The Germans were a group of barbarian* peoples who originated in northern Europe near the western Baltic Sea around 500 B.C. They migrated southwest, eventually settling in the region east of the Rhine River and north of the Danube River. They first had contact with the people of the Mediterranean world in the 300s B.C. In the A.D. 200s, two German tribes—the Franks and the Alamanni—raided Roman territory and became serious threats to the Roman Empire.

* barbarian referring to people from outside the cultures of Greece and Rome, who were viewed as uncivilized

The Germans were an agricultural people who also lived, at times, by hunting and gathering. They lived on farms and in villages, usually located near wooded areas. They were organized into clans*, which were led by chiefs. During times of war, the separate clans united and selected their battle leaders in tribal assemblies. This flexible organization enabled the Germans to defend themselves against early Roman attacks. During one attack in A.D. 9, during the reign of the emperor Augustus, the Germans succeeded in defeating an entire Roman army. Unable to conquer the German tribes in the early first century A.D., the Romans used the Danube and Rhine rivers to mark the border of their empire, a border that they fortified heavily. At their fort on the Rhine (the site of the modern city of Koblenz), they built a great bridge to enable them to retaliate against German raiding parties.

The Roman historian Tacitus described the German peoples in his book Germania, noting their blue eyes, red hair, great height, and fair skin. Others noticed the close similarities between the Germans and the Celts, another barbarian people who lived in central Europe. The Romans believed that the Germans were tough fighters but were prone to drunkenness. The Romans were generally prejudiced against the Germans, perhaps because the Germans never adopted Roman culture. (See also Ethnic Groups; Gaul; Goths; Peoples of Ancient Greece and Rome; Visigoths.)

* clan group of people descended from a common ancestor or united by a common interest

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