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Germany as a region

Although less clearly defined by geography than the other natural territories of western Europe (such as Italy, the Spanish peninsula, France or Britain), the area broadly identified as Germany has clear boundaries on three sides - the Baltic to the north, the Rhine to the west, the Alps or the Danube to the south. Only to the east is there no natural border (a fact which has caused much strife and confusion in European history).

The region becomes associated with the name Germany in the 1st century BC, when the conquest of Gaul makes the Romans aware for the first time that there is an ethnic and linguistic distinction between the Celts (or Gauls) and their aggressive neighbours, the Germans.

Celts, Germans and Romans: 2nd - 1st century BC

The Celts themselves, in earlier centuries, have moved westwards from Germany, crossing the Rhine into France and pushing ahead of them the previous neolithic inhabitants of these regions. More recently the Celts have been subjected to the same westward pressure from various Germanic tribes. The intruders are identified as a group by their closely related languages, defined as the Germanic or Teutonic subdivision of Indo-European language.

From the 2nd century BC the Germans exert increasing pressure on the Roman empire. The reign of Augustus Caesar sees a trial of strength between the empire and the tribes, leading to an uneasy balance of power.

The region in which Augustus makes the most effort to extend the empire is beyond the Alps into Germany. By 14 BC the German tribes are subdued up to the Danube. In the next five years Roman legions push forward to the Elbe. But this further border proves impossible to hold. In AD 9 Arminius, a German chieftain of great military skill, destroys three Roman legions in the Teutoburg Forest.

The Romans pull back (though they return briefly to avenge what seems a shameful defeat). The conclusion, bequeathed by Augustus to his successors, is that the Roman empire has some natural boundaries; to the north these are the Rhine and the Danube.

German and Roman Europe: from the 5th century

The Germanic tribes continue to raid, often deep into the empire. But their base remains north of the Rhine and Danube until the 5th century - when the Visigoths, Ostrogoths, Vandals, Burgundians and Franks move in vast migrations through Italy, France and Spain.

Their presence becomes part of the history of these regions. France and Spain - prosperous and stable parts of the Roman empire - have becomes almost as Romanized as Italy itself. Culturally they are strong enough to absorb their new Germanic masters, as is revealed by the boundary line of Europe's languages. French, Spanish, Portuguese and Italian are known as the Romance languages because they share a Roman, or Latin, origin.

Northern Europe, by contrast, speaks Germanic languages. Scandinavia does so because it is the region from which the German tribes migrate southwards. Britain does so because tribes invading from the 5th century (Angles and Saxons) are able to dominate a culture less fully Romanized than Gaul. And Germany, with the Netherlands, does so because here the tribes are relatively unaffected by Roman influence - secure in a region which Tacitus describes as 'covered either by bristling forests or by foul swamps'.

By the same token the tribes in the German heartland are backward. For the first few centuries of the post-Roman era they are no match for the more sophisticated Franks, who have established themselves in Gaul.

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