The Agricola and Germany of Tacitus and the Dialogue on Oratory

Date: 1877

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Chapter XXIII the Germans as Described by Tacitus



Land and People


For my own part, I agree with those who think that the tribes of Germany are free from all taint of intermarriages with foreign nations, and that they appear as a distinct, unmixed race, like none but themselves. Hence, too, the same physical peculiarities throughout so vast a population. All have fierce blue eyes, red hair, and huge frames, fit only for a sudden exertion. They are less able to bear laborious work. Heat and thirst they cannot in the least endure; to cold and hunger their climate and their soil inure them.

Their country, though somewhat varied in appearance, yet generally either bristles with forests or reeks with swamps. . . . It is productive of grain, but unfavorable to fruit-bearing trees. It is rich in flocks and herds, but these are for the most part undersized, and even the cattle have not their usual beauty or noble head. Their number is chiefly regarded; they are the most highly prized, indeed the only, riches of the people. Silver and gold the gods have refused to them, whether in kindness or in anger I cannot say. . . . They care but little to possess or use them. You may see among them vessels of silver, which have been presented to their envoys and chieftains, held as cheap as those of clay. The border population, however, value gold and silver for their commercial utility, and are familiar with, and show a preference for, some of our coins. The tribes of the interior use the simpler and more ancient practice of the barter of commodities. . . .

It is well known that the nations of Germany have no cities, and that they do not even tolerate closely contiguous dwellings. They live scattered and apart, just as a spring, a meadow, or a wood has attracted them. Their villages they do not arrange in our fashion, with the buildings connected and joined together. Every person surrounds his dwelling with an open space, either as a precaution against the disasters of fire, or because they do not know how to build. No use is made by them of stone or tile; they employ timber for all purposes, rude masses without ornament or attractiveness. Some parts of their buildings they stain more carefully with a clay so clear and bright that it resembles painting. They are wont also to dig out subterranean caves, and pile on them great heaps of dung, as a shelter from winter and as a receptacle for the year’s produce. By such means they lessen the rigor of the cold. And should an enemy approach, he lays waste the open country, while what is hidden and buried is either not known to exist, or else escapes him from the very fact that it has to be searched for. . . .

Land proportioned to the number of inhabitants is occupied by the whole community in turn, and afterwards divided among them according to rank. A wide expanse of plains makes the partition easy. They till fresh fields every year, and yet have more than enough land. Because of the richness and extent of their soil, they do not laboriously exert themselves in planting orchards, inclosing meadows, and watering gardens. Grain is the only produce required from the earth; hence even the year itself is not divided by them into as many seasons as with us. Winter, spring, and summer have both a meaning and a name; the name and blessings of autumn are alike unknown.

1 , translated by A. J. Church and W. J. Brodribb. 2d edition. London, 1877. Macmillan and Co.

2 Tacitus, Germany, 4–5, 16, 26.

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Chicago: A. J. Church and W. J. Brodribb, trans., The Agricola and Germany of Tacitus and the Dialogue on Oratory in Readings in Early European History, ed. Webster, Hutton (Boston: Ginn and Company, 1926), 262–263. Original Sources, accessed June 19, 2024,

MLA: . The Agricola and Germany of Tacitus and the Dialogue on Oratory, translted by A. J. Church and W. J. Brodribb, in Readings in Early European History, edited by Webster, Hutton, Boston, Ginn and Company, 1926, pp. 262–263. Original Sources. 19 Jun. 2024.

Harvard: (trans.), The Agricola and Germany of Tacitus and the Dialogue on Oratory. cited in 1926, Readings in Early European History, ed. , Ginn and Company, Boston, pp.262–263. Original Sources, retrieved 19 June 2024, from