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Tacitus
The Germania ( , literally Concerning the Origin and Situation of the Germans), written by Gaius Cornelius Tacitus around 98, is an ethnographic work on the Germanic tribes outside the Roman Empire.

This work survived only in one single manuscript that was found in Hersfeld Abbeymarker in Germany, at the time part of the Holy Roman Empire, and brought to Italy in 1455 where Enea Silvio Piccolomini, later Pope Pius II, first examined and analyzed it, whereby he sparked interest among German humanists such as Conrad Celtes, Johannes Aventinus, and Ulrich von Hutten. After study and debate the Germania was considered an authentic source on ancient Germany. 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, and to a lesser degree in Scandinavian countries as well.

Purpose and uses

Ethnography had a long and distinguished heritage in classical literature, and the Germania fits squarely within the tradition established by authors from Herodotus to Julius Caesar. Tacitus himself had already written a similar—albeit shorter—essay on the lands and tribes of Britannia in his Agricola (chapters 10–13).The Germania begins with a description of the lands, laws, and customs of the Germanic people (Chapters 1–27); it then segues into descriptions of individual tribes, beginning with those dwelling closest to Roman lands and ending on the uttermost shores of the Baltic, among the amber-gathering Aesti, the primitive and savage Fenni, and the unknown tribes beyond them. The work can appear moralizing at points, perhaps implicitly comparing the values of Germanic tribes and those of his Roman contemporaries, although any direct comparison between Rome and Germania is not explicitly presented in the text. In writing the work, Tacitus might have wanted to stress the dangers that the Germanic tribes posed to the Empire.
Map of the Roman Empire and Germania Magna in the early 2nd century, with the location of some tribes described by Tacitus as Germanic.
Tacitus' descriptions of the Germanic character are at times favorable in contrast to the opinions of the Romans of his day. He holds the strict monogamy and chastity of Germanic marriage customs worthy of the highest praise, in contrast to what he saw as the vice and immorality rampant in Roman society of his day (ch. 18), and he admires their open hospitality, their simplicity, and their bravery in battle. All of these traits were highlighted perhaps because of their similarity to idealized Roman virtues. These favorable portrayals made the work popular in Germany—especially among German nationalists and German Romantics—from the sixteenth century on. One should not, however, think that Tacitus' portrayal of Germanic customs is entirely favorable; he notes a tendency in the Germanic people for what he saw as their habitual drunkenness, laziness, and barbarism, among other traits.

Despite this potential bias, he does supply us with many names for tribes with which Rome had come into contact, although his information was not, in general, based on first-hand knowledge any more than most histories, and more recent research has suggested that some of his assumptions were incorrect. For example, contemporary historians debate whether all these tribes were really Germanic in the sense that they spoke a Germanic language. Some of them, like the Batavians, may have been Celts. Little firm evidence can be found either way. Yet elsewhere in Germania, Tacitus shows no lack of precision in stating that the Nervii are not actually Germanic as they claim to be. (Ch. 28) He also notes in Chapter 43 that a certain tribe called the Gothini in central Germany actually speaks a Gallic tongue, and likewise the Osi speak a Pannonian dialect.

His description of the Scandinavian goddess Nerthus has led to a substantial amount of speculation among researchers of Norse mythology and older Germanic and Indo-European mythology, as it is our only written source of Scandinavian mythology before the Eddas a thousand years later, and because it only poorly resembles the religion described there.

Cultural description

Tacitus says (Ch. 2) that physically, the Germans appeared to be a distinct race, not an admixture of their neighbors. In Chapter 4, he mentions that they have common characteristics of blue eyes, blond or reddish hair and large size.

In Chapter 7, Tacitus describes their government and leadership as somewhat merit-based and egalitarian, with leadership by example rather than authority and that punishments are carried out by the priests. He mentions (Ch. 8) that the opinions of women are given respect. In Chapter 9, Tacitus describes a form of folk assembly rather similar to the public Things recorded in later Germanic sources: in these public deliberations, the final decision rests with the men of the tribe as a whole.

Tacitus further discusses the role of women in Chapters 7 and 8, mentioning that they often accompany the men to battle and offer encouragement. He says that the men are often motivated to fight for the women because of an extreme fear of their being taken captive. Tacitus says (Ch. 18) that the Germans are mainly content with one wife, except for a few political marriages, and specifically and explicitly compares this practice favorably to other barbarian cultures, perhaps since monogamy was a shared value between Roman and Germanic cultures. He also records (Ch. 19) that adultery is very rare, and that an adulterous woman is shunned afterward by the community regardless of her beauty.

The latter chapters of the books describe the various Germanic tribes, their relative locations and some of their characteristics. Many of the tribes named correspond with other (and later) historical records and traditions, while the fate of others is less clear.

Sources of the book

Tacitus himself had never travelled in the Germanic lands; all his information is second-hand at best. Ronald Syme supposed that Tacitus closely copied the lost Bella Germaniae of Pliny the Elder, since the Germania is in some places outdated: in its description of the Danubian tribes, says Syme, "they are loyal clients of the Empire. . . . Which is peculiar. The defection of these peoples in the year 89 during Domitian's war against the Dacians modified the whole frontier policy of the Empire." (p. 128). While Pliny may have been the primary source, scholars have identified others; among them are Caesar's Gallic Wars, Strabo, Diodorus Siculus, Posidonius, Aufidius Bassus, and numerous non-literary sources: interviews with traders and soldiers who had ventured beyond the Rhinemarker and Danube borders.

Notes

  1. The Germanic peoples are intended rather than Germans in the modern sense.

References

  • J.G.C. Anderson (ed.), Germania; (Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1938)
  • T.A. Dorey, 'Agricola' and 'Germania', in Tacitus (London, Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1969) (Studies in Latin Literature series)
  • Alfred Gudeman, The Sources of the Germania of Tacitus, in Transactions and Proceedings of the American Philological Association, Vol. 31. (1900), pp. 93-111
  • Christopher B. Krebs, Negotiatio Germaniae. Tacitus' Germania und Enea Silvio Piccolomini, Giannantonio Campano, Conrad Celtis und Heinrich Bebel (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2005). ISBN 3-525-25257-9.
  • Simon Schama, 1995. Landscape and Memory 2.i "The hunt for Germania"
  • Ronald Syme, Tacitus, vol. 1 (Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1958)


Further reading

  • Rodney Potter Robinson, 1935. The Germania of Tacitus (Middletown, Connecticut; American Philological Association) (textual and manuscript analysis)
  • Kenneth C. Schellhase, 1976. Tacitus in Renaissance Political Thought (Chicago)


See also



External links




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