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German Democracy and Justice by Tacitus

by Jim Jones, West Chester University of Pennsylvania (c.2012)
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As mentioned previously, Cornelius Tacitus (56-120CE) was a prominent Roman official in the early Empire, and the author of histories that were critical of some aspects of Roman culture. This selection contains a description of government among the German peoples who lived beyond the northeast border of Rome. Although they were considered outsiders, the Romans also knew the Germans as trading partners, mercenary soldiers, and as military opponents.



Germania, the Roman name for the land to the northeast of the Alps, was very different from Mediterranean Italy. In the Mediterranean region to the south of the mountains, the land drops off sharply and the climate is drier and warmer, so rivers run dry in the summer. To the north, the land drops off much more slowly and the climate is wetter, creating a series of large, navigable rivers that flow from the mountains to the North and Baltic Seas across the North German Plain. These rivers served as centers for agricultural production and as trade routes.

Although the Romans considered the Germans to be barbarians, it is clear from this reading that the Germans had a sophisticated society that included legal institutions. It may be more accurate to think of the Germans as people who were just as intelligent and civilized as Romans, but who chose not to live under a large, centralized form of government. The relationship between the Romans and the Germans -- the people who inhabited Germania -- was complicated. To the Roman generals in the first and second centuries CE, the Germans were an enemy that threatened the northeastern border and justified the expense of constructing forts. To generals in the 3rd and 4th centuries CE, the Germans were still a threat, but they were also a source of mercenary soldiers with which to defend the northeastern border, freeing up Roman soldiers for service in other areas of the Empire. To traders, the Germans were the source of several valuable products. To residents of Roman lands near the border, the Germans were occasionally a threat, but also neighbors, trading partners, potential marriage partners and even relatives.

Map of Germania
Roman Germania
German forest in winter
To the Mediterranean Romans, the northern German
forest was an alien environment

The first Roman contact with the Germans took place in 55 BCE when Julius Casear invaded Germania. Relations remained tense for the century until, during the reign of Emperor Nero (ruled 54-68 CE), a Roman merchant named Julianus sent a trade mission more than six hundred miles into the Baltic region north of the Danube border town of Carnuntum. Although traders had used this route since prehistoric times, this was the first time that a Roman trader used it. The results became well-known because the traders returned with a substance called amber, the fossilized sap of Baltic fir trees. Although it is considered a stone, amber is soft to the touch, appears to glow yellow-orange, feels warm when held, attracts lint through static electricity, and can be used to magnetize iron needles so that they point towards the north (the land where amber originated, as viewed from Rome). Romans viewed these properties as magical and believed that amber was a defense against the "evil eye," so it became very popular and valuable.

For the next two centuries, more Roman traders repeated Julianus' trip by following the valley of the March River north, passing through the "Moravian Gates" (Bohemia) and crossing the North German Plain along the Oder River, then turning east towards the mouth of the Vistula River along the "Amber Coast" of the Baltic Sea. From Roman sources, historians know that a 600-mile trip took about two months so the average daily trip was about ten miles. Those sources also mention many intermediate trading posts that provided facilities (food and lodging) for traders, and the sources also reveal that Roman traders obtained honey, beeswax, furs, rosins, and human hair (for wigs) from the north. Trade among the Germans was risky, since they could turn against Roman traders when their gods or local politics dictated it. There was no shortage of Romans who were willing to take the risk however, since the profits and potential for adventure were attractive.

Along the trading routes, a half-German half-Roman population developed. For example, in his book Germania, Tacitus described a group of Roman traders who moved to Bohemia around 50 CE at the request of the leader of the barbarian Marcomanni, and whose descendants lost their Roman identity by the end of the century. Besides the human exchanges, archaeological sources suggest that Roman goods became important to a large German trading economy that stretched as far as Scandanavia. Because of their importance, Roman border administrators could influence German politics by withholding or granting access to Roman goods.

From 259 to 270 CE, Rome pulled its German border back towards the west in order to make it shorter and less costly to defend. To maintain security, they gave Roman titles and payments to German and other "barbarian" leaders who controlled buffer states along the border. That produced relative stability for more than a century, but by the beginning of the fifth century CE, barbarian leaders controlled most of the land that Rome claimed in the North German Plain and along the Danube River. With no Roman troops to stop them, Alaric led the Visigoths across the border to the city of Rome and sacked it in 410, and Gaiseric did the same with a Vandal army in 455. Meanwhile, the Caledonians moved south after the Romans evacuated their army from Britain in 407 CE, and Saxons arrived by sea from Germany and gained a foothold near the mouth of the Thames by 441 CE.


  1. How did the German method for measuring time differ from that of the Romans? What does each method suggest about the early history of the two peoples?
  2. In the German system of decision making, the men with the best reputation for sound judgement spoke first. What purpose do you think this served? Who decides which people have the best reputation for sound judgement?
  3. What does it mean when a society (like the Germans) assigns penalties of different weights to different crimes?
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