Germanic Conquest And Fall Of Roman Empire

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In the beginning of the common era the Roman Empire was at its highest point of power. The vast empire contained most of Europe and North Africa, stretching from the Atlantic ocean to the Arabian desert. This great power of the ancient world had spent the last six hundred years conquering neighbor after neighbor with ease. By the latter half of the first century C.E. the tribes of Germania were one of the few peoples left in Europe to have evaded Rome’s conquest. These warlike tribes whose lands rested just five hundred miles north of Rome were seen as barbaric by most of Rome’s citizens. Frequent contact between these tribes and Roman Legions stationed in Gaul lead to first-hand accounts of the culture and customs of the tribes to be recorded by the Roman historian Tacitus.

While most Romans of the time viewed the Germans as mindless brutes who were a menace to the Roman way of life, Tacitus’s accounts provide a much more insightful view with perhaps a hint of admiration. ‘The Germans themselves I should regard as aboriginal, and not mixed at all with other races through immigration or intercourse'[1] While Tacitus’s statement may seem irrelevant at first glance it must be remembered that by this time in Rome’s history the empire had encompassed millions of different people of different ethnic back rounds.

While Rome had begun as a small city state in central Italy the more area they conquered the more people they assimilated into their culture. By the time of Tacitus the once small population of Rome had experienced a significant amount of genetic reproduction with its newly conquered subjects and it is likely that few if any of Rome’s citizens at the time could be considered pure blooded Romans. So it is entirely possible that Tacitus’s comment about the Germans being aboriginal is in fact a statement of admiration and a reminder of what Rome once was and what he wishes it would be again.

Tacitus’s admiration of the Germanic tribes is not only limited to their blood purity, he also shows a great deal of respect for their skills as warriors. The Germanic tribes were notoriously quarrelsome often fighting with each other as often as they fought the Romans. They were know to be incredibly skilled, enough to have resisted Roman conquest, and to be fearless in battle ‘it is a disgrace for the chief to be surpassed in valor, a disgrace for his followers not to equal the valor of the chief. And it is an infamy and a reproach for life to have survived the chief, and returned from the field'[2] By contrast the Roman Legions of the first century C.E. were mere shadows of their former glory. The days had long past from when the Roman Army was an unstoppable battle machine that had won legendary victories against Carthage, Gaul, and the Britons.

Gone were the famous generals like Marius, Caesar, and Pompey. By the time of Tacitus this once great military force had been reduced to little more than peacekeepers. In her book The Making of the West Professor Lynn describes the new role of the Roman Legions ‘Gaul, which had originally resisted Roman control…was kept in order by 1,200 troops-hardly more soldiers than it had towns'[3] After hundreds of years of assimilation most of Rome’s conquered territories had accepted their new role as Roman citizens and had ceased to rebel against their former conquerors.

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Above all other things Tacitus seems to have the highest regard for the Germanic tribes in regard to their marriage customs. ‘Their marriage code, however, is strict, and indeed no part of their manners is more praiseworthy'[4]. Unlike most other tribes that were considered barbaric by the Romans the Germanic people appear to have placed a high value on monogamy, except for rare occurrences which usually occurred out of need for political alliances than out of sensual desires. While in Roman society dowries were paid from the wife’s family to the husband, in the Germanic tribes the dowry is paid by the husband to the wife. As was the case in most Ancient cultures the primary duty of the wife in a marriage was to provide children. In the Germanic tribes high numbers of children were highly valued as people who had more children ‘The more relatives he has the more numerous his connections, the more honored is his old age'[5]

In fact the Germans placed such a high value on having multiple children that to use any method of birth control was highly frowned upon. ‘To limit the number of children or to destroy any of their subsequent offspring is accounted infamous,'[6]. This mostly echoes the Roman custom of the time as they too placed a high value on bearing numerous children. However, the Germanic custom differs from the Roman in factor of birth control. While in Germanic tribes ‘a man’s sons were all seen as his heirs'[7], In Roman society only the oldest son was recognized as the heir and thus a substantial amount of infighting and jealousy over inheritance likely existed, especially in the royal family. As Tacitus was not a member of Rome’s elite Patrician class it is possible that he viewed the Germanic system of inheritance as being more effective than the Roman one.

Though it is clear that Tacitus held at least some admiration for the Germanic people it would be hard to discern by merely skimming over his writings. In fact at first glance it even appears that he is critical of them. However, after careful examination it is clearer to see his hidden esteem. It must be remembered that Tacitus lived during the time of the Emperors and most of his youth took place during the reign of the infamous Roman Emperor Nero. In modern times Nero’s name is synonymous with evil and tyranny. A notorious sadist, one of Nero’s most infamous acts was one in which he supposedly fiddled while Rome burned during the great fire of 64 C.E. and his cruelty did not end there. In order to raise money to rebuild the city Nero resorted to drastic measures. ‘He fake treason charges against senators and equites to seize their property'[8].

Having come of age during this chaotic time period it is entirely likely that Tacitus held a good amount of contempt or at the very least fear for what the Roman Emperors were capable of. Therefore in order to protect himself against the backlash of the Caesars it is probable that Tacitus had to keep his criticisms reduced to implications instead of stating them outright.

Tacitus’s documentation of the Germanic tribes, without question, contains some degree of appreciation for their culture and a healthy degree of bitterness for the reduced glory of Roman society. However, it is also entirely possible that his writings contained a much more significant purpose than returning Rome to its former glory. It could also be a warning of the terrible events to come. Roman citizens during Tacitus’s time more than likely viewed the Germanic barbarians with some degree of fear, especially if they lived on the border regions of the Rhine and Danube river. That being said most Roman citizens probably could not fathom the possibility that these barbaric people would one day become so powerful as to conquer Rome itself. Tacitus, on the other hand may have been one of the few Romans who saw it as a possibility.

Tacitus knew well that the Roman Legions were not what they once were, and that the Germanic tribes with their warlike society and desire to form as many connections through their numerous kin as possible would one day be united enough to become a dangerous threat. In his novel The Fall of Rome and the End of Civilization Professor Bryan Ward-Perkins states ‘The Germanic invaders of the western empire seized or extorted through the threat of force the vast majority of the territories'[9] In just over three hundred years from Tacitus’s death possibly one of his deepest fears became a reality when the Germanic tribes sacked the city of Rome in 476 C.E. and removed the Western Empire from the pages of history.

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