Andrew HamiltonClassic Essays

Tacitus’ Germania

Germania, symbol of the German nation

by Andrew Hamilton

TACITUS’ Germania, a short monograph on German ethnography written c. 98 AD, is of great historical significance. The transmission of the text to the present day, and certain adventures and tensions surrounding it, make for an interesting story.

Roman historian and aristocrat Cornelius Tacitus (c. 55–c. 117 AD) was the author of several works, more than half of which have been lost. What remains of his writings are divided into the so-called “major [long] works,” the Histories and the Annals, jointly covering the period 14–96 AD, and the “minor [short] works”: The Dialogue on OratorsAgricola, and Germania.

Tacitus, a senator, is believed to have held the offices of quaestor in 79, praetor in 88, consul in 97, and proconsul or governor of the Roman provinces in “Asia” (western Turkey), from 112–13.

The Germania is a short work, not really a “book.” My copy, “Germany and Its Tribes,” is a mere 23 pages long — albeit in moderately small wartime print on thin paper containing no notes, annotations, maps, illustrations, or other editorial aids. It was translated from the Latin by Alfred Church and William Brodribb in 1876 and published in The Complete Work of Tacitus by Random House’s Modern Library in 1942.

The Agricola, about Roman Britain, is roughly the same length. Agricola, the general primarily responsible for the Roman conquest of Britain and governor of Britannia from 77–85 AD, was Tacitus’ father-in-law.

The Germania has been the most influential source for the early Germanic peoples since the Renaissance. Its reliable account of their ethnography, culture, institutions, and geography is the most thorough that has survived from ancient times, and to this day remains the preeminent classical text on the subject. The book signifies the emergence of the northern Europeans from the obscurity of archaeology, philology, and prehistory into the light of history half a millennium after the emergence of the southern Europeans in Homer and Herodotus.

Though Tacitus at times writes critically of the Germans, he also stresses their simplicity, bravery, honor, fidelity, and other virtues in contrast to corrupt Roman imperial society, fallen from the vigor of the Republic. (It has been said that no one in Tacitus is good except Agricola and the Germans.)

Tacitus’ book is based upon contemporaneous oral and written accounts. During the period knowledge of northern Europe increased rapidly. Roman commanders produced unpublished memoirs of their campaigns along the lines of Caesar’s Commentaries, which circulated in Roman literary circles. Diplomatic exchanges between Rome and Germanic tribes brought German leaders to Rome and Roman emissaries to barbarian courts. And Roman traders expanded traffic with the barbarians, generating, perhaps, more knowledge than the military men.

According to Jewish classicist Moses Hadas, Tacitus “never consciously sacrifices historical truth. He consulted good sources, memoirs, biographies, and official records, and he frequently implies that he had more than one source before him. He requested information of those in a position to know” and “exercises critical judgment.”

Other Ancient Accounts of the Germans

Prior to Tacitus’ narrative, a Syrian-born Hellenistic Greek polymath of the first century BC, Poseidonius, may have been the first to distinguish clearly between the Germans and the Celts, but only fragments of his writings survive.

Julius Caesar did not penetrate very far east of the Rhine, so his knowledge of the Germans, expressed in De Bello Gallico (On the Gallic War, c. 50 BC), was limited.

The Roman Pliny the Elder’s Bella Germaniae (German Wars, c. 60s–70s AD) probably contained the fullest account of the people up to Tacitus’ time, but it has been lost.

Pliny, the foremost authority on science in ancient Europe, had served in the army in Germany. When Mount Vesuvius destroyed Herculaneum and Pompeii, he was stationed near present-day Naples, in command of the western Roman fleet. Eager to study the volcano’s destructive effects firsthand, he sailed across the bay, where he was suffocated by vapors caused by the eruption.

Following the Germania, the most important ancient work discussing northern Europe was Ptolemy’s Geography, written in the 2nd century AD. Ptolemy is the Alexandrian astronomer best-known for positing the Ptolemaic System. The Geography named 69 tribes and 95 places, many mentioned by no other source, as well as major rivers and other natural features.

From late antiquity, no extensive study of the Germanic peoples has survived, if one was ever written, and no single writer treated the migrations in a coherent way.

Loss and Rediscovery

At some point during the collapse of classical civilization and the migrations of late antiquity the text of the Germania was lost for more than a thousand years. It resurfaced only briefly, in Fulda, Germany in the 860s, where it and the other short works were probably copied. A monk at Fulda quoted from it verbatim at the time. Subsequently it was lost again.

In 1425 rumors reached Italy that manuscripts of Tacitus survived in the library of Hersfeld Abbey near Fulda. One of these contained the shorter works. In 1451 or 1455 (sources differ) an emissary of Pope Nicholas V obtained the manuscript containing the lesser works and brought it to Rome. It is known as the Codex Hersfeldensis.

In Rome, Enea Silvio Piccolomini, later Pope Pius II, examined and analyzed the Germania, sparking interest in the work among German humanists, including Conrad Celtes, Johannes Aventinus, and Ulrich von Hutten.

Its first publication in central Europe occurred at Nuremberg in 1473–74; the first commentary on the text was written by Renaissance humanist Beatus Rhenanus in 1519.

The first page of Germania, the Codex Aesinas

The Codex Hersfeldensis was then lost again for half a millennium. (This time, of course, the content survived in published form.) Then, in 1902, a portion of the Codex Hersfeldensis was rediscovered by priest-philologist Cesare Annibaldi in the possession of Italian Count Aurelio Balleani of Iesi (Italian: Jesi), a town located in the Marches of central Italy. The manuscript had been in the family’s possession since 1457. This single text, the oldest extant version, became known as the Codex Aesinas. (i.e., the Aesinas is believed to consist of portions of the lost manuscript from Hersfeld.)

One scholar has summarized the tremendous impact the text’s rediscovery in 1455 has had on European history:

The rediscovery of the Germania in the late fifteenth century was a decisive event in the study of the ancient Germanic peoples. Renaissance scholarship endowed Roman literary texts with outstanding authority, as well as making them more widely available. At the same time, a rise in German national feeling led to heightened interest in ancient texts which illuminated the Germanic past. . . .

The Germania . . . was used to cement a link between the Germans of Tacitus and the Germans of the early modern period. From about 1500 onward the Germania was rarely far from serious discussion of German national identity, German history and even German religion. Fresh impetus was given to it in the nineteenth century and, of course, the racial purity, valour and integrity of the Germans as portrayed by Tacitus had immense appeal to the National Socialist hierarchy in the 1920s and 1930s. (Malcolm Todd, The Early Germans, 2d ed., Oxford: Blackwell, 2004, p. 7)

Among others, the Germania influenced Frederick the Great, Johann Fichte, Johann Gottfried von Herder, and Jakob Grimm.

Key to the rediscovery, preservation, transmission, and social and racial influence of the Germania over the past 500 years have been Renaissance humanism, modern (pre-21st century) scholarship, the invention of printing, liberalism, nationalism, and racial science.

A Dangerous Book

Since the Renaissance, the Germania has provided the most significant historical evidence of the early Germanic peoples. The inevitable identification of the ancient Germans with their descendants commenced soon after the book’s discovery. Historians, philologists, and archaeologists all added pieces to the mosaic, so that by the time unification occurred in 1871 the early history of the Germans was firmly grounded.

The Germania influenced at least one 20th century leader decisively. Young Heinrich Himmler in September 1924 read Tacitus during a train ride and was captivated. At the time he was personal assistant to Gregor Strasser, leader of the National Socialist Freedom Movement (Nationalsozialistische Freiheitsbewegung). In contemporaneous notes, Himmler wrote that Tacitus captured “the glorious image of the loftiness, purity, and nobleness of our ancestors,” adding, “Thus shall we be again, or at least some among us.”

In 1936, the year of the Berlin Olympics, Hitler personally requested of Mussolini that possession of the Codex Aesinas be transferred to Germany. Mussolini agreed, but changed his mind when the proposition turned out to be unpopular among his people.

A facsimile copy was made for the Germans and Rudolph Till, chairman of the Department of Classical Philology and Historical Studies at the University of Munich, and a member of the Ahnenerbe (a racial think tank co-founded by Heinrich Himmler in 1935), studied the manuscript in Rome in the months prior to the war. The Ahnenerbe published Till’s findings as Palaeographical Studies of Tacitus’s Agricola and Germania Along with a Photocopy of the Codex Aesinas in 1943.

German ideologist Alfred Rosenberg and SS chief Heinrich Himmler both retained intense interest in the Codex. Mussolini’s government fell in 1943. In July 1944 Himmler dispatched an SS commando team to rescue the manuscript. The unit searched three Balleani family residences in Italy without success.

Palazzo Balleani in Jesi

The Codex was in fact stored in a wooden trunk bound with tin in the kitchen cellar of one of the residences, the Palazzo on the Piazza in Jesi. (There is a 1998 online newspaper account in German about this affair that relies upon Jewish writer Simon Schama’s 1996 Landscape and Memory for its authority.)

The upshot was that possession of the manuscript remained in the hands of the Baldeschi-Balleani family. After the war the family stored the Codex Aesinas in a safe deposit box in the basement of the Banco di Sicilia in Florence, Italy. In November 1966, the River Arno experienced its worst flooding since the 1550s, causing damage to the Codex. Monks at a monastery near Rome skilled in preserving manuscripts succeeded in saving it, though permanent water damage could not be eliminated.

The Codex was sold by the family to the Biblioteca Nazionale in Rome in 1994, where it is currently cataloged as the Codex Vittorio Emanuele 1631.

Suppress That Classic!

Since WWII, as ideological imperatives took precedence over dispassionate scholarship, the Germania‘s capacity to instill self-awareness and collective identity has deeply disturbed proponents of anti-White policies and ideologies. The historical record is problematic, too, in not depicting the Germans as irredeemably evil, possibly scheming, say, to vaporize the extensive Jewish populations of Rome and Persia in clay kilns.

One feint such ideologues employ is to insinuate that ancient Germans and modern northern Europeans possess no biological or historical kinship. Though nonsensical, it is as easy to argue as is the assertion that biological race does not exist, or dozens of other counter-factual dogmas.

But many would no doubt prefer to ban the book Communist-style, removing all copies from circulation and restricting access to unpulped copies to a handful of approved “scholars” on a carefully monitored basis.

As long ago as 1954 Jewish historian Arnaldo Momigliano declared before “an important international classical conference” that the Germania was one of the most dangerous books ever written. (In 1938 Momigliano lost his job as professor of Roman history at the University of Turin after passage of the Fascist racial law. He moved to England, where he taught for the rest of his life.)

Today, Harvard University’s Christopher Krebs, author of A Most Dangerous Book: Tacitus’s Germania From the Roman Empire to the Third Reich (2011), trumpets Momigliano’s view of the ancient text’s “insidious” nature to the applause of academic peers, literary critics, and journalists.

Krebs’ insincere declaration — gambit, really — that “Tacitus did not write a most dangerous book, his readers made it so,” doesn’t fool anyone. In societies committed to the proposition that speech and ideas constitute “hate,” there is unanimous, or at least undissenting, agreement on how to treat “dangerous” books and ideas.

In an interview, Krebs says that he is half German and half Swedish. But “Krebs” can be a Jewish name — e.g., biochemist Hans Krebs, formulator of the Krebs cycle. Scanning random passages from the book, it is hard to think that the author is not Jewish or part Jewish. If White, he has mastered their psychology to great profit.


Adam Kirsch, a Jewish book reviewer for Slate, the Washington Post-owned online magazine, quotes Krebs approvingly: “‘Ideas are viruses. They depend on minds as their hosts . . . The Germania virus . . . after 350 years of incubation . . . progressed to a systemic infection culminating in the major crisis of the twentieth century.'” (Yes, he means the “Holocaust.”) The title of Kirsch’s article is “Ideas Are Viruses.”

This is a characteristically Jewish, and totalitarian, way of thinking. Kirsch, a child of privilege, is the son of author, attorney, and newspaper columnist Jonathan Kirsch. A 1997 graduate of Harvard, Adam Kirsch writes regularly for Slate, The New Yorker, The Times Literary Supplement, and other magazines.

Wishing that the Germania had been lost during the Middle Ages, Kirsch concludes, “If the last surviving manuscript had been eaten by rats in a monk’s library a thousand years ago, the world might have been better off.”

Ah, liberal enlightenment! The world can never get enough.

* * *

Source: Author and Culture Clash

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Diversity is Genocide
Diversity is Genocide
25 November, 2021 5:16 pm

Thanks for this interesting history of that work. I have seen excerpts, but it would be great to read the whole thing sometime.

Patrick Pappano
Patrick Pappano
26 November, 2021 8:29 am

From my reckoning, Harvard and Yale were reserved first to serve the “Mayflower” families wherein the sons were sent to school with the expectation of earning gentlemanly “Cs” and carry on the family tradition in the management of their businesses acting as a ruling aristocracy in their communities, with a first-class education. The higher grades perhaps meant to stimulate the efforts of future professors. “The Jews” infiltrated this society by promoting the idea that “intellect” as demonstrated by SAT scores are the only legitimate selection criteria for admittance. And everybody signed on to this idea, banishing culture, and tradition, and civilization itself as unworthy of academia. But think, the very international reputation of Harvard and Yale, the reason it is regarded around the world as the pinnacle of accomplishment and… Read more »