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Coming soon: The wilds of Germania June 30, 2011

Posted by Jenny in ancient Rome, history.
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Tacitus

Followers of this blog have undoubtedly noticed that in recent weeks I’ve departed from my scheme of alternating posts about personal experiences (usually hiking) with posts on topics of history, art, philosophy, poetry, and other subjects. You have been getting an extra-heavy dose of hiking! But fear not, non-hikers, you will soon see a new series of posts on the subject of Germania, a mysterious region of ancient times east of the Rhine known to the Greeks and the Romans.

I will be using two writings of the Roman historian Tacitus as my touchstones: The Annals of Imperial Rome and Germania. Tacitus was a man of genius, meticulous in his collection of historical details, unblinking in his observations of moral hypocrisy, and supremely gifted in the balance, the heft, and the sharpness of his prose.

Here is a passage from the opening pages of Germania.

The Germans, I am apt to believe, derive their original from no other people; and are nowise mixed with different nations arriving amongst them: since anciently those who went in search of new buildings, traveled not by land, but were carried in fleets; and into that mighty ocean so boundless, and, as I may call it, so repugnant and forbidding, ships from our world rarely enter. Moreover, besides the dangers from a sea tempestuous, horrid and unknown, who would relinquish Asia, or Africa, or Italy, to repair to Germany, a region hideous and rude, under a rigorous climate, dismal to behold or to cultivate, unless the same were his native country?

Translated by Thomas Gordon, 1910.

Germania as of 116 A.D., with tribes described by Tacitus

The Hercynian forest October 26, 2008

Posted by Jenny in nature, Roman history.
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The Riesengebirge was part of the Hercynian Forest

The Riesengebirge was part of the Hercynian Forest

Among maps of the Roman Empire, I find one that depicts “Germania.”  Across the southern part of that territory, the capital letters “HERCYNIAN FOREST” span the headwaters of the Eder, the Weser, and the Main.  The forest is mentioned in the Germania and the Annals of Tacitus as a place of dark, dense trees and bottomless bogs through which the Roman foot soldiers floundered.

We know from ancient writings, beginning with Aristotle and continuing through Julius Caesar and Pliny the Elder, that the Hercynian Forest was a mysterious realm in which the rivers flowed northward, so vast in its extent that one could not go from one end of it to the other in sixty days’ march.  Gigantic oaks grew there so close together that their mighty branches intertwined, creating a pathless and impenetrable mass.  Antlered elk without joints leaned against the sturdy tree trunks to sleep, and, with diligent searching, unicorns could be found.  The ancient ox called aurochs wandered through the dappled forest glades, and a beautiful bird with feathers that glowed like flames flitted among the numberless emerald leaves.

Only small, scattered tracts remain of this wilderness, the best known being the Schwarzwald (Black Forest).  We do not now think of Europe as a place of forests.