Moses Hadas of Columbia University, in an introduction to the complete works of Tacitus originally written in 98 AD, sets the tone for this essay: "It is a temptation to which many have succumbed to look upon Germania as a sort of Utopia, a conscious idealization of a primitive or unspoiled people calculated to chasten and reform the decadent Romans. This view is justified in the degree that a strong moralizing strain runs through all Tacitus' work. It has been wittily remarked that no one in Tacitus is good except Agricola and the Germans. But the fact is that too many unlovely traits are reported of the Germans along with the idealization to justify making moral improvement the main end of the book." One cannot help but agree.
Even by contemporary, twentieth and post-twentieth century standards, Tacitus' paper on Germania and Cnaeus Julius Agricola would stand the test of rigorous peer review. Tacitus, instead of adopting a colonialist's attitude to the vanquished (in the expansion of the Roman Empire), used scientific means to study the Germanic tribes. "The Story of Agricola" stands however, in complete contrast to the objectivity that accompanies his descriptions of the Germanic tribes. Essentially, Tacitus deifies Agricola. Ulterior motives abound: primarily, Agricola was Tacitus' father-in-law. Though Tacitus' descriptions have not been contested by other historians -- indeed, Tacitus' is the only comprehensive representation -- seems one-sided. All praise and no critique.
Does Tacitus display an ethnographer's love for his subjects? Or does he display disdain and contempt? Tacitus' attitude goes beyond mere admiration or reproach. Tacitus gives a general description of various cultural facets of ancient and pre-middle age Germans. He writes about: the ethnology, climate and resources, war, government women and religion, administration, justice and education, habits and institutions, marriage laws, feuds and hospitality, and, drink, gambling, slavery and tillage. Tacitus also distinguishes the cultural identities of each Germanic tribe.
Tacitus takes great pains and discusses at length the status of women. The equality of the Germanic women is exemplified in the dress the women wore -- same as the men. Women were also aware of their sexuality and were not treated as objects. Women held a prominent status in Germania. Goddesses were worshipped not as objects but with true acknowledgement to their abilities. The Germans were warring tribes. In inter-tribal warfare, it was the women who stood behind the men exhorting them to fight on and not give up. One can imagine many wars won due to women's inculcation of the never-say-die attitude in their warriors.
Monogamy was held sacred in Germania. Men of noble birth might have had more than one wife, more out of necessity than mere philandering. The prospective groom brought gifts for the bride. The bride's relations then sat in judgment of the gifts. The bride brought arms to the husband. It was this exchange of gifts that solidified the rite of marriage.
The family life of the tribes of Germania was fraught with upheavals. The physical stature of the people, according to Tacitus was one not for enduring, physical work characterized by an agrarian society. They were more comfortable taking what they needed through warfare than by working for it. The men were involved in hunting or war and the women took care of the household. Tacitus talks about peaceful times (in Germania) as slothful, where the men just lay around doing nothing. Interestingly, there was no material demarcation between master and slaves merely based on birth. Both masters and slaves' children shared the same land, food and amenities until they had proved themselves in battle.
Tacitus openly admires the institution of marriage, and the status accorded to women. There is a hint; perhaps, of the frustration Tacitus feels regarding how backward the Roman Empire was in respect to these matters. Tacitus lived in a time where the Roman Empire was expanding, but the rot of decadence and depravity had set. Tacitus wishes that in some way these Germanic ideals could be enforced in Rome. On the other hand, Tacitus is critical of the way of life with regards man's involvement in family life. He believes that Germanic society could be better served by engaging in more peaceful employment like agriculture or animal husbandry, instead of resorting to bloodshed every time something was needed.
The Germanic culture and mentality was so suffused with war that alternative means of survival were not even considered. On one hand, Tacitus shows awareness of their reticence to be proponents of peace. War was very important. Hierarchy of respect and stature was given by exploits in battle. Kings of tribes were chosen by birth. Generals had to prove themselves in war. Each army used both infantry and cavalry, with a greater dependence on the infantry.
The Germanic battle cries were said to have originated from the legends of Hercules and Ulysses. It was a deep, resonant cry-baritus (perhaps the origins of the word baritone). Even the horses were trained to charge full tilt. The young soldiers recruited from all over the land were also trained to attack and positioned to intimidate. It was not considered *****rdly to retreat, if it was to live to fight another day. Most of the soldiers were minimally cloaked; some used metal or leather helmets. Their weapons were called framea -- spear-like but smaller for easier handling.
The dead were carried back home no matter what the cost in battle. While most of the weapons in battle were generic, the soldier often painted or carved on, and derived his battle identity, from his shield. There was no lower form of disgrace than to have abandoned or lost one's shield in battle.
By describing war, except for Tacitus' critical view that the tribes could be better occupied than resorting to war, any description of the war like culture of the Germanic tribes serves as an object lesson in information. The soldiers and their women show incredible bravery in living their lives and evolving while being bound by the ever-present specter of bloodshed and possible death.
The religion of the Germanic tribes was also evolved. While they embraced Pantheism: they worshipped chiefly Mercury; and, to a lesser extent Mars and Hercules, the Suevi tribe also worshipped Isis, they did not deify or straitjacket religious sentiments in idolatry. They recognized the abstract nature of the Gods and sought them in nature. The tribes respected priests as their spiritual elders and beacons. People used auguries and portents to divine events. In Germania, a form alechromancy was also followed using the flight patterns of birds as a medium of divination. Purebred white horses were often used in religious rites.
Considering the idol worship that marked the Roman Empire -- paganism that St. Paul came out strongly against in his writings and teachings, or the deification of the Emperor as God, Tacitus describes a more evolved religion in Germania.
Tacitus' work on Germania reads like a work in Discovery magazine. Well researched, well thought out, well written (despite how the translations have come down the ages) and an easy read. Tacitus reveals a lifestyle and culture, that 2000 years ago was sufficiently evolved; and, some of its cultural facets are still in evidence in today's society. The respect and stature of women in society is an admirable revelation. One must recognize where Tacitus is coming from when he presents his work. The Roman civilization was considered a beacon to the rest of the world. The Romans along with the Greeks created bastions of higher learning, philosophy and thought. Tacitus decries this aspect of Germanic culture: he considers them "aboriginals;" he considers them backward in the arts. He criticizes their sloth and wasteful behavior in times of peace. These times could be spent learning and improving, or in other peaceful pastimes -- imbibing the Roman culture. He does not consider them worldly; they are isolationists and pure of breed.
On the other hand, Tacitus admires their treatment of women, the sanctity of marriage and monogamy, the frowning upon depravity and debauchery. Indirectly, he hints that he does not like the Roman treatment of women or the sexual mores of the times. He supports the Germanic religious traditions of pantheism -- in relation to their culture. He describes religious rituals that are not altogether different from some of today's methods.
The story of Cnaeus Julius Agricola unfolds as the one of a true nobleman -- "noble" being the operative word. Agricola's greatest claim to fame is of course the governorship of the Roman occupied Britain. It is generally agreed to have been an extraordinary leader and of great character.
Cnaeus Julius Agricola was born on the 13th June, AD40, from a distinguished family. Both his grandfathers had held the rank of Procurator of Caesar, a noble equestrian office. His father, Julius Graecinius, became a Senator before he fell out of favor with the Emperor Caligula and was executed the year Agricola was born. He was raised with loving care by his mother Julia Procilla and was shielded…