Concerning the Origin and Situation of the Germans (the Germania) by Tacitus (98)

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.

Read Tacitus’s Germania on Project Gutenberg

Map of The Roman Empire in 116 AD and Germania Magna, with some Germanic tribes mentioned by Tacitus (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

The Roman Empire in 116 AD and Germania Magna, with some Germanic tribes mentioned by Tacitus (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

On the life and character of Julius Agricola by Tacitus (98)

Before he composed the weighty historical works for which he is famous, the Roman historian Tacitus (55 -120) wrote three short monographs – a history of oratory, an ethnographic study of the German tribes, and this eulogy of his father-in law, Gnaeus Julius Agricola, one of the earliest governors of Roman Britain.

The text is called De vita et moribus Iulii Agricolae, or On the life and character of Julius Agricola and is a slender 50 pages long in the Penguin edition.

We get the general shape of Agricola’s career but with a frustrating lack of dates (obviously the Romans dated things differently from us, anyway), or places or other people, without all the specifics which make a biography interesting. In fact, as Harold Mattingley says in his introduction, it is more the biography of a career than a person.

What comes across more strongly than Agricola is Tacitus’s deep disillusion at the times he has lived through. Tacitus writing about the reign of Domitian (81-96) sounds like a Soviet writing after the death of Stalin.

The triumvirs were commissioned to burn in the forum those works of splendid genius. They fancied, forsooth, that in that fire the voice of the Roman people, the freedom of the Senate, and the conscience of the human race were perishing, while at the same time they banished the teachers of philosophy, and exiled every noble pursuit, that nothing good might anywhere confront them. Certainly we showed a magnificent example of patience; as a former age had witnessed the extreme of liberty, so we witnessed the extreme of servitude, when the informer robbed us of the interchange of speech and hearing. We should have lost memory as well as voice, had it been as easy to forget as to keep silence. (Chapter 2)

What if during those fifteen years, a large portion of human life, many were cut off by ordinary casualties, and the ablest fell victims to the Emperor’s rage, if a few of us survive, I may almost say, not only others but our own selves, survive, though there have been taken from the midst of life those many years which brought the young in dumb silence to old age, and the old almost to the very verge and end of existence!  (Chapter 3)

In a familiar topos Tacitus compares the uncivilised but brave Britons favourably with the tamed, and thus slack, Gauls.

The Britons exhibit more spirit as being a people whom a long peace has not yet enervated. Indeed we have understood that even the Gauls were once renowned in war; but, after a while, sloth following on ease crept over them, and they lost their courage along with their freedom. This too has happened to the long-conquered tribes of Britain; the rest are still what the Gauls once were. (Chapter 11)

In fact Tacitus is not ambivalent, he is downright hostile to the so-called civilisation which Rome itself represents and brings to its conquered people.

Agricola likewise provided a liberal education for the sons of the chiefs, and showed such a preference for the natural powers of the Britons over the industry of the Gauls that they who lately disdained the tongue of Rome now coveted its eloquence. Hence, too, a liking sprang up for our style of dress, and the toga became fashionable. Step by step they were led to things which dispose to vice, the lounge, the bath, the elegant banquet. All this in their ignorance, they called civilization, when it was but a part of their servitude. (Chapter 21)

Admittedly the following is given as part of the long set-piece speech delivered by the barbarian leader on the eve of Agricola’s great victory at the (possibly fictitious) Battle of Mons Graupius – and it was a sign of a good orator and lawyer that he could argue all sides of an argument – still, the final phrase climaxes a devastating critique of Rome’s greed and rapaciousness which echoes other comments scattered throughout the text, so powerful it has become almost proverbial.

To us who dwell on the uttermost confines of the earth and of freedom, this remote sanctuary of Britain’s glory has up to this time been a defence. Now, however, the furthest limits of Britain are thrown open, and the unknown always passes for the marvellous. But there are no tribes beyond us, nothing indeed but waves and rocks, and the yet more terrible Romans, from whose oppression escape is vainly sought by obedience and submission. Robbers of the world, having by their universal plunder exhausted the land, they rifle the deep. If the enemy be rich, they are rapacious; if he be poor, they lust for dominion; neither the east nor the west has been able to satisfy them. Alone among men they covet with equal eagerness poverty and riches. To robbery, slaughter, plunder, they give the lying name of empire; they make a solitude and call it peace. (Chapter 30)

Auferre trucidare rapere falsis nominibus imperium, atque ubi solitudinem faciunt, pacem appellant.

On the life and character of Julius Agricola, English translation on Wikisource.

Photo of Publius (or Gaius) Cornelius Tacitus (source: Wikimedia Commons)

Publius (or Gaius) Cornelius Tacitus (source: Wikimedia Commons)

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