What Tacitus and Cćsar tell us

Julius Cćsar built his fame not only by successful military campaigns but by writing about them. In his Comentarii De Bello Gallica ("Commentaries on the Gallic War") of the mid-1st century BCE, he writes about the Germanic tribes. He describes an egalitarian society with no private land ownership, "letting each man see that he himself is just as well off as the most powerful of the tribe" and "no druids." The latter is of course accurate, since "druid" is a specifically Celtic term, and may give the clue to why the picture he paints differs so markedly from what gravegoods, literature, and other ethnographic descriptions tell us about Germanic society. He was clearly contrasting it to the Celts he knew better, and may have been misled by more fluid social and religious structures - and warriors who did not take much into battle.

A century and a half later, in approximately 98 CE, Tacitus wrote De Origine et Situ Germanorum ("On the Origins and Location of the Germani"), or Germania. (He also devotes three chapters of his Agricola to Germanic peoples.) This is a comprehensive work and lists and describes many tribes. But its intent is to criticize Roman society by comparison, and he had never actually visited Germanic territory, so his information is all at least second-hand; some of it is thought to come from a lost work by Pliny, also on the Germanic tribes, since his references to the political allegiances of the Danubian tribes are outdated. The moralizing is particularly clear in his laudatory passages on Germanic women and chastity and on the refusal to limit the family, so it is hard to know how far to trust these observations.

His descriptions of Germanic religion are more useful because less obviously propagandistic. Among them are the description of the rites of Nerthus and of the grove of the Semnones. He also famously states that the Germanic people refused to limit their gods by making images of them or worshipping them in buildings. This may have been true on the continent but not in other Germanic areas, or it may have changed after his time or been true of only some tribes.


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