Friday, July 8, 2011
Tacitus's GERMANIA: A Most Dangerous Book
July 6 2011: The Washington Post
‘A Most Dangerous Book’? Depends who’s reading it.
By Michael Dirda
No woman, according to New York Mayor Jimmy Walker, was ever ruined by a book. But Christopher B. Krebs, a classics professor at Harvard, makes a strong case that an early ethnological monograph, written in the first century in Latin by the Roman historian Tacitus, may have warped the cultural identity of an entire nation.
In my old Penguin translation, “Germania” — “On Germany” — runs fewer than 40 pages, but, like other comparably short documents, such as the Declaration of Independence and “The Communist Manifesto,” its influence has been earthshaking. As the Penguin translator, H. Mattingly, frankly writes in his 1947 introduction, the book is “a detailed account of a great people that had already begun to be a European problem in the first century of our era.”
“Germania” is an early work by Tacitus (circa 56-120), whose greatest achievement, the “Annals,” provides our best account of Roman history under such “bad” emperors as Tiberius and Nero. As a stylist, Tacitus is famous for his terseness, mordant wit and a prose that can be both poetically dense and grandly magnificent. Krebs, in “A Most Dangerous Book,” neatly characterizes it as “sparkling and serrated.”
“Germania” (published in 97-98) concisely describes the customs and character of dozens of loosely affiliated northern tribes but also functions as an implicit moral tract: While Romans have sunk into softness and debauchery, the tough, blond barbarians living around the Rhine are unwaveringly loyal to their leaders, fierce in battle, without interest in gold and other baubles, obedient to their gods, chaste when young and faithful to their spouses when married.
Why are these Teutons such admirable physical specimens and moral beings? In the most unwittingly pernicious sentence of his superbly readable book, Tacitus writes at the opening of Chapter 4: “For myself I accept the view that the people of Germany have never been tainted by intermarriage with other peoples, and stand out as a nation peculiar, pure and unique of its kind.”
The Germans are, in short, racially homogenous. This accounts, Tacitus adds, for their common body type: blue eyes, flaxen hair, huge frames. Moreover, since battle is viewed as the sole worthwhile activity, young warriors are intensely devoted to their band (comitatus) and will fight to the death for their leader. Drinking to excess is almost the only vice among these noble savages, though they do sometimes sacrifice human beings in their religious ceremonies.
As Krebs reminds us, Tacitus was largely unread and half-forgotten during the Middle Ages and rediscovered only by Renaissance humanists. “Germania” survived in just one manuscript. At first, Italian commentators, such as Enea Silvio Piccolomini — later Pope Pius II — viewed it as a chronicle of uncouth beastliness. These pagan tribes had no literature and no art; they dressed in bearskins and slept on the ground. But Northern scholars saw the book differently: What the ancient Teutons “lacked in cultural refinement they more than made up for by moral rectitude.”
New editions and translations of “Germania” gradually appeared, and soon this “golden booklet” had established itself as the foundation work of German cultural identity.
-->Ah! Can you feel the power of history here?