A Source Book of Mediaeval History: Documents Illustrative of European Life and Institutions from the Germanic Invasions to the Renaissance

Author: Tacitus

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World History


A Description by Tacitus

Source—C. Cornelius Tacitus, De Origine, Situ, Moribus, ac Populis Germanorum [known commonly as the "Germania"], Chaps. 4–24 passim. Adapted from translation by Alfred J. Church and William J. Brodribb (London, 1868), pp. 1–16. Text in numerous editions, as that of William F. Allen (Boston, 1882) and that of Henry Furneau (Oxford, 1894).

Physical characteristics

4. For my own part, I agree with those who think that the tribes of Germany are free from all trace of intermarriage with foreign nations, and that they appear as a distinct, unmixed race, like none but themselves. Hence it is that the same physical features are to be observed throughout so vast a population. All have fierce blue eyes, reddish hair, and huge bodies fit only for sudden exertion. They are not very able to endure labor that is exhausting. Heat and thirst they cannot withstand at all, though to cold and hunger their climate and soil have hardened them.

Their weapons and mode of fighting

6. Iron is not plentiful among them, as may be inferred from the nature of their weapons.1 Only a few make use of swords or long lances. Ordinarily they carry a spear (which they call a framea), with a short and narrow head, but so sharp and easy to handle that the same weapon serves, according to circumstances, for close or distant conflict. As for the horse-soldier, he is satisfied with a shield and a spear. The foot-soldiers also scatter showers of missiles, each man having several and hurling them to an immense distance, and being naked or lightly clad with a little cloak. They make no display in their equipment. Their shields alone are marked with fancy colors. Only a few have corselets,1 and just one or two here and there a metal or leather helmet.2 Their horses are neither beautiful nor swift; nor are they taught various wheeling movements after the Roman fashion, but are driven straight forward so as to make one turn to the right in such a compact body that none may be left behind another. On the whole, one would say that the Germans’ chief strength is in their infantry. It fights along with the cavalry, and admirably adapted to the movements of the latter is the swiftness of certain foot-soldiers, who are picked from the entire youth of their country and placed in front of the battle line.3 The number of these is fixed, being a hundred from each pagus,4 and from this they take their name among their countrymen, so that what was at the outset a mere number has now become a title of honor. Their line of battle is drawn up in the shape of a wedge. To yield ground, provided they return to the attack, is regarded as prudence rather than cowardice. The bodies of their slain they carry off, even when the battle has been indecisive. To abandon one’s shield is the basest of crimes. A man thus disgraced is not allowed to be present at the religious ceremonies, or to enter the council. Many, indeed, after making a cowardly escape from battle put an end to their infamy by hanging themselves.5

The Germans in battle

7. They choose their kings1 by reason of their birth, but their generals on the ground of merit. The kings do not enjoy unlimited or despotic power, and even the generals command more by example than by authority. If they are energetic, if they take a prominent part, if they fight in the front, they lead because they are admired. But to rebuke, to imprison, even to flog, is allowed to the priests alone, and this not as a punishment, or at the general’s bidding, but by the command of the god whom they believe to inspire the warrior. They also carry with them into battle certain figures and images taken from their sacred groves.2 The thing that most strengthens their courage is the fact that their troops are not made up of bodies of men chosen by mere chance, but are arranged by families and kindreds. Close by them, too, are those dearest to them, so that in the midst of the fight they can hear the shrieks of women and the cries of children. These loved ones are to every man the most valued witnesses of his valor, and at the same time his most generous applauders. The soldier brings his wounds to mother or wife, who shrinks not from counting them, or even demanding to see them, and who provides food for the warriors and gives them encouragement.

Their popular assemblies

11. About matters of small importance the chiefs alone take counsel, but the larger questions are considered by the entire tribe. Yet even when the final decision rests with the people the affair is always thoroughly discussed by the chiefs. Except in the case of a sudden emergency, the people hold their assemblies on certain fixed days, either at the new or the full moon; for these they consider the most suitable times for the transaction of business. Instead of counting by days, as we do, they count by nights, and in this way designate both their ordinary and their legal engagements. They regard the night as bringing on the day. Their freedom has one disadvantage, in that they do not all come together at the same time, or as they are commanded, but two or three days are wasted in the delay of assembling. When the people present think proper, they sit down armed. Silence is proclaimed by the priests who, on these occasions, are charged with the duty of keeping order. The king or the leader speaks first, and then others in order, as age, or rank, or reputation in war, or eloquence, give them right. The speakers are heard more because of their ability to persuade than because of their power to command. If the speeches are displeasing to the people, they reject them with murmurs; if they are pleasing, they applaud by clashing their weapons together, which is the kind of applause most highly esteemed.1

The chiefs and their companions

13. They transact no public or private business without being armed, but it is not allowable for any one to bear arms until he has satisfied the tribe that he is fit to do so. Then, in the presence of the assembly, one of the chiefs, or the young man’s father, or some kinsman, equips him with a shield and a spear. These arms are what the toga is with the Romans, the first honor with which a youth is invested. Up to this time he is regarded as merely a member of a household, but afterwards as a member of the state. Very noble birth, or important service rendered by the father, secures for a youth the rank of chief, and such lads attach themselves to men of mature strength and of fully tested valor. It is no shame to be numbered among a chief’s companions.1 The companions have different ranks in the band, according to the will of the chief; and there is great rivalry among the companions for first place in the chief’s favor, as there is among the chiefs for the possession of the largest and bravest throng of followers. It is an honor, as well as a source of strength, to be thus always surrounded by a large body of picked youths, who uphold the rank of the chief in peace and defend him in war. The fame of such a chief and his band is not confined to their own tribe, but is spread among foreign peoples; they are sought out and honored with gifts in order to secure their alliance, for the reputation of such a band may decide a whole war.

The German love of war

14. In battle it is considered shameful for the chief to allow any of his followers to excel him in valor, and for the followers not to equal their chief in deeds of bravery. To survive the chief and return from the field is a disgrace and a reproach for life. To defend and protect him, and to add to his renown by courageous fighting is the height of loyalty. The chief fights for victory; the companions must fight for the chief. If their native state sinks into the sloth of peace and quiet, many noble youths voluntarily seek those tribes which are waging some war, both because inaction is disliked by their race and because it is in war that they win renown most readily; besides, a chief can maintain a band only by war, for the men expect to receive their war-horse and their arms from their leader. Feasts and entertainments, though not elegant, are plentifully provided and constitute their only pay. The means of such liberality are best obtained from the booty of war. Nor are they as easily persuaded to plow the earth and to wait for the year’s produce as to challenge an enemy and earn the glory of wounds. Indeed, they actually think it tame and stupid to acquire by the sweat of toil what they may win by their blood.1

Life in times of peace

15. When not engaged in war they pass much of their time in the chase, and still more in idleness, giving themselves up to sleep and feasting. The bravest and most warlike do no work; they give over the management of the household, of the home, and of the land to the women, the old men, and the weaker members of the family, while they themselves remain in the most sluggish inactivity. It is strange that the same men should be so fond of idleness and yet so averse to peace.2 It is the custom of the tribes to make their chiefs presents of cattle and grain, and thus to give them the means of support.3 The chiefs are especially pleased with gifts from neighboring tribes, which are sent not only by individuals, but also by the state, such as choice steeds, heavy armor, trappings, and neck-chains. The Romans have now taught them to accept money also.

Lack of cities and towns

16. It is a well-known fact that the peoples of Germany have no cities, and that they do not even allow buildings to be erected close together.4 They live scattered about, wherever a spring, or a meadow, or a wood has attracted them. Their villages are not arranged in the Roman fashion, with the buildings connected and joined together, but every person surrounds his dwelling with an open space, either as a precaution against the disasters of fire, or because they do not know how to build. They make no use of stone or brick, but employ wood for all purposes. Their buildings are mere rude masses, without ornament or attractiveness, although occasionally they are stained in part with a kind of clay which is so clear and bright that it resembles painting, or a colored design. . . .

Their food and drink

23. A liquor for drinking is made out of barley, or other grain, and fermented so as to be somewhat like wine. The dwellers along the river-bank1 also buy wine from traders. Their food is of a simple variety, consisting of wild fruit, fresh game, and curdled milk. They satisfy their hunger without making much preparation of cooked dishes, and without the use of any delicacies at all. In quenching their thirst they are not so moderate. If they are supplied with as much as they desire to drink, they will be overcome by their own vices as easily as by the arms of an enemy.

German amusements

24. At all their gatherings there is one and the same kind of amusement. This is the dancing of naked youths amid swords and lances that all the time endanger their lives. Experience gives them skill, and skill in turn gives grace. They scorn to receive profit or pay, for, however reckless their pastime, its reward is only the pleasure of the spectators. Strangely enough, they make games of chance a serious employment, even when sober, and so venturesome are they about winning or losing that, when every other resource has failed, on the final throw of the dice they will stake even their own freedom. He who loses goes into voluntary slavery and, though the younger and stronger of the players, allows himself to be hound and sold. Such is their stubborn persistency in a bad practice, though they themselves call it honor. Slaves thus acquired the owners trade off as speedily as possible to rid themselves of the scandal of such a victory.

1 All dates from this point, unless otherwise indicated, are A.D.

1 In reality iron ore was abundant in the Germans’ territory, but it was not until long after the time of Tacitus that much use began to be made of it. By the fifth century iron swords were common.

1 Coats of mail.

2 Defensive armor for the head and neck.

3 See Cæsar’s description of this mode of fighting.—Gallic War, Bk. I., Chap. 48.

4 The canton was known to the Romans as a pagus and to the Germans themselves as a gau. It was made up of a number of districts, or townships (Latin vicus, German dorf), and was itself a division of a tribe or nation.

5 A later law of the Salian Franks imposed a fine of 120 denarii upon any man who should accuse another of throwing down his shield and running away, without being able to prove it [see p. 64].

1 Many of the western tribes at the time Tacitus wrote did not have kings, though in eastern Germany the institution of kingship seems to have been quite general. The office, where it existed, was elective, but the people rarely chose a king outside of a privileged family, assumed to be of divine origin.

2 Evidently these were not images of their gods, for in another place (Chap. 9) Tacitus tells us that the Germans deemed it a dishonor to their deities to represent them in human form. The images were probably those of wild beasts, as the wolf of Woden (or Odin), or the ram of Tyr, and were national standards preserved with religious care in the sacred groves, whence they were brought forth when the tribe was on the point of going to war.

1 The German popular assembly was simply the periodical gathering of free men in arms for the discussion and decision of important points of tribal policy. It was not a legislative body in the modern sense. Law among the Germans was immemorial custom, which, like religion, could be changed only by a gradual shifting of popular belief and practice. It was not "made" by any process of deliberate and immediate choice. Nevertheless. the assembly constituted an important democratic element in the government, which operated in a measure to offset the aristocratic element represented by the principes and comitatus [see p. 28]. Its principal functions were the declaring of war and peace, the election of the kings, and, apparently, the hearing and deciding of graver cases at law.

1 This relation of principes (chiefs) and comites (companions) is mentioned by Cæsar [see p. 22]. The name by which the Romans designated the band of companions, or followers, of a German chieftain was comitatus.

1 Apparently the Germans did not now care much more for agriculture than in the time of Cæsar. The women, slaves, and old men sowed some seeds and gathered small harvests, but the warrior class held itself above such humble and unexciting employment. The raising of cattle afforded a principal means of subsistence, though hunting and fishing contributed considerably.

2 Compare the Germans and the North American Indians in this respect. The great contrast between these two peoples lay in the capacity of the one and the comparative incapacity of the other for development.

3 The Germans had no system of taxation on land or other property, such as the Romans had and such as we have to-day. It was not until well toward the close of the Middle Ages that the governments of kingdoms built up by Germanic peoples in western Europe came to be maintained by anything like what we would call taxes in the modern sense.

4 The lack of cities and city life among the Germans struck Tacitus with the greater force because of the complete dominance of city organization to which he, as a Roman, was accustomed. The Greek and Roman world was made up, in the last analysis, of an aggregation of civitates, or city states. Among the ancient Greeks these had usually been independent; among the Romans they were correlated under the greater or lesser control of a centralized government; but among the Germans of Tacitus’s time, and long after, the mixed agricultural and nomadic character of the people effectually prevented the development of anything even approaching urban organization. Their life was that of the forest and the pasture, not that of forum, theatre, and circus.

1 That is, on the Rhine, where traders from the south brought in wines and other Roman products. The drink which the Germans themselves manufactured was, of course, a kind of beer.


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Chicago: Tacitus, "A Description by Tacitus," A Source Book of Mediaeval History: Documents Illustrative of European Life and Institutions from the Germanic Invasions to the Renaissance in A Source Book of Mediaeval History: Documents Illustrative of European Life and Institutions from the Germanic Invasions to the Renaissance, ed. Frederic Austin Ogg (1878-1951) (New York: American Book Company, 1908), 23–31. Original Sources, accessed June 14, 2024, http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=7J1QTPAY69LM7MJ.

MLA: Tacitus. "A Description by Tacitus." A Source Book of Mediaeval History: Documents Illustrative of European Life and Institutions from the Germanic Invasions to the Renaissance, in A Source Book of Mediaeval History: Documents Illustrative of European Life and Institutions from the Germanic Invasions to the Renaissance, edited by Frederic Austin Ogg (1878-1951), New York, American Book Company, 1908, pp. 23–31. Original Sources. 14 Jun. 2024. http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=7J1QTPAY69LM7MJ.

Harvard: Tacitus, 'A Description by Tacitus' in A Source Book of Mediaeval History: Documents Illustrative of European Life and Institutions from the Germanic Invasions to the Renaissance. cited in 1908, A Source Book of Mediaeval History: Documents Illustrative of European Life and Institutions from the Germanic Invasions to the Renaissance, ed. , American Book Company, New York, pp.23–31. Original Sources, retrieved 14 June 2024, from http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=7J1QTPAY69LM7MJ.