Everyone everywhere has tribal ancestors. Folks with European roots know little about their kin who lived in the countless centuries of wild freedom. Tacitus gives us a glimpse at their world, as it was over 1,900 years ago. He was a Roman historian, born in A.D. 56, and died in 117. He wrote Germania in 98. It provided a brief overview of several dozen Germanic tribes of the era, as viewed from a civilized perspective. For example, the Batavi, Chatti, Usipii, Tencteri, Chauci, Fosi, Cimbri, Anglii, and Varini. (MAP)
In the days of Tacitus, Germania was a vast wild frontier of forest and marsh, “a land rude in its surface, rigorous in its climate, cheerless to every beholder and cultivator, except a native.” The mighty Rhine River separated the German motherland from the tribes of Belgica (Belgium) and the Celtic tribes of Gaul (France). Since there were no bridges in those days, the treacherous fast-flowing river provided an effective security barrier.
The Rhine protected Germania from the evil Empire. Moving armies across the wild river was a serious challenge, and the barbarians on the other side were notoriously ferocious. The German side was heavily forested. The Roman war machine excelled at fighting in open country, and avoided engagements near forest, where they lost their tactical superiority. So, the badass Germans remained proud, wild, and free, whilst the tribes of Gaul and Belgica, who surrendered to Empire (to avoid annihilation), were obligated to pay tributes and taxes, and provide numerous young conscripts to fight in the Roman legion.
Throughout Germania, the people had the appearance of a pure unmixed race. They had reddish hair, blue eyes, large strong bodies, and were not weakened by cold or hunger. They raised herds and flocks, and grew a little grain. Their diet majored in meat, cheese, fruit, and beer. Warriors took great delight in fighting, hunting, feasting, and oblivion drinking. Dreary laborious toil was the domain of women, old men, and slaves.
Germanic spirituality majored in reverence for nature. They worshipped in the living temple of the great outdoors — not inside walls. Their deities inhabited sacred groves that were the tribe’s place of origin. Folks would gather in the grove and offer sacrifices, which were sometimes human. A number of tribes had festivals honoring Ertha (Big Mama Earth), a deity always present in their lives.
Notably, they were still animists — they did not imagine their deities to have human form. Centuries later, as Indo-European influences intensified, a pantheon (family) of humanlike deities evolved in German metaphysics. In this new culture of human supremacy, a powerful male god ruled over a colorful mob of lesser gods, goddesses, and tricksters. This tradition spread from Greece (Zeus), to Rome (Jupiter), Germany (Wotan), and Scandinavia (Odin).
Germania was not a realm of love and peace. “They actually think it tame and stupid to acquire by the sweat of toil what they might win by their blood.” Raids and conflicts were common, and tribes depended on their warriors for survival. In their rites of initiation, the transition of a boy into a man was marked by giving him a shield and spear. From then on, the man was not allowed to cut his hair or beard until the day he killed his first foe.
Year after year, tribes invested much time and effort in killing folks from other tribes. Romans were delighted by the fact that Germans worked so hard to kill other Germans. They had to fight to survive. The Cherusci were seen as foolish and cowardly, because of their deep love of peace — they were exterminated. It was common for conquered tribes to go extinct; survivors were sold into slavery.
The Batavi avoided gangster raids by inhabiting an island in the Rhine. The Suiones felt so safe and secure that they didn’t carry arms all the time — they had a pleasant life by the sea, centuries before the era of seaborne Viking terrorists. Some tribes enjoyed safety by inhabiting remote locations in vast primeval forests.
The Hercynian forest once spanned east from the Rhine, across modern Germany, to the Carpathians, and all the way to Dacia (present-day Romania). A quick traveler could cross the forest north to south in nine days, but it was very long, from east to west. In 51 B.C., Julius Caesar noted, “There is no man in the Germany we know who can say that he has reached the edge of that forest, though he may have gone forward sixty days’ journey, or who has learnt in what place it begins.” Pliny also mentioned it: “The vast trees of the Hercynian forest, untouched for ages, and as old as the world, by their almost immortal destiny exceed common wonders.”
Every ecosystem has a limit to how many humans it can support. In the time of Tacitus, the carrying capacity was quite low, because large-scale forest mining and soil mining were not yet possible. Iron axes were still rare luxuries, and the moldboard plow would not come into common use for another thousand years. Forest soils were too heavy for digging sticks.
Aurochs (wild cattle) inhabited a range spanning from England to China. Bulls were up to 6 feet (180 cm) tall at the shoulder, much larger than modern cattle. They were very strong, terribly aggressive, and loved to disembowel passing humans, wolves, and other annoyances. Hence, the Germans preferred to enslave passive, dim-witted domestic cattle and sheep, which could be confined close to home. By milking the livestock, they could extract four times more calories from their enslaved animals, compared to simply eating them. Cheese could be stored for later use.
Nobody owned aurochs, or confined them to pastures, but somebody did own the horses and livestock. These animals were an important form of wealth, and stealing them from neighbors was an exciting way to get rich quick, or die trying. Hence, raiding was a popular pastime. Naturally, it was a good way to make enemies, and ignite long-term feuds. By majoring in herding, and building no permanent settlements, tribes could pack up and move when life got too hot.
In a world of tribal warfare, there was strength in numbers. Family planning increased vulnerability. “To limit the increase of children, or put to death any of the later progeny is accounted infamous.” Thus, limited carrying capacity, plus population pressure, plus the crazy-making juju of hoarding wealth hurled Germania into a bloody cesspool, similar to the far larger one we’re soaking in today.
Our cousins the chimps do not enslave domesticated animals to inflate carrying capacity. They respond to the tensions of crowding with kicks, punches, and bites — sometimes killing competitors. Germans did increase carrying capacity, did not limit births, made enemies with raiding, nurtured feuds, and resolved tensions with spears, javelins, and long knives — intending to kill competitors. This was not the only possible strategy, in theory, but it has been common around the world. Crowded critters get crabby.
Tacitus described one tribe of good old-fashioned hunter-gatherers, the only example of fully wild and free Europeans I have found. The Fenni (Finnish) enjoyed a life of magnificent simplicity in the great white north. Their culture was so complete and well balanced that they had no need to wish for anything. Listen:
“The Fenni live in a state of amazing savageness and squalid poverty. They are destitute of arms, horses, and settled abodes: their food is herbs; their clothing, skins; their bed, the ground. Their only dependence is on their arrows, which, for want of iron, are headed with bone; and the chase is the support of the women as well as the men; the former accompany the latter in the pursuit, and claim a share of the prey. Nor do they provide any other shelter for their infants from wild beasts and storms, than a covering of branches twisted together. This is the resort of youth; this is the receptacle of old age. Yet even this way of life is in their estimation happier than groaning over the plough; toiling in the erection of houses; subjecting their own fortunes and those of others to the agitations of alternate hope and fear. Secure against men, secure against the gods, they have attained the most difficult point, not to need even a wish.”
Tacitus, Caius Cornelius, edited by Hadas, Moses, Complete Works of Tacitus, The Modern Library, New York, 1942. Germania is a short work, and free downloads are available on the web in PDF and text. Amazon has a free Kindle version.