‘Germany’ by Tacitus

During the reign of Domitian, when books were being burned and their authors killed, Tacitus wrote nothing. His nature was such that anything he could honourably have put his name to would have been proscribed. Better to stay silent than to write dross. Even Germany, which on the face of it is a straightforward ethnography, would have been seen as deeply subversive. The victories Domitian claimed over the Germans are here derided as sham, and on another level the book can be read as a veiled hymn to the Republic. The Germans Tacitus describes so admiringly have a polity that relies on persuasion rather than taking orders, and they kill any man who tries to make himself king. It was not until the enlightened regimes of Nerva and Trajan when, as Tacitus said in his Histories, a man could think what he liked and say what he thought, that such writing would not have been taken for treason. 

          Some Germans, yesterday

But Germany is an ethnography for all that, and a fascinating one. Tacitus reviews the various Germanic peoples, starting with the warlike frontier nations, then moving eastwards to the Fenni, who were so primitive that they worshipped no gods, and finally the fabled Oxiones of the Baltic region, who were thought to have the heads of men and the bodies of beasts. The Anglii get a mention along the way: they might have been the forebears of the English-speaking peoples, but back then there was, according to Tacitus, ‘nothing especially noteworthy’ about them.

Tacitus believed the Germans to have been native to their soil and racially unmixed. This, coupled with his admiration of their courage and upright morality, caused Germany to be politically explosive nineteen centuries after it was written. A.R. Birley’s excellent introduction here traces the book’s influence on notions of Germanic superiority from the early 19th century through to Hitler’s pet racial theorists. In 1956 Momigliano described Germany as being ‘among the hundred most dangerous books ever written.’ But it was, of course, just another case of Nazi misappropriation. It shouldn’t take much reflection to conclude what Tacitus, the scourge of tyrants, would have made of Hitler. And the ancient Germans he describes, strong in violent outbursts but lacking in endurance, would have cut it neither as legionaries nor Wehrmacht landsers.


Tacitus’ punchy, aphoristic style is as much a joy here as in his more famous works; his poise and penetration are masterly. He holds values that are alarmingly alien to us, asserting for example that war is ennobling and peace enervating. He also believes that the Germans, like all other free and warlike peoples, are Rome’s enemies by definition. But he is often strikingly modern. When he writes: ‘Silver and gold have been denied them by the gods, whether as a sign of favour or anger I cannot say,’ he is identifying what any political scientist would today recognise as the resource curse. And this: ‘Ignorance is a surer protection than any prohibition,’ contains a lesson about proscription that public policy makers have yet to learn.

This Oxford World Classics edition also includes Tacitus’ biography of his father-in-law, Agricola, the aforementioned introduction, and endnotes that add up to more pages than the two ancient texts put together. It’s a wonderful package. Germany itself is 26 pages long. There’s no excuse not to read it.

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