The Germania of Tacitus
by Madame de Staël
Customs and Peoples of Germany
"Germania," the full title of which is "Concerning the
Geography, the Manners and Customs, and the Peoples of
Germany," consists of forty-six sections, the first twenty-seven
describing the characteristics of the peoples, their customs, beliefs,
and institutions; the remaining nineteen dealing with the
individual peculiarities of each separate tribe. As a record of
the Teutonic tribes, written purely from an ethical and rhetorical
standpoint, the work is of the utmost importance, and, on the
whole, is regarded as trustworthy. Its weak point is its geography,
details of which Tacitus no doubt
gathered from hearsay. The main object of the work was not
so much to compose a history of Germany, as to draw a comparison
between the independence of the Northern peoples and
the corrupt civilisation of contemporary Roman life. Possibly,
also, Tacitus intended to sound a note of alarm.
I.—Germany and the German Tribes
The whole of Germany is thus bounded. It is separated
from Gaul, Rhætia, and Pannonia by the rivers
Rhine and Danube; from Sarmatia and Dacia by mutual
fear, or by high mountains; the rest is encompassed by
the ocean, which forms vast bays and contains many large
islands. The Rhine, rising from a rocky summit in the
Rhætian Alps, winds westward, and is lost in the northern
ocean. The Danube, issuing from Mount Abnoba,
traverses several countries and finally falls into the
I believe that the population is indigenous to Germany,
and that the nation is free from foreign admixture. They
affirm Germany to be a recent word, lately bestowed on
those who first passed the Rhine and repulsed the Gauls.
From one tribe the whole nation has thus been named.
They cherish a tradition that Hercules had been in
their country, and him they extol in their battle songs.
Some are of opinion that Ulysses also, during his long
wanderings, was carried into this ocean and entered
Germany, and that he founded the city Asciburgium,
which stands at this day upon the bank of the Rhine.
Such traditions I purpose myself neither to confirm nor
to refute; but I agree with those who maintain that the
Germans have never intermingled by marriages with
other nations, but have remained a pure, independent
people, resembling none but themselves.
With whatever differences in various districts, their
territory mainly consists of gloomy forests or insalubrious
marshes, lower and more humid towards Gaul,
more hilly and bleak towards Noricum and Pannonia.
The soil is suited to the production of grain, but less so
for the cultivation of fruits. Flocks and herds abound,
but the cattle are somewhat small. Their herds are their
most valued possessions. Silver and gold the gods have
denied them, whether in mercy or in wrath I cannot determine.
Nor is iron plentiful with them, as may be
judged from their weapons. Swords or long spears they
rarely use, for they fight chiefly with javelins and shields.
Their strength lies mainly in their foot, and such is
the swiftness of the infantry that it can suit and match
the motions and engagements of the cavalry.
Generals are chosen for their courage, kings are elected
through distinction of race. The power of the rulers is
not unlimited or arbitrary, and the generals secure obedience
mainly by force of the example of their own
enterprise and bravery.
Therefore, when going on a campaign, they carry with
them sacred images taken from the sacred groves. It is
their custom also to flock to the field of war not merely
in battalions, but with whole families and tribes of relations.
Thus, close to the scene of conflict are lodged
the most cherished pledges of nature, and the cries of
wives and infants are heard mingling with the echoes of
battle. Their wounds and injuries they carry to their
mothers and wives, and the women administer food and
encouragement to their husbands and sons even while
these are engaged in fighting.
II.—Customs of Government and War
Mercury is the god most generally worshipped. To
him at certain times it is lawful to offer even human sacrifices.
Hercules, Mars, and Isis are also recognised as
deities. From the majesty of celestial beings, the Germans
judge it to be unsuitable to hold their shrines within
walls, or to represent them under any human likeness.
They therefore consecrate whole woods and groves, and
on these sylvan retreats they bestow the names of the
deities, thus beholding the divinities only in contemplation
and mental reverence.
Although the chiefs regulate affairs of minor import,
the whole nation deliberates concerning matters of higher
consequence, the chiefs afterwards discussing the public
decision. The assemblies gather leisurely, for sometimes
many do not arrive for two or three days. The priests
enjoin silence, and on them is devolved the prerogative
of correction. The chiefs are heard according to precedence,
or age, or nobility, or warlike celebrity, or
eloquence. Ability to persuade has more influence than
authority to command. Inarticulate murmurs express
displeasure at a proposition, pleasure is indicated by the
brandishing of javelins and the clashing of arms.
Punishments vary with the character of crime. Traitors
and deserters are hanged on trees; cowards, sluggards,
and vicious women are smothered in bogs. Fines,
to be paid in horses or cattle, are exacted for lighter
offences, part of the mulct being awarded to the party
wronged, part to the chief.
The Germans transact no business without carrying
arms, but no man thus bears weapons till the community
has tested his capacity to wield them. When the public
approval has been signified, the youth is invested in the
midst of the assembly by his father or other relative with
a shield and javelin.
Their chief distinction is to be constantly surrounded
by a great band of select young men, for their honour
in peace and their help in warfare.
In battle it is disgraceful to a chief to be surpassed in
feats of bravery, and it is an indelible reproach to his
followers to return alive from a conflict in which their
prince has been slain. The chief fights for victory, his
followers fight for him. The Germans are so restless
that they cannot endure repose, and thus many of the
young men of rank, if their own tribe is tranquil, quit it
for a community which happens to be engaged in war.
In place of pay the retainers are supplied with daily repasts,
grossly prepared, but always profuse.
III.—Domestic Customs of the Germans
Intervals of peace are not much devoted to the chase
by the Germans, but rather to indolence, to sleep, and to
feasting. Many surrender themselves entirely to sloth
and gluttony, the cares of house, lands, and possessions
being left to the wives. It is an astonishing paradox that
in the same men should co-exist so much delight in idleness
and so great a repugnance to tranquil life.
The Germans do not dwell in cities, and endure no
contiguity in their abodes, inhabiting spots distinct and
apart, just as they fancy, a fountain, a grove, or a field.
Their villages consist of houses arranged in opposite
rows, not joined together as are ours. Each is detached,
with space around, and mortar and tiles are unknown.
Many, in winter, retreat to holes dug in the ground, to
which they convey their grain.
The laws of matrimony are strictly observed, and polygamy
is rarely practised among the Germans. The
dowry is not brought by the wife, but by the husband.
Conjugal infidelity is exceedingly rare, and is instantly
punished. In all families the children are reared without
clothing, and thus grow into those physical proportions
which are so wonderful to look upon. They are invariably
suckled by their mothers, never being entrusted to
nursemaids. The young people do not hasten to marry,
and thus the robust vigour of the parents is inherited by
No nation was ever more noted for hospitality. It is
esteemed inhuman to refuse to admit to the home any
stranger whatever. Every comer is willingly received
and generously feasted. Hosts and guests delight in
exchanging gifts. To continue drinking night and day is
no reproach to any man. Quarrels through inebriety are
very frequent, and these often result in injuries and in
fatalities. But likewise, in these convivial feasts they
usually deliberate about effecting reconciliation between
those who are at enmity, and also about forming affinities,
the election of chiefs, and peace and war.
Slaves gained in gambling with dice are exchanged in
commerce to remove the shame of such victories. Of
their other slaves each has a dwelling of his own, his
lord treating him like a tenant, exacting from him an
amount of grain, or cattle, or cloth. Thus their slaves
are not subservient as are ours. For they do not perform
services in the households of their masters, these
duties falling to the wives and children of the family.
Slaves are rarely seen in chains or punished with stripes,
though in the heat of passion they may sometimes be
Usury and borrowing at interest are unknown. The
families every year shift on the spacious plains, cultivating
fresh allotments of the soil. Only corn is grown, for
there is no inclination to expend toil proportionate to the
capacity of the lands by planting orchards, or enclosing
meadows, or watering gardens.
Their funerals are not ostentatious, neither apparel
nor perfumes being accumulated on the pile, though the
arms of the deceased are thrown into the fire. Little
demonstration is made in weeping or wailing, but the
grief endures long. So much concerning the customs of
the whole German nation.
IV.—Tribes of the West and North
I shall now describe the institutions of the several
tribes, as they differ from one another, giving also an
account of those who from thence removed, migrating to
Gaul. That the Gauls were more powerful in former
times is shown by that prince of authors, the deified
Julius Cæsar. Hence it is probable that they have passed
The region between the Hercynian forest and the
rivers Maine and Rhine was occupied by the Helvetians,
as was that beyond it by the Boians, both Gallic tribes.
The Treveri and Nervii fervently aspire to the reputation
of descent from the Germans, and the Vangiones,
Triboci, and Nemetes, all dwelling by the Rhine, are certainly
all Germans. The Ubii are ashamed of their origin
and delight to be called Agrippinenses, after the name
of the founder of the Roman colony which they were
judged worthy of being constituted.
The Batavi are the bravest of all these nations. They
inhabit a little territory by the Rhine, but possess an
island on it. Becoming willingly part of the Roman
empire, they are free from all impositions and pay no
tribute, but are reserved wholly for wars, precisely like
a magazine of weapons and armour. In the same position
are the Mattiaci, living on the opposite banks and enjoying
a settlement and limits of their own, while they
are in spirit and inclination attached to us.
Beginning at the Hercynian forest are the Catti, a
robust and vigorous people, possessed also of much sense
and ability. They are not only singularly brave, but are
more skilled in the true art of war than other Germans.
Near the Catti were formerly dwelling the Bructeri,
in whose stead are now settled the Chamani and the
Angrivarii, by whom the Bructeri were expelled and
almost exterminated, to the benefit of us Romans. May
the gods perpetuate among these nations their mutual
hatred, since fortune befriends our empire by sowing
strife amongst our foes!
The country of the Frisii, facing that of the Angrivarii
and the Chamani, is divided into two sections, called the
greater and the lesser, which both extend along the Rhine
to the ocean.
Hitherto I have been describing Germany towards the
west. Northward it stretches with an immense compass.
The great tribe of the Chauci occupy the whole region
between the districts of the Frisii and of the Catti. These
Chauci are the noblest people of all the Germans. They
prefer to maintain their greatness by justice rather than
by violence, seeking to live in tranquillity, and to avoid
quarrels with others.
By the side of the Chauci and the Catti dwell the
Cherusci, a people who have degenerated in both influence
and character. Finding no enemy to stimulate them,
they were enfeebled by too lasting a peace, and whereas
they were formerly styled good and upright, they are
now called cowards and fools, having been subdued by
the Catti. In the same winding tract live the Cimbri, close
to the sea, a tribe now small in numbers but great in fame
for many monuments of their old renown. It was in the
610th year of Rome, Cæcilius Metellus and Papirius
Carbo being consuls, that the first mention was made of
the arms of the Cimbri. From that date to the second
consulship of the Emperor Trajan comprehends an interval
of nearly 210 years; so long a period has our conquest
of Germany occupied. In so great an interval many have
been the disasters on both sides.
Indeed, not from the Samnites, or from the Carthaginians,
or from the people of Spain, or from all the tribes
of Gaul, or even from the Parthians, have we received
more checks or encountered more alarms. For the
passion of the Germans for liberty is more indomitable
than that of the Arsacidæ. What has the power of the
East to lay to our dishonour? But the overthrow and
abasement of Crassus, and the loss by the Romans of
five great armies, all commanded by consuls, have to be
laid to the account of the Germans. By the Germans,
also, even the Emperor Augustus was deprived of Varus
and three legions.
Only with great difficulty and the loss of many men
were the Germans defeated by Caius Marius in Italy, or
by the deified Julius Cæsar in Gaul, or by Drusus, or
Tiberius, or Germanicus in their native territories. And
next, the strenuous menaces of Caligula against these
foes ended in mockery and ridicule. Afterwards, for a
season they were quiet, till, tempted to take advantage
of our domestic schisms and civil wars, they stormed and
seized the winter entrenchments of our legions, and
attempted the conquest of Gaul. Though they were once
more repulsed, our success was rather a triumph than
an overwhelming victory.
V.—The Great Nation of the Suevi
Next I must refer to the Suevi, who are not, like the
Catti, a homogeneous people, but are divided into several
tribes, all bearing distinct names, although they likewise
are called by the generic title of Suevi. They occupy the
larger part of Germany. From other Germans they are
distinguished by their peculiar fashion of twisting their
hair into a knot, this also marking the difference between
the freemen and their slaves. Of all the tribes of the
Suevi, the Semnones esteem themselves to be the most
ancient and the noblest, their faith in their antiquity
being confirmed by the mysteries of their religion. Annually
in a sacred grove the deputies of each family clan
assemble to repeat the rites practised by their ancestors.
The horrible ceremonies commence with the sacrifice of
a man. Their tradition is that at this spot the nation
originated, and that here the supreme deity resides.
The Semnones inhabit a hundred towns, and by their
superior numbers and authority dominate the rest of the
On the contrary, the Langobardi are ennobled by the
paucity of their number, for, though surrounded by
powerful tribes, they assert their superiority by their
valour and skill instead of displaying obsequiousness.
Next come the Reudigni, the Aviones, the Angli, the
Varini, the Eudoses, the Suardones and the Nuithones,
all defended by rivers or forests.
These are marked by no special characteristics, excepting
the common worship of the goddess Nerthum, or
Mother Earth, of whom they believe that she not only
intervenes in human affairs, but also visits the nations.
In a certain island of the sea is a wood called Castum.
Here is kept a chariot sacred to the goddess, covered with
a curtain, and permitted to be touched only by her priest,
who perceives her whenever she enters the holy vehicle,
and with deepest veneration attends the motion of the
chariot, which is always drawn by yoked cows. Till the
same priests re-conducts the goddess to her shrine, after
she has grown weary of intercourse with mortals, feasts
and games are held with great rejoicings, no arms are
touched, and none go to war. Slaves wash the chariot
and curtains in a sacred lake, and, if you will believe it,
the goddess herself; and forthwith these unfortunate
beings are doomed to be swallowed up in the same lake.
This portion of the Suevian territory stretches to the
centre of Germany. Next adjoining is the district of
the Hermunduri (I am now following the course of the
Danube as I previously did that of the Rhine), a tribe
faithful to the Romans. To them, accordingly, alone of
all the Germans, is commerce permitted. They travel
everywhere at their own discretion. When to others we
show nothing more than our arms and our encampments,
to this people we open our houses, as to men who are not
longing to possess them. The Elbe rises in the territory
of the Hermunduri.
VI.—The Tribes of the Frontier
Near the Hermunduri reside the Narisci, and next the
Marcomanni and the Quadi, the former being the more
famed for strength and bravery, for it was by force
that they acquired their location, expelling from it the
Boii. Now, here is, as it were, the frontier of Germany,
as far as it is washed by the Danube. Not less powerful
are several tribes whose territories enclose the lands of
those just named—the Marsigni, the Gothini, the Osi,
and the Burii. The Marsigni in speech and dress resemble
the Suevi; but as the Gothini speak Gallic, and
the Osi the Pannonian language, and as they endure the
imposition of tribute, it is manifest that neither of these
peoples are Germans.
Upon them, as aliens, tribute is imposed, partly by the
Sarmatæ, partly by the Quadi, and, to deepen their disgrace,
the Gothini are forced to labour in the iron mines.
Little level country is possessed by all these several
tribes, for they are located among mountainous forest
regions, Suevia being parted by a continuous range of
mountains, beyond which live many nations. Of these,
the most numerous and widely spread are the Lygii.
Among others, the most powerful are the Arii, the Helveconæ,
the Manimi, the Elysii, and the Naharvali.
The Arii are the most numerous, and also the fiercest
of the tribes just enumerated. They carry black shields,
paint their bodies black, and choose dark nights for engaging
in battle. The ghastly aspect of their army strikes
terror into their foes, for in all battles the eyes are
vanquished first. Beyond the Lygii dwell the Gothones,
ruled by a king, and thus held in stricter subjection than
the other German tribes, yet not so that their liberties
are extinguished. Immediately adjacent are the Rugii
and the Lemovii, dwelling by the coast. The characteristic
of both is the use of a round shield and a short
Next are the Suiones, a seafaring community with
very powerful fleets. The ships differ in form from ours
in possessing prows at each end, so as to be always
ready to row to shore without turning. They are not
propelled by sails, and have no benches of oars at the
sides. The rowers ply in all parts of the ship alike, and
change their oars from place to place according as the
course is shifted hither and thither. Great homage is
paid among them to wealth; they are governed by a
single chief, who exacts implicit obedience. Arms are
not used by these people indiscriminately, as by other
German tribes. Weapons are shut up under the care
of a slave. The reason is that the ocean always protects
the Suiones from their foes, and also that armed bands,
when not employed, grow easily demoralised.
Beyond the Suiones is another sea, dense and calm.
It is thought that by this the whole globe is bounded,
for the reflection of the sun, after his setting, continues
till he rises, and that so radiantly as to obscure the stars.
Popular opinion even adds that the tumult is heard of
his emerging from the ocean, and that at sunrise forms
divine are seen, and also the rays about his head. Only
thus far extend the limits of Nature, if what fame
reports be true.
The Æstii reside on the right of the Suevian Sea.
Their dress and customs resemble those of the Suevi,
but the language is akin to that of Britain. They worship
the Mother of gods, and wear images of boars,
without any weapons, superstitiously trusting the goddess
and the images to safeguard them. But they cultivate
the soil with much greater zeal than is usual
with Germans, and they even search the ocean, and are
the only people who gather amber, which they find in
the shallows and along the shore. It lay long neglected
till it gained value from our luxury.
Bordering on the Suiones are the Sitones, agreeing
with them in all things excepting that they are governed
by a woman. So emphatically have they degenerated,
not merely from liberty, but even below a condition of
bondage. Here end the territories of the Suevi.
Whether I ought to include the Peucini, the Venedi, and
the Fenni among the Sarmatæ or the Germani I cannot
determine, although the Peucini speak the same language
with the Germani, dress, build, and live like them,
and resemble them in dirt and sloth.
What further accounts we have are fabulous, and
these I leave untouched.