Friday, March 25, 2005

Tacitus

The great thing about teaching: assigning students to read the books I like and the books that I like to read. Next week the kiddies will encounter The Germania by Tacitus, my favorite ancient work outside the Biblical canon.

It has tremendous importance for historiography in modern France and Germany. On the one hand, it introduces the notion of divisions and frontiers between the Romans, Gauls and Germans. On the other, the German nationalists used it to explain their superiority. Both sides used The Germania to make arguments about borders and national identity.

Even in his own context I enjoy Tacitus' writing. He looks at the otherness of barbarians with equal parts curiosity, appreciation, and revulsion. I am still puzzled by Tacitus evaluation of German women, whom he describes as sharing in the rewards and burdens of warfare, but who are also judged harshly by the law.
The woman must not think that she is excluded from aspirations to manly virtues or exempt from the hazards of warfare. That is why she is reminded, in the very ceremonies which bless her marriage from the outset, that she enters her husband's home to be the partner of his toils and perils, that in both peace and war she is to share his sufferings and adventures. On these terms she must live her life and bear her children.

By such means in the virtue of their women protected, and they live uncorrupted by the temptations of public show or excitement of banquets.

A guilty wife is summarily punished by her husband. ... They have no mercy for a woman who prostitutes her chastity. Neither beauty, youth, nor wealth can find her another husband.
But at the books core is a commentary on a Roman society that has abandoned the institutions upon which virtue was founded. Poor, isolated, warlike, simple -- the Germans were what the Romans had been. Because they were poor, they were without vice. Moreover, their dedication to war produced a hardy, moral people for whom power was a reflection of strength.
Silver and gold have been denied them -- whether as a sign of divine favor or divine wrath I do not know.
This last reading, I looked at The Germania from the perspective of landscape -- what I have been studying -- in order to see if the German social scientists of the 19th century found something meaningful in the text.

The landscape that Tacitus describes is unforgiving, probably to the point of not worth having. Although varied, the land is either swamp or forest. Cereals grow, but not fruit trees. The cattle, which have the same role as monetary wealth, are diminutive.
... to go to Germany with its forbidding landscape and unpleasant climate -- a country that is thankless to till and dismal to behold for anyone who has not been born there ...
However, there are features of Tacitus' Germany that I think the Heimatler would have recognized in their own. The varied landscape supported endongamy. Because farming was limited, there was little envy over large land holdings. And the harsh conditions forced them to persist.
They are less able to endure toil or fatiguing tasks and cannot bear thirst or heat, though their climate has inured them to cold spells and the poverty of their soil to hunger.


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