On Britain and Germany – Tacitus

20200505 On Britain and Germany

Back in January 1946 Penguin Books started a new series which is still going way beyond the dreams of the originators, that was Penguin Classics featuring all new translations of classic literature from around the world especially created for the series. They started in Greece with Homer’s Odyssey and the first Latin title was this one featuring two of the books by Tacitus, which was the fifth book in the series coming out in September 1948. On Britain and Germany is actually his two works Agricola and Germania and they were translated by Harold Mattingly who also wrote an extensive introduction along with the notes and glossary. His additional information in fact takes up almost half of the book at seventy six pages with Agricola being forty eight pages and Germania just forty.

Agricola

Representing Britain in this volume is Tacitus’s biography of his father in law Gnaeus Julius Agricola and whilst it does indeed include commentary on his seven years in charge of the conquest of most of Britain it does spends a significant amount of time back in Rome. Tacitus starts this work by stating that biographies are disapproved of in the current Roman society but that he will write this one anyway but unfortunately whatever his abilities as a historian way be revealed in his other works this is not a good example. He rarely states where any of the military actions he describes take place and his grasp of dates is also somewhat tenuous which makes working out what is going on quite tricky. He also has a rather odd idea as to the geography of Britain, stating that it is diamond shaped and not far from Spain with the island of Ireland being between the two countries.

This is where the text by Mattingly really comes into its own not only in the introduction, which prepares you for the lack of details but the notes which accompany almost every chapter clarify quite a lot of the text. One thing I really liked about this edition is that the notes are at the back of the book rather than at the bottom of the relevant pages, this allows the reader to more comfortably concentrate on the text and then pick up on the notes either as they go on or, as I did, complete Agricola and then read the notes. As stated above it is a fairly short biography so this is entirely practical.

Germania

Tacitus has barely started his description of Germania when he comes up with a sentence that I can safely assume is not one quoted by the German tourism authorities.

who would leave Asia, Africa or Italy to visit Germany, with its unlovely scenery, its bitter climate, its general dreariness to sense and eye, unless it were his home.

and a little later

The country in general, while varying somewhat in character, either bristles with woods or festers with swamps. It is wetter where it faces Gaul, windier where it faces Noricum and Pannonia.

He was remarkably polite about Britain in comparison, Noricum is modern Austria whilst Pannonia roughly equates to Hungary. After spending time being rude about the land he turns his attentions to the peoples and tribes of Germania, this is a place that includes not only present Germany but parts of France, Switzerland, the northern Netherlands and Poland. Beyond them is believed to be a great ocean rather than the Baltic Sea and the Romans seem to have almost no knowledge of Scandinavia. Rome appears to have only recently become aware of most of these peoples at the time of Tacitus and then only from contact through war so his descriptions of their lives are short of details and sometimes confused but he does discern a significant number of different tribes and kingdoms but does not ascribe what he would regard as civilisation to any of them other than the ones that have regular dealings with the Romans. His most damning assessment is applied right at the end of the short book with the little he has gathered regarding the Suiones (southern Swedes) and a neighbouring tribe that is only mentioned in Germania so is probably a misunderstanding by Tacitus of the same people or another part of Sweden.

Continuous with the Suiones are the nations of the Sitones. they resemble them in all respects but one – woman is the ruling sex. That is the measure of their decline, I will not say below freedom, but even below decent slavery.

Revisions

The book appears to have gained its original title in Penguin simply because it was translated soon after WWII finished and certainly in the notes Mattingly can be quite jingoistic at times for example in his opening line regarding Germania.

a detailed account of a great people that had already begun to be a European problem in the first century of our era, should still have a message for us in the twentieth.

It is clear that the choice of title was made to entice potential readers after the war whilst maybe calling it Agricola and Germania might not have done as much. Amazingly seventy four years after its first publication Mattingsly’s translation is still the one in the Penguin Classics catalogue, which now runs to well over a thousand titles, and most of the early titles have been completely replaced with updated translations. However it has been revised twice, initially presumably to replace the dated style of the introduction and notes but also to rename the book to the more useful ‘Agricola and Germania’ so that it is clearer what is actually included. The first revision was done by S.A. Handford and was published in October 1970, this book was renumbered from L5 to become L241 and the original version dropped. In 2009 it was revised again, this time by J.B. Rives and now has the ISBN 9780140455403 which makes it the equivalent of L540 when you breakdown the code and the Handford version is no longer available.

Conclusion

The book was very enjoyable and a good introduction to the works of Tacitus via two of his minor writings, what I now need to do is tackle his major works ‘The Annals’ and ‘The Histories’. Tacitus was a Roman senator so well placed to view the intrigues of the emperors and their rivals and this he covers in those more important works. Having the viewpoint from an insider of how the Roman empire was actually governed should be really interesting, I knew nothing about Tacitus before I read this book so I definitely need to find out more.

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