Germans, great ethnic complex of ancient Europe, a basic stock in the composition of the modern peoples of Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Iceland, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, N Italy, the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg, N and central France, Lowland Scotland, and England. From archaeology it is clear that the Germans had little ethnic solidarity; by the 7th cent. b.c. they had begun a division into many peoples. They did not call themselves Germans; the origin of the name is uncertain. Their rise to significance (4th cent. b.c.) in the history of Europe began roughly with the general breakup of Celtic culture in central Europe. Before their expansion, the Germans inhabited N Germany, S Sweden and Denmark, and the shores of the Baltic. From these areas they spread out in great migrations southward, southeastward, and westward.
Although the earliest mention of the Germans is by a Greek navigator who saw them in Norway and Jutland in the 4th cent. b.c., their real appearance in history began with their contact (1st cent. b.c.) with the Romans. The chief historical sources for the culture and distribution of the Germans are Tacitus' Germania and Agricola and the remnants in later ages of early Germanic institutions. Apart from describing their barbarity and warlikeness, Caesar's Commentaries tell little. As the centuries passed the Germans became increasingly troublesome to the Roman Empire. The Vandals in the west and the Ostrogoths in the east were the first to attack the empire seriously. The Ostrogoths were a part of the Gothic people, often called the East Germanic, whose language (Gothic) was the first written Germanic language. The Goths apparently moved SE from the Vistula River to the Balkans, thence W across Europe.
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