Tacitean Ethnography

28 October, 2013

Today On the Reading Rest I have a book which is interesting because it is so full of arguments and argued passages.

Writing and empireDylan Sailor. 2008.  Writing and Empire in Tacitus. Cambridge University Press. Cambridge.

Some reviewers of Dylan Sailor’s (DS’s) book Writing and Empire in Tacitus (WAIET) have already referred to concepts such as ‘interpretation’ and one of its methodologies ‘close reading’ trying to sort the book into a convenient genre, but I prefer to read the arguments partly because I am convinced by them, partly because I read the book as a backdrop for something that isn’t central to the author, i.e. ethnography and Germania, which happens not to ‘form part of that arc of narrative works that imagine themselves as a sequence: Agricola by its promise of a future … … ‘ WAEIT p. 5.

DS is right because he writes about Tacitus as history, historiography and the historian situated in society as well as in his own life. None the less, perhaps because DS is so fond of arguments and very good at reading Tacitus, he does touch upon ethnography in passing e.g. on pp. 86-7.

True Tacitean ethnographyThe point in ethnography is the past in the present: go see for yourself a living past characterized by a series of stable habits and institutions in a system that may either prevail infinitely reproducing the present or disappear in the toils of interaction with others. Future bothers ethnography only because constant ethnographical presence or resilience in static, cyclic or looped systemic models may be dissolved in future’s unfriendly solution despite their stability. The point in history on the other hand is change and transformation – ‘the narrative arc’ – which in Tacitus case comes to an unsettled end when Annals breaks off by circumstance, intention or design in the middle of a period: ‘as the slowness of his [Thrasea’s]death was bringing terrible suffering, turning to Demetrium … ‘[the Cynic philosopher] (WAEIT:315, Ann. 16.35.2). The quest for understanding change is the reason why history is about a series of events shaping a future, and about a present as a stage that has to change, and about a past that produced a heritage in the process of consuming itself.

In his conclusion DS argues, again convincingly, that Ronald Syme in Tacitus (1958) read Tacitus not just as ‘the subject matter of his book’, but also as a role model for the historian by referring to the parallel character of totalitarian states in the 20th century and Domitian’s principate, and the way Tacitus and the modern historian alike should relate to times such as these (WAEIT:319-20). Syme’s affinities with Tacitus as Latin heritage, writing about him with a clear eye to modern totalitarian states, would seem to accompany Curtius’ contemporary model way of looking at the literary heritage of Latin literature as a uniting European heritage above the nationalism that devastated Europe in the 20th c. (cf. On the Reading Rest 19 Aug, 2013).

Since the Enlightenment, the relation between systemic and historic culture or civilization has been a central theme in the analysis of the European and we may trace this thematic relation in many different texts, but I chose a passage by Kant from his letter, printed in Berlinische Monatsschrift. Dezember-Heft 1784. S. 481-494,  Answer to the Question: What is Enlightenment?:

On the other hand, the private use of reason may frequently be narrowly restricted without especially hindering the progress of enlightenment. By “public use of one’s reason” I mean that use which a man, as scholar, makes of it before the reading public. I call “private use” that use which a man makes of his reason in a civic post that has been entrusted to him. In some affairs affecting the interest of the community a certain [governmental] mechanism is necessary in which some members of the community remain passive. This creates an artificial unanimity which will serve the fulfillment of public objectives, or at least keep these objectives from being destroyed. Here arguing is not permitted: one must obey. Insofar as a part of this machine considers himself at the same time a member of a universal community – a world society of citizens – (let us say that he thinks of himself as a scholar rationally addressing his public through his writings) he may indeed argue, and the affairs with which he is associated in part as a passive member will not suffer. Thus it would be very unfortunate if an officer on duty and under orders from his superiors should want to criticize the appropriateness or utility of his orders. He must obey. But as a scholar he could not rightfully be prevented from taking notice of the mistakes in the military service and from submitting his views to his public for its judgment. The citizen cannot refuse to pay the taxes levied upon him; indeed, impertinent censure of such taxes could be punished as a scandal that might cause general disobedience. Nevertheless, this man does not violate the duties of a citizen if, as a scholar, he publicly expresses his objections to the impropriety or possible injustice of such levies. A pastor, too, is bound to preach to his congregation in accord with the doctrines of the church which he serves, for he was ordained on that condition. But as a scholar he has full freedom, indeed the obligation, to communicate to his public all his carefully examined and constructive thoughts concerning errors in that doctrine and his proposals concerning improvement of religious dogma and church institutions.

Although Tacitus might well have been suspicious of benevolent despotism, Kant’s enlightened society, whose front man must not necessarily be Frederick the Great, would seem to possess some of the qualities that Tacitus (and perhaps even Kant) would have recognized in the Republic. To support this opinion we may refer to DS, who concludes – having has read the preface to Histories and quoted the passage about the Saturnalia: ‘I do not at all mean that Tacitus presents his work [i.e. Histories] as a revel, only that the preface parallels a basic Roman model for constructing a brief period of time when the ordinary rules of servitude that suppress speech do not apply’ (WAEIT:176-77).

Saturnalia, Enlightenment or the Republic will not come back, but ethnography or any of its modern varieties such as systemic resilience in cultures will occur again and must be analyzed and understood within a historical analysis of society and civilization, even if ethnography is alien to history. Alien or not there is little hope of writing a history of change in civilization without taking into account ethnography and the institutions of the primitive, which it points out. Primordial and primitive ethnographic institutions become a backdrop for historical change and one may argue that ‘the Roman’ in Tacitus’ narrative of complex change must be reflected in’ the non-historic’. This becomes all the more important because ‘the ethnographic’ highlights the predicament that arises from the need of the Kantian ‘scholar’ or the Tacitean ‘historian’ to be loyal as well as disloyal to social institutions. In short: DS argues his case so convincingly that one ought to fit Tacitus ethnography into the arc of his historical project. I would argue therefore that ethnography in Tacitus is there to make sure that the reader understands that Tacitus’ history is concerned also with civilization.

There are three examples of ethnography in Tacitus work Agricola (Chap 10-13), Germania (all of it) and Histories (Book 5.2-8). This means that when his historical project reaches Histories and Annals most of the ethnographic scene has been covered because the greater part of the Roman civilization project concerns northern Europe. In the eastern part of the Empire wars are political. A modern reader would probably have been interested in an ethnography of the Parthian society in connection with Tacitus description of the Parthian was 58-63 CE, but Tacitus sees no need for this because the reason for the wars were political and strategic with no bearing on civilizing the Parthians. Only in Histories was it necessary to comment from an ethnographic point of view since without such as comment Jews cannot be understood.

Writing about ethnography makes it possible for Tacitus to stand aside describing and judging the primitive as an institution and a backdrop for Roman civilization pointing to the negative and positive sides of the stable primitive institutions – to shortcomings and strengths. His ethnographies point to the peoples, their customs and their characteristic as well as to the partly alien topographies and geographies of their habitats. His texts imply that the peoples are smitten by their environment. Tacitus does so with a view to defending the success of the Roman civilization project.

Civilization 01The Britons are model because they are a mixed population characterized by immigration. This has led to a situation in which what was once in a distant past a generic kingdom has been split up in small chiefdoms easy to subdue. Given this social pattern and their inability to unite, as well as their mixed geographical conditions – humid but not horrid – they are happy to accept Roman civilization and taxes on one condition, whose significance the reader will have guessed:

The Britons themselves bear cheerfully the conscription, the taxes, and the other burdens imposed on them by the Empire, if there be no oppression. Of this they are impatient; they are reduced to subjection, not as yet to slavery. (Agr. 13)

This means that their traditional autonomy – that is, a certain measure of freedom in the small societies once situated within chiefdoms – is an ideal that may be transformed into Romanization, thus bringing the Britons out of ethnography.

Civilization 02When readers of Tacitus, who began by reading Agricola, read Germania they found out that Tacitus’ descriptions of Britain and Britons was designed in advance to contrast his description of Germany and Germans. Nevertheless he purposefully he added a small element of German immigrants in the Britons:

Their physical characteristics are various, and from these conclusions may be drawn. The red hair and large limbs of the inhabitants of Caledonia point clearly to a German origin. (Agr. 13)

Since the Romans knew that Germans resisted the Roman civilization project, successfully (in effect stupidly) defending their liberty not least because they could unite, albeit only in imminent danger of being suppressed, they are different from the Britons. Tacitus, therefore, points to a significant difference between Britons and Germans, and Britain and Germany, when he tells us that Germans, contrary to Britons, are indigenous and unmixed because honestly who would consider living in that part of the world:

The Germans themselves appear to be indigenous and rarely mixed with other people either immigrants or guests. For, in former times, it was not by land, but by sea that those arrived, who sought to move their residence; and that immense, if I may say so, ultra-hostile ocean is rarely navigated by ships from our world. And, in addition to the danger of a horrid and unknown sea, who would leave Asia, or Africa, or Italy trying to reach Germany, its shapeless land, its cruel skies, cheerless to its beholder and cultivator, unless it were his homeland? (Germ. 2)

Cunningly Tacitus allows his readers to draw the conclusion that a little German in a mixed people like the Britons, in humid albeit not horrid Britain, may be a virtue, while being outright German in Germany is a gloomy aspect inasmuch as Germans are the uncivilized slaves of an ethnography forever checked by race, environment and, as Germania goes on to show, by its institutions. Germans, nevertheless, are genuine and loyal to these institutions, while Britons are transformed and cheerful taxpayers. Civilization as it happens comes with a price and so does indigenousness.

Germans and Britons illustrate inclusion and exclusion in the historical and geographical perspective of an expanding civilization. Tacitus, true to his understanding of himself as a historian, is forced to point out the success as well as the limits of civilization. He uses ethnography to illustrate his point.

Civilization 03Tacitus’ readers knew that Jews, despite the fall of Jerusalem, continued to exist even though in principle they ‘accepted conscription, taxes, and other burdens imposed on them by the Empire’. Contrary to Germans, they were integrated into the Roman society, but evidently not like Britons. None the less the reason he writes about the Jews – i.e. the end of a historical phenomenon similar to the end of the free Britons, parallels what he has already pointed out:

The geography and inhabitants of Britain, [… …] I will speak of [… ….] because the country was then for the first time thoroughly subdued. (Agr. 10)

As I am about to relate the last days of a famous city, it seems appropriate to throw some light on its origin. (Hist. 5.2)

And that turns out to be the Jews. As I read Tacitus book 5.2-8 he is as usual critical to backward ethnographical cultures, but from an analytical point of view he gives us an example of a society which is decidedly diasporic,

Some say that the Jews were fugitives from the island of Crete [… …]. Others assert that in the reign of Isis the overflowing population of Egypt [… …]. Many, again, say that they were a race of Ethiopian origin [… …]. Others describe them as an Assyrian horde [… …]. Others, again, assign a very distinguished origin to the Jews, alleging that they were the Solymi, a nation celebrated in the poems of Homer [… … ]. Most writers, however, agree [… …] that once a disease [… …] broke out over Egypt; that king Bocchoris, seeking a remedy, consulted the oracle of Hammon, and was bidden to cleanse his realm, and to convey into some foreign land this race detested by the gods. (Hist. 5.2)

Prone or forced to diaspora, coming from all kinds of directions, their seemingly appalling institutions and customs (difficult to explain) has none the less been successful granting them strong networks and resilience:

This worship, however introduced, is upheld by its antiquity; all their other customs, which are at once perverse and disgusting, owe their strength to their very badness. The most degraded out of other races, scorning their national beliefs, brought to them their contributions and presents. This augmented the wealth of the Jews, as also did the fact, that among themselves they are inflexibly honest and ever ready to shew compassion, though they regard the rest of mankind with all the hatred of enemies. (Hist. 5.5)

Although the land of the Jews is in many ways similar to Roman lands there are also oddities on par with the people:

[… …] of the Jordan. This river does not discharge itself into the sea, but flow entire through two lakes, and is lost in the third. This is a lake of vast circumference; it resembles the sea, but is more nauseous in taste; it breeds pestilence among those who live near by its noisome odour; it cannot be moved by the wind, and it affords no home either to fish or water-birds. These strange waters [… ….] (Hist. 5.6)


When the civilized society meets the primitive ethnographic society, this meeting highlights the value of stubbornly defended stable institutions and casts a shadow on progress and intellectual freedom. Tacitean Jews and Germans cannot be bend to civilization. Nevertheless, Tacitus demonstrates that ethnographic societies are primitive and his methods when characterizing them are based on (1) the mixed/unmixed character of a people. (2) Its inability/ability to unite itself around its institutions, even in diaspora, i.e. its systemic resilience, and (3) the degree to which primitive culture is a reflection of its environment.

An ethnographic culture may survive or be subdued. It aims at surviving, i.e. conservation, and although it is most often unsuccessful it may nevertheless succeed by means of forceful resistance defending itself and fending off civilization at its geographical borders. The goal being isolation and the preservation of its institutions, the ethnographic society may also succeed because it creates a society that evades civilization by diaspora or inner exile.

There is little doubt that Tacitus describes the ethnographic society airing his ‘colonial’ views. But he wouldn’t be Tacitus if these views were not accompanied (thereby tacitly becoming prejudice) by his model of civilization: the Republic, i.e. a society whose institutions are well worth defending against the corruption and terror of the Principate to which, strangely enough, it gave way. Why, his readers ask themselves, must the enlightened, model, best-of-all-possible-worlds, liberal Republic, be defended against the dark primitivity of the Principate by methods comparable to those of the ethnographic societies? Why, if not because elements of the ethnographic and the civilized society alike are bilateral rather than oppositional? Tacitus himself thrived during the Principate, and survived Domitian, because he kept a low profile.

Civilization 04

I think that this sketch of the role of ‘the ethnographic’ in Tacitus is in line with DS analysis of how Tacitus the historian, true to history, his scholarship and historiography must incorporate ethnography into his history making it the base of that arc of narrative works that imagine themselves as a sequence. In my view, this sequence consists of Agricola/Germania, Histories and Annals. Ethnography is an important foundation for Tacitus’ history project because civilization is important. And if you don’t believe that he set a standard you can read a book on how the West – i.e. the West that beat the Rest – is now losing it. Or, if you are into analysis, you may employ Tacitean ethnography to analyze the Republican Party.


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