When facts are incompletely known, there is a mental imperative to supplement them—even with fiction: so actuated is the human mind to make sense of things.  Hence perhaps the popularity of historical novels; but there is danger that the past may be ‘made sense of’ in terms of modern assumptions.

Some pupils asked me to comment on what the Romans thought about Germans; and I realised that many things I could blithely relay to them were based not on fact but on fiction—most particularly from Robert Graves, that talented classical scholar, Oxford Professor of Poetry, and historical novelist. I had read things in Graves and added mental scenarios of my own: of Roman women admonishing their children with, “If you’re not a good boy, the Germans will come out of the forest and get you”; of Augustus out of bed, wandering the palace in his nightclothes, weeping for his legions massacred by Arminius in the Teutoburger Forest; of that same Augustus, permanently changed after the darkness of the forest got into his mind, modifying his frontier policy and ever in fear for the rest of his life; of a Roman mindset about the Germans breeding like rabbits in the forest, swigging their beer and plotting to overrun the empire—which eventually they did. And then there was the emperors’ custom of having a German bodyguard,* which fascinates Robert Graves and he elaborates on it with relish. Especially amusing is his story of how Claudius tricked the German guards into revealing where the last remaining eagle captured by Arminius had been hidden.

Actually we know little.  It is lamentable that we do not have Pliny the Elder’s History of the German Wars; but when one reflects that Tacitus had that work to hand in writing his Germania, there is a suspicion that not even to Pliny was much detailed information available about the Germans themselves.

The Germania tails off into a catalogue of the various tribes and their customs; but before that, there are memorable observations about Germans in general, such as:

ipse eorum opinionibus accedo, qui Germaniae populos nullis aliis aliarum nationum conubiis infectos propriam et sinceram et tantum sui similem gentem exstitisse arbitrantur. Unde habitus quoque corporum, tamquam in tanto hominum numero, idem omnibus: truces et caerulei oculi, rutilae comae, magna corpora et tantum ad impetum valida: laboris atque operum non eadem patientia…
Personally I agree with the opinions of those who think that the peoples of Germany, unaffected by intermarriage with other nations, have survived as a race individual and pure, similar only to themselves: whence their physical appearance, identical to all even in such a great number of people: fierce blue eyes, red hair, large bodies strong only for aggression, not matched by any tolerance of hard work and tasks…

terra etsi aliquanto specie differt, in universum tamen aut silvis horrida aut paludibus foeda…
Although the land differs in appearance to some degree, in general it is either bristling with forest or foul with marshland…

inesse quin etiam [feminis] sanctum aliquid et providum putant, nec aut consilia earum aspernantur aut responsa neglegunt.
Furthermore, they think that in women there is something divine and prophetic: they do not scorn their counsels or ignore their reactions.

quotiens bella non ineunt, multum venatibus, plus per otium transigunt, dediti somno ciboque, fortissimus quisque ac bellicosissimus nihil agens, delegata domus et penatium et agrorum cura feminis senibusque et infirmissimo cuique ex familia; ipsi hebent, mira diversitate naturae, cum idem homines sic ament inertiam et oderint quietem.
When they are not starting on wars, they spend much time in hunting, but more on leisure, dedicated to sleep and food, with all the most brave and warlike men doing nothing. The family, the household, and care for the land is handed over to the women and old people and the weakest of the family; they themselves vegetate, with that wonderful contradiction of temperament by which the same people are such lovers of idleness and haters of peace.

Apparently German denoted something different in the ancient world from the modern.


*a custom begun, perhaps surprisingly, by Julius Caesar.