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Early Germanic Warfare

 E.A. Thompson

Past and Present, No.14 (1958)

Excerpt: Now, the Gauls, to say nothing of the Persians, had reached a higher level of material development than the Germans at the time when both alike dashed withthe armies of Julius Caesar. In Caesar’s time the use of iron among the Germans was severely limited, at any rate by Roman standards. Indeed, it has been said that German weapons, both defensive and offensive, were characterised by poverty of metal; and Tacitus points to their weapons to prove the shortage of iron among the German communities. Germanicus could encourage his men without absurd exaggeration by pointing out to them that the German warriors had neither breastplates nor helmets, that their shields were not strengthened with iron or leather but were made merely of wickerwork and thin, painted boards, and that the spears of many of them were not tipped with iron at all but were merely hardened by fire. In fact, the character of German weapons was elucidated many years ago by M. Jahn in his fundamental study; and a brief summary of some of his conclusions will be enough for our purpose.

When the German warrior, whether horseman or foot, went into battle in the first century A.D., his main weapon was a long lance with one end sharpened and hardened by fire, or else fitted with a short narrow iron point, which could be hurled or used for thrusting. Some foot-soldiers also had several spears each which they could throw; but only a handful of them the more well-to-do-could afford to carry a sword in addition. These offensive weapons left them at an inferiority to the Romans. For while the lances and spears might possibly match the Roman pilum (which, of course, was not a thrusting weapon), the German sword was found wanting (quite apart from the fact that the majority of Germanic warriors possessed no sword at all): swords appear to have been used much less frequendy in the early Roman period, even by those who could afford to own them, than had been the case before the Germms came in contact with the Romans. In some measure the sword as such was found to be an unsatisfactory weapon in warfare against the Rornans. When their defensive armour was so scanty, it was advisable to use a long thrusting spear and so to keep one’s distance rather than to use a sword and so be forced to come to grips with the heavily clad Romans.

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