Sunday, May 27, 2012

Book Review: The Agricola and The Germania by Tacitus

The Agricola and The Germania are two accounts of first century Britain and Germany respectively left to us by Tacitus. He was a Roman career diplomat/senator turned author who wrote about these territories with a lively, timeless wit. Though the author was selective in his choice of subjects he described, the prose has a particular charm because of its historical insight and its narrative style. My favorite sentences are the ones that sound like a pronouncement of senator, those comments that ring true even now, but were set down in writing with such force by the author. Here is an example from the second page: "We have indeed set up a record of subservience. Rome of old explored the utmost limits of freedom; we have plumbed the depths of slavery, robbed as we are by informers even of the right to exchange ideas in conversation. We should have lost our memories as well as our tongues had it been so easy to forget as to be silent."

Agricola was a Roman general and the father-in-law of Tacitus. In writing this book as a eulogy, the author manages to create many quotable lines, that shed light on Roman society and military. "I remember how he would often tell us that in his early youth he was tempted to drink deeper of philosophy than was allowed for a Roman and a future senator, but that his mother, in her wisdom, damped the fire of his passion... In time, age and discretion cooled his ardor; and he always remembered the hardest lesson that philosophy teaches -- the sense of proportion." Agricola found his initial fame in military exploits in Britain and Tacitus tells us: "...his spirit was possessed by a passion for military glory -- a thankless passion in an age in which a sinister construction was put upon distinction and a great reputation was as dangerous as a bad one."

Tacitus describes the geography and anthropolgy of Britain (accuracy is not his strong point): "Britain is the largest of the islands known to us Romans... These remotest shores (the northern shores) were now circumnavigated, for the first time, by a Roman fleet, which thus established the fact that Britain was an island." In another place he writes: "Who the first inhabitants of Britain were, whether natives or immigrants, is open to question: one must remember we are dealing with Barbarians. But their physical characteristics vary, and the variation is suggestive." Centuries later, the British authors wrote similar sentences about America, Africa, Asia probably without realizing a resonance with their ancient cousins! Also, Tacitus compares their language, customs and religions with Gauls and concludes: "In both countries you find the same ritual and religious beliefs. There is no great difference in language, and there is the same hardihood in challenging danger, the same cowardice in shirking it when it comes close. But the Britons show more spirit: they have not yet been enervated by protracted peace. History tells us that the Gauls too had their hour of military glory:.." The twentieth century jingoists mined Tacitus for such lines and used it to promote nationalism in Britain and Germany among others (Germania as several such quotes about Germany). Back in the day, the English weather was no better than it is now. Also Tacitus tells us how British often lost wars because of their inability to cooperate with each other; we all know how "divide and rule" was a policy Britain later used to spread its territorial control. Also we hear of rebellion once led by Boudicca, "a lady of royal descent - for Britons make no distinction of sex in their appointment of commanders.

Tacitus provides delightful examples of  scientific (or non-scientific) beliefs of Romans in the first century. Here is an example from the book : "But report has it that this sea is sluggish and heavy to the oar, and even in a high wind does not rise as other seas do. The reason, I suppose, is that the lands and mountains, which produce and sustain storms, are further apart here, and the deep mass of an unbroken expanse of sea is more slowly set in motion. To investigate the nature of Ocean and its tides lies outside my subject and the matter as often been discussed."

Tacitus details steps taken by Agricola to enslave the minds and habits of British chieftains and their sons. Similar methods were often employed by the colonial powers. These included preference for "Latin language", "togas were everywhere to be seen", "And the population was led to demoralizing temptations of arcades, baths and sumptuous banquets. The unsuspecting Britons spoke of such novelties as 'civilization', when in fact they were only features of their enslavement." In our world, many features of this enslavement remain (or appear at every opportunity), and twentieth century shows, in countries like India, we continue to fall prey to methods Agricola demonstrated twenty centuries ago.

In Germania, the opening passages describe Germans as "indigenous" with "very little foreign blood", who "have never contaminated themselves by intermarriage with foreigners but remain of pure blood, distinct and unlike any other nation" a belief used centuries later to promote genocide and segregation. Of course, Tacitus cannot be blamed for what his writing was used for centuries later. Tacitus tells us that name Germani was used by a tribe that fought Gauls by crossing Rhine and later the name became associated with the whole group of people in that nation.

The lines that would intrigue anyone familiar with ancient Indian mythology (or history based on Hindu oral & written tradition) follow on the second page of Germania. "In the traditional songs which form their only record of the past the Germans celebrate an earth-born god called Tuisto. His son Mannus is supposed to be fountainhead of their race and himself t have begotten three sons who gave their names to three groups of tribes -- the Ingaevones, nearest to the sea; the Herminones, in the interior; and the Istaevones, who comprise all the rest. Some authorities, with the freedom of conjecture permitted by ancient antiquity, assert that Tuisto had numerous descendants and  mention more tribal groups as Marsi, Gambrivii, Suebi and Vandilii -- names which they affirm to be both genuine and ancient." In Hindu mythology, Manu was the fountainhead, the word Man is derived from the same word root as Manu. Manu had many sons, Ikshvaku probably was the most famous one. Rig Veda mentions Tvastr or Tvastar as the progenitor is the universe, and again the similarity with Tuisto has been commented on by many before me. 

In Germania too, Tacitus creates a narrative on various aspects of warfare, society, industry, agriculture and family life, all of which are engaging and worth-reading. I will mention a few select sentences/ phrases here. On women: "... they believe that there resides in women an element of holiness and a gift of prophecy; and so they do no scorn to ask their advice, or lightly discard their replies." On religion: "...count it no sin, on certain feast days, to include human victims in the sacrifices offered..." On clothes: "The universal dress in Germany is a cloak fastened with a brooch, or failing that, a thorn. They pass their whole days by fireside wearing no garments but this. It is a mark of great wealth to wear undergarments..." On family life (where Tacitus moralizes thinking of the Roman counterparts): "They are almost unique among barbarians in being content with one wife apiece..." "dowry is brought by husband to wife"... "Clandestine love letters are unknown to men and women alike. Adultery is very rare..." On economics: "The employment of capital in order to increase it by usury is unknown in Germany; and ignorance here is a surer defence than any prohibition". The present world has made usury possible, though history and theology is full of arguments against it, and I guess Tacitus marvels at the lack of practice in Germany as it was widely practiced among the Romans. Germania by Tacitus details many tribes that live north or east to the Germany. Again the historical perspective offered on these tribes gives a flavor of customs, corruptions, myths, languages, and classes that existed among the Europeans in the first century. 

Reading ancient books provides a sobering realization of the limitations of man's vision and understanding, and also a hope that immortality can be achieved in and through the written word. What we know and recall from human past was handed down to us in words scribed by individuals like us. Technology changes, intrigues and instincts don't; we are not too different from our forefathers in the way we love, fight, dress, marry and pray, but we have changed our symbols, and call the old ideas by a different name. Writers like Tacitus allow readers to recreate in their imagination a version of a lost world, experience a nostalgia for a time that exists only in unconscious memory stamped either into our language or into the biochemical concoctions within our brains and bodies. To experience that nostalgia, to appreciate the connection between colonialists of every era, and to contrast humans belonging to different coordinates in space and time, read "The Agricola and The Germania" by Tacitus.


Based on translation by H. Mattingly, published as Penguin Classics.
Read on a road trip to Newport, Rhode Island in May 2011.

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