Germans: Julius Caesar (mid-first century BCE)

Citation with stable link: Philip A. Harland, 'Germans: Julius Caesar (mid-first century BCE),' Ethnic Relations and Migration in the Ancient World, last modified May 12, 2024,

Ancient author: Julius Caesar, Gallic War 4.1-4 and 6.21-28 (link; link to Latin).

Comments: In the first section of his description of his campaigns near the Rhine (in 55 BCE), Julius Caesar describes several Germanic peoples (neighbouring Gauls or Celts) that interacted with the Suebians (Suebi) in particular. Greek and Roman ethnographic writers were prone to emphasizing the war-like or violent nature of northern peoples. In the second selection below, Caesar continues his comparison between the Gauls (in another post) and the Germans in this post.

It is important to remember that the concept of “Germania” for a territory or “Germans” for the peoples inhabiting that territory may well have been coined by Julius Caesar or other contemporaries in order to have a clear dividing line between peoples west (Celts or Gauls) and east (Germans) of the Rhine frontier. Previously, the tendency among Greek ethnographic writers was to distinguish between only Celts to the northwest and Scythians to the northeast. Julius Caesar or others contemporary with him had a special interest (for the purposes of conquest) in the peoples northeast of the Rhine and developed the category of “Germania” as a way of speaking about them. This resulted in the three fold general categories of “Celts” to the northwest as far as Spain, “Scythians” north and northeast of the Black Sea, and “Germans” northeast of the Rhine itself. All three of these general ethnic categories are primarily if not solely outsiders’ (Greeks’ or Romans’) categorizations of a variety of peoples who would self-identify more specifically.

Works consulted: Works consulted: Andrew C. Johnston, “Rewriting Caesar: Cassius Dio and an Alternative Ethnography of the North,” Histos 13 (2019) 53-77 (link).


[For Julius Caesar’s preceding discussion of Gauls or Celts, go to this link.]

Book 4

[Context of campaigns in Germany and the Suebians]

In the following winter (when Gnaeus Pompeius and Marcus Crassus were consuls [55 BCE]) the Usipetians from Germany and also the Tencterians crossed the Rhine with a large crowd of men, not far from the sea into which it flows. The reason for their crossing was that for several years they had been much harassed by the Suebian, who pressed on them by force of arms and prevented them from farming. The Suebians are by far the largest and the most warlike people among the Germans. It is said that they have a hundred districts, from each of which they draw one thousand armed men yearly for the purpose of war outside their borders. The remainder, who have stayed at home, support themselves and the absent warriors; and again, in turn, are under arms the following year, while the others remain at home. By this means neither farming nor the theory and practice of war is interrupted. They have no private or separate holding of land, nor are they allowed to settle longer than a year in one place for their home. They do not make much use of grains for food, but mainly milk and cattle, and often engage in hunting. Due to the nature of their food, their regular exercise, and their freedom of life – for from childhood they are not taught a sense of duty or discipline and they do nothing unless they want to – facilitates their strength and makes men of immense bodily stature. Moreover, they have regularly trained themselves to wear nothing, even in the coldest places, except skins, the scantiness of which leaves a great part of the body bare, and they bathe in the rivers.

They do allow merchants access, but rather with the aim of having buyers for what they have captured in war than to satisfy any craving for imports. In fact, the Germans do not import pack-horses like the ones the Gauls delight in and pay high prices for. Instead, they take their home-bred animals, which are inferior and ugly, and they render them capable of the utmost exertion by regular exercising. In cavalry combats they often leap from their horses and fight on foot, having trained their horses to remain in the same spot, and rapidly retreat to them when they need to. Their tradition regards nothing as more disgraceful or more lazy than the use of saddles. So no matter how few in number, they dare to approach any size group of cavalry-men. They engage in no importation of wine whatsoever, believing that wine causes men to be soft and effeminate in relation to enduring hardship.

As a people, they consider it the greatest credit to have as large a tract of unoccupied territory as possible on their borders, for they think this signifies that a large number of communities (civitates) cannot withstand their force. Thus it is said that on one side for about six hundred miles from the territory of the Suebians the land is unoccupied. On the other side the Ubians are nearest, a community which was once extensive and prosperous, according to German standards. Its inhabitants are somewhat more civilized than the others of the same people (genus), because their borders touch the Rhine and traders visit them frequently and, furthermore, because the Ubians themselves have grown accustomed to the fashions of Gaul by living close by. The Suebians had made frequent attempts against these people in many wars, but had proved unable to drive them from their territory because the state was populous and powerful. However, they made the Ubians pay a tribute to themselves, and greatly diminished their strength and importance.

The Usipetians and the Tencterians mentioned above were in the same situation. For several years they withstood the force of the Suebians, but at last they were driven out of their lands and, after wandering for three years in many districts of Germany, they reached the river Rhine. The territories around there were inhabited by the Menapians, who possessed lands, buildings, and villages on both banks of the river. But, being alarmed by the approach of such a large crowd, the Menapians vacated their buildings beyond the river and, setting garrisons at intervals on the near side of the Rhine, sought to prevent the Germans from crossing. The Germans tried everything, but when they found that they could neither force their way because of their lack of boats nor cross secretly because of the Menapian guards, they pretended to return to their own homes and districts. They proceeded for a three days’ journey, and then returned; and their cavalry, having completed the whole of this distance in a single night, caught the Menapians uninformed and unawares, for, having learned from their scouts of the departure of the Germans, they had moved back without fear over the Rhine into their own villages. So they killed them and took their boats. Then the Germans crossed the river before the Menapians on the near side of the Rhine could learn of it, seized all their buildings. For the remainder of the winter, the Suebians sustained themselves on the supplies of the Menapians. . . [Material on various events and battles omitted].


Book 6

[Continuing after his discussion of the customs of the Gauls, on which go here]

21  The Germans differ considerably from this mode of life [i.e. that of the Gauls], for they have no Druids to preside over matters regarding deities, nor enthusiasm about sacrifices. They only consider gods those they can see and by whose offices they are openly assisted, namely the Sun-god, the Fire-god, and the Moon-god. Regarding others, they have not even heard about them. Their whole life consists of hunting expeditions and military pursuits. From early boyhood they are enthusiastic for toil and hardship. Those who remain chaste the longest gain the greatest praise among their people. Some think that stature, strength and ligaments are strengthened by this. Further, they consider it a most disgraceful thing to have known a woman sexually before the twentieth year, and there is no secrecy in the matter, for both sexes bathe in the rivers and wear skins or small cloaks of reindeer hide, leaving much of the body bare.

22  For agriculture they have no enthusiasm, and the greater part of their food consists of milk, cheese, and flesh. No man has a definite quantity of land or property of his own: the magistrates and leaders every year assign to tribes and clans that have assembled together as much land in a particular place that seems appropriate to them, and they force the tenants after a year to move on elsewhere. They cite many reasons for that practice: the worry that they may be tempted by continuous association to substitute agriculture for their warrior zeal; the worry that they may become focused on the acquisition of broad territories, and so the more powerful among them may drive the lower classes from their holdings; the worry that they may build with greater care to avoid the extremes of cold and heat; the worry that some passion for money may lead to factions and quarrels; and, the worry that they keep the common people content with each person seeing that his own wealth is equal to that of the most powerful.

23  Their communities consider it most praiseworthy to lay waste their frontier areas in order to have wilderness as wide as possible around them. They think it is a true sign of courage when neighbouring peoples are driven away from their lands and no one dares to settle nearby; at the same time, they believe they will be safer as a result, having removed all danger of a sudden attack. When a community makes or resists aggressive war, officers are chosen to direct the war, with the power of life and death. In time of peace there is no general officer of the community, but the leaders of neighbourhoods and districts are in charge of justice among their followers and they settle disputes. Banditry (latrocinium) committed outside the borders of their communities involves no disgrace; in fact, they encourage banditry in order to train the young men and to avoid laziness. When any of the leaders has said in public assembly that he will be leader, “Let those who will follow declare it,” then all who approve the cause and the man rise together to his service and promise their own assistance, and win the general praise of the people. Any who have not followed, after promising to do so, are considered deserters and traitors, and they are not trusted in anything afterwards. They think it is wrong to injure a guest, and they protect from mischief any men who have come to them for any reason, and they consider them sacred. For them, everyones’ houses are open and with them food is shared.

24  Now there was a time in the past when the Gauls were superior in courage to the Germans and made aggressive war upon them. Because of the number of their people and the lack of land the Gauls sent colonies across the Rhine. And so the most fertile parts of Germany around the Hercynian forest (which I see was known by report to Eratosthenes and certain Greeks, who call it the Orcynian forest) were seized by the Tectosagians among the Volcians, who settled there: this people maintains itself to this day in these settlements and enjoys the highest reputation for justice and for success in war. At the present time, since they abide in the same condition of need, poverty, and hardship as the Germans, they adopt the same kind of food and bodily training. For the Gauls, however, the closeness of our [Roman] provinces and their familiarity with oversea commodities lavishes many articles of use or luxury. Little by little they have grown accustomed to defeat and, after being conquered in many battles, they do not even compare themselves with the Germans with respect to courage.

25  The size of this Hercynian forest mentioned above is around nine days’ journey for an unencumbered person. For in no other way can the size be determined, nor have they means to measure journeys. The forest begins at the borders of the Helvetians, the Nemetians, and the Rauracians, and, following the direct line of the river Danube, it extends to the borders of the Dacians and the Anartians. From there it turns leftwards, through districts away from the river and, because of its size, touches the borders of many peoples’ territories. There is no one we know in Germany who can say that he has reached the edge of that forest, though he may have gone forward a sixty days’ journey, and no one who has learned where it begins. It is known that many kinds of wild animals not seen in any other places breed in that forest. The following are those animals that differ most from the rest of the animal world and appear worthy of record: 26 There is an ox shaped like a stag, from the middle of whose forehead between the ears stands forth a single horn, taller and straighter than the horns we know. From its top branches [i.e. antlers] spread out just like open hands. The main features of the female and male are the same, the same shape and size horns. 27 There are also so-called “elks”. Their shape and dappled skin are like a goat’s, but they are somewhat larger in size and have blunted horns. They have legs without nodes or joints, and they do not lie down to sleep, nor, if any shock has caused them to fall, can they raise or lift themselves up. Trees are their couches; they press against them and in this way, leaning just a little, have a rest. When hunters mark by their tracks the spot to which they like to go, they either undermine all the trees in that spot at the roots or cut them so far through as to leave them just standing to outward appearance. When the elk lean against the trees in this fashion, their weight bears down the weakened trees and they themselves fall along with them. 28 A third species consists of the so-called ure-oxen. These are somewhat smaller in size than elephants; in appearance, colour, and shape they are like bulls. Their strength is formidable and their speed is great, and they spare neither man nor beast once sighted. These the Germans slay ethusiastically, by taking them in pits. By such work the young men harden themselves and by this kind of hunting train themselves. Those who have slain most of them bring the horns with them to a public place as proof, and win great renown. But even if they are caught very young, the animals cannot be tamed or accustomed to human beings. In bulk, shape, and appearance, their horns are very different from the horns of our own oxen. The natives collect them ethusiastically and encase the edges with silver, and then at their largest banquets use them as drinking-cups.


Source of the translation: H. J Edwards, Caesar: the Gallic War, LCL (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1917), public domain, adapted and modernized by Harland.

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