An Analysis of the Germania and Agricola of Tacitus
This paper will both analyze and summarize the basic points of these two great works of Roman history. First, the Germania, a short work detailing the life and tradition of most of the German tribes on the Roman border. Second, the Agricola, a laudatory biography of the author’s father-in-law, Governor of Britain. The point of this is to show the old Roman virtue both in the barbarians, who are admired because of their simplicity in freedom, and in the personalty of Agricola, who embodied the older, republican virtues.
For tacitus, the Roman state was arbitrary and oppressive, expecting large tribute from a people who were quite willing to serve the empire in a republican capacity, including the Germans in England. Usury and corruption are nowhere to be found among the Germans, but everywhere in Rome. Unlike Virgil, Tacitus was a spokesman for the virtues of Cicero. The Germania is one of the great seminal works of ethnography, or the study of the life ad folkways of ethnic groups.
While the Germania is mostly concerned with tradition and law, he does spend some time in detailing, near the end of the work, the geographical distribution of the tribes, a section that is rather uninteresting. The Germans are a pure race. What they love most is liberty (Germania, 2 and 11). These are the two real objects of his inquiry: the love of liberty under a strong moral code and the fact that these tribes in fact form one people (compare this with Agricola’s speech in Agricola, 33).
These people are fighters, they fight harshly and with loud screams, taking pleasure in the bloodshed (Germania, 3 and 6). While it is true that the Germans live in difficult terrain, heavy forest, bog and marsh (Germania 5), they have cut out an admirable tribal life. Their fighting skill is the key both to liberty, in that arms are the key to liberty, as well as their moral code. Fighting skill is the most prized virtue among the Germans, but a fighting skill that treats death as nothing (Germania, 28). The kings of the tribal council are chosen by their conduct in war: the bravest shall rule (Germania, 7).
Even the women, who are not subjected to men in any real way, serve a “cheerleaders”of their men in battle, and share the identical love of valor and victory (Germania, 7). As far as women are concerned, the Germans are rather unique among the barbarians for their love of monogamy. Women are considered “partners” to the men in peace and in war (Germania, 18-19). But the fighting skill of the men is subjugated to the love of liberty, the true thesis of Tacitus’ work. Liberty is guaranteed by arms, and tacitus makes it a point that political deliberations are attended with arms (Germania, 13).
The German tribes under discussion are completely democratic. Kings do not rule arbitrarily but either with a tribal council (for administration), or the entire tribe (to deal with major issues and war). Kings can be deposed for cowardice, and it is a shame for any king to be outdone in bravery in battle. Bravery. Therefore, is the sine qua non of political power and hence, of the democratic political order (Germania, 14). One can compare this with the treatment of the Roman Emperor Domitan, who rules himself, and cannot recognize the talent Agricola.
In terms of the law, there are two real classes of crimes. The first, crimes that demand the death penalty. This is deliberated by the whole body, and hence, the penalty is democratic in nature. Accusations and defenses are permitted within the tribal assembly. But the crimes that demand the death penalty are, unsurprisingly, cowardice and treason, homosexuality and prostitution (Germania, 12). Other crimes demand a fine, including that of homicide. Like most German tribes, the fines are paid in cattle or sheep, as there is no mention of currency in the description.
The economy is simple, and usury, the practice of charging high rates of interest on loans, is forbidden as being a violation of tribal solidarity (Germania, 25), though it had become common practice in Rome. But it is a slave economy, where the “dirty work” of the society is done by slaves, and we can presume that these are POWs. Roman slave revolts could be compared with this. Apparently, these slaves are treated well, and are paid a living wage for their labors. But because slaves to the basic work, when the German man is not at war, he lives “in idleness” (Germania, 15). Hence, war is the primary occupation of the free man.
As for their personal habits, Tacitus makes it clear that they are a clean and hardy people, healthy, large and clean. They bathe daily (Germania, 22) after waking up long after noon in peacetime. Their children are raised in a harsh environment deliberately (Germania, 19-20) so the weak children will be weeded out and the strong alone survive. They are used to nakedness and tribal solidarity at an early age and are expected to use their free time honing their martial skills (Germania, 20). Ultimately, the German is a free man under a strict moral code. Law is customary but revolves around both warring ability and personal bravery.
Tacitus’ description of the funeral customs (Germania, 28) show that any real display of weeping is considered effeminate and to be avoided. The German citizen is a fighting machine where any other occupation is seen as beneath him. It seems that tacitus is giving a realistic and generally positive picture of these people in order to warn Rome about their own decadence and effeminacy under a large and wealthy empire. Virtue is created in simplicity, not wealth. In the Agricola, one sees a picture, not of barbarian virtues, but the true and older virtues of the civilized Roman.
The primary purpose of this work is to show the ancient Roman virtues in action relative to a political system (at least when led by the likes of Domitian) that no longer appreciates it. The bulk of the work is dedicated to Agricola’s administration in Britain, providing the basis for a hoped for reinvigoration of the old Roman and republican virtues he hints at in the Germania. It may even be possible that, to some extent, the freedom under moral law so expressive in the Germans is meant as a means to restore the old republican virtue to the empire, but this is speculation.
Gnaeus Julius Agricola was Tacitus’ father-in-law and made himself famous through his 7 year, victorious governorship of Britain. His victories in Britain derive from his intelligent handling of the crisis situation on the island after the successful revolt of Bodicea (61 AD). She had shattered the Roman presence in England, but it was revived by Agricola. The means of doing this were the following: He reorganized the army, he used his forces skillfully through they had been reduced in number, he ruled justly, believing the Germans to be basically peaceful if not oppressed, he fixed the roads and created jobs (Agricola, 18-21).
All of this permitted his forces to be in excellent shape, well supplied and fighting the barbarians straight up to the borders of Caledonia. For Agricola, the real mission of the Romans was to imitate the Germans in bravery (Agricola, 33). It is courage and endurance, and the honorable death being better than a long life of cowardice. It is clear that he is equating old Roman virtues with the Germans, that, while uncivilized, are more virtuous than the mew Romans, typified by the easily threatened emperor Domition (Agricola, 41).
The conclusion seems to write itself: the real purpose behind writing both the Germania and Agricola is to remind Romans of the old virtues, virtues manifest both in the German tribes (including those in England) and the personality of Agricola himself. The stresses seem to be on the simplicity of needs, tribal solidarity, justice and a basic localized democracy. This is the upbringing and environment that leads to virtue. In other words, the description of the Germans was meant to remind the Romans were true virtue lies. Translation Used: Tacitus. The Agricola and Germania. Harold Mattingly, Trans. Penguin Classics, 1970.Sample Essay of EduBirdie.com