This has just been added to my ‘must read’ list as an examination of the historical reception of Tacitus’ Germania.
When the Roman historian Tacitus wrote the Germania, a none-too-flattering little book about the ancient Germans, he could not have foreseen that centuries later the Nazis would extol it as “a bible” and vow to resurrect Germany on its grounds. But the Germania inspired—and polarized—readers long before the rise of the Third Reich. In this captivating history, Christopher B. Krebs traces the wide-ranging influence of the Germania, revealing how an ancient text rose to take its place among the most dangerous books in the world.
On The Gods and Their Rites as Practiced Among the Germans, part II.
Concerning the rest, they would never think to confine the gods by temple walls, nor to counterfeit into any limited human form the magnitude of the celestials: sacred groves and woods they consecrate, and designate as godly that mystery which they view with solitary reverence.
Ceterum nec cohibere parietibus deos neque in ullam humani oris speciem adsimulare ex magnitudine caelestium arbitrantur: lucos ac nemora consecrant deorumque nominibus appellant secretum illud, quod sola reverentia vident.
Tacitus, On the Origin and Disposition of the Germans, IX,3.
Despite Tacitus’s ethnocentrism and belief in the superiority of Roman culture, he also begrudgingly admires the German subjects of his ethnography as pure and untainted by the corruption of luxury that has, in his mind, weakened the empire. One purpose of his book may have been as a challenge and exhortation to the Roman elite to find a way to return to the rough virtue and stoic strength of the old Republican mores, especially to the new emperor Trajan (r. 98–17) whom he served as a former consul, a senator, and possibly as a proconsular provincial governor.
On The Gods and Their Rites as Practiced Among the Germans, part I
Of the gods, they cherish Mercury the most, to whom on certain days they are accustomed by divine decree to offer sacrifices, human and otherwise. Hercules and Mars they lawfully appease with animals. And part of the Suebi make sacrifices to Isis: by what cause and source this foreign rite I have learned little, except that its own sigil, in style the form of a ship, proves it a religion brought hence from afar.
Deorum maxime Mercurium colunt, cui certis diebus humanis quo que hostiis litare fas habent. Herculem ac Martem concessis animalibus placant. pars Sueborum et Isidi sacrificat: unde cause et origo peregrino sacro parum comperi nisi quod signum ipsum in modum liburnae figuratum docet advectam religionem.
Tacitus, On the Origin and Disposition of the Germans, IX,1-2.
One aspect of ancient ethnographies is that they rarely fail to note occurrences of human sacrifice among their subjects. A second feature, at lest among Roman commentators, was the supposition that all the gods of foreign peoples were actually just different aspects of gods that the Romans already knew. But, from other details in Tacitus’ descriptions, it does not seem that Germanic cultic practice was much at all like that of the Romans. Rather, the Germans seem to have believed in worshiping their gods in the natural environment not in constructed temples or sanctuaries, sanctifying groves and copses of trees for ritual purpose. This aspect of German religion is one of the key points that Tacitus makes in his study, and appears in later sections of this same chapter.
I have been digging into Tacitus since the beginning of the year, but my work has only really just begun to accelerate and maintain a steady pace. I am uncertain if my interest in the ancient Germans is a function of the paucity of information in the literary record concerning them and their lives, or if it persists in spite of that sad state of affairs. I tend to incline to the latter supposition, since the importance of these peoples for the late history of the Roman Empire, and, of course, Europe as a whole, cannot be underestimated. Also, I think, it is the risk and tension between cultures — the German against the Roman — and the rough excitement of frontier culture, that makes the limes, the limit of Roman ‘civilization’, so interesting.