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Medieval Sourcebook :: Tacitus :: Germania

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Paul Halsall, January 1996:

Tacitus, an important Roman historian, wrote the most detailed early description of the Germans at then end of the first century CE.. In doing so, be warned, he was commenting on the Rome of his own time, as much as on the German themselves. Note that although this is most of Tacitus' text, some of the later sections are not in this etext.

[...] Whether amongst the Sarmatians or the Germans I ought to account the Peucinians, the Venedians, and the Fennians, is what I cannot determine; though the Peucinians, whom some call Basstarnians, speak the same language with the Germans, use the same attire, build like them, and live like them, in that dirtiness and sloth so common to all. Somewhat they are corrupted into the fashion of the Sarmatians by the inter-marriages of the principal sort with that nation: from whence the Venedians have derived very many of their customs and a great resemblance. For they are continually traversing and infesting with robberies all the forests and mountains lying between the Peucinians and Fennians. Yet they are rather reckoned amongst the Germans, for that they have fixed houses, and carry shields, and prefer travelling on foot, and excel in swiftness. Usages these, all widely differing from those of the Sarmatians, who live on horseback and dwell in waggons.

In wonderful savageness live the nation of the Fennians, and in beastly poverty, destitute of arms, of horses, and of homes; their food, the common herbs; their apparel, skins; their bed, the earth; their only hope in their arrows, which for want of iron they point with bones. Their common support they have from the chase, women as well as men; for with these the former wander up and down, and crave a portion of the prey. Nor other shelter have they even for their babes, against the violence of tempests and ravening beasts, than to cover them with the branches of trees twisted together; this a reception for the old men, and hither resort the young. Such a condition they judge more happy than the painful occupation of cultivating the ground, than the labour of rearing houses, than the agitations of hope and fear attending the defence of their own property or the seizing that of others. Secure against the designs of men, secure against the malignity of the Gods, they have accomplished a thing of infinite difficulty; that to them nothing remains even to be wished.

What further accounts we have are fabulous: as that the Hellusians and Oxiones have the countenances and aspect of men, with the bodies and limbs of savage beasts. This, as a thing about which I have no certain information, I shall leave untouched.

The [...] part, in which Tacitus gives a geographical account of the locations of the main German tribes, is from the 18th-century translation by Thomas Gordon.

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