Tribal Warfare in Central and Eastern Europe Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

The tribes in central and eastern Europe that fought against the Roman Empire for the most part preserved their independence, and from the fifth century c.e., the combined effect of these tribes was to bring about the destruction of the Roman Empire of the West and also to weaken severely the Roman Empire of the East, making it far more susceptible to attack from the Turks, which led to its own military and then political decline.

Political Considerations

The tribes in central and eastern Europe that fought against the Roman Empire for the most part preserved their independence, and from the fifth century c.e., the combined effect of these tribes was to bring about the destruction of the Roman Empire of the West and also to weaken severely the Roman Empire of the East, making it far more susceptible to attack from the Turks, which led to its own military and then political decline. Prior to their defeat of the Romans, the tribes served to unite the Romans, who feared them greatly. The fact that the tribesmen were victorious against Roman armies in battle spread panic and terror to many Roman households, and this led many Roman generals to try to establish their political reputations through fighting against the German tribes. Although the tribes moved, by the fourth century c.e. the VandalsVandals were between the Viadua and the Vistula rivers, the VisigothsVisigoths were in modern-day Romania, north of the Danube, the OstrogothsOstrogoths were in southern modern-day Ukraine, and the Huns were further east.Central Europe;ancient tribesEastern European tribesEurope;ancient tribesEuropean tribesBarbarians;European tribesRome;barbarian invasionsGermanic tribesGothic tribesHunnic tribesCentral Europe;ancient tribesEastern European tribesEurope;ancient tribesEuropean tribesBarbarians;European tribesRome;barbarian invasionsGermanic tribesGothic tribesHunnic tribes

Military Achievement

The Germanic tribes, as well as the Goths and Huns, transformed warfare during the first five centuries c.e., managing to defeat significant strong and well-equipped Roman armies by using their superior mobility in traveling to and also on the battlefield. This allowed a number of tribes to overwhelm and defeat Roman forces many times, the first major occasion being at the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest, Battle of (9 c.e.)Teutoburg Forest in 9 c.e., when a Germanic force wiped out three Roman legions. This defeat ended any serious attempt by the Romans to annex Germany or to get supportive tribes to form into a pro-Roman German confederation.

The tribes often combined in their military efforts, and gradually, with the decline of the central power in Rome, they conducted incursions into Roman territory. This continued through to theAdrianople, Battle of (378 c.e.)Battle of Adrianople in 378 c.e., when a Gothic army, using similar tactics, managed to destroy the forty-thousand-strong Roman army of the Emperor ValensValens (Roman emperor)Valens in a confrontation some 150 miles northwest of Constantinople. The defeat led to a transformation of Roman military tactics, with the Romans starting to rely much more heavily on cavalry. Even with such changes, however, the Romans were still encountering major problems. In 451 c.e., the Roman emperor AetiusAetius (Roman emperor)Aetius managed to ally with the Visigoths and defeat the Hun army of AttilaAttila (king of the Huns)Attila at the Châlons, Battle of (451 c.e.)[Chalons, Battle of]Catalaunian Plains, Battle of the (451 c.e.)Battle of the Catalaunian Plains, near Châlons, in modern-day France, but although they carried the day on the battlefield, the Romans were unable to drive home their victory, and Attila continued to pose a major threat to his adversaries until his death two years later.

The Germanic tribes formed a large, mobile military force that swept through areas of northern Europe in a way quite unlike that of armies before them. Instead of being solely a force of soldiers, the tribes brought with them their Women;Germanicwomen and Children;Germanic tribeschildren; they formed vast convoys of wagons, chariots, horsemen, and people traveling on foot. By night they would draw their wagons together in a ringed or stockade fashion called a Wagenburg (linked wagons)Wagenburg to provide the necessary defense for all the tribespeople; in battle they established similar formations. The Romans noted that during their battles with some of the Germanic tribes, the tribes’ women and children would bang drums and gongs from within the stockade, both to inspire their own soldiers and to frighten those of the other side.

It was under Caesar, Julius;Gallic WarsJulius Caesar, during his wars in Gallic Wars (58-51 b.c.e.)Gaul in 58-51 b.c.e., that the Romans first came to notice the strong fighting spirit of the German tribes. Caesar, who was much more adaptable than most of his contemporaries, and many of his Roman predecessors, in accommodating his fighting style to the terrain, immediately saw the value of the Mercenaries;German tribesGermans. While the Romans relied heavily on the mass formations of their infantry–the legions attacking slowly and steadily–Caesar noticed the effectiveness of the Germans’ style of attacking a single point in their opponents’ battle line in a lightning charge. This led Caesar to start using Germans in his own army, and they served to good effect against the Gauls.

The Romans continued using large numbers of non-Romans as Auxiliaries;Gothsauxiliaries in their armies, and eventually the Roman cavalry was largely made up of these auxiliaries, recruited often from areas outside the empire itself. As a result, by the third century c.e. large numbers of GothsGoths were serving as cavalry in the Roman forces, and by the late fourth century, many Roman cavalry units were made up entirely of Goths. This incorporation of Goths into the Roman army helped to alleviate the Roman weakness in lack of cavalry in many battles, but because many of the Roman generals were seriously worried about the loyalty of these cavalry units, they occasionally did not use the units to best effect.

It was the Goths’ crushing defeat of Emperor ValensValens (Roman emperor)Valens at the Adrianople, Battle of (378 c.e.)Battle of Adrianople in 378 c.e. that signaled a major change in the nature of the battles fought by the Byzantines. Until then they had, like their predecessors, relied heavily on tight infantry formations, but they saw that they had to change and incorporate large numbers of cavalry, especially heavy cavalry, into their armies. It was not long before the heavy cavalry came to constitute a substantial part of the Byzantine EmpireByzantine forces–the cavalry being formed from their own soldiers, not just those of their allies, as had been the case for centuries before.

Although the Byzantines adapted, the Roman armies of the Western Empire did not do so, and this meant that the western Romans often had to ally with potential enemies, such as King Theodoric ITheodoric I (Visigothic king)[Theodoric 01]Theodoric I of the VisigothsVisigoths, who fought alongside the Châlons, Battle of (451 c.e.)[Chalons, Battle of]Catalaunian Plains, Battle of the (451 c.e.)Roman emperor AetiusAetius (Roman emperor)Aetius in 451 in the Battle of the Catalaunian Plains. This battle against the HunsHuns saw the infantry essentially as spectators, with the fighting being done by large Cavalry;Hunnic warscavalry units, and it was the cavalry charge by Attila that nearly carried the day and did result in the death of Theodoric. However, the Huns were outnumbered and forced to withdraw with heavy losses, giving eventual victory to the Romans and Visigoths. With each of the victors worried about the other gaining too much of a military advantage, the victory was not pressed, and Attila was able to lead the rest of his forces away and continue over the next two years to harry his opponents.

Although the Rome, Sack of (410 c.e.)Romans and the Visigoths formed an alliance, in 410 the Visigoths had managed to invade Italy and sack Rome under King Alaric IAlaric I (Visigothic king)[Alaric 01]Alaric I, and in Rome, Sack of (455 c.e.)455, GensericGenseric (Vandal king)Genseric, king of the VandalsVandals, also managed to sack Rome. Rome had barely recovered when it was sacked again in Rome, Sack of (546 c.e.)546 by TotilaTotila (Ostrogothic king)Totila, king of the OstrogothsOstrogoths; this assault led to a major decline in stature from which the city did not begin to recover until more than one thousand years later with the increase in papal authority.

Weapons, Uniforms, and Armor

Significant advances were made in weaponry during the tribal warfare that took place from the fourth century b.c.e. to the eighth century c.e. Throughout this period, the use of cavalry and also light infantry dramatically transformed the fighting, and as a result the emphasis started to be very much on minimal heavy weapons, strong morale, and weapons that were effective against Roman infantry.

The Shields;Germanic and Gothicshields that the tribes carried in battle tended to be round–in contrast to both the rectangular curved shields of the Romans and the rectangular or nearly rectangular ones used by many of the Gauls. That said, some rectangular shields of the period have been recovered from burial sites and peat bogs in modern-day Germany and Denmark. The major difference between the Germanic shield and the Roman one was that the Germanic shield was specifically designed to be light, and it was used largely for deflecting opponents’ weapons; the Roman shield, or scutum, in contrast, could be used to cover most of the parts of the body. The Germanic shield also had on it a metal protuberance known as a boss, which was used in charging at Roman lines.

Domains of European Tribes, c. 500 c.e.

As the Germanic soldiers had to move quickly, their armor was much more limited than that used by the Romans, often being made from leather rather than metal or consisting of iron plates rather than the breastplates so commonly worn by the Romans. Of the tribes, the Armor;VisigothicVisigothsVisigoths are thought to be the major group that gradually adapted to use heavier armor, and this was often when they were fighting as allies of the Romans. Germanic chiefs did wear some armor, but few of their ordinary soldiers did so–in fact, some went into battle naked to show their strength and prowess. Archaeologists, however, have discovered some mail armor from 200 b.c.e. in a peat bog in modern-day Denmark, and many Helmets;Germanic and Gothichelmets have survived from the Germanic soldiers–these being used, it would seem, as much to designate rank as for protection in battle.

The great advantages of the Germanic and Gothic Infantry;Germanic and Gothicinfantry lay in both where the soldiers could strike on a battlefield and their strength as individual warriors. They trained extensively in the use of the large Swords;Germanic and Gothicsword and Axes;Germanic and Gothicaxes, which were usually swung at their opponents rather than used to thrust or stab, the traditional Roman fighting styles. Most often the swords and battle-axes were used one-handed; little archaeological evidence exists of the use of the larger two-handed sword of medieval Europe. Many of these soldiers would also be armed with several Spears;Germanic and Gothicspears, which they would generally throw before engaging the enemy, a process that gradually led to their using Roman-style javelins with great effect.

A German warrior shown with a Roman general.

(North Wind Picture Archives via AP Images)

TheCavalry;Germanic and Gothiccavalry were also armed with spears or lances, and it was not unknown for soldiers to ride into battle with a number of spears that they threw at the ranks of their opponents prior to charging the enemy lines with their horses. Caesar praised the use of the cavalry by the Germans and went as far as recruiting many of them to complement his forces; these soldiers were armed with lances or javelins and also two-edged slashing swords.

For most of the tribes, the Horses and horse riding;Germanic and Gothichorses themselves were generally unprotected, even though they served very much as part of the attack, the horses being flung against the tight formations of Roman infantry. Like the infantry, as the emphasis was very much on suddenness of attack and the advantage of mobility, the cavalry of the Germanic and Gothic tribes tended not to be heavily armored. In later battles against the Byzantines, however–especially after the Byzantines themselves started deploying heavy cavalry–the Germanic tribes began using horse armor.

Military Organization

The full nature of the military organization of the tribes that formed the Germanic, Gothic, Visigothic, Lombard, and Hun forces is not known with any degree of certainty. This is because the only descriptions of the tribes’ armies that are available come from Romans who saw masses of people attacking their soldiers and were generally unable to discern how the individual units of their opponents worked. Obviously, the sheer numbers of tribal peoples who were able to be mustered at short notice to fight the Romans, and also presumably each other, indicate that there had to have been a sophisticated method of recruitment, training, and deployment. It is also probable that the system of government of the tribes underwent change and development during this long period–as it did in Rome and other places that are well documented.

The King (Germanic concept)surviving evidence suggests that the method used by the German tribes was not dissimilar to that utilized by the Anglo-Saxons in early medieval England, about which much more information is available. The Romans described the overall ruler of a Germanic tribe as a “king,” but that probably reflects their interpretation of a supreme ruler. It is possible that the position of ruler was hereditary in some areas and for some periods of time, but the concept of direct succession of father to son over a long period of time seems unlikely given the evidence to the contrary.

The “king”–the historian Tacitus uses the term rex–was therefore probably a chief who was elected from a meeting of the chiefs, and he ruled, and led his soldiers in battle, during his period in office, which could be for life, although some rulers were overthrown. The power of this chief therefore rested on his prestige, his personality, and his ability to persuade others. Even on a battlefield his orders were not necessarily routinely obeyed, although generally they were, as the soldiers were fighting for a common purpose. Under the supreme chief there were local chiefs and also village chiefs.

For the raising of armies, and also for administration and the collection of taxes, the villages were combined administratively into a grouping called a Hundred (European political region)“hundred.” There would therefore be chiefs of individual villages who would be answerable to the leader in charge of the hundred, who would provide about one hundred soldiers for the keeping of law and order. In times of crisis, or when the tribes were planning to attack, it seems likely that the Germanic hundred would be capable of putting between five thousand and six thousand soldiers into battle. Their chief, with his advisers, would be responsible for leading them on the battlefield.

Doctrine, Strategy, and Tactics

For Cavalry;Germanic and Gothicmany of the early German tribes, the primary tactic was to use shock troops–mainly cavalry, but also fast runners on foot–to attack a particular point in the opponents’ front line. This would, if successful, lead to the formation of a wedge that would split the forces of the opponents–usually the Romans–and cause panic. The Goths and the Huns later developed this tactic further with cavalry attacks, feigned retreats, and the like. The German leaders had to develop their battle plans carefully beforehand, as their armies were not as well disciplined as those of the Romans and could easily be outmaneuvered by clever Roman commanders. This meant that the Charging;Germanic tribescharging of the troops at the start of a battle had to be sufficiently fierce to push the battle in their favor quickly. In longer battles, when the sides were evenly balanced, the victories would tend to go to the Romans–which explains why most of the Germanic tribes chose either to attack when they had a vast numerical advantage or to ambush their opponents.

In those instances when large Germanic or other tribal armies fought the Romans, the tribes drew up careful plans, usually with the aim of enticing the Romans further into their territory and setting up an ambush. The destruction of three Roman legions at the Teutoburg Forest, Battle of (9 c.e.)Battle of the Teutoburg Forest in 9 c.e. is the most famous example of the success of such tactics. Even when extensive planning had taken place, however, speed was a crucial element for the Germanic tribes in battle.

Thus the most important part of the strategy of the Germanic tribes remained the soldiers who would form a wedge into the opponents’ battle lines. The Romans labeled these the Cuneus (wedge tactic)cunei, following from the Latin term cuneus, which, it is believed, came from the term caput porcunum (head of a hog). The term stems from the tribes’ use of a standard in the shape of the head of a hog or boar that would he held aloft to indicate the direction of any attack. Imbued with some religious significance, this would serve as a battle standard, the capture of which was similar to the capture of Roman standards.

Ancient Sources

The ancient sources of information on the Germanic tribes–the Goths, Visigoths, Vandals, Lombards, and Huns–are invariably Roman accounts. These vary tremendously in their coverage and analysis. The earliest significant account is Gallic Wars, The (Caesar) Commentaries (Caesar) Comentarii de bello Gallico (52-51 b.c.e. ; The Gallic Wars, in his Commentaries, 1609), Julius Caesar’s work on the Gallic Wars, in which the great Roman general relates how he succeeded in capturing Gaul. Caesar achieved his success after he managed to win over some Germans to his side with money and other inducements. He is complimentary about the fighting strengths of the Germans, as he not only fought against them but also fought on the same side as them.

De origine et situ Germanorum, also known as Germania (Tacitus) Germania (c. 98; The Description of Germanie, 1598), by the Roman historian Tacitus, CorneliusTacitus, Cornelius Tacitus, also details the Germanic tribes, discussing their traits and their everyday lives. All the information from Tacitus is secondhand, however, as the author himself never went to Germany, and recent historians have cast doubt on some of his ideas about links between tribes. It has been supposed that Tacitus drew information from Pliny the ElderPliny the Elder Pliny the Elder’s Bella germaniae (Pliny) Bella germaniae (c. 47 c.e. ), as well as from other published accounts and tales told by soldiers and merchants.Central Europe;ancient tribesEastern European tribesEurope;ancient tribesEuropean tribesBarbarians;European tribesRome;barbarian invasionsGermanic tribesGothic tribesHunnic tribes

Books and Articles
  • Barrett, John C., Andrew P. Fitzpatrick, and Lesley Macinnes. Barbarians and Romans in North-West Europe, from the Later Republic to Late Antiquity. Oxford, England: British Archaeological Reports, 1989.
  • Davidson, H. R. Ellis. The Sword in Anglo-Saxon England. Rochester, N.Y.: Boydell Press, 1994.
  • Fields, Nic. The Hun. New York: Osprey, 2006.
  • Halsall, Guy. Barbarian Migrations and the Roman West, 376-568. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007.
  • MacDowall, Simon. Germanic Warrior. New York: Osprey, 1996.
  • Randers-Pehrson, Justine Davis. Barbarians and Romans: The Birth Struggle of Europe, A.D. 400-700. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1983.
  • Todd, Malcolm. Everyday Life of the Barbarians: Goths, Franks, and Vandals. London: B. T. Batsford, 1972.
  • Whitby, Michael. Rome at War, 293-696 C.E. New York: Osprey, 2002.
  • Wilcox, Peter. Germanics and Dacians. Vol. 1 in Rome’s Enemies. New York: Osprey, 1994.
Films and Other Media
  • The Fall of the Roman Empire. Feature film. Paramount Pictures, 1964.
  • Gladiator. Feature film. Dreamworks Pictures, 2000.
  • Teutons, Goths, Vandals, and Huns: The Tribes That Made Europe. Documentary series. SBS, 2003.

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