The Germanic Iron Age: Tribes, Weapons & Clothing

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Germanic tribes played a major role during the entire Iron Age. In this lesson, we'll examine Europe's Iron Age before the rise of Germanic power and see how it changed in the Germanic Iron Age itself.

The Germanic Iron Age

Do you know what happens when a body is deposited in a peat bog? Not much, and that's kind of the point. In the low-oxygen environment, the body barely decomposes and is preserved remarkably well. Whether or not they knew this, people of ancient Europe took to depositing bodies into bogs, perhaps as ritual sacrifices or as a punishment for criminals.

There are over 500 of these so-called bog bodies in Denmark alone, and they give us an interesting glimpse into the past, particularly Northern Europe's Iron Age, when the vast majority of the bog bodies were deposited. Many of these people were from Europe's Germanic tribes, a wide ethno-linguistic group that came to dominate Europe in this time. The history of Germanic ascension in Europe is rich and complex, with lots to talk about. We'll try to keep it brief, but as many Germanic tribes understood, it could be easy to get bogged down in their cultures.

The Pre-Roman Iron Age in Northern Europe (5th - 1st Centuries BCE)

The Germanic Iron Age is a distinct period, when the Germanic tribes developed concrete identities and took military control of most Europe. To get there, however, we need to start in the early Iron Age of Northern Europe, which began around the 5th century BCE.

The early Iron Age appeared following a collapse of major cultures and trade routes at the end of the Bronze Age. As a result, many tribes in Northern Europe lost contact with former trade partners, and in relative isolation, started developing more distinct linguistic and cultural identities. This is roughly the time that the Germanic and Celtic tribes started to differentiate themselves, although the process would take centuries. In this world, a proto-Germanic language truly appeared and started diversifying into a number of related Germanic tongues.

Most of the early Germanic tribes were sedentary farmers, although some started developing a taste for raiding as a major form of existence. Perhaps due to this, or perhaps due to other reasons we don't fully understand, a period of migration began that saw a number of tribes moving out of Scandinavia and toward the Danube regions of Central Europe. The most significant of these were the Teutones and the Cimbri, who in the 2nd century BCE, became the first Germanic tribes to establish major contact with the Romans. A new age was beginning.

The Roman Iron Age in Northern Europe (1st Century BCE- 5th Century CE)

The wars between the Teutones and Romans kicked off a new era in Northern Europe's Iron Age, marked both by perpetual warfare and constant trade between Rome and Central/Northern Europe. The Germanic tribes were noted by the Romans for their fierceness in battle, proficiency with iron swords and spears, and one other unusual feature: pants. Pants were not common in the Mediterranean, toga-and-tunic world, and baggy pants became one of the most definitive features Romans used to identify Germanic tribes in their artwork.

To the Romans, the fact that Germanic people always wore pants was something of an oddity
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Germanic tribes in this time became more organized and distinct, establishing a number of defined tribes with closely related cultures. Besides an affinity for warfare, the Germanic tribes also became deeply devoted to gold and silver-smithing and developed a reputation for their expertise in metallurgy. Artifacts from this time also show a major influence of Roman products and techniques that made their ways into Central and Northern Europe.

The Germanic Iron Age (5th-9th Centuries CE)

After centuries of waging war on the Germanic tribes, the Roman Empire finally collapsed. This event led to the start of the period officially known as the Germanic Iron Age, as Germanic tribes rose to establish control of most of Europe.

Metalworking, especially with precious metals, was a big part of Germanic art
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This period begins in the 5th century, lasting about 100 years in an era we call the Migration Period. The fall of Rome attracted West and Central Asian invaders to Europe, placing pressure on the Germanic tribes to spread out and find new stomping grounds. By this point, several distinct Germanic tribes had been established, including the Ostrogoths, Visigoths, Lombards, Vandals, Franks, Jutes, Angles, and Saxons. Some of these names you may recognize.

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