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Summary of Tacitus: Germania

By sekkushu Apr 22, 2015 835 Words
Summary of Tacitus: Germania

During the first and the second centuries, outside the borders of the Roman Empire, and occupying the area of Central Europe of what is today Germany, lived the tribes of the Germanic people. These descendants of modern Germans proved peculiar in that they adopted many qualities typical of barbaric cultures, yet they simultaneously practiced virtues more befitting of advanced civilizations, values more ethical than even the Roman empire of the time. The Germanic warriors had a rigid code that defined how to live honorably and avoid committing shameful acts; they also adhered to strict tradition in their relationship with their king or chief.

The climate of Germany suited the warriors well. The combination of “wild scenery and harsh climate” (Tacitus, Germania) had given the barbarians an inherent endurance towards cold and hunger over time. To cope with their surroundings, the warriors naturally developed powerful physiques, yet their abundant resources of strength and stamina proved not to be a source of pleasure, for the warriors had “no fondness for feats of endurance or for hard work” (Tacitus, Germania). In earthly matters, Germany’s apparent lack of precious metals made the warriors quite utilitarian in regards to physical possession. They preferred silver to gold, as silver could be more easily fashioned into useful objects. Only the tribes of warriors on the borders of the Roman empire recognized gold and silver as trading commodities, while the ‘backwoods’ tribes traded through the simple practice of barter, yielding one item in exchange for another (Tacitus, Germania). 

The Germanic tribes were by no means idle people. Not content with the quietness characteristic of daily lives built on routine, “for rest is unwelcome to the race” (Tacitus, Germania), the tribes warred with their neighbors. In most cases, the tribes did not engage in voluntarily combat to gain or defend land; they mostly fought for two reasons. They believed that it was easier to distinguish one’s self in the uncertainty of war, rather than in the predictability of routine. War is the way for the barbarians to prove their honor, or sometimes expose their shame, as the abandonment of the shield during combat was “the height of disgrace” (Tacitus, Germania). 

The Germanic tribes also maintained a warlike existence to support their extravagant lifestyle and to maintain the large size of their tribes. The Germans indulged in a lifestyle of great consumption and revelry. To excessively feast and drink was not a trait to be frowned upon by the Germans, as “no race indulges more lavishly in hospitality and entertainment” (Tacitus, Germania). They treated all people as guests with the utmost hospitality, as rebuking any person in need was a crime to them. The German warriors’ lifestyles were so based on recklessness that even in gambling, another source of their entertainment, having lost every other possession, the warriors would wager their “personal liberty on the final throw” (Tacitus, Germania), engaging in voluntary slavery if they were to so lose.

A peculiar source of virtue could be found in the warriors’ attitudes towards the institution of marriage, in which there existed little more sacred to them than marriage’s bond. In their eyes, marriage gave husband and wife an unbreakable bond in which the two share all things, their pleasures, hard work, and the threat of death in war together (Tacitus, Germania). In battle, the most motivating of sights to the male warriors was the sight of their wives and children cheering them on from a distance, for if the warrior was to perish, he would be left to imagine what ravages the enemy would inflict on his loved ones. Fittingly, the barbarians’ lives were also ones of chastity, with adultery very rare indeed (Tacitus, Germania). The women stayed pure until their marriage, so there would be “no second thoughts, no belated fancies, and in order that their excessive desire may be not for the man, but for marriage” (Tacitus, Germania). 

The warriors upheld a strict relationship with their king or chief, who was chosen on the grounds of birth. The final word on decisions regarding the tribe rested with the chief, who would consult with the tribe for its decision on smaller matters, although only after the chief had abdicated his right to make the final decision (Tacitus, Germania). The children of the tribe vied with each other to be among the honorable few that made up the chief’s retinue. On the battlefield, it was dishonorable to fight more skillfully than the chief, and equally as dishonorable to fight any less skilled than the chief. The shame of both these acts paled in comparison with the dishonor of allowing one’s chief to die and not follow in his stead (Tacitus, Germania). The warriors of a tribe also voluntarily surrendered some portion of their cattle, crops, or possession, in order to meet the chief’s needs. Thus the relationship between warrior and chief was one of voluntary acquiescence towards one’s acknowledged superior, and it was the warrior’s duty to make the chief ‘look good.’

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