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Book Title: Tacitus on Britain and Germany|
The author of the book: Tacitus
ISBN: No data
ISBN 13: No data
Format files: PDF
The size of the: 356 KB
Edition: Penguin Books Ltd, UK
Date of issue: 1960
Read full description of the books Tacitus on Britain and Germany:...there are no more nations beyond us; nothing is there but waves and rocks, and the Romans, more deadly still than these - for in them is an arrogance which no submission or good behaviour can escape. Pillagers of the world, they have exhausted the land by their indiscriminate plunder, and now they ransack the sea. A rich enemy excites their cupidity; a poor one, their lust for power. East and West alike have failed to satisfy them. They are the only people on earth to whose covetousness both riches and poverty are equally tempting. To robbery, butchery, and rapine, they give the lying name of "government"; they create a desolation and call it peace...
From Calgacus' address to the Caledonians p80-81
Coming to Tacitus' eulogy of his father-in-law Agricola after reading Visions of Glory the elements that will be recycled into Christian Hagiography stand out. The way in which the person, Agricola in this case, is an ideal type, distinct and apart already in childhood from "the temptations of evil companions" p54. If he had ever, like Saint Augustine, stolen fruit from an orchard, the fact would have had no place in this life which is dedicated to the ideal of moderation, and also perfection as a soldier, an official, and a Roman.
However, being Roman is problematic. Tacitus view of Rome is pessimistic in that very few people ever seem to measure up to his conception of the true Roman (and as in The Histories sometimes these people are known only by their penchant to commit suicide in the appropriate manner to prove a point), I have no doubt that Tacitus would have condemned Romulus for drinking milk out of a cup instead of suckling directly from a she-wolf as he did as a youth. Rome is continually going to the dogs, but arrival is postponed only because of the occasional appearances of figures like Agricola. Agricola is of course: modest, conscientious, leads from the front, hard fighting and above all thoroughly appropriate in his behaviour as exemplified in his grief over the death of his son: he accepted this blow without either parading the fortitude of a stoic or giving way to passionate grief like a woman p79. The negative poles of behaviour for Tacitus are being passionate "like a woman" or being like some kind of some kind of fancy pants namby pamby philosopher type. For Tacitus, just like Goldilocks, the mean is golden. Yet while the true Roman as an individual is moderate and conscientious, Rome as a political culture is presented by Tacitus as enslaving, corrupt and decadent.
To mirror Agricola, Tacitus invents the figure of Calgacus (view spoiler)[by which I mean there may have really been a single person in command of the Caledonians called Calgacus or not, the only evidence for his existence comes from this book in which the point of his existence is to give a rallying speech to the Caledonians before battle which denounces Roman imperialism. This strikes me more as a literary conceit than as a potential historical fact> Calgacus means "swordsman" - & so probably isn't even a name, just an unfamiliar sounding word, appropriated to create a suitable foil for the hero of the story (hide spoiler)], as commander of the Caledonians in a battle which is presented as the high point of Agricola's governorship of Britain (78-84 AD), to present this negative view of Roman as political, Imperial, culture. The battle itself then becomes the clash between those negative values and the positive values embodied in Agricola himself, which inevitably triumph. He marshals his troops with care, is resolute and anticipates the moves of the enemy and thus achieves victory over superior numbers with minimal casualties (at least among his own men).
Tacitus' view of the natives is that they can be noble savages, as his Caledonians are presented here, yet at the same time they are stupid - like the cohort of Usipi who desert the Romans but who lack the technical skills to allow them to convert their noble aspirations into practical effect. They can also be seduced into slavery: the population was gradually led into the demoralising temptations of arcades, baths, and sumptuous banquets. The unsuspecting Britons spoke of such novelties as 'civilisation', when in fact they were only a feature of their enslavement p73. According to Tacitus the natives are like children, they lack foresight and willpower to maintain their traditional values (in contrast to Agricola)(view spoiler)[ if one glances forward in time one sees this attitude was not unique to ancient Rome (hide spoiler)].
In common with the later Christian hagiography there is a golden hazy vagueness over the details. The moral of the story is the morality of Agricola as the hero figure. We know more about the details of Agricola's campaigning in modern Scotland from archaeology and aerial photography than from Tacitus' account which in that sense is not biographical but intended to be exemplary.
The history of Britannia, that distant province of the Roman Empire, is so obscure that every word in Tacitus' eulogy for his Father-in-Law, the soldier and later Governor, Agricola has been turned over repeatedly, yet the effort only invites further questions.
When one of the leaders of the Caledonians makes a great set piece speech to his warriors denouncing Roman imperialism and colonisation you read and wonder how much this is Tacitus imagining what a barbarian resisting the Romans ought to say and how much this is Tacitus reminding his audience of the simpler, martial virtues of the ancient Romans (view spoiler)[ it is a nice bit of rhetoric and reminds me of Heart of Darkness, back in the sepulchral city they talk of peace, out in the field the reality is devastation (hide spoiler)] . Equally the resistance of barbarians to the Romans might be an allusion to the lack of resistance of the Roman political elite to the tyranny of the Emperor Domitian. Agricola is not free to pursue a martial career and to bring glory to Rome - military success could be the forerunner of an attempt to seize power so the careers of officals and old Roman military virtues are kept carefully clipped by the cautious Emperor, so Agricola doesn't get to invade Ireland, something he can only fantasize about. Even so, Agricola is conspicuous in his dignity and thus through his early death spared the tyranny which his son-in-law lived through.
* * *
The Germania is an account of the tribes living beyond the Rhine later famous for praising the purity of German blood and descent, but here I imagine Tacitus speaking to the Good Old Boys at the Gentlemen's club. The idealised foreigner is a mirror reflecting what the Romans ought to be. At least what members of the senatorial elite, all old money and of good families with impeccable ancestries, might think looking at an Imperial government operated by freed slaves with the most dubious antecedents.
The Germans are held up as a model in their marriage customs, funerals and their public assemblies. It's hard to see this as anything other than a condemnation of the kind of ways of love and modern life described by Ovid in The Love Poems and the idealisation of the how things used to be back in the early Republic when men were manly, martial and virtuous and Roman women were no less martial and virtuous, if not quite as manly as their menfolk. Any similarity with actual Germans, at least in the parts describing the 'Germans' generally rather than specific tribes, may well be entirely co-incidental!
When reading Tacitus making a joke (presumably) about the tribe ruled by women that this was not just below freedom but worse than slavery I can't help thinking that he is invoking the spirit of Cleopatra and the memories of Livia and Agrippina. The place of the proper Roman Matron was to inspire their menfolk to proper virtuous behaviour and not, horror of horrors, exercise power on their own behalf and own interests.
Tacitus also briefly mentions the punishment of those who were drowned in bogs inside wicker cages. Some of the bog bodies dug up in recent times have had been found covered in branches (though I believe one of these was a young girl which appears to contradict Tacitus' testimony that this was a punishment reserved for "cowards, shirkers, and sodomites" p111). And there are occasional finds that support Tacitus' descriptions including, again on a bog body, a man's long hair knotted at the side of his head (possibly what we call a Suebian knot)(view spoiler)[ I saw some documentary on the battle of the Teutoburger Wald featuring re-enactment societies, unfortunately they had to delay the start of the battle because the Germans were still getting their hair ready, plainly for all that fastening your cloak with a thorn business, sartorially being a barbarian was far tougher than one might think (hide spoiler)].
The tribe specific descriptions show something of societies in flux. Different in some ways already from Caesar's descriptions of Germans in The Conquest of Gaul, probably influenced by the spreading Roman empire and merchants bringing wine and other fine luxuries north to exchange for slaves and amber.
The interest and enjoyment of these works is that they are so short and slight. Their purpose and audience so tightly bound with the use of the material that you can poke and prod at them endlessly. Not quite what the author intended, but fun none the less.
Read information about the authorPublius (or Gaius) Cornelius Tacitus (ca. AD 56 – ca. AD 117) was a senator and a historian of the Roman Empire. The surviving portions of his two major works—the Annals and the Histories—examine the reigns of the Roman Emperors Tiberius, Claudius, Nero and those who reigned in the Year of the Four Emperors. These two works span the history of the Roman Empire from the death of Augustus in AD 14 to (presumably) the death of emperor Domitian in AD 96. There are enormous lacunae in the surviving texts, including one four books long in the Annals.
Other works by Tacitus discuss oratory (in dialogue format, see Dialogus de oratoribus), Germania (in De origine et situ Germanorum), and biographical notes about his father-in-law Agricola, primarily during his campaign in Britannia (see De vita et moribus Iulii Agricolae).
Tacitus was an author writing in the latter part of the Silver Age of Latin literature. His work is distinguished by a boldness and sharpness of wit, and a compact and sometimes unconventional use of Latin.
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