A friend recommended Germania to me as a jumping off point for more research on European barbarians.
Germania has been called a dangerous book. That’s both hysterical and overly flattering. From what I can gather from introductions, research and from the text itself, it’s a kind of guide to the Germanic tribes pieced together from second hand accounts. Tacitus never traveled to “Germania” himself. Archaeology and other sources have verified many details in the book, but many more could be wrong, misleading or incomplete. There are familiar and inspiring segments worth reading, but they probably shouldn’t be read as absolute fact.
Here are 5 of my highlights. The first two are about the Germans, and the others are Tacitus’ general thoughts on strategy and life.
1. “The Germans do not think it in keeping with the divine majesty to confine gods within walls or to portray them in the likeness of any human countenance. Their holy places are woods and groves, and they apply the names of deities to that hidden presence which is seen only by the eye of reverence.
2. “On the field of battle it is a disgrace to a chief to be surpassed in courage by his followers, and to the followers not to equal the courage of their chief.”
3. “Speed suggests something like fear, whereas deliberate movement rather indicates a steady courage.”
4. “…mystery begets terror and a pious reluctance to ask what sight can be which is seen only by men doomed to die.”
5. “Bordering on the Suiones are the nations of the Sitones. They resemble them in all respects but one — woman is the ruling sex. That is the measure of their decline, I will not say below freedom, but even below decent slavery.”
I especially like the bit about the gods. It has a natural animistic feel to it, and reminds me of that Thomas Carlyle quote I used in The Way of Men.
Tacitus also noted that “Their food is plain — wild fruit, fresh game, and curdled milk.” Paleo plus dairy? Apparently the Germanic tribes also drank some kind of beer and partied a lot, and were known to debate frankly and honestly when they were drunk. However, he wrote that the Germans ” debate when they are incapable of pretense, but reserve their decision for a time when they cannot well make a mistake.”