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Tacitus and the Fall of the Roman Empire

Author(s): Herbert W. Benario

Source: Historia: Zeitschrift für Alte Geschichte, Bd. 17, H. 1 (Jan., 1968), pp. 37-50
Published by: Franz Steiner Verlag
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Accessed: 31-10-2016 18:04 UTC

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One of the thorniest thickets in Tacitean studies involves interpretation

of Germania 33. It is a problem that, as such, seems to have existed for only a
bit more than half a century, but the intensity of discussion more than makes
up for the short life of the debate. Many great scholars have crossed swords,
not infrequently producing more heat than light. A review of some of the
major contributions will prepare the ground for my own attempt at an under-
standing of Tacitus' words. Let me say, at the very beginning, that I do not
believe that the historian is pessimistically forecasting the demise of Rome.
The text of this chapter follows:'

Iuxta Tencteros Bructeri olim occurrebant: nunc Chamavos et Angrivarios

immigrasse narratur, pulsis Bructeris ac penitus excisis vicinarum consensu
nationum, seu superbiae odio seu praedae dulcedine seu favore quodam erga
nos deorum; nam ne spectaculo quidem proelii invidere. super sexaginta
milia non armis telisque Romanis, sed quod magnificentius est, oblectationi
oculisque ceciderunt. maneat, quaeso, duretque gentibus, si non amor nostri,
at certe odium sui, quando urgentibus imperii fatis nihil iam praestare
fortuna maius potest quam hostium discordiam.

Everything hinges, it is clear to see, upon the words urgentibus imperiifatis.

The entire concept of Tacitus' historical sense as being basically pessimistic
rests largely upon this foundation. How widely variant interpretation has
been we shall now see.
R. Reitzenstein, in 1914, fired the first salvo, within the framework of an
extensive study of the opera minora.2 The time of composition of the Germania,
he wrote, was propitious; for, after a long interval and lack of concern for its
main purpose, the empire at last seemed renewed and had a general at its
head for the first time since Caesar. Imperialism thus had a renaissance, and
Tacitus was its greatest supporter.3 Roman virtus and the fatum imperii
Romani are irresistible,4 and this fatum will overwhelm the Germans, for it

1 The text used is that of E. Koestermann's Teubner edition (Leipzig I962).

2 "Bemerkungen zu den kleinen Schriften des Tacitus," NGG, Phil.-Hist. KI. (I9I4)
173-276. His pertinent remarks for the present context begin on 252.
3 Ibid. 255: "Gerade weil das Kaisertum nach langem Verfall und schmahlichem Ver-
slumen seiner Hauptaufgabe nun endlich erneuert schien und zum ersten Mal seit dem
Diktator Caesar ein General an die Spitze des Staates trat, muBte jene Art des Imperialis-
mus neu aufleben. Tacitus ist ihr gr6Bter Vertreter; sein ursprunglich monarchistisches
Gefuhl wurzelt offenbar in ihr." ' Ibid. 256.

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drives the Romans on. Precisely at this moment the hatred of Germans for
each other is particularly valuable.5
In a review of a small portion of Reitzenstein's lengthy contribution,
G. Andresen refuted hiis interpretation and returned to the other sense of the
words urgentibus iam (sic) imperii fatis, that lhereby Tacitus displays his fear
that the fabric of the state can not resist the pressure of a people like the
Germans.6 Andresen's great authority failed, lhowever, to convince Reitzen-
stein, who restated his position in a lecture delivered in I926.7 Then, to the
minds of many, the "last" word was said by R. Heinze, in a I928 lecture which
was published posthumously.8 Heinze too rejected Reitzenstein's optimistic
interpretation and insisted that Tacitus fears the time when the barbarians,
uniting their forces, will attack the empire.9 The hour is not necessarily at hand,
but it will come, and the important phrase must be translated "by decree of
the fates, the empire is in difficult straits."10
Heinze's conclusion found many echoes in the decades after its publication.
Meanwhile, in the course of a lengthy article, E. Wolff pointed out that
5 Ibid. 259: "iiber die Germanen will das fatum hereinbrechen; aber es ist ein fatum, das
eigentlich nicht ihnen, sondern dem imperium Romanum gegeben ist und die Romer vor-
warts treibt; gerade jetzt, wo es hereinbricht, ist die Zwietracht unter ihnen fur diese
besonders wertvoll."
6 WKPh 32 (19I5) 747-58; 755-8 deal with Germ. 33. Note particularly 757: "Ich
bleibe demnach bei der alten Auffassung der Worte urgentibus iam imperii fatis: das un-
geheure Wachstum erzeugt nachgerade die Gefahr, daB die Geschicke uber das Reich
hereinbrechen, einen Zweifel, ob das immensiwn imperii corpus einem starken, kriegerischen,
freien und sittenreinen Volke gegenuber aufrecht stehen und im Gleichgewicht gehalten
werden k6nne, ob nicht die corn pages, die octingentorum annorum fortuna disciplinaque
coaluit, sich einmal lockern konne."
7"Tacitus und sein Werk," Neue Wege zur Antike 4 (1926) 1-32, particularly I5:
"Wenn Tacitus hier zufilgt: maneat ... discordiam -, so kann ich hier nicht ein wunderbares
Vorausahnen des UJntergangs Roms durch die Germanen erkennen. Sachlich durch nichts
damals gerechtfertigt, krankend fur den Kaiser, im vollen Widerspruch zu dem Zusam-
menhang ware das. Wenn Livius urgentibus fatis von dem Unheil gebraucht, hindert uns
das nicht, anzunehmen, daB Tacitus das Wort umbiegt: die groBe Stunde sieht er fur das
Reich, jetzt soll sich hier Roms Schicksal, die Welt zu erobern, weiter erfiiullen. Er schildert
den Gegner dabei, wie im Agricola, durchaus mit Sympathie und benutzt das zu strafenden
Seitenblicken auf das Rom seiner Zeit, aber er wiU ihn nicht idealisieren und er verlangt
seinen Untergang. Das ist Romerempfinden."
8 "Urgentibus imperii fatis," Vom Geist des Romertums, ed. E. Burck (I938, i9602)
9 Ibid. 273: "Dem Tacitus graut vor der Stunde, wo die Barbaren etwa einmal einig
ihre vereinten Krafte zum Angriff auf das Reich werfen konnten. Er fiirchtet solchen
Angriff keineswegs von den Germanen allein: nicht Gernzanis, sondern, was man nicht
genugend zu beachten pflegt, gentibus maneat odium sui: den fremden Volkern. Aber weit-
aus am gefahrlichsten dunken ihm allerdings die Germanen."
10 Ibid. 270: "das Reich ist, durch Schicksalsfugung, in schwerer Bedrangnis." The
English translation is by W. Schmid, "Urgentibus Imperii Fatis (Tac. Germ. 33)," Didas-
caliae (Studies Albareda) (New York ig6i) 384. The article covers pages 381-r92.

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Tacitus and the Fall of the Roman Empire 39

Tacitus' viewpoint in writing the Germania was political, and he was not
merely content to paint a picture of the fall of the Roman world at the hands
of the Germans.11 A modest objection was raised by R. Syme: "In the com-
ments which this edifying spectacle has moved him to record, it is perhaps
permissible to read, not so much solicitude for the future destiny of the Empire
and hope that the enemies of Rome may ever be divided thus, as irony and
indignation that so ignoble a policy should in the present be recommended."12
So too, without arguing the point, E. M. Sanford did not believe in Tacitus'
gloom; she underscored the fact that belief in the immortality of Rome had a
long tradition by his time.13 E. Howald synthesized Heinze's view; in an essay
on "Tacitus," he pointed out with what hate and dread the Germania was
written, and commented that Tacitus rejoices over the Germans' internecine
strife that spares Rome its threatened destruction.'4
In I944, J. M. C. Toynbee published a brief note that undertook to
counterbalance what had become the prevailing view.-' The brevity of her
contribution conceals abundance of insight. But her neutral title seems to have
"t E. Wolff, "Das geschichtliche Verstehen in Tacitus Germania," Hermes 69 (I934)
12i-66; on 155 he writes: "Der germanischen Welt steht die r6mische Welt gegenuber,
reicher, gebildeter, gegliederter, durch disciplina und ratio fahiger, aber mit deutlichen
Anzeichen der Entartung. Die Idee, unter der Tacitus das germanische Volkstum sieht,
ist also eine politische .... Er begnugt sich nicht damit, den Gedanken, zu dem ihn das
Nachdenken iiber den langen und erfolgreichen Widerstand der Germanen gefuhrt haben
mochte, einfach auszusprechen und mit billigen Hinweisen auf die kriegerische Geistesart,
die Volksmenge, den GeburtenuberschuB des Gegners einen 'Untergang der r6mischen
Welt durch das Germanentum' an die Wand zu malen."
12 CAH Ii (I936) I85.
13 "Contrasting Views of the Roman Empire," AJP 58 (I937) 437-56, particularly 44
and 454. On the former, we read: "He could only hope that, since it was impossible that
they should love Rome, they might continue to hate each other, so that the Romans might
profit by the discord of their enemies as long as her imperial fate forced Rome on." On
the latter, "Belief in the stability, universality, and eternity of Rome was well established
by the time of Lucretius and Cicero and continued to be frequently stated throughout the
early Empire, subject, as we have seen, to the limitations imposed by the moral interpre-
tation of past history and by philosophical considerations."
4 Vom Geist antiker Geschichtsschreibung (Munich 1944) igg: "DaB etwas allerdings
unverAnderlich ist, namlich der r6mische Patriotismus, ja sogar romischer Imperialismus,
wird niemand verwundern, ... Auch nimmt er es einem Kaiser ubel, daB er sich nicht
fur die Ausdehnung des Reiches interessiert (proferendi imperii incuriosus) (Ann. IV, 34),
denn zu einem guten Fursten gehdrt das Feldherrntalent (Agr. 39). Aus dem Geist der
romischen Weltherrschaft, d. h. mit Hall und Furcht sind die Kapitel der Germanen- und
der Partherkriege geschrieben; im gleichen Geist auch die Germania; darum triumphiert
er daruber, daB die gefAhrlichsten Feinde Roms, die Germanen, sich selber zerfleischen und
daB damit das Schicksal Rom drohendes Verderben fernhhAlt."
15 "Two Notes on Tacitus," CR 58 (I944) 39-43. The second is "'urgentibus imperii
fatis', Germania 33." This article is not listed even in the extensive bibliography of

R. Syme's Tacitus (Oxford I958). The quotations which follow are from pages 41, 42
43 respectively.

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been responsible for the fact that ev

by all subsequent students of the pr
of her article in any later work. She
The occasion for this note was the publication, a few years before, of
J. G. C. Anderson's edition of the Germania (Oxford I938). In his exegesis of
this passage, he translates (i63) "while the destinies of the empire drive it on,"
and comments "In itself the phrase might be neutral: the goal towards which
the empire is being driven might be either world-rule or destruction (or at
least calamity). But the context leaves no room for doubt that the fata are,
as usual, acerba: 'it has come to this, that Fortune can vouchsafe no greater
boon than discord among our foes'. Tacitus, always conscious of the
uncertainty of human things, is expressing anxiety lest the immense
fabric of the Empire may not always be able to withstand the assaults of its
Miss Toynbee will have none of this, and her remarks merit quotation in
extenso. "The object of this note is to question the finality of this (sc. An-
derson's) verdict and to plead once again for 'world-rule' as the correct in-
terpretation of fata in the passage before us.... Rome must return to her
mores antiqui, to her one-time virtus, if she is to cope successfully with Ger-
many. But thefata which lie behind the need for such coping are not necessarily
calamity or disaster. Fata in the sense of destiny for world-dominion equally
suits the context. Such fata demand virtus: and, should this interpretation
prove to be the right one after all, we should have here an instance of the
familiar Tacitean stasis or dilemma. Rome is destined to world-conquest, yet
she has, for the time at least, forgotten those qualities which make world-
conquest possible." She urges that the Latin permits translation "as 'since the
destiny of Empire is urging us on', rather than as 'since fate is pressing hard
upon the Empire', or 'driving the Empire to disaster'." And she devotes full
attention to the intellectual and political climate of the year 98, the year of
composition, the year that marked the accession of Trajan to the purple; she
avoids basing her interpretation only upon linguistic considerations. "Finally,
is it really probable that Tacitus, who in 98 twice hailed the advent of the
capable, warlike Trajan to the principate as inaugurating a beatissimum
saeculum (Agr. 3 and 44), who, as Andresen himself admits, voices in no other
passage any belief that Rome has now been pushed on to the defensive or
is in danger of collapse, should be here 'expressing anxiety ...' (see above,
Anderson). The imperial destiny is to go forward; but, as Tacitus suggests to
his fellow-countrymen, with biting sarcasm, they will find it far from easy, and
must largely depend on German disunity, unless they pull themselves together
and revive their ancient mores, now more clearly exhibited in Germany than
in Rome."

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Tacitus and the Fall of the Roman Empire 4I

The thought last quoted is, to my mind, of crucial importance. Miss Toynbee
attempts, as Reitzenstein had done, to fit Tacitus' remark into the context of
his period, a period in which one will more readily find confidence than despair.
A confrontation of author and political climate appears essential for any
realistic evaluation of the historian's words; unfortunately, her fate has been
that of a prophet crying in the wilderness.
E. Paratore, in his huge Tacito,'6 again championed the side of pessimism
and gloom. The end of chapter 33 is the key to the whole work and shows
above all Tacitus' anxious preoccupation for the destiny of Rome ;17 the
empire's very existence is threatened by the Germans. "La tremenda # pur
tanto sfiduciata e desolata preghiera"'I8 is the first hint of the funereal mood
that Tacitus' work offers."'
H. Drexler pointed out that the only goal of Roman politics is the magni-
tudo, the maiestas populi Romani,20 and, since the Germans pose such a serious
threat to the greatness - nay, existence - of the empire, Tacitus writes of
them not only with trepidation but with hatred.1' In chapter 37, however, in
which Tacitus reviews the 2IO years of conflict between the two peoples, there
is no longer any hatred, only respect; the comparison between Parthian and
German - quippe regno Arsacis acrior est Germanorum libertas - is a value
The leading exponent among present day scholars of the view that Tacitus'
pessimism is expressed in this chapter of the Germania is unquestionably

1" Milan 1951; a second edition appeared in Rome in I962, expanded by several ap-
pendices and with different pagination, but with no change in the text. Paratore considers
the present problem, in the light of the intervening literature, on pages xx-xxiv.
17 Ibid. 333; 2392: "la chiave di tutta l'opera, per farci intendere ch'essa b tutt'altro
che un indifferente trattatello etnico-geografico, che la sua prima radice b in una ansiosa
preoccupazione per i destini di Roma, sI che anche le lodi e i biasimi sono compartiti ai
Germani solo in rapporto con cib ch'essi hanno rispettivamente in comune coi Romani d'un
tempo e coi Romani d'oggi, e allo scopo di scuotere questi ultimi, perchb aborrano i loro
vizi presenti, riconoscendone il laido aspetto sulla faccia d'altri uomini, e riacquistino il
senso delle loro antiche virth che, praticate dai barbari, stanno facendo di costoro un
mortale pericolo." 18 Ibid. 333; 2402.
19 Ibid. 334; 2412: "k il primo vero rintocco funebre che l'o
squillare." 20 "Die Germania des Tacitus," Gymnasium 59 (1952) 69.
21 Ibid. 6o: "Sie sehen, bange Sorge vor dem nahenden Verhangius des Untergangs
und vor der Gefahr, die er von jenseits des Rheins fur das Reich heraufziehen sieht. Nicht
wahr, dies ist schon ein Motiv fur das Interesse, das Tacitus den Germanen entgegenbringt.
Mit Schaudern aber werden Sie wohl den brutalen HaB wahrnehmen, der aus jener Sorge
entspringt. Es ist ein typisch romischer HaB3, der HaB eines imperialen Volkes, dem mit
naiver Selbstverstandlichkeit die eigene Daseinsbehauptung als der Guter hochstes gilt."
22 Ibid. 6i: "Hier nun ist nicht mehr von HaB3 die Rede, sondern zwar von banger
Sorge, gleichzeitig aber von hochster Achtung und Bewunderung fur dieses Volk. Und in
dem Satz - quippe usw. -, dem wichtigsten Satz des ganzen Kapitels, spricht sich zum
ersten Mal ein Werturteil aus, das jene Achtung und Bewunderung begriindet."

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V. P6schl. "It is evidently a favorite idea of P6schl, which is closely related

to his view of the Roman conception of history."23 This conception is based
upon three elements: the fact that moral causes are responsible for political
greatness and political decline, the astonishing pessimism about Rome's fate,
and the feelings of responsibility and guilt which grip those Romans who
concern themselves with the history of their people.24 The last point is of
particular import in the present context, for lie argues that practically this
entire latter group shares the impression that the fall of Rome has at least
potentially drawn near.25 This concept of Roman historiography is diametri-
cally opposed to that which argues the general belief in Rome's immortality.26
To P6schl, the only possible interpretation of the prayer here is the
gloomiest that can be imagined. Tacitus, in the whole monograph, has
delineated the Germans as an extraordinary danger to the empire, and here he
reveals his concern about its threatening collapse. Only in this way can the
full meaning of the Germania and of Tacitus' entire historical output be
The passage of some twenty years caused Sir Ronald Syme to darken the
view that he had expressed in CAH.28 In his monumental Tacitus,2' he writes
(46-7): "The language of Tacitus is ferocious and exultant, heavily charged
with moralizing. No less fervent is what follows. He utters a solemn prayer.
May the nations persist, since they cannot love the Romans, in hating one
another: as fate bears remorselessly on Rome, fortune can offer no greater
boon now than the disunion of Rome's enemies.

23 Schmid, op. cit., 384.

24 V. Poschl, "Die romische Auffassung der CGeschichte," Gymnasium 63 (I956) 193:
"die Tatsache, daB hier politische Gr6Be und politischer Verfall auf moralische Ursachen
zurtickgefuhrt werden, der erstaunliche Pessimismus uber das Schicksal Roms, der aus
diesen AuBerungen spricht, und das Verantwortungs- und Schuldgefuhl, das die Romer
erfullt, die sich mit der Geschichte ihres Volkes befassen."
25 Ibid. 202: "So groB ist dieser Pessimismus, da3 fast alle Romer, die sich mit dem
Schicksal Roms befa3t haben, unter dem Eindruck stehen, daB der Untergang Roms zu-
mindest als M6glichkeit nahegeruckt ist."
26 Contra, for example, Sanford, op. cit.
27 Op. Cit., 203 f.: " Die moralische Kraft der germanischen Volker ... muBte gerade ...
als eine ungeheure Gefahr fur das R6merreich empfunden werden, und lag es da nicht sehr
nahe, daB auch die Sorge um den drohenden Untergang zur Sprache kam, die doch latent
dieser ganzen Geschichtsauffassung zugrundeliegt? Ich glaube, man begreift die Germania
des Tacitus und uberhaupt sein Geschichtswerk erst ganz, wenn man das urgentibus
imperii fatis in seiner vollen Schwere und Tiefe faBt." He discusses this passage more fully
in "Tacitus und der Untergang des r6mischen Reiches," WS 69 (I956) 310-20. Cf. parti-
cularly 3I2: "'Urgent imperii fata' kann nichts anderes heiBen als 'das Schicksal (oder
das Verhlngnis) des Reiches dringt drohend an."' and 313: "Denn daB der Untergang,
eher fruher als splter, unvermeidlich ist, das ist in den Worten und namentlich im Begriff
der fata allerdings enthalten,..."
28 See above, page 39. 2 Oxford I958.

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Tacitus and the Fall of the Roman Empire 43

"The passage is not a little enigmatic, and has been much debated in its
interpretation. The present condition of Rome and of the Empire, it should
seem, gave no cause for fear and foreboding, with Trajan emperor. Yet the
reference is clearly to the present. Moreover, the phrase 'urgentibus imperii
fatis' is most ominous. It evokes the age-old menace to Rome from the northern
peoples, with a clear echo of the tone and language in wlhich the classic
historian of the Republic prepared hiis readers for the capture of Rome by the
Gallic invaders....
"It was not for the consular Cornelius Tacitus to play the mentor to a
military emperor. None the less, there may be angry brooding beneath the
exultant thanks rendered to fortune for the extinction of a German tribe,
and fierce resentment that Roman arms should never be employed for a war
of conquest and revenge."
A vigorous response to, and denial of, Poschl's double presentation of his
view was offered by K. Biichner, who introduces a new aspect of inter-
pretation.30 He grants that the extreme emotion expressed in the prayer must
be concemed with the highest stakes, the fortune of the empire. And, in this
context, Fortune can offer nothing more significant than the lack of unity of its
enemies.31 But this is understood to refer not to the question of existence, but
to that of historical greatness. Yet, if this greatness is absent, it does not mean
that decline is at hand.32
W. Schmid supports yet contradicts Btichner in opposition to Poschl.'*
Schmid returns to the view favored by Reitzenstein, with whom, as it seems,
this entire controversy began. Reitzenstein had seen a parallel between a
passage in Lucan dealing with Alexander's sweep through Asia and Tacitus'
30 "Tacitus und der Untergang des r6mischen Reiches," Studien zur romnischen Literatur,
4: Tacitus und Ausklang (Wiesbaden I964) 61-7 (= -OEQPIA. Festschrift W.-H. Schuch-
hardt, Baden-Baden I960, 43-8).
31 Ibid. 64: "Ist doch auch die unmenschlich harte Haltung, die sich uber die Vernich-
tung eines Volkes so freut, nur ertrlglich, wenn das eigene Hochste, das Schicksal des
Reiches, im Spiele ist ... Die Fortuna, heif3t es, kann nichts GrWferes mehr gewThren als
die Zwietracht der Feinde. Das ist keine Aussage uber Existenz, sondern uber historische
GroBe." In his Die historischen Versuche (Stuttgart 19632), he translates urgentibus imperii
fatis as "bei dem Bedrlngenden der schicksalhaften Verfassung des Reiches," but appears
to waver a bit in his introduction regarding the interpretation of the chapter (135): "Man
erschrickt deshalb so uber diesen Ausbruch, weil man ihn nach dem von Liebe und Be-
wunderung erfuliten ersten Teil so wenig erwartet. Es liegt ein Zwiespalt in dem Werk.
Einmal werden die Germanen mit Liebe dargestellt, zum andern ihre Vernichtung ge-
wiinscht. Dieselbe Bitterkeit, die aus der Sorge um Reich und Zukunft entspringt, die
nicht sieht, was man dieseni gesunden Volke entgegenstellen konnte, bricht zum Schlu13
der anderen Reihe durch bei der Erwahnung der Cimbern und ihres jahrhundertealten
Ruhmes (Kap. 37)."
32 Ibid.: "Fehlen der GroBe bedeutet noch keinen unmittelbar bevorstehenden U
gang, ja nicht einmal Untergang Uiberhaupt: . . ." 33 Op. cit.

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Macetum fines latebrasque suorum

deseruit victasque patris despexit Athenas
perque Asiae populos fatis urgentibus actus
humana cum strage ruit gladiumque per omnis
exegit gentes; (X 28-32)
But he had interpreted the fata as those of Asia; Schmid interprets them as
Alexander's. "Thus Tacitus, in his picture of Rome's hoped for military
conquests of the new era, could well make use of Lucan's portrayal of the con-
queror pressing irresistably forward....
"Against the background of imperial hopes, it is only natural that Tacitus
should mention the singular advantage accruing from the discordia hostium.
With the best will one cannot detect in Tacitus's words anything of fatigue and
resignation, or of the unreserved general statement that Rome was in a
critical phase of her development, that Rome's continued existence depended
on something outside herself, or that the cives Romani were nothing more
than 'beneficiaries of world events' (Biichner). Even less can one detect
anything of those omens of doom which Poschl finds there.""'
In rather a different context, U. Knoche pointed to Tacitus' belief in the
everlasting quality of the Roman state. His despair, stemming from his ex-
periences under Domitian, was counterbalanced by his expectations from Trajan.
Thus there is a tension between the past on the one hand and the present and
future on the other.35 Knoche does not consider the Germania in his essay,
but the prevalent mood which he underscores is important for our discussion.
The reaction to the long-prevailing view of pessimism continued in a
section of W. Steidle's "Tacitusprobleme."TM He approaches the interpretation
of chapter 33 through the back door, so to speak, of the historical resume in
chapter 37, and points out that in the latter there is no trace of the belief that
Rome's existence is threatened.37 Not only is the empire not passively weak

3' Ibid. 390- .

5 "Zur Beurteilung des Kaisers Tiberius durch Tacitus," Gymnasium 70 (1963) 226:
"Auch die Zeit Domitians war dazu angetan, ihm das romische Kaisertum, den Dominat,
zu verleiden; und doch lJf3t Tacitus keinen Zweifel daran, daB3 Rom fur ihn schlechthin
das caput rerum ist (I, 47, I) und bleibt, daB er an die Roma Aeterna trotz allem fest ge-
glaubt hat, auch an die ewige Kraft des Rdmersinnes. Ja, er lIOt es sogar den Kaiser
Tiberius selber 3, 6, 3 zum Ausdruck bringen: principes mortales, rem publicam aeternam
esse. Er hat also an der Kraft der Roma Resurgens nicht gezweifelt, uberzeugt vornehmlich
gewiB durch Trajan, und von dieser Spannung her zwischen strenger Verdammung und
lebendiger Zuversicht sollte man den Historiker Tacitus weiter interpretieren."
36 MH 22 (I965) 81-iI4; the pages of importance here are 88-95.
37 Ibid. 9I: "Dieses Ergebnis der Betrachtung von c. 37 steht in einem deutlichen Ge-
gensatz zu moderner Interpretation, die fast durchweg aus der Germania die Erkenntnis
einer von den Germanen angehenden existentiellen Bedrohung des Reiches herauslesen
will. Streng genommen lL3t sich nicht einmal der Gedanke einer absoluten Unbesiegbar-
keit der Germanen erschlieB3en." See also go.

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Tacitus and the Fall of the Roman Empire 45

vis-a-vis its enemies, but, as Agricola thought concerning the conquest of

Ireland, it is capable of imperial expansion.38 Indeed, the annihilation of the
Bructeri is not so much a help for the Romans as the source of great satis-
faction."9 Nor must one think that Rome's enemies will only hate her; there is,
in the prayer of chapter 33, si non amor nostri, also the possibility of affection
toward her.40
A counter-reaction, returning once more to the position expounded by
Poschl, is offered by R. Haussler.4U In a very long footnote, he outlines a few
of the important discussions of the problem, furnishing one important modi-
fication of Poschl's view, which the latter had transmitted to him per litteras,
namely that he does not presuppose a threatened decline of the empire in
Trajan's time.42 There is no doubt in Haussler's mind but that the empire has
seen better days and has passed its peak; the words nihil iam maius can imply
nothing else.48 Once upon a time, Rome did not need special favors of the
gods such as the annihilation of the Bructeri; now they have become rank
necessity." When Tacitus contemplated the times, the government, and the
armies, he was unable to foresee any great achievements.45
-" Ibid. 95: "Ausschlaggebend ist allein die zum Ausdruck kommende und offenbar von
Tacitus geteilte Vberzeugung, daB eine weitere Expansion ohne weiteres m6glich sei, mit
anderen Worten, daB das Imperium nicht nur uber passive Widerstandskraft gegenuber
seinen Feinden verfuge, sondern auch zu spontaner, ausgreifender Aktivitat fahig sci."
39 Ibid. 94: "Die Vernichtung der Bructerer bedeutet somit fur die Romer nicht so sehr
eine Hilfe als vielmehr einen Gipfel imperialer Genugtuung."
40 Ibid. 95: "(berdies rechnet der nicht weniger schroff formulierte Wunsch maneat
duvetque gentibus, si non amor nostri, at certe odium sui durchaus auch mit der Moglichkeit
der Liebe zu Rom." 41 Tacitus und das histarische Bewuptsein (Heidelberg I965).
42 Ibid. 264-6, n. 6o: "Wie mir Prof. Poschl brieflich (2. VII. 59) freundlicherweise
mitteilte, hat er weder an der zitierten Stelle noch in der Historieneinleitung S. XXXVII
('vom Gefuhl des nahenden Untergangs durchdrungen') einen unmittelbar, zu Zeiten
Trajans bevorstehenden Untergang im Geiste des Tacitus supponiert; er stimmte meiner
Formulierung zu, Tacitus habe eine bereits uber ihren Scheitelpunkt gediehene, nicht mehr
umkehrbare Entwicklung konstatiert."
43 Ibid. 266: "Inhaltlich: 'nihil iam maius' bedeutet Unumkehrbarkeit einer Entwick-
lung, die bereits ihren Hohepunkt uberschritten hat."
" Ibid. 279: "Es hatte einmal eine Zeit gegeben, da nahmen die Romer auf die discordia
intestina der Vejenter Rucksicht (IV, 58, 2): tantum atuit ut ex incommodo alieno sua
occasio peteretur. Wie lange war das her! Gewi3 kam es auch in diesen Zeiten vor, daB die
fortuna populi Romani zwei Heere traditioneller Feinde Roms sich gegenseitig vernichten
lieI (II, 40, 13). Aber damals war das ein Glucksfall, auf den man nicht weiter angewiesen
war. Seitdem war Vberlistung und innere Spaltung der Gegner zur baren Notwendigkeit
" Ibid. 280: "Die Meinung des Tacitus zum historischen Standort seiner Gegenwart
ist also kurz und bundig diese: Man sehe sich die Zeit und ihr Regierungssystem an; man
sehe sich die Menschen an, die heutzutage Rom bevolkern, und diejenigen, die es verteidigen
sollen: Kann man von hier aus noch grofes Ausgreifen, noch eine grol3e Zukunft erwarten ?
"Der Blick des Historikers reicht weiter als uber den Horizont seiner unmittelbaren
Gegenwart; die trajanischen Tageserfolge (von denen ubrigens im Jahre 98 noch nicht

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And thus we have come to the present day. The foregoinig survey, altlhougl
far from complete, gives an idea of the arguments offered on both sides. At
least in numbers, the proponents of a mood of "gloom and doom" are in the
ascendancy, and Tacitus is made to forecast a bitter future for the empire at a
moment of great general exultation. Grant though one will - and must, to
my mind - that Tacitus' mood darkens as his historical writings progress,46
one must be on his guard against reading attitudes implicit in the Historiae
and Annales into the opera minora. The only other work in the Tacitean
corpus that should be examined closely witlh the Germania is, I think, the
contemporaneous Agricola. The two complement each other very well in their
expression of Roman foreign policy.
No one will, I suspect, seriously disagree with the thiesis tllat the prevailing
tenor of Roman historiography is somber. The subject matter of the historians
is, in the last analysis, heavily imbued with moralistic values, and there is a
general tendency to lament the present and yearn for the happier and more
wholesome ages of the past. But precisely because the Roman historians tend
to look inward and often to decry what they see - or think that they see, there
is a danger in considering Rome's relations with other peoples on the same
terms. In the dire days of the revolution at the end of the republic, Roman
arms had great triumphs when guided by able commanders. Moral rot within
does not automatically lead to military disaster.
Tacitus' exuberant salutation of the new age emplhasizes the new climate
of freedom and the longed-for compatibility of principatus ac libertas.47 But it
also embraces the belief that outstanding problems of empire will be met and
overcome. During Domitian's reign, the cruces of foreign policy lhad centered
upon the Rhine and Danube; Trajan, with a wisdom founded in experience,
determined that the greater threat to Rome's empire existed on the latter
front, and he acted accordingly: with what good judgment the coming years
were to show. As Paribeni pointed out, peace in Germany was for long un-
disturbed, the garrison was reduced by approximately a tlhird, and, until the
time of Alexander Severus, there arose no need of a military expedition against
the formerly ill-secured Rhine boundary.48 Trajan's early military career lhad

allzuviel zu sehen ist) andern an seinen grundsatzlichen Einsichten nicht das Geringste."
Heinze, Op. Cit., 271, had expressed himself similarly: "Das Reich, an dessen Grenze
uiberall Feinde stelien, hat die Kraft verloren, diese Feinde zu entwaffnen, zu unterwerfen
und dadurch seinen Bestand zu sichern."
" Cf., for one aspect of this, my "Tacitus and the Principate," CJ 6o (I964-5) 97-106.
47 Agr. 3, I: Nunc demuin redit animus; et quamquam primi statim beatissimi saeculi ortu
Nerva Caesar Yes olim dissociabiles miscuerit, pyincipatumi ac libertatent, augeatque cotidie
felicitatem temporum Nerva Traianus, ... Cf. M. Hammond, "Res oliit dissociabiles:
Principatus ac Libertas - Liberty Under the Early Roman Empire," HSCP 67 (i963) 93-I 13.
48 R. Paribeni, Optimus Princeps I (Messina 1926) io8: "La pace non fu per lungo
tempo turbata, ... Non solo, ma Traiano pote diminuire notevolemente le forze di pre-
sidio nella Germania, sottraendo ben due delle sei legioni che vi trovo di stanza e non

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Tacitus and the Fall of the Roman Empire 47

made a great impression upon many members of the ruling class,

surmise, upon the Roman people in general. Pliny, for all his extr
doubt expressed the public mind when he reviewed the emperor's accom-
Tacitus' belief in the restoration of liberty, I thiink, was sincere and
heartfelt. As once liberty had been the ally of, and been protected by, the
consulate, so now it was the companion of the principate.W5 No matter if his
views changed in the course of the next two decades; the darkness of the
Annales could not have been produced by the same spirit that wrote the
introduction of the Agricola and the comparable sentiment late in that work.51
Nor is his later disillusionment about the prospects of libertas under the
principate to be taken as any indication that Rome's future in its relationships
with other peoples was endangered. As there can be great men under bad
emperors,52 so capable armies can be maintained in a state where individual
freedom has gradually been exterminated.53
Interpretation of the prayer at the end of Germania 33 generally underscores
the odium sui as a sign of Rome's weakness and Tacitus' despair. If the Romans
were faced by a unified German nation, they would not be able to resist the
onslaught - or so it is said. But the experience of Agricola's army in Britain
rather argues the contrary. The disunity of the Britons eased the path of Roman
conquest, but it was not essential. Tacitus specifically emphasizes this point.
In I2, 2, lhe writes: nec aliud adversus validissimas gentes pro nobis utilius
qtuam quod in commune non consulunt. rarus duabus tribusve civitatibus ad
propulsandum communte periculum conventus: ita singuli pugnant, universi
vincuntur. And the Caledonians, after their initial defeat, which they ascribed
to their bad luck and Agricola's generalship, not to their inferiority in warfare,"
finally took the significant step of unifying their enterprise (29, 3): nam
Britanni nihilfracti pugnae prioris eventu et ultionem aut servitium exspectantes
tandemque docti commune periculutm concordia propulsanduim, legationibuts et

poche truppe ausiliarie, e cio non di mueno, fino a Severo Alessandro e a Massimino, cio,
per oltre un secolo, non vi fu piii necessita di una spedizione militare di qualche entitU
ai confini gia cosi inalsicuri del Reno."
40 Pliny Pan. 12-I5, and cf. Syme, Tacitus, chaps. 4 "The New Emperor" and 5 "Capax
Imperii." 50 Cf. my paper cited above, 98.
5% 44, 4: nam sicut ei (non licuit) durare in hanc beatissimi saeculi luc
Traianumn videre, quod augurio votisque apud nostras aures oininabatur, .
is another indication of the respect and expectation that Trajan's earlier
spired, in this instance in a senior consular and extraordinarily successful
52 Agr. 42, 4: posse etianm sub malis principibus magnos viros esse.
53 On the whole question of libertas, see Ch. Wirszubski, Libertas as
Rome during the late Republic and early Principate (Cambridge 1950)
"Libertas bei Tacitus," Hermes 84 (I956) 331-52.
54 27, 2: at Britanni non virtute se victos, sed occasione et arte ducis rati, nihil ex adro-
gantia remittere, . . .

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foederibus omnium civitatium vires exciverant. Th

is emphasized by Calgacus at the very beginning of his fiery exhortation
(30, i): Quotiens causas belli et necessitatem nostram intueor, magnus mihi
animus est hodiernum diem consensumque vestrum initium libertatis toti Bri-
tanniae fore; nam et universi coistis et servitutis expertes et nullae ultra terrae ac
ne mare quidem securum imminente nobis classe Romana. He continues, a little
farther on (32, i): nostris illi dissensionibus ac discordiis clari vitia hostium in
gloriam exercitus sui vertunt.
Here at last is a unified army in the path of the Romans. But their unity
was insufficient to match the qualities of a superior army, and the outcome
was disastrous. The debacle and slaughter were halted only by the merciful
appearance of darkness - finis sequendi nox et satietas fuit (37, 6).
Surely one may conclude that the same fate would have awaited the
Germans, even if they were to unify their efforts. Their disunion does Rome
service, for, as in the annihilation of the Bructeri, enemies are eliminated citra
Romanum sanguinem (Agr. 35, 2). But the implication is that any Germanic
threat would be faced and repulsed. The gods enabled the Romans to look
upon the Germans' internecine strife as upon a show in the arena; this is
magnificentius than having to do the butchery with losses of one's own, non
armis telisque Romanis (Germ. 33, i). The gods did not thereby merely permit
Rome to survive."6
Tacitus is very clear in indicating why the Germans pose so great a threat
to Rome (Germ. 37, 3): regno Arsacis acrior est Germanorum libertas. This
freedom is not universal, for there are tribes that suffer under regnum; as one
goes further away from the twin boundaries of the Rhine and the Danube,
libertas is progressively infringed. As Tacitus says of the Sithones (45, 6),
because they are ruled by a woman, in tantum non modo a libertate sed etiam a
servitute degenerant. Nor must this libertas be considered an untrammeled
advantage, for it leads to independence of action that hinders resistance.
Yet it need not be assumed that, at its best, the libertas of an enemy renders
them superior to Roman arms. Again the example of the Britons is instructive.
Both Agricola and Calgacus recognized that. When contemplating the con-
quest of Hibernia, Agricola foresaw two advantages, the addition of the island
to the empire and the removal of freedom from the sight of the Britons (24, 3):
idque etiam adversus Britanniam profuturum, si Romana ubique arma, et velut e
conspectu libertas tolleretur. The reasoning is similar to Caesar's when he resolved
to invade Britain, to prevent aid from reaching the Gauls from their kinsmen.56
The thought of keeping one's eyes free from the contagion of domination is
forcefully expressed by Calgacus; this is precisely the reverse of Agricola's
E1 Cf. Steidle, op. cit., particularly the sentence quoted in n. 39.
56 BG 4, 20, I: in Britanniam proficisci contendit, quod omnibus fere Gallicis bellis hostibus
nostris inde subministrata auxilia intellegebat, ...

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Tacitus and the Fall of the Roman Empire 49

purpose regarding Ireland. priores pugnae, he says (30, 2-3), quibus adversus
Romanos varia fortuna certatum est, spem ac subsidiunm in nostris manibus habe-
bant, quia nobilissimi totius Britanniae eoque in ipsis penetralibus siti nec ulla
servientium litora aspicientes, oculos quoque a contactu dominationis inviolatos
habebamus. nos terrarum ac libertatis extremos recessus ipse ac sinus famae in hunc
diem defendit. Recalling the uprising led by Boudicca about a score of years
earlier, he continues (3I, 4): Brigantes femina duce exurere coloniam, expugnare
castra, ac nisi felicitas in socordiam vertisset, exuere iugum potuere: nos integri et
indomiti et in libertatem, non in paenitentiam laturi primo statim congressu osten-
damus, quos sibi Caledonia viros seposuerit. Here is a people proud of its liberty,
fighting with forces superior to those of its enemy, but what did it avail?
Libertas, after all, is not an absolute virtue; without disciplina and ratio,
it easily degenerates into licentia. Only the Chatti, of all the Germanic tribes,
approach the Romans in these crucial qualities.57 Others take advantage of
their individual freedom even to ignore commitments (ii, i): illud ex libertate
vitium, quod non simul nec ut iussi conveniunt, sed et alter et tertius dies cuncta-
tione coeuntium absumitur. A comparable fault is their overindulgence in
drink (23): si indulseris ebrietati suggerendo quantum concupiscunt, haud minus
facile vitiis quam armis vincentur. Tacitus here speaks of ease of conquest by
arms, not of gloomy premonition of defeat.
It hias recently been stated that Tacitus' mood could not have been
anything but somber when he considered the men whose duty it was to protect
Rome.R6 Such a statement seems less than fair to the Roman armies. Certainly
Agricola's army had not been content to halt its drive at the Clota and
Bodotria; its martial quality, and the prestige of Rome's name, would not
endure cessation of hostilities before absolute conquest had been attained:
Quarta aestas obtinendis quae percucurrerat insumpta; ac si virtus exercitus et
Romani nominis gloria pateretur, inventus in ipsa Britannia terminus (23). Nor
did satisfaction follow upon the first successful encounter with the Caledonians.
The same "Drang nacli Norden" prevailed (27, I): Cuius conscientia ac fama
ferox exercitus nihil virtuti suae invium et penetrandam Caledoniam invenien-
dumque tandem Britanniae terminum continuo proeliorum cursu fremebant. How
had respect for the empire and Rome's overwhelming position vis-h-vis the
Germans been won if not by force of arms (29, 2: protulit enim magnitudo
populi Romani ultra Rhenum ultraque veteres terminos imperii reverentiam.) ?
Germany's great opportunity had appeared in the year 69, when Rome's
almost fatal civil war furnished the occasion, but even then the gods' favor,
or Rome's luck, had turned the tide.59

57 Germ. 30, 2; multumn, ut inter Germanos, rationis ac sollertiae . . . quodque rarissimuim

nec nisi Romanae disciplinae concessum, plus reponere in duce quam in exercitu.
-4 Hlussler, op. Cit., 280.
-w HisS. 3, 46, 1-3: Turbata per eosdem dies Germania, et socordia ducum, seditione

4 Historig XVII/I

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50 HERBERT W. BENARIO, Tacitus and the Fall of the Roman Empire

No, these were not inferior troops, and, when properly led, they were
superior to any enemy.60 Agricola's campaigns in Britain, following upon those
of Petilius Cerialis and Lulius Frontinus, had shown that. The terrible disasters,
above all on the Danube, that posed such a threat to life and territory, were
caused by the incapacity of commanders, and Agricola became tlle popular
choice to set the situation aright (4I, 2-3: et ea insecuta sunt rei publicae
tempora, quae sileri Agricolam non sinereut: tot exercitus in Moesia Daciaque et
Germania et Pannonia temeritate aut per ignaviam ducurt amissi, tot militares
viri cum tot cohortibus expugnati et capti; nec iam de limite imperii et ripa, sed de
hibernis legionum et possessione dutbitatum. ita cum damnia damnis continuarentur
atque omnis annus funeribus et cladibus insigniretutr, poscebatur ore vulgi dux
Agricola, comparantibus cunctis vigorem, constantiam et expertum bellis animum
cum inertia et formidine aliorum.) These same Danubian armies, when led by a
Trajan, could turn the bitterness of winter against the enemy who had been
accustomed to profit from the frozen river and could delight in pushing on
from river to river, ever deeper into enemy territory (Pliny, Pan. 12, 4: Sed
ubi in proximo tu, ntont secus ac si mutatae temporum vices essent, illi quidem
latibulis suis clausi tenebantur, nostra agmina percursare ripas et aliena occasione,
si permitteres, uti ultroque hiemem suam barbaris inferre gaudebant.) What these
"inferior" Roman soldiers were able to accomplish in the same theater of war
under the Optimus Princeps is recorded on the Column of Trajan.
It is Trajan and his new principate that color Tacitus' thought in the
political parts of the Germania. The recapitulation of the long frustration in
Rome's contact with the Germans (37, 2: ex quo si ad alterum imperatoris
Traiani consulatum computemus, ducenti ferme et decern anni colliguntur: tam
diu Germania vincitur.) is a piece of past history. Tacitus looks to the future
with the expectation of great events, not with foreboding of disaster, imminent
or distant. At the beginning of his career as a historian, Tacitus shares witl
the populus Romanus the confidence engendered by the beatissimum saeculurm.

Emory University HERBERT W. BENARIO

Atlanta, Georgia (U. S. A.)

legionunt, externa vi, perfidia sociali prope adflicta Rotmana res .... aduilt, ut saepe alias,
fortuna populi Romani, . .. This last will counterbalance, at least in part, the well-known
nec enim umquam atrocioribus populi Romani cladibus magisve iustis indiciis adprobatum
est non esse curae deis securitatem nostram, esse ultionem (Hist. I, 3, 2) and eadem illos deum
ira, eadem hominumn rabies, eaedem scelerum causae in discordiamn egere (Hist. 2, 38, 2).
60 The remarks of E. A. Thompson, The Early Germans (Oxford I965) are worth keeping
in mind when comparing the armies of the two peoples. He writes (I I5): "The fact is that
in open battle against Roman legionaries the Germanic warriors were little, if at all, more
effective than the Achaean heroes of Homer would have been (except that what metal
weapons they had were made of iron and not bronze). It was useless to fight the Imperial
armies with the tactics and equipment of Achilles and Agamemnon, . . . As a rule it was
also useless for the Germans to fight the Roman invaders inside the forests of their country."

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