English Literature

A History of Germany by Bayard Taylor

A History of Germany by Bayard Taylor.jpg

CHAPTER I.

THE ANCIENT GERMANS AND THEIR COUNTRY.

(330 b. c.—70 b. c.)

  • The Aryan Race and its Migrations.
  • —Earliest Inhabitants of Europe.
  • —Lake Dwellings.
  • —Celtic and Germanic Migrations.
  • —Europe in the Fourth Century b. c.
  • —The Name “German.”
  • —Voyage of Pytheas.
  • —Invasions of the Cimbrians and Teutons, b. c. 113.
  • —Victories of Marius.
  • —Boundary between the Gauls and the Germans.
  • —Geographical Location of the various Germanic Tribes.
  • —Their Mode of Life, Vices, Virtues, Laws, and Religion.

The Germans form one of the most important branches of the Indo-Germanic or Aryan race—a division of the human family which also includes the Hindoos, Persians, Greeks, Romans, Celts, and the Slavonic tribes. The near relationship of all these, which have become so separated in their habits of life, forms of government and religious faith, in the course of many centuries, has been established by the evidence of common tradition, language, and physiological structure. The original home of the Aryan race appears to have been somewhere among the mountains and lofty table-lands of Central Asia. The word “Arya,” meaning the high or the excellent, indicates their superiority over the neighboring races long before the beginning of history.

When and under what circumstances the Aryans left their home, can never be ascertained. Most scholars suppose that there were different migrations, and that each movement westward was accomplished slowly, centuries intervening between their departure from Central Asia and their permanent settlement in Europe. The earliest migration was probably that of the tribes who took possession of[Pg 2] Greece and Italy; who first acquired, and for more than a thousand years maintained, their ascendency over all other branches of their common family; who, in fact, laid the basis for the civilization of the world.

330 b. c.

Before this migration took place, Europe was inhabited by a race of primitive savages, who were not greatly superior to the wild beasts in the vast forests which then covered the continent. They were exterminated at so early a period that all traditions of their existence were lost. Within the last fifty years, however, various relics of this race have been brought to light. Fragments of skulls and skeletons, with knives and arrow-heads of flint, have been found, at a considerable depth, in the gravel-beds of Northern France, or in caves in Germany, together with the bones of animals now extinct, upon which they fed. In the lakes of Switzerland, they built dwellings upon piles, at a little distance from the shore, in order to be more secure against the attacks of wild beasts or hostile tribes. Many remains of these lake-dwellings, with flint implements and fragments of pottery, have recently been discovered. The skulls of the race indicate that they were savages of the lowest type, and different in character from any which now exist on the earth.

The second migration of the Aryan race is supposed to have been that of the Celtic tribes, who took a more northerly course, by way of the steppes of the Volga and the Don, and gradually obtained possession of all Central and Western Europe, including the British Isles. Their advance was only stopped by the ocean, and the tribe which first appears in history, the Gauls, was at that time beginning to move eastward again, in search of new fields of plunder. It is impossible to ascertain whether the German tribes immediately followed the Celts, and took possession of the territory which they vacated in pushing westward, or whether they formed a third migration, at a later date. We only know the order in which they were settled when our first historical knowledge of them begins.

In the fourth century before the Christian Era, all Europe west of the Rhine, and as far south as the Po, was Celtic; between the Rhine and the Vistula, including Denmark and southern Sweden, the tribes were Germanic; while the Slavonic branch seems to have already made its appearance in what is now Southern Russia. Each of these three branches of the Aryan race was divided into many smaller tribes, some[Pg 3] of which, left behind in the march from Asia, or separated by internal wars, formed little communities, like islands, in the midst of territory belonging to other branches of the race. The boundaries, also, were never very distinctly drawn: the tribes were restless and nomadic, not yet attached to the soil, and many of them moved through or across each other, so that some were constantly disappearing, and others forming under new names.

113 b. c. THE CIMBRIANS AND TEUTONS.

The Romans first heard the name “Germans” from the Celtic Gauls, in whose language it meant simply neighbors. The first notice of a Germanic tribe was given to the world by the Greek navigator Pytheas, who made a voyage to the Baltic in the year 330 b. c. Beyond the amber-coast, eastward of the mouth of the Vistula, he found the Goths, of whom we hear nothing more until they appear, several centuries later, on the northern shore of the Black Sea. For more than two hundred years there is no further mention of the Germanic races; then, most unexpectedly, the Romans were called upon to make their personal acquaintance.

In the year 113 b. c. a tremendous horde of strangers forced its way through the Tyrolese Alps and invaded the Roman territory. They numbered several hundred thousand, and brought with them their wives, children and all their movable property. They were composed of two great tribes, the Cimbrians and Teutons, accompanied by some minor allies, Celtic as well as Germanic. Their statement was that they were driven from their homes on the northern ocean by the inroads of the waves, and they demanded territory for settlement, or, at least, the right to pass the Roman frontier. The Consul, Papirius Carbo, collected an army and endeavored to resist their advance; but he was defeated by them in a battle fought near Noreia, between the Adriatic and the Alps.

The terror occasioned by this defeat reached even Rome. The “barbarians,” as they were called, were men of large stature, of astonishing bodily strength, with yellow hair and fierce blue eyes. They wore breastplates of iron and helmets crowned with the heads of wild beasts, and carried white shields which shone in the sunshine. They first hurled double-headed spears in battle, but at close quarters fought with short and heavy swords. The women encouraged them with cries and war-songs, and seemed no less fierce and[Pg 4] courageous than the men. They had also priestesses, clad in white linen, who delivered prophecies and slaughtered human victims upon the altars of their gods.

102 b. c.

Instead of moving towards Rome, the Cimbrians and Teutons marched westward along the foot of the Alps, crossed into Gaul, devastated the country between the Rhone and the Pyrenees, and even obtained temporary possession of part of Spain. Having thus plundered at will for ten years, they retraced their steps and prepared to invade Italy a second time. The celebrated Consul, Marius, who was sent against them, found their forces divided, in order to cross the Alps by two different roads. He first attacked the Teutons, two hundred thousand in number, at Aix, in southern France, and almost exterminated them in the year 102 b. c. Transferring his army across the Alps, in the following year he met the Cimbrians at Vercelli, in Piedmont (not far from the field of Magenta). They were drawn up in a square, the sides of which were nearly three miles long: in the centre their wagons, collected together, formed a fortress for the women and children. But the Roman legions broke the Cimbrian square, and obtained a complete victory. The women, seeing that all was lost, slew their children, and then themselves; but a few thousand prisoners were made—among them Teutoboch, the prince of the Teutons, who had escaped from the slaughter at Aix,—to figure in the triumph accorded to Marius by the Roman Senate. This was the only appearance of the German tribes in Italy, until the decline of the Empire, five hundred years later.

The Roman conquests, which now began to extend northwards into the heart of Europe, soon brought the two races into collision again, but upon German or Celtic soil. From the earliest reports, as well as the later movements of the tribes, we are able to ascertain the probable order of their settlement, though not the exact boundaries of each. The territory which they occupied was almost the same as that which now belongs to the German States. The Rhine divided them from the Gauls, except towards its mouth, where the Germanic tribes occupied part of Belgium. A line drawn from the Vistula southward to the Danube nearly represents their eastern boundary, while, up to this time, they do not appear to have crossed the Danube on the south. The district between that river and the Alps, now[Pg 5] Bavaria and Styria, was occupied by Celtic tribes. Northwards they had made some advance into Sweden, and probably also into Norway. They thus occupied nearly all of Central Europe, north of the Alpine chain.

100 b. c. THE GERMAN TRIBES.

At the time of their first contact with the Romans, these Germanic tribes had lost even the tradition of their Asiatic origin. They supposed themselves to have originated upon the soil where they dwelt, sprung either from the earth, or descended from their gods. According to the most popular legend, the war-god Tuisko, or Tiu, had a son, Mannus (whence the word man is derived), who was the first human parent of the German race. Many centuries must have elapsed since their first settlement in Europe, or they could not have so completely changed the forms of their religion and their traditional history.

Two or three small tribes are represented, in the earliest Roman accounts, as having crossed the Rhine and settled between the Vosges and that river, from Strasburg to Mayence. From the latter point to Cologne none are mentioned, whence it is conjectured that the western bank of the Rhine was here a debatable ground, possessed sometimes by the Celts and sometimes by the Germans. The greater part of Belgium was occupied by the Eburones and Condrusii, Germanic tribes, to whom were afterwards added the Aduatuci, formed out of the fragments of the Cimbrians and Teutons who escaped the slaughters of Marius. At the mouth of the Rhine dwelt the Batavi, the forefathers of the Dutch, and, like them, reported to be strong, phlegmatic and stubborn, in the time of Cæsar. A little eastward, on the shore of the North Sea, dwelt the Frisii, where they still dwell, in the province of Friesland; and beyond them, about the mouth of the Weser, the Chauci, a kindred tribe.

What is now Westphalia was inhabited by the Sicambrians, a brave and warlike people: the Marsi and Ampsivarii were beyond them, towards the Hartz, and south of the latter the Ubii, once a powerful tribe, but in Cæsar’s time weak and submissive. From the Weser to the Elbe, in the north, was the land of the Cherusci; south of them the equally fierce and indomitable Chatti, the ancestors of the modern Hessians; and still further south, along the head-waters of the river Main, the Marcomanni. A part of what is now Saxony was in the possession of the Hermunduri, who together with their kindred, the Chatti, were called[Pg 6] Suevi by the Romans. Northward, towards the mouth of the Elbe, dwelt the Longobardi (Lombards); beyond them, in Holstein, the Saxons; and north of the latter, in Schleswig, the Angles.

East of the Elbe were the Semnones, who were guardians of a certain holy place,—a grove of the Druids—where various related tribes came for their religious festivals. North of the Semnones dwelt the Vandals, and along the Baltic coast the Rugii, who have left their name in the island of Rügen. Between these and the Vistula were the Burgundiones, with a few smaller tribes. In the extreme north-east, between the Vistula and the point where the city of Königsberg now stands, was the home of the Goths, south of whom were settled the Slavonic Sarmatians,—the same who founded, long afterwards, the kingdom of Poland.

Bohemia was first settled by the Celtic tribe of the Boii, whence its name—Boiheim, the home of the Boii—is derived. In Cæsar’s day, however, this tribe had been driven out by the Germanic Marcomanni, whose neighbors, the Quadi, on the Danube, were also German. Beyond the Danube all was Celtic; the defeated Boii occupied Austria; the Vindelici, Bavaria; while the Noric and Rhætian Celts took possession of the Tyrolese Alps. Switzerland was inhabited by the Helvetii, a Celtic tribe which had been driven out of Germany; but the mountainous district between the Rhine, the Lake of Constance and the Danube, now called the Black Forest, seems to have had no permanent owners.

The greater part of Germany was thus in possession of Germanic tribes, bound to each other by blood, by their common religion and their habits of life. At this early period, their virtues and their vices were strongly marked. They were not savages, for they knew the first necessary arts of civilized life, and they had a fixed social and political organization. The greater part of the territory which they inhabited was still a wilderness. The mountain chain which extends through Central Germany from the Main to the Elbe was called by the Romans the Hercynian Forest. It was then a wild, savage region, the home of the aurox (a race of wild cattle), the bear and the elk. The lower lands to the northward of this forest were also thickly wooded and marshy, with open pastures here and there, where the tribes settled in small communities, kept their cattle, and cultivated the[Pg 7] soil only enough to supply the needs of life. They made rough roads of communication, which could be traversed by their wagons, and the frontiers of each tribe were usually marked by guard-houses, where all strangers were detained until they received permission to enter the territory.

HABITS OF THE GERMANS.

At this early period, the Germans had no cities, or even villages. Their places of worship, which were either groves of venerable oak-trees or the tops of mountains, were often fortified; and when attacked in the open country, they made a temporary defence of their wagons. They lived in log-houses, which were surrounded by stockades spacious enough to contain the cattle and horses belonging to the family. A few fields of rye and barley furnished each homestead with bread and beer, but hunting and fishing were their chief dependence. The women cultivated flax, from which they made a coarse, strong linen: the men clothed themselves with furs or leather. They were acquainted with the smelting and working of iron, but valued gold and silver only for the sake of ornament. They were fond of bright colors, of poetry and song, and were in the highest degree hospitable.

The three principal vices of the Germans were indolence, drunkenness and love of gaming. Although always ready for the toils and dangers of war, they disliked to work at home. When the men assembled at night, and the great ox-horns, filled with mead or beer, were passed from one to the other, they rarely ceased drinking until all were intoxicated; and when the passion for gaming came upon them, they would often stake their dearest possessions, even their own freedom, on a throw of the dice. The women were never present on these occasions: they ruled and regulated their households with undisputed sway. They were considered the equals of the men, and exhibited no less energy and courage. They were supposed to possess the gift of prophecy, and always accompanied the men to battle, where they took care of the wounded, and stimulated the warriors by their shouts and songs.

They honored the institution of marriage to an extent beyond that exhibited by any other people of the ancient world. The ceremony consisted in the man giving a horse, or a yoke of oxen, to the woman, who gave him arms or armor in return. Those who proved unfaithful to the marriage vow were punished with death. The children of freemen and[Pg 8] slaves grew up together until the former were old enough to carry arms, when they were separated. The slaves were divided into two classes: those who lived under the protection of a freeman and were obliged to perform for him a certain amount of labor, and those who were wholly “chattels,” bought and sold at will.

Each family had its own strictly regulated laws, which were sufficient for the government of its free members, its retainers and slaves. A number of these families formed “a district,” which was generally laid out according to natural boundaries, such as streams or hills. In some tribes, however, the families were united in “hundreds,” instead of districts. Each of these managed its own affairs, as a little republic, wherein each freeman had an equal voice; yet to each belonged a leader, who was called “count” or “duke.” All the districts of a tribe met together in a “General Assembly of the People,” which was always held at the time of new or full moon. The chief priest of the tribe presided, and each man present had the right to vote. Here questions of peace or war, violations of right or disputes between the districts were decided, criminals were tried, young men acknowledged as freemen and warriors, and, in case of approaching war, a leader chosen by the people. Alliances between the tribes, for the sake of mutual defence or invasion, were not common, at first; but the necessity of them was soon forced upon the Germans by the encroachments of Rome.

The gods which they worshipped represented the powers of Nature. Their mythology was the same originally which the Scandinavians preserved, in a slightly different form, until the tenth century of our era. The chief deity was named Wodan, or Odin, the god of the sky, whose worship was really that of the sun. His son, Donar, or Thunder, with his fiery beard and huge hammer, is the Thor of the Scandinavians. The god of war, Tiu or Tyr, was supposed to have been born from the Earth, and thus became the ancestor of the Germanic tribes. There was also a goddess of the earth, Hertha, who was worshipped with secret and mysterious rites. The people had their religious festivals, at stated seasons, when sacrifices, sometimes of human beings, were laid upon the altars of the gods, in the sacred groves. Even after they became Christians, in the eighth century, they retained their habit of celebrating some of[Pg 9] these festivals, but changed them into the Christian anniversaries of Christmas, Easter and Whitsuntide.

OPEN TO CIVILIZATION.

Thus, from all we can learn respecting them, we may say that the Germans, during the first century before Christ, were fully prepared, by their habits, laws, and their moral development, for a higher civilization. They were still restless, after so many centuries of wandering; they were fierce and fond of war, as a natural consequence of their struggles with the neighboring races; but they had already acquired a love for the wild land where they dwelt, they had begun to cultivate the soil, they had purified and hallowed the family relation, which is the basis of all good government, and finally, although slavery existed among them, they had established equal rights for free men.

If the object of Rome had been civilization, instead of conquest and plunder, the development of the Germans might have commenced much earlier and produced very different results.

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