Of spectacles [they have] but a singular kind and at every gathering the same: naked youths, for whom it is a sport, hurl themselves a-leaping, amidst swords and threatening spears. Training procures skill; skill, grace. It is not so much for profit or pay, however much the audacity of the sportsmanship, [rather] the reward is the satisfaction of the spectators.
Genus spectaculorum unum atque in omni coetu idem: nudi juvenes, quibus id ludicrum est, inter gladios se atque infestas frameas saltu iaciunt. exercitatio artem paravit, ars decorem, non in quaestum tamen est aut mercedem: quamvis audacis lasciviae pretium est voluptas spectantium.
Tacitus, On the Origin and Disposition of the Germans, XXIV,1-2.
An Exploration of Trade Along the Romano-German Frontier:
Part I: Introduction and Prehistory.
People who are in despair and unhappiness, carrying out hated tasks in a grudging spirit, do not take the trouble to raise magnificent monuments or make imposing dedications; they have not the heart for it. But a large portion of the Latin Corpus–-apart from the epitaphs–-is filled with the inscriptions of merchants who made votive offerings after successful voyages, gave splendid buildings to their native cities, and set up monuments to the emperor, sometimes as private individuals, sometimes as members of a guild or a corporation.”
M. P. Charlesworth, Trade-Routes and Commerce of the Roman Empire. 2nd Ed., Rev., New York: Cooper Square Publishers. 1970. xiv.
Even before her legions began marching northwards into the forests and fens of supposedly untrammeled Europe, Rome’s merchant men had visited beyond the Alps, perhaps as far as Scandinavia and Britannia. These merchants would play a significant role in exploring, contacting, and reporting on the northern barbarian tribes, their nature, and their lands. Well before the idea of conquest had arisen in the minds of Pompey, Caesar, and other ambitious men of the Roman elite, stalwart equites, corporate concerns, and other business interests, were spreading the currency of empire in the form of coin, wine, and other luxuries. Caesar made good use of these intrepid traders’ logistical skills and geographical knowledge during his invasions of Gaul and Britain, as we shall see. Similarly, Tacitus understood how this soft power could be used to undermine traditional tribal cultures.
But difficult questions remain about the merchants themselves, either unanswered or addressed only obscurely in the literary sources. Who are these merchants, thesemercatores: are they Roman or aboriginal, or else a mixture of the two? What is their social status; how do they capitalize on their activities; and how far and by what means do they travel in order to deal in their wares? Moreover, what was the nature of their trade, and what routes did they take?
German and Celtic trade with foreign merchants, that is, with the so-called civilized world of the Mediterranean basin, surely predated the rise of a Roman power in northwestern Europe. As Roman scholar Olwen Brogan has noted, “The conception of an illimitable forest primeval stretching unbroken from the borders of the empire into the furthest recesses of barbarism is very far from the truth.”  The Celts, and to some extent the more northerly Germans, had been modifying their environment, building tracks and roads, cultivating land, fortifying oppida, and trading, both among themselves and with the outside world, for centuries before the Romans appeared upon the Rhine.
One important demonstration of the trade links that existed between the Classical Mediterranean Cultures and the European interior is provided by the Hochdorf grave site, a Hallstatt culture burial from the Early Iron Age, circa 530 BCE, near modern Eberdingen, part of the Black Forest state of Baden-Württemberg in southwestern Germany. The burial hord, likely that of a local chieftain, consists of, among other grave goods, a large iron-trimmed carriage or cart, likely to have been used in the burial ceremony, several drinking horns, and, tellingly, an oversized–500 liter capacity–Grecian cauldron of bronze. 
Hochdorf’s location, far distant from any Grecian ports, indicates that the connection from Western Greece extended deeply into the interior of the country. The size and the difficulty that transportation must have represented, together with the richness of the other grave goods, shows that there must have been significant wealth and/or political power on the Celtic side of the exchange as well.
The sheen of precious metals, the vibrant colors of the cloth, the magnificence of the wagon and the bronze cauldron speak vibrantly to the power and wealth of the chief who had been buried.”
(Price, Europe Before Rome: A Site-by-Site Tour of the Stone, Bronze, and Iron Ages, Oxford: OUP: 2013. 311).
The Hallstatt period was followed by the La Téne culture of the Late Iron Age of Europe, a culture that is also considered Celtic, though it was present in many areas that would later be dominated by tribes speaking Germanic languages. This period is distinguished for its large scale cooperative organizational skills, talents that were brought to bear in the habitual construction of fortified towns known as oppida, which characterize the gradual urbanization experienced during this period. These oppida are, characteristically, large defensive settlements built on hilltops, defended by ditches and timber walls, and containing zones for manufacture of tools, weapons, and pottery. These fortress villages were also used to dominate and control the junctions of trade routes, river fords, and mountain passes.  Such oppida ranged in size from as little as 25 to as much as 1,500 acres. 
While there are few visible remains of such settlements, they were numerous throughout western Europe during the pre-Imperial Roman period. Photographs from San Cibrao de Las, a second century BC oppidum located in modern Spain, may give some indication of their scale.
The introduction of Roman trade goods into these economies has been credited with expanding the pace of iron production among these settlements from as early as the 2nd century BCE.  Trade with the La Téne provided Mediterranean cultures with access to “salt, tin and copper, amber, wool, leather, furs, and gold.” 
The long distance trade network necessary to provide amber as a luxury item to the Classical world was remarked upon even in antiquity. Pliny the elder notes the product’s origin–called ‘glaesum’ by the Germans–as having been located in the islands of the Northern Ocean: “It is conveyed by the Germans mostly into the province of Pannonia. From there it was first brought into prominence by the Veneti, known to the Greeks as the Enetoi, who are close neighbours of the Pannonians and live around the Adriatic.” 
In his On the Origin and Disposition of the Germans, Tacitus notes popular tradition that the Germans had been visited by Hercules in the distant past. Hercules being an inveterate traveler of the ancient world, it would be surprising if he had not visited Germany in myth. Another tradition he relates includes Odysseus as a former visitor. This time, however, Tacitus references a material artifact to bolster the claim, an altar to Laertes, father of the quick-witted sailor. Tacitus also remarks that German lands are said to possess “monuments and funerary barrows with inscriptions in Greek lettering.” 
Tacitus has been much criticised, it often being asserted that he never visited the homelands of the people he wrote about in his Germania, and that his ethnographic work was primarily a cribbed synthesis of a now lost ethnography belonging to the hand of Pliny. The archaeology must give one pause, however, before dismissing the possibility of an ancient Greco-German connection, whatever Tacitus’ failings as an ethnographer. Archaeology shows us that during the Iron Age, before the rise of the Roman Empire, and even back into the mythic period of the Roman Kings and beyond, German lands were in contact with the southern reaches of Western Europe. The Celtic and proto-Germanic cultures that thrived there were not isolated and primitive forest dwellers as it might be believed, but were capable of mobilizing resources and populations in a coordinated manner, constructing massive fortifications, and maintaining long-distance trade networks.
 Olwen Brogan. “Trade between the Roman Empire and the Free Germans,” The Journal of Roman Studies, col. 26. pt. 2. 1936: 195  T. Douglas Price, Europe Before Rome: A Site-by-Site Tour of the Stone, Bronze, and Iron Ages, Oxford: OUP: 2013. 307-311  Price, Europe Before Rome: A Site-by-Site Tour of the Stone, Bronze, and Iron Ages, Oxford: OUP: 2013.  Bruce Bower. “Iron and Industry: Ancient Links.” Science News135, no. 11 (1989): 170-71. 170. http://www.jstor.org/stable/3973238.  ibid.  Price, Europe Before Rome: A Site-by-Site Tour of the Stone, Bronze, and Iron Ages, Oxford: OUP: 2013. 290.  Pliny, Natural History, XXXVII, 42-43.  Tac. Germ. 3
No other race is so profusely kind in feasts and entertainments. To deny a mortal shelter is considered a sin among them, and each, according to his fortune, welcomes guests with the provision of sumptuous dishes.
Convictibus et hospitiis non alia gens effusius indulget. quemcumque mortalium arcere tecto nefas habetur; pro fortuna quisque apparatis epulis excipit.
Tacitus, On the Origin and Disposition of the Germans, XXI,2.
This has just been added to my ‘must read’ list as an examination of the historical reception of Tacitus’ Germania.
When the Roman historian Tacitus wrote the Germania, a none-too-flattering little book about the ancient Germans, he could not have foreseen that centuries later the Nazis would extol it as “a bible” and vow to resurrect Germany on its grounds. But the Germania inspired—and polarized—readers long before the rise of the Third Reich. In this captivating history, Christopher B. Krebs traces the wide-ranging influence of the Germania, revealing how an ancient text rose to take its place among the most dangerous books in the world.
On The Gods and Their Rites as Practiced Among the Germans, part II.
Concerning the rest, they would never think to confine the gods by temple walls, nor to counterfeit into any limited human form the magnitude of the celestials: sacred groves and woods they consecrate, and designate as godly that mystery which they view with solitary reverence.
Ceterum nec cohibere parietibus deos neque in ullam humani oris speciem adsimulare ex magnitudine caelestium arbitrantur: lucos ac nemora consecrant deorumque nominibus appellant secretum illud, quod sola reverentia vident.
Tacitus, On the Origin and Disposition of the Germans, IX,3.
Despite Tacitus’s ethnocentrism and belief in the superiority of Roman culture, he also begrudgingly admires the German subjects of his ethnography as pure and untainted by the corruption of luxury that has, in his mind, weakened the empire. One purpose of his book may have been as a challenge and exhortation to the Roman elite to find a way to return to the rough virtue and stoic strength of the old Republican mores, especially to the new emperor Trajan (r. 98–17) whom he served as a former consul, a senator, and possibly as a proconsular provincial governor.
On The Gods and Their Rites as Practiced Among the Germans, part I
Of the gods, they cherish Mercury the most, to whom on certain days they are accustomed by divine decree to offer sacrifices, human and otherwise. Hercules and Mars they lawfully appease with animals. And part of the Suebi make sacrifices to Isis: by what cause and source this foreign rite I have learned little, except that its own sigil, in style the form of a ship, proves it a religion brought hence from afar.
Deorum maxime Mercurium colunt, cui certis diebus humanis quo que hostiis litare fas habent. Herculem ac Martem concessis animalibus placant. pars Sueborum et Isidi sacrificat: unde cause et origo peregrino sacro parum comperi nisi quod signum ipsum in modum liburnae figuratum docet advectam religionem.
Tacitus, On the Origin and Disposition of the Germans, IX,1-2.
One aspect of ancient ethnographies is that they rarely fail to note occurrences of human sacrifice among their subjects. A second feature, at lest among Roman commentators, was the supposition that all the gods of foreign peoples were actually just different aspects of gods that the Romans already knew. But, from other details in Tacitus’ descriptions, it does not seem that Germanic cultic practice was much at all like that of the Romans. Rather, the Germans seem to have believed in worshiping their gods in the natural environment not in constructed temples or sanctuaries, sanctifying groves and copses of trees for ritual purpose. This aspect of German religion is one of the key points that Tacitus makes in his study, and appears in later sections of this same chapter.
I have been digging into Tacitus since the beginning of the year, but my work has only really just begun to accelerate and maintain a steady pace. I am uncertain if my interest in the ancient Germans is a function of the paucity of information in the literary record concerning them and their lives, or if it persists in spite of that sad state of affairs. I tend to incline to the latter supposition, since the importance of these peoples for the late history of the Roman Empire, and, of course, Europe as a whole, cannot be underestimated. Also, I think, it is the risk and tension between cultures — the German against the Roman — and the rough excitement of frontier culture, that makes the limes, the limit of Roman ‘civilization’, so interesting.