Thursday, October 15, 2009

Book Review: The Agricola/ The Germania

The Agricola/The Germania My rating: 3 of 5 stars
A lovely pair these two make. They work well together, first, because they are two of the three minor works still extant from the master Tacitus -- often overlooked in favour of the Histories and the Annals. And, though ostensibly about very different topics -- Agricola is a suspiciously positive biography of the author's father-in-law, while Germania is a quick survey of the German land and its native people -- both offer interesting, though aggravatingly brief, glimpses at the Roman provinces and at the "barbarians" whom the Romans were constantly fighting.

Agricola, probably the less popular of the two, unfurls the life of Gnaeus Julius Agricola, who made his mark on history mainly through his bloody governorship of Britain and through his good fortune to marry his daughter off to one of the greatest ancient historian. In short, he extended Roman control on the island farther north than ever before, handily defeating a large mass of Caledonians in the process. This success probably made the Emperor Domitian both jealous and nervous, so Agricola's career was cut short by an early, likely forced, retirement.

This work offers us only tiny glimpses at the natives of Britain, and even then tends to focus on their tactics and habits on the battlefield. A natural lack of information -- Tacitus probably never visited Britain and relied solely on Roman accounts of the area and people -- as well as a general lack of interest in the provinces and the "barbarian" cultures, makes this work heavy on minutiae. It is, after all, a biography of Agricola, and the account of his cursus honorum was no doubt interesting to wealthy Romans for hundreds of years, but it makes for less than exciting reading these days.

Germania offers much more to the anthropologists and average readers of today. I imagine it has been picked apart many times, for any little clue that others may have missed. Depicting the Germans as strong, war-like people, Germania conjures images of thousands of half-naked men emerging from an icy forest, ready to do battle. They give a might cry and all rush forward, ready to die for family and country. They are unabashedly vulgar, yet somehow proud. One can't help but think of the word "liberty" and ponder on Eden, as in some ways Tacitus did thousands of years ago. At times, it makes me proud to have some German blood in me, though my cooler head always cuts through the romanticism in the end.

A great pair for any occasion. I will surely return to these in, at the latest, a year or two.

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