Sunday, 7 March 2021

Tacitus, Germania 24 -25: of games and slaves.

 Recently I bought a reprint of Jacob’s Grimm Deutsche Mythology (Teutonic Mythology, 4th edition 1875), a pioneering work and a milestone in the scholarship of Germanic religion and customs. The foremost early source about Germanic tribes is Tacitus’ Germania, but this work is not without its problems when taken as an ethnographical description. I think Grimm was more aware of this than some later scholars, but it is almost all we have. The following two chapters – 24 and 25 - are about games and servitude, neatly connected by the voluntary servitude of those who lost a game of dice, but this is likely to have been an exception rather than common practice.  Chapter 24 starts with sword dancing of young men and I can’t help thinking of Khachaturian’s Sabre Dance. The conditions described in c.25 are almost applicable to feudalism during the Middle-Ages in Western-Europe.

 Tacitus, Germania:

 24] Genus spectaculorum unum atque in omni coetu idem. Nudi iuvenes, quibus id ludicrum est, inter gladios se atque infestas frameas saltu iaciunt. Exercitatio artem paravit, ars decorem, non in quaestum tamen aut mercedem: quamvis audacis lasciviae pretium est voluptas spectantium. Aleam, quod mirere, sobrii inter seria exercent, tanta lucrandi perdendive temeritate, ut, cum omnia defecerunt, extremo ac novissimo iactu de libertate ac de corpore contendant. Victus voluntariam servitutem adit: quamvis iuvenior, quamvis robustior adligari se ac venire patitur. Ea est in re prava pervicacia; ipsi fidem vocant. Servos condicionis huius per commercia tradunt, ut se quoque pudore victoriae exsolvant.

 pectaculum: show, spectacle

coetus (= coitus), -us (m.): gathering, meeting

quibus id ludicrum est: for whom this is a game (thus unlike gladiators, who were often forced to fight in the arena)

infestas frameas: threatening spears

se saltu iaceo: to jump/leap

exercitio…artem… decorum: exercise…skill…gracefulness

quaestus –us (m.): profit, gain

merces mercedis (f.): reward

quamvis audacis: though daring/dangerous

lascivia: playfulness

alea: (game of) dice (at Rome dicing though formally forbidden, was tolerated)

quod mirere (= mireris): what will surprise you

sobrius: sober, not drunken (unlike the Romans, who played dice often after dinner)

inter seria: amongst their serious occupations (note that dicing also plays an important role in the Indian epos Mahabharata and at an earlier period in groups of young man, the vratyas, who were send outside society before being integrated as full men)

tanta lucrandi perdendive temeritate: with such a recklessness for winning or losing

deficio defeci defectum: to lose

extremo ac novissimo iactu: with the last and final throw

quamvis iuvenior, quamvis robustior: i.e. a younger and stronger man would have won in a physical fight for freedom

adligari se ac venire: to be bound and sold (venire from veneovenii `to be sold’)

pravus: crooked, distorted

pervicacia: stubbornness

fidem: keeping one’s word (Tacitus disproves of such stubbornness, but there is also another element: only Romans can have true fides: the fides of barbarians is folly))

condicionis huius: of this sort (i.e. won by gambling)

ut se quoque pudore victoriae exsolvant: to release them also from the shame of their victory (maybe the term pudor reflects more Tacitus’ moral attitude towards this practise than that of the German tribes. As for selling such slaves: Rudolf Much (1937 ) thought this was unlikely, as the kinsmen (Sippe) of such a slave would not allow him to be sold abroad. Anderson (1938) suggested that they were sold in other to prevent troubles with the kinsmen of the enslaved man)

 [25] Ceteris servis non in nostrum morem, descriptis per familiam ministeriis, utuntur: suam quisque sedem, suos penates regit. Frumenti modum dominus aut pecoris aut vestis ut colono iniungit, et servus hactenus paret: cetera domus officia uxor ac liberi exsequuntur. Verberare servum ac vinculis et opere coercere rarum: occidere solent, non disciplina et severitate, sed impetu et ira, ut inimicum, nisi quod impune est. Liberti non multum supra servos sunt, raro aliquod momentum in domo, numquam in civitate, exceptis dumtaxat iis gentibus quae regnantur. Ibi enim et super ingenuos et super nobiles ascendunt: apud ceteros impares libertini libertatis argumentum sunt.

 eteris servis: slaves consisted of people taken prison in war from other tribes

descriptis per familiam ministeriis: with their duties well-defined for a household

penates: family gods  and so `household’

frumentum: grain

modum: measurement

pecus pecoris (n.): cattle

vestis –is (f.): clothing

ut colono: as (a Roman landlord does from his) tenant (colonus)

iniungo – inunxi –iniunctum (-ere): to impose

hactenus: to this extent

cetera domus official: the further duties of the house (of the master)

verbero (-are): to whip, beat

vinculis et opere coercere: to punish (force) with chains and hard labour (which with not unusual by the Romans, especially forced working in mines was a harsh punishment)

non disciplina et severitate = non disciplinae severitate (hedyadis) : not for (keeping up)  the strictness of discipline (all the slaves of a household could be executed for a severe crime, such as the murder of a master)

impetu et ira = impetu irae: in an impulse of anger

ut inimicum: as if it were an enemy

nisi quod impune est: except that their deed remains unpunished (a slave-owner could do with his slaves what he wanted, but when he killed the slave of another, he had to pay wergild, i.e. an amount of money to the owner of the slave killed)

liberti: freedman still depended on their former masters for protection

raro aliquod momentum (sunt): seldom something important (monumentum; weight in a scale. In Rome freedman could gain high positions and even become very rich, cf. the Cena Trimalchionis by Petronius)

dumtaxat: only

regnantur: some Germanic tribes had kings, especially those in Eastern Germania and Scandinavia

ingenuus: freeborn

apud ceteros (populous) impares libertini libertatis argumentum sunt: amongst the other (tribes) the inferior freedman (= the inferior position of freedmen) are proof of (their,  i.e. the higher ranking people) liberty. (For the aristocrat Tacitus, the fact that freedmen could gain high positions was a gruelling thought and what he does here is applying Roman terminology to Germanic social conditions as a mirror for his Roman readers: true freedom doesn’t depend on freedmen!)

Translation by Edward Brooks (1897)

 24. They have only one kind of public spectacle, which is exhibited in every company. Young men, who make it their diversion, dance naked amidst drawn swords and presented spears. Practice has conferred skill at this exercise; and skill has given grace; but they do not exhibit for hire or gain: the only reward of this pastime, though a hazardous one, is the pleasure of the spectators. What is extraordinary, they play at dice, when sober, as a serious business: and that with such a desperate venture of gain or loss, that, when everything else is gone, they set their liberties and persons on the last throw. The loser goes into voluntary servitude; and, though the youngest and strongest, patiently suffers himself to be bound and sold.  Such is their obstinacy in a bad practice—they themselves call it honor. The slaves thus acquired are exchanged away in commerce, that the winner may get rid of the scandal of his victory.

 5. The rest of their slaves have not, like ours, particular employments in the family allotted them. Each is the master of a habitation and household of his own. The lord requires from him a certain quantity of grain, cattle, or cloth, as from a tenant; and so far only the subjection of the slave extends. His domestic offices are performed by his own wife and children. It is usual to scourge a slave, or punish him with chains or hard labor. They are sometimes killed by their masters; not through severity of chastisement, but in the heat of passion, like an enemy; with this difference, that it is done with impunity. Freedmen are little superior to slaves; seldom filling any important office in the family; never in the state, except in those tribes which are under regal government. There, they rise above the free-born, and even the nobles: in the rest, the subordinate condition of the freedmen is a proof of freedom.

Sabre Dance - Aram Khachaturian.