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[The appropriate section numbers, and links to the online citations have kindly been provided by Bill Thayer, the modern icon for Classical Rome, and pioneer of the Online Texts Movement. — Elf.Ed.]

From The Germany and the Agricola by Tacitus; The Oxford Translation, Revised, with Notes; The Handy Book Company: Reading, Pennsylvania; undated; pp. 51-58.




By Cornelius Tacitus

[ Part 5 ]

The Lygian Tribes — The Suiones — Gathering Amber — The Peucini, Venedi and Fenni

43.  Behind these are the Marsigni,1 Gothini,2 Osi,3 and Burii,4 who close the rear of the Marcomanni and Quadi. Of these, the Marsigni and Burii in language5 and dress resemble the Suevi. The Gothini and Osi prove themselves not to be Germans; the first, by their use of the Gallic, the second, of the Pannonian tongue; and both, by their submitting to pay tribute; 2 which is levied on them, as aliens, partly by the Sarmatians, partly by the Quadi. The Gothini, to their additional disgrace, work iron mines.6 All these people inhabit but a small proportion of champaign country; their settlements are chiefly among forests, and on the sides and summits of mountains; 3 for a continued ridge of mountains7 separates Suevia from various remoter tribes. Of these, the Lygian8 is the most extensive, and diffuses its name through several communities. It will be sufficient to name the most powerful of them — the Arii, Helvecones, Manimi, Elysii, and Naharvali.9 4 In the country of the latter is a grove, consecrated to religious rites of great antiquity. A priest presides over them, dressed in woman’s apparel; but the gods worshiped there are said, according to the Roman interpretation, 52 to be Castor and Pollux. Their attributes are the same; their name, Alcis.10 No images, indeed, or vestiges of foreign superstition, appear in their worship; but they are revered under the character of young men and brothers. 5 The Arii, fierce beyond the superiority of strength they possess over the other just-enumerated people, improve their natural ferocity of aspect by artificial helps. Their shields are black; their bodies painted:11 they choose the darkest nights for an attack; and strike terror by the funereal gloom of their sable bands — no enemy being able to sustain their singular, and, as it were, infernal appearance; since in every combat the eyes are the first part subdued. 6 Beyond the Lygii are the Gothones,12 who live under a monarchy, somewhat more strict than that of the other German nations, yet not to a degree incompatible with liberty. Adjoining to these are the Rugii13 and Lemovii,14 situated on the sea-coast: — all these tribes are distinguished by round shields, short swords, and submission to regal authority.


44.  Next occur the communities of the Suiones,15 seated in the very Ocean,16 who, besides their strength in men and arms, also possess a naval force.17 The form of their vessels differs from ours in having a prow at each end,18 so that they are always ready to advance. They make no use of sails, nor have regular benches of oars at the sides: they row, as is practiced in some rivers, without order, sometimes on one side, sometimes on the other, as occasion requires. 2 These people honor wealth;19 for which reason they are subject to monarchical government, without any limitations,20 or precarious conditions of allegiance. 3 Nor are arms allowed to be kept promiscuously, as among the other German nations: but are committed to the charge of a keeper, and he, too, a slave. 54 The pretext is, that the Ocean defends them from any sudden incursions; and men unemployed, with arms in their hands, readily become licentious. In fact, it is for the king’s interest not to intrust a noble, a freeman, or even an emancipated slave, with the custody of arms.

45.  Beyond the Suiones is another sea, sluggish and almost stagnant,21 by which the whole globe is imagined to be girt and inclosed, from this circumstance, that the last light of the setting sun continues so vivid till its rising, as to obscure the stars.22 Popular belief adds, that the sound of his emerging23 from the ocean is also heard; and the forms of deities,24 with the rays beaming from his head, are beheld. Only thus far, report says truly, does nature extend.25 2 On the right shore of the Suevic sea26 dwell the tribes of the Æstii,27 whose dress and customs are the same with those of the Suevi, but their language more resembles the British.28 3 They worship the mother of the gods;29 and as the symbol of their superstition, they carry about them the figures of wild boars.30 This serves 55 them in place of armor and every other defense: it renders the votary of the goddess safe even in the midst of foes. 4 Their weapons are chiefly clubs, iron being little used among them. They cultivate corn and other fruits of the earth with more industry than the German indolence commonly exerts.31 They even explore the sea; and are the only people who gather amber, which by them is called Glese,32 and it is collected among the shallows and upon the shore.33 5 With the usual indifference of barbarians, they have not inquired or ascertained from what natural object or by what means it is produced. It long lay disregarded34 amidst other things thrown up by the sea, till our luxury35 gave it a name. Useless to them, they gather it in the rough; bring it unwrought; and wonder at the price they receive. 6 It would appear, however, to be an exudation from certain trees; since reptiles, and even winged animals, are often seen shining through it, which, entangled in it while in a liquid state, became inclosed as it hardened.36 7 I should therefore imagine that, as the luxuriant 56 woods and groves in the secret recesses of the East exude frankincense and balsam, so there are the same in the islands and continents of the West; which, acted upon by the near rays of the sun, drop their liquid juices into the subjacent sea, whence, by the force of tempests, they are thrown out upon the opposite coasts. 8 If the nature of amber be examined by the application of fire, it kindles like a torch, with a thick and odorous flame; and presently resolves into a glutinous matter resembling pitch or resin. 9 The several communities of the Sitones37 succeed those of the Suiones; to whom they are similar in other respects, but differ in submitting to a female reign; so far have they degenerated, not only from liberty, but even from slavery. Here Suevia terminates.

46.  I am in doubt whether to reckon the Peucini, Venedi, and Fenni among the Germans or Sarmatians;38 although the Peucini,39 who are by some called Bastarnæ, agree with the Germans in language, apparel, and habitations.40 All of them live in filth and laziness. The intermarriages of their chiefs with the Sarmatians have debased them by a mixture of the manners of that people.41 2 The Venedi have drawn much 57 from this source,42 for they overrun in their predatory excursions all the woody and mountainous tracts between the Peucini and Fenni. Yet even these are rather to be referred to the Germans, since they build houses, carry shields, and travel with speed on foot; in all which particulars they totally differ from the Sarmatians, who pass their time in wagons and on horseback.43 3 The Fenni44 live in a state of amazing savageness and squalid poverty. They are destitute of arms, horses, and settled abodes: their food is herbs;45 their clothing, skins; their bed, the ground. Their only dependence is on their arrows, which, for want of iron, are headed with bone;46 and the chase is the support of the women as well as the men; the former accompany the latter in the pursuit, 58 and claim a share of the prey. 4 Nor do they provide any other shelter for their infants from wild beasts and storms, than a covering of branches twisted together. This is the resort of youth; this is the receptacle of old age. 5 Yet even this way of life is in their estimation happier than groaning over the plow; toiling in the erection of houses; subjecting their own fortunes and those of others to the agitations of alternate hope and fear. Secure against men, secure against the gods, they have attained that most difficult point, not to need even a wish.

6 All our further accounts are intermixed with fable; as, that the Hellusii and Oxionæ47 have human faces, with the bodies and limbs of wild beasts. These unauthenticated reports I shall leave untouched.48

[End of the Treatise on Germany by Tacitus]


1  These people inhabited what is now Galatz, Jagerndorf, and part of Silesia.

2  Inhabitants of part of Silesia, and of Hungary.

3   Inhabitants of part of Hungary to the Danube.

4  These were settled about the Carpathian mountains, and the sources of the Vistula.

5  It is probable that the Suevi were distinguished from the rest of the Germans by a peculiar dialect, as well as by their dress and manner.

6  Ptolemy mentions iron mines in or near the country of the Quadi. I should imagine that the expression “additional disgrace” (or, more literally, “which might make them more ashamed”) does not refer merely to the slavery of working in mines, but to the circumstance of their digging up iron, the substance by means of which they might acquire freedom and independence. This is quite in the manner of Tacitus. The word iron was figuratively used by the ancients to signify military force in general. Thus Solon, in his well-known answer to Croesus, observed to him, that the nations which possessed more iron would be master of all his gold. — Aikin.

7  The mountains between Moravia, Hungary, Silesia, and Bohemia.

8  The Lygii inhabited what is now part of Silesia, of the New Marche, of Prussia and Poland on this side the Vistula.

9  These tribes were settled between the Oder and Vistula, where now are part of Silesia, of Brandenburg, and of Poland. The Elysii are supposed to have given name to Silesia.

10  The Greeks and Romans, under the name of the Dioscuri, or Castor and Pollux, worshiped those meteorous exhalations which, during a storm, appear on the masts of ships, and are supposed to denote an approaching calm. A kind of religious veneration is still paid to this phenomenon by the Roman Catholics, under the appellation of the fire of St. Elmo. The Naharvali seem to have affixed the same character of divinity on the ignis fatuus; and the name Alcis is probably the same with that of Alif or Alp, which the northern nations still apply to the fancied Genii of the mountains. The Sarmatian deities Lebus and Polebus, the memory of whom still subsists in the Polish festivals, had, perhaps, the same origin.

11  No custom has been more universal among uncivilized people than painting the body, either for the purpose of ornament, or that of inspiring terror.

12  Inhabitants of what is now Further Pomerania, the New Marche and the Western part of Poland, between the Oder and Vistula. They were a different people from the Goths, though, perhaps, in alliance with them.

13  These people were settled on the shore of the Baltic, where now are Colburg, Cassubia, and Further Pomerania. Their name is still preserved in the town of Rugenwald and Isle of Rugen.

14  These were also settlers on the Baltic, about the modern Stolpe, Dantzig, and Lanenburg. The Heruli appear afterward to have occupied the settlements of the Lemovii. Of these last no further mention occurs; but the Heruli made themselves famous throughout Europe and Asia, and were the first of the Germans who founded a kingdom in Italy under Odoacer.

15  The Suiones inhabited Sweden, and the Danish isles of Funen, Langland, Zeeland, Laland, etc. From them and the Cimbri were derived the Normans, who, after spreading terror through various parts of the empire, at last seized upon the fertile province of Normandy in France. The names of Goths, Visigoths, and Ostrogoths, became still more famous, they being the nations who accomplished the ruin of the Roman empire. The laws of the Visigoths are still extant; but they depart much from the usual simplicity of the German laws.

16  The Romans, who had but an imperfect knowledge of this part of the world, imagined here those “vast insular tracts” mentioned in the beginning of this treatise. Hence Pliny, also, says of the Baltic Sea (Codanus sinus), that “it is filled with islands, the most famous of which, Scandinavia, (now Sweden and Norway,) is of an undiscovered magnitude; that part of it only being known which is occupied by the Hilleviones, a nation inhabiting five hundred cantons; who call this country another globe.” (Lib. iv. 13.) The memory of the Hilleviones is still preserved in the part of Sweden named Holland.

17  Their naval power continued so great, that they had the glory of framing the nautical code, the laws of which were first written at Wisby, the capital of the isle of Gothland, in the eleventh century.

18  This is exactly the form of the Indian canoes, which, however, are generally worked with sails as well as oars.

19  The great opulence of a temple of the Suiones, as described by Adam of Bremen, (Eccl. Hist. ch. 233,) is a proof of the wealth that at all times has attended naval dominion. “This nation,” says he, “possesses a temple of great renown, called Ubsola (now Upsal), not far from the cities Sictona and Birca (now Sigtuna and Bioerkoe). In this temple, which is entirely ornamented with gold, the people worship the statues of three gods; the most powerful of whom, Thor, is seated on a couch in the middle; with Woden on one side, and Fricca on the other.” From the ruins of the towns Sictona and Birca arose the present capital of Sweden, Stockholm.

20  Hence Spener (Notit. German. Antiq.) rightly concludes that the crown was hereditary, and not elective, among the Suiones.

21  It is uncertain whether what is now called the Frozen Ocean is here meant, or the northern extremities of the Baltic Sea, the Gulfs of Bothnia and Finland, which are so frozen every winter as to be un-navigable.

22  The true principles of astronomy have now taught us the reason why, at a certain latitude, the sun, at the summer solstice, appears never to set; and at a lower latitude, the evening twilight continues till morning.

23  The true reading here is, probably, “immerging;” since it was a common notion at that period, that the descent of the sun into the ocean was attended with a kind of hissing noise, like red hot iron dipped into water. Thus Juvenal, Sat. xiv. 280: —

  Audiet Herculeo stridentem gurgite solem.

“Hear the sun hiss in the Herculean gulf.”

24  Instead of formas deorum, “forms of deities,” some, with more probability, read equorum, “of the horses,” which are feigned to draw the chariot of the sun.

25  Thus Quintus Curtius, speaking of the Indian Ocean, says, “Nature itself can proceed no further.”

26  The Baltic Sea.

27  Now, the kingdom of Prussia, the duchies of Samogitia and Courland, the palatinates of Livonia and Esthonia, in the name of which last the ancient appellation of these people is preserved.

28  Because the inhabitants of this extreme part of Germany retained the Scythico-Celtic language, which long prevailed in Britain.

29  A deity of Scythian origin, called Frea or Fricca. See Mallet’s Introduct. to Hist. of Denmark.

30  Many vestiges of this superstition remain to this day in Sweden. The peasants in the month of February, the season formerly sacred to Frea, make little images of boars in paste, which they apply to various superstitious uses. (See Eccard.) A figure of a Mater Deûm, with the boar, is given by Mr. Pennant, in his Tour in Scotland, 1769, p. 268, engraven from a stone found at the great station at Netherby in Cumberland.

31  The cause of this was, probably, their confined situation, which did not permit them to wander in hunting and plundering parties, like the rest of the Germans.

32  This name was transferred to glass when it came into use. Pliny speaks of the production of amber in this country as follows: — “It is certain that amber is produced in the islands of the Northern Ocean, and is called by the Germans gless. One of these islands, by the natives named Austravia, was on this account called Glessaria, by our sailors in the fleet of Germanicus.”

33  Much of the Prussian amber is even at present collected on the shores of the Baltic. Much also is found washed out of the clayey cliffs of Holderness. See Tour in Scotland, 1769, p. 16.

34  Insomuch that the Guttones, who formerly inhabited this coast, made use of amber as fuel, and sold it for that purpose to the neighboring Teutones. (Plin. xxxvii. 2.)

35  Various toys and utensils of ambers, such as bracelets, necklaces, rings, cups, and even pillars, were to be met with among the luxurious Romans.

36  In a work by Goeppert and Berendt, on “Amber and the Fossil Remains of Plants contained in it,” published at Berlin, 1845, a passage is found (of which a translation is here given) which quite harmonizes with the account of Tacitus: — “About the parts which are known by the name of Samland an island emerged, or rather a group of islands, . . . . which gradually increased in circumference, and, favored by a mild sea climate, was overspread with vegetation and forest. This forest was the means of amber being produced. Certain trees in it exuded gums in such quantities that the sunken forest soil now appears to be filled with it to such a degree, as if it had only been deprived of a very trifling part of its contents by the later eruptions of the sea, and the countless storms which have lashed the ocean for centuries.” Hence, though found underground, it appears to have been originally the production of some resinous tree. Hence, too, the reason of the appearance of insects, etc., in it, as mentioned by Tacitus.

37  Norwegians.

38  All beyond the Vistula was reckoned Sarmatia. These people, therefore, were properly inhabitants of Sarmatia, though from their manners they appeared of German origin.

39  Pliny also reckons the Peucini among the German nations: — “The fifth part of Germany is possessed by the Peucini and Bastarnæ, who border on the Dacians.” (iv. 14.) From Strabo it appears that the Peucini, part of the Bastarnæ, inhabited the country about the mouths of the Danube, and particularly the island Peuce, now Piczina, formed by the river.

40  The habitations of the Peucini were fixed; whereas the Sarmatians wandered about in their wagons.

41  ”Sordes omnium ac torpor; procerum connubiis mixtis nonnihil in Sarmatarum habitum fœdantur.” In many editions the semicolon is placed not after torpor, but after procerum. The sense of the passage so read is: “The chief men are lazy and stupid, besides being filthy, like all the rest. Intermarriages with the Sarmatians have debased” etc.

42  The Venedi extended beyond the Peucini and Bastarnæ as far as the Baltic Sea; where is the Sinus Venedicus, now the Gulf of Dantzig. Their name is also preserved in Wenden, a part of Livonia. When the German nations made their irruption into Italy, France, and Spain, the Venedi, also called Winedi, occupied their vacant settlements between the Vistula and Elbe. Afterward they crossed the Danube, and seized Dalmatia, Illyricum, Istria, Carniola, and the Noric Alps. A part of Carniola still retains the name of Windismarck derived from them. This people were also called Slavi; and their language, the Sclavonian, still prevails through a vast tract of country.

43  This is still the manner of living of the successors of the Sarmatians, the Nogai Tartars.

44  Their country is called by Pliny, Eningia, now Finland. Warnefrid (De Gest. Langobard. i. 5) thus describes their savage and wretched state: — “The Scritobini, or Scritofinni, are not without snow in the midst of summer; and, being little superior in sagacity to the brutes, live upon no other food than the raw flesh of wild animals, the hairy skins of which they use for clothing. They derive their name, according to the barbarian tongue, from leaping, because they hunt wild beasts by a certain method of leaping or springing with pieces of wood bent in the shape of a bow.” Here is an evident description of the snow-shoes or raquets in common use among the North American savages, as well as the inhabitants of the most northern parts of Europe.

45  As it is just after mentioned that their chief dependence is on the game procured in hunting, this can only mean that the vegetable food they use consists of wild herbs, in opposition to the cultivated products of the earth.

46  The Esquimaux and the South Sea islanders do the same thing to this day.

47  People of Lapland. The origin of this fable was probably the manner of clothing in these cold regions, where the inhabitants bury themselves in the thickest furs, scarcely leaving any thing of the form of a human creature.

48  It is with true judgment that this excellent historian forbears to intermix fabulous narrations with the very interesting and instructive matter of this treatise. Such a mixture might have brought an impeachment on the fidelity of the account in general; which, notwithstanding the suspicions professed by some critics, contains nothing but what is entirely consonant to truth and nature. Had Tacitus indulged his invention in the description of German manners, is it probable that he could have given so just a picture of the state of a people under similar circumstances, the savage tribes of North America, as we have seen them within the present century? Is it likely that his relations would have been so admirably confirmed by the codes of law still extant of the several German nations; such as the Salic, Ripuary, Burgundian, English and Lombard? or that after the course of so many centuries, and the numerous changes of empire, the customs, laws, and manners he describes should still be traced in all the various people of German derivation? As long as the original constitution and jurisprudence of our own and other European countries are studied, this treatise will be regarded as one of the most precious and authentic monuments of historical antiquity.

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