Idealized and Barbarous Rome: Militarism in Tacitus’ Germania
1.a¶ Tacitus emulates German stereotypes by discussing the Roman conception of the Germans in his ethnographical work, Germania. The Germanic Tribes were considered by the Romans a primitive and savage people, like many of the other peoples Rome has thrust its conquering might at, yet distinguishable for their military prowess. Tacitus, throughout the course of his Germania, seamlessly works through his discussion of the Roman understanding of the Germans with subtle commentary; that is to say, Tacitus does not explicitly agree with the stereotypes he puts forth. In the beginning of the text is a discussion of the geography and climate of Germania. Tacitus precedes this discussion with a rhetorical question for his readers:
1.b¶ quis porro, praeter periculum horridi et ignoti maris, Asia aut Africa aut Italia relicta Germaniam peteret, informem terris, asperam caelo, tristem cultu aspectuque nisi si patria sit? (Germania 2.1)
1.c¶ “Moreover, quite apart from the danger of a rough and unknown sea, who would abandon Asia or Africa or Italy and seek out Germania, with its unlovely landscape and harsh climate, dreary to inhabit and behold, if it were not one’s native land?”
1.d¶ The Romans themselves, in fact, do seek (peteret) Germania. Tacitus points out the Romans hypocrisy in this statement as, at the time Tacitus was writing Germania, Rome has already spent 210 years attempting and, consequently, failing to conquer the Germans, who as a primitive and barbaric other should, in theory, be their inferior. For 210 years, Rome had continuously gone to Germania, attacking its people, in hopes that they could claim the “undesirable” Germania as part of Rome.
1.e¶ The Germans, by being superior to the Romans in military prowess, are, in effect, achieving a Roman ideal as they ironically fulfill aspects of Romanitas. The Germans have become an unconquerable unit; Rome’s inability to defeat Germania has made the Germans better Romans than the Romans themselves in terms of war.
2.a¶ Romanitas, or the quality of being Roman, is defined by J. N. Adams in his article, ‘Romanitas’ and the Latin Language, as being conveyed through the Latin language. Adams’ assertion can be seen in the rhetoric of a variety of texts, most notably, in Cicero’s Brutus. Cicero asserts the importance of knowing how to speak Latin correctly as a Roman citizen, rather than just knowing how to speak the language. The opposite is also true as Latin itself characterizes Romanness. Quintilian notes that words are either Latin or foreign; Furthermore, foreign words have come to [the Romans] from nearly all the races like our people and even like our institutions (verba aut Latina aut peregrina sunt. peregrina porro ex omnibus prope dixerim gentibus ut homines, ut instituta etiam multa venerunt) (Quint. 1.5.55). Preceding this comment, Quintilian cites borrowed words from Gaul, Carthage, and Spain, nations the Romans conquered; that is to say, Latin, a symbol of Romanitas, was developed through war encounters. As Adams states, Latin is “a reflection… …of the power of [Rome] to assimilate outsiders, and of the ambition of such outsiders to be seen as assimilated”. Latin, effectively, displays Rome’s conquering ability both in its acquisition by non-native speakers as well as Latin’s adoption of foreign words. Conquering and assimilating others, therefore, is key to Romanitas. The Germans, however, resist Romanitas by being unconquerable. In this way, they are effectively replacing Rome in this aspect of the Roman ideal.
3 Who are the Germans?
3.a¶ The Germans became the ideal object of conquest. Yet, the Germans were once considered indistinguishable from the Gauls. Caesar’s Gallic Wars, written in the 50s BC, was the earliest surviving text to differentiate the Germans from the Gauls. The name ‘Germani’ first occurred Posidonius’ Histories, written in the 70s or 60s BC. J. B. Rives argues that there is little evidence that Posidonius used the term ‘Germani’ to signify a large scale ethnic grouping like Caesar and Tacitus. Tacitus himself even comments on the previous definition of the Germans as Gauls:
3.b¶ ceterum Germaniae vocabulum recens et nuper additum, quoniam qui primi Rhenum transgressi Gallos expulerint ac nunc Tungri, tunc Germani vocati sint: ita nationis nomen, non gentis, evaluisse paulatim, ut omnes primum a victore ob metum, mox et a se ipsis invento nomine Germani vocarentur. (Germania 2.5)
3.c¶ “But the term ‘Germania’, they say, is modern and recently applied, since those who first crossed over the Rhine and drove out the Gauls (and now are called the Tungri) were at the time called Germani. Thus the name of a tribe, and not of a people, gradually became dominant, with the result that they were all called Germani, at first by the conquered from the name of the conquerors because of fear, and then, once the name had been devised, also by the Germani themselves.”
3.d¶ Germania is, as Tacitus reports, a new name in its use to refer to a whole people. He asserts here that the Gauls and Germans can be distinguished geographically and later in the text he further characterizes the Germans in ways that distinguish them from conceptions of the Gauls (i.e. the German blond hair and overall military attitude). In Germania 2.5, Tacitus explains that the Germans are now a gens (race) that contains tribes of its own, rather than a natio (tribe) as they were previously considered; that is to say, their distinctions go beyond geographical location.
3.1 Caesar’s Gallic Wars
3.1.a¶ Caesar set the precedent for defining the Germans as a separate people from the Gauls. He marks them as the Germans who dwell across the Rhine (qui trans Rhenum incolunt) (Caes. B. Gall. 1. 1. 4), a description that is repeatedly referred to throughout the text and later in Tacitus’ Germania (Germania 2.5). As J. B. Rivers discusses, this epithet is inaccurate as even Caesar himself later recognizes that the Germans reside west of the Rhine, just as the Gauls did, so there is no real geographical boundary between the two peoples. The map below illustrates where Gaul and Germania were located in relation to Rome.
3.1.b¶ Caesar further distinguishes the Gauls and Germans by noting the Germans as feri ac barbari (fierce and barbarous) (Caes. B. Gall. 1. 31. 5) in comparison to the Gauls. The Gauls reportedly recognize themselves as a different race from the Germans describing the Germans as incredibili virtute atque exercitatione in armis esse (being of incredible virtue and experience in arms) (Caes. B. Gall. 1. 39. 1). Caesar has frequent ethnographical digressions that characterize the Germans, most notablyfor their love for war. He reports that the Germans’ whole lives are spent in only hunting and military studies (vita omnis in venationibus atque in studiis rei militaris consistit), they drive out their neighbors considering it to be a representation of their power (hoc proprium virtutis existimant, expulsos agris finitimos cedere, neque quemquam prope audere consistere), and they have a high sense of justice and military merit (summamque habet iustitiae et bellicae laudis opinionem) (Caes. B. Gall. 6. 21-24). Their war prowess is further acknowledged by Caesar in his decision to include them in both his war against the Gauls as well as to make them his personal bodyguards, the Germani corporis custodes. Tacitus upholds the militant stereotypes in his own Germania, even noting that Caesar is the summus auctorum (highest authority) on the Germans (Germania 28.1).
3.1.c¶ Following the Gallic Wars, civil wars in Rome prevented more interaction with Germania. Augustus lay the groundwork for conquest in 16BC-15BC. Rome attempted to conquer Germania for approximately 210 years before Tacitus’ Germania was written. Tacitus himself recognizes this and distinguishes the Germans from Rome’s previous enemies by highlighting their military prowess:
3.1.d¶ ex quo si ad alterum imperatoris Traiani consulatum computemus, ducenti ferme et decem anni colliguntur: tam diu Germania vincitur. medio tam longi aevi spatio multa in vicem damna. non Samnis, non Poeni, non Hispaniae Galliaeve, ne Parthi quidem saepius admonuere: quippe regno Arsacis acrior est Germanorum libertas. quid enim aliud nobis quam caedem Crassi, amisso et ipse Pacoro, infra Ventidium deiectus Oriens obiecerit? (Germania 37.2-37.3)
3.1.e¶ “If we reckon from then to the second consulship of the emperor Trajan, it amounts to roughly two hundred and ten years: so long is the conquest of Germania lasting. Over so great a stretch of time there have been many mutual losses. Not from the Samnites, not the Carthaginians, neither Spain nor Gaul, not even the Parthians have cautioned us more often: indeed, the liberty of the Germani is fiercer than the monarchy Arsaces. For apart from the slaughter of Crassus, with what else has the Orient mocked us?”
3.1.f¶ The Romans had suffered more losses from the Germans than from any previous enemy. In fact, Tacitus goes as far as to note that, more recently, the Romans have enjoyed more triumphs over the Germans than conquests (nam proximis temporibus triumphati magis quam victi sunt) (Germania 37. 5). As Gruen describes them, “the Germans are hardy warriors, inured indeed to war, which tests the mettle of their manhood.” The Germans are a threat to Rome, one warranting an entire ethnographical study dedicated to them. Ethnography was not considered a genre until the term was coined in the 19th century. Foreigners frequently became the subject of enquiry within the context of various texts, including history, poetry, or even medical treatises, as digressions. Although the ancients would not have defined this text as ethnography, as they had no concept of it, the atypical text Germania stands as the only surviving full-scale work on a foreign entity and provides the modern reader with great insight into the Roman perception of the Germanic tribes.
4 Romanized Religion and the Significance of Hercules
4.a¶ Tacitus opens the discussion of Germanic culture with an outline of the Germans; mythology, beginning with a mention of Germanic Hercules. Hercules was viewed as both a cult hero and Roman god, particularly popular with merchants and soldiers due to both his ability to avert evils and his long journeys. This dichotomy is portrayed in the two instances Hercules is mentioned in Tacitus’ Germania. First, Tacitus reports that the Germans believe Hercules used to live among them and, due to that, they sing of Hercules, the first of their heroes, as they go into battle (Fuisse et apud eos Herculem memorant, primumque omnium virorum fortium ituri in proelia canunt) (Germania 3.1). Later in the text, Tacitus contextualizes Hercules as a god, including him in a discussion of other Romanized Germanic gods (Deorum maxime Mercurium colunt, cui certis diebus humanis quoque hostiis litare fas habent. Herculem ac Martem concessis animalibus placant) (Germania 9.1). Both descriptions go against the summus auctorum (highest authority) Caesar’s outline of German religious practices, which depict more barbaric and, consequently, less Roman deities (Caes. B. Gall. 6. 21. 2). In this way, Roman readers are reminded of their own Hercules when forming their own opinions of the Germans. It is likely that here Tacitus is Romanizing two different Germanic figures and, by making use of the Herculean dichotomy, is attributing them to the details of Roman perception of Hercules.[24
4.1 The Herculean Symbol of Roman Triumph
4.1.a¶ The significance of Hercules to the Romans is shown the Hymn to Hercules found in Book 8 of Vergil’s Aeneid (Verg. A. 285-305). As Heiden asserts in his article “Laudes Herculeae: Supressed Savagery,” the use of Hercules, a preexisting character, applies former associations of the Herculean character, thus, in spite of Vergil’s guidance, the reader is thrust into a multitude of interpretations for these 20 lines. Vergil, nevertheless, does present a strong, praise-worthy, and unconquerable Hercules. At the forefront of the Vergilian hymn, the reader is thrown into praise of both Hercules and the deeds he has accomplished (qui carmine laudes // Herculeas et facta ferunt) (Verg. A. 287-288). Notably, the first deed displays his warrior strength: a description of him strangling the twin snakes his father’s wife sent after him (ut prima novercae // monstra manu geminosque premens eliserit angues) (Verg. A. 288-289). This is directly followed by Hercules’ deed of overthrowing Troy and Oechalia, two cities that were previously described as tough opponents in literary works (ut bello egregias idem disiecerit urbes // Troiamque Oechaliamque) (Verg. A. 290-291). These images of Herculean success continue throughout the entire Vergilian hymn.
4.1.b¶ The Herculean association with Roman triumph is strongly shown throughout this passage. The Aeneid displays the glory of Rome. Loar discusses “how readily Vergil could use the figure of Hercules as a metonym for Rome’s Republican triumphal past.” Literary evidence displays the link between Hercules and Roman triumph. Livy, among other authors, notes that in 305 BCE victories over the Samnites were celebrated by erecting a statue of Hercules (eo anno Sora Arpinum Cesennia recepta ab Samnitibus. Herculis magnum simulacrum in Capitolio positum dedicatumque) (Liv. 9. 44. 16). Additionally, Hercules often appeared regularly on triumphal coinage during the second and first centuries BCE .
4.1.c¶ Thus, by Romanizing two distinct Germanic figures, Tacitus reminds the reader of a mythological figure with stereotypically Germanic qualities. The Germans are as the Aeneid describes Hercules unconquered (invicte) (Verg. A. 8. 293), fearless (Verg. A. 8. 285-305), and praiseworthy (laudes) (Verg. A. 287). Additionally, Tacitus, by proxy, associates German mythology with imagery of Roman triumph, furthering the stereotype of German war-drive by depicting the Germans as the conquerors.
5 Military Achievement
5.a¶ The military prowess of the Germans is seen more directly in their soldiers and overall organization. As Tacitus reports, the Germans select their generals through merit (duces ex virtute sumunt) (Germania 7.1). This is notably similar to how the Romans chose their consuls, who often acted as the generals of the Roman army, on the basis of their achievements. German meritocracy is maintained by cultural mores, as Tacitus reports:
5.b¶ Cum ventum in aciem, turpe principi virtute vinci, turpe comitatui virtutem principis non adaequare. iam vero infame in omnem vitam ac probrosum superstitem principi suo ex acie recessisse. illum defendere, tueri, sua quoque fortia facta gloriae eius adsignare praecipuum sacramentum est. principes pro victoria pugnant, comites pro principe. (Germania 14.1)
5.c¶ “When battle has been joined, it is shameful for a leader to be surpassed in valour, shameful for his retinue to lag behind. In addition, infamy and lifelong scandal await the man who outlives his leader by retreating from the battle-line: to defend their chief and guard him, to ascribe to his glory their own brave deeds, is their foremost oath. The leaders fight for victory. the retainers for their leader.”
5.d¶ The merit of a German general is tested on the basis of whether or not he loses a battle, whereas, the German soldier’s merit is measured on how well he fights and protects his general. In order to maintain his position, a German general must strive to conquer and not let Germania be conquered as that would be shameful. Additionally, the German soldier hopes that by serving his general well and by battling bravely, he can become a general himself. Subtly, Tacitus approves of the military meritocracy of the Germans as it has become a factor that contributes to the Roman inability to conquer Germania.
5.1 Weaponry and Other Representations of Manhood
5.1.a¶ Tacitus discusses other aspects of the German military. In particular, he considers the German weaponry and how it functions as in their military style:
5.1.b¶ hastas vel ipsorum vocabulo frameas gerunt angusto et brevi ferro, sed ita acri et ad usum habili, ut eodem telo, prout ratio poscit, vel comminus vel eminus pugnent. (Germania 6.1)
5.1.c¶ “Spears, or to use their own word, framea, are what they carry: with a short and narrow blade, but so sharp and easy to handle that with one with one and the same weapon they can as needed fight face to face or from a distance.”
5.1.d¶ Tacitus Romanizes the German weapon, framea, by Latinizing onto the word itself, specifically in how he turns a German word into a first declension Latin noun. Unlike the mention of Hercules, Tacitus uses the German word, furthermore highlighting this with his use of the word vocabulo (Germania 6.1). Instead of the name of a weapon similar to what he describes, such as a pilum, he draws attention to the weapon as distinctly German.
5.1.e¶ The framea is notably used in the Germanic coming of age ceremony. Tacitus, himself, draws the comparison between the Roman toga of manhood and the German receiving of arms:
5.1.f¶ tum in ipso concilio vel principum aliquis vel pater vel propinqui scuto frameaque iuvenem ornant: haec apud illos toga, hic primus iuventae honos; ante hoc domus pars videntur, mox rei publicae. (Germania 13.1)
5.1.g¶ “Then amidst the assembly one of the leading men or his father or his kinsmen fit the young man with a shield and framea: this is their toga, this the first honour of youth; before this they seem part of the household, afterwards part of the citizen body.”
5.1.h¶ The Roman young man would receive the toga of manhood around the time of his fifteenth birthday, signifying that he now has all the rights any other Roman citizen would have. According to Vout, “To wear a toga was to shout I am Roman.” That is to say, by comparing the German receiving his arms to wearing the Roman toga of manhood, Tacitus signifies that a German receiving their arms, or rather their means to participate in war, is particularly indicative of what it means to be German. In this way, Tacitus subtly further displays the importance of war and militarism to the Germans in his comparison to Roman ritual.
5.2 The Roman Soldier Farmer Versus the War-Driven German: Men in Peace
5.2.a¶ Tacitus considers how the Germans act out of a military context as well. The Germans are described as almost dependent on war for the maintenance of their society in both Tacitus’ Germania and Caesar’s Gallic Wars (Caes. B. Gall. 6. 21-24). Tacitus further elaborates on the criticism of the Germans’ dependence on war:
5.2.b¶ Quotiens bella non ineunt, non multum venatibus, plus per otium transigunt, dediti somno ciboque: fortissimus quisque ac bellicosissimus nihil agens, delegata domus et penatium et agrorum cura feminis senibusque et infirmissimo cuique ex familia, ipsi hebent, mira diversitate naturae, cum idem homines sic ament inertiam et oderint quietem. (Germania 15.1)
5.2.c¶ “Whenever not engaged in war, they spend a little time hunting but much more relaxing, devoting themselves to sleep and food. All the bravest and most bellicose men do nothing: care of hearth and home and fields is left to the women and old men, to all the frailest members of the family, while they themselves loll about in a stupor. Hence an astonishing inconsistency in their nature, since the same men so love being slothful and so hate being peaceful.”
5.2.d¶ Tacitus takes note of the actions of the German soldier in peace, preferring to be lazy rather than to do physical labor in order to maintain the current state of peace and stability. This sharply contrasts with what is described by Rives as “the Roman ideal of the soldier-farmer, who dominates both his land and his enemies through determination and hard work.” Militarism dominates the Germanic society, whereas Romans have a more balanced society and strongly admire militarism. The German soldier would rather raid their neighbors than do any form of self-sustaining agricultural work (Germania 14.3; Caes. B. Gall. 6. 21-24). In the discussion of German idleness, Tacitus presents the Germans as barbarous as they do not prove themselves virtuous without the presence of war.
6.a¶ At the beginning of his ethnography, Tacitus asserts that it is not his intention to support or refute any assertions about the Germans, rather to provide the reader with the necessary information to form their own opinions (quae neque confirmare argumentis neque refellere in animo est: ex ingenio suo quisque demat vel addat fidem) (Germania 3.4). Yet, he makes subtle comments, transforming the Germans from a barbarous other to a representation of Rome. Tacitus’ conception of the Germans reexamines Roman stereotyping. The Germans are portrayed as less of barbarians than previous enemies. In fact, Gruen notes that “the term ‘barbarian’ itself is nearly absent in the Germania, appearing but three times in the text—and without intent to vilify.” Although O’Gorman states in her article “No Place Like Rome” that the Roman view of Germania may be skewed as the primary means of the Roman encounter with the Germans is, in fact, war, Tacitus presents militarism in almost all factors of Germanic life. The Germans, as Tacitus portrays them, are defined by their love for war. The Germans are still barbarous for the Roman qualities they lack, but they achieve a form of idealization in their military strength and drive.
 Rives 1999
 All translations for the Germania come from Rives, unless otherwise noted.
 Cicero Brut. 140
 This translation is my own.
 Adams 2003: 193
 Adams 2003: 193
 Rives 1999: 21; Rives states this section appears in a quotation in someone else’s text.
 Rives 1999: 21
 This is my translation.
 Rives 1999: 24-25
 I am still seeking permission to use this map.
 his is my translation.
 This is my translation.
 These translations are my own.
 Spiedel 1994: 10-13
 Rives 1999: 28
 Translation from Rives 1999: 92
 Gruen 2011: 167
 Almagor and Skinner 2013: 2
 Oxford Classical Dictionary s.v. Hercules
 This translation is my own.
 Rives 1999: 156
 Rives 1999: 122-123; Woolf 2013: 138-139
 Heiden 1987: 663
 Heiden 1987: 666
 Loar 2017
 Loar 2017: 47
 Loar 2017: 47
 Hercules’ fearless nature is seen throughout the Vergilian Hymn.
 Roth: 244-278
 Translation from Rives 1999: 82-83
 Translation from Rives 1999: 79
 Haynes 2004: 50
 Hutchinson Dictionary of Ancient and Medieval Warfare s. v. “Pilum”
 Translation from Rives 1999: 82
 Syme 1987: 320
 Vout: 1996
 Translation from Rives 1999: 83
 Rives 1999: 63
 Gruen 2011: 161
 O’ Gorman 1993
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