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 Euxine.

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 their offspring.

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 killed.

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 into Germany.

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 Suevi.

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 sword.

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.