Those Limbs We Admire

Anthony Grafton

  • A 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.

For the most part, Tacitus did not draw on the first-hand reports of Roman travellers and soldiers, but recycled commonplaces. When he described the Germans’ settlement patterns, way of life and religious rituals, he addressed stock themes that figured in most ethnographies. When he identified specific German traits – such as the fact that they had never moved from the country of their origin, and did not resemble any other people – he repeated what Greeks had said, long before, of other peoples, such as the Egyptians and Scythians. Ethnography regularly operated by inversion. When Tacitus praised the Germans for their simple way of life, independence and courage, he implicitly contrasted them with the corrupt Romans. But his text offered no simple moral. He took every opportunity to point out the flaws of German civilisation. Simplicity and courage came at a cost: the illiterate Germans lacked a formal religion and could not muster the consistent energy to farm their land successfully, as the Greeks and Romans did. The Germania, in other words, was a mosaic: an assembly of easily found objects, glued into standard, if complex, patterns, and spiced with multiple signs of disapproval from the narrator.

Habent sua fata libelli, as Krebs remarks more than once: little books have their destinies. For centuries, that of Tacitus’ little book was bleak. For the most part, it seems not to have been read or even copied, except at the great Benedictine house of Fulda in central Germany. There, in the middle of the ninth century, a learned hagiographer named Rudolf wove material from the Germania into an account of the Saxons – clear evidence that a manuscript of the work was preserved in the monastic library. But there matters largely stopped. It was only in the 15th century – that heyday of thefts of books from monastic collections and the creation of new secular libraries that we oddly refer to as the revival of learning – that Tacitus, and the Germania, came back to life, as eager humanist manuscript hunters swapped irritatingly vague rumours and combed cobwebbed libraries for new texts. In 1425 a codex turned up in Hersfeld, near Fulda (which was very likely its source), but for decades it slipped annoyingly through the humanists’ clutching fingers. Krebs tells this dramatic detective story – which involves such colourful figures as Poggio Bracciolini, Niccolò Niccoli, Enoch of Ascoli and the brilliant humanist writer and Pope Pius II, and bits of which remain curiously obscure even after centuries of intensive research – very deftly.

More important, for Krebs’s purposes, than the time and place of the Germania’s reappearance are the larger circumstances in which it took place. For the book reappeared at a time when questions of German culture and identity loomed large in the European Republic of Letters. Most German-speaking lands formally belonged, at this point, to the Holy Roman Empire – a loose agglomeration of cities and states whose emperors struggled to give some substance to the claim that they were the successors to the Roman emperors whom Tacitus had served. Germany was rich, and many of the bright Italians who were creating a new classical scholarship spent time there, working for the papacy or teaching. Aeneas Silvius Piccolomini, the Sienese poet and memoirist who became Pius II, lived in Germany for more than 20 years. He and his fellow scholars were information masters. Popes and cardinals, patricians and fellow scholars depended on them to describe what they saw in their travels. But how should they characterise this strange set of lands, at once indispensable and alien? By 1455 – when the Germania reached Rome – the humanists had Tacitus’ own wealth of information to exploit, and they rapidly put it to use. An ancient description of Germani who did not necessarily have anything, including blood, in common with modern Germans became the chief resource for discussing the latter.

Like Tacitus, as Krebs shows, the humanists were skilful rhetoricians, interested less in arriving at absolute truths than in proving a particular case. Once they had read, marked and inwardly digested the Germania, they drew on its content in multiple, and sometimes contradictory, ways. Before Aeneas Silvius read Tacitus, he had praised the valour of the old Germans. Once irked by criticisms of papal exploitation of the German church, though, he wrote a Tacitean text of his own, in which he detailed the ‘beastliness’ of the ancient Germans’ lifestyle. Only by adopting the universal Christianity of Rome, Pius explained, had Germany attained its present level of civilisation.

By contrast, the suave diplomat Giannantonio Campano, sent to woo the Emperor Frederick III to mount a crusade, waxed complimentary about the courage of the ancient Germans. ‘Are you then going to dither about fighting the Turks?’ he asked their descendants. At the end of the century, the bad boy of Renaissance scholarship, Giovanni Nanni (or Annius) of Viterbo, Dominican theologian and forger of texts and inscriptions, transformed the German gods whom Tacitus had mentioned, Tuisco and his son Mannus, from pagan divinities into the human founders of the German people. He skilfully wove them into the story of Noah’s descendants and the peopling of the earth after the Flood, and gave Germany’s emperors and cities rich material to deploy in chronicles and historical pageants for centuries to come.

Suddenly, Germany had its own ancient past, described by an authoritative Latin author. But not every prospect pleased. Campano – as German readers realised when his collected works were printed in 1495 – had loathed the time he spent in Regensburg negotiating for German support against the Turks. Worse, he had described his misery in vivid Ovidian letters about his exile to Italian friends. Like Tacitus, in other words, he looked at Germany from both sides – an infuriating habit. Denouncing Campano as ‘an effeminate man, sodomite, masturbator and irrumator’ relieved the feelings of German scholars in Regensburg and elsewhere. But they knew that they must do more: they must take charge of their own past, and of the apparently authoritative record of it in the Germania.

Soon poets like Conrad Celtis and historians like Johannes Aventinus were hard at work pulling bits from Tacitus’ mosaic, rearranging them and sometimes forcing round pieces into square holes. As the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I and many lesser princes transformed Germany from a chaotic patchwork of territories governed in accordance with endlessly varied customs into an orderly array of lands efficiently ruled by Roman law, as Martin Luther did his best to make it a spiritual community united by hatred of the papal antichrist, scholars did their best to devise a German history and identity that emphasised the ancestral virtues: loyalty, courage, fortitude. The Germania, Krebs argues, induced modern Bavarians, Saxons and Hessians to see themselves as the descendants of an ancient German people, and thus played an essential role in making Germany into an imagined community.

It took a long time to build a united Germany – all the way down to 18 January 1871, when Wilhelm of Prussia was declared emperor at Versailles. But it proved easier to craft a useful German past. The real heart of Krebs’s book is the series of chapters in which he traces the cultural creation of Germanness. The humanists, as he shows, erected the central pillars on which German identity would rest for centuries: ‘By 1505 the mythical Germanen had become the exemplary Germans: pure and noble; long-limbed, fair and flaxen-haired; free-spirited, stouthearted and straightforward. These ancestors provided a sense of national belonging and moral guidance towards a better future.’ Four centuries later, German nationalists and Nazi polemicists imagined themselves and their fellow-countrymen in nearly identical terms. In the first decades of the 16th century, as the blood libel was revived in German lands and new ‘ethnographies’ described the Jews as a strange people much given to superstitious rituals, German thinkers began to describe their own identity in terms that would reappear, centuries later, engraved on the buckles of the SS.

Yet Germanness changed, and became more complex, over time. To the basic structure, clear and durable, that the humanists had built, generations of scholars and writers affixed layer after layer of crenellations and ornament, until the German national myth became as complicated and strange as Karl Friedrich Schinkel’s Kreuzberg monument. Baroque scholars, intrigued by Tacitus’ mentions of German songs, insisted that German was not an impoverished modern language but a rich and ancient one. They successfully urged their contemporaries to emulate the poetry of the ancient German bards and create a new national literature. Enlightenment historians, searching for the Geist that every nation must have, rediscovered a German one, which they connected with the Nordic Geist recently revealed by the study of folklore. In the 19th century, ancient Germanic tales became central to modern Germanness, especially in Bayreuth. Meanwhile, historians and polemicists, inspired by new theories about the Caucasian origin of white humans, hailed the Germans as the central, Aryan actors of human history – and identified the Jews as their hereditary opponents, stodgy, shifty and subhuman.

The story reaches its deeply ironic conclusion in the 20th century. Tacitus, whom Milton called ‘the greatest possible enemy to tyrants’, became the author of ‘a Bible for National Socialism’. Every grim eminence of Nazi thought, from Hitler and Himmler to the master practitioner of racial science, Hans Friedrich Karl Günther, known (for his obsessions) as Rassen-Günther, drew on the Germania to argue that the Germans were more loyal, more pure and more courageous than any other people – and to explain these qualities by invoking their uniquely strong connection to their native soil. Heinrich Himmler was only doing what came naturally when, in 1943, he sent a detachment of SS men to try to take possession of the oldest surviving manuscript of the Germania, then in the private library of Count Baldeschi-Balleani, near Jesi, in the Marches (fortunately, the count had hidden both his family and the manuscript in a hill village nearby). There seems to be every reason to agree with Arnaldo Momigliano, whom Krebs cites: the Germania deserves a high place among ‘the one hundred most dangerous books ever written’. Like a virus, Krebs argues, it could multiply and spread, in the right conditions. It could even become ‘a systemic infection culminating in the major crisis of the 20th century’.

The diagnosis is powerful. And yet it is not absolutely convincing. For alongside the story of a dangerous text – one that inevitably poisoned minds – Krebs develops a second and more convincing story of dangerous readers who read the Germania in ways its author never intended. In Negotiatio Germaniae, after all, Krebs argues that Tacitus’ book was radically ambiguous. It mentioned a German vice to offset every German virtue. To cook up a German myth from Tacitus’ ingredients, modern users needed imaginative recipes and supplementary shopping lists. Above all, though, they needed to ignore the many passages that had the wrong colours and flavours. Krebs makes clear that Tacitus’ modern readers approached the text as selectively as its author had approached his evidence. Conrad Celtis, for example, adapted Tacitus’ work in verse and prepared his own edition of it. Passionately convinced of the piety, as well as the virtue, of the ancient Germans, he saw the implications of a worrying description of their religion in Chapter 9: ‘Mercury is the deity whom they chiefly worship, and on certain days they deem it right to sacrifice to him even with human victims [humanis quoque hostiis].’ Aeneas Silvius had cited this very passage to show that the ancient Germans were barbarians. Playing the philologist as Sweeney Todd played the barber, Celtis simply declared a scribal error and emended the line to read, nonsensically but harmlessly, ‘with his victims [huius quoque hostiis]’. Many of his successors emulated him. Again and again – as Krebs shows with meticulous precision and historical insight – the very Germans who set out to build their myths of community and superiority on the Germania achieved their ends only by ignoring Tacitus’ critical remarks about German ignorance and idleness or by reading vast, undocumented histories into such single words as barditum (which became a fertile field for wild speculation about early German singers of tales). As Krebs himself admits at one point, ‘the meaning of a text is mediated by its readers.’

The German readers who did so much to impose a nationalist interpretation on the Germania could be considerably more imaginative than Krebs suggests. Consider the case of Philipp Clüver, the Leiden-trained geographer and disciple of Joseph Scaliger who tramped the roads of half of Europe, destroying his health, in order to reconstruct the route of Hannibal’s march. Krebs devotes a short, packed passage to Clüver’s Germania antiqua – a massive work that included two separate editions of Tacitus’ text, detailed commentaries and 26 woodcuts, their execution carefully supervised by Clüver, which depicted the Germans feasting and hunting. Krebs explicates Clüver’s theory of German origins ‘as part of the Celtic ur-people’ that followed Ashkenaz north from Babylon. He makes clear that Clüver, like Conrad Celtis, dealt with problematic passages by following the principle that I once heard enunciated by the Chicago critic Wayne Booth: ‘Just let me invent the evidence and I’ll prove my point.’ To explain why the Germans were known as ‘Teutsch’, Clüver simply emended the name of the German deity mentioned by Tacitus: ‘now Tuisto had to make room for Teuto.’

Yet Clüver had more in mind than fitting the ancient Germans into universal history, tracing the development of languages and showing, in a vivid picture reproduced by Krebs, that the ancient Germans were – to use the North Sea Germanic – very ripped. Like the Tacitean scholar Justus Lipsius, whose work on the Germania Clüver challenged, he noted the similarities between the ancient Germans, as described by Tacitus, and the native inhabitants of the Americas, as described by Spanish travellers and historians. Clüver also drew details from the travel accounts to make his descriptions and illustrations of the ancient Germans more vivid, and raised the question of how specific customs – from the Suebian hair-knot to suttee – had travelled from their Asian point of origins to places as varied as ancient Germany and the modern Americas. Yet Clüver’s illustrations also reconfigured the details of Tacitus’ account to show that different strata within German society wore different forms of clothing and used varied weapons. Clüver’s picture of ancient Germany was largely a work of the imagination, like Vico’s. But as Florike Egmond and Peter Mason have shown in a brilliant analysis, it was also complex in both its motivations and its contents. Though excellent in its own terms, Kreb’s account is so tightly defined that he misses parts of Clüver’s ambitious interdisciplinary enterprise – and, more important, the slow process by which, from Clüver to Vico to the conjectural historians of the 18th century, Tacitus served as a midwife to a social science that treated early Germans not as special, gifted forefathers of a master race but as one group of savages among many.

One reason to study the reception of an ancient text, after all, is to see what expert readers not trammelled by the assumptions and methods of modern scholarship – but steeped in the ancient languages and rhetorical traditions – made of it. The very fact that early modern readers found the Germania so plastic strongly supports Krebs’s earlier argument for the ambiguousness, the indeterminacy, of Tacitus’ little book. Perhaps this is not the story of a virus after all, but of a complex book whose many contradictions made it so pliable that it could serve radically inconsistent purposes.

Still, by concentrating on how Germans found an identity in the Germania, and by emphasising the frightening consequences that these ways of using the text would have in the 20th century, Krebs has made one vital point absolutely clear. ‘Reception’, ‘classical tradition’, ‘classical heritage’: dull, abstract terms like these suggest that the uses of ancient texts have a modest literary and pedagogical interest but are not of deep, existential importance to anyone, modern or early modern. In fact, as the story of the Germania reveals, ancient texts have played central roles in the most wracking and terrible moments of modern history. No one who reads A Most Dangerous Book will be in danger of dismissing the study of the classical tradition as an antiquarian enterprise, best carried on while sitting in a comfy chair, a cup of hot coffee nearby – a prospect that worried Momigliano. Tacitus’ ghost, and the ghosts of those martyred in supposed obedience to his theories, still haunt us, as they should. Warm thanks to Christopher Krebs for feeding them the blood that has enabled them to speak.