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Medieval Sourcebook:

Julius Caesar: The Germans, c. 51 BCE

[Ogg Introduction]

This general account of the Germans is drawn from the middle of Book VI of De Bello Gallico. We are not to suppose that Caesar's knowledge of the Germans was in any sense thorough. At no time did he get far into their country, and the people whose manners and customs he had an opportunity to observe were only those who were pressing down upon, and occasionally across, the Rhine boundary---a mere fringe of the great race stretching back to the Baltic. We may be sure that many of the more remote German tribes lived after a fashion quite different from that which Caesar and his legions had an opportunity to observe on the Rhine-Danube frontier. Still, Caesar's account, vague and brief as it is, has an importance that can hardly be exaggerated. These early Germans had no written literature, and but for the descriptions of them left by a few Roman writers, such as Caesar, we should know almost nothing about them.

21. The customs of the Germans differ widely from those of the Gauls; for neither have they Druids to preside over religious services, nor do they give much attention to sacrifices. They count in the number of their gods those only whom they can see, and by whose favors they are clearly aided; that is to say, the Sun, Vulcan, and the Moon. Of other deities they have never even heard. Their whole life is spent in hunting and in war. From childhood they are trained in labor and hardship.

22. They are not devoted to agriculture, and the greater portion of their food consists of milk, cheese, and flesh. No one owns a particular piece of land, with fixed limits, but each year the magistrates and the chiefs assign to the clans and the bands of kinsmen who have assembled together as much land as they think proper, and in whatever place they desire, and the next year compel them to move to some other place. They give many reasons for this custom---that the people may not lose their zeal for war through habits established by prolonged attention to the cultivation of the soil; that they may not be eager to acquire large possessions, and that the stronger may not drive the weaker from their property; that they may not build too carefully, in order to avoid cold and heat; that the love of money may not spring up, from which arise quarrels and dissensions; and, finally, that the common people may live in contentment, since each person sees that his wealth is kept equal to that of the most powerful.

23. It is a matter of the greatest glory to the tribes to lay waste, as widely as possible, the lands bordering their territory, thus making them uninhabitable. They regard it as the best proof of their valor that their neighbors are forced to withdraw from those lands and hardly any one dares set foot there; at the same time they think that they will thus be more secure, since the fear of a sudden invasion is removed. When a tribe is either repelling an invasion or attacking an outside people, magistrates are chosen to lead in the war, and these are given the power of life and death. In times of peace there is no general magistrate, but the chiefs of the districts and cantons render justice among their own people and settle disputes. Robbery, if committed beyond the borders of the tribe, is not regarded as disgraceful, and they say that it is practiced for the sake of training the youth and preventing idleness. When any one of the chiefs has declared in an assembly that he is going to be the leader of an expedition, and that those who wish to follow him should give in their names, they who approve of the undertaking, and of the man, stand up and promise their assistance, and are applauded by the people. Such of these as do not then follow him are looked upon as deserters and traitors, and from that day no one has any faith in them.

To mistreat a guest they consider to be a crime. They protect from injury those who have come among them for any purpose whatever, and regard them as sacred. To them the houses of all are open and food is freely supplied.


From: Frederic Austin Ogg, ed., A Source Book of Mediaeval History: Documents Illustrative of European Life and Institutions from the German Invasions to the Renaissance, (New York, 1907, reprinted by Cooper Square Publishers (New York), 1972), pp.20-22

Scanned by Jerome S. Arkenberg, Cal. State Fullerton.

This text is part of the Internet Medieval Source Book. The Sourcebook is a collection of public domain and copy-permitted texts related to medieval and Byzantine history.

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