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The Early History of the Germanic Tribes

The origins of the Germanic tribes is lost in the sands of time. What little is known is based upon linguistic evidence. The Germanic languages belong to the Indo-European family of languages that span Eurasia from Ireland on the west to India on the east. The origin of the Indo-European languages is believed to have been in the merger of three peoples in the region between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea. One of the three excelled in warfare, one in agriculture and one in metal-working. The synthesis of these three strengths produced a folk that spread east and west. The western branch splits into the ancestors of the Baltic, the Celtic, the Germanic and the Slavic tribes as well as a welter of smaller groupings such as those of the Latins and Greeks. The languages of the Germanic tribes underwent a systematic sound change that distinguished them from the languages of the other branches.

By about 500 BCE the Germanic tribes were occupying the southern shores of the Baltic and southern Scandinavia. Some of these Germanic tribes migrated and established control of new territories. Tribes from Scandinavia, known as the Goths, migrated southeast to the area north of the Black Sea. Later they divided into the Ostrogoths and the Visigoths and conquered areas in the north shore of the Mediterranean Sea as far west as the Iberian peninsula. Later the Franks from what is now Germany moved west and conquered the Low Lands and Roman Gaul, giving it their name as France. The Angles and Saxons, along with Justes, invaded Britain and created England. Another Germanic tribe, the Lombards (long beards), invaded and conquered what is now northern Italy. The Burgundians from the region which included the Baltic Island of Bornholm moved southward and ended up establishing the Kingdom of Burgundy in what is now southeast France. Still later Germanic tribe invaded the territory of the Prussians, a Slavic people, and conquered them so thoroughly that Prussian came to be identified as the epitome of Germanness. All in all it was a remarkable record of military prowess on the part of the Germanic tribes. However in the scheme of things the occupation of territory by the less bellicose Slavic tribes was more successful. And while the Slavic tribes by and large maintained their linguistic and cultural identity the conquering Germanic tribes were largely absorbed into the cultures they conquered.

The first written record of the Germanic tribes was by the Roman historian Tacitus in 98 BCE. German tribes were moving into the region that is now southwestern Germany about the same time the Romans were conquering Gaul. Julius Caesar defeated the Suevian tribe in 70 BCE and thus established the Rhine River as the boundary between Roman and German territory. But a Roman fear of militaristic peoples on their borders prompted the Roman governor Varus to invade the territory beyond the Rhine. Those Romans were soundly defeated in the year 9 AD at the Battle of Teutoburg Forest. The leader of the victorious Germans was a German who had received military training in the Roman army. This German victory freed the German tribes of any serious threat of domination by the Romans, although the Romans did later conquer some territories beyond the Rhine and the Danube.

The king of the Franks, Clovis, ruled over the mixed Celtic-Roman-German population of Gaul from 486 to 511. Clovis's line, the Merovingians, ended when Pepin the Younger gained the throne of the Franks in 741. His line became known as the Carolingians.

The greatest of the Carolingians was Charlemagne (Charles the Great) who ruled the Franks from 768 to 814. Charlemagne conquered the Lombard kingdom of north Italy in 774. In 800 Charlemagne was declared Holy Roman Emperor by the Pope. Charlemagne's son Louis continued the rule of the Frankish Holy Roman Empire which stretched from the Spanish Marches to what is now Germany and Austria. But this magnificient empire was too large and unwieldy to rule so shortly after Louis the Pious died in 840 the empire was divided, in 843 by the Treaty of Verdun, between three of Charlemagne's grandsons. The title of Holy Roman Emperor went to the ruler of the Middle Kingdom.

The Division of Charlemagne's Empire, 843 A.D.

(To be continued.)


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