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The Germans of Tacitus' Germania

The Germans of Tacitus' Germania

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An essay for the 2011 Undergraduate Awards Competition by Nuala Kenny. Originally submitted for GC307: Strange Creatures- Anthropology in Antiquity at National University of Ireland Maynooth, with lecturer Gordon Campbell in the category of Ancient & Classical Studies
An essay for the 2011 Undergraduate Awards Competition by Nuala Kenny. Originally submitted for GC307: Strange Creatures- Anthropology in Antiquity at National University of Ireland Maynooth, with lecturer Gordon Campbell in the category of Ancient & Classical Studies

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Published by: Undergraduate Awards on Aug 29, 2012
Copyright:Attribution Non-commercial


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“is a study of the character, customs and geography of apeople” (Mattingly 25). In it he describes the main characteristics of the
going on to discuss the different tribes and their differences. It is aclassic piece of ethnography which illustrates description through negation, andalthough many of the traits he attributes to them may be true this does notmean that he was writing from real evidence. It served as an inversion of theRoman way of life which demonstrated the benefits and disadvantages of civilisation. In this essay I will examine Tacitus’ text, investigating his sources,standard tropes used in describing the ‘noble savage’, and a tribe whichillustrates the worst of the
.Perhaps one of the first things which we inquire of an ancient piece of literatureis its sources and this can be an arduous task because of our lack of evidence. Tacitus gives a lot of detail in his description of the German tribes and we mightattribute this to first hand knowledge. However, as Alfred Gudeman points out“such a journey of exploration on the part of a Roman would have been next toimpossible even in regions to which Roman legions had at one time or anotherpenetrated” (94). So we can posit that all of his information was secured atsecond hand. This may have come from existing literature, or people who hadvisited the area as merchants, on campaign, or taken as prisoners of war. Julius Caesar and Pomponius Mela are possible written sources which Tacitusused. Caesar was certainly admired by Tacitus as we can see from his assertionthat the Gallic Wars were “recorded by that greatest of authorities, Julius Caesar”(
28) and there are several similarities in their accounts. The
Gallic War 
was one of the first accounts in which “Germans [...] appear as noble savages”(Lovejoy and Boas 362) and in Book 6
Caesar describes the Germans as a semi-nomadic people valuing sexual purity, with no agriculture, land boundaries or
fixed laws, which as we will see are also used by Tacitus. They were a toughpeople who didn’t live in a Golden Age like comfort but were accustomed tohardship. This is a ‘hard’ primitivist position and one which contrasts to the ‘soft’primitivist view of the Gauls, who had been Romanised. After being conquered,the Gauls were too familiar to be attributed with these primitivistic ideals, sothey were moved to the next people along, the Germans.However it could be asked if Caesar was a reliable source because althoughsome of his information must have come from his own experience, hisknowledge was gained “under most unfavourable conditions, for the mostcharacteristic customs, usages, ceremonies and modes of Germanic life could beobserved only in times of 
” (Gudeman 97; emphasis in original) .PomponiusMela could also be a possible source for Tacitus, as Gudeman notes, becauseboth “speak about the huge frames of the Germans and their long-extendedchildhood [...] the
as an article of dress, that the Germans are given torobbery, and finally that they observe the rights of hospitality” (99). The first thing which Tacitus tells us in his
is that “the various peoplesof Germany are separated from the Gauls by the Rhine” (
1) as it wasstereotypical for the Romans to think of a natural boundary as a politicalboundary because the Rubicon was the natural boundary of Italy. This motif canalso be seen in the writings about other noble savages: the Hyperboreansbeyond the imaginary Rhipean mountains; the Ethiopians beyond a desert; theArcadians within the mountains of Greece. The Rhine was not such a neatcultural border in reality, as archaeological evidence proves, but it fits into Tacitus’ preconceived notions about what the Germans should be. Tacitus observes that German tribes were not only hemmed in by the Rhine butalso the North Sea, which “defies intruders [and] is seldom visited by ships from
our part of the world” (
2). The North Sea was thought of as the edges of theearth and Tacitus refers to it as a “wild and unknown sea” (
2). In reality, theBaltic Sea is quite calm, especially in relation to the Atlantic which the Romanswould have had prior knowledge. This attempt to make the Germans seem unreachable was to emphasise theirpurity and separateness. Tacitus notes that because of their isolation they “havenever contaminated themselves by intermarriage with foreigners but remain of pure blood” (
4) and this was advantageous because the mixing of differentpeoples was often thought of in Rome as leading to degeneracy. Although theymay have lacked previous contact with the Romans it is difficult to believe thatthe German tribes had not mixed with others, especially on the edges of theregion, such as with the Gauls or Pannonians. In fact Tacitus’ physical descriptionof the Germans is a typical account of the Gauls. In spite of this assertion Tacitusdoes not necessarily see the Germans as superior, for directly after this heclaims that “they are less able to endure toil or fatiguing tasks and cannot bearthirst or heat” (
4). Lacking endurance and the ability to control ones urgeswas a standard view of the noble savage which contrasted with the Romans ownview of themselves as stable and self-controlled.Due to their position on the edges of the known world and their status as a ‘pure’people the Germans conform to the stereotypical view of the noble savage,mostly untouched by civilisation, and as Tacitus continues with his account wecan see that there are many other things which also correspond to thisviewpoint. Owing to their lack of fortitude they “are not so easily prevailed uponto plough the land and wait patiently for harvest” (
14). This lack of agriculture, also noted by Caesar, was a standard trope of primitive peoples firstused by Hesiod in his account of the Golden Age.

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