Tales of a pure people

The image that Roman historian Tacitus created of Germans had a lasting effect

Updated - June 04, 2022 04:54 pm IST

Published - June 04, 2022 04:33 pm IST

 Arminius was elevated to the status of a German national hero.

 Arminius was elevated to the status of a German national hero. | Photo Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Ethnography — the scientific description of cultures and races and people, their customs and habits — has an ancient and noble tradition. It goes back to the first recognised book of the western world, Histories by Herodotus. Of course, in Herodotus’ day, ‘science’ was hardly what we mean by it today. Writing about five centuries before Christ, Herodotus accurately describes the pyramids of Giza, just across the Mediterranean for him. But he makes up stories of giant ants digging up gold in India, where he had never been.

Julius Caesar wrote a seemingly more factual work on his campaign in Gaul. One character in particular might be familiar to English-speaking Indians — Vercingetorix, chief of the Arverni tribe, who unified the Gallic nation (roughly equivalent to France today) against Roman invaders. Vercingetorix won a major battle but lost the Gallic Wars to Caesar and was executed in 46 BC.

Another famous ethnographical work, which is a mix of Herodotus and Caesar, is Tacitus’ Germania, on the Germanic people. It’s a mix in the sense that the author is unlikely to have visited the place he writes about, but is likely to have met its people, many of whom served Rome. Like many of the works we have discussed in this column, Germania survived as a single copy through the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. But the image that Tacitus created of Germans had a lasting effect. Read this paragraph to know what I mean:

Hard climate

“For myself, I concur with those who suppose that the people of Germany never mingled by inter-marriages with other nations, but have remained a people pure, and independent, and resembling none but themselves. Hence amongst such a mighty multitude of men, the same make and form is found in all, eyes stern and blue, reddish-yellow hair, huge bodies, but vigorous only in the first onset. Of pains and labour they are not equally patient, nor can they at all endure thrift and heat. To bear hunger and cold they are hardened by their climate and soil.”

The idea that Germans are unbeatable in war — later disproven by the World Wars — comes from Tacitus. He writes of a German hero called Arminius, chief of the Cherusci tribe, who ambushed and slaughtered an army of three Roman legions, a total of over 15,000 men.

Final fall

In September, 9 AD, Arminius lured the Romans led by General Varus into the forest of Teutoburg and defeated them in a battle lasting three days. Though this was at the height of the Roman empire, under its most successful leader Augustus, it was a decisive enough defeat that ended the Roman expansion. The aged Augustus is said to have been so affected that he did not shave or cut his hair for months — a sign of mourning (interestingly, also a Mughal tradition) — and was often heard saying “Quinctilius Varus, return my legions”.

With the unification of Germany in the 19th century, Arminius was elevated to the status of a German national hero. A giant statue of his was put up in the Teutoburg forest, with him holding aloft a 20-feet-long sword. Hitler visited the statue and Germania was on the reading list of all Nazis.

Heinrich Himmler read it in 1924 and wrote in his diary of “the glorious image of the loftiness, purity and nobleness of our ancestors”, promising that “thus shall we be again, or at least some among us.”

Tacitus wrote many books in his lifetime, chronicling the reigns of emperors including Nero. His work, Annals, describes the persecution of Christians. A Most Dangerous Book by Christopher B. Krebs (2011) is on Germania. Despite the title, Krebs concludes that “Tacitus did not write a most dangerous book” but that “his readers made it so.”

The writer is a columnist and translator of Urdu and Gujarati non-fiction works.

0 / 0
Sign in to unlock member-only benefits!
  • Access 10 free stories every month
  • Save stories to read later
  • Access to comment on every story
  • Sign-up/manage your newsletter subscriptions with a single click
  • Get notified by email for early access to discounts & offers on our products
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide by our community guidelines for posting your comments.

We have migrated to a new commenting platform. If you are already a registered user of The Hindu and logged in, you may continue to engage with our articles. If you do not have an account please register and login to post comments. Users can access their older comments by logging into their accounts on Vuukle.