supported by first-hand reports from soldiers and merchants who had travelled in the region. Accuracy did not matter much. As Christopher Krebs argues, Tacitus was less concerned with conditions north of the Alps a century earlier than with the Rome of his own day (he lived from AD 56 to AD 117). By creating a barbarian ‘other’, he delivered a not-so-subtle indictment of the luxury, decadence and immorality of his Roman contemporaries. Especially striking was the implied contrast between the despotism of Rome – Tacitus was born under Nero and lived through Domitian’s reign of terror – and the liberty of the Germans, who elected their chieftains, voted on their actions, and preferred good habits to prescriptive laws. More important still in the long run was Tacitus’s depiction of the Germans as dedicated to ethnic purity.
TEUTONIC TROUBLES A MOST DANGEROUS BOOK: TACITUS’S
GERMANIA FROM THE ROMAN EMPIRE TO THE THIRD REICH
By Christopher B Krebs (W W Norton 303pp £18.99)
NOT MANY FOREIGN sobriquets sound better in English than in their original language. One of them is Herman the German, which i s cer tainly more catchy than Hermann der Cherusker. Leader of the Cherusci, a Germanic tribe, he lived from 17 BC to AD 21, and in AD 9 inflicted a crushing defeat on a Roman army led by Publius Quinctilius Var us a t the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest. Although next to nothing is known about him, he was to enjoy colossal posthumous fame as a s ymbol o f re s i s t ance t o imperialism. Mythmaker-inchief was the Roman politician and histor ian Tacitus, who hailed him as ‘Germany’s liberator’, a mighty hero who had successfully challenged the Roman Empire a t the peak of its power.
The appeal this stereotype would have for subsequent generations of Germans is easy to appreciate. They could ignore Tacitus’s remarks about their ancestors’ illiteracy, squalor, alcoholism and addiction to gambling, and cherry-pick the positives. Whenever there was a
Although Herman’s success was short-lived and he died at the hands of his own people, Tac i t u s en s u re d t h a t he would come to personify the special virtues of the ancient Ger mans. He d i d t h i s by wr i t i ng Ger mania , which purported to be an account of the customs, laws, social relations and physical environment of the German tr ibes living beyond the Rhine. His message was mixed. On the one hand, the Romans could count themselves l ucky not to have added Germany to their empire, because it was ‘wild in its scenery, harsh in its climate, and grim to inhabit and behold’ as well as ‘horrid because of its forests and ugly because of its marshes’. However, despite – or perhaps because of – these unappealing conditions, the people who lived there possessed many striking virtues. They were brave, tough, loyal, virtuous, modest, industrious and handsome (blue-eyed blondes). The women were chaste; adultery was virtually unknown.
A Germanic feast, from Clüver’s ‘Germania Antiqua’, 1616
surge of German nationalism and its first cousin, xenophobia, Herman the German and the Germania he personified enjoyed a fresh lease on life. For many c entur i e s t hey were both forgotten. Indeed, Tacitus’s Germania survived the Middle Ages in just one manuscript copy. First published in 1476, it was then taken up by nationalist German humanists looking for a stick with which to beat the large if flabby target of the Renaissance papacy. By 1500, Krebs writes, it had become ‘Germany’s founding document’. Among others to make use of i t s s tereotypes were Mar t i n Luther (who
Germanised ‘Arminius’ as ‘Hermann’), his follower Ulrich von Hutten, whose dialogue Arminius was dedicated to ‘the liberty of our Fatherland, the German Nation’, and Jakob Wimpfeling, whose Short German History of 1505 stressed the ancient Germans’ courage, physical strength, liberty, loyalty, integrity, generosity and steadfastness, the modesty of their women and, even more improbably, their ‘particular talent for the arts’.
Tacitus himself never visited the lands he was describing. He took his information from previous accounts,
There was another surge of attention in the eighteenth century, as rampant Francophobia sought a historical pedigree. ‘Read Tacitus: there you will find the German character’, wrote Herder in 1767. It was ironic that, given the popular equation of the Romans with the French oppressors of their own day, it was not a
LITERARY REVIEW July 2011