BMCR 2001.08.09

Das Bild der Germanen und Britannier, Untersuchungen zur Sichtweise von fremden Völkern in antiker Literatur und moderner wissenschaftlicher Forschung

Beatrix Günnewig, Das Bild der Germanen und Britannier : Untersuchungen zur Sichtweise von fremden Völkern in antiker Literatur und moderner wissenschaftlicher Forschung. Europäische Hochschulschriften. Reihe III, Geschichte und ihre Hilfswissenschaften, Bd. 792 = Publications universitaires européennes. Série III, Histoire, sciences auxiliaires de l'histoire ; vol. 792 = European university studies. Series III, History and allied studies ; vol. 792. Frankfurt am Main: P. Lang, 1998. 380 pages ; 21 cm.. ISBN 3631336144 $56.95.

Beatrix Günnewig’s 1998 book Das Bild der Germanen und Britannier is the published version of her 1996 Hanover Ph.D. Thesis. As the subtitle Untersuchungen zur Sichtweise von fremden Völkern in antiker Literatur und moderner wissenschaftlicher Forschung implies her thesis is another investigation of the depiction of foreigners in Greco-Roman literature. In addition to the ancient evidence G. also examines how the image of these two peoples in ancient literature was confined to particular topoi and how this influenced their depiction in scholarly texts from the 1870s onwards. As a hardly revised German Ph.D. thesis, the book obviously does not address the general reader, but a specialist audience. G. divides her book into four sections.

The first part covers the depiction of Germans in the ancient sources from the first century BCE to the end of the second century CE. In the second section G. turns her attention towards the scholarly literature and the reception of the Germans’ image as she described it in the preceding section. Parts three and four mirror this approach for the depiction of the ancient Britons. However, before G. sets out to elucidate the ancient topoi about the Germans she clarifies her theoretical approach, which includes no concept of “the other”, or notions of alterity or discourse. Instead of post-modern or (post)structuralist ideas we find G. Wissowa’s concept of topoi as the guiding principle for the thesis. Finally before G. starts her investigation of the Germans she briefly discusses the fuzzy ancient and modern terminology concerning Celts and Germans.

The section about the Image of the Germans in ancient literature is certainly the heart and soul of G.’s thesis. Not only is it the most convincing part it is also by far the biggest, comprising almost half of the book. G. begins by looking at the depiction of Germans in a political and military context, i.e. in historiographical and biographical texts. She discusses her material in chronological order of the events, thus starting with Plutarch’s description of the Cimbri and Teutones in his life of Marius, and then going on to Florus and Orosius. G. tries to mitigate the fact that she starts her work with such late authors by tracing back those passages to the original sources like Poseidonius (thanks to German Quellenforschung), which seems to be a bit risky as one might suspect that later authors could have added topoi and stereotypes. G. shows that topoi about the northern barbarians dominate the image of the Germans in the writings of these authors. Germans are depicted as uncivilised beastlike barbarians who are mainly interesting as “materies gloriae”, i.e. as foes whose defeat brings immense glory to Rome and the commander who beat them. Moreover, the topoi are interchangeable with descriptions of Celtic people. G. finds the same to be true for Caesar’s depiction of the Germans which she discusses next. Caesar does not seem to be interested in describing a “German reality”, as G. calls it. Instead he turns to geographical stereotypes and topoi to give a description that supports his military interests.

G. structures her next section about the events during Augustus’s and Tiberius’s reign in three sections around the clades Variana. However, she does not find a striking difference in the depiction of Germans before and after 9 CE. Instead the by now well known ethnographic traditions are again the most obvious influence. Even an eyewitness like Velleius Paterculus reproduces them for his writings instead of bringing in his own experiences. The interest in the Germans as “materies gloriae” focuses now on the imperial family. The next section covers events until the end of the Batavian uprising. G. finds again predominantly ethnographic topoi about barbarians. Tacitus’ description of the uprising especially is full of what an author aware of modern theory would call attempts to depict the Batavians as the “other”. The last part of the political and military context covers the time up to Marcus Aurelius’s war against the Marcomanni. The scarce sources show again the familiar picture. G. ends her investigation of historiographical and biographical sources, concluding that in these texts the image of the Germans consists mainly of topoi about northern barbarians. The authors only rarely describe German customs and they only seem to show any interest in Germans as objects of Roman military feats. In G.’s opinion these texts are hardly useful for a reconstruction of a “German reality”. Next she discusses what she calls “wissenschaftliche” authors, such as Strabo, Pomponius Mela, Pliny the elder et al. G. again argues that these authors employ descriptions based on topoi. Again she questions the value of such information about the “German reality”. The next subsection is devoted to the representation of Germans in Latin poetry. As the reader might have expected by now the Germans appear in poetical texts in the same familiar way. The language may differ from prose texts but the contents do not. Moreover, G. finds no change in these texts from Horace to Juvenal. Finally G. turns to the most important literary text about the ancient Germans, Tacitus’s Germania. Surprisingly if one considers the importance for her topic, G. devotes only 19 pages to the Germania, only a few more than her investigation of the poetical texts. She argues that although the Germania contains many facts proven to be correct by archaeological evidence Tacitus’s interpretation of these facts is mainly influenced by topoi. Moreover, his intention to describe the Germans as a warlike and not yet conquered foe of Rome dominates his interpretations.

In chapter two of the book G. turns her attention to modern scholarly reception of the Germans’ image in ancient literature. However, she limits her approach to standard textbooks. Moreover, with only a few exceptions all the discussed works are of German origin. According to G. German scholarship was the most active in the study of the ancient Germans and thus justifies an organisation of the material according to the major periods of German history over the past 130 years. First she investigates the scholarship from 1871 up to the end of the first World War. She argues that the scholars of this period, such as K. Müllenhof for example took the ancient literary evidence at face value. Moreover, their intention was often to build a national mythology for the newly founded German empire by drawing a connection from the Germanic people of antiquity to the modern Germans. An awareness of the significance of topoi can first be found when argued in a 1916 review by G. Wissowa of Gudeman’s Germania commentary. This idea was taken up by E. Norden to whose Die germanische Urgeschichte in Tacitus’ Germania and its reception G. devotes much of the next section, which covers the scholarship during the Weimar republic. Although Norden’s book was widely acclaimed, his argument about Tacitus’ use of “Wandermotive” was not generally accepted. Instead the majority of scholars, according to G., continued to use the literary sources rather uncritically. G. next turns to the darkest chapter of German history between 1933-45. Indeed many German classicists, such as H. Oppermann for instance, used the ancient literary sources to support Nazi conceptions about the ancient Germanic people. In the final section of this survey (covering 1945-95) G. notes a new importance of archaeological evidence in the standard textbooks. Moreover, attempts to link the ancient Germanic people with the modern Germans ceased as a consequence of the by now discredited previous attempts. Especially since the 1970s works by such scholars as D. Timpe show also a more critical awareness of the ethnographic and literary traditions.

Chapter three aims to elucidate the image of the ancient Britons (G’s choice to call them Britannier, i.e. Britannians strikes the reader as a bit odd). Initially one notes the comparatively small space, 50 pages, G. devotes to this chapter. In addition, a comparison between Germans and Britons is also included in this chapter, further reducing the space she devotes to the Britons. Two reasons justify this according to G. First, there are fewer sources about the Britons. Second, she intends to cover the already familiar stereotypes about northern barbarians in less detail. Instead of choosing the same approach as in chapter 1, i.e. different subsections for historical, geographical and poetical texts, G. organises this chapter according to topics. First she looks at the geography. G. highlights the concept of Britain as a sphere apart from the oikumene on the edge of the world as the main point of interest for ancient authors. Even the scarce information about the internal geography is often focused on this “Randlage”. In the next section G. turns to the economy, culture and society of Britain. She claims primarily that the ancient authors do not differentiate between the highland and lowland zones of Britain—the archaeological evidence in contrast shows a differentiated picture, but apparently the literary sources do not reflect this at all. Moreover, they concentrate on depicting the ancient Britons as primitive people whose habits run contrary to those familiar to Greco-Roman readers, i.e. the authors create an image of the Britons as “the other” (although these are not G.’s words). At the end of this section the author offers a first comparison between the two people. She sees a primary difference that the simplicity of the Germanic people’s life is sometimes idealised whereas such an element is completely missing in the depiction of the ancient Britons. In the final section of this chapter G. investigates the ethos of the Britons as characterised by the ancient authors. Again G. finds topoi about northern people predominant. Moreover, the “ferocitas” of Barbarians, which Y. Dauge investigated, is especially emphasised. Moreover, G. claims that the leaders of the Britons such as Caratacus and Boudica hardly received special attention by authors such as Dio or Tacitus. The author concludes the section and the chapter with a second comparison. Again she concludes that the Britons are never depicted in an idealistic fashion. Finally, G. claims that they are depicted as less warlike than the Germans.

In the last chapter G. discusses the scholarly literature up to 1995. Again she investigates only standard handbooks. Not discussing articles, however, causes as we will see some problems. In contrast to chapter 2, in which she discusses the scholarly literature about the Germans, G. does not organise this chapter according to recent British history. She points out that most of the books she discusses were written by archaeologists and often use the literary sources rather uncritically. G. also discusses a few works about Tacitus, such as B. Walker’s The Annals of Tacitus, which seems to be an odd choice, because, despite all its deserved merits, this book is certainly not a standard handbook about Roman Britain or the ancient Britons. Only in such works concerned with ancient authors does G. find a greater awareness of topoi. She claims that future works should redress this.

It is unfortunate that G. did not update this section between the acceptance of her thesis in 1996 and the publication of this book, because she does not mention Braund’s Ruling Roman Britain, which addresses many of her criticisms.1 Less explicable is the absence of Robberts’ article in AJPh 109 about Tacitus’ depiction of the Britons as female during the Boudican rebellion,2 because this article clearly shows how the Britons were depicted as the “other”. Even if she wants to exclude articles from the discussion of scholarly literature she should have added a footnote and included the article in her bibliography. In addition to problems in her discussion of scholarly literature, her analysis of the depiction of the Britons often misses the necessary depth. For instance G. dismisses the characterisation of British individuals as not meaningful. However, she misses among other aspects how Dio constructs Boudica as Nero’s exact opposite, i.e. the woman who behaves like a man leads a rebellion against the emperor who behaves like a woman. Her own interpretations are not always convincing. G. claims, for example, that Tacitus depicts the Britons as less warlike than the Germanic people, because the latter bring their female relatives along to support them in battle, which shows a confidence in their ability to win any fight (for instance Tac. Germ. 7). The Britons instead bring their families into safe havens, a claim G. supports with Tac. Agr. 27. In addition she claims that the women mentioned in Tac. Ann. 14.36, attending the battle, were warriors. Apparently she is unaware that Tacitus writes in Ann. 14.34 “(sc. Britanni) coniuges quoque testes victoriae secum traherent.”

G.’s book is just one of a number of German Ph.D. theses which deal with the depiction of foreign people in Greco-Roman literary sources, all to some extent influenced by Dauge’s “Le Barbare”.3 Foremost is B. Kremer’s “Das Bild der Kelten bis in augusteische Zeit”.4 Two previous Hannover dissertations also dealt with similar topics. H. Sonnabend investigated the depiction of Egypt and the Parthian empire,5 whereas M. Jantz covered Hispania and Gaul.6 The work, however which overlaps the most with G.’s is Trzaska-Richter’s 1991 Bochum thesis, Furor Teutonicus, which dealt with the depiction of Germanic people.7 G. definitely succeeds in supplanting Trzaska-Richter’s book, which made the ill-advised attempt to argue on the one hand the existence of topoi in the literary sources but on the other hand also tried to uncover prejudices in the actual behaviour of Roman decision makers as described in the very same sources. Instead G. intends to exclude the “real” history and sticks to the literary side. She convincingly shows up several of Trzaska-Richter’s misconceptions. Moreover, G.’s discussion of the scholarly literature adds a new dimension.

The lack of any modern theory is certainly not a fault, although one gets the impression that G.’s argument would sometimes have been more pointed and perhaps even better if she had an awareness of concepts of alterity for instance. A minor weakness is the inconsistent presentation in the discussion of scholarly literature, where she sometimes describes the careers of scholars (even if it is of little importance to her argument) and sometimes omits such information. The main fault, however, is the imbalance between the two subjects of her thesis. Obviously the Germanic people are her main interest as she deals with them in 250 pages whereas the Britons are covered in 80. The chapters about the Germanic people are not only quantitatively but also qualitatively better than their counterparts about the Britons. Nevertheless even in the chapter about the depiction of the Germans she missed for instance the invaluable observation by A. Woodman that Tacitus used Vergilian motifs to depict the Germanic people as monsters (which would have splendidly supported G.’s argument).8 However, it is the section about the Britons which is the weakest.

Although the book does not convince as a comparison of the depiction of ancient Britons and Germans it succeeds in its chapters about the Germanic people and replaces Trzaska-Richter’s Furor Teutonicus.


1. D. Braund, Ruling Roman Britain, London 1996.

2. M. Roberts, The Revolt of Boudicca (Tacitus Annals 14.29-39) and the assertion of Libertas in Neronian Rome, AJPh 109, 1988, 118-32.

3. Y.A. Dauge, Le Barbare , Recherches sur la conception romaine de la barbarie et de la civilisation, Brussels 1981 (=Collection Latomus 176).

4. B. Kremer, Das Bild der Kelten bis in augusteische Zeit, Studien zur Instrumentalisierung eines antiken Feindbildes bei griechischen und römischen Autoren, Stuttgart 1994 (=Historia Einzelschriften 88).

5. H. Sonnabend, Fremdenbild und Politik , Vorstellungen der Römer von Ägypten und dem Partherreich in der späten Republik und der frühen Kaiserzeit, Frankfurt 1986.

6. M. Jantz, Das Fremdenbild in der Literatur der Römischen Republik und der Augusteischen Zeit, Vorstellungen und Sichtweisen am Beispiel von Hispanien und Gallien, Frankfurt 1995.

7. C. Trzaska-Richter, Furor Teutonicus, Das römische Germanenbild in Politik und Propaganda von den Anfngen bis zum 2. Jahrhundert n. Chr., Trier 1991 (=Bochumer Altertumswissenschaftliches Colloquium 8).

8. A.J. Woodman, Rhetoric in Ancient History, London 1988.