The etymology of the Latin word “Germani”, from which Latin Germania, and English “Germanic” are derived, is unknown, although several different proposals have been made. Even the language from which it derives is a subject of dispute.[note 7] Whatever it meant, the name probably applied originally only to a smaller group of people, the so-called “Germani cisrhenani“, whose Latin scholarly name simply indicates that these were Germani living on the western side of the Rhine (see below). Tacitus reported that these Germanic peoples in Gaul, ancestors of the Tungri of his time, were the first people to be called Germani. According to Tacitus, their name had transferred to peoples such as those within the alliance of Ariovistus, as a name having connotations that frightened potential enemies. While Caesar and Tacitus saw this Rhineland people as Germanic in the broader sense also, they do not fit easily with the much broader definitions of “Germanic” used by them or modern scholars. These original Germani are therefore a significant complication for all attempts to define the Germanic peoples according to which side of the Rhine they lived on, or according to their probable language.
Caesar described how the country of these Germani cisrhenani stretched well west of the Lower Rhine, into what is now Belgium, and how it had done so long before the Romans came into close contact. Neither Caesar nor Tacitus saw this as clashing with their broader definitions, because they believed these Germani had moved from east of the Rhine, where the other Germani lived. But this event was not recent: Caesar reported that they were already on the west side during the Cimbrian War (113–101 BCE), generations earlier. The early Germani on both sides of the Lower Rhine were however distinguished from the Suevian Germani by Caesar, Tacitus, Pliny the Elder, and Strabo. Strabo even said that the Germani near the Rhine not only differed little from the Celts, but also that the Latin-speakers called them “Germani” because they were the “genuine” Gauls (which is a possible meaning of Germani in Latin). Modern historical linguists and archaeologists have also come to doubt that these western Germani spoke a Germanic language as defined today, or shared the same material culture, at least at the time of their first contact with Caesar and the Romans.[note 8] Caesar himself refers to them also as Gauls.
The older concept of the Germani being local to the Rhine, and especially the west bank of the lower Rhine, remained common among Graeco-Roman writers for a longer time than the more theoretical and general concept of Caesar. Cassius Dio writing in Greek in the 3rd century, consistently called the right-bank Germani of Caesar, the Celts (Κελτοί) and their country Keltikḗ (Κελτική).[note 9] Cassius contrasted them with the “Gauls” (Γαλάται) on the left bank of the Rhine, and described Caesar doing the same in a speech. He reported that the peoples on either side of the Rhine had long ago taken to using these contrasting names, treating it as a boundary, but “very anciently both peoples dwelling on either side of the river were called Celts”. For Cassius Dio, the only Germani and the only Germania were west of the Rhine within the empire: “some of the Celts (Keltoí), whom we call Germans (Germanoí)”, had “occupied all the Belgic territory [Belgikḗ] along the Rhine and caused it to be called Germany [Germanía]”.
At least two well-read 6th century Byzantine writers, Agathias and Procopius, understood the Franks on the Rhine to effectively be the old Germani under a new name, since, as Agathias wrote, they inhabit the banks of the Rhine and the surrounding territory.
Germanic terminology before Caesar
All surviving written evidence implying any clear “Germanic” concept, broad or narrow, from before Julius Caesar is doubtful and unclear. There are two or three cases to consider.
- One is the use of the word Germani in a report describing lost writings of Posidonius (about 135 – 51 BCE), made by the much later writer Athenaios (around 190 CE); however, this word may have been added by the later writer, and if not, probably referred to the Germani cisrhenani. It says only that the Germani eat roasted meat in separate joints, and drink milk and unmixed wine.
- A commemoration in Rome of a triumph in 222 BCE by Marcus Claudius Marcellus, over Galleis Insubribus et Germ[an(eis)]. This victory in the Alpine region at the Battle of Clastidium over the Insubres is known from other sources to have involved a large force of Gaesatae. It is believed by many scholars that the inscription should originally have referred to these Gaesatae.
- A third author sometimes thought to have written about the Germani is Pytheas of Marseille, who wrote about northern Europe, but his works have not survived. Later reports of his writings show that he wrote about the areas and peoples later called Germanic but do not necessarily show that he called them Germanic. (For example, Pliny the Elder says he described the Baltic Sea and mentioned a large country of “Guiones”, often interpreted as the Gutones, described by Tacitus. Their land included an estuary that is one day’s sail from an island where amber was collected, which in turn neighbours the Teutones, but an alternative interpretation is that these were (In)guiones (see below) on the North Sea coast.)
After Caesar, Roman authors such as Tacitus followed his example in using the Germanic terminology to refer retroactively to peoples known to the Romans or Greeks before Caesar. As noted above, the Cimbri had previously been described as Celtic or Cimmerian, and Greek writers continued to do so, while Caesar described them as Germanic. Tacitus and Strabo both proposed with some uncertainty that the Bastarnae, a large people known to the Graeco-Roman world before Caesar, from the region of what is now Ukrainian Galicia and Moldava, might also have had mixed Germanic ancestry, and according to Tacitus, even a Germanic language. Pliny the Elder categorized them as a separate major division of the Germani like Istvaeones, Ingvaeones, and Irminones, but also separate from an eastern group which contained the Vandals and the Gutones, both in what is now Poland. (As already mentioned however, Livy said they spoke a language like that of the Scordisci.)