Tacitus’ Germania: Insights Into the Origins of Germany

Tacitus' text Germania gives a unique glimpse at one of Rome’s most enduring foes, an early European people that invoked in Romans a mix of fascination, disdain, and fear.

Oct 16, 2021By Colin J Campbell, MLitt in Ancient History, BA Ancient History & Civilization
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The victorious advance of Arminius, Peter Janssen, 1870-1873, via LWL; with ancient Germans, Grevel, 1913, via New York Public Library


The Germania is a short work by the Roman historian Publius Cornelius Tacitus. It offers us a unique insight into the life of the early Germans and an invaluable ethnographical view into the origins of one of Europe’s peoples. In examining how the Romans viewed the Germans, we can learn much about how the Romans related to their traditional tribal enemies, but also how Romans defined themselves.


Tacitus & The Germania

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Publius Cornelius Tacitus, via Wikimedia Commons


The Germania is a short work by the historian and politician Publius Cornelius Tacitus (65 – 120 CE). A powerhouse of Roman historical writing, Tacitus is one of the great writers of history. The Germania has remained invaluable to historians due to the view it offers into the customs and social landscape of early Germanic tribes. Written around 98 CE, the Germania is valuable because Rome’s tribal enemies (Germans, Celts, Iberians, and Britons) operated an oral rather than a literary cultural tradition. Graeco-Roman testimony is, therefore, often the sole literary evidence that we have for early tribal peoples like the Germans; a people integral to the foundation and development of the European continent.


Our reliance on this classical observation comes with its own challenges. Romans had a real fascination for ‘barbarian’ people. Several Graeco-Roman writers before Tacitus had written about the tribal north, including Strabo, Diodorus Siculus, Posidonius, and Julius Caesar.


For a Roman audience, the Germania provided an ethnographic insight that triggered some powerful cultural reactions. Paradoxically, these reactions could range from racist derision and stereotyping to admiration and eulogizing. On the one hand, concerned with backward ‘barbarian’ tribes, the Germania also offers a cultural fetishization of the ferocity, physical strength, and moral simplicity of these unspoiled tribes. The concept of the ‘noble savage’ is a notion with deep roots. It can tell us much about the civilizations that deploy it. In the classical tradition, the Germania also contains veiled moralistic messages conveyed by Tacitus for sophisticated Roman audiences.


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Roman ethnographic observation was not always accurate and it didn’t always try to be. Most probably, Tacitus never even visited the Germanic north. The historian would have picked up accounts from previous histories and travelers. Yet, for all these cautionary notes, Germania still offers priceless insight into a fascinating people, and there is much within it of great value and worth.


Rome’s Troubled History with the Germans

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Map of Ancient Germania, via University of Texas Library


Rome had a troubled history with Germanic tribes:


“Neither Samnite nor Carthaginian, neither Spain nor Gaul, not even the Parthians, have given us more frequent warnings. German independence truly is fiercer than the despotism of an Arsaces.
[Tacitus, Germania, 37]


In the late 2nd century BCE, the great Roman general Marius eventually stemmed the powerful Germanic tribes of the Tuetones and Cimbri that migrated south and dealt some crushing early defeats to Rome. This was not just raiding warbands. These were migrating peoples in their tens, and even hundreds of thousands. By 58 BCE Julius Caesar had to, or at least elected to, turn a major Helvetic migration triggered by Germanic tribal pressure. Caesar also repulsed direct Germanic incursion into Gaul by the Suebi. Invading Gaul under the king Ariovistus, Caesar portrayed the German as a ‘poster boy’ for barbarian arrogance:


“… no sooner did he [Ariovistus] defeat the forces of the Gauls in a battle … than [he began] to lord it haughtily and cruelly, to demand as hostages the children of all the principal nobles, and wreak on them every kind of cruelty, if everything was not done at his nod or pleasure; he was a savage, passionate, and reckless man, and his commands could no longer be borne.”
[Julius Caesar, Gallic Wars, 1.31]


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Julius Caesar meets the German Warrior King, Ariovistus of the Suebi, Johann Michael Mettenleiter, 1808, via the British Museum


Continued imperial campaigns deep into Germany, although having success, saw the pivotal defeat of the Roman general Varus by the German Arminius at the battle of Teutoburg in 9CE. Three Roman legions were hacked to death (the survivors ritually sacrificed) in the forests of northern Germany. This was a shocking stain on Augustus’s rule. The emperor famously dictated that Roman expansion should cease at the Rhine. Though Roman campaigns continued beyond the Rhine in the 1st Century CE, these were predominantly punitive and designed to stabilize the frontier. Frontier with the Germans would become an enduring feature of the empire, with Rome compelled to keep the bulk of her military assets on both the Rhine and Danube. Roman arms were well-versed at containing and defeating tribal forces, but collectively Germanic tribes represented a perennial danger.


Origins & Habitat of the Germans

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Defeat of the Cimbri and the Teutons by Marius, François Joseph Heim, c. 1853, via Harvard Art Museum


Bounded by the mighty Rhine in the west and the Danube to the east, Germania also had a great ocean to its north. Tacitus describes the Germani as an indigenous people. Operating an oral tradition through ancient songs, they celebrated the earth-born god Tuisco, and his son Mannus: the originator and founder of their race. To Mannus they assigned three sons, from whose names, folklore said the coastal tribes were called Ingævones, those of the interior, Herminones, and the rest, Istævones.


Graeco-Roman folklore had it that the mythical Hercules once wandered in the northern German lands and even Ulysses (Odysseus) had sailed the northern ocean when lost. Fantasy perhaps, but a classical attempt to make sense of the semi-mythical north within their own cultural tradition.


Tacitus confidently stated that the Germanic tribes were aboriginal and unmixed by intermarriage with other ethnicities or peoples. Typically large-framed and fierce, with blond or red hair and blue eyes, the Germanic tribes commanded bold demeanors. To Romans, they exhibited tremendous strength but poor stamina and no ability to bear heat and thirst. Germany itself was dominated by forests and swamps. In Roman eyes, this was a truly wild and inhospitable land. The Roman belief was that the Germanic tribes had pushed the Gauls south of the Rhine, over successive generations. This appears to have still been happening when Julius Caesar conquered Gaul in the middle of the 1st Century BCE. Several of the tribes he encountered had experience of German pressure.


The Tribes

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Map of Germania, based on Tacitus and Pliny, Willem Janszoon and Joan Blaeu, 1645, via UCLA Library


Describing many tribes within the Germania, Tacitus paints a complex moving picture of rival warrior peoples, living in a state of conflict, changing alliances, and occasional peace. Within this endless flux, tribal fortunes rose and fell in perpetual turmoil. An unsentimental imperialist to the core, Tacitus could gleefully note:


“May the tribes, I pray, ever retain if not love for us, at least hatred for each other; for while the destinies of empire hurry us on, fortune can give no greater boon than discord among our foes.”
[Tacitus, Germania, 33]


The Cimbri had a fearsome pedigree. However, in the time of Tacitus, they were a spent tribal force. The distinctive Suevi – who wore their hair in top-knots – were praised for their strength, as were the Marcomanni. While some tribes were excessively warlike, like the Chatti, Tencteri, or the Harii, others were relatively peaceful. The Chauci are described as the noblest of the German tribes maintaining rational dealings with their neighbors. The Cherusci also cherished peace but had become derided as cowards among other tribes. The Suiones were sea-faring people from the northern ocean with strong ships, while the Chatti were blessed in infantry and the Tencteri famous for fine cavalry.


Rulership, Political Structures, Law, and Order

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The victorious advance of Arminius, Peter Janssen, 1870-1873, via LWL


Tacitus observed some kings and chieftains ruled by birth, while war-leaders were chosen by prowess and merit. These power figures shaped tribal life. Sitting at the apex of society, chieftains commanded hereditary powers and respect. However, their operation of power could be surprisingly inclusive. Tribal assemblies played a crucial part in governance, with important decisions delivered by the chief to assemblies of tribal warriors. Debate, posturing, approval, and rejection were all part of the mix. Warriors were armed and could demonstrably express their views by loudly clashing shields or roaring approval or rejection.


Chiefs had the power to address and direct an agenda. They could even skew it with their social prestige, but to some extent, collective buy-in had also to be achieved. Assemblies were overseen by the tribal priests, who held a sacred role in overseeing gatherings and in religious rites.


While kings and chiefs held power and status, they did not possess arbitrary powers of capital punishment over free-born warriors. This was reserved for the priests and especially elected magistrates. Tacitus describes that in some tribes, chief magistrates were elected and supported by councils of the people – essentially juries. Accusations could invoke a range of outcomes from restorative justice, fines, mutilation, or even the death penalty. Serious crimes like murder or treason might result in a criminal being hung from a tree or drowned in a woodland bog. For lesser crimes, fines of cattle or horses could be levied with a proportion going to the king, chief, or state, and a proportion going to the victim or their family.


In a warrior culture, legal interventions were no doubt needed, as a fierce feuding culture was also present. Various families, clans, or warbands held hereditary rivalries tied to status and honor systems that could flare into bloody fighting.


War, Warfare & War Bands

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The battle of Varus, Otto Albert Koch, 1909, via thehistorianshut.com


Tacitus clarifies that warfare played a central part in Germanic tribal society. Tribes seemingly fought often, competing for land and resources. Low-level endemic warfare and raiding was a way of life amongst some groups, with fighting and cattle raiding occurring in a way perhaps not dissimilar to Scottish clan warfare before the 18th century.


By Roman standards, Germanic tribes were sparsely equipped, with iron not being plentiful. Only elite warriors carried swords with the majority having wooden spears and shields. Armour and helmets were rare for the same reasons, and Tacitus says that the Germanic tribes did not adorn themselves overly in weapons or dress. Germanic warriors fought on foot and horse. Naked, or semi-naked they wore small cloaks.


What they lacked in equipment, Germanic tribes made up for in ferocity, physical size, and courage. Roman sources are awash with the terror induced by German attacks and the blood-chilling screams issued by warriors as they hurled themselves onto disciplined Roman lines.


“For, as their line shouts, they inspire or feel alarm. It is not so much an articulate sound, as a general cry of valour. They aim chiefly at a harsh note and a confused roar, putting their shields to their mouth, so that, by reverberation, it may swell into a fuller and deeper sound.”
[Tacitus, Germania 3]


Germanic tribes were strong in infantry, fighting in mass wedge formations. They were very fluid in tactics and saw no disgrace in advancing, withdrawing, and re-grouping independently. Some tribes had excellent cavalry and were praised by Roman generals like Julius Caesar for being highly effective and versatile. Though perhaps not sophisticated in tactics, German tribes were especially dangerous in guerrilla scenarios: on broken ground, night attacks, and ambush. While Tacitus downplayed the strategic ability of most tribes, some like the Chatti were noted as being thoroughly proficient, “… going not just to battle, but on campaign.”


Warriors fought in tribal groups, clans, and families, inspiring them to greater bravery. This was not just bravado, this was a social system that could see a disgraced warrior ostracised within his tribe, clan, or family. The talisman and symbols of their pagan gods were often carried into battle by priests and warbands could even be accompanied by women and children of the tribe – especially during tribal migration scenarios. They would support their menfolk issuing blood-curdling curses and shrieks at their enemies. This represented the very height of barbarism to Romans.


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Arminius on horseback is presented with the severed head of Varus, Christian Bernhard Rode, 1781, via The British Museum


Tactus portrays a ‘warband culture’ within Germanic society. Chiefs gathered large retinues of warriors through which they exerted power, prestige, and influence. The greater the war leader, the greater their retinue of warriors. Some could draw fighters from across tribal and clan lines.


“If their native state sinks into the sloth of prolonged peace and repose, many of its noble youths voluntarily seek those tribes which are waging some war, both because inaction is odious to their race, and because they win renown more readily amid peril, and cannot maintain a numerous following except by violence and war.”
[Tacitus, Germania, 14]


Warriors would swear oaths to their leader and fight until death, gaining status and social rank for their own martial exploits. This gave kudos to a leader, but it was a two-way, social obligation. A war leader needed to maintain prowess to attract the warriors that would, in turn, bolster his reputation and ability to acquire resources. It was also an expensive undertaking. Though warriors were not paid a wage, the firm social obligation was for a leader to provide constant food, alcohol (beer), and gifts for his retinue. Operating as a warrior caste, these fighters, like racehorses, were a high-maintenance undertaking.


Drinking and feasting could go on for days. Warriors were not averse to feuding, fighting, and playing deadly games of combat. This might serve for entertainment or to settle disputes and debts. Gift-giving (often of weapons), hunting, and feasting were central to the culture. Maintaining a retinue required an aggressive and successful leader of reputation. Leaders could command sufficient prestige to command influence and attract embassies and gifts from other tribes, thus shaping tribal economies which were influenced (to some degree) by the warband culture. Much of this system lent the Germanic tribes their fearsome reputation, but this should not be mythologized, as Roman forces regularly defeated these tribal people.


Economy & Trade

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A depiction of the “horse charm” Merseburg Incantation, Wodan heals Balder’s wounded horse while three goddesses sit, Emil Doepler, c. 1905, via Wikimedia Commons


In their development, economy, and trade, German tribes were seen as basic from a Roman perspective. Tribal economies rested on farming, with trade in cattle and also horses being of some importance. Tacitus says the Germans did not have many precious metals, mines, or coins. In stark contrast to Rome’s complex and avaricious economy, German tribes did not have anything like a financial system. Trade for tribes in the interior was conducted on a near barter basis. Several tribes on the borders had trade and political alliances with the Romans and were influenced by Roman cultural contact, trading partially in foreign coins, gold, and silver. Tribes like the Marcomanni and the Quadi were clients of Rome, supported in Tacitus’ time by troops and money in their attempt to settle the border. Others like the warlike Batavi were key friends and allies to Rome, providing highly valued auxiliary troops.


German tribes did keep slaves, who they took in war or owned through debt in a form of chattel slavery, but Tacitus is at pains to note that the German slave system was very different from the Romans’. Predominantly, he describes German elites running slaves much like a landowner might manage tenant farmers, setting them up to work independently and drawing off a proportion of their surplus.


A Simpler Way of Life

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Roman Coin of Germanicus Caesar (Caligula) celebrating victories over the Germans, 37-41, British Museum


Throughout the Germania, Tacitus offers details into the tribal way of life. In many ways, he paints a picture of relative admiration for the strong, chaste, wholesome practices of these fearsome tribal people.


Living a simple pastoral life, Germanic habitation was spread out, with villages dispersed. There were no urban centers or settlement plans in the Greco-Roman tradition. No carved stone, no tile, no glass, no public squares, temples, or palaces. Germanic buildings were rustic, made of wood, straw, and clay.


When coming of age, (a practice the Romans celebrated) German boys were gifted arms in symbolic recognition of becoming men. In some tribes like the Chatti, new men were forced to wear an iron ring (a symbol of shame) until they had killed their first foe. The Germans dressed simply, with men wearing rough cloaks and animal skins that showed their strong limbs, while women wore plain linens that exposed their arms and the tops of their bosom.


Women are given special attention in the Germania. Tacitus notes that their role in tribal society was deeply respected and almost sacred. Marriage practices are described as being honorable and highly stable:


“Almost alone among barbarians they are content with one wife, except a very few among them, and these not from sensuality, but because their noble birth procures for them many offers of alliance.”
[Tacitus, Germania, 18]


In union, women didn’t carry a dowry but rather, the man brought property to the marriage. Weapons and cattle were common marriage gifts. Women would go on to share their husband’s fortune through both peace and war. Adultery was most rare and was punishable by death. Putting aside the war-band culture with its drinking and feasting, Tacitus describes a morally wholesome people:


“Thus with their virtue protected they live uncorrupted by the allurements of public shows or the stimulant of feastings. Clandestine correspondence is equally unknown to men and women.”
[Tacitus, Germania, 19]


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Romanticized depiction of an Ancient German Family, Grevel, 1913, via New York Public Library


Tacitus hailed German women as great mothers who suckled and raised their young personally, not passing them to wetnurses and slaves. Tacitus makes a marked point of noting that childrearing was a cause for praise in tribal society and allowed for large families that would support each other. Though slaves could be part of the tribal household, German families lived and shared the same food, slept on the same earthen floors as their slaves.


Funerals were also simple, with little pomp or ceremony. Warriors were buried with weapons and horses in turf-covered mounds. A hospitality culture existed along semi-religious lines that would see clans and families obliged to accept strangers as guests to their table.


German tribes had many gods the principal one of which Tacitus equates to the deity of Mercury. Figures like Hercules and Mars were honored along with a pantheon of natural gods, phenomena, and spirits. The worship of Ertha (Mother Earth) with special rites and sacrifices was common to many tribes. Worshiping in sacred forests groves the Germans did not know any temples. However, augury and the taking of auspices were practiced similarly to how Romans might recognize. Unlike Rome, priests would occasionally make human sacrifices, which was a major cultural taboo for Romans. This was seen as truly barbaric. However, Tacitus is a rare example (unlike other Latin writers) for how little outrage he offers on this facet of German culture.


Tacitus & Germania: Conclusion

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A vision of Germanic tribal life, via Arre Caballo


Within the Germania, Tacitus is conspicuous (as a Roman writer) for his relative lack of racist and cultural disdain for the Germanic tribes. Fierce and savage though these people were at war, they are essentially presented as simple, clean-living, and noble in their social structures and lives.


Although not overtly stated, The Germania is notable for highlighting a surprising amount of commonality between ancient Romans and Germans. Harking back to Rome’s own archaic past, the Romans themselves had once been a tribal and warlike people who had terrorized their neighbors with endemic warfare. A thoughtful Roman audience might even ask itself; did Germanic ferocity in war mirror that of Rome’s early founders before this had been blunted by the riches of empire? Had not Rome’s forefathers lived a more simple, naturalistic, and noble life, in stable family groups, unadulterated by intermarriage or foreign luxury? Long before the Empire, wealth and material goods had distorted the moral compass of her citizens. Rome’s early ancestors had once shunned adultery, childless relationships, and casual divorce. Like the Germanic tribes, Rome’s early founders had not been weakened by indolent addiction to entertainment or a reliance on money, luxury, or slaves. Not unlike the Germans, had not the early Romans once spoken freely in assemblies, protected from the worst excesses of tyranny, or dare it even be thought, emperors? In moralistic terms, Rome’s early forefathers had once practiced a simple, wholesome, and warlike existence not unlike some aspects of the early Germans. At least this is how Tacitus seems to be thinking and this is the deeper message he transmits through the Germania. We should be aware of its potentially distorting effect.


The Germania offers a fascinating insight into the life of the early Germans. There is much that we can learn from it, but there is much that we must be cautious of. For Tacitus and many Roman moralists, the simple depiction of Germanic tribes provided a mirror on how Romans viewed themselves. The Germania stands in clear juxtaposition to what many Roman writers criticized in Roman society. A direct contrast to what Latin moralists feared was the corruption of their own, luxury-riven society.


It has left us with a slightly skewed picture of the early German tribes, one that we, in turn, should be careful not to fetishize also.

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By Colin J CampbellMLitt in Ancient History, BA Ancient History & CivilizationColin J Campbell is a contributing writer and researcher, living in Melbourne, Australia. He currently writes across a wide range of creative non-fiction topics. He has strong interest in writing, visuals and sounds. Originally from Scotland, Colin studied Ancient History and Civilizations before completing an MLitt (distinction) in Roman history from the University of Newcastle. Focusing on ‘Slave, Bandit and Pirate Disorders’ within Roman Italy, he developed interests in the personal security habits of Romans. Colin also has expert knowledge in a wide range of topics that include military, politics, architecture, society and social issues.