Saxons, a name first used by the geographer Ptolemy to indicate a branch of the Germanic race, now dominant in the northwestern lowlands of Germany, especially in the region of the middle and lower Elbe, between the Hartz and the northern slopes of the Thu-ringian Forest, and between the Weser and the Rhine. The Saxons mentioned by Ptolemy were a small tribe, who in his time (2d century A. D.) dwelt between the Eider, Trave, and Elbe, and upon several of the adjacent islands. The word Saxon is supposed by some to have been derived from Sakaisuna, sons of the Sa-kai, or Scythians, and by others from sahs, a flint knife or short sword. Eutropius, the next after Ptolemy who mentions them, says that the Saxons, united with the Franks, had become formidable against the Roman frontier. The exploits of the Saxons were chiefly at sea. A special Roman fleet was appointed to act against them, and the southern coast of Britain was placed under an officer styled comes littoris Saxoniċi. Carausius, a Belgian, who usurped the purple in A. D. 287, gave them ships, sent officers to teach them the science of navigation, and encouraged their depredations upon every coast which had not acknowledged his authority.
Magnentius, who had seized Italy and Gaul, and assassinated the emperor Constans, likewise formed an alliance with them in 350; other tribes joined their standard; and at length they gave their name to a powerful league rivalling that of the Franks, and embracing all the tribes between the Skager Rack and the limits of modern France, extending inland to the Saale, and beyond to the western frontier of Bohemia. In the middle of the 5th century Saxon tribes took possession of the coast land of modern Normandy as Roman allies and mercenaries, and others settled on the banks of the mouth of the Loire; but both hordes soon disappeared in the subsequent Frankish empire. In the 5th and 6th centuries they established themselves in Britain (see Anglo-Saxons) and on the continent, fought with the Thuringians, attacked the upper Rhine, and extended the scene of their spoils far inland. Charlemagne at last, after one of the most obstinate and destructive wars recorded in history (772-804), destroyed their aggressive power, and forced them to accept Christianity. (See Charles I. of Germany, vol. iv., p. 290.) Among the principal Saxon tribes were then reckoned the Westphalians, Eastphalians, Ditmarsians, and Holsatians. In the middle of the 9th century arose the duchy of Saxony, to which Thuringia was soon after annexed.
Henry the Fowler, duke of Saxony, became king of Germany (919), and his son Otho I. gave the duchy to Hermann Billung, whose house ruled it for a century and a half. Mainly under it were founded the margraviates of Meissen, East Saxony, and others, in territories wrested from the Slavs and Danes. After the death of the last emperor of the house of Henry the Fowler, Henry II. (1024), the Saxon dukes often struggled against the emperors of the houses of Franconia and Swabia. Lothaire, of the Supplinburg family, becoming emperor in 1125, gave Saxony to Henry the Haughty of Bavaria, under whose son Henry the Lion the duchy was broken up. (See Henry the Lion.) - Only a very small number of monuments of the Old Saxon language, properly so called, are extant. The most important and largest is the Hêliand (the Saviour), of the 9th century, which gives in alliterated verses the gospel narrative of the life of Christ. Two manuscripts of it are in existence, one in Munich and the other in the British museum.
It appears to be but a portion of an extensive work giving a versified paraphrase of the Old and New Testaments, made at the request of Louis le Débonnaire. The first edition of it, by Schmeller, appeared in 1830-40. (See Germanic Races and Languages, and Anglo-Saxons, Language and Literature of the).