Germania (Tacitus)

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Germania Magna (Greater Germany) from Ptolemaeus’ Geographia, 2nd Century AD

The Germania (Latin: De Origine et situ Germanorum; German: Ursprung und Lage der Germanen), literally Concerning the Origin and State of the Germanics),[1] was written by Publius Cornelius Tacitus, who's father was procurator of Gallia Belgica and Germania, in circa 98 A.D. It is an ethnographic[2] work on the Germanic tribes of Germania, mostly Magna Germania (also known as Germania libera = free Germania).

Germania is the most important written testimony of ancient Germany. According to classical philologist Moses Hadas, Tacitus “never consciously sacrifices historical truth. He consulted good sources, memoirs, biographies, and official records, and he frequently implies that he had more than one source before him. He requested information of those in a position to know” and “exercises critical judgment.”[3]

Tacitus placed the eastern borders of Germania on the river Vistula.

The book

The Germania has been the most influential source for the early Germanic peoples since the Renaissance. Its reliable account of their ethnography, culture, institutions, and geography is the most thorough that has survived from ancient times, and to this day remains the preeminent classical text on the subject. The book signifies the emergence of the northern Europeans from the obscurity of archaeology, philology, and prehistory into the light of history half a millennium after the emergence of the southern Europeans in Homer and Herodotus.

Though Tacitus at times writes critically of the Germans, he also stresses their simplicity, bravery, honor, fidelity, and other virtues in contrast to corrupt Roman imperial society, fallen from the vigor of the Republic. (It has been said that by Tacitus no one is good except Gnaeus Julius Agricola[4] and the Germans.)

Tacitus’ book is based upon contemporaneous oral and written accounts. During the period knowledge of northern Europe increased rapidly. Roman commanders produced unpublished memoirs of their campaigns along the lines of Caesar’s Commentaries, which circulated in Roman literary circles. Diplomatic exchanges between Rome and Germanic tribes brought German leaders to Rome and Roman emissaries to barbarian courts. And Roman traders expanded traffic with the barbarians, generating, perhaps, more knowledge than the military men.

Among others, the Germania influenced Ulrich von Hutten, Frederick the Great, Johann Fichte, Johann Gottfried von Herder, and the Brothers Grimm.

Content matter

The Germania (divided into 46 Chapters) begins with a description of the lands, laws, and customs of the Germanic people (Chapters 1–27); it then segues into descriptions of individual tribes, beginning with those dwelling closest to Roman lands and ending on the uttermost shores of the Baltic, among the amber-gathering Aesti, the Fenni, and the unknown tribes beyond them.

Tacitus says (Ch. 2, “Origion and descent of the Germanics”) that physically, the Germanic peoples appear to be a distinct (indigenous), racially pure nation, not a blood admixture of their neighbors: "For my own part, I agree with those who think that the tribes of Germany are free from all taint of intermarriages with foreign nations..." They are divided into three large branches, the Ingaevones, the Herminones and the Istaevones, deriving their ancestry from three sons of Mannus, son of Tuisto, their common forefather.

In Chapter 4, “Racial characteristics of the Germanics“, he attributed to Germanic men and women that they all have common physical characteristics, fierce blue eyes (truces et caerulei oculi = "sky-coloured, azure, dark blue, dark green"), red-blonde hair (rutilae comae = "red, golden-red, reddish yellow, golden-blonde") and large bodies, vigorous at the first onset but not tolerant of exhausting labour, tolerant of hunger and cold, but not of heat or thirst.[5]

In Chapter 7, Tacitus describes their government and leadership as somewhat merit-based and egalitarian, with leadership by example rather than authority and that punishments are carried out by the priests. He mentions (Ch. 8) that the opinions of women are given respect. In Chapter 9, Tacitus describes a form of folk assembly rather similar to the public Things recorded in later Germanic sources: in these public deliberations, the final decision rests with the men of the tribe as a whole.

Tacitus further discusses the role of women in Chapters 7 and 8, mentioning that they often accompany the men to battle and offer encouragement. He says that the men are often motivated to fight for the women because of an extreme fear of their being taken captive. Tacitus says (Ch. 18) that the Germans are content with one wife, except for a few political marriages, and specifically and explicitly compares this practice favorably to other barbarian cultures, perhaps since monogamy was a shared value between Roman and Germanic cultures.

He also records (Ch. 19, “Sanctity of marriage”) that adultery is detested and very rare, and that an adulterous woman is shaved of her hair and exiled by the community regardless of her beauty. To limit childbearing or to kill children (abortion) is considered criminal. “In Germany good morals (customs) are worth more than good laws.”

In Chapter 45 Tacitus mentions that the tribe to the north of the Germans, the Sitones, "resemble the Suebi / Suevi[6] in all respects but one - woman is the ruling sex."[7]

The latter chapters of the books describe the various Germanic tribes, their relative locations and some of their characteristics. Many of the tribes named correspond with other (and later) historical records and traditions, while the fate of others is less clear.

Ancient Pagan Germanic law

Tacitus in his Germania gives an account of the legal practice of the Germanic peoples of the 1st century. Tacitus reports that criminal cases were put before the thing (tribal assembly). Lighter offenses were regulated with damages (paid in livestock), paid in part to the victim (or their family) and in part to the king.[8] The death penalty is reserved for two kinds of capital offenses: military treason or desertion was punished by hanging, and moral infamy (cowardice and homosexuality[9]) was punished by throwing the condemned into a bog. The difference in punishment is explained by the idea that "glaring iniquities" must be exposed in plain sight, while "effeminacy and pollution" should best be buried and concealed.[10] Minor legal disputes were settled on a day-to-day basis by elected chiefs assisted by elected officials.[11]


The picture from Fritz Koch-Gotha shows a midsummer night solstice celebration (Sonnenwendfeier), which was an important feast in many ancient and early medieval cultures. You can see a Germanic tribe gathering on a hill at the time of sunset with a sun cross. Solstice Celebrations are still important in modern-day Germany, this scene is probably on the famous "Questenberg".[12]

All copies of Germania were lost during the Middle Ages and the work was forgotten until a single manuscript was found in Hersfeld Abbey (Codex Hersfeldensis), in present-day Germany, in 1455. It was then brought to Italy, where Enea Silvio Piccolomini, later Pope Pius II, first examined and analyzed the book. This sparked interest among German humanists, including Conrad Celtes, Johannes Aventinus, and Ulrich von Hutten[13].

In medieval Germany (known as the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation), a self-designation of "Germanii" was virtually never used. The name was only revived in 1471, inspired by the rediscovered text of Germania, to invoke the warlike qualities of the ancient Germans in a crusade against the Turks. Ever since its discovery, treatment of the text regarding the culture of the early Germanic peoples in ancient Germany remains strong especially in German history, philology, and ethnology studies, and to a lesser degree in Scandinavian (Northern Germania) countries as well. Beginning in 16th-century German humanism, German interest in Germanic antiquity remained acute throughout the period of Romanticism and nationalism. A scientific angle was introduced with the development of Germanic philology by Jacob Grimm in the 19th century.

Role model function

Giambattista Vico (23 June 1668 – 23 January 1744)[14] knew that history began with the giants: the primitive men and women who lived after the universal Flood, and invented myth and poetry. More important, he knew why they had become so immense. Babies had played with their own urine and faeces. And these had a great fertilising power, as anyone could see by planting crops where an army had made camp. No wonder, then, that giants had stalked the drying earth after the Flood, amid the terrifying cracks of thunder and bolts of lightning that inspired them to imagine the pagan gods.

It was the Roman historian Tacitus whom Vico credited with providing this information. In this case as in many others, Vico’s reading of an ancient text was less philological than imaginative. In the Germania, a short, vivid description of the country and customs of the ancient Germans, Tacitus noted that their towns, unlike Roman cities, did not consist of blocks of houses in the midst of empty fields: ‘everyone surrounds his dwelling with an open space.’ He also remarked that in Germany, masters and slaves ‘spend their days amid the same flocks and on the same ground’, and that their sons, ‘naked and filthy, grow up with those limbs and bodies that we admire’. For Vico, it was the work of a moment to pull these phrases together and elicit from them a conjectural history of human society. The mores of the Germans, as Vico found them in Tacitus, were of far more than local interest. In fact, they revealed the earliest stage of development of all the races of mankind.

Vico was always an ingenious reader. In the case of Tacitus, though, he was only one of dozens who found unexpected lessons about the past and present in the 750 lines of Tacitus’ text. A hundred and fifty years before Vico, the French jurist and political theorist François Hotman (August 23, 1524 – February 12, 1590)[15] used Tacitus’ description of the Germanic people to put some flesh and blood on the inhabitants of early medieval kingdoms, the ancestors of the modern French and Germans. Drawing on the Roman’s Histories as well as the Germania, he noted that the Caninefates, relatives of the ancient Batavi, had chosen their chiefs by acclamation, raising them on a shield to signify their election. Evidently, the earliest European societies had retained an element of choice when setting a monarch on the throne. Though no republican himself, Hotman sketched the outlines of a republican myth that Hugo Grotius and others would develop at length. Tacitus helped them show that the constitution of the Dutch Republic – whose Germanic citizens presumably descended from the Batavi – grew from deep historical roots.

Two hundred years later, Herbert Baxter Adams, the German-trained founder of the first American historical seminar at Johns Hopkins,[16] explained to students and readers that they could still find villages like those Tacitus had described if they walked in the contemporary Black Forest.[17] More remarkably still, they could find them in New England as well: ‘The little settlement unconsciously reverted to the forms of village community life, and the Germania of Tacitus was more than suggested in the town at Quinnipiac.’ The historian who examined the ancient deeds of Salem or Marblehead would find in them towns made up, like Tacitus’ village, of separate ‘house-lots’: clear evidence of the shaping power, not of shit and urine, but of the free institutions of the early Germans. Whigs and Wagnerians, poets and composers all find the Germania indispensable.

Jewish "Angst"

The Germania had inspired and polarized readers long before the rise of the Third Reich. After its rediscovery in the 15th century, European intellectuals found therein the German past: 'simple, heroic, moral, and pure'.

The Germania influenced at least one 20th century leader decisively. Young Heinrich Himmler in September 1924 read Tacitus during a train ride and was captivated. At the time he was personal assistant to Gregor Strasser, leader of the National Socialist Freedom Movement (Nationalsozialistische Freiheitsbewegung). In contemporaneous notes, Himmler wrote that Tacitus captured "the glorious image of the loftiness, purity, and nobleness of our ancestors," adding, "Thus shall we be again, or at least some among us."

Since WWII, as ideological imperatives took precedence over dispassionate scholarship, the Germania‘s capacity to instill self-awareness and collective identity has deeply disturbed proponents of anti-white policies and ideologies.

Because of its influence on the ideologies of Pan-Germanism and Nordicism, Jewish historian Arnaldo Momigliano of Italy in 1954 described Germania as "among the most dangerous books ever written".[18]

Adam Kirsch, a Jewish book reviewer for Slate, the Washington Post-owned online magazine, states: "Ideas are viruses. They depend on minds as their hosts . . . The Germania virus . . . after 350 years of incubation . . . progressed to a systemic infection culminating in the major crisis of the twentieth century.", meaning of course the 'Holocaust'. The title of Kirsch’s article is Ideas Are Viruses.

Other ancient accounts of the Germans

Prior to Tacitus’ narrative, a Syrian-born Hellenistic Greek polymath of the first century BC, Poseidonius, may have been the first to distinguish clearly between the Germans and the Celts, but only fragments of his writings survive.

Julius Caesar did not penetrate very far east of the Rhine, so his knowledge of the Germans, expressed in De Bello Gallico (On the Gallic War, c. 50 BC), was limited.

The Roman Pliny the Elder’s Bella Germaniae (German Wars, c. 60s–70s AD) probably contained the fullest account of the people up to Tacitus’ time, but it has been lost.

Pliny, the foremost authority on science in ancient Europe, had served in the army in Germany. When Mount Vesuvius destroyed Herculaneum and Pompeii, he was stationed near present-day Naples, in command of the western Roman fleet. Eager to study the volcano’s destructive effects firsthand, he sailed across the bay, where he was suffocated by vapors caused by the eruption.

Following the Germania, the most important ancient work discussing northern Europe was Ptolemy’s Geography, written in the 2nd century AD. Ptolemy is the Alexandrian astronomer best-known for positing the Ptolemaic System. The Geography named 69 tribes and 95 places, many mentioned by no other source, as well as major rivers and other natural features.

From late antiquity, no extensive study of the Germanic peoples has survived, if one was ever written, and no single writer treated the migrations in a coherent way.[19]

See also


  • J. G. C. Anderson: Tacitus: Germania, Duckworth (1998), ISBN 978-1853995033[20]
  • Rodney Potter Robinson, 1935. The Germania of Tacitus (Middletown, Connecticut; American Philological Association) (textual and manuscript analysis)
  • Kenneth C. Schellhase, 1976. Tacitus in Renaissance Political Thought (Chicago)
  • Christopher B. Krebs, 2011. A Most Dangerous Book (New York), ISBN 978-0-393-06265-6

External links


  1. Some sources translate it as Concerning the Origin and Situation of the Germans, but the Germanic peoples are intended in general rather than Germans in the modern sense.
  2. Ethnography is a qualitative research design aimed at exploring cultural phenomena.
  3. Andrew From Andrew Hamilton, Tacitus' Germania, Counter-Currents Publishing (2011)
  4. Gnaeus Julius Agricola (June 13, 40 – August 23, 93) was a Gallo-Roman general responsible for much of the Roman conquest of Britain. Written by his son-in-law Tacitus, the De vita et moribus Iulii Agricolae is the primary source for most of what is known about him, along with detailed archaeological evidence from northern Britain.
  5. unde habitus quoque corporum, tamquam in tanto hominum numero, idem omnibus: truces et caerulei oculi, rutilae comae, magna corpora et tantum ad impetum valida. laboris atque operum non eadem patientia, minimeque sitim aestumque tolerare, frigora atque inediam caelo solove adsueverunt.
  6. Germanic peoples who were first mentioned by Julius Caesar in connection with Ariovistus' campaign, c. 58 BC. Some Suebi remained a periodic threat against the Romans on the Rhine, until, toward the end of the empire, the Alamanni, including elements of Suebi, brushed aside Roman defenses and occupied Alsace, and from there Bavaria and Switzerland. A pocket remained in Swabia (an area in southwest Germany whose modern name derives from the ancient name), whereas migrants to Gallaecia (modern Galicia, in Spain, and Northern Portugal) established a kingdom there which lasted for 170 years until its integration into the Visigothic Kingdom.
  8. "In lighter transgressions too the penalty is measured by the fault, and the delinquents upon conviction are condemned to pay a certain number of horses or cattle. Part of this mulct accrues to the King or the community, part to him whose wrongs are vindicated, or to his next kindred." (trans. Gordon)
  9. ignavos et imbelles at corpore infames. Gordon translates corpore infames as "unnatural prostitutes"; Tacitus refers to male homosexuality, see David F. Greenberg, The construction of homosexuality, p. 242 f. Scholarship compares the later Germanic concept of Old Norse argr, Langobardic arga, which combines the meanings "effeminate, cowardly, homosexual", see Jaan Puhvel, 'Who were the Hittite hurkilas pesnes?' in: A. Etter (eds.), O-o-pe-ro-si (FS Risch), Walter de Gruyter, 1986, p.154.
  10. "In the assembly it is allowed to present accusations, and to prosecute capital offences. Punishments vary according to the quality of the crime. Traitors and deserters they hang upon trees. Cowards, and sluggards, and unnatural prostitutes they smother in mud and bogs under an heap of hurdles. Such diversity in their executions has this view, that in punishing of glaring iniquities, it behoves likewise to display them to sight; but effeminacy and pollution must be buried and concealed." (trans. Gordon)
  11. "In the same assemblies are also chosen their chiefs or rulers, such as administer justice in their villages and boroughs. To each of these are assigned an hundred persons chosen from amongst the populace, to accompany and assist him, men who help him at once with their authority and their counsel." (trans. Gordon)
  12. Questenberg is a village and a former municipality in the Mansfeld-Südharz district, Saxony-Anhalt, Germany. Since 1 January 2010, it has been part of the Südharz municipality. First settlement traces date from 5th and 6th centuries BC. Above the place is the castle also called Questenberg. Remainders of the castle (attachment walls and tower), on the steep mountain at the eastern periphery of the village can still be visited. The hill above the village, is home to the Queste (also known as the Questenbaum (Queste Tree)), an ancient pagan sun wheel, celebrated at the Questenfest. Saxony was largely Christianised by 800 AD.
  13. Ulrich von Hutten (21 April 1488 – 29 August 1523) was a German scholar, poet and reformer. He was an outspoken critic of the Roman Catholic Church and a bridge between the humanists and the Lutheran Reformation. He was a leader of the German Imperial Knights of the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation
  14. Italian political philosopher, rhetorician, historian, and jurist. A critic of modern rationalism and apologist of classical antiquity, Vico is best known for his magnum opus, the Scienza Nuova of 1725, often published in English as New Science.
  15. A French Protestant lawyer and writer, associated with the legal humanists and with the monarchomaques, who struggled against absolute monarchy. His first name is often written 'Francis' in English. His surname is Latinized by himself as Hotomanus, by others as Hotomannus and Hottomannus. He has been called "one of the first modern revolutionaries".
  16. The Johns Hopkins University (informally Johns Hopkins, JHU, or just Hopkins) is a not-for-profit private research university based in Baltimore, Maryland, United States. The university was founded on January 22, 1876 and named for its benefactor, the philanthropist Johns Hopkins.
  17. The Black Forest (German: Schwarzwald) is a wooded mountain range in Baden-Württemberg, southwestern Germany. It is bordered by the Rhine valley to the west and south. The highest peak is the Feldberg with an elevation of 1,493 metres (4,898 ft).
  18. Anthony Birley, ‘Introduction’, in Tacitus, Agricola and Germany (Oxford University Press, 1999), p. xxxviii.
  19. Andrew From Andrew Hamilton, Tacitus' Germania, Counter-Currents Publishing (2011)
  20. A historical-archaeological and linguistic commentary of Tacitus's "Germania". Updated to include the findings of archaeological investigation over the century, it serves to lift the veil that shrouded the pre-history of the Germanic peoples and the process of their expansion over central Europe.