Germans: Tacitus’ Germania in full (late first century CE)

Citation with stable link: Philip A. Harland, 'Germans: Tacitus’ Germania in full (late first century CE),' Ethnic Relations and Migration in the Ancient World, last modified May 12, 2024,

Ancient author: Tacitus, Germania, entire work (link).

Comments: Written about 98 CE, Tacitus’ work on the peoples of Germania constitutes the sole surviving example of a work entirely devoted to describing peoples and their customs (rather than ethnographic digressions within a work with other purposes, as with Tacitus’ digression on the Judean people in his Histories, on which go to this link). For this reason alone it is particularly important for Roman approaches to other peoples and worthy of full inclusion on this site. At the time of his writing, the peoples beyond the Danube or Rhine that are described remained outside of full Roman imperial control but had occupied the Roman forces for quite some time nonetheless. Tacitus begins with a more general overview of Germanic peoples in the first section before he turns to specific sub-groups in the second part. It is important to remember that even the concept of “Germans” as Tacitus uses it is a (Roman) outsider designation for a variety of peoples who would self-identify in other ways. The designation “Germania” may well have been invented by Julius Caesar to divide the Celts to the west of the Rhine from the “Germans” to the east, on which go to this link.


[Overview of the land of Germania]

1 The whole of Germania is separated from the Gauls, Rhaetians, and Pannonians by the Rhine and Danube rivers and separated from the Sarmatians and Dacians by mutual apprehension or mountains. The rest of it is surrounded by the ocean, which enfolds wide peninsulas and islands of vast expanse, some of whose peoples and kings have only recently become known to us. War has lifted the curtain. The Rhine, rising from the inaccessible and precipitous crest of the Rhaetian Alps, after turning west for a reach of some length is lost in the North Sea. The Danube pours from the sloping and not very lofty ridge of Mount Abnoba, and visits several peoples on its course, until at length it emerges by six of its channels into the Pontic Sea. The seventh mouth is swallowed in marshes.

[Germanic peoples as a whole]

2 As for the Germans themselves, I assume that they are indigenous and very slightly blended with new arrivals from other descent groups or alliances. For originally people who sought to migrate reached their destination in fleets and not by land. While, in the second place, the leagues of ocean on the further side of Germania, at the opposite end of the world, so to speak, from us, are rarely visited by ships from our world. Besides, apart from the perils of an awful and unknown sea, who would have left Asia, Africa, or Italy to look for Germania? With its wild scenery and harsh climate it is pleasant neither to live in nor look upon unless it is one’s home. Their ancient hymns – the only style of record or history which they possess – celebrate a god Tuisto, offspring of the soil, and his son Mannus as the beginning and the founders of their descent group (gens). To Mannus they ascribe three sons, from whose names the peoples of the sea-shore are to be known as Ingaevonians, the central peoples as Herminonians, and the rest as Istaevonians. Some authorities, using the licence which pertains to antiquity, name more sons of the god and a larger number of descent group names, Marsians, Gambrivians, Suebians, Vandilians. These are, they say, real and ancient names, while the name of “Germania” is new and a recent addition. In fact, the first peoples to cross the Rhine and expel the Gauls, though now called Tungrians, were then styled “Germans.” So little by little the name – a sub-group people name, not the overall descent group name – prevailed, until the whole people were called by the artificial name of “Germans,” first only by the victorious people in order to intimidate the Gauls, but afterwards among themselves also.

3 They further record how Hercules appeared among the Germans and, on the eve of battle the natives hymn “Hercules, the first of brave men.” They have also those shouts – “barritus” is the name they use for the shouts – by the utterance of which they inspire courage. They also divine the fortunes of the coming battle from the circumstances of the cry. Intimidation or timidity depends on the concert of the warriors. It seems like to them it means not so much unison of voices as union of hearts. The object they especially want is a certain volume of hoarseness, a crashing roar, their shields being brought up to their lips, that the voice may swell to a fuller and deeper note by means of the echo.

To return. In the opinion of some authorities, Ulysses was also carried, during those long and legendary wanderings, into this ocean, and reached the countries of Germania. Asciburgium [modern Asberg near Moers], which stands on the banks of the Rhine and has inhabitants today, was founded, they say, and named by him. Further, they say that an altar dedicated by Ulysses, who combined the name of his father Laertes, was once found at the same place. They also say that certain monuments and barrows, inscribed with Greek letters, are still extant on the borderland between Germania and Rhaetia. I have no intention of supplying evidence to establish or refute these assertions. Anyone could minimise or magnify their credibility according to his feelings.

[Physical features of the people]

4 Personally I associate myself with the opinions of those who hold that in the population (populus) of Germania there has been given to the world a people (natio) untainted by intermarriage with other descent groups (gentes), a peculiar people and pure, like no one but themselves. This is where their identical physical build comes from, in spite of their large numbers. Fierce blue eyes, red hair, tall bodies, powerful only in bursts, at the same time impatient with labour and hard work, and by no means accustomed to withstanding thirst and heat. Thanks to the climate and the soil, they are accustomed to cold and hunger.

[Features of the land]

5 There are some varieties in the appearance of the land, but broadly it is a land of bristling forests and unhealthy marshes. The rainfall is heavier on the side of Gaul. The winds are higher on the side of Noricum and Pannonia. It is fertile in grains, but unkindly to fruitbearing trees. It is rich in flocks and herds but, for the most part, they are undersized. Even the cattle lack natural beauty and majestic brows. The people pride themselves on the number of their animals, which constitute the only wealth they welcome.

The gods have denied them gold and silver, whether in mercy or in anger I find it hard to say. Not that I would assert that Germania has no veins bearing gold or silver for who has explored there? At any rate, they are not affected, like their neighbours, by the use and possession of such things. One may see among them silver vases, given as gifts to their commanders and chieftains, but treated as of no more value than earthenware. Although those living on the border for purposes of trade treat gold and silver as precious metals, and recognise and collect certain coins of our money, the peoples of the interior practice bartering in the simpler and older fashion. The coinage which appeals to them is the old and long-familiar: the denarii with milled edges, showing the two-horsed chariot. They prefer silver to gold; not that they have any feeling in the matter, but because a number of silver pieces is easier to use for people whose purchases consist of cheap objects for general use.

[Customs of war]

6 Even iron is not plentiful among them, as may be gathered from the style of their weapons. Few have swords or the longer kind of lance. They carry short spears, in their language “frameae,” with a narrow and small iron head. The spear is so sharp and so handy that they fight with the same weapon, as circumstances demand, both at close quarters and at a distance. The mounted man is content with a shield and framea. The infantry launch showers of missiles in addition, each man a volley, and hurl these great distances. For they wear no outer clothing or at most a light cloak. They do not display fancy equipment. Their shields only are picked out with choice colours. Few have breast-plates. Scarcely one or two at most have metal or hide helmets. The horses are conspicuous neither for beauty nor speed. But then neither are they trained like our horses to run in shifting circles. They ride them forwards only or to the right, with but one turn from the straight, dressing the line so closely as they turn so that no one is left behind. In general, there is more strength in their infantry and accordingly, cavalry and infantry fight in one body. The swift-footed infantryman, whom they pick out of the whole body of warriors and place in front of the line, being well-adapted and suitable for cavalry battles. The number of these men is fixed: one hundred from each district. Among themselves this, “Hundred,” is the precise name they use. What was once a number only has become a title and a distinction. The battle-line itself is arranged in wedges. Provided you press forward again, retreating is treated as a question of tactics, not of cowardice. They carry off their dead and wounded even in drawn battles. To abandon one’s shield is the height of disgrace. The man so disgraced cannot be present at sacred rites, nor attend a council. Many survivors of war have ended their infamy with a noose.

7 They choose their kings on the basis of their birth and their generals on the basis of courage. The authority of their kings is not unlimited or arbitrary. Their generals control them by example rather than command, and by means of the admiration which attends upon energy and a conspicuous place in front of the line. But anything beyond this – capital punishment, imprisonment, even a blow – is permitted only to the priests, and then not as a penalty or under the general’s orders, but as an inspiration from the god whom they suppose to accompany them on military campaigns. Certain totems, in fact, and emblems are fetched from groves and carried into battle. The strongest incentive to courage lies in this, that neither chance nor casual grouping makes the squadron or the wedge, but family and kinship does. Close at hand, too, are their their closest relatives, and they can hear a woman’s shout or a child’s cry. Here are the witnesses who are in each man’s eyes most precious, here the praise he covets most. They take their wounds to mother and wife, who do not shrink from counting the wounds and demanding to look at them. They serve the combatants food and encouragement.

8 Tradition relates that some lost or losing battles have been reversed by the women, by the incessance of their prayers and by the baring of their breasts. In this way, it is clear to the men that slavery, which they dread much more because of the women, is close at hand. It follows that the loyalty of those peoples is more effectively guaranteed when hostages include maids of high birth. Further, they believe that women have a certain uncanny and prophetic sense. They neither scorn their advice nor dismiss their answers. In the reign of Vespasian of happy memory we saw Velaeda treated as a deity by many during a long period; but in ancient times they also reverenced Albruna and many other women – in no spirit of flattery, nor for the manufacture of goddesses.

[Customs relating to the gods and divination]

9 Regarding the gods, they worship Mercury the most, and on certain days they even consider the sacrifice of human life lawful. Hercules and Mars they appease with such animal life as is permissible. A segment of the Suebians also sacrifice to Isis. I have not been able to discover the cause and origin of this foreign worship, except that the symbol itself, which takes the shape of a Liburnian galley, shows that the ritual is imported. Apart from this they consider it incompatible with the majesty of the heavenly host to confine the gods within walls, or to mould them into any likeness of the human face. They consecrate woods and groves, and they give the divine names to that mysterious something which is visible only to the eyes of faith.

10 They pay as much attention as anyone else does to divination (auspicia) and lots. The method of drawing lots is uniform. A bough is cut from a nut-bearing tree and divided into slips. These are distinguished by certain signs and spread casually and at random over white cloth. Afterwards, if the inquiry be official, the community priest or, if private, the father of the family in person, after prayers to the gods and with eyes turned to heaven, takes up one slip at a time till he has done this on three separate occasions. After taking the three, he interprets them according to the signs which have been already stamped on them. If the message is a prohibition, no inquiry on the same matter is made during the same day. If the message is permissive, further confirmation is required by means of divination. Even among the Germans divination by consultation of the cries and flight of birds is well known. But their special divination is to make trial of the omens and warnings furnished by horses. Certain white horses feed in these same groves and woods which are never soiled by human use. These horses are yoked to a sacred chariot and accompanied by the priest and king, or other community chief, who then observe their neighing or snorting. They do not rely more on any other form of divination than this, not merely by the people but also by their leaders. The priests they regard as the servants of the gods, but the horses are their confidants. They have another method of divination which allows them to probe the issue of serious wars. A member of the people at war with them is somehow or other captured and pitted against a selected champion of their own, each in his ancestral armour. The victory of one or the other is taken as a sign.

[Decision-making customs]

11 On small matters the chiefs consult, on larger questions the community. But with this limitation, that even the subjects, the decision of which rests with the people, are first handled by the chiefs. They meet, unless there is some unforeseen and sudden emergency, on days set apart – when the moon, that is, is new or full. They regard this as the most auspicious herald for the transaction of business. They count not by days as we do, but by nights. Their decisions and proclamations are subject to this principle: the night, that is, seems to take precedence over the day. One weakness of their freedom is that they do not meet immediately when commanded, but two or three days are wasted by taking their time to assemble. When the group is ready to begin, they take their seats carrying weapons. Silence is called for by the priests, who from then on also have power to coerce, then a king or a chief is listened to, in order of age, birth, glory in war, or eloquence, with the prestige which belongs to their counsel rather than with any prescriptive right to command. If the advice received is unpleasant, they reject it with groans; if it pleases them, they clash their spears: the most complimentary expression of assent is this martial approbation.

12 It is also permitted to lay accusations and to bring capital charges at this assembly. The nature of the death penalty differs according to the offence; traitors and deserters are hung from trees. Cowards, poor fighters and those who disgrace their bodies are plunged in the mud of marshes with a hurdle on their heads. The difference between punishments pertains to the principle that crime should be blazoned abroad by its retribution, but abomination hidden. Lighter offences also have a measured punishment: those convicted are fined in the form of horses and cattle. Part of the fine goes to the king or the city; part is paid to the person who brings the charge or to his relatives. At the same gatherings, they select chiefs who administer law through the districts and villages. Each of them has one hundred assessors from the people to be his responsible advisers.

13 They do no business, public or private, without weapons in their hands. Yet the custom is that no one take weapons until the community (civitas) has endorsed his competence. Then in the assembly itself one of the chiefs or his father or his relatives equip the young man with shield and framea (spear). This corresponds with them to the toga, and is a youth’s first public distinction. From then on he appears as a member of the household, now a member of the community. Conspicuously high birth or important services on the part of ancestors win the chieftain’s approval even for very young men. They mingle with the others, men of more developed strength and tested by long years, and have no shame to be seen among his retinue. In the retinue itself degrees are observed, depending on the judgment of him whom they follow. There is great rivalry among the retainers to decide who should have the first place with his chief, and among the chieftains as to who should have the largest and most eager retinue. It is considered rank and strength to be surrounded always with a large band of chosen youths – glory in peace, in war protection. Nor is it only so with his own people, but with neighbouring communities also it means name and fame for a man that his retinue be conspicuous for number and character. Such men are in request for embassies, and are honoured with gifts, and often, by the mere terror of their name, break the back of opposition in war.

[Further customs of war]

14 When they reach the battlefield, it is shameful for a chief to be surpassed in prowess. It is a shame for his retinue not to equal the prowess of its chief. But to have left the field and survived one’s chief, this means lifelong infamy and shame. To protect and defend him, to devote one’s own feats even to his glorification, this is the gist of their allegiance. The chief fights for victory, but the retainers for the chief. If the community where they are born has become sluggish because of long years of peace and quiet, many of the high-born youth voluntarily seek those peoples which are at the time engaged in some war. For rest is unwelcome to the descent group, and they distinguish themselves more readily in the midst of uncertainties. Besides, you cannot keep up a great retinue except by war and violence, for it is to the free-handed chief that they look for that war-horse, for that murderous and masterful framea (spear). Banquets and a certain rude but lavish outfit take the place of salary. The material for this free-handedness comes through war and plunder. You will not so readily persuade them to plough the land and wait for the year’s returns as to challenge the enemy and earn wounds. Besides, it seems limp and slack to get with the sweating of your brow what you can gain with the shedding of your blood.

[Other customs]

15 When they are not engaging in war, they spend much time in hunting, but more in idleness. Being creatures who eat and sleep, the best and bravest warriors doing nothing, having handed over control of their home, hearth, and property to the women, the old men, and the weakest members of the family. For themselves they vegetate, by that curious, incongruity of temperament which makes of the same men such lovers of slumber and such haters of quiet. It is the custom in their communities to give to the chief unasked and man by man some portion of one’s cattle or crops. It is accepted as a compliment, but also serves his needs. The chiefs appreciate even more the gifts of neighbouring peoples, which are sent not merely by individuals but by the community: selected horses, heavy armour, bosses and bracelets. By this time we have taught them to accept money also.

[Organization of communities]

16 It is well known that none of the German peoples live in cities, that even individually they do not permit houses to touch each other. They live separated and scattered, depending on whether springs, meadows, or groves appeal to them. They lay out their villages not, after our fashion, with buildings contiguous and connected. Every one keeps a clear space round his house, whether it is a precaution against the chances of fire or just ignorance about building. They have not even learned to use quarry-stone or tiles. The timber they use for all purposes is unshaped, and stops short of all ornament or attraction. Certain buildings are smeared with a stucco bright and glittering enough to be a substitute for paint and frescoes. They are in the habit also of opening pits in the earth and piling dung in quantities on the roof, as a refuge from the winter or a root-house, because such places mitigate the rigour of frost, and if an enemy comes, he lays waste the open. But the hidden and buried houses are either missed outright or escape detection just because they require a search.

[Clothing customs]

17 For clothing, all wear a cloak, fastened with a clasp, or, in its absence, a thorn. They spend whole days on the hearth around the fire with no other covering. The richest men are distinguished by the wearing of under garments. Not loose, like those of Parthians and Sarmatians, but drawn tight, throwing each limb into relief. They also wear the skins of wild beasts, the peoples adjoining the river-bank in casual fashion, the further peoples with more attention, since they cannot depend on traders for clothing. The beasts for this purpose are selected, and the hides so taken are chequered with the pied skins of the creatures native to the outer ocean and its unknown waters. The women have the same dress as the men, except that women very often have trailing linen garments striped with purple. The upper part of this costume does not widen into sleeves. Their weapons and shoulders are therefore bare, as is the adjoining portion of the breast.

[Sexuality and marriage customs]

18 Nonetheless, they take marriage very seriously. You will find nothing in their character to praise more highly. They are almost the only barbarians who are content with one wife each. The very few exceptions have nothing to do with passion, but consist of those with whom polygamous marriage is eagerly sought for the sake of their high birth. As for dowry, it is not the wife who brings it to the husband, but the husband to the wife. The parents and relations are present to approve these gifts – gifts not devised for ministering to female fads, nor for the adornment of the person of the bride, but oxen, a horse and bridle, a shield, framea (spear), or a sword. It is to share these things that the wife is taken by the husband, and she herself, in turn, brings some piece of armour to her husband. Here is the gist of the bond between them, here in their eyes its sacred rites and the deities of marriage. That the wife may not imagine herself released from the practice of heroism, released from the chances of war, she is thus warned by the very rites with which her marriage begins that she comes to share hard work and peril. That her fate will be the same as his in peace and in panic, her risks the same. This is the moral of the yoked oxen, of the bridled horse, and of the exchange of weapons. This is how she must live and die. The things she takes she is to hand over inviolate to her children, fit to be taken by her daughters-in-law and passed on again to her grand-children.

19 So their life is one of fenced-in chastity. There is no arena with its seductions, no dinner-tables with their provocations to corrupt them. The men and women do not exchange secret letters. Adulteries are very few for the number of the people. Punishment is prompt and is the husband’s prerogative. Her hair close-cropped and stripped of her clothes, her husband drives her from his house in presence of his relatives and pursues her with blows through the length of the village. For prostituted chastity there is no pardon. Beauty nor youth nor wealth will find her a husband. No one laughs at vice there. No one calls seduction, whether received or performed, the spirit of the age. Better still are those peoples where only maids marry, and where a woman makes an end, once for all, with the hopes and vows of a wife. So they take one husband only, just as one body and one life, in order that there may be no second thoughts, no belated fancies. This is done so that their desire may be not for the man, but for marriage. To limit the number of their children or to expose any of the later children is held abominable. Good habits have more force with them than good laws elsewhere.

20 There they are, the children in every house, growing up naked and filthy into those large limbs and bodies which to our people is a marvel. The mothers suckle their own children at their breast. They are not passed on to nurse-maids and wet-nurses. Nor can master be recognised from servant by any luxuries in their respective ways of being raised. They live in the company of the same cattle and on the same mud floor till years separate the free-born and character claims her own. The virginity of youth is late treasured and puberty therefore inexhaustible. Nor are the girls hurried along. Their stature is tall. When they reach the same strength they are mated, and the children reproduce the vigour of the parents. Sisters’ children mean as much to their uncle as to their father. Some peoples regard this blood-tie as even closer and more sacred than that between son and father, and in taking hostages make it the basis of their demand, as though they in this way secure loyalty more surely and have a wider hold on the family. However, regarding inheritance and succession, each man’s children are his heirs, and there is no will. If there are no children, the nearest degrees of relationship for the holding of property are brothers, paternal uncles, and maternal uncles. The more relations a man has and the larger the number of his connections by marriage, the more influence he has in his age. It does not pay to have no relatives.

[Hospitality customs]

21 It is a firm obligation to take up a father’s feuds or a kinsman’s not less than his friendships. But such feuds do not continue without resolution. Even homicide is atoned for by a fixed number of cattle and sheep, and the whole family thereby receives satisfaction, to the advantage of the community. For feuds are more dangerous among a free people. No descent group indulges more lavishly in hospitality and entertainment. To close the door against any human being is a crime. Every one entertains with banquets that match what he can afford. If a banquet fails, the one who had been your host points out your next place of entertainment and goes with you. You go next door, without an invitation, but it makes no difference. You are received with the same courtesy. They make not distinction between stranger or acquaintance when it comes to hospitality. It is customary to send the parting guest on his way with anything he wants. There is the same readiness in turn to ask of him. Gifts are their delight, but they neither count upon what they have given, nor are bound by what they have received.

22 On waking from sleep, which they generally prolong into the day, they wash, usually in warm water, since winter bulks so large in their lives. After washing they take a meal, seated apart, each at his own table. Then, weapons in hand, they proceed to business, or, just as often, to revelry. To out-drink the day and night is a reproach to no man. Brawls are frequent. Naturally, among heavy drinkers. They seldom terminate with abuse, more often in wounds and bloodshed. Nevertheless at the banquets they usually debate topics such as mutual reconciliation of enemies, the forming of family alliances, the appointment of chiefs, and the question of war or peace, as though there was no other time when mind was more open to obvious thinking or ready for good thinking. The people are without trickery or cunning, and expose in the freedom of revelry the heart’s previous secrets. So every mind is bared to nakedness. On the next day the matter is handled afresh. So the principle of each debating season is justified. Deliberation comes when they are incapable of pretense, but decision when they are secure from illusion. For drink they use the liquid distilled from barley or wheat [i.e. Beer], after fermentation has given it a certain resemblance to wine. The peoples nearest the river also buy wine. Their diet is simple: wild fruit, fresh venison, and curdled milk. They banish hunger without sauce or ceremony, but there is not the same temperance in facing thirst. If you humour their drunkenness by supplying as much as they crave, they will be vanquished through their vices as easily as on the battlefield.

24 Their shows are all of one kind, and the same whatever the gathering may be. Naked youths, for whom this is a form of professional acting, jump and bound between swords and upturned spears. Practice has made them dexterous and dexterity graceful, yet not for hire or gain. However daring the sport is, the spectators pleasure is the only price they ask. Gambling, one may be surprised to find, they practise in all seriousness in their sober hours, with such recklessness in winning or losing that, when all else has failed, they stake personal freedom on the last and final throw. The loser faces voluntary slavery. Even if he is the younger and the stronger man, he allows himself to be bound and sold. Such is their persistence in wrong-doing, or their good faith, as they themselves style it. They trade slaves acquired in this way in order to deliver themselves, as well as the slave, from the humiliation involved in such victory. Their other slaves are not organized in our fashion. That is, by a division of the services of life among them. Each of them remains master of his own house and home. The master requires from the slave as serf a certain quantity of grain or cattle or clothing. The slave so far is subservient. But the other services of the household are discharged by the master’s wife and children. To beat a slave and coerce him with hard labour and imprisonment is rare. If they are killed, it is not usually to preserve strict discipline, but in a fit of anger, like an enemy, except that there is no penalty to be paid.

Freedmen are not much above slaves. Rarely are they of any importance in the household, and never important in community matters, except at least in those communities which have kings. Then they climb above the free-born and above the nobles. In other states the disabilities of the freedman are the evidence of freedom.

26 To charge interest and engage in usury is unknown, and the principle is better observed than if there had been actual prohibition. Land is taken up by a village as a whole, in quantity according to the number of the cultivators. They then distribute it among themselves on the basis of rank, with the distribution being made easy by the extent of domain occupied. They change the arable land yearly, and there is still land to spare, for they do not strain the fertility and resources of the soil by tasking them, through the planting of vineyards, the setting apart of water-meadows, and the irrigation of vegetable gardens. Grain is the only harvest required of the land. Accordingly the year itself is not divided into as many parts as with us. Winter, spring, summer have a meaning and name. Regarding autumn, the name alike and bounties are unknown.

27 Their funerals involve no ostentation. The single observance is to burn the bodies of their notables with special kinds of wood. They build a pyre, but do not load it with clothing or spices. For each man, they present his armour and the horse is added to the fire of some deceased men. The tomb is a mound of turf. The difficult and tedious tribute of a monument they reject as too heavy on the dead. Weeping and wailing they put away quickly. Sorrow and sadness linger. They think that lamentation is appropriate for women and that men must remember. This is what we have ascertained concerning the origin of the Germans in general and their customs.

I shall now set forth the habits and customs of the specific descent groups (gentium), and the extent to which they differ from each other. And I will explain what peoples have migrated from Germania to the provinces of Gaul.

[Specific Germanic peoples and their customs]

28 The highest of authorities, the supreme authority of god Julius [Caesar], records that the fortunes of the Gaul were once higher than the German, and so it is easy to believe that the Gauls even crossed over into Germania. There was little chance that the river would prevent each people, as it became powerful, from seizing and taking in exchange new land, still held in common, and not yet divided into powerful kingdoms. Accordingly the land between the Herkynian forest and the rivers Rhine and Moenus was occupied by the Helvetians and the land beyond by the Boians, both descent groups of the Gauls. The name Boihaemum is still in use and testifies to the old traditions of the place, even though there has been a change of occupants. Whether, however, the Araviscians migrated into Pannonia from the Osians or the Osians into Germania from the Araviscians must remain uncertain, since their speech, habits, and type of character are still the same. Originally, in fact, there was the same misery and the same freedom on either bank of the river, the same advantages and the same drawbacks. The Treverians and Nervians conversely go out of their way in their ambition to claim a German origin, as though this illustrious ancestry delivers them from any affinity with the spiritless Gauls. On the riverbank itself are settled certain peoples undoubtedly Germanic, including Vangionians, Tribocians, and Nemetians. Not even the Ubians, even though they have earned the right to be a Roman colony and prefer to be called “Agrippinensians” from the name of their founder, blush to own their German origin. They originally came from beyond the river, and were placed in charge of the bank itself, after they had given proof of their loyalty, in order to block the way to others, not in order to be under supervision.

[Batavians and Mattiacians]

29 Among all these descent groups, the most manly are the Batavians, who occupy only a short stretch of the river bank, but with it the island in the stream. They were once a population among the Chattians, and on account of a rising at home they crossed the river for those lands which were to make them part of the Roman empire. Their distinction persists and the emblem of their ancient alliance with us as well. They are not insulted, that is, with the exaction of tribute, and there is no tax-farmer to oppress them. Immune from burdens and contributions, and set apart for fighting purposes only, they are reserved for war, to be, as it were, our arms  and weapons. Equally loyal are the descent group of the Mattiacians. For the greatness of the population of Rome has projected the awe felt for our empire beyond the Rhine, and beyond the long-established frontier. So by site and territory they belong to their own bank, but by sentiment and thought they act with us, and correspond in all respects with the Batavians, except that up till now both the soil and climate of their land stimulate greater activity. I should not count among the people of Germania, though they have established themselves beyond the Rhine and Danube, the peoples who cultivate “the tithe-lands.” All the most worthless Gauls, made bold by poverty, took possession of that contested land. Recently, since the frontier road has been built and the garrisons pushed forward, these lands have been between the two natural frontiers of the Rhine and the Danube and considered an outlying corner of the empire and a part of the Roman province.


30 Beyond these people are the Chattians. The beginning of their settlements starts with the Hercynian forest. The land is not so low and marshy as the other communities of the level German plain. Yet even where the hills cover a considerable territory, they gradually fade away, and so the Hercynian forest, after escorting Chattians to the full length of their settlement, drops them in the plain. This people has hardier bodies than the others, close-knit limbs, a forbidding expression, and a stronger intellect. They are very methodical, for Germans at least, and are very shrewd. They elect magistrates and listen to the man elected, they know their place in the ranks, and they recognize opportunities. They also reserve their attack, have a time for everything, entrench at night and distruct luck, but rely on courage. The rarest thing of all, which only Roman discipline has been permitted to attain is that they depend on the initiative of the general rather than on that of the soldier. Their whole strength lies in their infantry, who are loaded with iron tools and baggage in addition to their weapons. Other Germans may be seen going to a battle, but the Chattians go to war. Forays and casual fighting are rare with them. The latter method no doubt is part of the strength of cavalry: to win suddenly, that is, and as suddenly to retreat. For the speed of cavalry is closely connected with panic, but the deliberate action of infantry is more likely to be resolute.

31 A practice among other German peoples, but only occasionally and by individual boldness, has become a convention among the Chattians: they let the hair and beard grow when a youth has attained manhood and they only cut off that manly facial garb after an enemy has been slain. Standing above the bloody spoils, they reveal their brows again and advertise that then and not before have they paid the price of their birth pangs and are worthy of their kin and country. Cowards and weaklings remain unkempt. The bravest also wear a ring of iron – the badge of shame on other occasions among this people – like a shackle until each man frees himself by the slaughter of an enemy. This symbolism is very popular, and men already growing grey still wear this uniform, marked by both friend and enemy. Every battle begins with these men. The front rank is made up of them and is a curious sight. Even in peace they do not adopt a more tame life to weaken them. None of them has house or land or any business. Wherever they present themselves they are entertained, wasteful of the substance of others, indifferent to personal possessions, until age and loss of blood make them unable to engage in such hardy heroism.

[Usipians and Tencterians]

32 Next to the Chattians are the Usipians and Tencterians on the Rhine banks where the river has ceased to shift its bed and has become fit to serve for a frontier. In addition to the general reputation of being warriors, the Tencterians excel in the accomplishments of trained horsemen. The fame of the Chattian infantry is not greater than that of their cavalry. Their ancestors established the precedent. Succeeding generations compete with them. Here lies the diversion of infancy, the rivalry of youth, and the abiding interest of age. Horses descend with servants, house, and regular inheritance. But the heir to the horse is not, as in other things, the eldest son, but the confident soldier and the better man. Originally, one came across the Bructerians next the Tencterians. The Chamavians and Angrivarians are said to have moved there recently, after the Bructerians had been expelled or cut to pieces by the conjoint action of neighbouring peoples, whether from disgust at their arrogance or from the attractions of plunder, or from favour shown to us [Romans] by the gods. No, the gods were not unwilling to provide us a dramatic battle: over sixty thousand men fell, not before the weapons and spears of Rome, but – what was even a greater triumph for us – merely to delight our eyes. Long may this hatred for each other – if not love for us – persist among the peoples. Since now that the destinies of the empire have passed their zenith, Fortune can guarantee us nothing better than discord among our enemies.


34 The Angrivarians and Chamavians are closed to the south by the Dulgubnians, the Chasuarians and other less well-known descent groups. To the north are the Frisians. They are called the Greater or Lesser Frisians according to the measure of their strength. These two peoples border the Rhine down to the ocean, and also fringe the great lakes which the fleets of Rome navigate. Not only that, but in that area we have even made assaults on the Ocean itself and, beyond our range, rumour has it that there are the pillars of Hercules – whether it is that Hercules visited those shores, or because we have agreed to enter all marvels everywhere to his credit. Nor did Drusus Germanicus lack audacity, but Ocean vetoed an inquiry into its secrets and about Hercules. Soon the attempt was abandoned, and it was considered more sacred and reverent to believe in the works of the gods than comprehend them.


35 Up until now, we have been inquiring into western Germania. At this point the land falls away with a great bend towards the north, and first of all come the Chaucians. Though they start next to the Frisians and occupy part of the seaboard, they also border on all of the descent groups just mentioned, and finally edge away south as far as the Chattians. This vast block of territory is not merely held by the Chaucians, but filled by them. They are the noblest of the German peoples, and so constituted as to prefer to protect their vast domain by justice alone. They are neither grasping nor lawless. In peaceful seclusion they provoke no wars and dispatch no raiders on marauding forays. The special proof of their sterling strength is, indeed, just this, that they do not depend for their superior position on injustice. Yet they are ready with weapons and, if circumstances should require, with armies, men and horses in abundance. So, even though they keep the peace, their reputation does not suffer.


36 Bordering the Chaucians and the Chattians are the Cheruscians. For long years they have been unassailed and have encouraged an abnormal and relaxed peacefulness. It has been a pleasant rather than a sound policy. With lawlessness and strength on either side of you, you will consider peacefulness futile. Where might is right, self-control and righteousness are titles reserved for the stronger. Accordingly, the Cheruscians, who were once styled just and generous, are now described as indolent and blind, while the good luck of the victorious Chattians has been counted to them for wisdom. The fall of the Cheruscians dragged down the Fosians also, a neighbouring descent group. They share the adversity of the Cheruscians on even terms, though they had only been dependants in their prosperity.

[Cimbrians, and a digression on the history of Roman involvement in the area]

37 This same peninsula of Germania is the home of the Cimbrians, who dwell nearest the ocean. This is a small community today, but rich in memories. Considerable traces of their ancient fame are still evident: a spacious camp on each bank [of the Rhine] by the circuit of which you can even today measure the multitudes and manual skill of the descent groups and the evidences of that large migration. Our city was in its six hundred and fortieth year when we first heard of the Cimbrian armies, during the consulship of Caecilius Metellus and Papirius Carbo. If we count from that date to the second consulship of the emperor Trajan, the total amounts to about two hundred and ten years. That is how long the conquest of Germania has lasted. Between the beginning and end of that long period there have been many mutual losses. Neither Samnite nor Carthaginian, neither Spain nor Gaul, nor even the Parthians have taught us more lessons. The German fighting for freedom is more fierce than the absolutism of Arsaces. What taunt, indeed, has the east for us, apart from the overthrow of Crassus – the east which itself fell at the feet of a Ventidius and lost Pacorus? But the Germans routed or captured Carbo, Cassius, Aurelius Scaurus, Servilius Caepio and Gnaeus Mallius, and robbed the Roman people of five consular armies in one campaign, and even robbed a Caesar of Varus and three legions with him. Nor was it without paying a price that Gaius Marius in Italy, the divine Julius Caesar in Gaul, and Drusus and Nero Germanicus in their own homes struck them down. Soon afterwards, the prodigious tragedy advertised by Gaius Caesar turned into a farce. Then came peace, until, on the opportunity offered by our dissensions and by civil war, they stormed the legions’ winter quarters and even aspired to the Gallic provinces. Finally, after being repulsed from there, they have even in recent years gratified us with more triumphs than victories.

[Suebians umbrella group]

38 Now I must deal with the Suebians, which are not just one descent group like the Chattians and the Tencterians. For they occupy the greater part of Germania, and are distinguished by particular names of peoples, though styled in general as Suebians. One mark of this descent group is to comb the hair back over the side of the face and tie it low in a knot behind. This distinguishes the Suebians from other Germans, and the free-born of the Suebians from the slave. In other peoples, whether from some relationship to the Suebians, or, as often happens, from imitation, the same thing may be found. But it is rare and confined to the period of youth. Among the Suebians, even till the hair is grey, they twist the rough locks backward, and often knot them on the very crown. The chieftains wear theirs somewhat more ornamentally, to this extent interested in appearances, but innocently so. It is not for making love or being made love to. But men who are to face battle are, in the eyes of the enemy, more decoratively adorned if they attain a certain terrifying height.


39 The Semnonians relate that they are the most ancient and most noble among the Suebians. Evidence of their antiquity is provided by their ancestral obligation (religio). At fixed seasons all the peoples of the same blood gather through their delegations at a certain forest considered sacred by ancestral predictions and ancient dread. And after publicly offering up a human life, they begin the barbaric celebration of their terrible rite. There is a further tribute which they pay to the grove. No one enters it until he has been bound with a chain. He puts off his freedom, and displays the power of the deity. If he happens to fall, he must not be lifted up or rise; he must writhe along the ground until he is out again. The whole superstition (superstitio) comes to this, that it was here where the descent group began, here where the god who is lord of everything dwells. Everything else is subordinate and submissive to that god. The prosperity of the Semnonians enforces the idea. They occupy one hundred districts, and from these numbers they consider themselves the most important of the Suebians.


40 On the other hand, the Langobardians are famous for their lack of numbers. Set in the midst of numberless and powerful peoples, they are delivered not by submissiveness, but by peril and pitched battle. Then come the Reudignians, the Avionians, the Anglians, the Varinians, the Eudosians, Suardonians, and Nuithonians. These peoples are protected by forests and rivers. There is nothing noteworthy about them individually, except that they worship in common Nerthus, or Mother Earth, and conceive her as intervening in human affairs and riding in procession. In an island of the Ocean is a holy grove, and in it a consecrated chariot covered with robes. A single priest is permitted to touch it. He interprets the presence of the goddess in her shrine, and follows with deep reverence as she rides away drawn by cows. Then come days of rejoicing and holidays, as many as she thinks worthy to receive and entertain her. They make no war, take no weapons. Every weapon is put away. Peace and quiet are then and then only known and loved until the same priest returns the goddess to her temple, when she has had her fill of human company. After this, the chariot and the robes and, if you are willing to credit it, the deity herself are washed in a secluded lake. Slaves perform this service and are immediately swallowed by the same lake. As a result, there is a mysterious terror and an ignorance full of piety regarding what is seen only by those who die.


41 These types of the Suebians extend into the more secluded parts of Germania. Nearer to us – to follow the course of the Danube, as before I followed the Rhine – comes the community of the Hermundurians. They are loyal to Rome, and with them alone of Germans business is transacted not on the river bank, but far within the frontier in the most thriving colony of the province of Rhaetia. They cross the river everywhere without supervision. While we let other peoples see only our fortified camps, to them we have thrown open our houses and homes, because they do not desire them. Among the Hermundurians rises the river Albis [Elbe], a river that was once well-known and famous; now a name only.

[Naristians, Marcomanians, and Quadians]

42 Next the Hermundurians are the Naristians, then the Marcomanians and the Quadians. The fame and strength of the Marcomanians are outstanding. Their very home was won by prowess, through the expulsion in ancient times of the Boians. Nor are the Naristians and Quadians inferior to them. These peoples are, so to speak, at the front of Germania, so far as Germania is defined by the Danube. The Marcomanians and the Quadians retained kings of their own descent group down to our time, the noble line of houses of Maroboduus and Tudrus. Now they submit to foreign kings also. But the force and power of their kings rest on the influence of Rome. Occasionally they are assisted by our armed intervention. More often by subsidies, out of which they get as much help.

[Various other peoples]

43 Behind them are the Marsignians, Cotinians, Osians, and Burians, surrounding the Marcomanians and Quadians from the back. Among them the Marsignians and Burians recall the Suebians in language and culture. As for the Cotinians and Osians, the Gallic tongue of the first and the Pannonian of the second show that they are not Germans. So does their submission to tribute. This tribute is imposed upon them as foreigners in part by Sarmatians and in part by the Quadians. The Cotinians shamefully even have iron-mines to work. All these peoples have little level land, but occupy the passes, peaks and ridges of the mountains. In fact, a continuous range parts and cuts Suebia in two.

Beyond the range are many descent groups. The most widely diffused name is that of the Lugians, which spans several communities. It will be sufficient to name the strongest: these are the Harians, Helveconians, Manimians, Elisians, and Nahanarvalians. Among the Nahanarvalians is shown a grove, the seat of a prehistoric ritual. A priest presides in female dress. But according to Roman interpretation the gods recorded in this fashion are Castor and Pollux. That at least is the spirit of the god recognised here, whose name is the Alci. No images are in use. There is no sign of foreign superstition. Nevertheless they worship these deities as brothers and as youths.


But to return. The Harians, apart from the strength in which they surpass the peoples just enumerated, are fierce in nature, and enhance this natural ferocity by the help of art and season. They blacken their shields and dye their bodies. They choose pitchy nights for their battles. By sheer panic and darkness they strike terror like an army of ghosts. No enemy can face this novel and, as it were, phantasmal vision. In every battle, the eye is conquered first.

44 Beyond the Lugians is the monarchy of the Gotonians. They are ruled more strictly than other Germanic peoples, but not so strictly to destroy freedom. Then immediately following them and on the Ocean are the Rugians and Lemovians. The distinguishing features of all these peoples are round shields, short swords, and a submissive bearing before their kings. Beyond these peoples are the communities of the Suionians, not on, but in, the ocean, possess not merely weapons and men but powerful fleets. The style of their ships differs in this respect, that there is a prow at each end, with a beak ready to be driven forwards. They neither work it with sails, nor add oars in banks to the side. The gearing of the oars is detached as on certain rivers, and reversible as occasion demands, for movement in either direction. Furthermore, among these peoples respect is paid to wealth, and one man is accordingly supreme, with no restrictions and with an unchallenged right to obedience. Nor is there any general carrying of weapons there, as among the other Germans. Rather they are locked up in charge of a guard, in fact a slave. The Ocean forbids sudden incursions by enemies. Besides this, bands of armed men with nothing to do easily become riotous. It is not in the king’s interest to put a noble or a freeman or even a freedman in charge of the weapons.

45 Beyond the Suionians is another sea, slow and almost motionless, with which the earth is encircled and bounded. Evidence for this is furnished in the brilliance of the last rays of the sun, which remain so bright from setting to rising again as to dim the stars. Faith adds further that the sound of his emergence is audible and the forms of his horses visible, with the spikes of his crown. So far (and here rumour speaks the truth), and so far only, does Nature reach. Accordingly we must now turn to the right-hand shore of the Suebian Sea. Here it washes the descent groups of the Aestians. Their customs and dress are Suebian, but their language is closer to British. They worship the mother of the gods. As a symbol of that superstition they wear the figures of wild boars. This boar takes the place of weapons or of any other protection and guarantees to the worshipper of the goddess a mind at rest even in the midst of enemies. They use swords rarely, clubs frequently. Grain and other products of the earth they cultivate with a patience out of keeping with the laziness customary among Germans. Not only that, but they also ransack the sea and are the only descent group who gather the amber in the shallows and on the shore itself, an amber which they call in their own language “glaesum.” Nor have they, being barbarians, inquired or learned what substance or process produces it. No, it lay there long among the rest of the flotsam and jetsam of the sea, until Roman luxury gave it a name. To the natives it is useless. It is gathered in rough form and is transported to Rome unshaped. They are astonished to be paid for it. Yet you may infer that it is the exudation of trees. Certain creeping and even winged creatures are continually found embedded. They have been entangled in its liquid form and, as the material hardens, are imprisoned. I should suppose therefore that, just as in the secluded places of the East, where frankincense and balsam are exuded, so in the islands and lands of the west there are groves and glades more than ordinarily luxuriant. These are tapped and liquified by the rays of the sun, as it approaches, and ooze into the nearest sea. From there, they are stranded on the shores opposite by the force of tempests. If you try the qualities of amber by setting fire to it, it kindles like a torch and feeds an oily and odorous flame, and soon dissolves into something like pitch and resin. Adjacent to the Suionians come the peoples of the Sitones, resembling them in all other respects, and differing only in this: among them the woman rules. To this extent they have fallen lower not merely than freeman but even than slaves.

[Further peoples and conclusion]

46 This is where Suebia ends. As for the peoples of the Peucinians, Venetians, and Fennians, I am in doubt whether to count them as Germans or Sarmatians. Though the Peucinians, whom some men call Bastarnians, in language, culture, settled habitation, and house-building, conduct themselves as Germans, all are dirty and slow. The faces of the chiefs, too, owing to intermarriage, wear to some extent the degraded aspect of Sarmatians. While the Venetians have taken on many Sarmatian customs, they are bandits, infesting all the hills and forests which lie between the Peucinians and the Fennians. Yet these descent groups are preferably categorized as Germans, since they have fixed abodes, carry shields, and delight to use their feet and to run fast. All of these traits are opposite to those of the Sarmatians, who live in wagons and on horseback. The Fennians live in astonishing barbarism and disgusting misery. They have no weapons, no horses, no fixed homes. They have herbs for their food, skins for their clothing, and earth for their bed. Arrows are all their wealth. Due to lack of iron they tip their arrows with bone. This same hunting is the support of the women as well as of the men, for they accompany the men freely and claim a share of the spoil. Their infants have no shelter against wild animals and rain, except the covering afforded by a few intertwined branches, to which the hunters return and where the old take asylum. Yet they think their circumstances are better than groaning over work in the field or at home, and for ever exchanging their own and their neighbours’ goods with alternate hopes and fears. Unconcerned towards men, unconcerned towards gods, they have achieved a difficult thing: they have nothing to ask for.

Beyond this all else that is reported is legendary. That the Hellusians and Oxionians have human faces and features but the limbs and bodies of animals. This has not been so ascertained, and I will leave it an open question.


Source of the translation:  W. Peterson and M. Hutton, Dialogus, Agricola, Germania, LCL (Cambridge, MA: HUP, 1914), public domain, adapted and modernized by Harland.

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