Before the Empire, After the Fall

Agricultural Practices of the Cugerni/Sugambri Tribes of Pre-Roman and Roman Europe

August 5, 2005

Today's Germany and its nearest countries still bear the rugged beauty of old, Pre-Roman Europe. Despite the abundance of skyscrapers and sculpted modern buildings, pine forests and thick groves still dot the landscape; winters are deathly cold and summers are oppressively warm; and the rivers Danube and Rhine, witnesses to battles and the rise and fall of empires, slither sparklingly through a mix of the ancient and the new.


Such was the world that first greeted the Romans as they entered what was then Germania. Prior to colonization, Northern Europe was facing territorial change. The Germanic tribes, largely nomadic, were growing, and were pushing against the forests of North Central Europe. These herder hunters needed land to accommodate their expanding population, and were thus faced with three choices: conquer new lands, adopt agriculture, or clear out forests for their herds.


Conquering new lands was near impossible: the Roman Empire was growing in the west and south, cold winds kept the tribes from the north, and the Eastern Germanic tribes, newly displaced from Scandinavia, were continuing their herding economy. There was no choice but to adopt agriculture – and the Western Germanic tribes did so, remaining in place, and choosing not to mix with other tribes.


One of these Western tribes was the Sugambri, which lived between the rivers Ruhr and Sieg before the Romans came. In 11 BC, an attack by Caesar's army forced them to move to the left side of the Rhine, in what is now the region of Gelderland in the Netherlands. They soon became known as the Cugerni, a tribe living in farms set in a military town home to 10,000 legionaries and numerous auxiliaries for almost eighty years.


The Colonia Traiana, where the Cugerni lived, was a typical legionary town. Cugerni served as farmers and peasants, and produced food for the soldiers. A market sold food items, fodder, and drink, and provided ironworking and leatherworking services. Soon, Colonia Traiana became a major crossroads for all the tribes in the area.


Agriculture was important to the town, as it provided food for traveling soldiers, and for Rome itself. The Cugerni cultivated barley and wheat, and practiced cattle ranching. They had already been well acquainted with the latter activity; in fact, prior to Roman occupation, the Cugerni's ancestors engaged in so little commerce that cattle, rather than money, sufficed as a measure of value.


The Cugerni produced enough goods for use in their own households, to send to market or sell to surrounding people, and to feed the Roman Army. Together with Colonia Agrippinensis (present day Cologne) and Treveris (present day Trier), Colonia Traiana was an important colony for the Romans in this cold, windy part of the Empire.


Germania, in general, was Rome's – and its army's – major source of wheat. The grain was produced on the fertile loessial soils of the Walloon provinces of what is now called Belgium. To transport it, the Romans built a straight road that ran through three other major tribe colonies – Bavay, Tongeren, and Cologne – which eventually became the economic artery of the region. This was the only road on which the Roman legions depended for food.


The legionaries who settled in Germania took most of their Mediterranean tastes with them. They imported figs, olives and olive oil, garum (fish sauce), dates, and spices, especially since local fare (including one called Dutch wild cinnamon) did not quite agree with their palates. Some things did agree, however, including cherries (whose seeds the Romans brought to Germania, where they could be planted) and grapes (again, whose vines were brought from the Mediterranean world). Romans also introduced the walnut tree, and, thanks to its roving, eternally hungry, but innovative army, beets, apricots, almonds, chickpeas, medlars, pears, and plums took root in Germania. Romans introduced new spices as well, including dill, coriander, mint, celery, fennel, and rue.


With the economy booming, agriculture still remained important, although improved farming methods allowed most of the population to pursue other careers in their spare time. Some members of the tribe specialized in crafting tools; others devoted their lives to religion. The Empire was growing, and so were its colonies; Europe was also getting crowded, and the Roman Army was losing much of its former military discipline.


Caesar heaped the title "Germanic" upon most of the tribes he and his army encountered in Germania. However, the Sugambri were Celtic in origin, residing amongst tribes of other lineages, and soon, opening their doors and becoming part of a true Germanic tribe. The Cugerni formed a confederation of tribes, along with other surrounding ethnic groups, in the third century, and adopted a common name derived from either "free" or "spear." The confederation became known as the Franks.


In the 5th century, the Frankish kingdoms were united under Merovich, whose grandson Clovis led the tribes to victories in southern France and large parts of Germany. The new nations were soon joined under the leadership of the Merovingian kings (named after Clovis' grandfather), who claimed their descent from the Sicambri, and who conquered most of western and central Europe. Under the Merovingians, agriculture grew more advanced, even greater than the Romans', as the three-field system was introduced.

The reign of the Merovingians lasted until the 8th century, when Charlemagne founded the Carolingian dynasty. In the midst of change, the Cugerni were lost, once an elite tribe from whom royalty purportedly descended, an erstwhile formidable enemy even the Romans feared.


In the meantime, there were castles to be made, feudal lords to be attended to, and new farms and lands to manage. Europe had entered the dark ages, and there was a whole new tale ready to begin anew.


For more on the Sugambri and Cugerni, visit

Germany Today

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