Tacitus’ Germania and the Description of a Warrior Culture

Germania, written by Roman historian Cornelius Tacitus in the 1st century, is an intriguing ethnographic source about the various Germanic tribes that lived beyond the borders of the Roman Empire. While Tacitus details many of the cultural trappings of the Germanic peoples, this review is mainly concerned with his comments on the warlike qualities of the tribes. Germania provides a preliminary look at a people whose very culture is defined by war. It were these warrior peoples who eventually contributed to the dissolution of the Roman Empire and settled the lands previously denied to them by the Legions.

The importance of understanding the warcraft of the Germanic peoples is evident in Tacitus’ opening words when he says that contact with these people was made through war. “War has lifted the curtain,” indicates that one of the main reasons why Tacitus may have written this ethnography was to make the Roman authorities more aware of the military customs of their potential enemies. Tacitus portrays the Germanic as a race with a strong military ethos ingrained in their culture much the same as the Roman military tradition was part of life in the Empire. While he mentions that resources are much more limited than the roman army to the extent that “few have swords…they wear no outer clothing,” he uses considerable detail describing the strength of their infantry and the wedge-shape formation typically used in combat. This formation allows them to withdraw fighters for a rest provided they rejoin the fight or suffer disgrace. So while the Germanic peoples have nowhere near the resources the Roman Legions do, they nonetheless are a comparable fighting force to the Romans.

Their battle formations are also based on kinship relationships within the tribe. Tacitus mentions that the leader of the battle wedge is determined by his courage and that this courage is enhanced by placing family members within the same wedge. The women and children, who are also close by, experience the battle first hand and are there to treat their wounded kinsmen. Knowing that their closest family are present is incentive to fight harder. Tacitus says that “they hear the wailing voices of women and cries of children. Here are the witnesses who are in each man’s eyes most precious; here the praise he covets most.” Compared to the Legions who relied on training and efficiency in executing their tactics, the Germanic peoples used their tactics to harness the emotions of family bonds so that warrior was always aware of what he was fighting for.

When engaging in combat, the primary weapon used by the Germanic peoples is the spear or frameae. These weapons equipped with a “narrow iron head” are used by both warriors on foot and on horse. They can be thrown as well as held which allows the warriors to fight “both at close quarters and at a distance.” Compared to the armoured and well equipped legionnaire, Tacitus describes the Germanic soldier’s attire as rather plain. “They wear no outer clothing, or at most a light cloak,” and do have shields which are the only thing that is decorated with colours. Some have horses and Tacitus mentions that the “cavalry and infantry fight as one body,” however, these cavalry are not trained as the Roman cavalry is and their tactics are very simple. “They ride them forwards only or to the right, but with one turn from the straight,” but in general, the Germanic tribes were an infantry force who were well adept to fighting with and against cavalry.

To become a warrior requires participation in a ritual that signifies a man is no longer a boy but is capable of fighting in war. Tacitus says that “no one takes arms unless the state has endorsed his competence,” meaning that with the ability to fight comes allegiance to the tribe. When the time comes, the “chiefs or his father or his relatives equip the young man with shield and spear.” After this ceremony, the youth is now considered and adult. In Roman society, one has to join the army in order to become a warrior whereas in Germanic society, to be part of the society means that you are a warrior. The assembly where the youth receives these articles of war is the youth’s first public distinction: before that he was a mere member of the household, now he becomes a member of the state.” As a warrior, his duty is to engage in war. Tacitus mentions that “rest is unwelcome to the race,” indicating that warfare was a constant backdrop to Germanic life. The chief of the tribe maintains his good standing by distributing wealth and this wealth “comes through war and foray.” This society prides itself on being warriors and its military ethos is evident in its eagerness to achieve material possessions first through battle. Tacitus says that a German would rather fight someone than undertake the arduous task of farming because “it seems limp and slack to get with the sweating of your brow what you can gain with the shedding of your blood.”

Tacitus’ work has multiple angles which the historian can explore when studying the state of military affairs amongst the Germanic tribes. While the historian may have intended his work to be a warning to Roman officials, there is also a note respect for what Tacitus sees as a noble and honourable race that he may have wanted to show in order to point out some of the ignoble qualities of Roman society. Whatever the historians intent, his ethnography is a valuable source in the study of the warrior culture of a peoples that settled throughout Europe in the early medieval period.