Monday, March 9, 2009

Evolution of Barbarian Arms and Tactics

During the first and second centuries A.D., the Germanic armies were primarily made up of foot soldiers armed with lances, spears, shields and only a few swords. Some Eastern Germans also probably used the axe. Very little body armor or helmets were worn. Most warriors fought naked or in little clothing and often wore just trousers or a short tunic and shoes. A shield was often carried and was used as both an offensive and a defensive weapon. Horses were not prevalent, and were used mostly by those tribes nearer to the Roman frontier than in the interior. However, even though most tribes lacked cavalry, their infantry prized speed above all else as an essential tactic against the more heavily armored Romans. Further, during the first two centuries of contact between the Germans and Rome there was little change in Germanic armament or tactics.

From the time of the Marcomannic Wars (166 to 180 A.D.), however, changes began to take place. Roman types of equipment acquired as booty or because of service in the Roman army became more prevalent amongst the Germans. Use of axes and bows and arrows also increased. Swords were common and German smiths often copied captured Roman swords, especially the long, double-edged spatha and the shorter, broad gladius. Roman swords were also imported more at the beginning of the third century, especially into the region between the Oder and Vistula rivers.

The barbarians were not well-schooled in siege warfare and lacked the knowledge to build adequate siege weapons. From the third century B.C. to the second century A.D., Germanic weaponry evolved little. Increasing contact with Rome changed that. By the fourth century, the armament of the Romans and Germans were often indistinguishable, largely because the Roman army itself was largely composed of Germans. Finally, while weapons and armor did change, the hit and run tactics of the ambush and the quick raid on a weak target were still preferred by the tribes.

Thus, the first phase of the “barbarian invasions,” which implied a violent struggle “between the civilized Roman citizens of the provinces and uncivilized intruders from outside the empire,” (Whittaker) were in actuality a slow merging of peoples along the border. There were battles, but these were as much between each other as they were against Roman settlements. Eventually, along the limes, the members of the two groups, Roman and German, were nearly indistinguishable from each other, with the Romans assuming many characteristics of the Germans. This has been supported by archeological evidence. Grave goods found in and near the frontier were similar to others found in the graves of Saxons, Franks and Alamani beyond the frontier. There was an especially marked similarity in the brooches discovered in women’s graves from both regions.

The various belts, buckles and military insignia discovered indicated an obvious link to Rome. Further, the inclusion of weapons in the graves seem to be only in those burials of people within the Empire and not among external Germans. This indicated a frontier culture of people “associated with Romans, possibly through military service” (Whitaker). Additionally, as Patrick Geary explained, by the third century, legions, including the many barbarians in them, could marry legally (though many had informally for quite some time) and many, if not most, of their wives were drawn from the local population. This facilitated the assimilation of soldiers into specific localities.

For these reasons, C.R. Whitaker makes two conclusions. First “the change was not sudden” and second the barbarians and the Romans dwelling on the limes had more in common than previously thought. Even children’s graves contained swords and other martial implements and it is probable that not all of the graves were of Germans, “since in Gaul many of these burials appear to be perfectly integrated in provincial communities, using the same graveyards without signs of disruption.” According to Edward James, archeology has also revealed that “the settlements of Visigoths, Franks, and Burgundians in the fifth century, which [were] marked on maps, are really not distinguishable in terms of new cultures coming into Gaul from beyond the frontiers.” As Geary observed, “[a] man or woman with a Lombard-style brooch is no more necessarily a Lombard than a family in Bradford with a Toyota is Japanese; artifacts are no secure guide to ethnicity.”

UP NEXT: End of the Limes


Todd, Northern Barbarians.
Whittaker, Frontiers of the Roman Empire.
Geary, The Myth of Nations.
Edward James, “The Merovingian archaeology of south-west Gaul,” British Archaeological Reports, Suppl. Series 25, (Oxford, 1977).
Chris Wickham, Early Medieval Italy: Central Power and Local Society 400-1000, (Totowa, N.J., 1981).


Secundus said...

Nice Blog, I look forward to more. I am collecting an ancient German army and this site is a real find.


Marc said...

Thanks for the compliment. Just be warned that I update it in fits and starts. But it's a labor of love!

Wieland said...

Excellent blog. I have been working on a novel which, in part, includes the fall of the Burgundians. Your writing is fully supported by the current research.

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