site's logo and link back to the English-speaking home page decorative picture arrow back

Germanic Peoples, The Saxons

pages decorative bandeau, reminder of the one of the main entry home page and the localized home page


As they were Indo-europeans, Germans are tribes which had settled in southern Scandinavia, Denmark and northern Germany, between the Oder and Weser rivers. About 500 B.C., those peoples marched South and they reached the lower Rhine, Thuringia and the lower Silesia. That put them to the contact of Celts as the latter, until about the 1st century B.C. were to act like a screen between Germans and Rome. German tribes which Roman historian Tacitus met by about 98 A.D. are believed to have come from Scandinavia into central and southern Germany proper by 100 B.C. maybe induced by overpopulation. That move translated into three major tribal groups. The eastern, or Ostic Germanic peoples, living along the Oder and Vistula rivers, between the Jutland Peninsula and the mouth of the Vistule river whence they eventually progressively occupied all territories down to the Danube river and the Black Sea. Ostic Germans likely were the most war-weathered Germans as they aggregated around a monarch as Goths, among them, had partially acquired riding skills from the horsemen of the steppes. The northern Germanic ones, who had remained in the southern parts of Scandinavia as they dedicated themselves to navigation or farming, under hereditary kings. Such northern Germans remained the same until in the Viking era. And the western, or Westic Germanic peples, living from the South of Jutland to the area between the North Sea and the Elbe, the Rhine, and Main rivers. They constituted varied peoples as they either were herdsmen, sailors, or they were farming on lands which they improved through fire. They were living under aristocraties or kings

->General View
Along the Rhine border lived the tribes of the Teutonic family, divided by the Oder into the East Germans and West Germans. The East Germans included the Ostrogoths and Visigoths, Burgundians, Vandals, Heruli, Rugii, and Scyrri. The West Germans were divided into the Ingvaeones or Germans on the sea-coast, including the later Frisians and Anglo-Saxons; the Istvaeones or the Germans of the Rhine, including the Franks between the Weser and Rhine; the Hermiones, among whom were the later Thuringians and the upper German tribes of the Alamanni and Bavarians (Bajuvarii). The current of their migration into the Roman empire by the 3rd century A.D. divided into two streams: one to the south-east, the migration of the East Germans; one to the south-west, the migration of the West Germans. The East Germans Goths reached the lower Danube and the Black Sea and divided, according to these respective positions, into the Ostrogoths and Visigoths. In 375 A.D., on account of the pouring in of Asiatic hordes through the gateway of the nations between the Urals and the Caspian, the Ostrogoths were subdued by the Huns. The Visigoths, who were also hard pressed, retreated towards Transylvania and received land somewhat south of this from the Emperors Valens and Theodosius. The Great Invasions began since as the German tribes, in the German area just needed to be politically united. That came with the Franks along with their christianization!

The German question arose in Rome mostly since the time Romans conquered the Gauls as Germans, at the time, were about to end their push against Celtic peoples. The encounter of Romans and Germans began with the defeat of the Suevians, a people then established in current Swabia, Germany by Julius Caesar about 70 B.C. Augustus, the new master of Rome after the Civilian wars, considered he could sent his legions to Germania at the effect of shifting any will of power from them as that also could extend the borders of Rome, after the Gauls with the Rhine river, until the Elbe. He settled a series of German peoples friendly to Rome along the Rhine and the Danube as victories or a disguised occupation occurred. That endeavour however soon stopped. A reorganization of the tribes -among others, the fact that state-organized Marcomans occupied Bohemia- and, mostly, the terrible defeat of Romans in the forest of Teutoburg halted Augustus' plans. Arminius -Hermann, in German- a German leader who apparently had rallied Rome, inflicted, by 9 A.D., in northern Germany near the hill of Kalkriese, by some 12 miles northeast of Osnabrük, the resounding massacre of the three legions of Germania, or 30,000 military. Those legions were under the command of Varus, the legate of Augustus. The fear Rome felt at the time -Augustus famously lamented 'Oh! Varus! Give me my legions back'- was to influence the attitude of the Roman empire for the rest of its history. It is possible too that the Romans always might have had a tendency to wish to limit any further expansion once they had won great victories. Under the 'Pax romana,' or the height of Roman apogee during the 2nd century A.D., trade however and the installation of the 'limes' -a fixed line of defense- which followed the Rhine and Danube rivers, allowed a form of acculturation with Roman goods reaching up to the shores of the Baltic as the logics kept to use Barbarians like defenders of the Roman borders. The inner troubles in Germania came regularly to renew those mercenary tribes. The eastern Germans only, in the area of the lower Danube, unsettled by the end of the 2nd century A.D. German languages then were borrowing the word 'caupo,' (or 'tavern keeper') from the Latin, which they turn into the verb 'kaufen,' ('to buy') as the Runnic alphabet dates back to that epoch too. The strongest of that politics was reached, during a short length of time, under the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius, about 180 A.D. when a protective area of German peoples extended from the Pontus Euxinus down to the mouths of the Rhine. The Goths, Marcomans, Hermunduri, the Alamans in the Decumate Fields (which had been reached in the 1st century A.D. with a limes at 186 miles), the Chatti and Batavians, for example, were part of it as they were farming land and defending the limes. German tribes which had remained free in Germania had more or less friendly relations with the Roman. The warrying valor of Germans however soon made them necessary, during the troubles of the Roman empire in the 3rd century A.D., when the Roman virtues sharply declined. Emperor Constantine the Great possessed 40,000 Gothic warriors among his troops, along with Franks or Huns as that lasted under his successors. As soon as by the 4th century and further still under the following Great Invasions, whole German peoples were settled inside the boundaries of the Roman empire! Germania thus, as it was never submitted, depopulated nor contained, eventually conquered the western part of the empire. It is thus possible that the relationships between Rome and Germans be the history of a empire which did not know where to put its new borders, which the defeat of Teutoburg paralyzed for long, and of peoples which were apt to war, avid of the prosperity of the Gauls or even Italy as they did not hold any strategy however

Early relationships between Rome and the Germans, which had been ones of struggle or negotiation, had turned into ones of commerce -with the Germans trading slaves, mostly of Slavic origin- during the 2nd and 3rd centuries A.D. as most of German peoples have moved closer to their southern border to the Roman empire. Then, between 250 and 400 A.D. Germans had turned mercenaries to Rome and they were a majority among the 500,000 troop which were defending the Empire from England to the Near East. All that had brought to more complex relations between the Romans and the Germans with a mix of fear and admiration. Hunger and epidemics, a demographic push of Germans, that Romans had no other way than to settle whole peoples like the wardens of their Germanic borders, or the arrival of the Huns had rendered the Great Invasions inevitable. Those also likely were due to some climate's change at the confines of Europe and Asia, with a drought and prolonged frost, as northern Europe endured a want of summers, all of which impoverished the lands of Germans. Great Invasions were also made easier due to that the Romans had reached the deepest of their economic, politic and moral decline. The eastern, Greeker, more active part of the Roman empire and the more rural, Latin, western one had also begun to get distant, a differentiation which had begun to affect the Church too. The Great Invasions officially began in December 406 A.D. as a strong winter had allowed the Rhine river to freeze. 15,000 Germans took the occasion to cross into the Roman empire as they could journey throughout Gauls with no resistance. Germans brought into the Roman world the whole lot of their customs, views and qualities like energy, boldness and ingenuity which might have been lacking among the Romans. They also turned a single-minded Roman world which had focused upon the Mediterranean Sea into a one of several kingdoms upon the North Sea and the Atlantic Ocean

Germania, during the 3rd and 4th centuries A.D., saw some great tribal confederations replace the numerous petty tribes which had existed until then. The Alamanni, Boiarii, the Thuringians, the Franks were such confederations. Saxons too! As all the others were governed by kings, the Saxons kept some kind of divided organization, with independent bodies with their chiefs, as those elected a duke in time of war. The name of 'Saxons' came from the stone knife they used like a weapon at war, which was called a 'sax.' Originating from between the Elbe and the Eider rivers, about northeast of today Hamburg, Germany, the Saxons' confederation eventually reached almost to the Rhine, to the Harz Mountains and the Eichsfeld, and to the Elbe and the Saale rivers. As a part of the Saxons, with the Angles, another German tribe, invaded Britain in the 5th century A.D., the Saxons, on the continent, trying to reach Gaul, came into conflict with the Franks, as the Frankish dynasty of the Merovingians eventually became the rulers there. The Franks, further, were able to progressively subdue and unite the other German peoples, the Saxons excepted. A long series of warfare between the Franks and the Saxons ensued, as the Anglo-Saxon missionaries were either killed or driven away, the Saxons retaining their old German deities. The last of them was St Boniface. It was not until Charlemagne that the Saxons, after a harsh series of campaigns (772-804) were subdued. It is still badly known whether the initiative of the conquest was due to the Franks -for safety purposes- or to the pope -for the conversion of the Saxons. The conversion of the Saxons however was a condition for the peace in the region to be permanent. The Church however seems never to have approved some harsh deeds and laws Charlemagne used, like the execution of 4,500 Saxons in Verden in 782 and the rules he gave to the subjugated. In a little more than a hundred years, the Saxons became sincerely Christians, becoming in turn the propagators of the faith to the East, among the Slavs. It's St Sturmi, a friend to Charlemagne, who was in charge to convert the Saxons. That is in that purpose that he built the monastery of Fulda like a place to train the missionaries. Bishoprics were created, with Franks at their head. The Treaty of Verdun, in 843 A.D., had the territories of the Empire East of the Rhine turn into the 'East Frankish Kingdom' -the 'Francia orientalis.' As the rule of the Carolingians progressively waned there, the German tribes remained left to their own forces to defend against the Northmen and the Slavs. The Saxons, then, turned back to their old custom of electing dukes. The first duke, Otto the Illustrious (880-912), set the roots, extending in Thuringia, for the Ottonian dynasty, with his son Henry I, elected king of Germany and his grandson, Otto I receiving the imperial crown from the pope in 962. The line ended with St Henry II in 1024. It was under Otto I (936-976) that the Saxon rulers secured the right bank of the Elbe and the Saale rivers, creating 'marks' or 'margravates,' the districts of which featured a fortified castle and a bishopric. The Saxons, at that time, further brought Christianity to the Poles, who lived on the other bank of the Oder river. The duchy of Saxony eventually got out of the line of the Ottonians as soon as 960. Beginning in the 8th century A.D., the Saxons were divided into four groups: the Westphalians, between the Rhine and the Weser, the Angrians (or Engern), both sides of the Weser. The Eastphalians, between the Weser and the Elbe. And the Transalbingians, in current Holstein

Website Manager: G. Guichard, site Learning and Knowledge In the Carolingian Times / Erudition et savoir à l'époque carolingienne, Page Editor: G. Guichard. last edited: 12/30/2013. contact us at
Free Web Hosting