BMCR 2001.04.19

Tacitus: Germania (with an introduction and commentary)

, , Germania. Clarendon ancient history series. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1999. x, 346 pages : 1 map ; 22 cm.. ISBN 0198150504 $35.00.

‘[I]t has appealed to students of literature, and to historians, to researchers in European origins, to patriots and to politicians’.1

Tacitus’ de origine et situ Germanorum (= Ger.), despite the apparent endorsement of the above quote from Ronald Syme, is not a widely studied text. Perhaps this is due to accessibility: apart from the recent Aris and Phillips edition by H. W. Benario, the last large-scale English commentary was that of J. G. C. Anderson sixty years ago.2 Since then, there has been substantial progress both in our understanding of Tacitus and the Germani (as R. calls them throughout the work; for consistency I will do the same in this review). Those of us interested in this text therefore have high expectations of any commentary. R.’s edition will disappoint few enthusiasts of this text. In the introductory essay (1-74) the author discusses the work in its various contexts. Things definitely get off to a good start: R. dives right into the debate concerning the Germani (1-11). The identity of the Germani is a difficult question; the assumption that the Germani and the people of present-day Germany are related is a dangerous one. Using this as the starting point for his discussion has a clear advantage, therefore, for it encourages the reader of the Ger. to put aside this assumption from the outset. The second section (11-21) has a literary focus as the author explains the ethnographic tradition in ancient times, going back even further than Herodotus. In this section R. does more than simply catalogue the ethnographic excursuses offered by ancient historians. Through his wide background reading,3 R. provides an invaluable context for the Ger. The commentary reinforces this placing of the Ger. in this context by R.’s references to relevant passages from those writers in whose works German ethnography plays an important role—e.g., Caesar and Strabo.

A few other sections of the introduction merit comment. After moving a step closer to the Ger. itself by shifting the literary discussion to ‘Roman writers on the Germani’ (35-41) R. next discusses Tacitus’ writings as a whole (42-8), justifiably since the Germani feature in both his Annals and the Histories. There is a substantial biography of the historian, followed by a brief chronological discussion of his works (42-5). R. then outlines briefly the nature of Tacitus’ writing in general (45-7). The author could have gone a bit further here, especially concerning the relationship between the Agricola and the Ger. (it is not always for the sake of printing economy that the two works often appear in the same volume). I would also have liked some comment on the German narratives contained in Tacitus’ Annals and Histories, viz. the possible link with, and the influence of, the Ger. on these later Tacitean German-centred narratives. The Germani in these later works are not ignored in the commentary, however: at several key points in his discussion of the Ger. R. makes references to Tacitus’ historical works. I was especially pleased with the final section of the essay, on the post-classical life of the monograph (66-74). Perhaps this work more than other product of Greco-Roman antiquity has a fascinating history of reception, for the history of reading and interpreting (and misinterpreting) this text from mediaeval times onwards generates much interest. One can easily risk going too far here. R. avoids this, providing a useful summary that highlights the key episodes and issues in the history of the monograph’s reception. Should the reader wish to explore this topic further, the bibliography lists the main works on his aspect of the Ger.4

The translation is straightforward. R. holds true with his main point raised in his introduction on the ambiguity of the Germani (see above on the first part of the introductory essay), when he uses the words Germania and Germani as ‘Germany’ and ‘Germans’ respectively.

Given that the Ger. is only twenty-five pages long in the Latin version, the length alone of the commentary section (99-328) is impressive. Here are some of the particular strengths of the commentary.

R. finds it necessary to discuss some of the Latin words that Tacitus uses to describe the Germani and their culture. For example, R. is careful to note that there is a clear difference between rex as it applies in Rome and how Tacitus uses the term at 7.1. This leads to a discussion on kingship in Germania in general (144-6). Sometimes phrases must be discussed—e.g., pedum usu ac pernicitate‘moving fast by foot’ (326). The only drawback is that a few times these discussions appear to take over the commentary: for 13.2, for example, he seeks to explain four words/phrases in succession (180-3): adulescentulus, dignatio principis, ceteri and comes.

One area where the commentary is especially strong is R.’s discussions of Germani tribes and (usually Roman) historical persons (in this case the non-classicist reader of the monograph is given valuable and necessary help). He provides substantial and informative analyses of several of the larger tribes—for example, the Batavi (239-40), the Chatti (246-8), the Cimbri (271-3), the Suebi (282-5) and the Fenni (326-7). With so many tribes mentioned by Tacitus (which can easily confuse the reader, whether ancient or modern), these introductions are valuable. R. prepares the reader for this difficult aspect of the work in his introduction to the second half of the monograph (227-30).

Like all good commentators, R. is more than willing to focus more closely on some passages. The best example is 37.2-5 (273-82), which is perhaps the most important chapter of the monograph.5 Most of this is taken up by explanations for the non-Classicist reader on people named by Tacitus in passage, but there are other important elements: on 37.2, Tacitus’ reference to the second consulship of Trajan leads R. to discuss the date of the Ger. (273-4). On the next sentence (37.3), which is very carefully constructed, we have some shrewed literary analysis: ‘this idea forms the climax of this carefully constructed chapter. Tacitus begins by noting how long the Romans have been fighting the Germani. He next supplies a chronological list of Rome’s greatest enemies, moving from its hegemony over Italy to its contemporary confrontation with the great empire of the east. By then playing down the threat of Parthia, Tacitus presents the Germani as the climax, the greatest enemy of the Roman people throughout their entire history’ (276). Finally, for Tacitus’ discussion of Roman interaction with the Germani, R. provides useful cross-references to Tacitus’ narrative of German involvement in the crisis of 69-70 C.E. that he recreates in his Histories (281).

As his analysis of 37.2-5 demonstrates, R. does highlight Tacitus’ ability as a writer in the Ger., showing the literary qualities of this work as well as its historical importance. However, despite the ‘literary’ sections of the introduction, the needs of the series in which this commentary appears dictate preferential treatment of historical matters. We can understand the reason behind this; it brings the work to a much wider audience than a strictly literary approach could do. Perhaps as compensation R. could have provided some further reading, for it would be a shame for the student of the Ger. to put aside this text without at least being made aware of this aspect of the work.6

While R. may not provide hard-core literary analysis, he does include useful and important comment on the structure of the Ger. He puts the important ‘middle’ of the text (27.2) into perspective (227-30), for example. He also provides good introductions to various sections of the monograph: chh. 2-4 (105-7) and chh. 38-45 (282) are two examples. This builds upon his general comments on structure in the introductory essay (48-9).

If there is any criticism to be offered, it is this. Unlike many commentaries, at the top of the page there is no indication of what part of the text is under discussion. Given the extended discussion of certain passages, when one searches for comment on a particular passage, a prolonged search is sometimes required. When one looks some at facing pages, there is no indication of which part of the monograph is under discussion (e.g., 122-3, 136-7, 160-1, 228-9, 232-3). Likewise the decision not to distinguish the introductory sections on groups of chapters from the rest of the commentary results in hiding from view R.’s good discussion of the structure of the Ger. (see above). Moreover, by some printing oddity in the commentary several times parts of words in bold type are missing their double ff’s, e.g., offences (176); offspring (206); foodstuffs (215). However, these are cosmetic shortcomings in the presentation of the work.

One final point. Like many previous editions of the Ger., R. includes a map. Usually these maps attempt to locate most of the tribes to which Tacitus refers, despite the fact that the debate about where some tribes were located is ongoing. The map in this edition, while keeping within this tradition, is careful to note where the location of a particular tribe may be in doubt by placing a question mark after the tribe’s name. This recasts R.’s point on the middle of the work (227-30), about the dubiety of where exactly some of these Germani lived. Despite this, a map in such a text is essential: it enables the reader to understand better the nature of the journey that Tacitus maps out in the second half of the monograph.

There can be little doubt that the Ger., Tacitus’ aureus libellus, deserves critical attention. R.’s edition will prove useful work to anyone interested in this fascinating ancient text, classicist or otherwise, and it will be a great help in raising the profile of this important text.


1. R. Syme, Ten Studies on Tacitus, Oxford, 1970, 19.

2. H. W. Benario, Tacitus: Germany, Warminster, 1999 (reviewed at BMCR 99.10.20); J. G. C. Anderson, Tacitus: Germania, Oxford, 1938. Also published just prior to R.’s commentary is the translation for the Oxford World’s Classics Series by A. R. Birley, Tacitus: Agricola and Germany, Oxford, 1999. The most recent German edition is that of A. A. Lund (Heidelberg, 1988).

3. R. Oniga, Sallustio e l’etnografia, Pisa, 1995 (the title is spelled incorrectly in R.’s bibliography); G. A. Sundwall, ‘Ammianus Geographicus’, AJP 117 (1993), 619-43; Francois Hartog, The Mirror of Herodotus, Engl. trans., Berkeley, 1988. A surprising omission is the essay by B. M. Bell, ‘The Value of Julius Caesar as Ethnographer’, Akroterion 13 (1993), 104-12.

4. Five works stand out: H. W. Benario, ‘Tacitus’ Germania and Modern Germany’, ICS 15 (1990), 163-75; L. Canfora, La Germania di Tacito da Engels al nazismo, Naples, 1979; J. S. Hirstein, Tacitus’ Germania and Beatus Rhenanus (1485-1547), Frankfurt, 1995; D. R. Kelley, ‘ Tacitus Noster : The Germania in the Renaissanace and Reformation’, in T. J. Luce and A. J. Woodman, edd., Tacitus and the Tacitean Tradition, Princeton, 1993, 152-67; H. Kloft, ‘Die Germania des Tacitus und das Problem eines deutschen Nationalbewusstseins, Archiv für Kulturgeschichte 72 (1990), 93-114.

5. For a focused study of this chapter, not cited in R.’s bibliography, see J.-H. Beck, ‘nec impune C. Marius…:zu Tacitus’ Sicht der römischen Erfolge gegen die Germanen im 37. Kapitel seiner “Germania”‘, Philologus 139 (1995), 97-132.

6. Here I refer mainly to the excellent paper by E. C. O’Gorman, ‘No Place Like Rome: Identity and Difference in the Germania of Tacitus’, Ramus 22 (1993), 135-54. See also M. Gwyn Morgan, ‘Tacitus on Germany: Roman History or Latin Literature’, in L. Schulze and W. Wetzels, edd., Literature and History, New York, 1983, 87-118; and more recently J.-W. Beck, ‘Germania’-‘Agricola’—Zwei Kapitel zu Tacitus’ zwei kleinen Schriften, Hildesheim, 1998 (non vidi).