Germania: Tacitus’ Perceptions of Pax Romana Rome
While the early 2nd century is usually considered to be the height of the Roman Empire, closer examinations reveal a deteriorating state hiding behind a façade of power and wealth. As modern day historian C. Warren Hollister described, “life in Rome’s ‘golden age’ could be pleasant enough if one were male, adult, very wealthy, and naturally immune to various epidemic diseases. But if this was humanity’s happiest time, God help us all!” (14). Living during this time period, Cornelius Tacitus perceived of the rust slowly consuming through Rome’s golden shine. He writes, “the destinies of the Empire have passed their zenith,” predicting the end of an era 300 years before it occurred (33). He makes this conclusion based on observations of a deterioration of loyalty to the Empire due to weakened patriotism and societal values. His criticisms on the flaws of the Empire are interwoven into the text of his Germania, some being obvious while others are more discreet.
Written in 98 AD, Germania is a description of barbarian lifestyle and culture that Tacitus compiled from different accounts and sources. What makes it a somewhat unreliable historical source is that Tacitus interjects the text with his own opinions about the Empire. For example, Tacitus’ cynicism with the supposed power and strength of the Empire is revealed through his descriptions of the strength of the Germans. In this time period, the Empire represented the paragon of strength in a society, but Tacitus immediately brings attention to the hardiness and unity of the Germans in their barbaric wasteland. While the Romans enjoyed a temperate Mediterranean climate, the Germans lived in a place where the “wild scenery and harsh climate [make it] pleasant neither to live in nor look upon unless it be one’s home” (2). These people not only survive, but also thrive on cold and hunger, being unable to handle heat and thirst (4). Tacitus further comments that “the children in every house grow up amid nakedness and squalor into that girth of limb and frame which is to our people a marvel” (20). Even though the Germans live in such a hostile environment, they grow into physiques that awe the Romans. Moreover, unlike the Romans, they reject wine and sun. In these descriptions, Tacitus insinuates that the Romans are “soft.” He also implies that the Germans, a group of many tribes, had more unity and loyalty than the great, civilized Empire. In one passage, he describes a chant the Germans use in battle:
“The chant seems to them to mean not so much union of voices as union of hearts; the object they specially seek is a certain volume of hoarseness, a crashing roar, their shields being brought up to their lips, that the voice may swell to a fuller and deeper note by means of the echo” (3)
This description reveals Tacitus’ admiration for this unity and how something as simple as a chant can conjure up patriotism and unify a...