BMCR 2005.12.17

Negotiatio Germaniae: Tacitus’ Germania und Enea Silvio Piccolomini, Giannantonio Campano, Conrad Celtis und Heinrich Bebel. Hypomnemata 158

, Negotiatio Germaniae : Tacitus' Germania und Enea Silvio Piccolomini, Giannantonio Campano, Conrad Celtis und Heinrich Bebel. Hypomnemata, Bd. 158. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2005. 284 pages ; 24 cm.. ISBN 3525252579 €76.00.

In the five and a half centuries since its rediscovery Tacitus’ Germania has exercised an influence out of all proportion to its length. The appropriation of ‘die kleine Schrift des grossen Römers’ by nationalist and national socialist ideologues in the twentieth century is notorious; its central place in the politicization of ancient German history at the turn of the sixteenth century is also familiar to students of humanism.1 Krebs (henceforth K.) addresses himself to the earlier period in this reworking of his Kiel doctoral dissertation. Limiting himself to the four humanists in his title, he analyses the manipulation of the Germania by these litterati-cum-politicians. How, he asks, could this text be used to support diametrically opposed arguments in the wrangle between papacy and Holy Roman Empire? His study encompasses detailed examination of the Germania itself and careful consideration of the generic frameworks within which his humanist authors were writing, with a particular emphasis on the ‘rhetorical’ quality of both ancient and renaissance texts. The introductory chapter sets out the stakes and the key terms of K.’s project, defined as ‘eine imagologische Studie der Varianz der imago Germaniae’ (16). The theoretical framework is borrowed from comparative imagology, an approach perhaps unfamiliar to Anglophone readers (as it was to this writer). ‘Imagologie’ in its constructivist form seeks to replace essentializing ‘national characters’ with the ‘images’ we create of ourselves and other societies; it arose in post-war France, and spread to comparative literature departments in Germany in the 1960s and 1970s. Whereas the sociocultural context of modern Europe remains intrinsic to the approach of most practitioners, K. treats imagology as a hermeneutic literary tool, defining its concern as ‘das Bild des (fremden oder auch eigenen) Landes innerhalb eines literarischen Werkes’ (26).2 At the heart of this study are the ‘imago Germaniae’, the image of Germania constructed by Tacitus, and the ‘negotiatio Germaniae’, the competing manipulations it was subjected to by later readers in their construction of ‘functionalist myths’ of the past. These myths may assert a continuity of past and present (‘fundierend-legitimierend[e]’), or construct a differing past which either glorifies or vilifies the present in contrast (respectively ‘kontrapräsentisch-defizitäre’ and ‘kontrapräsentisch-überlegene imagines’). K adopts an appropriate, if not especially novel, approach in this study of reception, though some may question the value of this polysyllabic classification (not to mention the malformation ‘imagology’ itself).

K. argues strongly in his introduction that an interpretation of Tacitus’ text is intrinsic to a study of its reception, and faults the failure of previous scholarship in this respect. Accordingly he devotes eighty pages to ‘Tacitus’ imago Germaniae aus der Perspektive ihrer Wirkungsgeschichte’, as chapter two is entitled. K. takes a hardcore ‘literary’ (his word) line, rejecting questions of historical fact as irrelevant both to Tacitus and to the present study; instead he emphasizes his view of the text as ‘rhetorische Ethnographie’. The strong influence of generic considerations on the content as well as the form of the Germania is now widely accepted. By characterizing the text as ‘rhetorical’, K. signals a more contentious view of authorial intent: for him, the Germania is a work of persuasion, written to convince a Roman elite readership that the Germani are ripe for conquest.

The argument is articulated in three stages. First, rhetorical ethnography. The ‘Penetranz des Eigenen’ which suffuses the work is an intrusion not just of the Roman Self, but specifically of Tacitus, into the text: in K.’s terms, not just an ‘interpretatio Romana’, but also an ‘interpretatio Tacitea’. By glossing ‘glesum’ as ‘sucinum’ at G.45.4 Tacitus introduces a connotation of degenerate Roman luxury (here K. follows O’Gorman).3 But what other word could Tacitus have used? His preference for ‘plebs’ over ‘vulgus’ in G.10-12 imports to the Germani his ‘Hochschätzung der starken plebs’ of the republic (54) — as if Tacitus were a nostalgic republican tout court, despite the overridingly pejorative connotations of ‘plebs’ in, say, Histories 1. More convincingly, K. argues that contradictions within the text reveal not carelessness or lack of control over Wandermotive but the opportunism of the rhetorician — and rhetoric, not ethnology, is central to the Tacitean project.

Second, Tacitus’ ‘imaginäre Geographie’. Whereas Caesar’s construct of Germania as a boundless infinity in the Bellum Gallicum implicitly ruled out a possible conquest, Tacitus’ strict geographical delimitation in G.1.1 (K. considers ‘mutuo metu et montibus’ adequately concrete) and portrayal of a single Germanic people (the infamous ‘propriam et sinceram et tantum sui similem gentem’ of G.4.1) rewrites the Caesarian account to suggest a finite and clearly defined territory open to conquest. K.’s emphasis on the interestedness of Caesar’s (and thus Tacitus’) narrative is well placed, but some edges have to be blurred to achieve the contrast. In particular, it is hard to reconcile K.’s view with the descent into obscurity and myth which ends the work: ‘cetera iam fabulosa … quod ego ut incompertum in medium relinquam’ (G.46.4) scarcely leaves the impression of ‘eines scharf demarkierten Germaniens’ (80).

In the third and final section of chapter two, K. analyses the ‘imago Germaniae’ into its constituent ‘imagems’ (what others call ‘topoi’). Rejecting Sittenspiegel interpretations, he argues in a twenty-five page reading of the Germania for the ambivalence of Tacitus’ judgment on ‘simplicitas’, ‘libertas’ and ‘virtus’. A full assessment of his interpretation would be a review in itself; interested readers may judge the details for themselves. Since, however, many of the laudable qualities exhibited by Tacitus’ Germani are ethnographic motifs (characterised elsewhere as ‘Konzession gegenüber der Tradition’, 48), K. turns out to be arguing not so much for ambivalence as for a negative Tacitean assessment. This becomes apparent in the chapter’s conclusion, which strings together excerpts from the other opera minora to reveal a solution to the (supposed) ‘German question’: in short, ‘dass die Germanien-Frage nur einen Agricola braucht’ (85). There is a curious tension between K.’s stated aim of demonstrating the ambivalence of the text and his argumentation for a single reading (which will by no means convince all). His interpretation is welcome as a contribution to scholarly debate on the Germania itself, but sits uneasily within his project as a whole.

Chapter three constitutes the bulk of the book. K. begins with a brief overview of his four chosen humanists, then gives each a sub-chapter of around thirty-five pages. His formula is to consider two different literary productions by each scholar. For Enea Silvio Piccolomini these are his 1454 ‘Türkenrede’ (an attempt to muster German support against the Turks) and his 1458 letter-tract ‘Germania’ (a 140-page defence of papal rule over Germany). The speech constructs a ‘legitimating myth’ of ancient Germani as proud, fierce warriors. By contrast, the letter-tract employs a ‘counter-presentive myth’ based on partial citation of Tacitus (whom he had recently read): ancient Germani were uncouth barbarians, so their modern descendants have the church to thank for their state of civilization. With sensitivity to the political context, K. argues that the principal intended readers of Piccolomini’s ‘Germania’ were not so much the Electors as the Italian cardinals who created him Pius II later that year; so Piccolomini moulds his ‘imago’ to suit both his argument and his audience. This makes it all the more difficult, however, to assess Tacitus’ place in all this. Would Piccolominihave concentrated on German barbarity anyway? He already had Caesar and Strabo as ‘authorities’. Here, as elsewhere, explanation of why Tacitus’ Germania in particular ‘marks the climax of barbarity’ (155f.) would be welcome.

A sharper contrast is supplied by Giannantonio Campano, a member of the papal delegation at the Ratisbon Diet of 1471. He was due to muster support against the Turks (again) with a stirring encomium of ancient German values, but internal German conflicts pushed him off the agenda and the speech remained undelivered. He published the oration after the event; in the meantime he penned a series of letters to friends in Italy lamenting his nine-month stay in a hateful ‘barbara tellus’. It is misplaced, K. maintains, to contrast oratorical rhetoric with epistolary sincerity and charge Campano with hypocrisy in the speech (as furious Germans did on reading the letters). Taking a hint from a contemporary mention of Campano as ‘Ovidius alter’, K. introduces Ovid’s exile literature as his ‘reference text’ to show how the content of Campano’s letters reflects ancient epistolary and exilic tropes. He tends to an extreme anti-historicist reading and accordingly asserts that Campano’s construct of Germany need not be taken as a reflection of any extra-literary reality. K. is surely right to stress the classicizing nature of humanist epistolography, but the comparison solely with Ovidian ‘poetic truth’ skirts more complicated questions of autobiography and self-representation in, say, the prose letters of Cicero and Pliny. Not surprisingly K. is at a loss to explain Campano’s motive in creating this purely literary world (‘die Motivation … im Dunkeln bleibt’, 180): it is hard to reject altogether the biographical interpretation of the letters as expressions of frustration and disenchantment.4 As for the Germania, the Ratisbon oration functions as a pendant to Piccolomini’s ‘Germania’, this time with Tacitus providing material for the ‘myth’ of a Germanic warrior past.

K. now turns to Conrad Celtis, German ‘arch-humanist’. His two texts — the hexameter poem ‘Germania generalis’ (‘G.G.’), which he appended to his 1500 edition of Tacitus’ Germania, and Amores 2.9, an elegiac rebuke to ‘Elsula’ — both present a ‘partiell rehabilitiert[e]’ imago Germaniae (226), using Tacitus to create a positive but not whitewashed picture of ancient Germany. The contrast this time lies in their depiction of the present (‘imago Germaniae novae’). K. reads the G.G.’s idealized present as anti-Italian polemic, an assertion of German moral superiority; meanwhile the degenerate present depicted in Amores 2.9 is a combination of Roman elegiac topoi (rebuke of the puella’s excessive cultus and nostalgia for a lost past) and further anti-Italian polemic, an insinuation that southern influence has effeminized the Germans. K. amply proves his case for generic influence and indeed intertextuality with first-century poetry, though it is not clear why he considers ‘laus temporis acti’ a ‘Genrespezifikum’ (211) of elegy: if any poetic genre is to be privileged with this ubiquitous motif, it is surely satire. In any case the allusion to Horace is misleading: ‘laudator temporis acti/ se puero’ (Ars Poetica 173f.) is a stock senex reminiscing on his own youth, not times past. K. drops his guard in contrasting Amores 2.9’s description of Germany ‘anhand von Liebeserfahrungen’ with the ‘genuine Beschreibung’ of the G.G. (211n.401): his emphasis on generic motivation should extend to the G.G., and the imagological approach — the only apparent reason for this temporary abandonment of Tacitus — is fundamentally opposed to such essentialising of the ‘genuine’. K. returns from the ‘imago Germaniae novae’ to his theme of the Tacitean imago with Heinrich Bebel, whose ‘humanistic patriotism’ (227) creates the first wholly idealized account of the ancient Germani by a German. K. follows his formula of taking two sample texts, the dedicatory preface to his ‘Proverbia Germanica’ (Deutsche Sprichwörter) and the speech he delivered to Maximilian at his coronation as poet laureate in 1501. In this case there is no disparity to be resolved: Bebel is consistent in his ‘panegyrical history’, asserting that Germany had an advanced, thriving ancient civilization (here he anticipates the ‘research’ of Himmler’s SS-Ahnenerbe). Tacitus’ assumed Roman bias makes his praise of the Germani all the more valuable. Bebel is concerned, though, to downplay the illiteracy of his constructed forebears (illiteracy is one of the ‘imagems’ of the Germania), both with his collection of supposed ancient Sprichwörter and by downplaying the value of literature as a cultural achievement (paradoxically devaluing his own literary sources, as K. observes). With Bebel the Tacitean imago is transformed, in K.’s refrain, ‘from Italian invective to German encomium’.

K.’s study takes a narrow remit but a broad frame of reference, encompassing informed discussion of Ciceronian oratory, epistolography, love elegy and historiography; at the same time the historical and political background to this ‘negotiatio Germaniae’, while not the primary focus, is always in mind. His argument, and the book’s presentation, exhibits the model clarity typical of a Doktorarbeit, though several errors have slipped through proof-reading.5 The formula of two texts per author works well for the Italians, less so for the Germans: the shift in focus to Celtis’ ‘imago Germaniae novae’ leaves Tacitus on the sidelines, and Bebel — whose two texts show no great contrast — assumes a misleading function in the study as a sort of anti- Piccolomini neatly bringing the ‘imago’ full circle. K.’s modest goal is ‘to obtain an insight into the negotiatio Germaniae’ (22), and this he certainly achieves. Quite how the book’s two parts fit together is harder to see. The emphasis on the rhetorical opportunism (and generic affiliations) of Tacitus’ humanist readers makes K.’s extended demonstration of the ambivalence of the text itself seem otiose. At the same time the second chapter’s reading of the Germania as a thoroughly unambivalent call to arms, while valuable in its own right, plays no part in the remainder of the study. K. himself, it seems, has been drawn deep into the negotiatio Germaniae. And the imagology? In the analysis of Tacitus it seems to add little more than a new set of jargon. In the rest of the book its role is more substantial in setting the four studies within a single framework — though, again, its novelty seems limited. Whether K.’s concluding hope for further imagological studies will be realised remains to be seen.


1. For Tacitus’ Nazi history, see primarily L. Canfora, La Germania di Tacito da Engels al nazismo, Naples 1979 and A. A. Lund, Germanenideologie im Nationalsozialismus. Zur Rezeption der ,Germania’ des Tacitus im ,,Dritten Reich”, Heidelberg 1995. The humanist period is a crowded field of German scholarship, though Ridé’s 1776-page contribution remains fundamental (J. Ridé, L’Image du Germain dans la pensée et la littérature allemandes de la redécouverte de Tacite à la fin du XVIe siècle, 3 volumes, Lille-Paris 1977). For a brief English-language overview of both periods, see H. W. Benario, ‘Tacitus’ Germania and Modern Germany’, ICS 15 (1990): 163-175. The quotation above is from G. Röttger, ‘Die taciteische Germania im heutigen Lateinunterricht’, Neue Jahrb. f. Antike u. deutsche Bildung 2.6 (1939): 267-282, p.267.

2. For a brief history of imagology, see M I Logvinov, ‘Studia imagologica: zwei methodologische Ansätze zur komparatistischen Imagologie’, Germanistisches Jahrbuch GUS ‘Das Wort’ 2003: 203-220. The principal exponent of the culturally bound approach is Hugo Dyserinck, the founding father of German imagology. The hermeneutic approach is exemplified in M. Swiderska, Studien zur literaturwissenschaftlichen Imagologie. Das literarische Werk F. M. Dostoevskijs aus imagologischer Sicht mit besonderer Berücksichtung der Darstellung Polens, Munich 2001.

3. E. O’Gorman, ‘No place like Rome: Identity and Difference in the Germania of Tacitus’, Ramus 22 (1993): 135-154, p.141.

4. E.g. F. R. Hausmann in the Dizionario Biografico degli Italiani 17 (1974) 426f.

5. ‘Hinsichlich’ 24; ‘tauta’ paroxytone 31; ‘unterschliedlichen’ 33; ‘material’ for ‘Material’ 39, ‘geograpischen’ 40; ‘historiques’ for ‘historique’ 59 and 273; ‘entspingend’ 74; ‘antiquite’ unaccented 113; ‘Ausdehung’ 138; ‘e.i.’ for ‘i.e.’ 155; ‘Exiltypolgie’ 172; ‘Einzelausage’ 189; ‘lu’ omitted in 121n.24; incomplete reference in 142n.97; ‘auch auch’ 207; ‘Quandoqidem’ 216; ‘Reevalutation’ 232; Benario 1990 is ascribed to 1976; Donald Kelley has lost an ‘e’; various typesetting errors.