Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2006.01.26

Federico Borca, Confrontarsi con l'Altro. I Romani e la Germania.   Milano:  Lampi di Stampa, 2004.  Pp. 125.  ISBN 88-488-0318-0.  €14.00.  

Reviewed by Eva Valvo, Università di Pisa (
Word count: 779 words

This booklet by Federico Borca aims at offering a survey of the Roman perception of the Germans by using ancient literary sources dating from the first century BC to the first century AD. It is a popular book explicitly targeting a wider audience than the academic, and it is mainly based on the (extensive) previous research on the subject. The author summarises as well a few of his own articles on Germanic landscapes and physiognomy in Roman culture. The detailed description of the quoted passages is not complemented by a synthetic conclusion that sums up the main point of the work.

The work consists of an introduction and three chapters dealing with "The places", "The people" and "The war". The introductory remarks start by stressing the importance of the contact with the Germanic world for Roman self-comprehension and then linger on the concept of orbis. The opposition between orbis Romanus and orbis Germanus is compared with a number of antitheses that will be recalled time and again in the rest of the book: civilised/barbaric, culture/nature, human/bestial, familiar/unknown, order/chaos etc. While Roman society usually integrates and absorbs different cultures, it confronts and refuses the otherness represented by the Germanic people, which is perceived as a danger for the integrity of Roman culture.

The chapter devoted to the places begins with a discussion about the borders of the Germanic world according to Pomponius Mela and Tacitus. Among the borderlines are mentioned the Ocean, the Danube and the Rhine, which are depicted from a Roman perspective with similar traits as those ascribed to the Germans: immensus, horridus, ignotus, adversus, barbarus, ferox etc. Borca provides a long list of examples and quotations from Tacitus, Pliny the Elder, Seneca, and Caesar among others. The Germanic landscape is represented as a locus horridus opposed to the harmonious Italic locus amoenus. There follows a discussion of Germany as informis, foeda, cold and full of woods and marshes. The author suggests and interesting link between the descriptions of Germanic landscapes and infernal settings (based on a previous article1), but the concept is not further developed.

The chapter on the Germanic people opens by explaining that ancient ethnography was based on environmental determinism, according to which the environment has an effect on people's appearance and disposition (the author has tackled this topic before2); this theory also applies to Germany. According to Tacitus' description Germans have blue eyes and red hair, they have big bodies fit for assault, but they cannot endure fatigue; similarly Vitruvius and Pliny the Elder, who point to the cold and humid climate as the reason for such physical features. On the other hand, Rome (seen as situated in the centre of the world) enjoys a particularly good climate: therefore the Romans have middle size bodies and the right physical and intellectual qualities to rule the world. Feritas, iracundia, discordia, and immanitas are typical characteristics of the Germans, which Borca registers by quoting a number of passages from ancient authors; a few cases regard explicit comparisons of the Germanic temperament and climate. The author then presents by means of examples the Germanic women, who are as big and vigorous as their men, and describes the dietary habits of the Germans -- unrefined and poor.

The last chapter concerns war as a concrete means of becoming acquainted with other cultures alongside the activity of merchants, diplomats etc. Since acquaintance with the places is crucial in order to win, military campaigns also helped increase knowledge of geography and ethnography. Ancient authors were already aware of this fact, as Strabo, Velleius, Plinius the Elder, Tacitus, and Pomponius testify. Again, Borca observes that the unfamiliar setting of the war and the enemies have typical traits, such as chaos, deformitas and feritas. Romans and Germans differ also as far as warfare is concerned: while the former are well-organised and disciplined fighters, the latter obey instinct and brutality, thus mirroring the opposition between culture and nature. A few pages are devoted to the description of the episode of Quintilius Varus defeated by the Germans, as recorded by Florus, Velleius, Cassius Dio and Tacitus (this was the subject of a previous article by Borca3). Other examples are given to show that the Germans benefited substantially from the natural conditions of their land, which was alien and hostile to the Romans.

The book ends with no overall conclusion and leaves the reader without a general view on the subject, while the lack of a synthetic approach leads to frequent repetitions. The thorough and plentiful account of related primary sources could have been more useful with an index of quoted passages and authors. The work includes a rich and updated bibliography on the theme (111-125).


1.   F. Borca, "'Per loca senta situ ire': An Exploration of the Chthonian Landscape", The Classical Bulletin 76, 2000, pp. 51-59.
2.   F. Borca, Luoghi, corpi, costumi. Determinismo ambientale ed etnografia antica, Roma: Edizioni di storia e letteratura, 2003; cf. review by Charlotte Lerouge-Cohen (BMCR 2005.06.03).
3.   F. Borca, "La 'clades Variana' in Velleio Patercolo, Tacito, Floro e Cassio Dione: osservazioni su una retorica della disfatta", Aufidus 30, 1996, pp. 37-52.

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