Tacitus Germania

Tacitus about Order in Germania

Quite often they quote Tacitus 98 AD as evidence about the barbarian Germans. We can read curious details about the tribes and it all gives us the impression that Roman society was the ideal society. It is just magic because it was the other way around if we really think about the texts

Cesar, Tacitus

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My Scandinavian generation were fostered in the 1950:ies to believe in black on white at paper and especially in everything Greeks and Romans have written about everything and about us barbarians north of Rhine. Others from different places in the world have told me that they sometimes feel lured, because the history they were taught was false and often biased.

Tacitus was used as evidence about the Germans, but in all the books I have read they only told small quotes that were like looking through a keyhole to his writing. Julius Cesar biased our conception about the Celts and to lesser degree about the Germans. In his book De Bello Gallico 58 BC = GallianWar he writes about the Belgians:

The river Garonne separates the Gauls from the Aquitani; the Marne and the Seine separate them from the Belgae. Of all these, the Belgae are the bravest, because they are furthest from the civilisation and refinement of [our] Province. Merchants least frequently resort to them, and import those things, which tend to effeminate the mind. They are the nearest to the Germans, who dwell beyond the Rhine, with whom they are continually waging war. For that the Helvetii also surpass the rest of the Gauls in valour, as they contend with the Germans in almost daily battles, when they either repel them from their own territories, or themselves wage war on their frontiers.

Does Julius admire the Barbarians from Belgiae? He uses the word Barbarian 30 times in his little book. Or is he the soldier that wants an equal enemy? Or is he sitting on his high horse telling that Barbarians should stay Barbarian and not get effeminated mind.

It was not in the interest of Cesar to be respectful when he was writing about the non-Roman folks he was going to tame. It is much like the Christians telling about the wild and uncivilised pagans. He was writing a political pamphlet that should affect the Romans, since he needed money as well as a position at top of the society. Around 250 years later all people inside the limes = borders became Roman citizens and the language changed a little. However the people in Germania stayed Barbarian and so it has been to our days.

Tacitus was naturally a child of his time and the high senator has other goals than Cesar. He used the "noble Barbarians" as example for the degenerated Romans.

Text to this point from Tacitus, The Agricola and Germania, A. J. Church and W. J. Brodribb, trans., (London: Macmillan, 1877), pp. 87- 10

Publius Cornelius Tacitus

Publius, or Gaius Cornelius Tacitus (born around AD 56-died around AD 120), was a Roman historian. His major works were on the history of the Roman Empire - the Annals and the Histories

The Annals (ab excessu Divi Augusti) was his final work, covering the period from the death of Augustus Caesar in AD 14. There were at least 16 books, but books 7-10 and parts of 5, 6, 11 and 16 are missing. Book 6 ends with the death of Tiberius and books 7-12 presumably cover the reigns of Caligula and Claudius. The remaining books cover the reign of Nero, perhaps until his death in June 68 or until the end of that year to connect with the Histories. The second half of book 16 is missing and it is not known whether Tacitus completed the work and if there were any further books.

Of the Histories only the first four books and 26 chapters of the fifth book have survived, covering the year 69 and the first part of 70. It is believed to have continued up to the death of Domitian on September 18, 96.

He was also the author of three smaller works: the Agricola, a biography of his father-in-law Gnaeus Julius Agricola, the Germania and the Dialogus.

Tacitus was primarily concerned with the concentration of power into the hands of the Roman Emperors. His writings are filled with tales of corruption and tyranny in the governing class of Rome, and display a particular hatred for the emperor Tiberius. One well known excerpt of his writings is the mention of the death of Christ in the Annals.

Tacitus is one of the earliest and most important of the authors who described early Latvian mythology, though his conclusions are suspect because he did not speak the language and did not stay in Latvia long.

His treatment of the Germanic peoples outside the empire is of mixed value to historians. Tacitus uses what he reports of the German character as a kind of 'noble savage' as a comparison to contemporary Romans and their (in his eyes) 'degeneracy'. Despite this drawback, he does supply us with many names for tribes with which Rome had come into contact. Tacitus' information was not, in general, based on first-hand knowledge, and more recent research has shown that many of his assumptions were incorrect. In fact, contemporary historians debate whether all these tribes were really Germanic in the sense that they spoke a Germanic language - some of them, like the Batavii, may have been Celts.

Tacitus survived a reign of terror and from a senator he advanced to consulship in AD 97 . Fifteen years later he held the highest civilian governorship, that of Western Anatolia. Tacitus was a friend of Pliny the Younger and was greatly admired by him. His wife was the daughter of Julius Agricola, who governed in Britain and was the subject of one of his works.



They choose their kings by birth, their generals for merit. These kings have not unlimited or arbitrary power, and the generals do more by example than by authority. If they are energetic, if they are conspicuous, if they fight in the front, they lead because they are admired.

But to reprimand, to imprison, even to flog, is permitted to the priests alone, and that not as a punishment, or at the general's bidding, but, as it were, by the mandate of the god whom they believe to inspire the warrior. They also carry with them into battle certain figures and images taken from their sacred groves


Deities. Mercury is the deity whom they chiefly worship, and on certain days they deem it right to sacrifice to him even with human victims. Hercules and Mars they appease with more lawful offerings. Some of the Suevi also sacrifice to Isis. Of the occasion and origin of this foreign rite I have discovered nothing, but that the image, which is fashioned like a light galley, indicates an imported worship.

The Germans, however, do not consider it consistent with the grandeur of celestial beings to confine the gods within walls, or to liken them to the form of any human countenance. They consecrate woods and groves, and they apply the names of deities to the abstraction which they see only in spiritual worship.

Auguries and Method of Divination. Augury and divination by lot no people practise more diligently. The use of the lots is simple. A little bough is lopped off a fruit-bearing tree, and cut into small pieces; these are distinguished by certain marks, and thrown carelessly and at random over a white garment.


For they are also familiar with the practice of consulting the notes and flight of birds. It is peculiar to this people to seek omens and monitions from horses. Kept at the public expense, in these same woods and groves, are white horses, pure from the taint of earthly labour; these are yoked to a sacred car, and accompanied by the priest and the king, or chief of the tribe, who note their neighings and snortings. No species of augury is more trusted, not only by the people and by the nobility, but also by the priests, who regard themselves as the ministers of the gods, and the horses as acquainted with their will.


Councils- About minor matters the chiefs deliberate, about the more important the whole tribe. Yet even when the final decision rests with the people, the affair is always thoroughly discussed by the chiefs. They assemble, except in the case of a sudden emergency, on certain fixed days, either at new or at full moon; for this they consider the most auspicious season for the transaction of business.

Instead of reckoning by days as we do, they reckon by nights, and in this manner fix both their ordinary and their legal appointments. Night they regard as bringing on day. Their freedom has this disadvantage, that they do not meet simultaneously or as they are bidden, but two or three days are wasted in the delays of assembling. When the multitude think proper, they sit down armed.

Silence is proclaimed by the priests, who have on these occasions the right of keeping order. Then the king or the chief, according to age, birth, distinction in war, or eloquence, is heard, more because he has influence to persuade than because he has power to command. If his sentiments displease them, they reject them with murmurs; if they are satisfied, they brandish their spears. The most complimentary form of assent is to express approbation with their spears.

Punishments. Administration of Justice. In their councils an accusation may be preferred or a capital crime prosecuted. Penalties are distinguished according to the offence. Traitors and deserters are hanged on trees; the coward, the unwarlike, the man stained with abominable vices, is plunged into the mire of the morass with a hurdle put over him.

This distinction in punishment means that crime, they think, ought, in being punished, to be exposed, while infamy ought to be buried out of sight- Lighter offences, too, have penalties proportioned to them; he who is convicted, is fined in a certain number of horses or of cattle.

Half of the fine is paid to the king or to the state, half to the person whose wrongs are avenged and to his relatives. In these same councils they also elect the chief magistrates, who administer law in the cantons and the towns. Each of these has a hundred associates chosen from the people, who support him with their advice and influence.


Training of Youth They transact no public or private business without being armed. it is not, however, usual for anyone to wear arms till the state has recognized his power to use them. Then in the presence of the council one of the chiefs, or the young man's father, or some kinsman, equips him with a shield and a spear.

These arms are what the "toga" is with us, the first honour with which youth is invested. Up to this time he is regarded as a member of a household, after-wards as a member of the commonwealth. Very noble birth or great services rendered by the father secure for lads the rank of a chief; such lads attach


Slavery. The other slaves are not employed after our manner with distinct domestic duties assigned to them, but each one has the management of a house and home of his own. The master requires from the slave a certain quantity of grain, of cattle, and of clothing, as he would from a tenant, and this is the limit of subjection. All other household functions are discharged by the wife and children.

To strike a slave or to punish him with bonds or with hard labour is a rare occurrence. They often kill them, not in enforcing strict discipline, but on the impulse of passion, as they would an enemy, only it is done with impunity. The freedmen do not rank much above slaves, and are seldom of any weight in the family, never in the state with the exception of those tribes which are ruled by kings. There indeed they rise above the freeborn and the noble; elsewhere the inferiority of the freedman marks the freedom of the state.