Wednesday, May 11, 2011
Agricola and Germany
Book Review: Agricola and Germany by Cornelius Tacitus – translated and with commentary by A.R. Birley (Oxford University Press 1999/2009)
Tacitus is considered one of the greatest of Roman historians. These were his first two books written in 98 AD. The first book is an account of his father-in-law Julius Agricola who was a Roman general and later governor of Britain. Agricola made great strides in conquering and Romanizing the British tribes and forcing them well up into Scotland, or Caledonia. According to Tacitus, he was more pragmatic and matter-of-fact and avoided the typical pomp and laurel chasing of Roman generals.
Agricola, the book, represents the first written history of Britain, and Germany represents the first detailed description of the various ancient Germanic tribes. As a quick history – after the Roman Empire was established they were invaded by Celts/Gauls around 386 BC who took Rome and demanded gold. They held lands north of Rome for a while. Another group of Celts/Gauls later made it to Delphi on the Balkan/Greek peninsula before being pinned in Anatolia as the Galatians. Later the Roman Empire was strengthened by conquering all lands around the Mediterranean including Egypt and the Carthaginian empire in North Africa and southern Spain and expelling the Celts from northern Italy. Then came unexpected invasions from the north. Apparently Germanic tribes called the Cimbri and the Teutones were forced south from Jutland (Denmark) by flooding. They displaced other Germanic tribes and made some headway against the Romans. Later another Germanic tribe called Suebians tried to invade. Then came Gaius Julius Caesar who conquered the Gauls south of the Rhine and proceeded to cross the Rhine and then the English Channel into Britain to cut off their regrouping base area. In AD 9 was the famous Teutoburgian Forest victory of the Germans over the Romans where they were lured into the forest and attacked from several sides led by Arminius, a German who was trained as a Roman equestrian officer. Rome never recovered this lost province north of the Rhine.
Tacitus mentions that Britain and its peoples were described by many writers but apparently those accounts did not survive. Perhaps that is why his accounts are so brief. He mentions the Caledonians as having more Germanic features such as red-gold hair and massive limbs and the Silures to the south in Britain and Wales as having swarthy features and curly hair like Spaniards and continental Gauls. Then we have some descriptions of the earliest Roman rule in Britain and a short account of a nearly successful uprising led by the woman Boudicca. He mentions the Battle of Graupian Mountain which occurred somewhere in Caledonia. Here he gives a long speech attributed to a Caledonian king named Calgacus which bad mouths Roman tyranny, enslavement, and extravagances. But, according to the translator, this speech is very similar to one attributed to Persian/Anatolian King Mithradites denouncing Roman imperialism and other speeches. He thinks that Tacitus either freely created it or at least embellished it significantly.
Since the Britons were considered to be more or less the same peoples as the continental Gauls virtually nothing is said about their religious practices which were also likely to be similar. Most of the rest of the account is about the Roman victory at Grapian Mountain and further war campaigns until Agricola was recalled and further campaigns were put off due to his time having been served and due to instability and other wars seen more important in Rome. It is mentioned that most of the Britons living in Roman cities took up Roman customs and extravagances such as wearing togas and bathing. This was true much earlier of the conquered Gauls many becoming Roman citizens. In fact, Tacitus himself was thought to have been from a colonia in Gaul. He also mentions Britain as being rich in cattle.
Germany begins with a delineation of its land being north of the Danube and Rhine rivers. The conquered Gauls, Raetians, and Pannonians were Germanic and Celtic peoples south of these rivers. The Sarmatians and Dacians are given as Eastern tribal boundaries as well as mountains. He suggests that the Germanic peoples do not have genetics mixed in through intermarriage with other peoples, maybe due to the preponderance at the time of light colored hair and blue eyes.
An interesting part is where he mentions their ancient songs and lore. There is mention of celebrating an earth-born god called Tuisto whose son is Mannus – the ancestor of the Germans. Indeed, this is very similar to the story of the Indian Manu – and it seems likely that they are the same story in the Indo-European past. The sons of Mannus were Ingvae, Hermin, and Itsvae and made up three divisions of the people. Some sons of them may have become the Marsi, Gambrivii, Suebi, and Vandili tribal divsions. After the former name of the Tungri tribe, Germani, they became known by the Romans as and took up the name Germans.
Tacitus mentions that they venerated Hercules and that Hercules visited them way in the past – likely a common epitaph to war-like peoples that had a warrior heroic god. He says that they had battle songs, called baritus, that they would sing as a sort of divination for the upcoming battle – holding their shields close to their face to make the sound echo back and sound more imposing. The degree of unity of the sound was thought to be the most desirable trait predicting victory. The Germans nearest the Romans adopted some Roman habits such as barter with coins.
He goes through Germanic battle tactics and characteristics. Apparently, their foot soldier infantry was their strength. Another thing of note is that it was considered a point of dishonor to leave one’s shield and if one had done so he might hang himself out of shame. Kings were chosen by nobility of blood and commanders for valour. They were said to bring images and symbols of their war deity into battle and all executions and punishments were said to be by priests in consultation with deity. Mothers and wives tended to wounds and spurred on the men. They were spurred on also by fear of their women being taken captive. Regarding women in general he notes that;
“They even believe that there is something holy and an element of the prophetic in women, hence they neither scorn their advice nor ignore their predictions. Under the Deified Vespasian we witnessed how Veleda was long regarded by many of them as a divine being; and in former times, too, they revered Albruna and a number of other women, not through servile flattery nor as if they had to make goddesses out of them.”
Apparently Veleda lived in a tower along a tributary of the Rhine and had a hand in the Batavian revolt against the Romans – the Batavians at the time and afterwards as well being an important auxiliary unit in the Roman army. Her living in a tower suggests the “high seat” attributed to female seith mages. Veleda may also have been a seeress title of sorts. Apparently Strabo also mentions Cimbrian seer-priestesses who accompanied the warriors on wagons beating large drums. He described them as terrifying and in charge of the ritual sacrifice of prisoners and collecting their blood in a cauldron.
Tacitus mentions Mercury as the principle god. This may refer to Odin/Woden. Hercules may possibly refer to Thor but this is unknown. He mentions Isis as being venerated by the Suebi – which as he suggests may refer to an imported goddess cult. Regarding divinities in general he states:
“In general, they judge it not to be in keeping with the majesty of heavenly beings to confine them within walls or to portray them in any human likeness. They consecrate woods and groves and they apply the names of gods to that mysterious presence which they see only with the eye of devotion.”
He then mentions the importance of the casting of lots and gives a description:
“Their usual procedure with the lot is simple. They cut off a branch from a nut-bearing tree and slice it into strips. These they mark with different signs and throw them at random onto a white cloth. Then the state’s priest, if it is an official consultation, or the father of the family, in a private one, offers prayers to the gods and looking up towards heaven picks up three strips, one at a time, and according to which sign they have previously been marked with, makes his interpretation.”
Bird flight and specially consecrated white horses were also consulted as omens. Capturing a prisoner of an enemy and setting him to single combat with one of their warriors was a war divination.
Government matters and business were said to be most auspiciously conducted just before the new moon or just after the full moon. The assemblies (called Things) occured were matters were debated and mediated by the rule of the priests. Approval was shown by the clashing of spears. He notes also that war and its spoils was sought out as there was a sort of fear of too much peace making one soft. He also suggests that they considered that plunder trumps labor in acquiring things. They were said to have no cities, not even adjoining houses. They were said to make refuges in caves under piles of manure for warmth and war hideouts. He mentions a strict marriage code where monogamy and chastity were encouraged. He says they loved feasting, song and entertainment, and drinking. A fermented barley drink is mentioned – sounds like beer. He mentions a dance among youths where swords and spears are hurled at them and a penchant for playing at dice – sometimes with the loser going into voluntary servitude of the winner. The bodies of famed men, he says, are cremated with certain kinds of wood and a mound of turf is made as a monument.
He goes on to give descriptions of many German tribes in various areas. There are a few maps in the book that place these tribes where he mentions them although it should be noted that tribes migrated and were displaced so can re-appear in far different areas. Interestingly there is a note mentioning the deity called Tanfana having a shrine in northwest Germany near Holland. Tanfana seems to have a strong resemblance to the Etruscan/Tuscan deities Tana and Fana who are male and female companions. This suggests that Etruscan traditions were carried far northward. He mentions the tribes around Jutland/Denmark as worshipping the goddess Nerthus, as Mother Earth. He mentions a festival on an island where a shrine to the goddess on a consecrated chariot is brought out at a special peaceful festival where no weapons are taken up. She is then hidden in the lake and the slaves that escorted her are also disposed of in the lake.
He mentions also the Sviones (Swedes) inhabiting Sweden to be war capable and also have strong naval systems. He says that they had more of a powerful king than the chieftains of the mainland tribes. He also says they kept weapons out of the way as the sea protected them from invasion. The Aesti along the Baltic coast of northern Poland were said to worship a Mother Goddess, wear the symbol of the boar, and be industrious cultivators of crops. They also were said to not use iron weapons and to collect and trade the prolific Baltic amber – particularly sending it to the Romans. He mentions also the Sithones as inhabiting modern day Estonia (according to the map given). These peoples were said to be ruled by a woman – which Tacitus considers lowly. The name and the association with women certainly suggests a tribe that venerated shamanic seith magic. He mentions the Fenni (Finns?) as savage and poor, living by hunting with bone-tipped arrows. The map given puts them in modern day Lithuania and possibly Russian Belarus. He says that they made dwellings with woven tree branches. Finally he mentions the mysterious Hellusi and Oxiones who according to the map occupied Finland, Lappland, and the northern Baltic Sea. They were said according to legend to have human faces and features and the bodies and limbs of animals. Perhaps this represents the more Siberian features of these peoples and more reliance on animal skins for warmth.
Although the text of these books is not long, there is an extensive list of notes which clarifies and adds significantly more information regarding points in the text.