The Germania by Tacitus is one of the most studied and commented texts from the whole corpus of classical literature. The reason is that this booklet gives details about the Germanic tribes which otherwise would have been unknown to us. Tacitus is however not an objective anthropologist – if that can be possible – but a man with a mission: the Germanic tribes are set as an example for the in his eyes luxurious and sexually indulgent Roman upper-class. Long before the idea of the `noble savage’ arose, Tacitus had put this concept into practice.
When in the 19th century the idea of one German state spread through the various German kingdoms and city-states, the Germania was seen as a paradigm for true Germanic virtues and indeed an unbroken chain of history was seen between some passages in the Germania and social circumstances and practices at then current rural areas of Germany. The ideological intention of Tacitus was overlooked by most classical scholars and his statements were taken at face value, for instance that the Germanic tribes were a `pure’ race. Tacitus was an armchair anthropologist who never visited the people he writes about and his information is based on earlier writers and possibly reports from traders and officers who had first-hand experience.
In chapter 4 Tacitus describes the physical appearance of the Germanic tribes and notices that it generally the same due to the fact that they don’t marry candidates from other tribes. Though Tacitus does not explicitly say so, this was contrasting with the Roman Empire, which was very much multicultural.
In chapter 5 he describes the hard landscape and the living conditions: the inhabitants of Germania were indifferent to wealth and were quite happy with their life on the edge of subsistence. This again unlike the spoiled Romans.
A few centuries later Germanic tribes overran the Roman Empire, eager for the luxuries it had to offer. Would Tacitus have been disappointed in his noble savages?
Tacitus, Germania 4, 5.
 Ipse eorum opinionibus accedo, qui Germaniae populos nullis [aliis] aliarum nationum conubiis infectos propriam et sinceram et tantum sui similem gentem exstitisse arbitrantur. Unde habitus quoque corporum, tamquam in tanto hominum numero, idem omnibus: truces et caerulei oculi, rutilae comae, magna corpora et tantum ad impetum valida: laboris atque operum non eadem patientia, minimeque sitim aestumque tolerare, frigora atque inediam caelo solove adsueverunt.
aliis: probably an insertion and not part of the original text
opinionibus accedo: I arrive at the opinion (opinionibus, because of the various authors, though they expressed the same opinion)
qui arbitrantur populos exstitisse and then in apposition (as) gentem etc,
habitus corporum: physical features
tamquam in tanto hominum numero: as far as this is possible regarding the amount of people
trux trucis: fierce, wild
rutilus: red (In order to impress their enemies, Germanic tribes painted their hair and bodies, like the Gauls did. Actually no much distinction was made by Roman authors between Celts and Germans.)
impetus: i.e. a sudden but short outburst of strength. The Germanic tribes lacked the training and organization of the Roman army.
inedia: lack of food
caelo solove adsueverunt: i.e. either through bad weather or poor soil.
 Terra etsi aliquanto specie differt, in universum tamen aut silvis horrida aut paludibus foeda, umidior qua Gallias, ventosior qua Noricum ac Pannoniam adspicit; satis ferax, frugiferarum arborum inpatiens, pecorum fecunda, sed plerumque improcera. Ne armentis quidem suus honor aut gloria frontis: numero gaudent, eaeque solae et gratissimae opes sunt. Argentum et aurum propitiine an irati di negaverint dubito. Nec tamen adfirmaverim nullam Germaniae venam argentum aurumve gignere: quis enim scrutatus est? Possessione et usu haud perinde adficiuntur. Est videre apud illos argentea vasa, legatis et principibus eorum muneri data, non in alia vilitate quam quae humo finguntur; quamquam proximi ob usum commerciorum aurum et argentum in pretio habent formasque quasdam nostrae pecuniae adgnoscunt atque eligunt. Interiores simplicius et antiquius permutatione mercium utuntur. Pecuniam probant veterem et diu notam, serratos bigatosque. Argentum quoque magis quam aurum sequuntur, nulla adfectione animi, sed quia numerus argenteorum facilior usui est promiscua ac vilia mercantibus.
aliquanto specie: to some extent in appearance
palus paludis (f.): swamp
foedus: filthy, loathsome
qua.. adspicit: where it looks to.. it is…
Noricum ac Pannoniam: Bavaria and Austria
satis ferax: abounding in corn (sata, cf. English `seed’, from a common root *sēdi-)
inpatiens (+ gen.): unsuitable for
pecorum: swine, goats, sheep
improcerus: undersized (i.e. pecora improcera sunt.)
frons frontis (f.): forehead (gloria frontis contrary to the wild and much larger aurochs and Roman cattle)
ops opis (f.): riches, wealth (cattle was a status symbol and used for bartering)
propitiine an irati: either out of kindness or of anger
venam argentum aurumve gignere: It was not until the early middle ages that some mining of precious metals started.
haud perinde: not as much (as one might expect)
est videre: graecism
legatis et principibus eorum muneri data: those vessels were probably given by Romans in exchange for some favour to Germanic delegates and chieftains, who in their turn gave these away.
non in alia vilitate quam quae humo finguntur: the statement that precious vessels are held in the same esteem as those made of clay is rather unbelievable. Actually, archaeology tells a different story.
proximi: those living near the Roman border
ob usum commerciorum: for the use in (regular) trade
in pretio habeo: to value
eligunt: prefer it for trade
permutatio –onis (f.): barter
pecuniam veterem et diu notam: like even nowadays some people don’t trust new banknotes!
serratos bigatosque: silver denarii with notched edges and stamped with a two-horse chariot (of Victoria and Diana),
nulla adfectione animi: not because of a special preference
promiscua ac vilia mercantibus: for those trading in common and cheap commodities
Translation by Alfred John Church and William Jackson Brodribb (1876)
For my own part, I agree with those who think that the tribes of Germany are free from all taint of inter-marriages with foreign nations, and that they appear as a distinct, unmixed race, like none but themselves. Hence, too, the same physical peculiarities throughout so vast a population. All have fierce blue eyes, red hair, huge frames, fit only for a sudden exertion. They are less able to bear laborious work. Heat and thirst they cannot in the least endure; to cold and hunger their climate and their soil inure them.
Their country, though somewhat various in appearance, yet generally either bristles with forests or reeks with swamps; it is more rainy on the side of Gaul, bleaker on that of Noricum and Pannonia. It is productive of grain, but unfavourable to fruit-bearing trees; it is rich in flocks and herds, but these are for the most part undersized, and even the cattle have not their usual beauty or noble head. It is number that is chiefly valued; they are in fact the most highly prized, indeed the only riches of the people. Silver and gold the gods have refused to them, whether in kindness or in anger I cannot say. I would not, however, affirm that no vein of German soil produces gold or silver, for who has ever made a search? They care but little to possess or use them. You may see among them vessels of silver, which have been presented to their envoys and chieftains, held as cheap as those of clay. The border population, however, value gold and silver for their commercial utility, and are familiar with, and show preference for, some of our coins. The tribes of the interior use the simpler and more ancient practice of the barter of commodities. They like the old and well-known money, coins milled or showing a two-horse chariot. They likewise prefer silver to gold, not from any special liking, but because a large number of silver pieces is more convenient for use among dealers in cheap and common articles.