Germani cisrhenani

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Germani cisrhenani is a Latin term which refers to that portion of the tribal people known as Germani who lived during classical times to the west of the Rhine river. During the lifetime of Julius Caesar, it referred especially to those who had settled among the Belgic Gauls, before Roman intrusion into the area. Cisrhenane means "on this side of the Rhine". The opposite is transrhenane or "across the Rhine". The cisrhenane Germani are also sometimes referred to as "Left bank Germani".[1] Tribes who were certainly considered to be among the original Germani cisrhenani include the Eburones, the Condrusi, the Caeraesi, the Segni and the Paemani, who collectively form a group who apparently later came to be referred to as Tungri, in order to avoid confusion with other "Germani".

The Romans frequently described the Rhine as an important natural border between Gaul on the west, which became part of the Roman empire, and the Germanic territories to the east. The Germani on the east side of the Rhine were considered to be living in their original homeland. So this land was referred to not only as "Germania Transrhenana," but also, for example by Ptolemy and Strabo, as Germania magna, "Greater Germany." It is also referred to as being outside of Roman control: Germania libera, "Free Germany" or Germania barbara, indicating it was wild and uncivilized. In contrast, the cisrhenane Germani were sometimes referred to as living in Germania cisrhenana, but this territory was considered to also be part of Gaul, and later part of the Roman empire.

It is widely doubted today whether the Romans were correct in describing all the different peoples that they called Germani as belonging to one ethnic group. In modern analyses of cultural groups, languages are generally used as a means of classification, and the modern language family associated with the Germani, at least such groups as the Suebi, including the Alemanni, is today called Germanic. But there is no consensus as to whether the pre-Roman imperial Germani all spoke the same language. In fact, the earliest reported Germani cisrhenani seem to have had tribal names based on Celtic languages, and they were clearly considered Gauls, or at least Belgae, in some contexts. Celtic naming even appears to have extended across the Rhine to such tribes as the Usipetes and Tencteri.


Map of the Germanic expansion between 750 BC and 0 AD; border of the Roman Empire along Rhine and Danube around 0 AD shown as dotted line

The earliest surviving record referring to Germani is Julius Caesar's account of the Gallic War, the "Commentarii de Bello Gallico". (The phrase "Bello Gallico" was probably used before him. There are classical citations of a lost work by Poseidonius which apparently mentioned the tribe.) Caesar may have been the first to differentiate between "cis" and "trans" Germani. Compare Caesar's description to that of Tacitus in his De Origine et situ Germanorum, written generations later, when the cisrhenane area was firmly within the Roman empire.

In the build up to the Battle of the Sabis in 57 BCE, Caesar reports that he received information from Remi tribesman, who described a large part of the Belgae of northern France and Gaul as having "transrhenane" Germanic ancestry, but not all.

When Caesar inquired of them what states were in arms, how powerful they were, and what they could do, in war, he received the following information: that the greater part of the Belgae were sprung, from the Germans [Germani], and that having crossed the Rhine at an early period, they had settled there, on account of the fertility of the country, and had driven out the Gauls who inhabited those regions; and that they were the only people who, in the memory of our fathers, when all Gaul was overrun, had prevented the Teutones and the Cimbri from entering their territories; the effect of which was, that, from the recollection of those events, they assumed to themselves great authority and haughtiness in military matters.[2]

At other times, Caesar more clearly divides Belgic Gaul into the Belgae and another smaller group called the Germani.[1] For example, he writes that his local informants claim "all the rest of the Belgae were in arms; and that the Germans, who dwell on this side of the Rhine [Belgas in armis esse, Germanosque qui cis Rhenum], had joined themselves to them."[3]

The reference to the Cimbric migrations means that movements of people from east of the Rhine must have happened early enough for them already to be established west of the Rhine in the 2nd century BCE. But it remains unclear which Belgic Gauls were considered Germani ancestry and which, if any, might have spoken a Germanic language.

In the list of Belgic nations given as being in arms are Bellovaci, Suessiones, Nervii, Atrebates, Ambiani, Morini, Menapii, Caleti, Velocasses, and Veromandui, who together make up a major part of all the Belgic nations. When it comes to tribes in the extreme northeast of Gaul, against the Rhine, the Condrusi, the Eburones, the Caeraesi, and the Paemani, "are called by the common name of Germans" [Germani]. These Germani provided one joint force to the alliance, and apparently the number of men they committed was uncertain to the Remi.[2] Caesar later added the Segni to the list of tribes among the Belgae who went by the name of the Germani.[4] There is another group living close to these tribes, in the northeast, called the Aduatuci, who descended from the above-mentioned Cimbri, but these are not referred to as Germani, even though their ancestry is clearly to the east of the Rhine also and "Germanic" in that sense.[5]

After the battle of the Sabis, which the Romans won, some Belgic tribes renewed fighting against the Romans in 54 BCE. Caesar clearly differentiates between two types of remaining rebel groups: "the Nervii, Aduatuci, and Menapii" and with them "the addition of all the Germans on this side of the Rhine." Within this last group were the Eburones, whose king Ambiorix had become a major rebel leader.[6]

When the Eburones were defeated, the Segni and Condrusi "of the nation and number of the Germans [Germani], and who are between the Eburones and the Treviri, sent embassadors to Caesar to entreat that he would not regard them in the number of his enemies, nor consider that the cause of all the Germans on this side the Rhine [omnium Germanorum, qui essent citra Rhenum] was one and the same; that they had formed no plans of war, and had sent no auxiliaries to Ambiorix".[4]

In the time of Tacitus, long after Caesar claimed to have annihilated the name of the Eburones, the area where the Eburones had lived was inhabited by the Tungri, but Tacitus claimed that this was not their original name:-

The name Germany [Germania], on the other hand, they say, is modern and newly introduced, from the fact that the tribes which first crossed the Rhine and drove out the Gauls, and are now called Tungrians, were then called Germans [Germani]. Thus what was the name of a tribe, and not of a race, gradually prevailed, till all called themselves by this self-invented name of Germans [Germani], which the conquerors had first employed to inspire terror.[7]

Many historians read Caesar and Tacitus in combination to conclude that Caesar was knowingly using the term Germani in both a strict sense, for a tribal group who had crossed the Rhine very early and who were actually locally named this way, and in an extended sense, for tribal groups of similar ancestry, most clearly those on the east of the Rhine. Some believe he may have been the first to do so.

Apart from the Germani in this strict sense then, it is unclear to what extent if any that Caesar believed the other Belgae to have similar transrhenane ancestry. But in any case it is clear that he, like Tacitus, apparently makes a distinction between two types of Germani, as shown by the above quotations where the Nervii, Aduatuci, and Menapii are both contrasted with the cisrhenane Germani such as the Eburones and the Condrusi. So in the northern Belgic region of Gaul, at least some of the other Belgic nations, apart from the group containing the Eburones and Condrusi, might or might not have been considered Germani in a broad sense. Tacitus on the other hand certainly knew of such claims, but expressed doubt about them, writing of two of the tribes most geographically and politically close to the Germani, that the "Treveri and Nervii are even eager in their claims of a German origin, thinking that the glory of this descent distinguishes them from the uniform level of Gallic effeminacy".[8]

The accounts of Caesar and Tacitus match to some extent, but both are doubted by some modern historians, because both men are considered to have been writing about this subject with Roman politics in mind.

One of the reasons (or excuses) for Caesar's interventions in Gaul in the first place was an apparent increase in movements of tranrhenane peoples, attempting to enter Gaul, apparently due to major movements of people such as the Suevi deep in Germania. Some of the Germani who Caesar mentions did stay in Gaul under its new Roman overlords. Apart from the Ubii, Sicambri and Tencteri and Usipetes in Germania inferior, some others had attempted to cross to the west of the Rhine further south, but in that region of the Rhine, such crossing were apparently a new thing in his time.

Speculation about origins[edit]

While it well known that in later imperial times Germanic speaking "Germani" made there way to the Rhine, and across, in the time of Caesar the evidence for the presence of Germanic languages is limited to placename analyses such as those of Maurits Gysseling and not universally accepted. Archaeological evidence of the earlier migrations mentioned by Caesar has been hard to find.

According to Edith Wightman, amongst those who accept that there must be something true to the account reported by Caesar, there are two main proposals, both involving waves of incoming aristocracies imposed upon older populations. The first proposal would see the cisrhenane Germani as having arrived in their area from the direction of the Rhine as early as Urnfeld times, with the Belgae being a later la Tène Celtic immgration wave. A second scenario has both the Germani and the other Belgae descending from the Hunsrück-Eifel culture found near the Moselle river. "The left-bank Germans would then be people who went northward across the Ardennes rather than westwards to the Marne" which is an area where the la Tène culture southern Belgae may have originated. Wightman proposed that apart from such theories, it may be possible that the reasons for the situation reported by Caesar may have been more political.[1]

Roman empire[edit]

Map of the Roman Empire and Magna Germania in the early 2nd century

Already during the Gallic Wars of Caesar, tribes of Germanic people were raiding over the Rhine, and many were eventually settled there. As Tacitus wrote, "The Rhine bank itself is occupied by tribes unquestionably German,—the Vangiones, the Triboci, and the Nemetes. Nor do even the Ubii, though they have earned the distinction of being a Roman colony, and prefer to be called Agrippinenses, from the name of their founder, blush to own their origin."[8] The tribes he mentions are all tribes mentioned by Caesar also, as having made attempts to cross the Rhine when he was in the area.

The Ubii, were in the north, the region of the Eburones, and became the people of the region of Cologne and Bonn during Roman imperial times. The other three tribes had been invaders on the upper Rhine, closer to modern Switzerland.

The Roman empire proceeded to form two new cisrhenane provinces named "Germania" on the Gaulish, western, side of the Rhine.

  • Germania Superior was the more southern of the two provinces of cisrhenane Germania. It had its capital at Mainz and included the area of modern Alsace, and the corner of Switzerland, Germany and France.
  • Germania Inferior ("lower Germany") ran along the lower Rhine and had its capital on the German frontier in Cologne. It included modern Bonn, Neuss, Xanten, Nijmegen, and the Rhine–Meuse–Scheldt delta. Along the Rhine in Germania Inferior were not only the Ubii, but also other tribes who had crossed the Rhine into the empire - the Cugerni, thought to be a part of the Sugambri, and the Batavians, thought to descend from the Chatti. The origin of others such as the Marsacii, Frisiavones, Baetasii, and Sunuci is less certain, but they are all thought to be Germanic. At some point, the Civitas Tungrorum, the district of the Tungri, who lived where the supposed original Germani had lived, became part of Germania Inferior.

So the two Roman provinces named Germania, both mainly on the west of the Rhine, gave an official form to the concept of Germani cisrhenani.

The end of the era[edit]

As the empire grew older, new tribes arrived into Germania cisrhenana, and these regions started to become more independent. By the time of the collapse of the empire's central power in Gaul, there is little doubt about the fact that all or most of these peoples were unified in their use of Germanic languages or dialects. The cisrhenane Germani eventually ceased to be restricted to a band of occupation near the border, and all Roman provinces west of the Rhine were eventually conquered by Germanic tribes, speaking Germanic languages: the Franks (Germania inferior and northern France), the Alemanni (Germania superior), the Burgundians (southeast France), the Visigoths (southwest France and Catalonia), and so on including even Germanic overlords as far away from the Rhine as Galicia, Andalucia, and Tunisia.


  1. ^ a b c Wightman (1985) page 12-13.
  2. ^ a b "Gallic War" 2.4
  3. ^ "Gallic War" 2.3
  4. ^ a b "Gallic War" 6.32
  5. ^ "Gallic War" 2.29
  6. ^ "Gallic War" 6.2
  7. ^ "Germania"chapter 2
  8. ^ a b "Germania" chapter 28


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