A Heathen’s Concern for Germania: Understanding Tacitean Historiographical Problems

The Germania (De Origine et Situ Germanorum), penned by Cornelius Tacitus in the closing years of the 1st century CE, has been both derided and lauded since its rediscovery in the 15th century. The discovery, coinciding with the humanist movement within the Renaissance [1], saw a reintroduction of Tacitean rhetorical and historiographical content in the West. It is a central work in the so-called “Silver Age of Latin literature”, and the writings which comprise the Germania are well known to both academics and practicing Heathens. Demarcated between two books, it is both a historio-ethnographic as well as a political treatise, that draws on decades of prior Roman knowledge of the region.

This book is among the most well known of all of Tacitus’ works, and is a central document for writers seeking to explore the world of the German tribes in the first century. Written prior to his quaestorship of Asia in the year 112 CE, it was joined by the Dialogues and the Agricola in the same period, and appears to be a simple, straight forward, affair. It is a short book of forty-six chapters, the first twenty seven which give the general accounting of the Germanic lands and their customs, and the latter eighteen describing the tribes themselves. The book has become a focal go-to for the reconstruction of an elder Heathen world view which precedes the Migration Age, and it helps to inform a great deal of later foundations of praxis, regardless of the scanty and problematic information that Germania contains. Understanding Germania is anything but straight forward, or simple.

As with any work in translation, there are issues which stem from the understanding of the work, even beyond the standard discussions of the choices of the translator in effecting the interpretation of the work. These issues have largely been addressed in the academic community within the past century, be it from scholars of Germanic history or of Roman. Beginning in the early 20th century, an upsurge of scholastic criticism and reevaluation about the historiography that Tacitus portrayed created a new atmosphere in which to read the books. However, in the context of Heathen religious studies, many of these same issues are ignored and egregiously replicated. Dialogues between Heathens, who may not have the intimate knowledge about Tacitus’ words required to parse through his contexts, speak very little of the problematic pitfalls.

Indeed, these concerns appear to be relatively unknown in the wider dialogue of Germania in Heathen circles. The general climate of Heathen religious studies, in effect, tacitly accepts Tacitus’ words with an almost unequivocal degree of factual acceptance. Only at the individual level are concerns about its merit and historical veracity voiced. And, very typically, they are shouted down and their criticisms silenced.

Why? Because there is a fundamental lack of source material stemming from the pre-Christian era of many of the peoples of Northern Europe, on account of their illiterate nature. Books like the Germania, externalized accounts of a group which are categorically more appropriately classified as proto-histories, are quite rare in the rediscovery of many of these contemporary practices. The drive for factual information in the foundation of a reconstructionist worldview has encouraged a certain reticence in the criticism and validity of the source material, any source material. In the case of some other reconstructionist religions, works that are unequivocally identified as forgeries still are circulated and only parted with reluctantly.

For much of its history Tacitus’ Germania was accepted at face value as a readable and accurate short history. It was not until the 20th century when scholars attempted to realign an understanding of the text, prompting a series of several critical reexaminations of the work. These reexaminations have continued with greater amounts of effort, and many of the most striking ones have been conducted within the past fifteen years.

The work itself is written well within the history of Greco-Roman ethnography, a corpus of works related by style and tradition. This writing tradition extended back to Hecataeus of Miletus, who composed a work titled Periegesis in 500 BCE, detailing and organizing a geographic compendium of the peoples of the Mediterranean. The Greek ethnographic tradition carried many norms from a fairly standard set of topics, from topographical to military to political and many others, and Tacitus drew on all of these for Germania. In addition to these standard topics, ethnographers tended to draw on common interpretive frameworks, whether moralizing or scientific.

In 1923, Eduard Norden explored this process by establishing an exacting literary genealogy. The statement by Tacitus that the Germani were “resembling only themselves”[2] was found to have been lifted from Posidonius’ description of the Cimbri, who in his Histories were a people associated with the Scythians, and whom Tacitus considered to be a Germanic people. Posidonius himself had borrowed the phrase from a very similar description of the Scythians themselves in the works of Hippocrates (de Aera, Aquis, Locis).

This is a hallmark style of the Greco-Roman ethnographic corpus: writers would borrow material of a common interpretative nature from their predecessors and sources, often unacknowledged, and either through deliberate or inadvertent acts transfer descriptive phrases between unrelated peoples[3]. Reading Tacitus as a deliberate literary production, and not simply as a collection of data, is something that absolutely must be considered when reading Germania.

The most well known academic criticism is, of course, that the Germania is more of a critique on Rome and the Roman state of affairs established during the end of the 1st century than it is at all a reliable method of reflecting Germanic historic worldview at the same time. This is the criticism that gets bandied around by individuals within the Heathen religious studies circles, often with very little reaction from the audience. Even these criticisms are couched within contexts of the piece, and should be given some discussion.

The treatise was written in 98 CE, and within it is reflected the tumultuous upheaval of that period. Domitian’s reign had closed, quite turbulently, with conflicts between the Emperor and the Senate. Conflicts that only ended at the point of an assassin’s knife, and Nerva was accordingly not yet on the Imperial throne[4]. Meanwhile Tacitus, by all accounts, had never served at any point on the Rhine border, so his usage of source material is generally considered to be entirely second hand[5]. T.A. Dorey claimed in 1969 that Tacitus did not know enough about Germania to produce what was considered a good ethnography for the era, and so his composition is done through the assistance of military veterans, merchants and Greek historians who traveled along the Rhine. Authors Caesar (De Bello Gallico), Livy (History), Pliny the Elder (Bella Germaniæ), and Posidonius (Histories) are all believed to have been an influence. Of these, Caesar is the only work he mentions by name, despite not owing much in the way of style to that work.

Northern barbarians had long been enshrined in a special place within Roman cultural and literary thought – a haunted memory and fictive bogeyman which was ingrained in the Roman imagination since the Gallic sack of Rome itself in the early fourth century BCE. Whether Germanic or Gallic, major defeats in the second century BCE encouraged a continued fixation with the barbarian threat from the North, and the Germanic tribes of Tacitus’ day had loomed large within the political environs: Caesar had viewed the Rhine as the most natural border to his reach, and Augustus, Tiberius, and Domitian actively campaigned in Germania proper[6]. Germania represented a bastion of resistance to the Roman initiatives, and Tacitus was concerned with why that may be so, as much as he was in the history of the piece itself.

Tacitus presents the Germanic tribes at a point of social and cultural development that he argues existed prior to the “polluting” practices that gripped Rome in his day. His accounts follow in the footsteps of Greek ethnographers, a school of men who are identified as contrasting their own society through the use of the other[7]. His rhetorical skills in portraying the actions of the Germans are as telling to the Roman world in what they both do and do not do, as in the case of the derided usury[8]. Primitive virtues, extolling the people of Germania as a virtuous and moral people subsequently free of the evils of the Roman society, tapped into Roman idealizations of the ancestors and of a more pure past. But Tacitus contrasts this with the virtues that Romans held dear, sometimes presenting the Germanic peoples as mirror opposites, creating a “multiplicity of shifting associations between Roman and Germanic practice” in which Roman readers were capable of seeing their own values reflected back upon them[9].

Is Tacitus at all relevant to historic studies in a Heathen context outside of the much-lauded position of being as close to a primary source pre-Christian document as possible? This question is a bit more nuanced, with no satisfactory answer in sight. There will be advocates of the continued use of Tacitus as a source document in Heathen religious studies, irrespective of this documentation. What follows will be a comparison to various academic approaches, since so much of an academic standard filters through into the more advanced methodology of Heathen reconstruction.

In the world of academics, some historians would argue that this work is not at all relevant, and that anything of historic value from Tacitus can be gleaned from other sources through more recent, conventional studies without being beholden to that bit of problematic Roman writing. This is the case with C.J. Arnold’s account, in An Archaeology of the Early Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms, where he discusses all measure of information that can be gleaned and, more importantly, corroborated from Tacitus’ Germania without ever once referring to that document – the production of tools, gift and gift-exchanges, and kinship and kingship issues are all successfully referenced.

Other scholars, Barbara Yorke, A. Meaney, Malcolm Todd, each approach Tacitus in different, supporting ways. It is perhaps Malcolm Todd’s process which is the most beneficial to follow: Todd ignores the general framework of Tacitus in favor of the details, and searches instead of the analogues in the surrounding academic world. Where Tacitus information is found lacking in comparison to the archaeological understanding, Todd corrects him. When the information is corroborated by historical and archaeological record, it provides evidence of continuity of cultural patterns, the information being of extreme value to those buttressing their arguments with Germania[10].

If Tacitus’ Germania is a source text for Heathenry, as it is sometimes applied in various Germanic historical studies, it must be a source text highly mediated in historical approaches of comparison. Referring to Tacitus as a sole source, or even as a primary source with little secondary material hoisting it aloft, is awkward. It, quite simply, cannot stand alone. The criticism of Tacitus, in both history and Heathenry, is an appropriate word of caution to those who would run the risk of having it dominate their perspectives. Tacitus’ Germania has become a beginning point for Heathen religious studies by virtue of its very existence, and not due to any measure of accuracy or historic appropriateness. It is as erroneously linked to studies of pre-Christian Germanic religion as it is to Germanic cultural heroism, by those who would otherwise mine the Tacitean quarry for a purity to Germanic origination, even if it is filtered through Roman sensibilities[11].

Similarly, if Germania is useful to Heathen studies, as Richard North has tentatively proven in Heathen Gods in Old English Literature, it is done only through a comparative process akin to Malcolm Todd’s own reliance on extra-historical academic practices. But even North’s analysis falters under the scrutiny of linguistic etymological development and hypothesis of the development of Proto-Indo-European and Proto-Germanic into various later Germanic languages[12].

Germania occupies a central place in both Germanic and Heathen studies, that lies at the heart of the construction of the Germanic ethos of heroism, cultural attitudes, and history. M.J. Tosswell claims it should not, and this is a claim is appropriate[13]. Other works with an impact on various developments are available, even if they do not have the direct ties to the Germanic people. Heathens who look to the Germania to reinforce their religious arguments with the ideas of pragmatism, and honor, and on glory would do well to look to the Agricola, who it can be argued held as great an impact on the idea of a heroic culture as Germania[14]. The judicious use of Tacitus in both historic and religious reinterpretations presents a problematic mire of information, the fabrication of a desire for cultural and social behavior that is legitimized through historic longevity and textual survival. It causes scholars, academic and religious alike, to reach back through history, reading through Tacitus as a lens, into a construction of a behavior of a diverse group of people, correlated from an equally diverse grouping of source material.

Heathens, in their quest for authenticity and historic legitimacy, fall into the same traps as these historic scholars, relying too heavily on the words of Tacitus without first weighing their contextual pitfalls and the nuances of the very words themselves. Germania, specifically, is a work that what is said must be judged with what is not said, and an enterprising student of Heathenry may be ill-equipped to critically approach those words. While some of what Tacitus writes in Germania is factually corroborated, much else is not, and determining which is which is a mire.

We should close by paraphrasing Eric Gerald Stanley, who discusses the Germania in the context of searching for “Germanic Antiquities”. Tacitus’ Germania is, at its core, ethnographical romanticism. It is a source which can and already has enticed scholars to erroneously apply what amounts to Tacitus’ construction of a reported Germanic society from the first century to later times. It is a force of legitimization, while providing nothing unique in the instances where the words of Tacitus match with later discoveries of cultural continuity. Involuntarily, scholars in search of the historicity of their work are reminded that Tacitus and Germania exist and they similarly and often involuntarily identify their topical interests through a more primitive, yet nevertheless ill-described, world reported secondhand by a Roman noble and seated in a tradition of – beyond all else – cultural self-reflection and not historiographical accuracy[15].



[1] Specifically, the Codex Aesinas, which is the sole originating source of all of Tacitus’ minor works, and was copied by the humanist Guarnieri. All other copies produced during the Renaissance come from this one source, either directly or indirectly. See Robinson, Rodney P., ed., The ‘Germania’ of Tacitus, which explores the history of the publication more thoroughly than this work will. Nor will this work discuss the anti-Papacy, anti-Italian, and Germanic nationalist sentiment which the discovery of the Germania bred almost immediately.

[2] Tacitus, Germania, 4.1

[3] James B. Rives, A Companion to Tacitus, ed. Victoria Emma Pagan (Wiley-Blackwell: London, 2011) pg. 65

[4] M.J. Tosswell, Quid Tacitus…? The Germania and the Study of Anglo-Saxon England, Florilegium, Vol. 27 (2010), pg. 29

[5] There is the barest chance that Tacitus may have been stationed within proximity to Germania during a four year involvement with the military, but there is no corroborating evidence. The assumption that he had done so, based only on a period of his life that is little understood, is weak at best. He states as much in the 27th chapter of his book, at the end of the first part of The Germania, by claiming “Haec in commune de omnium Germanorum origine ac moribus accepimus”, “This is what we generally accept about the origin and customs of all the Germans”.

[6] Rives, Companion, pg 47, although in Domitian’s case, Tacitus mocked him for his supposed victories. The acquisition of the title Germanicus was much sought after up through, at least, the time of Trajan.

[7] As François Hartog explored this in his 1988 work on Herodotus.

[8] Tacitus, Germania, 26.1 “To loan out capital at interest and extend it into interest payments is unknown, and for that reason more effectively guarded against than if it had been banned.”

[9] Rives, Companion, pg. 51. In this case, the aptitude of war, one of the many virtues of the Roman people, becomes the sole governing virtue of the Germanic peoples, their sole focus, untempered by the other virtues which made Rome a great civilization to her people.

[10] See Malcolm Todd, Everyday Life of the Barbarians, pg 77-79. In this instance, Tacitus indicated the Germanic diet as consisting of “wild fruits, fresh game, and curdled milk”. Todd’s findings through archaeology have proven that barley and wheat were important elements in the Germanic diet, and that the similar existence of wine vessels in funeral assemblages throughout Germany suggests a far-reaching economic agreement and commodity distribution network than otherwise supposed.

[11] Tosswell, Quid Tacitus…?, pg. 51

[12] See Richard North, Heathen Gods in Old English Literature, pg 10-11 The debate rages whether or not Nerþus is the same deity Tacitus accounts for in his work, despite being etymologically linked to a masculine name.

[13] Tosswell, Quid Tacitus…?, pg. 55

[14] Tosswell, Quid Tacitus…?, pg. 56 This is the case for Anglo-Saxon studies, especially, where the Agricola appears much more in line with Old English heroic epics than Germania.

[15] See E.G. Stanely, The Search for Anglo-Saxon Paganism, pgs. 63-64, and 80.


~ by thelettuceman on December 21, 2015.

13 Responses to “A Heathen’s Concern for Germania: Understanding Tacitean Historiographical Problems”

  1. Thank you. I see Tacitus brought up quite a bit as a primary source when it should be pretty clear that he is not and has not been seen this way for some time. The problem, as with other sources which have been treated as primary for a long time, is that they are not, and have become in many Heathen communities the focus of inquiry and source for information on ancient German, Scandinavian, etc. culture, religion, and so on.

    • It’s the case with a lot of source material. Tacitus is useful in some respects – I cited him in my MA Thesis, despite the problems. But as the only source / a central source, there are problems that just don’t get talked about or even thought about if you’re not predisposed to dealing with them. Likewise, I didn’t even touch on the issues of translation (which are ever-present with primary source material rendered into other languages).

      I saw a few people commenting about Tacitus around the ‘net and their comments generally just get swept aside with no real reason given why. That’s why this was written.

      • *nods* Gotcha. I think citing Germania and other works is fine so long as one is clear they’re not first-hand or even necessarily accurate in regards to depictions of the cultures they are on. Yeah, the translations problems are present too. I’m looking into grabbing some books so I can start learning (at least on some kind of baseline) to read the source materials for some of the sagas and such. Right now I’m restricted to what is translated into English, so I appreciate it when folks like you with training in how to look at the material share things like this.

        • I am pot at foreign languages. I need to really brush up on my Latin, and Tacitus is particularly problematic. I have the equivalent of a few years, but I haven’t used it so I’m regressing.

          Dual language books are awesome, just saying. I don’t know if they make many for the Scandi sources out there, but it’s entirely possible.

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  4. One thing I’d add to your overall post, is when dealing with Heathens, very few are actual university educated scholars with advanced degrees, and many would erroneously define a primary source as a source they look at first, rather than how an academic would define the term as a contemporary account to the period and people in history being written about, especially eye-witness accounts.

    Your nuanced understanding of Tacitus is also similarly true for other sources Heathens look at. I try to stress to others that the (almost entirely Christian) scholars who penned the Eddas and Sagas and Skaldic works perpetuated the tradition of borrowing and alluding to previous works by others. They had a real golden spot for Greco-Roman society… no doubt because that formed the basis of most of the scholars own education. The Lokasenna is seemingly modeled after Lucian’s Assembly of the Gods, Thor is attested by Snorri to be the son of the hero Agamemnon as mentioned in Homer’s works, or later also referenxed by Virgil’s the Aeneud. Plus a carry over in attitude that Rome was civilized but the tribes of Europe were unenlightened Barbarians with no great architecture, public works, texts of literature by their narrow minded comparison.

    Then there is also the history of the texts, and the manuscripts. For instance the Poetic Edda as we know it today, was comprised by (recent) scholars primarily from
    two different manuscripts. The first manuscript is the Codex Regius (GKS 2365
    4to). This manuscript does NOT contain Baldrs draumar. This manuscript clearly
    shows that the eddic poems were placed into an intentional, narrative order.The other manuscript is known as AM 748. This manuscript is not ordered in any
    way at all, and this is the one and only origin of Baldrs draumar. Interestingly
    enough AM 748 has absolutely no mention of the Lokasenna or Loki’s role in
    Ragnarok. But because it does have some overlap with poems in the Codex Regius
    (Grimnismal, Hymiskvida, etc.) scholars, centuries after these separate
    manuscripts were written, chose to combine the two together to form the Poetic
    Edda as we know it today. They decided that Baldrs draumar should go before the
    Lokasenna thus forcing it to a timeline of their choosing.

    If you look at different collections of the Eddas, just like Bibles you’ll find one collection will include something, whereas another wont, or perhaps includes something else.

    We have too many armchair scholars who have not been academically trained in research and analysis.

    While I don’t want to discredit the potential for some interesting food for thought to come from that quarter (as it does certainly happen), what instead usually happens is what the internet is full of: far too many sophomoric wannabe experts convinced only they are solely right using the net as their platform. Or whom think they know everything because they’ve read one translation of the Eddas.

    The most valuable advice I received in grad school was: listen, wait, learn. The discourse was going on before you entered the room, so make sure you’ve read the minutes of this meeting of the minds before you speak up to add your contribution, less you look like a fool.

    I realize this is a long winded reply, but you just touched on so eloquently something that is one of those items I wish everyone entering the religion would learn. I don’t expect a practitioner to be an academic expert, but they should at least understand there are nuances that can radically change interpretation and analysis on this area of inquiry.

    • Absolutely. I don’t want to necessarily denigrate lay-academics because I don’t believe the appeal to authority which an academic degree confers is a good practice to take. Analysis and research practices can be crafted and expanded upon independently from a formal education, and there are many “academics” out there who may hold degrees but are incapable of articulating proper nuanced points. There are a lot of people in Heathenry and in other forms of Paganism who absolutely know more than me, who I respect, who do not have a formal education. And several who do have that education that I similarly do not respect.

      Part of the problem I find is that people will often recommend “Read the Eddas” first in learning about Heathenry, when it’s not appropriate or suitable. No, there’s a lot of context that needs to be understood in ANY reconstructionist or recon-derived polytheistic practice. Otherwise people who are approaching this from a codified religious perspective, where a book or scripture has the authority, will fall into the trap of effectively just replacing one Word with another.

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