Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 1999.10.20

Herbert W. Benario, Tacitus' Germany.   Warminster:  Aris and Phillips, 1999.  Pp. 123.  ISBN 0-85668-717-0.  $22.00.  



Reviewed by Dr. Katherine Clarke, Ancient History, St Hilda's College, Oxford
Word count: 1695 words

The appearance of a new English commentary on Tacitus' Germania is, as the author points out, long overdue. Benario's Germania comes as welcome relief to this long period of neglect, bringing the Germania to a potentially wide readership in the convenient, affordable, and readily-available Aris and Philips series.

The emphasis throughout is on accessibility. The introduction provides useful information on Tacitus as an author, his own public career, and the broader historical context. Both the political situation in Rome itself, which formed the backdrop for the formulation of Tacitus' views, and the new wave of Roman expansionism in the late first to early second centuries AD are brought to the reader in admirably clear and simple terms, and in ways which are relevant to illuminating the work in hand. The other literary works of Tacitus are briefly introduced to provide a context for the creation of the Germania. Perhaps a more detailed exposition of the ethnographical tradition would have further enhanced the literary contextualization. One especially valuable section of the introduction is that on the transmission and later reception of the text. Important for any text, in the case of the Germania, with its propensity towards racist interpretation, modern readings of the work carry particular resonance, effectively brought out by Benario.

The text and translation require little comment, Benario's text being taken over, with few emendations, from that of Winterbottom's OCT, and translation based on his own published version of 1991. The translation is for the most part readable and clear. There is a perceptible desire to remain true to the Latin, which will no doubt prove extremely helpful to undergraduates using this translation to assist their reading of the original. However, on a few occasions the result is rather strained English, forcing this reader, at least, to re-read a sentence in order to grasp its meaning (e.g. precipitous height in 1.2; first sentence of 11.1). Infelicities are, however, rare and the meaning is on every occasion easily recoverable.

Most of Benario's work is of course to be found in the commentary, but it is worth first mentioning his helpful guidance to the reader in the form of chapter headings, concisely but accurately defining the contents. Particularly useful to those unfamiliar with the text will be the broader titles to sections of the work, encompassing several chapters each and giving a sense of overall structure and direction. Such assistance will have little impact on the seasoned Tacitean scholar, but is very much in keeping with the aim of wide accessibility.

The commentary itself is pleasingly full, given the scale of the publication, but with points made selectively rather than comprehensively. The result is that certain key themes emerge as those underpinning Benario's interpretation of the Germania. I shall discuss the strengths of these before briefly mentioning what I see as a few regrettable omissions.

On the factual level, Benario's commentary is particularly strong in its attempt to locate peoples and places of the Germania on the mental map of the reader. Drawing precise equivalencies between ancient and modern geography is a venture doomed to fail, but Benario's broad placement of the various tribes provides helpful guidance to a bewildering array of names.

Benario makes much of the likeness or similarity of the world of the Germania to that of Rome. A wide range of background information concerning Roman culture, customs and laws is brought into play in almost every chapter as a foil to the habits of the various north-western tribes. This is, of course, a recurrent theme of the monograph itself, but Benario's elucidation of this interpretatio Romana is nonetheless sensitive and constructive. For some examples, see chapters 3.1 on Hercules, 13.1 on the German equivalent of the Roman toga, 27.1 on funeral customs. Benario's comparisons between the lifestyles of Germans and Romans are not only interesting in their own right, but also serve the further purpose of assisting the reader to appreciate some of the preconceptions inherent in Roman reactions to those people with whom they came into contact. Users of this commentary will be importantly enlightened on at least some of the Roman social norms and practices against which Tacitus and his readership must have formed their view of the German peoples. Benario quite rightly says as much to his modern readers about Rome as he does about the ostensible subject of the work.

This tendency to assist the reader's entry into the thought-world of the original context extends to Benario's elucidation of Tacitus' language, particularly where he uses terms which would have been rich in resonance for his original readership. The implications of the adjective divus, applied to Vespasian in 8.2, are clearly brought out, as are the distinctions between auctoritas and potestas in 11.2. Indeed, the commentator is very much alive to literary style. The presence of sententiae, chiastic arrangements, the accumulation of words with similar meanings, and alliterative phrases -- all are noted in such a way as to enrich our reading considerably.

All of these aspects of the commentary enable the reader to make much of this little-read text. Benario is unusually successful in the degree to which he has combined historical understanding with literary appreciation. Indeed, by setting forward some of the subtleties of Roman political terminology, he explicitly makes historical and literary understanding mutually dependent. By allowing certain key themes to remain dominant, Benario achieves in this commentary considerable coherence and also a level of sophistication which might have been thought irreconcilable with the relatively small scale of the publication and the aim of bringing the text to a wide readership. The wealth of information needed in order to achieve the latter aim is never in danger of submerging the broader interpretation.

However, focus inevitably brings limitations. Every author and reader will make a different selection of themes for inclusion and a list of omissions cannot be a productive reaction to a book, but I mention here an aspect which I felt was strikingly absent.

The commentary starts, as we would expect given Benario's sensitivity to intertextuality, with a point concerning Tacitus' possibly deliberate evocation of Caesar's Bellum Gallicum in the first words of the Germania (Germania omnis cf. Gallia est omnis ...). We next gain a tantalising glimpse into the world of the ethnographical tradition with the suggestion that the opening formula might have been drawn more generally from this tradition rather than taken specifically from the Bellum Gallicum. My complaint is this. The range of authors on whom Benario draws for his cross-references and comparisons is extremely limited. So one of the strongest aspects of this commentary, namely the literary associations of the text, its sentiments and its vocabulary, is hampered by its restriction to a small number of parallel enterprises. Very many of the cross-references are to other works of Tacitus himself; most of the rest are to Caesar and Pliny. Almost all are productively drawn. But almost all, if not absolutely all, are made to Latin texts. What of the wonderful ethnographical tradition to which our attention is fleetingly drawn, and most of which was written in Greek?

One might contend that the outlook of the Romans was so different from that of Greek authors that such cross-reference would be confusing, if not positively misleading. There are however some clear instances where direct reference to Greek sources would have been illuminating and relevant. One might, for example, expect Tacitus' movement towards increasingly distant tribes and the discovery of correspondingly primitive lifestyles, culminating in that of the Fenni in 46.3 to have evoked a mention of Agatharchides of Cnidus and his second-century BC description of the Arabian Gulf, in which the same kind of movement is observed. Perhaps more obviously, one would surely have expected that 45.5 on Tacitus' supposition that the production of exotic substances such as incense and balsam in the East might be mirrored by similar phenomena in the West would be annotated with reference to Herodotus and his symmetrical world view, notably in the argument that Hyperboreans in the far North must be balanced by Hypernotians in the far South (Hdt. 4. 36). The attempts of Greek authors to make sense of the lands and peoples revealed by various conquests and the broadening of horizons seem to have much to offer our reading of Tacitus' Germania, and their omission seems to me a serious loss.

However, there is one author whose absence from this commentary gives particular cause for concern. Even if we can exclude Agatharchides and Herodotus on the grounds that they were not writing specifically about North-west Europe, or because they were not concerned with the Roman discovery of the world, neither of these reasons will allow for the exclusion of Posidonius. It is true that not much remains of the writings of this author, reputed to be one of the greatest intellectuals of the late Hellenistic age. It is true that he wrote in Greek, not Latin. But we must surely place him and his world-view in the context of Roman expansion; and we do know from extant fragments of his Histories that he dealt, amongst other places, with the area treated by Tacitus in the Germania. On the general Posidonian picture of North-western Europe, see G. Dobesch Das europäische 'Barbaricum' und die Zone der Mediterrankultur: Ihre historische Wechselwirkung und das Geschichtsbild des Poseidonios, Vienna: Holzhausen, 1995; but it would have shed light in particular on Tacitus' description of German dining customs (22-3) to refer to Posidonius on the same theme, and it is hard to understand how Tacitus' reference to the Cimbri and furthermore to their migration could not have evoked a mention of Posidonius' famous treatments of the same (FGrH 87 F 28 and 31). These seem to me lost opportunities to provide a literary context for Tacitus' Germania, placed firmly in the well-established ethnographical tradition.

However, in spite of these limitations this is a valuable volume. It has much to offer both in terms of detailed information and in its lively enthusiasm for the subject matter. The pace is just right; the interest level high. The aim of bringing the Germania to an English-speaking readership in a readily accessible way is surely fulfilled.

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