Tacitus, Germania, ca. 98 CE

Prof’s Notes

Tacitus is to the Germans as Herodotus is to the Persians. That is, Tacitus is one of our only sources about the Germanic tribes who inhabited the northern borders of the Roman Empire. There is one source written by Jordanes, a Roman of Gothic origin, written in the 6th century CE after the fall of Western Rome. But arguably Jordanes was as thoroughly Roman as Tacitus…

The subject of Tacitus’s Germania is the Germanic/Gothic tribes, a diverse group of nomadic peoples inhabiting northern and eastern Europe from roughly the 1st century BCE to the 5th century CE. Each tribe possessed its own distinct dialect, social structures, and customs; they were just as happy to fight with each other as with anyone else.

The Romans couldn’t tell one tribe from another and simply called them all “Goths.” When they needed more specific terms the Romans used unhelpful terms like “Ostrogoths” (eastern Goths) and “Visigoths” (western Goths). None of this tells us anything about what the Germans (Goths) called themselves or how they thought of themselves. We have no surviving primary documents from the Germanic tribes, if any ever existed.

The Romans had a long and complicated relationship with the Germanic tribes. Sometimes they feared these “barbarians” and worried over the possibility of attack from the north. Other times, the Romans incorporated Germanic warriors into the Roman army as border guards or auxiliary (mercenary) troops. Eventually, some Germanic tribes were granted citizenship in the Roman Empire…but we’ll talk more about what that means in class.

For this reading, I’d encourage you to read like an anthropologist or sociologist. What is Tacitus telling you about Germanic culture? What does he admire? What seems weird or barbaric to him? There’s also a veiled criticism of the Roman empire in here. If you’re feeling really savvy, you can look for ways Tacitus is criticizing Romans by praising the Germans.

Finally, I know this is a longer, denser reading than usual. Stick with it. If you absolutely must, you can read like a grad student: read the first and last lines of each paragraph. (Tacitus has some killer topic sentences…)

Excerpts from Germania

Chapter 2

The Germans, I am apt to believe, derive their original from no other people; and are nowise mixed with different nations arriving amongst them: since anciently those who went in search of new buildings, traveled not by land, but were carried in fleets; and into that mighty ocean so boundless, and, as I may call it, so repugnant and forbidding, ships from our world rarely enter. Moreover, besides the dangers from a sea tempestuous, horrid and unknown, who would relinquish Asia, or Africa, or Italy, to repair to Germany, a region hideous and rude, under a rigorous climate, dismal to behold or to [cultivate] unless the same were his native country? […]

Chapter 3

They have a tradition that Hercules also had been in their country, and him above all other heroes they extol in their songs when they advance to battle. Amongst them too are found that kind of verses by the recital of which (by them called Barding) they inspire bravery; nay, by such chanting itself they divine the success of the approaching fight. For, according to the different din of the battle, they urge furiously, or shrink timorously. Nor does what they utter, so much seem to be singing as the voice and exertion of valour. They chiefly study a tone fierce and harsh, with a broken and unequal murmur, and therefore apply their shields to their mouths, whence the voice may by rebounding swell with greater fulness and force. Besides there are some of opinion, that Ulysses, whilst he wandered about in his long and fabulous voyages, was carried into this ocean and entered Germany, and that by him Asciburgium was founded and named, a city at this day standing and inhabited upon the bank of the Rhine: nay, that in the same place was formerly found an altar dedicated to Ulysses, with the name of his father Laertes added to his own, and that upon the confines of Germany and Rhoetia are still extant certain monuments and tombs inscribed with Greek characters. Traditions these which I mean not either to confirm with arguments of my own or to refute. Let every one believe or deny the same according to his own bent.

Chapter 4

For myself, I concur in opinion with such as suppose the people of Germany never to have mingled by inter-marriages with other nations, but to have remained a people pure, and independent, and resembling none but themselves. Hence amongst such a mighty multitude of men, the same make and form is found in all, eyes stern and blue, yellow hair, huge bodies, but vigorous only in the first onset. Of pains and labour they are not equally patient, nor can they at all endure thrift and heat. To bear hunger and cold they are hardened by their climate and soil. […]

Chapter 7

In the choice of kings they are determined by the splendour of their race, in that of generals by their bravery. Neither is the power of their kings unbounded or arbitrary: and their generals procure obedience not so much by the force of their authority as by that of their example, when they appear enterprising and brave, when they signalise themselves by courage and prowess; and if they surpass all in admiration and pre-eminence, if they surpass all at the head of an army. But to none else but the Priests is it allowed to exercise correction, or to inflict bonds or stripes. Nor when the Priests do this, is the same considered as a punishment, or arising from the orders of the general, but from the immediate command of the Deity, Him whom they believe to accompany them in war. They therefore carry with them when going to fight, certain images and figures taken out of their holy groves. […] Moreover, close to the field of battle are lodged all the nearest and most interesting pledges of nature. Hence they hear the doleful howlings of their wives, hence the cries of their tender infants. These are to each particular the witnesses whom he most reverences and dreads; these yield him the praise which affect him most. Their wounds and maims they carry to their mothers, or to their wives, neither are their mothers or wives shocked in telling, or in sucking their bleeding sores. Nay, to their husbands and sons whilst engaged in battle, they administer meat and encouragement.[…]

Chapter 11

Affairs of smaller moment the chiefs determine: about matters of higher consequence the whole nation deliberates; yet in such sort, that whatever depends upon the pleasure and decision of the people, is examined and discussed by the chiefs. Where no accident or emergency intervenes, they assemble upon stated days, either, when the moon changes, or is full: since they believe such seasons to be the most fortunate for beginning all transactions. Neither in reckoning of time do they count, like us, the number of days but that of nights. In this style their ordinances are framed, in this style their diets appointed; and with them the night seems to lead and govern the day. From their extensive liberty this evil and default flows, that they meet not at once, nor as men commanded and afraid to disobey; so that often the second day, nay often the third, is consumed through the slowness of the members in assembling. They sit down as they list, promiscuously, like a crowd, and all armed. It is by the Priests that silence is enjoined, and with the power of correction the Priests are then invested. Then the King or Chief is heard, as are others, each according to his precedence in age, or in nobility, or in warlike renown, or in eloquence; and the influence of every speaker proceeds rather from his ability to persuade than from any authority to command. If the proposition displease, they reject it by an inarticulate murmur: if it be pleasing, they brandish their javelins. The most honourable manner of signifying their assent, is to express their applause by the sound of their arms.

Chapter 12

In the assembly it is allowed to present accusations, and to prosecute capital offences. Punishments vary according to the quality of the crime. Traitors and deserters they hang upon trees. Cowards, and sluggards, and unnatural prostitutes they smother in mud and bogs under n heap of hurdles. Such diversity in their executions has this view, that in punishing of glaring iniquities, it behooves likewise to display them to sight; but effeminacy and pollution must be buried and concealed. In lighter transgressions too the penalty is measured by the fault, and the delinquents upon conviction are condemned to pay a certain number of horses or cattle. Part of this [fine or tax] accrues to the King or the community, part to him whose wrongs are vindicated, or to his next kindred. In the same assemblies are also chosen their chiefs or rulers, such as administer justice in their villages and boroughs. To each of these are assigned an hundred persons chosen from amongst the populace, to accompany and assist him, men who help him at once with their authority and their counsel. […]

Chapter 15

Upon any recess from war, they do not much attend the chase. Much more of their time they pass in indolence, resigned to sleep and repasts. All the most brave, all the most warlike, apply to nothing at all; but to their wives, to the ancient men, and to every the most impotent domestic, trust all the care of their house, and of their lands and possessions. They themselves loiter. Such is the amazing diversity of their nature, that in the same men is found so much delight in sloth, with so much enmity to tranquillity and repose. The communities are wont, of their own accord and man by man, to bestow upon their Princes a certain number of beasts, or a certain portion of grain; a contribution which passes indeed for a mark of reverence and honour, but serves also to supply their necessities. They chiefly rejoice in the gifts which come from the bordering countries, such as are sent not only by particulars but in the name of the State; curious horses, splendid armour, rich harness, with collars of silver and gold. Now too they have learnt, what we have taught them, to receive money.

Chapter 17

For their covering a mantle is what they all wear, fastened with a clasp or, for want of it, with a thorn. As far as this reaches not they are naked, and lie whole days before the fire. The most wealthy are distinguished with a vest, not one large and flowing like those of Sarmatians and Parthians, but girt close about them and expressing the proportion of every limb. They likewise wear the skins of savage beasts, a dress which those bordering upon the Rhine use without any fondness or delicacy, but about which such who live further in the country are more curious, as void of all apparel introduced by commerce. They choose certain wild beasts, and, having flayed them, diversify their hides with many spots, as also with the skins of monsters from the deep, such as are engendered in the distant ocean and in seas unknown. Neither does the dress of the women differ from that of the men, save that the women are orderly attired in linen embroidered with purple, and use no sleeves, so that all their arms are bare. The upper part of their breast is withal exposed.

Chapter 18

Yet the laws of matrimony are severely observed there; nor in the whole of their manners is aught more praiseworthy than this: for they are almost the only Barbarians contented with one wife, excepting a very few amongst them; men of dignity who marry divers wives, from no wantonness or lubricity, but courted for the luster of their family into many alliances. To the husband, the wife tenders no dowry; but the husband, to the wife. The parents and relations attend and declare their approbation of the presents, not presents adapted to feminine pomp and delicacy, nor such as serve to deck the new married woman; but oxen and horse accoutred, and a shield, with a javelin and sword. By virtue of these gifts, she is espoused. She too on her part brings her husband some arms. This they esteem the highest tie, these the holy mysteries, and matrimonial Gods. That the woman may not suppose herself free from the considerations of fortitude and fighting, or exempt from the casualties of war, the very first solemnities of her wedding serve to warn her, that she comes to her husband as a partner in his hazards and fatigues, that she is to suffer alike with him, to adventure alike, during peace or during war. This the oxen joined in the same yoke plainly indicate, this the horse ready equipped, this the present of arms. ‘Tis thus she must be content to live, thus to resign life. The arms which she then receives she must preserve inviolate, and to her sons restore the same, as presents worthy of them, such as their wives may again receive, and still resign to her grandchildren. 

Chapter 19

They therefore live in a state of chastity well secured; corrupted by no seducing shows and public diversions, by no irritations from banqueting. Of learning and of any secret intercourse by letters, they are all equally ignorant, men and women. Amongst a people so numerous, adultery is exceeding rare; a crime instantly punished, and the punishment left to be inflicted by the husband. He, having cut off her hair, expells her from his house naked, in presence of her kindred, and pursues her with stripes throughout the village. For, to a woman who has prostituted her person, no pardon is ever granted. However beautiful she be, however young, however abounding in wealth, a husband she can never find. In truth, nobody turns vices into mirth there, nor is the practice of corrupting and of yielding to corruption, called the custom of the Age. Better still do those communities, in which none but virgins marry, and where to a single marriage all their views and inclinations are at once confined. Thus, as they have but one body and one life, they take but one husband, that beyond him they may have no thought, no further wishes, nor love him only as their husband but as their marriage. To restrain generation and the increase of children, is esteemed an abominable sin, as also to kill infants newly born. And more powerful with them are good manners, than with other people are good laws.

Chapter 20

In all their houses the children are reared naked and nasty; and thus grow into those limbs, into that bulk, which with marvel we behold. They are all nourished with the milk of their own mothers, and never surrendered to handmaids and nurses. The lord you cannot discern from the slave, by any superior delicacy in rearing. Amongst the same cattle they promiscuously live, upon the same ground they without distinction lie, till at a proper age the free-born are parted from the rest, and their bravery recommend them to notice. Slow and late do the young men come to the use of women, and thus very long preserve the vigour of youth. Neither are the virgins hastened to wed. They must both have the same sprightly youth, the like stature, and marry when equal and able-bodied. Thus the robustness of the parents is inherited by the children. Children are holden in the same estimation with their mother’s brother, as with their father. Some hold this tie of blood to be most inviolable and binding, and in receiving of hostages, such pledges are most considered and claimed, as they who at once possess affections the most unalienable, and the most diffuse interest in their family. To every man, however, his own children are heirs and successors: wills they make none: for want of children his next akin inherits; his own brothers, those of his father, or those of his mother. To ancient men, the more they abound in descendants; in relations and affinities, so much the more favour and reverence accrues. From being childless, no advantage nor estimation is derived.

Chapter 21

All the enmities of your house, whether of your father or of your kindred, you must necessarily adopt; as well as all their friendships. Neither are such enmities unappeasable and permanent: since even for so great a crime as homicide, compensation is made by a fixed number of sheep and cattle, and by it the whole family is pacified to content. A temper this, wholesome to the State; because to a free nation, animosities and faction are always more menacing and perilous. In social feasts, and deeds of hospitality, no nation upon earth was ever more liberal and abounding. To refuse admitting under your roof any man whatsoever, is held wicked and inhuman. Every man receives every comer, and treats him with repasts as large as his ability can possibly furnish. When the whole stock is consumed, he who had treated so hospitably guides and accompanies his guest to a new scene of hospitality; and both proceed to the next house, though neither of them invited. Nor avails it, that they were not: they are there received, with the same frankness and humanity. Between a stranger and an acquaintance, in dispensing the rules and benefits of hospitality, no difference is made. Upon your departure, if you ask anything, it is the custom to grant it; and with the same facility, they ask of you. In gifts they delight, but neither claim merit from what they give, nor own any obligation for what they receive. Their manner of entertaining their guests is familiar and kind.

Chapter 22

The moment they rise from sleep, which they generally prolong till late in the day, they bathe, most frequently in warm water; as in a country where the winter is very long and severe. From bathing, they sit down to meat; every man apart, upon a particular seat, and at a separate table. They then proceed to their affairs, all in arms; as in arms, they no less frequently go to banquet. To continue drinking night and day without intermission, is a reproach to no man. Frequent then are their broils, as usual amongst men intoxicated with liquor; and such broils rarely terminate in angry words, but for the most part in maimings and slaughter. Moreover in these their feasts, they generally deliberate about reconciling parties at enmity, about forming affinities, choosing of Princes, and finally about peace and war. For they judge, that at no season is the soul more open to thoughts that are artless and upright, or more fired with such as are great and bold. This people, of themselves nowise subtle or politic, from the freedom of the place and occasion acquire still more frankness to disclose the most secret motions and purposes of their hearts. When therefore the minds of all have been once laid open and declared, on the day following the several sentiments are revised and canvassed; and to both conjectures of time, due regard is had. They consult, when they know not how to dissemble; they determine, when they cannot mistake.

Chapter 23

For their drink, they draw a liquor from barley or other grain; and ferment the same, so as to make it resemble wine. Nay, they who dwell upon the bank of the Rhine deal in wine. Their food is very simple; wild fruit, fresh venison, or coagulated milk. They banish hunger without formality, without curious dressing and curious fare. In extinguishing thirst, they use not equal temperance. If you will but humour their excess in drinking, and supply them with as much as they covet, it will be no less easy to vanquish them by vices than by arms.

Chapter 24

Of public diversions they have but one sort, and in all their meetings the same is still exhibited. Young men, such as make it their pastime, fling themselves naked and dance amongst sharp swords and the deadly points of javelins. From habit they acquire their skill, and from their skill a graceful manner; yet from hence draw no gain or hire: though this adventurous gaiety has its reward namely, that of pleasing the spectators. What is marvellous, playing at dice is one of their most serious employments; and even sober, they are gamesters: nay, so desperately do they venture upon the chance of winning or losing, that when their whole substance is played away, they stake their liberty and their persons upon one and the last throw. The loser goes calmly into voluntary bondage. However younger he be, however stronger, he tamely suffers himself to be bound and sold by the winner. Such is their perseverance in an evil course: they themselves call it honour.


  1. Translation: According to Tacitus, the Germans couldn’t have come from anywhere else. Germany is cold and miserable. Why would anyone inhabit this place unless this is where they’re originally from?

  2. I’m not sure where Tacitus got this idea… It’s possible the nomadic Germanic tribes had contact with the Hellenistic World, but I’m not sure they have a tradition of Hercules. (Tacitus will also claim they worship Roman gods, like Mars (the god of war). It could be that Tacitus is trying to make sense of Germanic culture with reference to his own. (A la Herodotus…)

  3. Ulysses = Odysseus, the hero of the Greek epic poem The Odyssey. Homer’s poem narrates Odysseus’s journey back to Greece after the Trojan War, complete with wicked monsters and witches, Siren songs, and a faithful, pining wife at home. Tacitus, again, is connecting the Germans to the Greeks, but seems pretty unsure as to whether or not to believe these stories about Hercules and Ulysses.

  4. No intermingling, eyes stern and blue, yellow hair, vigorous men… For those of you who have studied World War II and/or Nazi rhetoric, this probably sounds familiar. Tacitus’s Germania has, in fact, been appropriated in all sorts of interesting (and terrifying) ways since he wrote it in 98 CE… For more info, this NYT article/book review of Christopher B. Krebs, “A Most Dangerous Book,” is quite interesting.

  5. Before the Germans were converted to Arian Christianity in the 4th century CE, they practiced a nature-based polytheistic religion akin to the Norse religion (which you may be familiar with thanks to American Gods and Vikings…)

  6. Tacitus seems to be trying to work out the political structure of the Germanic tribes and how their kings/chiefs, priests, and people work together. Allow me to fill in what Tacitus could not:

    Germanic tribes take the form of what the Romans eventually called a comitatus – a war band. The comitatus was led by a chief but governed by mutual obligations between the chief and his warriors. The warriors owed their chief loyalty and wise advice; the chief in turn pledged to listen to their advice, help protect their territory, and divide the spoils of war fairly.

    Decision-making was, therefore, a collective endeavor – which Tacitus is attempting to describe here.

    Germanic priests likely fit into this structure as advisors as well – they seem to be the people who can read omens (when is it good to meet, for instance) and command respect as the persons most in touch with the gods.

  7. This rather thorough Wikipedia note suggests “unnatural prostitutes” could mean persons accused of rape or male prostitutes/males accused of homosexual acts. An alternate translation provided by the site Perseus Tufts gives the line as “the man stained with abominable vices.”

  8. An indication of the contact between the Germanic tribes and Rome. Tacitus isn’t just interested in the Germans b/c they’re close by – he’s interested because there’s a long history of contact between Romans and Germans.

  9. Hint. When Tacitus praises the Germans, he’s typically taking a shot at Rome… When he praises an aspect of Germanic culture, he’s usually criticizing an opposing practice in Rome.

  10. We’re taking Tacitus’s word for the punishment regarding adultery here, but assuming he’s close to the truth – the punishment of women (rather than men) for adultery is common to many societies (though not all). The logic, usually, is that women are naturally more virtuous and self-controlled and are therefore responsible for resisting temptation. Men, driven as they are by their lustful animal natures, are not to be held accountable. (This is not a helpful stereotype for anyone, but it is a very persistent one…)

  11. The Romans did practice infanticide (usually by exposure – that is, leaving a child out in a forest or on a mountain to die). This was a selective practice to control the number of children in a family or to avoid raising a child who was crippled or unhealthy. It’s unclear how widespread the practice really was…

  12. Wealthy women in Rome often hired or used slave women as wet nurses. A woman who had recently given birth (or whose child died during delivery) could be paid to breastfeed a wealthy woman’s newborn, freeing up the mother to go about her daily life of running the household

  13. The Germanic tribes, as a nomadic culture, have strong bonds of loyalty within their family and take very seriously any injury to any member of the family. Loyalty – or enmity – between clans or tribes could be based on events that occurred decades before and were, if Tacitus is right here, passed down as ongoing obligations for assistance or revenge over multiple generations.

  14. “A race without either natural or acquired cunning, they disclose their hidden thoughts in the freedom of the festivity. Thus the sentiments of all having been discovered and laid bare, the discussion is renewed on the following day, and from each occasion its own peculiar advantage is derived. They deliberate when they have no power to dissemble; they resolve when error is impossible.”

  15. Tacitus at least gives us the perspective of the Germans here, even if he doesn’t agree with it…