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),
Scanned by Jerome S. Arkenberg, Cal. State Fullerton. The text has been modernized by
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