Publius Cornelius Tacitus (A.D. ?55—?117)

Classic Writings on Poetry - William Harmon 2003

Publius Cornelius Tacitus (A.D. ?55—?117)

Tacitus was one of the most distinguished of Roman historians. He served in various governmental positions: military tribune, quaestor, praetor, consul, and pro-consul. His speeches were celebrated for their eloquence. His Germania, written around A.D. 100, contains one of the earliest accounts of the poetry of Northern Europe. Tacitus clearly viewed the Germans as barbarians, but he was willing to concede that they cultivated at least some of the arts. For them, however, poetry was practical and instrumental, charged with civic, military, and religious significance.

His history resembles earlier works on foreign cultures, such as those in Greek by Herodotus and Pausanias. Typically, such studies mix fact with fiction and comment freely on curiosities of language and culture. Tacitus also gives the Germans credit for being a unified nation of related peoples (“german” and “germane” mean “having the same ancestors”).

GERMANIA (CA. A.D. 100; excerpt)

Translation adapted from William Francis Allen, ed., The Life of Agricola and the Germania (Boston: Ginn, 1913).

The Germans, I am apt to believe, derive their original from no other people; and are nowise mixed with different nations arriving amongst them: since anciently those who went in search of new buildings, travelled not by land, but were carried in fleets; and into that mighty ocean so boundless, and, as I may call it, so repugnant and forbidding, ships from our world rarely enter. Moreover, besides the dangers from a sea tempestuous, horrid and unknown, who would relinquish Asia, or Africa, or Italy, to repair to Germany, a region hideous and rude, under a rigorous climate, dismal to behold or to manure unless the same were his native country? In their old ballads (which amongst them are the only sort of registers and history) they celebrate Tuisto, a God sprung from the earth, and Mannus his son, as the fathers and founders of the nation. To Mannus they assign three sons, after whose names so many people are called; the Ingævones, dwelling next the ocean; the Herminones, in the middle country; and all the rest, Instævones. Some, borrowing a warrant from the darkness of antiquity, maintain that the God had more sons, that thence came more denominations of people, the Marsians, Gambrians, Suevians, and Vandalians, and that these are the names truly genuine and original. For the rest, they affirm Germany to be a recent word, lately bestowed: for that those who first passed the Rhine and expulsed the Gauls, and are now named Tungrians, were then called Germans: and thus by degrees the name of a tribe prevailed, not that of the nation; so that by an appellation at first occasioned by terror and conquest, they afterwards chose to be distinguished, and assuming a name lately invented were universally called Germans.

They have a tradition that Hercules also had been in their country, and him above all other heroes they extol in their songs when they advance to battle. Amongst them too are found that kind of verses by the recital of which (by them called Barding) they inspire bravery; nay, by such chanting itself they divine the success of the approaching fight. For, according to the different din of the battle, they urge furiously, or shrink timorously. Nor does what they utter, so much seem to be singing as the voice and exertion of valor. They chiefly study a tone fierce and harsh, with a broken and unequal murmur, and therefore apply their shields to their mouths, whence the voice may by rebounding swell with greater fulness and force. Besides there are some of opinion, that Ulysses, whilst he wandered about in his long and fabulous voyages, was carried into this ocean and entered Germany, and that by him Asciburgium was founded and named, a city at this day standing and inhabited upon the bank of the Rhine: nay, that in the same place was formerly found an altar dedicated to Ulysses, with the name of his father Laertes added to his own, and that upon the confines of Germany and Rhœtia are still extant certain monuments and tombs inscribed with Greek characters. Traditions these which I mean not either to confirm with arguments of my own or to refute. Let every one believe or deny the same according to his own bent.