Tacitus’ ethnographic work, Germania (98 AD), caused quite a stir among the Renaissance’s numerous intellectuals when it was rediscovered in 15th century Italy. This is because it provided a lengthy history of Europe’s deep divide between what was considered Roman and “non-Roman.” After all, it was once believed that the Germanic peoples—the very “barbarians” who caused the collapse of the Western Roman Empire in 476 AD—were responsible for Europe’s bleak age of ignorance, savagery, and constant warfare.
These longhaired and bearded peoples had only been lightly touched by Greco-Roman culture, and, as a result, they remained mired in their tribal affinities and cold superstitions.
But this once common view has fallen out of favor in recent years, due to a renewed interest not only in the foibles of Rome’s imperial culture, but also in the overlooked accomplishments of the so-called “Dark Ages.” Author of “Why the so-called ‘Dark Ages’ were just as civilized [sic] as the savage Roman Empire,” Dr. Dominic Selwood laments how it is popularly believed that “the ‘glory’ of Rome was ruthlessly snuffed out, trampled under hooves that sought only plunder.”
Worse still, these defilers of culture are often misrepresented as “boorish hordes” who propelled Europe backwards rather than forwards.
It is Dr. Selwood’s assertion, however, that these Germanic raiders were little different from their Roman opponents, as “violence and ruthlessness” were the primary pillars upholding imperial Rome. In order to back-up this grand claim, Dr. Selwood points to Tacitus’s Annals (14-68 AD), which provides a graphic depiction of the Roman army’s utter destruction of the druids on the Welsh island of Anglesey:
Reassured by their general, and inciting each other never to flinch before a band of females and fanatics, they charged behind the standards, cut down all who met them, and enveloped the enemy in his own flames.
Of course there is little doubt among historians—both amateur and professional—that ancient Rome was a warlike power. One does not capture most of the known world through diplomacy alone. And so, it is not shocking that a society that originally built itself upon its martial prowess would see little wrong with the occasional slaughter.
Still, the fact remains that Tacitus, a senator, historian, and lifelong bureaucrat who is most famous for his often pessimistic histories, is the predominate Roman scholar used in the service of dissecting the mythology of Rome.
The reasons for this are many, but chief among them is the well-known fact that Tacitus was repulsed by imperial Rome’s slip into decadence. Like the much later British historian Edward Gibbon, Tacitus bemoaned the decline of the virtues of the Republican era. In particular, he disliked imperial Rome’s acceptance of debauchery, from orgies to rampant infidelity. In the conservative tradition of Cato the Elder, Tacitus believed that Rome was rotting from the inside due to its easy acceptance of the Greek philosophies of Hedonism and Epicureanism.
In Germania, Tacitus juxtaposes the morals of the Germanic peoples with those of Rome.
During the time of Germania’s construction, the Roman Empire stopped at the Rhine, and this served as the boundary between ‘civilization’ and ‘barbarism’. Roman legionaries patrolled this desolate region with stern stomachs, for despite Rome’s technological superiority, the Germanic tribes were widely feared due to their supposed love of battle and their fierce bravery.
Roman soldiers also knew well the story of the Teutoburg Forest—the scene of the decisive ambush that destroyed three Roman legions. The Battle of Teutoburg Forest effectively halted further Roman expeditions into Magna Germania, and as such, Germania is a chronicle of Rome’s most feared and tireless enemy in Europe (the Parthians held that honor in Asia).
Throughout his account, Tacitus, who is mostly concerned with an itemized account of the major and minor tribes of western Germany, constantly refers to the virtues of the Germanic tribes—they are large, strong people who are faithful to their wives and they allow only the best among them to rule. In Chapter 18, Tacitus writes favorably about Germanic marriage laws, all the while quietly criticizing the indecent practices of his own Rome:
Their marriage code, however, is strict, and indeed no part of their manners is more praiseworthy. Almost alone among barbarians they are content with one wife, except a very few among them, and these not from sensuality, but because their noble birth procures for them many offers of alliance.
Tacitus also details how Germanic wives are reminded during their wedding ceremonies that they are bound to share the sufferings of war, alongside their husbands. This spirit of mutual allegiance and courage is especially vaunted by Tacitus.
But the real thrust of Germania is this: it is partially a politically-minded critique of Roman society that uses the Germanic barbarians as a counter-example, while at the same time upholding Roman civilization as the one culture that undertakes war and adventure for more complex reasons than simple rites of passage.
Conversely, although Tacitus is often looked upon as the most cynical of Roman historians, he nevertheless maintains the superiority of the Roman Empire in each one of his histories.
Then in a strange twist, Germania became a favored book among the nascent German nationalists of the nineteenth century.
As Christopher Krebs shows in A Most Dangerous Book: Tacitus’s Germania From the Roman Empire to the Third Reich, German nationalists and their coterie of militarist partisans usedGermania to testify to the moral superiority of the ancient Germanic peoples. These writers, politicians, and agitators saw in Tacitus’ account a clear history of the otherwise little known pre-Christian Germanic peoples, as well as definitive indication that Germanic culture was separate from and relatively untouched by Greco-Roman culture.
This, of course, was used to justify all sorts of goals, from the eradication of democracy (which originally came from Athens) to state-sponsored mythologies that idolized the totems of a pagan past.
By the 1930s, National Socialism attached itself to these popular misconceptions, and again Tacitus was misused in the name of anti-Semitism and needless warfare. In a blunt example of the book’s power, the SS were ordered to an Italian villa in 1943 for the sole purpose of retrieving the oldest copy of Germania ahead of the approaching Allies.
Sadly, some movements still read Germania as an unwavering example of Germanic superiority, from Neo-Nazis to Scandinavian musicians on the fringe of the “black metal” music scene. Clearly, this mistake comes from a misreading of Tacitus, who, despite his reservations, was a thoroughgoing Roman who was deeply proud of the accomplishments of his people.
Furthermore, Germania was not written for Germans but for Roman citizens—the people who earnestly believed that their culture could be adopted across the world (a lesson they learned from Alexander the Great).
In another cruel irony, the people who mistake Germania as a paean to the glories of Northern Europe’s pre-Christian past also overlook the historical fact that the Germanic tribes who caused the downfall of the Western Roman Empire were themselves Christian—a religion they adopted after their prolonged exposure to Greco-Roman culture.
By any stretch of the imagination, the men who sacked Rome were well versed in Roman culture, especially since many of them were veterans of the Roman army. And by the time of the “Dark Ages,” the people most responsible for keeping Greek and Roman learning alive in Europe were the Franks—a Germanic tribe who had once been knocking at Rome’s imperial border.
It appears then that the old lines between civilized and barbarian, Roman and Germanic were more than a little blurred.