One of our earliest examinations and appraisals of the Germanic peoples—those tall, blonde or red-haired, light-eyed barbarians to the North—comes from the Roman republican, Tacitus. Tacitus, to be sure, wrote with distinct bias. He wanted to show the Germans as natural republicans while implying that the Romans had lost their republican simplicity and manners by becoming soft and decadent imperials. Yet, whatever bias Tacitus brought to his observations, he still gave us the single best look of the time of that noble, restless, migratory race of people.
He began his analysis by claiming that the Germans themselves have tended only to marry those of the ingroup, thus keeping their own identity relatively pure.
For my own part, I agree with those who think that the tribes of Germany are free from all taint of intermarriages with foreign nations, and that they appear as a distinct, unmixed race, like none but themselves. Hence, too, the same physical peculiarities throughout so vast a population. All have fierce blue eyes, red hair, huge frames, fit only for a sudden exertion. They are less able to bear laborious work. Heat and thirst they cannot in the least endure; to cold and hunger their climate and their soil inure them.
Still, no matter what their physical makeup, Tacitus wisely noted, the Germans still share their own religion and mythology with other peoples of the time. In particular, they have their own versions of the heroes Hercules and Ulysses, but, in their native tongue, they honor the heroic vision through a brutal, deep, reverberating war cry, one terrifying to enemies. All honor, then, resides in ability and exertion, not in mere words or contrived offices.
When they go into battle, it is a disgrace for the chief to be surpassed in valour, a disgrace for his followers not to equal the valour of the chief. And it is an infamy and a reproach for life to have survived the chief, and returned from the field. To defend, to protect him, to ascribe one’s own brave deeds to his renown, is the height of loyalty. The chief fights for victory; his vassals fight for their chief. If their native state sinks into the sloth of prolonged peace and repose, many of its noble youths voluntarily seek those tribes which are waging some war, both because inaction is odious to their race, and because they win renown more readily in the midst of peril, and cannot maintain a numerous following except by violence and war.
Going into battle, each man listens to his wife, his children, and his kin. “These are the witnesses whom each man reverences most highly, whose praise he most desires,” Tacitus recorded, “It is their mothers and wives that they go to have their wounds treated, and the women are not afraid to count and compare the gashes.”
The men of the Germanic peoples consider the women—especially their mothers, wives, and daughters—to carry within them something more sacred than men: “They even believe that the sex has a certain sanctity and prescience, and they do not despise their counsels, or make light of their answers.” It should be remembered that women had become little more than objects of desire, playthings, and, at best, second-class citizens in the Roman Empire. During the early days of the Republic, though, Roman republicans held their women, as did the Germans, in high regard, seeing them as something noble and sacred.
Indeed, Tacitus continued, when the battle becomes fierce, the women—normally quite modest—bare their breasts as a reminder of how easily they could be enslaved by the enemy. Nothing, according to the entire Germanic culture, was more horrific than the prospect of enslaved women. This, Tacitus argued, was carried to an extreme and, thus, became a fault. “You can secure a surer hold on these nations if you compel them to include among them a consignment of hostages of some girls of noble family.”
One of singularly most fascinating aspects of the Germanic culture was its embrace of radical and traditional morality. To the nth degree.
When it came to marriage, the Germans did not believe in divorce. When it came to children, the Germans did not allow for abortion. When it came to adultery, the Germans rejected it, completely and utterly.
Thus with their virtue protected they live uncorrupted by the allurements of public shows or the stimulant of feastings. Clandestine correspondence is equally unknown to men and women. Very rare for so numerous a population is adultery, the punishment for which is prompt, and in the husband’s power. Having cut off the hair of the adulteress and stripped her naked, he expels her from the house in the presence of her kinsfolk, and then flogs her through the whole village. The loss of chastity meets with no indulgence; neither beauty, youth, nor wealth will procure the culprit a husband. No one in Germany laughs at vice, nor do they call it the fashion to corrupt and to be corrupted. Still better is the condition of those states in which only maidens are given in marriage, and where the hopes and expectations of a bride are then finally terminated. They receive one husband, as having one body and one life, that they may have no thoughts beyond, no further-reaching desires, that they may love not so much the husband as the married state. To limit the number of children or to destroy any of their subsequent offspring is accounted infamous, and good habits are here more effectual than good laws elsewhere.
It is more than worth repeating here: “No one in Germany laughs at vice,” and, to be sure, corruption was unacceptable.
The Germans, not surprisingly, treated their criminals much as Dirty Harry would.
In their councils an accusation may be preferred or a capital crime prosecuted. Penalties are distinguished according to the offence. Traitors and deserters are hanged on trees; the coward, the unwarlike, the man stained with abominable vices, is plunged into the mire of the morass with a hurdle put over him. This distinction in punishment means that crime, they think, ought, in being punished, to be exposed, while infamy ought to be buried out of sight.
As Tacitus noted and as we should as well, the Germans might have been barbarians, but they were certainly not stupid.
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Editor’s Note: The featured image is “Varusschlacht” (1909) by Otto Albert Koch (1866-1920), courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.