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The white horses of prophesy July 12, 2011

Posted by Jenny in ancient Rome, classical studies, history.
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Early 20th century depiction of Germanic deity (Thor). Oscar Anton Koch, 1909.

This post is one of a series on “The Wilds of Germania,” based on writings by the Roman historian Tacitus.

Although Tacitus is known primarily as a historian, writing especially about the emperors up to and during his lifetime (c. 54 A.D. to 117 A.D.), he becomes an anthropologist in the Germania. You sense his avid curiosity about the customs of the Germans. Although the Romans had been engaged in warfare with the Germans since the time of Caesar, Tacitus was not interested in portraying this dangerous enemy in a negative light for propagandistic purposes. He wanted to understand how they actually lived and what they actually believed.

But because of the ongoing armed conflict, he treats their military strategy first of all among their customs, describing their weapons and their methods in battle.

Swords they rarely use, or the larger spear. They carry javelins or, in their own language, framms, pointed with a piece of iron short and narrow…. All [are] naked or only wearing a light cassock…their shields are diversified and adorned with curious colors. In their foot [infantry] their principal strength lies…. The infantry are elected from amongst the most robust of their youth, and placed in front of the army…. To recoil in battle, provided you return again to the attack, passes with them rather for policy than fear.*

One of the themes of the Germania is that these people believe in custom and in inspiration rather than in law. Thus, the warriors follow their generals or princes not because of any legal or institutional obligation but because the bravery of a particular leader might inspire them. To bolster their courage, they bring along holy figures taken from their holy groves. Their families accompany them, their wives dashing into the battle to administer meat and encouragement.

They have a king and various princes, the latter being the ones who lead them in battle. In the day of battle, it is scandalous to the Prince to be surpassed in feats of bravery, scandalous to his followers to fail in matching the bravery of the Prince. But it is infamy during life, and indelible reproach, to return alive from a battle where their Prince was slain.

When man and woman are married—and the society is essentially monogamous—the husband gives a dowry to the wife, rather than the reverse. But this consists in part of battle arms which she will pass to the sons for fighting. And, as suggested above, she is expected to join him in battle. The woman may not suppose herself free from the considerations of fortitude and fighting, or exempt from the casualties of war…she comes to her husband as a partner in his hazards and fatigues, that she is to suffer alike with him, to adventure alike, during peace or during war.

The Germans assemble periodically to deliberate on matters of common importance. The time of the gathering is set by a calendar oriented to the passage of night rather than day, determined by the phases of the moon. By the Priests…silence is enjoined…. Then the King or Chief is heard, as are others, each according to his precedence in age, or in nobility, or in warlike renown, or in eloquence; and the influence of every speaker proceeds rather from his ability to persuade than from any authority to command. If the proposition displease, they reject it by an inarticulate murmur: if it be pleasing, they brandish their javelins.

Crimes and offenses are judged in these assemblies. Traitors and deserters they hang upon trees. Cowards, and sluggards, and unnatural prostitutes they smother in mud and bogs…. In lighter transgressions…the delinquents upon conviction are condemned to pay a certain number of horses or cattle.

The assemblies are also a time for a coming-of-age ceremony for young men. It is repugnant to their custom for any man to use arms, before the community has attested his capacity to wield them. Upon such testimonial, either one of the rulers, or his father, or some kinsman dignify the young man in the midst of the assembly with a shield and javelin.

Their houses and their clothing are very crude. They do not live in cities, and none of their dwellings are suffered to be contiguous. They inhabit apart and distinct, just as a fountain, or a field, or a wood happened to invite them to settle. Their homes are made of wood and mud. In the winter, they sometimes dig caves in the ground and lay heaps of dung over them. For their covering a mantle is what they wear, fastened with a clasp…or a thorn. As far as this reaches not they are naked, and lie whole days before the fire…. They wear the skins of savage beasts…. They choose certain wild beasts, and, having flayed them, diversify their hides with many spots, [and in an intriguing but mysterious description] as also with the skins of monsters from the deep, such as are engendered in the distant ocean and in seas unknown.

Hospitality is one of the highest of their virtues. In social feasts, and deeds of hospitality, no nation upon earth was ever more liberal and abounding. To refuse admitting under your roof any man whatsoever, is held wicked and inhuman…. Upon your departure, if you ask anything, it is the custom to grant it; and with the same facility, they ask of you. In gifts they delight, but neither claim merit from what they give, nor own any obligation for what they receive.

Gambling is an important pastime. Playing at dice is one of their most serious employments; and even sober, they are gamesters: nay, so desperately do they venture upon the chance of winning or losing, that when their whole substance is played away, they stake their liberty and their persons upon one and the last throw. The loser goes calmly into voluntary bondage.

But the slaves are not harshly treated. Each of them has a dwelling of his own, each a household to govern. His lord uses him like a tenant, and obliges him to pay a quantity of grain, or of cattle, or of cloth. To inflict stripes upon a slave, or to put him in chains, or to doom him to severe labor, are things rarely seen.

The Germans are devoted to the practice of lots and auguries. From a tree which bears fruit they cut a twig, and divide it into two small pieces. These they distinguish by so many several marks, and throw them at random…upon a white garment. Then the Priest of the community…after he has solemnly invoked the Gods, with eyes lifted up to heaven, takes up every piece thrice, and having done thus forms a judgment according to the marks before made.

When engaged in war, they take a captive from the enemy and put him into combat with one selected from their own, each armed after the manner of his country, and according as the victory falls to this or to the other, gather a presage of the whole.

But often they use birds and animals for the purposes of prophesy. Here also is the known practice of divining events from the voices and flights of birds. But from this nation it is peculiar, to learn presages and divine admonitions from horses…. These are nourished by the State in the same sacred woods and groves, all milk-white and employed in no earthly labor. These, yoked in the holy chariot, are accompanied by the Priest and the King, or the Chief of the Community, who both carefully observe his actions and neighing.

Wodan Heals Balder's Horse, by Emil Doepler (1905).

Next to come: The Battle of the Teutoburg Woods.

*All quotations from Germania, translated by Thomas Gordon (1910).


1. Thomas Stazyk - July 13, 2011

Fascinating post. But it sure makes me glad I didn’t live back then!

Jenny - July 13, 2011

You mean, you wouldn’t want to wear animal skins and carry a javelin?…

2. Gary - July 14, 2011

Am enjoying the Germania posts. Will try to find some Tacitus
to read sometime. Might be too interesting to read at night, might
keep me awake (but perhaps in French or Latin ?)

Great flower pictures of the hike. Foggy days make for happy plants I guess.

Jenny - July 14, 2011

The writings of Tacitus about the Germans are relatively peaceful, but if you read him about the Roman emperors, you will find such a heavy dose of sarcasm and biting observation of hypocrisy and corruption, that you might find it will keep you awake!

3. Roon - July 16, 2011

Refreshing to read a non-German’s account of ancient Germania unclouded by ominously anachronistic associations with modern history, as this topic usually is in Germany nowadays. Here, memories of the distortions of Germanic mythology by people ranging from opera composer Wagner to the Third Reich’s racial superiority ideologues are still recent enough to embarass people.
But then, the Germania Tacitus described so positively harboured not only proto-Germans but also tribes that later populated other countries like England and the Lowlands, mingled e.g. with northern Italians and even trekked as far as North Africa in search of land (not to mention the Scandinavian relatives who discovered America and founded Russia). So I guess we can all innocently enjoy your account of Germanic tribal customs because Germania was one of the main ancestral homes of all of us in the West!

4. Jenny - July 17, 2011

Yes, I’m aware of those 20th century distortions of the history—it’s interesting to look at these paintings in the light of what came soon afterwards. But if you look directly at the writings of Tacitus, you see such a bracing independent spirit that it seems to wash away all of the self-interested interpretations that came nearly 2000 years later. If I had the time, knowledge, and energy, I would spend a lot more time on his writings about the Roman emperors. What brought me to Tacitus in the first place was the unpublished 1903 diary of Deneys Reitz, talking about what had happened to the southern Transvaal in the late days of the Boer War under Kitchener’s “scorched earth” policy, “They made a wilderness and called it peace.” A quotation from “Agricola” by Tacitus.

5. brian - July 18, 2011

Thanks for those interesting tidbits Jenny. Makes me want to go back and read more of it. German nationalists may have seen themselves as reenacting the conquests of their ancestors, but it was nothing but symbolism and analogy. They and their motivations were a direct product of the Romantic period, not the first century. Mussolini celebrated the glory of Imperial Rome, but that doesn’t make anyone feel awkward reading about the Romans. Anyways Roon is right, most European nations and governments have a German tribal origin ultimately–Franks, Saxons, Lombards, Normans, Rus, etc–none of whom wrote anything useful about themselves until a late date. That’s what makes Tacitus’ rare window into their early past so important.

His mention of the Germans’ love of councils is the most interesting to me. Modern democracy comes from western Europe, especially England. The earliest councils and parliaments in England and elsewhere had their origin in Germanic custom. Not so much Athens or Rome, even though these later became an inspiration. Iceland’s Althing has been meeting since pagan times.

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