Wednesday, January 9, 2019

Agricola and Germania

Agricola and Germania, by Tacitus

I've been meaning to read Tacitus (well, the easy bits) for some time, but what kicked me into gear was the book on my shelf all about the influence of Germania on European culture and history.  I am allowed to start reading it after I write this post!

Tacitus is considered the best Roman historian -- at least, he's the best we've got!  We certainly don't have everything he wrote.  Large chunks are missing from one of his longer works.  I read two really short things; a life of Agricola, Tacitus' father-in-law, and this sort of tour of the territory of Germania, which was most of Northern Europe.

The largest part of Agricola's biography covers his time as governor of Roman Britain.  It has a short description of Britannia, and of how Agricola extended Roman rule right up to the Pictish territory; I think this is as far as it ever got, up to the Firth of Forth.  There are famous stories in here.  This is how we know about Boudicca and the Iceni rebellion, and where we hear of the Ninth Legion in border skirmishes (I have really got to read The Eagle of the Ninth).  The account of the occupation of Britannia finishes off with a fiery speech from a Caledonian chieftain to his remaining British allies, Agricola's corresponding speech to his troops, and the ensuing battle, which was a horrible slaughter for the Britons.  Of course, the speech from the chieftain is necessarily fictitious, and it's an eloquent condemnation of Roman brutality and decadence.

Tacitus recounts that after retiring from the British command, Agricola should have been in line for a really important post in Asia or Africa, but the emperor, Domitian, was jealous of Agricola's brilliant career and the general was forced to keep a low profile and refuse the opportunity.  Soon afterwards, he died....of poison?  Tacitus is clearly suspicious but doesn't want to openly accuse any particular person.

Germania is a description of Northern Europe as cold, dreary, and full of trees.  The inhabitants are strong but lazy, virtuous but dim, and tough but uncivilized.  They wear trousers.  They live in tiny scattered villages in houses made of wood (ugh), and have no interest in building cities.  Here we find the sentence that became the seed of 500 years of ugliness and horror:
...I accept the view of those who think that the peoples of Germania have never been tainted by intermarriage with other nations, and stand out as a race distinctive, pure and unique of its kind.
As the footnote points out, Tacitus then goes on to describe the Germanii in exactly the same terms as the Gauls are stereotypically portrayed: red hair, blue eyes, huge of frame, can't stand hard work or heat but good in the cold.  The account is actually short on praise, and where it does laud the Germans it's really to point out flaws in the Roman character; Tacitus contrasts German honesty and virtue with Roman cunning and decadence in order to tell Romans to shape up, not because he thinks the Germans are great.  Northern straightforwardness was held to come with a corresponding lack of intelligence.

And of course, that sentence is also pretty well meaningless.  What does it even mean to be a pure race?  Do we know what Tacitus meant by it, and could he have even said what he meant?.  Are they supposed to have sprung fully-formed from the earth or something?

All this only takes a few pages.  The rest of the very short book is taken up with describing where various tribes live, and any special characteristics they have (one group wears their hair in a different way, one is identified with a tribe that once sacked Rome long ago).

Both of these books are extremely short and easy to read -- together, they take up just about 60 pages in my book -- so they are a good taste of Roman history and literature for the nervous beginner.  Like me!  I'm not bad at Greek literature, but Roman is a whole different kettle of fish as far as I'm concerned.


Michelle Ann said...

Like you, I am rather nervous about reading ancient historians, but you have made these books sound very interesting. I particularly like the fact that they are short, so will put them on my TBR list.

Jean said...

The shortness helps a lot! I'd be worried about tackling the Annals or something. Eek.