Simon MacDowall – Germanic Warrior AD 236-568

I was thinking about a revised DBA army list covering Early Visigothic, Early Vandal and Suevi so thought I’d better do a bit of research. So on a rainy sunday I browsed through Simon MacDowall’s book on the Germanic Warrior at the end of the Western Roman Empire. As usual I couldn’t help taking a few notes.

The book is available from Amazon USA, UK, and Canada:

MacDowall, S. (1996). Germanic Warrior AD 236-568 [Warrior 17]. Osprey.

Roman Propaganda

Roman propaganda – both written and sculpture – presented the Germans as poorly equipped. In Roman sculpture Germans are always shown without weapons and armour and being ridden down by victorious Romans.

Equipment is described as very poor:

The Germans wear no breast plates or helmets. Even their shields are not reinforced with iron or leather, but are merely painted boards. Spears of a sort are limited to the front rank. The rest have clubs, burnt at the ends or with short metal points

Germanicus, 16

The lack of military equipment is explained away by lack of iron deposits:

Even iron is not plentiful; this can be inferred from the sort of weapons they have. Only a few of them use swords or large lances.

Tacitus, 6

Trouble is much of this propaganda isn’t true.

German view on equipment

Simon MacDowall Germanic Warrior
Simon MacDowall Germanic Warrior
Germania contained extensive iron deposits. From the 1st century there were sizeable workshops to exploit the mineral resources and surviving artefacts show the technical expertise was of a high standard.

The majority of German warriors the Romans first encountered were part time warriors so were probably only equipped with a spear (or javelin), long knife and shield. Warriors carried a variety of spears and javelins. Many spears had a butt-spike. Long knives (sax) were universal throughout the German world and were secondary weapons. Individuals could supplement these with throwing axes (francisca), swords and heavy javelins (angons). Swords were very expensive and initially rare. Although commonly associated with Franks the francisca was widely used by the western Germanic tribes during the migration period. Although designed for throwing they were also for hand to hand combat. Axes were probably a poor man’s substitute for sword. Angons were likely a prestige weapon and were similar to Roman pilum although they could be used for hand to hand combat. According to Tacitus German shields were painted brightly. Given the existence of workshops the elite warriors probably had access to better equipment.

During the migration period Roman equipment would have been plentiful and there would have been little distinction between Germans and Romans. Many Germans would have been better equipped than their Roman opponents. The Roman equipment often came directly from the factories (fabricae) but also victory spoils. The Visigoths are a good example of this. The Battle of Adrianople (378AD) was the turning point for the Visigoths. They would have accumulated a lot of booty from the defeated Roman army and more equipment from local depots. Then they became federates of the Romans and with Alaric as master of soldiers (magister militum) in the Balkans they controlled the factories in Illyria.

Ammianus Marcellinus, a 4th century Roman officer, presents German-Roman battles as evenly matched for equipment.

The German warriors changed their equipment during the migration period. Throwing axes and javelins and swords all became more common. Shields changed from big shield with a rounded boss to a smaller shield with a prominent spiked boss which were used offensively.

So the German warriors were well equipped but that doesn’t show in the grave goods deposited with deceased warriors. A warrior would have had to have been extremely wealthy to be buried with his armour and weapons. Such equipment was too expensive to bury and would be handed on to a relative or given back to the warrior’s lord to be used elsewhere.

German Infantry Tactics

The Strategikon, a 6th century military manual, has a bit to say on “dealing with the Light-Haired Peoples”:

3. Dealing with the Light-Haired Peoples, Such as the Franks, Lombards, and Others Like them

The light-haired races place great value on freedom. They are bold and undaunted in battle. Daring and impetuous as they are, they consider any timidity and even a short retreat as a disgrace. They calmly despise death as they fight violently in hand to hand combat, either on horseback or on foot. If they are hard pressed in cavalry actions, they dismount at a single prearranged sign and line up on foot. although only a few against many horsemen, they do not shrink from the fight. They are armed with shields, lances, and short swords slung from their shoulders. They prefer fighting on foot and rapid charges.

Whether on foot or on horseback, they draw up for battle, not in any fixed measure and formation, or in regiments or divisions, but according to ribs, their kinship with one another, and common interest. Often, as a result, when things are not going well and their friends have been killed, the will risk their lives fighting to avenge them. In combat they make the front of their battle line even and dense. Either on horseback or on foot they are impetuous and undisciplined in charging, as if they were the only people in the world who are not cowards. They are disobedient to their leaders. They are not interested in anything that is at all complicated and play little attention to external security and their own advantage. They despise good order, especially on horseback.

Strategikon, 3

The German forces would have had tribal cohesion but where not drilled.

Tacitus described the Chatti (later part of the Frankish confederacy) as deliberate and steady:

They seldom engage in swift rushes or in casual fighting – tactics which properly belong to the cavalry, with its quick success and quick retreats. Speed suggests something like fear, whereas deliberate movement rather indicates a steady courage.

Tacitus, 30 or 31

The classic German offensive formation was the “boar’s head” (adopted as cuneus in latin). Although this is often translated as a “wedge” it was actually square.

  • The boar’s head of the Batavians was “closely compressed on all sides and secure in front, flank and rear” (Tacitus, 4.20)
  • the blond peoples “attack in groups that are just as wide as they are deep” (Strategicon)

The commander and other great men would be out the front of the boar’s head, thus giving an impression of a wedge, but the boar’s head probably impacted as a solid mass. The narrow frontage would make the column easier to manoeuvre. [Napoleonic Attack Columns worked in a similar way. They officers were out front to encourage and lead the way but merged into the mass just before contact.] On contact the boar’s head either punched through or flattened out.

On defence the German’s formed a shield wall. A shield wall could be linear, with men in several ranks, or facing all around. Unlike the boar’s head a shield wall would have been very hard to move. Individual groups probably had to move and then reform the shield wall. A stationary shield wall had little to fear from cavalry; Procopius describes a small shield wall of only 50 men repulsing vigorous Gothic cavalry charges.

During the migration period the German warriors changed their equipment. Throwing axes and javelins and swords more common and the shield was smaller with a prominent spiked boss that was used offensively. MacDowell interprets this to mean a change to a looser more fluid style of warfare. [I’m only half convinced. I think it could equally reflect a move to a more Roman style of combat – who also fought in a loose, fluid style compared to hoplites or phalangites.]

Towards the end of the migration period shields got larger again with rounded bosses. MacDowell suggests this may reflect a move to defensive tactics and increased use of the shield wall.

Germanic warriors favoured brightly dyed clothing. Goths and Franks are often mentioned wearing green with scarlet trim.

German Cavalry Tactics

German cavalry tactics probably influenced the Romans. Roman cavalry was to:

Lean forward, cover their heads with their shields, hold their lances high as their shoulders in the manner of the fair haired races, and protected by their shield they ride in good order, not too fast but at a trot, to avoid having the impetus of their charge breaking up their ranks before coming to blows with the enemy, which is a real risk.


German cavalry probably wasn’t as controlled as the Strategikon recommended. For example, Procopius describes the Gothic cavalry at the Battle of Taginae being uncontrolled:

leaving their infantry far behind them, charged out wildly with blind trust in the weight of their lances, and when they encountered the enemy, they raped the fruits of their thoughtless charge.

MacDowall believes there was not much distinction between the German cavalry and infantry. There are two bits of supporting evidence:

  • German cavalry often dismounted to fight on foot
  • German tribes often mixed cavalry and infantry together

  • German cavalry dismounted if hard pressed, on the defensive, and sometimes even when attacking. The Strategikon mentions that “if they are hard pressed in cavalry actions, they dismount at a single prearranged sign and line up on foot”. The Alamannic nobles dismounted at the Battle of Strasbourg (357 AD) and fought on foot (Ammianus). Similarly Narses put dismounted Lombards, Heruls and other barbarians in the centre of his infantry line at Taginae (552 AD) (Procopius). At the Battle of Mount Vesuvius (553 AD) the Gothic cavalry dismounted, sent away their horses, and formed a “deep phalanx” [presumably a boar’s head] to attack the Romans; in this case the Romans followed suit.

    Tacitus noted the German practice of mixing infantry with cavalry.

    Generally speaking, their strength lies in infantry rather than cavalry. So foot soldiers accompany the cavalry into action, their speed of foot being such that they can easily keep up with the charging horsemen. The best men are chosen from the whole body of young warriors and placed with the cavalry in front of the main battle line.

    The practice of mixing cavalry and infantry extended into the migration period. Ammianus Marcellinus stated the Alamannic cavalry at Strasbourg (357 AD) were

    interspersed with light-armed foot, whose use was dictated by considerations of safety. They knew that for all his skill a mounted warrior meeting with one of our cataphracts, and using one hand to hold his reins and shield and the other to brandish a spear, could inflict no harm on an opponent dressed in mail, whereas in the heat of the fight, when a man is occupied solely with the danger that stares him in the face, someone on foot, creeping along unnoticed close to the ground, can stab the horse in the flank, bring his rider headlong to the gorun, and finish him off without difficulty.

    [I’m not convinced by MacDowall’s assertion that there not much distinction between the German cavalry and infantry. Punic Wars Romans and Carthaginians also dismounted their cavalry if “hard pressed”. I think it is just a reflection of warfare at the time. Other nations, e.g. Iberian (Ancient Spanish), also attached foot to the cavalry. Even the Roman’s did it at least once. And in the gunpowder period armies often attached “commanded shot” to cavalry forces. In all cases this was a deliberate attempt to bolster the cavalry forces, particularly if they were weak compared to the enemy horse, not because the boundary was blurred.]

    German Wagon Laager

    Like many peoples who emerged from the east the Germans on migration used wagons to transport their families and goods. In the east the Germans sometimes formed up behind their wagon laager. The most famous example is at Adrianople (378AD)

    Disclaimer: Some of the links contained within this page have my referral ID (e.g., Amazon), which provides me with a small commission for each sale. Thank you for your support

    Leave a Reply