Cornelius Tacitus lived from around 54 to 120 AD. He’s famous for his full-length histories of the early Roman Empire – the Annals and the Histories. Before these, in 98, he wrote two short monographs, a eulogy to his father-in-law Agricola, and a study of the Germanic peoples beyond the border of the Roman Empire – De Origine et situ Germanorum or Concerning the Origin and Situation of the Germanics.
It is the usual mish-mash of hearsay, twaddle and detailed, real information – it is the task of scholars to disentangle the two. Tacitus most improbably claims the Germanic tribes worship the Roman gods:
Of the gods, Mercury is the principal object of their adoration; whom, on certain days, they think it lawful to propitiate even with human victims. To Hercules and Mars they offer the animals usually allotted for sacrifice. Some of the Suevi also perform sacred rites to Isis.
He confidently makes sweeping statements: All the Germans do this; without exception they do that: which scholars have to validate or invalidate from the handful of other sources:
In every house the children grow up, thinly and meanly clad, to that bulk of body and limb which we behold with wonder. Every mother suckles her own children, and does not deliver them into the hands of servants and nurses. No indulgence distinguishes the young master from the slave. They lie together amidst the same cattle, upon the same ground, till age separates, and valor marks out, the free-born.
Is any of that true? Could be. Tacitus talks confidently about the Germans’ myths and legends:
In their ancient songs, which are their only records or annals, they celebrate the god Tuisto, sprung from the earth, and his son Mannus, as the fathers and founders of their race.
No other source mentions a Tuisto. It is interesting to follow up the reference to Tuisto and see what shapes scholars have twisted themselves into trying to assimilate Tacitus to what we do know: could Tuisto be etymologically linked to the Ymir of Snorri? Or, as a recent scholar points out, could the whole sentence derive from Tacitus’s “simple ignorance of the facts”?
By far the most interesting thing about the Germania is the impact it’s had on history and on the Germans themselves:
In medieval Germany (the Holy Roman Empire), a self-designation of ‘Germanii’ was virtually never used. The name was only revived in 1471, inspired by the rediscovered text of Germania, to invoke the warlike qualities of the ancient Germans in a crusade against the Turks. Ever since its discovery, treatment of the text regarding the culture of the early Germanic peoples in ancient Germany remains strong especially in German history, philology, and ethnology studies… Beginning in 16th-century German humanism, German interest in Germanic antiquity remained acute throughout the period of Romanticism and nationalism. A scientific angle was introduced with the development of Germanic philology by Jacob Grimm in the 19th century…
The Nazis incorporated many of Tacitus’s claims about the Germanic tribes into their farrago of Nordic nonsense. In particular the fateful section about the ‘purity’ of the Germanic tribes:
I concur in opinion with those who deem the Germans never to have intermarried with other nations; but to be a race, pure, unmixed, and stamped with a distinct character. Hence a family likeness pervades the whole, though their numbers are so great: eyes stern and blue; ruddy hair; large bodies, powerful in sudden exertions, but impatient of toil and labor, least of all capable of sustaining thirst and heat. Cold and hunger they are accustomed by their climate and soil to endure.
Because of its influence on the ideologies of Pan-Germanism and Nordicism, Jewish-Italian historian Arnaldo Momigliano in 1956 described Germania as ‘among the most dangerous books ever written’. Christopher Krebs, a professor at Stanford University, argues in his A Most Dangerous Book, that Germania played a major role in the formation of the core concepts of Nazi ideology.