Germans: Appian of Alexandria on large, savage and spirited Germans (second century CE)

Citation with stable link: Philip A. Harland, 'Germans: Appian of Alexandria on large, savage and spirited Germans (second century CE),' Ethnic Relations and Migration in the Ancient World, last modified October 14, 2023,

Ancient author: Appian of Alexandria (second century CE), Roman Matters: Celtic Book 4.1, as summarized in Epitome of the Celts (Vaticanus graecus, 141) (link).

Comments: We know very little about Appian beyond that he was a Greek from Alexandria, spent time as a lawyer in Rome, belonged to the equestrian order, and likely took a position as procurator under emperor Antoninus Pius in the mid-second century. Appian’s work on Roman Matters is an important source not only for the Roman civil wars but also for Rome’s engagements with other peoples (the so-called “Foreign Wars” section of the work), including the Celts.

The Celtic book is only preserved in fragments, but a somewhat substantial characterization of the Germans as large, savage and “spirited” appears among the fragments in the midst of discussion of Julius Caesar’s campaigns. The notion that Germans were “spirited”, in part due to the cold environment, also regularly went along with the notion that they could not control themselves and were erratic, switching from one thing to another based on momentary feelings. In this case, that is expressed in terms of their lack of endurance which allows the Romans to triumph.

Evidently, Appian worked with the etic category of “Germans,” which distinguished them from other northern Celts. This outsider designation may well have been invented by Julius Caesar (link), but there were continuing debates on how to designate northern peoples. Some Greek authors like Diodoros and Dio Cassius simply do not mention the designation “Germans” at all despite dealing with incidents in that part of the world (link).

Source of the translation: H. White, Appian’s Roman History, 4 volumes, LCL (Cambridge, MA: HUP, 1912-13), public domain, adapted by Harland.


Caesar also overcame the Germans under Ariovistus. This is a people who exceeded in size even the largest men among other peoples. Their lifestyle is savage (agrioi) and they are the bravest of the brave, despising death because they believe they will live afterwards. Bearing heat and cold with equal patience, they live on plants in time of scarcity and their horses eat the leaves on trees. It seems that they lacked patient endurance in their battles and did not fight using reasoning or knowledge. Instead, with a sort of high spirit (thymos), they simply attacked like wild animals. For this reason, they were overcome by Roman knowledge and endurance. For, although the Germans made a tremendous rush and pushed the legions back a short distance, the Romans kept their ranks unbroken, and outmanoeuvred them, and eventually killed eighty thousand of them.

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