How did naked Germanic savages defeat the Romans?

Aug 2018
274
America
First, you have to get rid of the idea that they were "naked savages". Germanics sew linen clothes, and even some were praised by the Romans for their quality. They also possessed basic armour like any other European people. The term "barbarian" in fact is nothing but unreasonable and idiotic Greco-Roman prejudice that is refuted by archaeology and even the Romans' own sources. Some Germanic warriors did fight naked, but they did so for religious reasons, not because Germanics were primitive naked cavemen.

Now, why did Germanics win at Teutoburg Forest? One reason is that Arminius studied Roman tactics. Another is that the Hercynian forest, the forest that basically cut Gaul from Germania and extended deep into the latter, allowed for perfect ambushes. Then there's the fact that Germanics, having basic metallurgy and centuries of warfare (in fact, Germanics inflicted the worst defeat on the Romans based on numbers alone at the Battle of Arausio up to that point, read about the Cimbri and Teutonic invasion from Denmark that was as destructive as Hannibal) could match the Romans. Generally, Romans did not outmatch opponents due to technology but due to organisation and discipline, and that's what gave them the edge over smaller "barbarian" states which did not have the capacity to train a standing army with the same level of discipline.

As to why Germanics, this has been debated a lot. In my personal opinion, it is because Germanics developed shipbuilding comparable to the Romans. The Goths and Heruli were the first non-Roman people during the imperial Pax Romana period to enter the Mediterranean after centuries of piracy had ended. They conquered the Bosphorus and surrounding parts of the Black Sea and launched sea raids similar to the ones by the Vikings. They destroyed the famous Temple of Ephesian Artemis (which also served as a treasury) during one of those raids and also devastated Athens. One Gothic leader called Naulobatus had to be given a high ranking class after his sea raid got deep into the Balkans. It was also part of what allowed the Goths to conquer Dacia, the first Roman province the Romans abandoned.

Not only that, but I suspect that sea raids also gave them an edge over the rival Alans and Sarmatians (Scythians) whom they subjugated, especially with Ermanaric (the greatest emperor you've never heard off; such was his standing among Germanic nations that the Norse of the Viking era were still writing sagas of him), even though the sources aren't clear cut on this. I've always wondered why when the Huns displaced the peoples of the Black Sea we hear only of Gothic leaders but never of Scythian ones (we know that Alans and Sarmatians were with the Goths, but their rulers such as Athanaric and Fritigern are always Goths or have Gothic names at least).

In any case, Germanics were always the ones who inflicted the most devastation on Rome alongside the Celts (here including Hannibal since most of Hannibal's army was made of Celts, or at least a good portion of it). No other people managed to get as deep into Italy as the Teutons and Marcomanni, and they were the first people to also slay a Roman emperor in battle. Part of this may simply be geographic. The Germanics were closer than other people to the Romans, though the Celts were even closer and Romans still overwhelmed most of them. Not to mention that Germanics overwhelmed the Celts. I don't think Caesar would have conquered Gaul without Ariovistus, a Germanic conqueror, invading and devastating it.
 
Aug 2019
82
Netherlands
First, you have to get rid of the idea that they were "naked savages". Germanics sew linen clothes, and even some were praised by the Romans for their quality. They also possessed basic armour like any other European people. The term "barbarian" in fact is nothing but unreasonable and idiotic Greco-Roman prejudice that is refuted by archaeology and even the Romans' own sources. Some Germanic warriors did fight naked, but they did so for religious reasons, not because Germanics were primitive naked cavemen.

Now, why did Germanics win at Teutoburg Forest? One reason is that Arminius studied Roman tactics. Another is that the Hercynian forest, the forest that basically cut Gaul from Germania and extended deep into the latter, allowed for perfect ambushes. Then there's the fact that Germanics, having basic metallurgy and centuries of warfare (in fact, Germanics inflicted the worst defeat on the Romans based on numbers alone at the Battle of Arausio up to that point, read about the Cimbri and Teutonic invasion from Denmark that was as destructive as Hannibal) could match the Romans. Generally, Romans did not outmatch opponents due to technology but due to organisation and discipline, and that's what gave them the edge over smaller "barbarian" states which did not have the capacity to train a standing army with the same level of discipline.

As to why Germanics, this has been debated a lot. In my personal opinion, it is because Germanics developed shipbuilding comparable to the Romans. The Goths and Heruli were the first non-Roman people during the imperial Pax Romana period to enter the Mediterranean after centuries of piracy had ended. They conquered the Bosphorus and surrounding parts of the Black Sea and launched sea raids similar to the ones by the Vikings. They destroyed the famous Temple of Ephesian Artemis (which also served as a treasury) during one of those raids and also devastated Athens. One Gothic leader called Naulobatus had to be given a high ranking class after his sea raid got deep into the Balkans. It was also part of what allowed the Goths to conquer Dacia, the first Roman province the Romans abandoned.

Not only that, but I suspect that sea raids also gave them an edge over the rival Alans and Sarmatians (Scythians) whom they subjugated, especially with Ermanaric (the greatest emperor you've never heard off; such was his standing among Germanic nations that the Norse of the Viking era were still writing sagas of him), even though the sources aren't clear cut on this. I've always wondered why when the Huns displaced the peoples of the Black Sea we hear only of Gothic leaders but never of Scythian ones (we know that Alans and Sarmatians were with the Goths, but their rulers such as Athanaric and Fritigern are always Goths or have Gothic names at least).

In any case, Germanics were always the ones who inflicted the most devastation on Rome alongside the Celts (here including Hannibal since most of Hannibal's army was made of Celts, or at least a good portion of it). No other people managed to get as deep into Italy as the Teutons and Marcomanni, and they were the first people to also slay a Roman emperor in battle. Part of this may simply be geographic. The Germanics were closer than other people to the Romans, though the Celts were even closer and Romans still overwhelmed most of them. Not to mention that Germanics overwhelmed the Celts. I don't think Caesar would have conquered Gaul without Ariovistus, a Germanic conqueror, invading and devastating it.
You have great insight.
 
Apr 2017
724
Lemuria
The Huns. The Germanics took advantage of the Roman carcass the Huns left behind. The Huns with their Germanics allies vs the romans with their Frankish allies was basically the closest to a world war in those days. The Franks ended to be the overall winner of all this.
 

Peter Graham

Ad Honorem
Jan 2014
2,626
Westmorland
I meant the later reforms of Constantine and Diocletian, and the use of units like cataphracts.

That you know of, were there any Italian/Latin cavalry in the last century or two before the fall of the WRE? Obviously the ERE couldn't really have Italian anything, given it didn't own Italy, though it may have been able to have some Latins.
As with so much else, things tended to evolve over time. By the later Roman Empire, the extension of Roman citizenship to every freeborn person in the Empire, the revocation of the ban on soldiers marrying and the introduction of hereditary recruitment meant that far more people could join the legions than was the case when citizenship was basically restricted to Italians. The auxiliaries never had the citizenship requirement.

Army recruitment seems to have followed time-honoured principles, which is that you are better off recruiting in places where people have fewer options and less money. Historically, the British army was able to recruit large numbers of Irishmen because the army gave people a way out of the hardship of their lives. It's the same now - British army regiments are recruited from the big urban areas. The Highland regiments are now filled by recruits from the Lowland cities, rather than by the descendants of the men who rather unwisely put their trust in the terminally hopeless Bonnie Prince Charlie.

For the western Roman Empire, application of the same principle got you lots of recruits from places like northern Gaul, which was close to the Rhine frontier. However, these recruits were not barbarians by any stretch of the imagination.

Later on, the endless civil wars and the need to try and shore up creaking governance led to the recruitment of soldiers from beyond the frontiers. This could be done in a number of ways - direct recruitment into the army on an individual or a group basis or through alliances and treaty with groups who remained outside the army structure. The Goths are probably a good example of the former, whereas the raising of the late Roman numeri and cunei are probably a good example of the former.
 

johnincornwall

Ad Honorem
Nov 2010
7,686
Cornwall
The Huns. The Germanics took advantage of the Roman carcass the Huns left behind. The Huns with their Germanics allies vs the romans with their Frankish allies was basically the closest to a world war in those days. The Franks ended to be the overall winner of all this.
In the wonderful world of the 5th century, the Huns also served the Romans - one example is they were all set up for Majorians fleet at 'Elche' (probably the Mar Menor) - until those cunning Vandals destroyed the whole lot and everybody had to march off home again

As with so much else, things tended to evolve over time. By the later Roman Empire, the extension of Roman citizenship to every freeborn person in the Empire, the revocation of the ban on soldiers marrying and the introduction of hereditary recruitment meant that far more people could join the legions than was the case when citizenship was basically restricted to Italians. The auxiliaries never had the citizenship requirement.

Army recruitment seems to have followed time-honoured principles, which is that you are better off recruiting in places where people have fewer options and less money. Historically, the British army was able to recruit large numbers of Irishmen because the army gave people a way out of the hardship of their lives. It's the same now - British army regiments are recruited from the big urban areas. The Highland regiments are now filled by recruits from the Lowland cities, rather than by the descendants of the men who rather unwisely put their trust in the terminally hopeless Bonnie Prince Charlie.

For the western Roman Empire, application of the same principle got you lots of recruits from places like northern Gaul, which was close to the Rhine frontier. However, these recruits were not barbarians by any stretch of the imagination.

Later on, the endless civil wars and the need to try and shore up creaking governance led to the recruitment of soldiers from beyond the frontiers. This could be done in a number of ways - direct recruitment into the army on an individual or a group basis or through alliances and treaty with groups who remained outside the army structure. The Goths are probably a good example of the former, whereas the raising of the late Roman numeri and cunei are probably a good example of the former.
Just brushing up on Gothic history (Rosa Sanz Serrano) and there's an emphasis on 'Roman' families toward the end of the 4th century paying so their sons/menfolks can avoid military service - making it more difficult to recruit from 'citizens' and also providing revenue - surely the real initial motivation for the arrangement - which inevitably ends up paying for more and more non-Roman mercenaries