, Scandinavia (North Germania) and northwestern Russia. A ‘Magna Frisia’ (Great-Friesland) consisted of a long narrow strip of land along the North Sea, from the Swin River in Belgium to the Weser River in Germany. The Saxons were their neighbors to the north and east, the Franks were in the south and the Anglo-Saxons in the west across the North Sea.
Since the conversion to Christianity of the Franks under Clovis the Frisians had become their major enemy. About 450 AD Angles, Saxons, Jutes and Frisians crossed the North Sea and established the Anglo-Saxon empire known as England. The Frisians colonized what became the county of Kent in southeast England.
Clovis, and the Franks, converted to Catholicism for power and political reasons. Other Germanic tribes had converted to Christianity called Arianism. The Germanic tribes in the north, including Friesland, still practiced the religious beliefs of their forefathers, known as Odinism and were considered heathens. There were many years of warfare between the Franks and Frisians, Christians and heathens. Around 734 Charles Martel sent forces to the heart of Frisian land. A decisive battle, with Poppo as the Frisian leader, was waged on land and sea. Frisian forces were defeated, and Poppo was killed, and Friesland became part of the Frankish Empire. Frisians lost their freedom and the church established a foothold in Friesland.
East Friesland was conquered about fifty years later. They had united with their heathen Saxon neighbors. Charles Martel’s son, Pepin the Short tried but could not win against these Frisians and Saxons. They remained free until his grandson, Charlemagne, defeated them in 785. In Kent, at this time, Egbert of Wessex would have been about ten years old.
During the eighth century, while these struggles were taking place, the Frisian language was born, which can be traced back by sound changes in the language. It is a Germanic language belonging to the West Germanic group. High and Low German, Dutch, and English are also in this group, Old English being the closest to Frisian. At its start Frisian was spoken in the coastal areas of Germany, Holland, and Denmark.
Charlemagne ruled the Frankish Empire in a strong centralized way and Frisians were required to serve in his armies. In 800 the first Viking raids upon Friesland started, and the Frisians were discharged to organize their defenses at home. Egbert was in exile from 795 to 802 in Charlemagne’s court, and would have been aware of these events. Since Charlemagne’s victory over the Saxons in 785, his empire bordered the Viking Empire. The northern Germanic Vikings knew of atrocities Charlemagne had done to the Frisians and Saxons and raided the wealthy churches and monasteries, which were thought of as heathen reprisals.
After 785 the Frisian realm was a county of the Frankish Empire. The first Frisian count in the Frankish Empire dated from 749-775. The count was a feudal tenant with the main duties to maintain the rule of law, and to organize conscripts for the Frankish armies. There are several who are known by name from various records of Charlemagne’s court, representing East, West, and Middle Friesland. There were three counts named Egbert in this group, all counts of Middle Friesland. There was a Count Egbert mentioned during the time of King Egbert’s exile in Charlemagne’s court, who remained in the Frankish Empire after the return of King Egbert to England.
- Malcolm Todd (1995). The Early Germans. Blackwell Publishing.
- Peter S. Wells (2001). Beyond Celts, Germans and Scythians: Archaeology and Identity in Iron Age Europe. Duckworth Publishers.
References and Footnotes
- Stümpel, Gustav (1932). Name und Nationalität der Germanen. Eine neue Untersuchung zu Poseidonios, Caesar und Tacitus (in German). Leipzig: Dieterich, 60. OCLC 10223081.
- Feist, Sigmund (1927). Germanen und Kelten in der antiken Überlieferung (in German).
- Questenberg is a village and a former municipality in the Mansfeld-Südharz district, Saxony-Anhalt, Germany. Since 1 January 2010, it has been part of the Südharz municipality. First settlement traces date from 5th and 6th centuries BC. Above the place is the castle also called Questenberg. Remainders of the castle (attachment walls and tower), on the steep mountain at the eastern periphery of the village can still be visited. The hill above the village, is home to the Queste (also known as the Questenbaum (Queste Tree)), an ancient pagan sun wheel, celebrated at the Questenfest.
- Jones, Terry and Alan Ereira (2006), "Terry Jones' Barbarians", p.97. BBC Books, Ltd., London, ISBN 978-0-563-53916-2.