The Merchants of Rome



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An Exploration of Trade Along the Romano-German Frontier:

Part I: Introduction and Prehistory.

People who are in despair and unhappiness, carrying out hated tasks in a grudging spirit, do not take the trouble to raise magnificent monuments or make imposing dedications; they have not the heart for it. But a large portion of the Latin Corpus–-apart from the epitaphs–-is filled with the inscriptions of merchants who made votive offerings after successful voyages, gave splendid buildings to their native cities, and set up monuments to the emperor, sometimes as private individuals, sometimes as members of a guild or a corporation.”

M. P. Charlesworth, Trade-Routes and Commerce of the Roman Empire. 2nd Ed., Rev., New York: Cooper Square Publishers. 1970. xiv.

Even before her legions began marching northwards into the forests and fens of supposedly untrammeled Europe, Rome’s merchant men had visited beyond the Alps, perhaps as far as Scandinavia and Britannia. These merchants would play a significant role in exploring, contacting, and reporting on the northern barbarian tribes, their nature, and their lands. Well before the idea of conquest had arisen in the minds of Pompey, Caesar, and other ambitious men of the Roman elite, stalwart equites, corporate concerns, and other business interests, were spreading the currency of empire in the form of coin, wine, and other luxuries. Caesar made good use of these intrepid traders’ logistical skills and geographical knowledge during his invasions of Gaul and Britain, as we shall see. Similarly, Tacitus understood how this soft power could be used to undermine traditional tribal cultures.

But difficult questions remain about the merchants themselves, either unanswered or addressed only obscurely in the literary sources. Who are these merchants, these mercatores: are they Roman or aboriginal, or else a mixture of the two? What is their social status; how do they capitalize on their activities; and how far and by what means do they travel in order to deal in their wares? Moreover, what was the nature of their trade, and what routes did they take?

German and Celtic trade with foreign merchants, that is, with the so-called civilized world of the Mediterranean basin, surely predated the rise of a Roman power in northwestern Europe. As Roman scholar Olwen Brogan has noted, “The conception of an illimitable forest primeval stretching unbroken from the borders of the empire into the furthest recesses of barbarism is very far from the truth.” [1] The Celts, and to some extent the more northerly Germans, had been modifying their environment, building tracks and roads, cultivating land, fortifying oppida, and trading, both among themselves and with the outside world, for centuries before the Romans appeared upon the Rhine.

One important demonstration of the trade links that existed between the Classical Mediterranean Cultures and the European interior is provided by the Hochdorf grave site, a Hallstatt culture burial from the Early Iron Age, circa 530 BCE, near modern Eberdingen, part of the Black Forest state of Baden-Württemberg in southwestern Germany. The burial hord, likely that of a local chieftain, consists of, among other grave goods, a large iron-trimmed carriage or cart, likely to have been used in the burial ceremony, several drinking horns, and, tellingly, an oversized–500 liter capacity–Grecian cauldron of bronze. [2]

Hochdorf Burial Chamber Exhibit from
Das-Keltenmuseum, Hochdorf.
Hochdorf Keltenmuseum Blick in die Grabkammer des Keltenfürsten

Hochdorf’s location, far distant from any Grecian ports, indicates that the connection from Western Greece extended deeply into the interior of the country. The size and the difficulty that transportation must have represented, together with the richness of the other grave goods, shows that there must have been significant wealth and/or political power on the Celtic side of the exchange as well.

The sheen of precious metals, the vibrant colors of the cloth, the magnificence of the wagon and the bronze cauldron speak vibrantly to the power and wealth of the chief who had been buried.”

(Price, Europe Before Rome: A Site-by-Site Tour of the Stone, Bronze, and Iron Ages, Oxford: OUP: 2013. 311).

The Hallstatt period was followed by the La Téne culture of the Late Iron Age of Europe, a culture that is also considered Celtic, though it was present in many areas that would later be dominated by tribes speaking Germanic languages. This period is distinguished for its large scale cooperative organizational skills, talents that were brought to bear in the habitual construction of fortified towns known as oppida, which characterize the gradual urbanization experienced during this period. These oppida are, characteristically, large defensive settlements built on hilltops, defended by ditches and timber walls, and containing zones for manufacture of tools, weapons, and pottery. These fortress villages were also used to dominate and control the junctions of trade routes, river fords, and mountain passes. [3] Such oppida ranged in size from as little as 25 to as much as 1,500 acres. [4]

While there are few visible remains of such settlements, they were numerous throughout western Europe during the pre-Imperial Roman period. Photographs from San Cibrao de Las, a second century BC oppidum located in modern Spain, may give some indication of their scale.

Arial view of the Hill-Fort at San Cibrao de Las, Spain.
Monumental Gates and the the Hill-Fort at San Cibrao de Las, Spain.
Photo Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons and Photographer Froaringus.

The introduction of Roman trade goods into these economies has been credited with expanding the pace of iron production among these settlements from as early as the 2nd century BCE. [5] Trade with the La Téne provided Mediterranean cultures with access to “salt, tin and copper, amber, wool, leather, furs, and gold.” [6]

Ram’s Head Pendant, Italic, 500–400 B.C.
The J. Paul Getty Museum.

The long distance trade network necessary to provide amber as a luxury item to the Classical world was remarked upon even in antiquity. Pliny the elder notes the product’s origin–called ‘glaesum’ by the Germans–as having been located in the islands of the Northern Ocean: “It is conveyed by the Germans mostly into the province of Pannonia. From there it was first brought into prominence by the Veneti, known to the Greeks as the Enetoi, who are close neighbours of the Pannonians and live around the Adriatic.” [7]

In his On the Origin and Disposition of the Germans, Tacitus notes popular tradition that the Germans had been visited by Hercules in the distant past. Hercules being an inveterate traveler of the ancient world, it would be surprising if he had not visited Germany in myth. Another tradition he relates includes Odysseus as a former visitor. This time, however, Tacitus references a material artifact to bolster the claim, an altar to  Laertes, father of the quick-witted sailor. Tacitus also remarks that German lands are said to possess “monuments and funerary barrows with inscriptions in Greek lettering.” [8]

Tacitus has been much criticised, it often being asserted that he never visited the homelands of the people he wrote about in his Germania, and that his ethnographic work was primarily a cribbed synthesis of a now lost ethnography belonging to the hand of Pliny. The archaeology must give one pause, however, before dismissing the possibility of an ancient Greco-German connection, whatever Tacitus’ failings as an ethnographer. Archaeology shows us that during the Iron Age, before the rise of the Roman Empire, and even back into the mythic period of the Roman Kings and beyond, German lands were in contact with the southern reaches of Western Europe. The Celtic and proto-Germanic cultures that thrived there were not isolated and primitive forest dwellers as it might be believed, but were capable of mobilizing resources and populations in a coordinated manner, constructing massive fortifications, and maintaining long-distance trade networks.

[1] Olwen Brogan. “Trade between the Roman Empire and the Free Germans,” The Journal of Roman Studies, col. 26. pt. 2. 1936: 195
[2] T. Douglas Price, Europe Before Rome: A Site-by-Site Tour of the Stone, Bronze, and Iron Ages, Oxford: OUP: 2013. 307-311
[3] Price, Europe Before Rome: A Site-by-Site Tour of the Stone, Bronze, and Iron Ages, Oxford: OUP: 2013.
[4] Bruce Bower. “Iron and Industry: Ancient Links.” Science News135, no. 11 (1989): 170-71. 170.
[5] ibid.
[6] Price, Europe Before Rome: A Site-by-Site Tour of the Stone, Bronze, and Iron Ages, Oxford: OUP: 2013. 290.
[7] Pliny, Natural History, XXXVII, 42-43.
[8]  Tac. Germ. 3

Reading Tacitus’ Germania Caput XXIX


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Human Sacrifice among the Semnones

Into the forest, at a time appointed by auguries of the Fathers, and in ancient terror of the sacred, ambassadors of the people, both of their name and of their blood, assemble, and in the public hewing down of a man, they celebrate their barbarous rites, horrible and primordial.

Stato tempore in silvam auguriis patrum et prisca formidine sacram nominis eiusdemque sanguinis populi legationibus coeunt caesoque publice homine celebrant barbari ritus horrenda primordia.

Tacitus, On the Origin and Disposition of the Germans, XXXIX, 2.

Chalmys & Petasos

The chlamys was a short riding cloak worn by men in ancient Greece, especially among cavalry men and ephebes. It was believed to have originated among the horsemen of Thessaly.


As the following quote from Plutarch’s life of Philopoemen shows, the chalmys eventually became standard attire, even for the general soldiery.

Then, while the minstrels were contending for the prize, he came into the theatre with his young men. They wore their soldiers’ cloaks and their purple tunics, were all in the prime of their strength and of the same age, and showed not only great respect for their commander, but also that high spirit which young men have after many honourable contests.

Plut. Phil. 11

A petasos is a broad-brimmed travelers hat of Thessaly.


χλα^μύς [υ^], ύδος, ἡ: acc. χλαμύδα, also
*A. [select] “χλάμυν” Sapph.674:—short mantle, worn prop. by horsemen, X.An.7.4.4; borrowed with the πέτασος from Thessaly, Philem.34, Poll.10.124; but said to be Macedonian, Arist.Fr.500, Phylarch.62J.; worn by ἔφηβοι, Philem. l.c., cf. AP6.282 (Theod.); μάτηρ σε . . δῶρον ἐς Ἅιδαν ὀκτωκαιδεκέταν ἐστόλισεν χλαμύδι ib.7.468 (Mel.); χλαμύδεσσ᾽ ἀμφεμμένοι, of ephebi, IGRom.4.360.35 (Pergam., ii A. D.); ἐκ χλαμύδος, = ἐξ ἐφήβου, Plu.2.752f, cf. 754f; “ἐκ χλαμύδος . . ᾤχετ᾽ ἐς Ἅιδα” IG12(7).447.6 (Amorgos); worn by Hermes, Luc.Tim.30; also by Eros, Sapph. l.c. (v. Poll.10.124), Philostr.Im.1.6, cf. AP12.78 (Mel.).
2. [select] generally, military cloak, of foot-soldiers, Antiph.16, Men.331, Plu.Phil.11, etc.; of heralds, Ar.Lys.987.
3. [select] of the general’s cloak, Phld.Vit.p.27J., Plu.Per.35, Lys.13, etc.; worn by kings, Id.Demetr.42, etc.; by tragic kings and heroes, Luc.JTr.41; by Σειληνοί in a procession, Callix.2: = Lat. paludamentum, D.C.59.17, 60.17, al., Hdn.4.7.3, Cod.Theod.14.10.1.
4. [select] a civilian’s mantle, PCair.Zen.263.2, al. (iii B. C.), PLond.2.402 ii 16 (ii B. C.), X.Eph.1.8 cod., POxy.1288.24 (iv A. D.). (For its shape cf. Plu. Alex.26.)

πέτα^σ-ος , ὁ, also ἡ Eratosth. ap. Ath.11.499e ; πετάσῳ Θετταλικῇ is prob. cj. for πίλῳ Θετταλικῇ in Thphr.HP4.8.7 (cf. 9) : (πετάννυμι) :—
A.broad-brimmed felt hat, worn by ἔφηβοι and hence used as their badge, Poll.10.164, Suid.; γυμνάσιον καθίδρυσε καὶ τοὺς κρατίστους τῶν ἐφήβων ὑπὸ πέτασον ἦγεν, i.e. made them practise gymnastics, LXX 2 Ma.4.12 ; also in representations of Hermes, Ephipp. ap.Ath.12.537f.
II. from its shape, broad umbellated leaf, as of the lotus, Thphr.HP4.8.9 ; φύλλον μέγα ὡς π. Dsc.2.106.
III. from its shape, also, awning, “ὁ π. τοῦ θεάτρου” OGI510.4 (Ephesus, ii A. D.), CIG3422.17 (Philadelphia) ; also, of the circular tomb of Porsenna, Plin.HN36.92; baldacchino, PMag.Leid.W.3.11.

Castra: Sources


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Anne Johnson, in her highly detailed and well researched book “Roman Forts” (1983), provides us with a convenient and useful list of literary sources on ancient Roman fortifications, known in Latin as castra . The most familiar of these sources are the widely known works of Julius Caesar on his various military campaigns of the middle of the 1st century BC, the Jewish War by Josephus, and the 6th book of Polybius’ Histories. Caesar talks of camps, fortifications, sieges, and tactics throughout. Josephus remarks on castra in the context of the Jewish Wars during the Flavian dynasty (70s AD), most likely with regards to the sieges of Masada and Jerusalem. Polybius is noted for describing a ‘marching camp’ of the 3rd c. BC.

Less well known, but perhaps more illuminatingly detailed, are the following ancient sources:

  • Hygenius Gromaticus, de munitionibus castrorum.
  • Flavius Vegetius Renatus, epitoma rei militaris.
  • Flavius Arrianus, Tactica.

According to Johnson (3), Hygenius, describes the model auxiliary camp, its construction and siting for a variety of different unit types. Hygenius was believed to have written during the reign of Marcus Aurelius. Of the three books, this is the most obscure and of poor availability, even within research libraries. There is, however, a new (2018) English translation available by a Duncan Campbell, but I do not know anything further about the material.

The second major detailed source is Vegetius, dated from the late 4th or early 5th century. Vegetius deals with legionary as opposed to auxiliary camps, and “provides a wealth of detail about the organisation and tactics of the legions, and also deals with the duties of the various ranks of officers, the selection and building of camps, and the training of recruits.” (4)

Finally we come to Arrianus who wrote a manual on cavalry and their training. For anyone seeking ancient literary sources on Roman military camp life, this brief list should provide a good place to start one’s research.

Works Cited:
Johnson, Anne. Roman Forts of the 1st and 2nd Centuries AD in Britain and the German Provinces. Adam & Charles Black. London: 1983.


Greetings. If there is anyone who is actively following this blog – and I am not sure that there is anyone who fits that description other than myself – you may have noticed that I have been absent from posting for a bit. Primarily, this is due to an ongoing reevaluation of how best to continue this project going forward. I feel that I need an outlet for my research and hopefully a forum to discuss what I am doing with other like minded individuals who share my interests in culture, philosophy, and ancient history. On the other hand, tasking myself with writing a college term paper length post every week or two is not only overly ambitious, it defeats the purpose of having a forum for discussion that can help iron out my ideas in progress. In my reevaluation, then, my goal is to post more often but also more concisely. In this way, I would like to address individual issues one at a time rather than trying to expound on any grand themes or theories. It is just not realistic to try and post a two thousand word essay with documentation every week, given my current time and attention deficits. At the same time, this is not and was never intended to be a clearing house for post accumulation, and the old model of just posting excerpts from classical culture and images no longer appeals to me. So, in short, be on the lookout for more and shorter posts in the future. They will be geared towards topics that can be expounded on and which will, hopefully, provide the foundation for broader research and discussions.

Reading Tacitus’ Germania


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Sword Leaping

Of spectacles [they have] but a singular kind and at every gathering the same: naked youths, for whom it is a sport, hurl themselves a-leaping, amidst swords and threatening spears. Training procures skill; skill, grace. It is not so much for profit or pay, however much the audacity of the sportsmanship, [rather] the reward is the satisfaction of the spectators.

Genus spectaculorum unum atque in omni coetu idem: nudi juvenes, quibus id ludicrum est, inter gladios se atque infestas frameas saltu iaciunt. exercitatio artem paravit, ars decorem, non in quaestum tamen est aut mercedem: quamvis audacis lasciviae pretium est voluptas spectantium.

Tacitus, On the Origin and Disposition of the Germans, XXIV,1-2.

Sword Dance of the Cutter’s Guild, coloured pen drawing by an unknown artist, 1600; in the German National Museum, Nürnberg.
Courtesy of the Germanisches Nationalmuseum, Nurnberg

A Brief Note on German Ethnicity in an Ancient Context.

Talking about ‘Germans’ and ‘Germany’ in an ancient context is a bit of a minefield as well as a misnomer. There was no national German identity as yet, and no tribe named themselves the Germans, that was a Roman name of uncertain origins. Moreover, Celtic and Germanic cultures overlapped significantly, so that it can be difficult to distinguish a particular group as distinctly one or the other. And, finally, while language might be considered a valuable metric, in the pre-Imperial Roman period and beyond, both cultures were essentially preliterate, making it difficult, with any certainty, to say who spoke what and from what language group it might have originated in.

The Boar Hunt in Epic Myth


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In the first season of HBO’s Game of Thrones, the king of the Seven Kingdoms, Robert Baratheon, is notoriously killed by a boar during a royal trophy hunt. While Game of Thrones clearly draws on medieval imagery, myths, and histories to build its world, there are also many ideas and tropoi drawn from the ancient lore of the classical era. The idea of a deadly boar hunt with dreadful consequences was, in fact, a set piece in ancient literature dating all the way back to the time of Homer. The subject of ancient hunting is one that still fascinates and plays upon our imaginations. The idea of men, armed with little more than spears, their wits, and superior organization, confronting raw nature, armed of tooth and claw, is one that engages our sense of drama and fair play, even if such notions exaggerate the danger and rawness represented by the reality of these situations.

Many such stories can also be difficult for modern readers to access. The social dynamics that underlie such hunts are often invisible, poorly documented, and difficult to relate to, whereas the natural environment in terms of flora, fauna, its ruggedness in general, has been radically transformed by the modern industrial age and uncounted generations of urban living. Such dramatic changes in lifestyle and environment can make understanding the conventions that rule the ancient hunting narrative seem alien and exotic. Add to these obscurations a few thick layers of mythological allusion and technical jargon, and the result is a specialist literature, existing within an already specialized field, that few casual readers will find easy to parse.

Molossian Hound. The version is sometimes known as “Jennings Dog”. On display in the British Museum.

Few sports or activities carried the same weight and reputation for nobility as hunting did for the antique mind. Xenophon, in his essay on hunting, the Cynegetica, charges the gods Apollo and Artemis with the invention of the art of hunting as well as with the use of hounds. He goes on to describe how these arts passed from them to the pedagogic centaur, Cheiron, whom he credits with having taught the art of coursing to many numerous and well-named heroes and demigods. In the end, he concludes that hunting is a noble activity worthy of the aristocratic curriculum of noble youths: “Therefore I charge the young not to despise hunting or any other schooling. For these are the means by which men become good in war and in all things out of which must come excellence in thought and deed” (Xenophon, “On Hunting,” Scripta Minora. E. C. Marchant, trans.: I, passim, & 18. ).

Therefore I charge the young not to despise hunting or any other schooling. For these are the means by which men become good in war and in all things out of which must come excellence in thought and deed.

Xenophon, “On Hunting,” Scripta Minora. E. C. Marchant, trans.: I, 18.

Though there is no doubt about the popularity and enthusiasm with which the ancients greeted Olympic games, arena combats, and displays of horsemanship, hunting myths and stories seem to occupy their own special register within the antique canon. Such pastimes are ones to which, perhaps, the lower classes need not have paid much heed. Certainly, the need for the acquisition of specialized equipment like expensive and labor-intensive nets, leather gear, spears and weapons of all sorts, as well as specialized hunting animals such as hounds and even horses, would have put thes grand chases beyond the reach of the typical peasantry, or even the middle-classes of well-heeled land-owners. The kinds of hunting described in Xenophon and Homer was the special province of old-money, the newly rich, and their favored hangers-on.

This, of course, doesn’t mean that the impoverished hoi polloi of antiquity never hunted, only that their game and means of acquiring it were more modest than those detailed in the grand tales of kings, heroes, and their retinues. The more mundane stories didn’t make it past the cutting room floor. Ancient writers and bards knew where their bread was buttered. There was proportionally more at stake for the nobility, as well, at least from the aristocrat’s own point of view. Honor in deeds was clearly far more important in the grand scheme of things than any such vague and unlikely circumstance as starvation.

Glory, timé, was the quarry sought by ancient hunters, not base sustenance. Thus, if some wild animal could be cast as a ferocious monster gleefully frightening children, threatening livestock, and rooting around destructively in precious acreage, then, all the better. Such natural or prodigious disasters constituted a need for action and engendered the necessary endeavor, the hunt—fortuitously a means, as well, to proudly display one’s excellence, one’s  areté, in defense of the thankful populace.

The Calydonian Boar Hunt.
Peter Paul Rubens, about 1611-1612.

The famous episode of the Calydonian Boar hunt is the epitome of just such noblesse obligé in action. Featured in not just one but two of the great epic poems of antiquity, Homer’s Iliad and Ovid’s Metamorphoses, the tale relates just such an expedition of the aristocracy defending the land from a monsterous quarry. According to the blind poet, Artemis had sent down an evil upon the city in the form of a “fierce wild boar with the shining teeth, who after the way of his kind did much evil to the orchards of Oineus. For he ripped up whole tall trees from the ground and scattered them headlong roots and all, even to the very flowers of the orchard …” (Homer, Iliad. 9, 539-542. Lattimore trans.). Ovid’s description of the beast is even more dramatic:

… And the goddess
Loosed over Calydon a great avenger,
A boar as big as a bull, with blood-shot eyes,
A high stiff neck, and the bristles rising from it
Like spears along a wall, and hot foam flecking
The shoulders, dripping from the jaws that opened
With terrible grunting sounds; his tusks were long
As an Indian elephant’s, and lightning flashed
Out of his mouth, and his breath would burn the grasses.”

Ovid, Metamorphoses. 8, 260-289. Rolf Humphries, trans., 190.

That the creature was destructive of the orchard was a fitting punishment for Oineus’ failure to appease the goddess huntress with a proper offering of his and its first fruits. Appropriately, too, Artemis would send discord to the whole polis, using the spectacle of the hunt itself, her special provenance, as its vector.

Meleager, Oineus’s son and prince of Calydon, is credited with dispatching the beast, but only after setting forth with a hunting party mustered on a military scale. Ovid provides a whole catalog of heroes invited along on the expedition. Homer warns us that the Calydonian boar had killed already: “so huge was he, and had put many men on the sad fire for burning.” (Homer, Iliad. 9, 546). The fire was a funeral pyre.

Even heroes, it seems, are subject to the stab and thrust of ivory tusks. In Ovid’s account of the battle Eupalamus and Pelagaon are knocked down and must be rescued by their companions, Enaesimus suffers worse, being hamstrung by the beast, and Hippasus is gored in the thigh. Ancaeus, ‘a man from Arcas’ is fully gored in the abdomen,”… and the ground was soaked in blood, Smeared with his entrails.”(Ovid, Metamorphoses. 8, 328ff. Rolf Humphries, trans., 192-3).  

… and the ground was soaked in blood, Smeared with his entrails. 

Ovid, Metamorphoses. 8, 328ff. Rolf Humphries, trans.

A wild boar could. in fact, be dangerous, even if the epics exaggerated the risks. Boars have long fierce tusks, and will turn and fight if threatened, more so to defend their young. All the better a vehicle, then, for the pursuit of much desired glory, and a good reason, too, for vaunting and boasting about one’s martial prowess, assuming one has, indeed, brought home the bacon. It was a dispute over honors, over who deserved the hide and head as trophy from the gigantic swine, that led to the war in Calydon, at least this is how the poets spin it. Even though Meleager had killed the beast, the recipient of the prince’s favor in the form of the hide, would be endowed with great renown. Thus, the means to the end of the creature, an assembly of “many hunting men out of numerous cities with their hounds,” also become the source of discord that completed the design of Artemis’ cruel punishment (Homer, Iliad. 9,454-45).

Homer assumed that his readers already knew the story. He reveals few details about why the Aitolians and the Kouretes have taken to “slaughtering one another about the city of Kalydon,” only that the Kouretes are laying siege to the city (cleverly mirroring the Achaean siege of Troy) and that they are warring “over the head of the boar and the bristling boar’s hide…” (Homer, Iliad. 9,530; 548). Ovid gives us more. Meleager, the prince of Calydon, having killed the beast, has given the trophies, head and hide, to the woman huntress, runner, and archer, Atalanta; her having drawn first blood. That such prizes, the very essence of timé, should have been offered to a woman, was more offence than the proud and arrogant Kouretes could bear. The result was a protracted siege lain against the prince and his people.

That a quarrel over a big game trophy could be accused of starting a full fledged war reveals the importance attached to hunting and its prizes among the ancient nobility. As a means of establishing social credibility as leaders, as a demonstration of protection provided and worthy of the allegiance of the people, as a mark for establishing social status among their peers, the hunts provided tangible evidence. Rank was everything, shame unendurable, in the aristocratic world of antiquity. These aristocratic engagements were, as time would show, remarkably stable in function, descending down from ancient times into the middle ages and beyond. In many ways these events became the forbears to the fully ritualized bloodletting of the aristocratic fox hunts, only recently banned in the United Kingdom. It is no surprise then that a boar hunt could turn the world on its head, given the stakes for which it was undertaken – it represented the very rights to rule, authority, and power. And that, readers, is no tame or dim unwary beast.

Reading Tacitus’ Germania


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Feasts and Entertainments

No other race is so profusely kind in feasts and entertainments. To deny a mortal shelter is considered a sin among them, and each, according to his fortune, welcomes guests with the provision of sumptuous dishes.

Convictibus et hospitiis non alia gens effusius indulget. quemcumque mortalium arcere tecto nefas habetur; pro fortuna quisque apparatis epulis excipit.

Tacitus, On the Origin and Disposition of the Germans, XXI,2.

Wading into the Deep End with Hegel: First Impressions upon Encountering Hegel’s Philosophy of History


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Of all the philosophers immortalized by membership in the western canon, Hegel appears to be the one who’s philosophy is best embodied by the popular notion that humanity can be described as the universe examining itself. How this idea became part of the pop cultural landscape is, potentially, a fruitful topic for a later discussion. What is clear, however, is that this idea probably didn’t enter popular discourse through the work of Hegel himself, which can be both dense and frustrating, and when it comes to his notion of God, sometimes even ambiguous.

As the editor Allen Wood of the Cambridge edition of Hegel’s Elements of the Philosophy of Right puts it: “The difficulty and obscurity of Hegel’s writings posed problems for them [critics], just as they have for subsequent readers.”
– Allen Wood, editor. “Editor’s Introduction,” Hegel: Elements of the Philosophy of Right (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1991), ix.

Despite the difficulties, I have found much to be fascinated with in Hegel, from his concept of the universe actualizing itself through history to his analysis of Socratic irony. The suggestion that Socrates was indeed a corrupter of Athenian youth, his irreverent take on the mores of the city-state poisoning them against authority and promoting the individual at the expense of the communal, first revealed to me the originality of Hegel’s approach.

I originally fell in with Hegel, not through a study of pure philosophy, but instead through my interest in history. Desiring to make a study of the philosophical bases and justifications behind the discipline of history, I began, naïvely as it turns out, with Hegel. Hegel is famous, in part, for his work on the philosophy of history and his view that history is animated by the Worldsoul or the Geist. This notion mixes a teleological and metaphysical component into the study of history which contemporary academic historians find troubling. One difficulty is that it appears to suggest a transcendental consciousness driving history, a notion in direct conflict with modern scientism and academic orthodoxy, and suggestive of religious eschatology. Another perceived flaw in Hegel’s theories is that, from the contemporary view, they adhere to a paradigm of social progress that denies, by definition, the relativistic equality of value placed on all life and lifestyles, all cultures past and present, a notion in direct conflict with modern anthropological ideology.

Where Hegel sees freedom of the individual to be truly himself as the mark of societal progress, the contemporary academic sees a stifling conventionalism rooted in Eurocentric notions from a bygone era. Lynn Hunt, in her book History, Why it Matters complains,

“The German philosopher G.W.F. Hegel inaugurated a long history of denigrating the East or Orient in his lectures on the meaning of world history in the 1820s: “The East knew and to the present day knows that only One is Free; the Greek and Roman world that some are free; the German World knows that All are free.””
– Lynn Hunt. History, Why it Matters (Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 2018), 58.

I make no defense of any cultural insensitivity perceived or imagined, though I do believe that the trope of Oriental despotism clearly precedes Hegel by some many hundreds of generations, and is not, as Hunt would have it, a Hegelian invention. The point that Hegel is making is one that is not dependent on any one culture or ethnicity, rather, his critique depends upon the style and manner of governance itself.

Despotism and absolutism are the governments that inhibit the actualization of the individual, and it is these qualities, not their geographical locations, that Hegel deplores. The progressive awareness is that in a despotism only the despot is free to be himself. The ancient solution was democracy and republicanism, which resulted in partial freedom. His dismissal of the East as indicative of despotic forms of governance is wrong, and something that we can recognize as a form of casual elitism and culture bias, but it has little to do with the actual point that the philosopher was making, despite its flawed cultural assumptions.

Whatever the objective truth value of Hegel’s notion concerning a worldsoul or Geist working for a solution to self realization in the historical sphere, it can, at least, provide a useful framework for looking at historical events. Since history is indeed in the past, it is perhaps not entirely unhelpful to look at them from a teleological perspective. Hegel’s ideas, therefore, should not be dismissed out of hand. Instead, it may be that we can accept the Hegelian challenge as historians, and, when examining our subject, look for the ways in which historical problems have resulted in apparent solutions through the actions of the many over time.

The core component of Hegel’s philosophy is that history follows laws and that these laws are the rational reflections of the Geist at work, attempting to express itself through history in its own terms. Whatever the nature of this Mind—it may be that it is a will in the same way that gravity seems to will to bring matter together—the conclusion is that it is subject to being understood. It is rational and explainable. History moves with purpose towards an ideal state. It may never reach that state, or, once that state is realized it may begin to seek out a new telos, another end to be desired. What we do know is that history, according to Hegel, follows a rational trajectory towards an attainable objective. By knowing the object we can know the trajectory and thus the direction of history.

Certainly, Hegel is one of the fixtures in the sub-field of philosophy of history and deserves to be read both cautiously and seriously. On the other hand, in order to accomplish this requires a more complete picture of Hegel’s metaphysical philosophy, a survey beyond the scope of my original intent. In other words, I now find myself locked into an unintended relationship with a cantankerous German philosopher from the early 19th century, delving into notions of dialectic and ontology in order to better grasp his view on the trajectory of human events. I expect this will become, then, an ongoing concern. Nonetheless, I do think it worthwhile to summarize my findings to date.

First on the agenda must be to establish what kind of force is meant by the Geist or Worldsoul or God in the philosopher’s lexicon. Clearly there are several possibilities and before we can decide on Hegel’s view of history, we must try and understand his conception of what sort of thing it is that animates it. For Hegel, history is the expression of a trans-human consciousness expressing its will through historical events as enacted by lesser but fundamentally dissimilar human wills taken in the aggregate. It is this aspect, with its pseudo-religious terminology, that I believe offends many historians.

Despite this language, however, my suspicion is that Hegel’s notion of the Worldsoul is far less a reflection of the personal god of protestantism, though perhaps informed by such, and something closer to an impersonal principle or set of principles which expresses itself as the aggregate of many consciousnesses interacting, a sort of multi-mind unnoticed and beyond the conventional awareness of casual observers of historical events. This is what M. C. Lemon refers to as the immanentist interpretation:

which construes ‘God’ as synonymous with the known principles inherent in Existence. The analogy of a spontaneously evolved system may help. Such a system (e.g. the ecological system) is not designed by anyone, yet the interconnections between its parts can be explained (via cause and effect).
– M. C. Lemon. Philosophy of History: A Guide for Students (London: Routledge, 2003,) 204.

The key, in my opinion, must be in this consciousness’ relationship to the material world. If the Geist arises out of human minds acting in concert, then man creates god and not visa versa. Otherwise, if the Geist can impose its will upon the material matrix of the universe without the intervention of the human, then we have a more traditional version of spirits relationship to matter and we are veering towards what Lemon refers to as the pantheist vision, where God is synonymous with the universe.

There is, perhaps, a third possibility to my thinking, however, which is more in the Platonic register than either of the other two, though this is speculative on my part. In this case we might consider consciousness itself to be the substance of spirit, which through the powers of the will, interacts with the material realm, though it is not properly a part of this realm. This interaction is weak at the physical level and grows stronger as more complex forms of life develop, allowing the will of the Geist to be more perfectly realized though the use of more receptive vehicles, namely mankind.

This is only the beginning of my relationship with Hegel. I began at the end of the story and now feel compelled to fill in the lacunae. This essay is not to be considered an end unto itself. Nor should it be considered an accurate portrayal or summary of Hegel’s philosophy. Rather this is part of an ongoing study into Hegel’s philosophy and reflects only my initial reactions to it. Parts of this essay must be considered merely speculative with regards to Hegel’s true beliefs, which I am still in the process of parsing. All opinions within it are my own, and subject to revision.

— Wm. J. M. —

Post Scriptum: One article that I would like to recommend to interested readers is one that appeared recently in Aeon digital magazine, written by Georgetown professor and Hegel biographer Terry Pinkard. This article, entitled The Spirit of History, went a long way towards reanimating my own spirit of interest in the Hegelian world view, and went a long way towards simplifying some of Hegel’s more difficult conceptions for this novice reader of his works.