Tacitus and Germania

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The Book Germania

The book Germania, written by Publius Cornelius Tacitus about 98 AD, is an ethnographic creation based on the Germanic tribes out of the Roman Empire. Germania has been described to have similar traditions with authors such as Julius Caesar and Herodotus. The story starts with the narration of the customs, laws, and lands of the Germanic people. It then proceeds to indulge in the report of tribes starting with those that were staying near the Roman territories and finishing with the farthest Baltic shores. This paper will summarize the essence of Tacitus’ Germania and describe the main points Tacitus is trying to get across.

Tacitus' Description of Germany

Tacitus starts writing his book in a standard fashion of ethnography, keeping in mind the climate and geography of Germany and how it has impacted in inhabitants. Tacitus explains Germany as an isolated and harsh land and as such this makes him conclude that the Germans must be equally a ‘pure’ and native race. This is because they have not migrated because German has been isolated. Similarly, the Germans had not emigrated since no group would depart from their native land to reside in a harsh environment. Tacitus illustrates that the Germans have global features like red hair and blue eyes and that they can survive in hunger and cold due to their climate.

German Tribes and Customs

In the first half of the book, the Germans are explained as one political unit or one ethnic entity. Nonetheless, later as he continues writing, Tacitus begins giving a summary of the many German tribes and the diverse institutions. Tacitus succeeds in distinguishing the German tribes basing on their climate and geographic location. The Chatti are described as intelligent, hardy, and healthy because of Hercynian forest’s influence. Another tribe, the Chauci, are explained to be the most peaceful and noble in all the Germans. Also, there are many apparent problems related to how Tacitus has described and presented German customs and tribes in Germania. Donald S. Gochberg in his book, “Classics of Western Thought” remarks that most of Tacitus’ writings wholly resemble Bella Germaniae by Pliny the Elder, a book that was written forty years before Germania (Gochberg 54). The geographical description of Germany provided by Tacitus comprises of boundaries that predate to Augustus. Also, it has also been evident how his explanation that Romans recently discovered tribes dates back to Roman operations into Germany during Augustus’ time.

Ethnographic Model of Germania

As such, it can be argued that the story Germania and the ethnography presented has nothing related to the real Germans of Tacitus’ era. Despite the factual inaccuracies present in Germania, it has still managed to fit as an ethnographic model. People in Germany are proposed as a regular group, there is an analysis of their institutions, and are also said to be strange with regards to their society and lifestyle. Donald also vividly looks down upon the absence of research while explaining that “Tacitus had not grown his research abilities and the story Germania can still be read as an utterly ethnographical discourse” (Gochberg 37).

Germanic Traditions and Customs

Tacitus has also talked about crucial points in his book, Germania. The descriptions given by Tacitus about German characters are sometimes constructive in comparison with the Romans during his time. Tacitus holds the belief of strict monogamy and modesty of marriage customs in Germany. Nonetheless, one should not assume that Tacitus’ picture of the Germanic traditions is entirely favorable. In the book, the author indicates that barbarism, laziness, and habitual drunkenness among others are some of the traits shown by the Germanic people. Tacitus also explains that Germans physically appear to be of a different race. The author also illustrates their leadership and government to be egalitarian and merit-based as their leaders led by example and not by authority. In the story, it is inscribed that priests were handed over the role of administering punishments. Also, the views of women were also considered and respected. Tacitus further illustrates the function of women by saying that they gave company to men when heading for combat and even encouraged them. He explains that men would fight hard for the women since they did not want to see them in captive. The author also ascertains how Germans have always been satisfied with one spouse and there were very rare cases of adultery while a woman who was adulterous was avoided by society despite how beautiful she was.


The book German written by Tacitus has been significant in showing the customs, laws, and lands of the Germanic people. The main story of the book revolves around the argument that the uncivilized Germans stay in institutions that should be left for Romans, an idea presented in the opening half of the story. In the remaining part of the story, Tacitus is seen to assess the customs of the German tribes. It is also evident how the different parts of the story do not match. In the first part of the story, Tacitus’ work resembles a complete ethnography. The second section, on the other hand, contradicts the responses of uniformity of custom and appearance between the Germans as explained in the first part. Thus, it has been evident how Tacitus has effectively used classical ethnographic paradigms to showcase ‘actual’ examples.

Works Cited

Gochberg, Donald. The Ancient Wolrd (Classics Of Western Thought). 4th ed., 1996.

November 13, 2023

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