Those Limbs We Admire

Anthony Grafton

  • BuyA Most Dangerous Book: Tacitus’ ‘Germania’ from the Roman Empire to the Third Reich by Christopher Krebs
    Norton, 303 pp, £18.99, June 2011, ISBN 978 0 393 06265 6

Giambattista Vico knew that history began with the giants: the primitive men and women who lived after the universal Flood, and invented myth and poetry. More important, he knew why they had become so immense. The Jews, God’s holy people, had kept themselves cleanly, in accordance with divine commands, and had achieved only ordinary stature. But non-Jewish babies had played with their own urine and faeces. And these had a great fertilising power, as anyone could see by planting crops where an army had made camp. No wonder, then, that giants had stalked the drying earth after the Flood, amid the terrifying cracks of thunder and bolts of lightning that inspired them to imagine the pagan gods.

It was the Roman historian Tacitus whom Vico credited with providing this information. In this case as in many others, Vico’s reading of an ancient text was less philological than imaginative. In the Germania, a short, vivid description of the country and customs of the ancient Germans, Tacitus noted that their towns, unlike Roman cities, did not consist of blocks of houses in the midst of empty fields: ‘everyone surrounds his dwelling with an open space.’ He also remarked that in Germany, masters and slaves ‘spend their days amid the same flocks and on the same ground’, and that their sons, ‘naked and filthy, grow up with those limbs and bodies that we admire’. For Vico, it was the work of a moment to pull these phrases together and elicit from them a conjectural history of human society. The mores of the Germans, as Vico found them in Tacitus, were of far more than local interest. In fact, they revealed the earliest stage of development of all the races of mankind, except the Jews.

Vico was always an ingenious reader. In the case of Tacitus, though, he was only one of dozens who found unexpected lessons about the past and present in the 750 lines of Tacitus’ text. A hundred and fifty years before Vico, the French jurist and political theorist François Hotman used Tacitus’ description of the Germans to put some flesh and blood on the inhabitants of early medieval kingdoms, the ancestors of the modern French and Germans. Drawing on the Roman’s Histories as well as the Germania, he noted that the Caninefates, relatives of the ancient Batavi, had chosen their chiefs by acclamation, raising them on a shield to signify their election. Evidently, the earliest European societies had retained an element of choice when setting a monarch on the throne. Though no republican himself, Hotman sketched the outlines of a republican myth that Hugo Grotius and others would develop at length. Tacitus helped them show that the constitution of the Dutch Republic – whose citizens presumably descended from the Batavi – grew from deep historical roots.

Two hundred years later, Herbert Baxter Adams, the German-trained founder of the first American historical seminar at Johns Hopkins, explained to students and readers that they could still find villages like those Tacitus had described if they walked in the contemporary Black Forest. More remarkably still, they could find them in New England as well: ‘The little settlement unconsciously reverted to the forms of village community life, and the Germania of Tacitus was more than suggested in the town at Quinnipiac.’ The historian who examined the ancient deeds of Salem or Marblehead would find in them towns made up, like Tacitus’ village, of separate ‘house-lots’: clear evidence of the shaping power, not of shit and urine, but of the free institutions of the early Germans. The mores Tacitus had described long ago still underpinned American freedoms, as they had British ones. Whigs and Wagnerians, poets and composers, republicans, racists and republican racists like Adams all found the Germania indispensable.

In A Most Dangerous Book, Christopher Krebs, a young German Latinist who teaches at Harvard, tells part of this complicated story with wit, economy and learning. He carefully describes how Tacitus served Rome as a senator and governor. But the bulk of his attention goes to the historian’s writing, in which he dissected the moral and political iniquity of the empire with the ironic detachment of an Olympian and the local knowledge of a cog in the machine, and above all to the Germania. Krebs suspects that Tacitus wrote this pamphlet-sized work with a practical purpose in mind. Like other aristocrats, he hoped to convince the emperor Trajan to invade and conquer Germany. Whatever the validity of this argument – which Krebs put forward in detail in an earlier book, Negotiatio Germaniae, written in German – the genre to which the text belongs is clear. Like other ethnographers, Tacitus wrote in a tradition, one that went back to Hecataeus and Herodotus, more than half a millennium before him.

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