Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2007.03.15

Dieter Timpe, Römisch-germanische Begegnung in der späten Republik und frühen Kaiserzeit. Voraussetzungen-Konfrontationen-Wirkungen. Gesammelte Studien.   München/Leipzig:  K.G. Saur, 2006.  Pp. 470.  ISBN 978-3-598-77845-2.  €98.00.  

Reviewed by John F. Drinkwater, University of Nottingham (
Word count: 3578 words

This is a collection of papers on Romano-Germanic relations under the late Republic and early Empire chosen by their author, a distinguished scholar in the field. It follows an earlier collection of Timpe's papers: Romano-Germanica. Gesammelte Studien zur Germania des Tacitus, 1995. All have been given a uniform typeface and consecutive pagination. However, there is clear indication of their original place of publication and pagination. References in the footnotes have been altered in line with the new pagination; and new cross-references within the text direct attention to related material elsewhere in the volume. It is difficult to decide how to review a collection of this sort. One approach is to deal with papers in order of publication, assessing how each was greeted when it first appeared and how it relates to later research -- of others and of its author. However, since the collection is presented as book, organised as a book, and for the most part reads like a book, it is best to treat it as a book -- largely ignoring the age of its constituent elements and instead identifying and discussing its main themes. However, I will first summarise its contents. This is because it is long, wordy, discursive and (unavoidably, given the origins of its contents as free-standing papers) repetitive, which sometimes makes it a difficult read. I hope that a short guide to its contents will help readers who might otherwise be frightened off by its density to persevere with the book. (Anyone in a hurry will be able to grasp most of T.'s drift by reading just paper 10.)

In his introduction (3-18), T. explains the impossibility of writing straightforward 'Germanic' history, principally because 'Germani' is a Roman construct. There was never an ancient, independent and self-aware Germanic 'nation', viscerally opposed to the Roman Empire, only middle and northern Europeans messily but positively interacting with their southern neighbours -- Celts, then Romans. T. argues that Rome's dealings with the northern barbarians are obscured by the paucity of the sources and their propensity to distort what they describe according to their own experiences and expectations. T. then reproduces 14 papers under three section headings. In the first section, 'Begreifen des Fremden und Begegnung mit dem Norden', he offers three studies on Rome's 'first contact' with Germani. In 1, 'Ethnologische Begriffsbildung in der Antike' (1986: 19-41), he notes the ethnocentricity of Greek ethnographers, which led them to study outsiders solely in terms of their difference from Greek society rather than according to objective criteria. Roman writers simply followed suit, attaching the label of 'Germani' to the northern peoples and, for example, deriving chronic Germanic hostility (and, so, the 'Germanic threat') to the Empire from occasional Germanic raiding and explaining this as the result of hereditary barbarism engendered by northern climes. In 2, 'Rom und die Barbaren des Nordens (1996: 42-62), T. argues that actual dealings between Romans and Germani were not usually confrontational but based on mutual co-operation, which offered potential for the integration of Germani into the Mediterranean world. Though, following the extreme shock of their first encounter with northern barbarians in the shape of the Cimbri, the Romans drew a sharper ideological distinction between civilisation and barbarism, this is not affect their day-to-day dealings with Germani. Border administrators and soldiers required partners, not enemies. The result was symbiosis. The sources', and some modern historians', false impression of permanent confrontation is further examined in 3, 'Kimberntradition und Kimbernmythos (1994, 63-113). T. locates its origins in Roman misinterpretation of the Cimbric 'invasion'. The Cimbri were not the first in a long line of Germanic invaders, hell-bent on fulfilling their historical destiny by precipitating the 'fall' of the Roman Empire. Rather, they were just one group of Germanic peoples among others that moved south to the Danube region to exploit the opportunities offered by developing Celtic societies. The best way of doing this was by their males finding service as mercenaries. A totally unforeseen chain of events put the Cimbri west of the Rhine and facing a struggle to the death with Rome -- the main aggressor in this world.

T.'s second section, 'Bedingungen des Handels und Wege der Okkupationsgeschichte', deals with the crucial question as to how and why, within just one generation (12 B.C.-A.D. 17), Rome advanced from the Rhine to the Elbe, and then fell back. In 4, 'Wegeverhältnisse und römische Okkupation Germaniens' (1989: 114-46), he considers the role of communications in conquest. He admits that forests, rivers, mountains and marshes made movement difficult east of the Rhine, as stressed by ancient writers. However, we should not believe all we read. Close study of events from the arrival of the Cimbri reveals that the country was never wholly inaccessible; and Roman military engineering was entirely capable of opening it up fully, at least to the Elbe. All that was required was political will, and this was certainly evident down to Varus and probably to Germanicus. In 5, 'Zur Geschichte der Rheingrenze zwischen Caesar und Drusus (1975: 147-70), T. sketches out the background to Drusus I's campaigns from 12 B.C. These do not represent a sudden shift in policy, from defensive to offensive, with the intention of expanding the Empire to the Elbe. Caesar had advanced to the Rhine valley to expel Germanic raiders from Gaul and to give the country permanent security. Augustus was ready to go a step further to protect Gaul -- by extending Rome's sphere of influence much further east of this river -- and so ordered Drusus forward to intimidate, not conquer. However, Drusus' activities, principally by disrupting the established system of diplomatic control, took him ever eastwards -- eventually, unplanned, to the Elbe. Paper 6, 'Drusus' Umkehr an der Elbe' (1967: 171-90), though published eight years earlier than the preceding and one of the oldest in the collection, takes up the story to ask why, having reached the Elbe in 9 B.C., Drusus immediately fell back. T., dismissing as fanciful the explanations of the sources and of modern commentators directly dependent on them, speculates that Drusus, having pursued a less than wholly successful campaign to the Weser, took a late decision to advance to the Elbe. His 'withdrawal' is explicable against the background of an advance that was unscheduled, was never intended to go beyond the Elbe, and ran into criticism from his general staff. Paper 7, ' Zur Geschichte und Überlieferung der Okkupation Germaniens unter Augustus' (1967: 191-215), equally elderly, carries the story beyond the death of Drusus I and Tiberius' consolidation of his brother's conquest of Germany to the Elbe. T. reviews the evidence concerning Domitius Ahenobarbus' governorship of Germany, the subsequent revolt there under M. Vinicius, and Tiberius' return to restore order, around the turn of the first century A.D. He detects a lost history of the occupation, preserved in Dio, which identified these events as the precursors of the Varian disaster. While integration with the Empire appeared to be proceeding apace, Germanic political instability was spawning anti-establishment factions, encouraged by the possibility of support from unconquered communities spanning the Elbe. The latter were made all the more dangerous at this time by their links to Maroboduus of the Marcomanni. In 8, 'Neue Gedanken zur Arminius-Geschichte' (1973: 216-41), T. reaches the climax of his story in this section, as he attempts to wrest the authentic Arminius from poor and prejudiced sources and equally prejudiced and fanciful modern reconstructions. His main point is that, whatever Arminius was, he was not the heroic liberator of Free Germany. Germany was relatively peaceful under Varus, at least to the Weser. The potential trouble lay eastwards, on the Elbe. Arminius was a trusted officer in the Roman army, commanding a Germanic auxiliary regiment and so helping to keep order. He rose against Varus in the first instance as the leader of a mutiny. T. concludes that although Arminius' uprising was a nasty surprise for Rome, it demonstrated that Gaul could be adequately defended from the Rhine.

Thus Germania could be abandoned, and mention of 'abandonment' is the cue for paper, 9, 'Der römische Verzicht auf die Okkupation Germaniens' (1971: 242-64), where T. considers the force of the term. He tackles the old chestnut as to why Tiberius pulled Rome out of Germania for good: out of envy of Germanicus or because he realised that Germania was a lost cause? T. contends that this is a flawed question, derived from flawed sources. To understand what happened we must take a wider view, which brings us to the fundamental difference between the areas between the Rhine and Weser and between the Weser and Elbe. The former could be subdued, the latter were more difficult because of the Elbe communities and the presence of Maroboduus. Such a complex situation required complex thinking, which Tiberius provided. Perceiving that the key to current Romano-Germanic relations was Maroboduus, he ordered Germanicus to bring peace to the west by diplomacy, not force, then sent his son, Drusus II, to stabilise the east by undermining Maroboduus. This was successful, and their success ensured the continuance of Roman influence in Germany, even if this did not involve re-conquest from the Rhine to the Elbe. Thus there was no Roman 'abandonment', only a return to the situation prior to the campaigns of Drusus I. In 10, 'Römische Geostrategie im Germanien in der Okkupationszeit, (2004: 265-317), T. reiterates and consolidates his interpretation of early Romano-Germanic relations, from the Cimbri to Tiberius, as presented in all the preceding papers. He attempts to resolve the basic question of what Roman administrators and soldiers were doing in Germania. He rejects simplistic explanations, such as long-term conquest or short-term intimidation. His view is, as ever, that, though the sources are difficult, if considered in their full geographic and historical context they may yield more satisfying solutions. He develops the argument that large-scale Roman interference in Germania sprang from the defence of Gaul. The initial advance from the Rhine to the Elbe was neither sabre-rattling nor a strategic move in its own right. However, once Rome moved into Germania she found she had the means to stay, determined to stay, and set about developing the country. This ended with the Varian disaster, and with Tiberius. T. repeats that the real danger to the Empire was not Arminius and the Cherusci but the situation on the Elbe. Tiberius' genius was to see this and to appreciate that excessive Roman military activity over the Rhine might destabilise the situation further east, precipitate dangerous pressure on the as yet much less prepared Danube frontier, and even encourage wider Germanic alliances threatening Gaul. He therefore ended Germanicus' campaigning and sent Drusus II to the Danube to settle the situation through diplomatic intrigue. T. stresses, however, that this was not an abandonment of Germania Magna, still less, as Tacitus would have it, a retreat before Germanic nationalism. On the contrary, it was just a different and, for Tiberius, more effective way of controlling the region. The final paper in this section, 11, 'Tacitus und der Bataveraufstand' (2005: 318-57), appears at first sight to be an outlier, dealing with events half a century after Germanicus, for most part within the Empire. To begin with, T. seems set on overturning the current revisionist view of Tacitus' account of the 'Batavian uprising', according to which this was not a nationalistic revolt but an offshoot of Roman civil war. However, it then becomes clear that T. is only nuancing this interpretation. Because of the obscurity of Tacitus' narrative we do not know and will never know what occurred, though the signs are that the 'rebellion' was more Roman than Germanic. A more accessible issue is why Tacitus chose to focus on so marginal an episode and to handle it as he did. The likelihood is that he used it to warn contemporaries of the dire consequences of Roman political carelessness and mismanagement. Chief among these was the 'Germanic threat' -- the danger that Roman inattention might weaken the frontiers, allowing the waiting hordes to invade the Empire and tempt Romanised provincial nobles to treason. This is the link between this paper and rest in this section and its predecessor. Tacitus' interpretation was framed not in terms of the circumstances of the period he was describing but of those of the whole Roman experience of the peoples from the north, beginning with the Cimbri. And, like this 'experience', his interpretation distorted reality.

Paper 12, 'Der Suebenbegriff bei Tacitus (1992: 358-99), opens T.'s third section, 'Historische Erfahrung und literarische Tradition', in which he pursues the idea that historians, both ancient and modern, tell us as much, if not more, about their own circumstances and concerns as about those of the societies they purport to analyse. Here, he turns his attention to Tacitus' Germania. He notes that this work is so confusing in its treatment of the Suebi that it is generally ignored in modern research on them. The basic problem is the peculiar blandness of Tacitus' portrayal. Though nominally discriminating between Suebi and Germani, he effectively subsumes the former to the latter and offers few piercing insights into Suebian society and identity. T. sees Tacitus as being far more interested, against all ancient and modern knowledge of both peoples, in suggesting a sharp distinction between Germani and neighbouring Sarmatae. The reason for this is obscure, but T. proposes again that something may be won from the wider geographical and historical context. Tacitus, writing against the background of Domitian's Danubian wars, takes the line he does to warn his readers of the disasters that Roman mishandling of the situation on the northern frontier might precipitate. In particular, the new centre of Suebic power along the Elbe and into Bohemia, created by Rome but not actively hostile towards her, might join with neighbouring Sarmatae and others to cause havoc on the Danube. In short, though Tacitus does not spell this out directly, the danger was spreading south and east, with the emergence of the 'Danube Suebi'. And indeed, as T. remarks, what came next were the Marcomannic wars. In paper 13, 'Hausen und Häuser der Nordbarbaren in den Augen der mediterranean Kulturwelt' (1997: 400-28), T. turns to Germanic settlement and housing. As with his treatment of the Suebi, what Tacitus says about this in his Germania hardly features in modern, archaeology-based, research on the topic. T., however, reckons that we should read between the lines. Tacitus uses settlement and housing to offer a unique assessment of Germanic society. On the one hand, the fact that Germani have permanent housing demonstrates that they are not wild nomads. On the other, their settlement pattern and housing technology demonstrates that they were, are, and always would be impossible to assimilate fully into Mediterranean culture. T.'s final paper, 14, 'Die Schlacht im Teutoburger Wald: Geschichte, Tradition, Mythos' (1999: 429-56), is a study of the 'Rezeption' of the clades Variana. It is a pendant to paper 8, but it also returns T. to where he began -- the extent to which 'Germanic history' is a construct. According to T., the incident was mythologised, but in modern, not ancient times. German glorification of Arminius 'the liberator' began in the Renaissance, gathered strength in the Enlightenment, and reached its peak in the nationalism of state-construction and in the cult of the 'Übermensch' of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. T. notes that times appear to have changed: the battle-site at Kalkriese has been made into a major tourist attraction, not a national shrine. However, he ends somewhat ominously with the observation that the tourists would not be there if it were not for the continuing popularity of the 'Hermannsmythos'.

T.'s main themes are easy to recognise. Historiographically, he stresses that most of our sources, preferring preconception over experience, seriously misinform us about Germanic affairs. Their projection of an absolute polarity between 'Germanentum' and 'Römertum' played a crucial role in shaping German nationalism, which remains an embarrassment for contemporary German historians. However, their misinformation may be corrected by assessing what they say against the wider geographical and historical context. Historically, he is equally keen to assert that, contrary to the sources, in their practical dealings Romans and Germani were generally cooperative. His 'big idea' is certainly that under different circumstances Rome could have provincialised Germania, and that what determined otherwise was the emergence of an axis of Suebian power up the Elbe. In all this, T. is not afraid to speculate, filling in the reticences and silences of the sources with his own, often complex, hypotheses. Purists might object, but plausible speculation is what Ancient History is about: without it, in the absence of true archival evidence, the subject can go nowhere. What matters is whether T.'s thinking will stand the test of time, which ultimately means whether it will be confirmed by our one fount of new information, archaeology. These papers appeared over a long period -- from 1967 to 2005 -- during which, as T. is plainly well aware (e.g. 189, 294) archaeological knowledge has increased substantially. However, Germanic archaeology remains notoriously difficult (so 8-9); and most of the Roman structures that T. posits in his reconstruction of early imperial activity in Germania, such as temporary forts and corduroy roads, cannot be expected to have survived well (cf. 282). For the moment, as T. plainly feels (cf. 189), current research does not undermine his arguments. He should, perhaps, have made more of the results of the DFG's 'Romanisierung' project (and, in particular, related discussion of the 'proto-town' at Waldgirmes, which generally supports his case),1 but for the most part he is correct: one can only wait and see. For the moment, I am persuaded by T.'s argument that the frontier was generally peaceful, and that the 'Germanic threat' was a Roman construct (cf. 338: Tacitus' 'Schreckensszenario'). In this respect, however, I have to confess a personal interest. Having recently investigated Romano-Germanic relations under the late Empire,2 I was anxious to check if T.'s overall picture matched up with my own, and was pleased to find that we both have arrived at very similar conclusions.3 Indeed, T.'s view of the Cimbri and of Germani as whole -- as 'invented' by Rome and then shaped by their contact with the Empire -- is entirely consistent with modern 'ethnogenetic' interpretations of the later 'migrations'.4 And his emphasis on the 'conquerability' of Germania fits well with what happened from the later sixth century, when Clovis reversed the direction of Germanic expansion from east-to-west to west-to-east. Though, as is to be expected, T. is clearly very aware of research into the later period -- to the point of criticising some of its key aspects (e.g. 16, 387), since he does not go beyond the second century he never engages fully with it. It would be interesting to have his considered views on, say, Burns' reconstruction of the development of Germanic society on the Danube over a much wider period.5

The book has its weak points, in particular a number of loose ends. T. is, for example, unclear as to what Varus was doing in the run-up to his defeat; why Arminius mutinied; what he and his fellows hoped to achieve by this (somehow, presumably, within the Roman military structure); and how the mutiny turned into a more general uprising. Likewise, he never addresses the question as to why, between Tiberius and Clovis, in periods when situation on the Rhine and the Danube was stable, Rome never attempted to re-run the 'Elbe experiment'. More generally, and probably because he is not an archaeologist, T. never tries to explain who his early Germani were. Without direct consideration of their economy, society and politics, 'Chatti', 'Cherusci' etc. are just labels. On the other hand, he appears happy to accept that economic and social change was, from an early date, encouraging the formation of agglomerations of people that would result in the 'Grossstämme' and 'Wanderungen' of the late Empire (e.g. 13, 15, 37, 54, 62). This is odd because automatic acceptance of the sources' 'Grossstämme' and 'Wanderungen' runs contrary to current thinking on the late period, and because T.'s readiness to accept such phenomena in this period tempts him to see them earlier. Thus, despite his radical thinking on the Cimbri, we find him talking about their arrival and that of Ariovistus and his Suebi in Gaul as tribal movement (95, 102, 122), although elsewhere (e.g. 150), probably more correctly, he is happy to explain it as the activity of warrior-bands. The result is that T., no doubt unwittingly, leaves the reader with the impression of an early Germania seething with restless tribes, constantly pressuring each other and the Empire (cf. 276, 302), which is at odds with his argument of border cooperation and symbiosis. A specific fault is that the book, though generally well planned and well executed, contains a run of petty errors (misspellings; incorrect characters, punctuation, fonts and point-sizes; transposed words, etc.) deriving, I guess, from electronic scanning. They are most frequent up to the end of paper 9, after which they decrease but never entirely disappear. Erroneous punctuation (e.g. 156, line 14) deserves particular criticism for increasing the reader's difficulty in understanding T.'s already fairly stiff German.

This is a book that requires hard work to absorb and appreciate, but it contains much of interest and value. And, in the current political climate, any European scholar who has the courage to suggest that 'Europaenthusiasmus' is potentially as harmful to the proper understanding of history as extreme nationalism (217-8) deserves attention.


1.   A. Haffner and S. von Schnurbein (eds.), Kelten, Germanen und Römer im Mittelgebirgsraum zwischen Luxemburg und Thüringen, Bonn, 2000.
2.   The Alamanni and Rome, Oxford, 2007.
3.   In much the same vein, see also T. S. Burns, Rome and the Barbarians 100 B.C.-A.D. 400, Baltimore, 2003; U. Riemer, Die römische Germanienpolitik von Caesar bis Commodus, Stuttgart, 2006.
4.   Cf., most recently, M. Kulikowski, Rome's Gothic Wars, Cambridge, 2006.
5.   Burns, op. cit. (note 3).

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