Book Review by Centurion-Macro
The Agricola and The Germania are the shortest works of Tacitus, and in my view his best. Because they were designed to be orated, they are faced fast paced, active and a perfect text for the time constrained classicist. For someone like myself who often finds mainstay classical texts long winded and bland, the short sentences and timely paragraphs make a happy change. They certainly have defects such as historical inaccuracy and astounding lack of detail that can be frustrating at times, especially when you are interested in the parts he glosses over. However, they still rank as two of my favorite pieces of classical literature, and Tacitus my favorite historian.
The Germania was composed in 98AD in the reign of Trajan, discussing the culture and society of the German peoples. It is both historical and geographical, focusing on the different tribes and their histories, describing customs and culture and other interesting tidbits. Subjects ranging from the economical role of women to German honor are discussed, although regrettably much of it is told in passing. This is the biggest turn off when reading The Germania, as he does not have time to talk about everything. I got especially annoyed when he mentioned in passing how one tribe was apparently ruled by women. This is such a rare phenomenon and I was intrigued, but Tacitus instead made a comment about how it was "below even decent slavery" and moved on. If you like your minute details you may find The Germania difficult to handle.
Nevertheless it's an interesting text providing a good overview of the German peoples - from the viewpoint of an aristocratic Roman, that is. The book is full of arrogance regarding the Germans. Thinking of the Germans as lazy barbarians, Tacitus paints a picture of a race of warlike savages, brave at heart yet stupid and barbaric in daily life. He makes extensive remarks on their lack of horticulture, ignorance of precious metals and excessive alcohol drinking. Sometimes his remarks are funny, but because I have an interest in Germanic society it was irritating to filter what bits were true, what bits exaggerated and what were lies. Though I should point out that Tacitus seemed to have a grudging respect and even approval for the Germanic peoples in some parts (such as his acclaim for their marriage code). Although this arrogance is present with other Roman texts I feel I needed to state it again, because to fully enjoy Tacitus you have learn to take everything with a pinch of salt.
The Agricola, composed around the same time as The Germania follows a similar vein. Primarily it is biography of his father-in-law Gnaeus Julius Agricola, governor of Britain AD 78 to 84 and large parts are dedicated to Agricola's military campaigns and his upstanding character. However, what I think captivates readers to this topic (certainly myself) is that large tracts of the biography talk about the Celtic inhabitants of the islands and the military campaigns against them. It is the earliest record of the Boudicca revolt, the battle of Mons Grapius and the first detailed description of British society itself.
Similar to The Germania, Tacitus tells us of the geography of Britain, describing its stormy weather, positions of the tribes and how he believed Ireland and Britain lay between Gaul and Spain. In particular, he recounts the struggles against the Celts, how some submitted without fighting and how others battled for decades in resilient struggle. His accounts of the British terrain caught my eye, and how he blames the rough ground as the main difficulty for the invaders. He tells of how the Britons made extensive use of ambushes, refusing to wage pitched battle against the Romans. If you want information on Celtic Britain, this is the book to read. And if you want to learn about Gnaeus Julius Agricola, even more so!
Though these two texts are short are both worth reading. If Celts and Germans span your interest The Agricola and The Germania should certainly be added to your reading list. Both are full of Roman arrogance and mental images of the world (such as how Britain lies between Gaul and Spain), but it should not be too much of a problem. Tacitus writes with style and eloquence, stating so much in so small a text. Because the text is small he does leave a lot out, and that is a disappointment, but like most classical texts we accept what we are given, and we draw what knowledge there is from them. And in the case of Tacitus, this information is well rewarding to anyone willing to find it.
Notice from the UNRV editorial staff: This review is based on one of the currently available commercial translations not the Latin original which was written in the Classical period.
It should be noted that Tacitus wrote for a Roman upper class rather than modern audience. Tacitus works are accordingly riddled with hidden aims as well as agendas and a great deal has been written on these matters during the last century. Especially the concept of the other and Tacitus criticism of Roman society through the contrasting of the 'pure' barbarian against 'decadent' Roman societies. We would therefore advise that this book can be further enjoyed in tandem with a good guide to Tacitus and his motives.