The Sextant Christopher Newport University’s On-Line History Journal

Vol. 9, Fall/Winter 2012-13





Let there continue and endure, I pray, among foreign peoples, if not affection for us, at least hatred for one another, since, as the destiny of empire drives us on, fortune can furnish us nothing greater than the discord of the enemy.”[1]

In chapter thirty-three of Germania, Tacitus described the internal strife among Germanic tribes rather gleefully, remarking further that the extermination of the Bructeri tribe was “a certain kindliness of the gods.”[2] At the heart of Germania lies the issue of Roman assimilation of indigenous populations in the German provinces. At times he praised the natives; at other points, he dismissed their abilities. Yet he made it clear that Rome would prevail over Germanic tribes.

In A.D. 90 – eight years before Tacitus published GermaniaRome separated Germania Inferior and Germania Superior from the Gallic provinces, making them independent entities and creating the potential for inclusion of Germanic groups into Rome.[3] Enveloping Germanic tribes into the Roman fold did not take place easily. Disparaging Roman attitudes about indigenous populations impacted how these groups were treated. Tacitus’s Germania and Julius Caesar’s Gallic Wars serve as the most prominent examples of such attitudes; these literary works were later reflected in Roman policies regarding provincial groups.

Tacitus was both a product of and influential commentator on Roman imperialism and provincial populations, thus resulting in biased assertions within his writing. Born in A.D. 55, he experienced “the first great crisis of succession in the empire” in his early teenage years when Nero was deposed as emperor.[4] As a senator, Tacitus endured Domitian’s autocracy and Nerva’s short-lived stint as emperor before Trajan came to power.[5] His stint as a senator placed him at the center of Roman imperialism. As a Roman senator, he may have found it necessary to advocate imperialism, thus resulting in his downplaying of German characteristics. Conversely, the “autocratic nature” of Domitian’s rule may have inspired Tacitus to compliment certain tribes, such as the Chatti, who were able to rise up in revolt against Domitian.[6] Additionally, it is unclear whether or not Tacitus even experienced the German provinces himself; Benario suggests his colleague Pliny the Elder, as well as traveling merchants, may have supplied him with information.[7] This also would have forced him to view the experiences of others – already tarnished by their own biases – through his pro-Roman perspective. In spite of these biases, Tacitus’s Germania still stands as the foremost primary source on Germanic tribes in the Roman provinces.

Similarly, Julius Caesar’s Gallic Wars is one of the first accounts of the Gallic provinces. Like Tacitus, Caesar describes provincial tribes in painstaking detail. Caesar held his own inherent biases that affected his portrayals of the Gallic tribes. For instance, Caesar was a proconsular governor at the time of the Gallic Wars, and became the dictator of Rome twelve years later.[8] As a rising power in Rome, it may be surmised that depicting Romans as the victors over provincial tribes would be in his favor. Caesar’s attitude towards provincial populations left its mark. Subsequent emperors began the invasion of German territories, instilling their own unfavorable opinions of indigenous populations, who assimilated to and absorbed great amounts of Roman culture.

The issue of assimilation, however, is more complex than Romans simply dominating indigenous populations. As the first quotation from Tacitus reveals, Romans were satisfied with either receiving the blessing of the native populations or dividing individual tribes. Conquest did not seem to be the most prevalent factor of their experience with provincial Germanic tribes. This opens questions as to what exactly defined the German-Roman relationship. Did assimilation of the tribes occur; if so, how did this manifest itself? Examining Tacitus, as well as other primary sources, reveals that Rome and its Germanic territories shared complex relationships that relied on an implicit ranking system of provincial tribes. This system determined the extent to which Romans and tribes participated in the process of assimilation to Roman customs. Conflicts that resulted from disparities within the Roman preferential treatment and hierarchical ranking system of Germanic tribes contributed heavily to bouts of instability that disrupted, but ultimately changed, processes of assimilation.

Previous scholarship views the topic of assimilation rather narrowly. J.B. Rives asserts in his translation of Germania that “Tacitus relies on the reader to take Roman culture as the implied point of comparison, and leaves the negative to stand on its own.”[9] Rives argues that Tacitus ranks the Germans as “better or worse” through the comparison of Romans and Germanic tribes.[10] He then discusses the prevalence of the notion that the Germans did not possess vices such as greed which resulted from civilized society.[11] Rives borrows certain elements from Germania to support his argument, yet he notably relies on earlier chapters which discussed Germanic tribes in more generalized terms. Even Rives’s discussions of later chapters, which discuss specific characteristics of individual tribes, rely on generalities. As a result, a weakness of Rives’s argument is that it excludes a significant theme in Germania: ranking among tribes.

Herbert Benario’s translation of Germania relies heavily on the idea of the “noble savage” mentioned by Rives. Benario takes a much more liberal approach to Tacitus’s writing. He willingly overlooks the anachronisms of Germania because he regards Tacitus as an accurate historian whose descriptions of the Germans are “confirmed by the findings of archaeology.”[12] As a result, Benario’s perception of the German-Roman relationship assumes that Tacitus sees Germanic tribes as simpler than their Roman counterparts, who had been corrupted by society.[13] Unlike Rives, who asserts that Tacitus compared the negative aspects of Germanic culture to Roman customs, Benario seems convinced that Tacitus had some esteem for the Germans. Benario’s examination of Germania is limited in its ability to consider Tacitus’s biases, which were based on his political experiences and disconnection from the German provinces.

Jane Webster takes another approach to the topic of assimilation in her article “Creolizing the Roman Provinces.” She asserts that Romanization is a limited term because it implies that provincial cultures were influenced by their elites incorporating elements of Roman culture. She instead offers the term creolization, a “bottom-up” approach that indicates a merger of cultures rather than a replacement of cultural mores.[14] Webster views Romanization in terms of culture rather than legality or ethnicity.[15] This perspective sets her apart from Benario’s advocacy of the “noble savage” concept, which implies an inherent difference in the capabilities of Germans and Romans. Webster’s argument is significant due to her emphasis on non-elite populations. In the study of German-Roman relationships, this supports chapters of Tacitus’s Germania that addressed individual tribes. Similarly, parts of Tacitus’s Histories, such as his explanation of the Batavian Revolt, dealt with tensions between local populations of Germanic tribes that extend beyond the influence of the provincial elites those definitions of Romanization address. Webster’s emphasis on localized populations limits her argument, however, in that it does not discuss the provincial elites in great detail, which still held some influence over assimilating Germans.

On a similar vein as Webster, Greg Woolf describes assimilation as a gradual process of acculturation (albeit for the Gallic population rather than the Germans). He states, “[R]ather than conflict, competition or interaction between two cultures, we have to do with the creation of a new imperial culture that supplanted earlier Roman cultures just as much as it did the earlier cultures of indigenous peoples.”[16] Woolf almost takes a consensus approach to the idea of assimilation in that he does not acknowledge either party (Romans or Gallics) to be necessarily responsible for the cultural exchange that took place in the Gallic provinces. While this is a strong point in that it does not assume unilateral influence from either the elites or the locals, it also does not define active players. In some ways, Woolf seems to view Romanization as a broad natural development of culture. This argument does not offer much to support Tacitus’s characterizations of indigenous tribes and their relationships to Romans.

These four secondary analyses provide a wide range of perspectives on the German-Roman relationship, assimilation, and Tacitus’s Germania. Each examination shares a common flaw of generalizing the characteristics of Germanic tribes. Tacitus distinguishes not only the tribes themselves, but the desirability of their traits as well. As a result of these generalizations, historians also tend to assume that assimilation applied equally to all tribal groups. This study attempts to not only identify and discuss the assimilation of individual tribes mentioned by Tacitus, but to draw upon a case study that exemplifies the differences between the tribes and the consequent tensions which arose.

This study takes these attitudes into account in its first chapter, “Assimilation.” This will attempt to define “assimilation” as an equitable process in which certain Germanic tribes could be “Romanized” to the fullest capacity that “barbarians” could reach. The following chapter, “The Ranking System” delves into the works of Caesar and Tacitus to explain not only the general harsh attitudes towards provincial residents, but to distinguish how a “ranking system” of these tribes existed. In particular, Tacitus’s Germania will be used as the basis of this “ranking system.” The third chapter, “Manifestation of Assimilation,” will discuss how this system connected to the process of assimilation by highlighting urban and economic development. Chapter four examines whether or not Rome successfully assimilated some tribes versus others, and the resulting impact on Roman imperialism. This analysis will attempt to develop conclusions on the effects of assimilation and the ranking system on imperial stability in the German provinces in the first century A.D.

Chapter 1: Assimilation

“Assimilation” is a term that holds a vast number of definitions. Within the context of this essay, “assimilation” has two main facets: bilateralism and equity. The first concept to address is bilateralism. By recognizing “assimilation” as a bilateral process, this study excludes the notion that one side imposed its culture on the other (often understood as Roman imposition on German culture). Woolf argues in “Beyond Romans and Natives” that it cannot be denied “that Roman imperial culture was created in the context of the extension of the domination of one state over its neighbours,” but that this did not necessarily mean suppressing indigenous culture.[17] While Romans attempted to rule their German provincial populations, they did not aim to eradicate the native culture(s).

Webster’s assertions about ‘creolization’ factor into this definition as well. Local, non-elite populations, rather than provincial elites or Romans, comprise the central group of Webster’s article. Perhaps one of the most significant points that Webster argues is that “creolization processes take place in the context of asymmetric power relations.”[18] While this indicates domination on some level, it is significant to consider the differing levels of domination. Romans sought out particular Germanic tribes, granting them certain privileges based on their inherent traits as indigenous peoples. The Batavians, noted for their bravery, serve as an example of this.[19] Roman provincial administrators did not award the same type of special privileges to less-favored tribes. This leads to the point that ‘assimilation’ did not result in a universal process for the Germans.

If Romans hoped to dominate, but not erase native culture, then what does this indicate about ‘assimilation’ as a bilateral and equitable process? It is significant to note that Romans did not seek to make Germanic tribes “equal,” which would imply that Germans had the capabilities to develop to the same extent as the Romans had. Rather, they sought to assimilate tribal populations in an equitable fashion. Germanic tribes could be ‘Romanized’ insofar as ‘barbarians’ could be developed; however, they did not intrinsically possess the capabilities to become equal to Romans. Even under this concept of ‘assimilation,’ Romans remained selective in which tribes they chose to assimilate.

Chapter 2: The Ranking System

Much evidence for these notions descends from Julius Caesar’s Gallic Wars and Tacitus’s Germania, which show Roman perceptions of native groups. While primarily a depiction of Caesar’s conquest of Gaul, his work describes the Germanic tribes who fought in the Gallic Wars. Some of these tribes were seen again in Tacitus’s portrayal of the Germans. Caesar’s work explicated a Roman literary approach to describing “barbarians” that Tacitus expands on in Germania. Furthermore, each ancient author reflected on a social ranking system that was prevalent in Roman provincial government from Caesar’s reign throughout the first century A.D.

Although Caesar’s Gallic Wars focused on the campaign in Gaul, he devoted several chapters to the Germanic tribes with which he dealt: the Suebi, Ubii, Tencteri, and Usipetes.[20] Caesar’s distinctions between these indicated how he ranked each tribe. He began Chapter IV of Gallic Wars by describing the warlike nature of the Suebi. His judgment of the Suebi seems neutral until they are compared to the Ubii, which he described as “somewhat more civilised than the other folk of the same race.”[21] He then attributed this to their border with the Rhine River, their trade relationships, and adoption of Gallic customs.[22] Meanwhile, he stated that the Suebi did not trade other than what they captured in war; they did not trade even for “draught-horses,” preferring instead their “inferior and ill-favoured” horses.[23] Caesar made a tacit distinction between the “civilized” tribe that traded and lived on the Rhine versus the tribe that relied upon war for its livelihood.

Caesar mentioned the Usipi and Tencteri in lesser detail. Like the Ubii, the Suebi harassed and forced them out of their lands.[24] Unlike the Ubii, they did not swear allegiance to Caesar. Rather, at one point in the Gallic Wars, they joined another Germanic group called the Sugambri, which pushed Caesar to invade their territory.[25] He was mainly interested in forcing them to surrender.[26] Caesar wrote little more of the Usipi and the Tencteri, but it is evident that they did not strike the same chord with him as the Ubii had.

Like Caesar, Tacitus ranked Germanic tribes based on differences between the groups and their similarities to Rome. Germania highlighted the concept of the “ranking system” in greater depth than the Gallic Wars. Tacitus described the characteristics of approximately thirty tribes.[27] In doing so, he asserted that Germanic tribes were more civilized than other barbaric groups, despite being beneath Roman standards. He observes in chapter eighteen that they are “almost alone of the barbarians” in practicing monogamy.[28] This raises a significant issue in Germania: that Rome considered Germans to be better than most indigenous groups yet would always be considered “barbarians.”

Tacitus further supported this point by comparing Germanic tribes to Gallic tribes. In chapter twenty-eight, he claimed that the Nervii and Treveri wished to declare Germanic ancestry because it would separate them from their fellow “unwarlike” Gallic tribes.[29] It is evident that to be German was an aspiration held by less favored tribal groups. Tacitus’s explanation of the Nervii is significant because this tribal group was also described by Caesar in Gallic Wars. This suggests that Caesar could have possibly influenced Tacitus’s writing and delineation of the ranking system. Such influence speaks to the prevalence of the ranking system in Roman imperial culture. A comparison of the two works indicates a strong possibility that Tacitus drew upon Caesar’s distinctions between tribal groups to further support his own analysis of indigenous tribes.

These aspirations connect to the concept of the ranking system by distinguishing not only among Germanic and non-Germanic groups, but among Germanic tribes. Tacitus identified several tribes which he considered to be more favorable. The Ubii was the first tribe Tacitus described. He observed that they had become a Roman colonia and even renamed themselves Agrippinenses.[30] By the time he wrote Germania, the Ubii had long held loyalties to Rome. Caesar referred to the beginning of this relationship in Gallic Wars. The Ubii gave Romans permission to settle in their lands in exchange for protection from the Suebi.[31] From this point forward, the Ubii were loyal to Rome and consequently received special accommodations from Rome.

The Batavi were another tribe upon which Rome bestowed special privileges. Tacitus commended the Batavi for their bravery and military prowess. The Batavians served as a special war unit for Rome in exchange for not paying tributary taxes.[32] This symbiotic relationship benefitted Rome as well as the Batavi. It is notable, however, that the Batavian Revolt occurred in A.D. 69, about thirty years before Tacitus wrote Germania. Yet he still gave the Batavi a favorable review, despite their past treachery. This suggests that some tribal groups were extremely important to maintaining Roman imperialism. For a continuously expanding Roman empire, a strong group such as the Batavi was too valuable for a senator such as Tacitus to disparage in his writing. Additionally, Tacitus mentioned the Mattiaci, who possessed a similar relationship. He noted this tribe for its “greater energy,” a compliment considering that a few chapters prior, he had dismissed the Germans for their weak work ethic and propensity for drunkenness.[33] Perhaps because of what these tribes could offer as benefits to Rome, they received more favorable outlooks from Tacitus.

Like the Batavi, the Chatti possessed superior martial skills. Tacitus drew some parallels between the Chatti and Roman methods of war. He noted how the Chatti trusted their generals more than their armies, which was considered a Roman characteristic.[34] He also observed the Chatti’s physical traits: “hardier bodies, sinewy limbs, a threatening countenance, and greater liveliness of mind.”[35] Tacitus may have used this section to criticize Domitian as well. As he did with the Mattiaci, he distinguished between typical weak Germanic groups and stronger tribal groups. The Chatti’s bravery, Romanesque qualities, and stronger physical traits led Tacitus to rank them higher than other groups. Similarly, Tacitus discussed the Usipi and the Tencteri, although he primarily emphasized the Tencteri. This Germanic tribe’s forte was horsemanship; Tacitus likened this ability to the Chatti’s infantry skills.[36] Tacitus considered the Chatti and Tencteri’s martial prowess to be their greatest strengths.

Caesar had mentioned the Tencteri as well, albeit in much less detail. In the Gallic Wars, it is evident that Caesar viewed the Tencteri as a stepping stone to victory, provided he could make them surrender. Tacitus, however, esteemed the Tencteri for their martial abilities. The differentiating opinions of these two authors demonstrates the increasing significance of assimilation, rather than conquest, of Germans in the first century A.D. Caesar aimed to control the Gallic territories through conquest. The Roman provincial administration depended on assimilation to gain power over the Germans in their territories. This distinction is significant as it shows a slight shift in attitudes toward the tribes. It did not necessarily mean that Tacitus had broken from the condescension Caesar espoused. Rather, it shows that the Roman ranking system had gradually grown more prevalent, allowing writers such as Tacitus to analyze which tribes could best benefit Rome.

In chapter thirty-eight, Tacitus described the Suebic tribes. He mentioned the Semnones first; his description indicates a moderately high level of respect for them. While he dismissed their religious rituals as barbaric, he noted that their prosperity made them an esteemed group by Roman standards.[37] Romans certainly could have used a prosperous tribe for their own economic gain. Tacitus then described the Hermunduri, whose trading activities (which extended well beyond the Rhine) made them distinctive among German tribes.[38]

Tacitus commended the Chauci for their nobleness and peaceful nature.[39] The Chauci served as a stark contrast to the next tribe mentioned, the Cherusci, a poorly-ranked tribe. Unlike the Chatti or the Chauci, which were noted for their higher physical and intellectual abilities, the Cherusci were called “lazy and stupid.”[40] Tacitus noted that their weakened state could be attributed to their unwarlike temperament. While the Chauci were peaceful, they had a standing army to eliminate threats. Tacitus did not mention such an arrangement for the Cherusci. It is evident that some level of martial skill was necessary for a tribe to be ranked highly by Tacitus.

It is perhaps more significant to consider the historical context that surrounded the Chauci and Cherusci. In the Battle of Teutoburger Wald, Arminius – a Cheruscan – led his tribe (accompanied by the Bructeri, Chatti, Sugambri, Tencteri, and Usipetes) in a successful uprising against the Roman troops in his territory in A.D. 9.[41] The Cheruscan victory showed powerful martial abilities that Tacitus did not acknowledge. By comparing their example to that of the Chauci, however, it is evident that Tacitus did not only consider strong martial skills to be favorable. In the case of the Chauci, they had strong battle skills, but preferred peace (and thus did not rise up against the Romans). The Cherusci, who dared to use their strong skills against Rome, could not receive the same ranking as the Chauci from Tacitus, for they lacked “moderation and honorable behavior,” which were “attributes of the more powerful.”[42]

In chapter thirty-three Tacitus wrote about the extermination of the Bructeri – a cohort of the Cherusci – by neighboring Germanic tribes. “[W]hether because of hatred of their haughtiness or the attraction of booty or a certain kindliness of the gods toward us…More than sixty thousand fell, not by the arms and weapons of the Romans, but, more magnificent still, to delight our eyes,” stated Tacitus.[43] He considered it a blessing from the gods that the Germans were killing each other, as it helped the Roman Empire assert authority over those territories. The Bructeri was clearly a tribe which was not esteemed, at least in the eyes of Tacitus.

Tacitus used chapter thirty-four to discuss the Frisii. He observed that the ocean that bordered that region was difficult to navigate, as Drusus Germanicus had attempted and failed to accomplish.[44] This reveals a negative perception of the geographic area. While he does not say much about the character of the Frisii, it is evident that Tacitus dismissed their region (due to its non-navigable nature) as being useless to the Romans. The Frisii exemplify the resounding issue of geographic proximity for Roman assimilation.

       Two tribes that may be considered poorly ranked by Tacitus were the Marcomanni and the Quadi. He began the passage by complimenting the Marcomanni and the Quadi on their bravery and strength. On the surface, it may appear as if Tacitus thought highly of these tribes. Towards the end of the chapter, however, he noted that they relied on Rome for financial support. He stated that “they are no less powerful for that,” which may be interpreted as saying their reliance on Rome did not detract from their sovereignty.[45] It is perhaps more significant, however, to consider that Tacitus may be making the point that all of their power stemmed from Roman support. They were not less powerful because Rome gave them the financial support that facilitated their success. With this perspective in mind, it is clear that Tacitus may not have viewed the Marcomanni or the Quadi as favorably as it initially appears.

       Tacitus went on to describe the Aestii, another poorly ranked tribe. This tribe was located near the Suebic (Baltic) sea. It becomes evident that Tacitus looked down upon the Aestii in his description of their collection of amber. He observed how amber would wash ashore, but the “barbarians” never investigated its origin or assigned any value to it until the Romans arrived.[46] He immediately attributed their ignorance of amber to their nature as “barbarians,” then assumed that it was the Romans who made their commodities worthwhile. This shows a fairly negative judgment of the Aestii from Tacitus.

       In the last chapter of Germania, Tacitus depicted some outlying Germanic tribes. He portrayed these groups perhaps in the darkest light. The Fenni, he noted, had “astonishing savagery,” because they did not establish homes, create advanced weaponry, develop agriculture, or even spiritual beliefs (“without concerns in their relations…with gods”).[47] He also described the Hellusii and the Oxiones, which he claimed “have the faces and visages of men, the bodies and limbs of wild beasts,” yet he acknowledged that these were mere rumors.[48] Chapter forty-six shows that Tacitus viewed some tribes – the least “Roman” of the Germans – as “barbarians” and nothing more.

Several things can be surmised from these distinctions. It is notable that each tribe Tacitus ranked highly held some semblance of Roman values. Tacitus repeatedly commended tribes such as the Batavi and Chatti for their bravery – an indication of Roman emphasis on this quality. Similarly, he favored tribes that offered some sort of benefit to the Roman Empire. The Batavi provided specialized military units for wartime. The Hermunduri had an extensive trading network beyond the Rhine that likely benefitted Roman interests. In the case of less favored tribes like the Bructeri, it may be guessed that their tribe offered little in terms of military service or loyalties, particularly considering many of these tribes lay outside of direct Roman control (see fig. 2).

Former political connections of tribes such as the Bructeri are significant as well. The Bructeri supported Arminius and the Cherusci in the Battle of Teutoburger Wald in A.D. 9, a decision that resulted in vengeful campaigns by Tiberius a few years afterward.[49] Tacitus remained biased toward the Bructeri years after the battle. The Cherusci serve as another example. Peter S. Wells has stated that prior to the Battle of Teutoburger Wald, Rome favored the Cherusci and Arminius as their representative.[50] Tacitus, however, failed to note their military skills, despite the fact that they had defeated the Romans. This conveys a sense of shame that Rome had been defeated by “barbarians.” Tacitus’s solution was to diminish the reputation of the Cherusci by portraying them poorly.

Another element which factored into Tacitus’s ranking system was geographic proximity to Rome. Tacitus depicted tribes which lived closer to Rome (see fig. 1), such as the Ubii and the Chatti, in a much better light. These tribes were also located along important rivers, such as the Rhine and the Main. The Rhine was the border of Roman Germanic territories; beyond that, as seen in Figure 2, there were fewer identified tribes and no urban settlements. This indicates that the Romans had less involvement in Germanic territories outside of their control. As a result, tribes located farther away from the Roman borders, such as the Marcomanni or the Cherusci, did not rate the same judgment. The Batavi were the notable exception to this generalization; however, as previously mentioned, they had a special relationship with Rome. Figure 2 provides a more extensive map of tribal groups, including the Frisii and Bructeri on the northern border (the North Sea). Again, Tacitus linked physical distance from Rome with ignorance of Roman customs and values.

While physical distance is important for Tacitus’s ranking system, his emphasis on martial, political, and social customs is perhaps more significant. Many of his highly ranked tribes, like the Batavi and the Chatti, possessed important martial expertise that compared to Rome’s military abilities. Tacitus described the Chatti’s Romanesque assets: keeping ranks, setting up battle strategies, entrenchment, among other skills.[51] He preceded this statement, however, by stating, “Inasmuch as they are Germans.”[52] This raises an important point about his asserted ranking system. While he compared and contrasted Germanic tribes, it was always under the understanding that Germanic qualities could approach Roman levels, but could not necessarily equal them, as they were considered “lower” as “barbarians.”

Tacitus commented on weak German political structures. In chapter seven of Germania, he stated that while Germanic tribes chose kings based on nobility, they did not have absolute power; in fact, only priests could inflict punishments on people.[53] He supported this point in chapter forty-two, when he discussed how the Marcomanni and Quadi’s king relied on Rome for support, as well as in chapter forty-four, when he described one of the Suione tribes, whose kings were strict but not oppressive.[54] The extent of liberty within the various tribes was significant to Tacitus, if not Rome as a whole. In the case of the Marcomanni, they could only retain sovereignty because Rome granted it to them. He justified Roman rule of the “barbarians” by examining the political structure of the tribes.

Tacitus distinguished Germanic tribes and Romans by social customs as well. In chapter eighteen, he detailed Germanic marital customs. He stated, “[O]ne would praise no other aspect of their civilization. For almost alone of the barbarians they are content with one wife apiece with only a few exceptions.”[55] He praised one of their social customs, yet noted that they were exceptional among their own class of “barbarians.” Germanic tribes were again separated from comparison with Romans.

Tacitus’s ranking system is complex, consisting essentially of two levels of comparison and contrast: German-German and German-Roman. While he distinguished between individual tribes based on their proximity and characteristics, he also made several overarching comparisons and contrasts of Germanic tribes to Romans. Martial, political, and social customs provided significant points for Tacitus to assert his perception of Germanic tribes as “barbarians” which were of a lower status than Romans. At certain points in Germania, he commended the Germans – perhaps as a way to criticize Roman customs – yet constantly reverted to claiming they could only be superior among “barbarians.” His ranking system reflects the actual practices of assimilation that Roman provincial administrations instated. An examination of urban and economic development shows how ranking factored into which areas of the provinces could be assimilated and which could not. Moreover, it becomes evident that disruption in the provinces can be attributed to Tacitus’s ranking system that divided Germanic tribes.

Chapter 3: Manifestation of Assimilation

The examination of economic and urban development in Germanic territories reveals a significant correlation to Tacitus’s ranking system. Certain tribes, such as the Hermunduri, operated unregulated trade within their regions between Romans and other tribal groups. Meanwhile, cities such as Colonia Claudia Ara Agrippinensium (modern-day Cologne) reflect the type of urban development that Romans facilitated for favored Germanic tribes within Roman territory. The ranking system used by the Roman provincial administration affected which groups received economic and urban development. This, in turn, would lead to conflict between Germanic tribes over assimilative processes.

Roman administration of its provinces began under Caesar Augustus. After suffering defeat in the Battle of Teutoburger Wald, Augustus saw expansion by conquest as dangerous, and chose instead to set up permanent legionary posts throughout the provinces (several of which were in place by A.D. 14).[56] By the onset of Tiberius’s rule, there were four permanent legions in lower Germany. Two were spread out over modern-day Cologne, Xanten, and Mainz; the other two cannot be located with any certainty.[57] Roman military organization thus became an influential part of provincial administration, especially in its incorporation of local German populations. Legions consisted of roughly five thousand men led by a legate, the commander, and the tribune, his officers.[58] In addition to legions, Romans recruited local men to join the auxiliary forces. After retirement (usually around twenty-five years of service), auxiliary soldiers earned Roman citizenship.[59] This indicated the desire, on some level, to draw in and assimilate local populations.

Civil administration was equally important in assimilating the Germanic tribes. As noted, Augustus wished to avoid strict military conquest, particularly in a territory where Germans outnumbered Romans. Thus, Roman administrative leaders sought to ally with provincial elites, who could then advocate Roman interests to their local populations.[60] Through this, Roman officials hoped to keep provincial interests in line with their own.

A significant figure in setting up this system was Germanicus, Tiberius’s son. Tacitus observed that Germanicus viewed German tribes as the only enemy available to conquer, which resulted in his continuous offensives on them.[61] Germanicus’s military leadership resulted in the suppression of the Cherusci, Chatti, and other tribes inhabiting the Elbe River region.[62] These wartime triumphs placed Romans into contact with outlying German tribes. As a result, Germanicus’s victories facilitated the spread of Roman fortifications throughout the Elbe region, which had not yet been fully consolidated into the Roman Empire’s provincial system.

Military and civil administration did not always peacefully coexist. Germanicus faced some of this conflict in his role as a general. His military campaigns, while often victorious, created some political tensions. As a result, Tiberius relocated Germanicus to Syria, where Piso (the governor) could serve “as a check on Germanicus’ ambitions.”[63] Meanwhile, back in the German territories, the civil administration attempted to control tribes through assimilation, a process that did not yield immediate results, particularly for the military officials, who wanted Germanic tribes to immediately comply.[64]

The struggles between the civil and military administrative elements translated to conflicts between provincial groups as well. The Roman military initially sent auxiliary soldiers to posts far away from their home regions, although this policy ceased over time when it proved irrelevant.[65] Drummond asserts that this policy lessened “the shock of Roman occupation” and made soldiers become “ethnically more diverse.”[66] Based on Tacitus, however, it must be considered that conflict likely existed among the Germanic tribes. The placement of not only neighboring, but potentially rival tribes in developing cities opened the possibility of strife for Rome.

Could Roman officials have been that ignorant of differences among Germanic tribes? Economic and urban development suggests that Roman officials, like Tacitus, drew distinct lines among tribes that fit Roman ideals and those who did not. More importantly, Roman officials distinguished between tribes that could or could not benefit Roman interests. Economic and urban development – which in turn influenced cultural development – serve as starting points for analyzing how a ranking system transformed the process of assimilation, and how this eventually led to conflict within the German provinces.

Germanic tribes which carried on a more consistent economic relationship with Rome typically corresponded with the tribes Tacitus ranked well. The Hermunduri are an example of such a relationship. Tacitus noted that their commercial associations extended outside of their region, which reached as far as the Elbe River.[67] Archaeological evidence supports this point, as Roman items have been discovered as far as Denmark, which has two implications: that Roman goods made it as far as the Elbe, and that the Frisians facilitated trade as well.[68] The Hermunduri’s territory included the Elbe; this means a trade relationship likely existed (despite being beyond Rome’s immediate control). This would have benefitted Rome immensely, especially because of the Hermunduri’s connections with outlying groups. Brooches found in Hermunduri territory showed “Gallic and Danubian influences,” indicating a wide-ranging trading system that involved the Hermunduri as middle-men.[69] Furthermore, the Hermunduri had defeated the Chatti in a battle for the salt-producing river that divided their lands.[70] Production of a commodity like salt would have been in the interests of the Roman Empire. Because of the favorable economic status of the Hermunduri, the Roman Empire granted special privileges to them.

Olwen Brogan, as mentioned, viewed the Frisians as an economically-important tribe as well. In spite of this, the Frisians did not earn the same privileges as the Hermunduri. Tribute and military presence are evidence of this. Drusus fortified their region and established a tributary system.[71] The Frisii remained loyal until AD 28, when Rome imposed harsher tribute requirements, thus pushing the Frisii to fight against and defeat the Romans.[72] Rome reasserted its rule in AD 47, which resulted in much tighter military control of the region.[73] The Frisii, although economically viable to Rome, witnessed different treatment than the Hermunduri.

Tacitus did not explicate whether or not the Hermunduri paid tribute to Rome; however, as “firm Roman friends,” it might be surmised that they did not pay tribute.[74] Like much of the Germanic territories, Roman fortifications were present, but did not seem to exact much control over the Hermunduri. The Hermunduri became military allies rather than imperial subjects, and fought on behalf of the Romans in a war against the Iazyges, Marcomanni, and the Quadi.[75] Their economic and military statuses are a stark contrast to that of the Frisii.

These minor details about the Hermunduri’s economic and military privileges lead to a significant point about a ranking system within the Germanic provinces. The Hermunduri, who were notably geographically closer to Rome (see fig. 2), received special trading privileges. They were pitted in a war against other Germanic tribes. These examples highlight Roman opinion concerning different tribes. The Hermunduri, whose trade and military knowledge benefited Rome, held a higher status than other tribal groups such as the Frisii, Marcomanni, and Quadi.

Urban development demonstrated the ranking systems between tribes as well. The Hermunduri notably acquired a Roman city under Hadrian’s rule.[76] Other provincial cities had been established much earlier. Colonia Claudia Ara Agrippinensium, or Cologne, was perhaps one of the most developed and well-known Roman coloniae. Developed early as a military base in the Ubian territory, it became a Roman colonia in A.D. 50, then elevated to the capital of Germania Inferior in A.D. 85.[77] Maureen Carroll asserts that Romans established towns such as Colonia Claudia Ara Agrippinensium under Augustus’s plan to redistribute population groups in German territories.[78] The demographics of these groups are significant because of their statuses under the Roman hierarchical system. The largest Germanic group that inhabited Colonia Claudia Ara Agrippinensium was the Ubii, one of the groups Tacitus ranked highly.

The junction of the Ubii and the Roman development of Colonia Claudia Ara Agrippinensium relates to the ranking system not only in Roman treatment of the Ubii, but how this colonia impacted other tribes. The relocation of the Ubii indicates that Rome found this tribe to be of some benefit to them. Whether it was based on the privileged status bestowed upon the tribe by Caesar, when he received their loyalty and help in the Gallic Wars, or for other reasons, the Romans chose to preserve the Ubian tribes.[79] Moreover, the special status granted to the Ubii as inhabitants of Cologne did not extend to other tribes. Tribes such as the Tencteri had to pay tariffs and remain under police watch while in the city.[80] This demonstrates a clear distinction between Germanic tribes.

Another consideration of the urban development in Ubian territories is that the Romans planned Cologne. Carroll debunks the idea that a legionary fortification preceded the urban center at Cologne, arguing that the layout (essentially in a grid pattern) and building remnants are evidence that Cologne was indeed an urban, not military, base.[81] City planning is significant because it demonstrates the Roman desire to inculcate Germanic provincials with Roman ideals. Within an urban center like Cologne, the Ubii would see symbols of Roman civilization such as architecture, as well as individual adoption of Roman status symbols like monuments.[82] The impact of Ubian assimilation to Roman culture became increasingly obvious over time.

It is significant, however, that although the Ubii stand out as the most prominent example of a Romanized Germanic group, the tribe preserved some elements of its culture. They included indigenous gods in their sculptures around the city; their pottery methods indicate a method dating to before Roman contact, although some pieces show the use of new techniques.[83] This mixture of native culture with Roman inventions demonstrates the dual nature of assimilation. The Ubii accepted Roman culture, yet the Romans did not attempt to erase elements of their culture, such as their deities.

The Ubii present an interesting case study of assimilation because they eventually rejected their Germanic origins in favor of Roman associations. The Ubii’s imminent acculturation to Roman customs became further cemented after Augustus allowed some of the Ubii to become Roman citizens.[84] Tacitus noted that they called themselves Agrippinenses.[85] Through advanced urban development, which can be attributed to their favored status among Germanic tribes, the Ubii witnessed greater amounts of assimilation than other tribes. Consequently, the Ubii participated in an equitable, rather than equal, form of assimilation.

The cases of the Frisii, Hermunduri, and Ubii present a trajectory by which Tacitus’s ranking system and assimilation can be considered. The Frisii – the outermost group of these tribes – were developed the least and held in stricter military control. The Romans did not utilize military rule over the Hermunduri; in fact, they allied with the Hermunduri in battle. Instead, the Romans optimized the economic benefits of the Hermunduri. This tribe developed a colonia, albeit much later than Cologne. The Ubii – considered to be the closest to Rome, both geographically and characteristically – enforced urban development early on. In their case, elements of Roman and Ubian culture blended together to form an assimilated population that eventually considered itself “Roman.” This demonstrates differing levels of assimilation and treatment of Germanic tribes in accordance with Tacitus’s depictions of these particular Germanic groups.

       Despite the differing levels of ranking for Germanic tribes, the process of assimilation remained an equitable process. Germanic tribes remained under the control of Roman administrative officials. While achieving Roman status through economic or urban development, the Germanic groups were still not considered to be completely Roman. Even in the case of the favored Ubii, Rome only granted some of the population citizenship rights. Germanic groups were assimilated to the extent that barbarian groups could be transformed, yet remained beneath equality with Romans.

       The desire of Germanic groups to attain such privileges, however, is what is perhaps more significant. This demonstrates how assimilation became a bilateral process. For example, Roman symbols of status such as tomb monuments were so important to tribal groups that both citizens and non-citizens would mimic them.[86] As a result, Germanic groups lobbied for recognition by the Roman Empire. When some tribes were assimilated and others were not, conflict brewed and eventually erupted among the Germanic tribes on the Roman frontier.

Chapter 4: Competition and Disruption in the Provinces

The examples of the Hermunduri and the Ubii show that Roman and local attempts at assimilation did successfully bind some Germanic tribes to Rome. Accordingly, other tribes such as the Frisii became alienated from Rome. The Frisii broke their loyal ties with Rome during the Batavian Revolt, which serves as potentially the clearest example of how the Roman ranking system, reflected in Tacitus’s writing, exacerbated tensions within the Roman Empire.

The Batavian Revolt followed the arrest of Julius Civilis and Julius Paullus, representatives of Batavian provincial elites. While Paullus was executed, Galba released Civilis, although Vitellius and the army called for his execution. Upon his return to the Batavi, he threw his support to Vespasian. He formulated the rebellion under this guise. When Vitellius ordered a draft of both young and elderly Batavi soldiers, Civilis seized the opportunity to rebel. He summoned local tribes – the Frisii were among these notified – for support. He then led a series of attacks on several German coloniae.[87]

Civilis targeted the Ubii and the Treveri first, because they had abandoned their fellow Germans. The Batavians plundered Ubian territory more harshly because they “had forsworn its native country, and assumed the Roman name of the Agrippinenses.”[88] The Batavian offensives on other Germanic tribes demonstrate how assimilation contributed to tensions within the empire. While the Batavians received special privileges based on their martial skills, their territory did not witness the same type of urban and economic development as Ubian territories. Additionally, Rome did not seek to assimilate the Batavi into their fold; as noted, large portions of the Ubian population earned citizenship. This did not necessarily apply to the Batavi.

Tacitus’s treatment of Civilis in the Histories reflects the Roman distinction between the Batavi and the Ubii. Tacitus observed that Civilis possessed political talent, a rarity among barbarians.[89] This ability did not extend to the rest of the Batavi. In contrast to his description of Civilis as a barbaric traitor, Tacitus did not explicitly name any Ubian leaders – an indication of the tribe’s collective loyalty to Rome. No Ubian leaders stepped beyond the boundaries of their “Roman” image, thus making it irrelevant for Tacitus to mention their names. This is significant, because Tacitus drew a clear line between Civilis’s non-Roman behavior and Ubian loyalty (a Roman trait).

Chapter 5: Conclusion

The Roman ranking system of Germanic tribes led to periods of instability that undermined Roman control by disrupting the process of assimilation within the provinces. Conflicts between the Batavi and the Roman Empire lay at the heart of the Batavian Revolt. Civilis undoubtedly sought an opportunity to avenge the perceived injustices (such as his arrest and near-execution) committed against him by Roman officials.

His initial attacks centered on nearby Roman legions. Civilis’s main target, however, became other Germanic tribes, principally those who received special privileges from Rome. This suggests that the ranking system could be detrimental to the empire by dissolving its stable relations among the Germanic groups within its control. The Batavi, for instance, could not be used by Roman generals during the revolt, forcing Rome to lose one of its most powerful units. More importantly, after the revolt, Rome clamped down on its administration in the Batavi region. Trajan rebuilt Batavodurum (which had been destroyed by Rome during the revolt), renamed it Ulpia Noviomagus, and allowed a market to operate in town.[90] While Rives suggests that Trajan favored the Batavi, the Roman desire to control them through assimilation also reflects a fear that emanated from the Batavian Revolt. The Romans had to respond to the Batavi attacks on the Ubii by granting them similar privileges: economic, urban, and cultural development. While the Romans regained control over Germanic tribes, it also signified a weakness in the ranking system: it could separate provincials and strike at the foundation of Roman imperialism.

The ranking system reflected in Tacitus’s writing eventually became less significant for Romans in the face of an expanding empire. Tacitus identified characteristics such as strong war skills and prosperous economies as reasons for some tribes to be treated more favorably than others. These traits allowed Rome to control, to some extent, how much they could assimilate a tribal group. For instance, in the case of the Ubii, Rome could grant favors – such as planned cities – to keep their loyalty. The Ubii, in turn, embraced many aspects of Roman culture, and even ultimately shifted to the use of Romanized names. The Batavi had to struggle to gain the same recognition.

Groups such as the Bructeri indicate, for the purposes of this essay, how Romans ranked outlying tribes. Tacitus ranked many of them poorly, but with some justification – these tribes did not always fall under Roman control. Moreover, they did not necessarily provide any political or economic gain for Rome. The Ubii and Batavi, however, fell under the Roman-controlled system of assimilation. These tribes are a prime example of the ranking system, reflected in Germania, at work. Rather than assuming that Rome viewed all Germans as “noble savages” as Benario had, Roman-German relations must be considered on a case-by-case basis. In the story of the Batavian attack on the Ubii, it is evident that jealousy among the tribes was at play. Similarly, viewing assimilation as a contest of Roman versus German values, as Rives suggests, is limited as well. It is clear that conflict resulted from inequitable political, social, and economic treatment of Germanic tribes.

As a result of the ranking system articulated by Tacitus and set in place through Roman policy, the Germanic provincials faced varying levels of assimilation under Roman rule. This hierarchy contributed to strife among Germanic groups within the empire, thus weakening Rome’s attempt to assimilate certain groups. The economic and urban development (which segued into cultural development) of different Germanic tribes demonstrates the concept of the ranking system. Through the case study of the Batavi and the Ubii, however, it becomes evident that this hierarchy could backfire on Rome. While the Batavian Revolt gave Germanic tribes the opportunity to eliminate each other, the outcome of the rebellion forced Rome to appease the Batavi. This tribe was not necessarily one that Rome intended on assimilating in the same manner as they had the Ubii. This changed how assimilative processes were conducted, leaving a significant impact on the Roman Empire’s further development of provincial groups.


Figure  1

Source: Peter S. Wells, The Battle That Stopped Rome (New York: Norton, 2003), 156

Figure 2

Source: Maureen Carroll, Romans, Celts, & Germans: the German Provinces of Rome (Stroud: Tempus, 2001), 30.


Works Cited

Primary Sources:

Caesar, Julius. Gallic Wars. Translated by H.J. Edwards. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1986.

Tacitus. Annals. Translated by J.C. Yardley. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008.

Tacitus. Germania. Translated by Herbert W. Benario. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press,  1991.

Tacitus. Histories. Translated by Alfred John Church and William Jackson Brodribb. Online edition at

Secondary Sources:

Adkins, Roy. A. Handbook to Life in Ancient Rome. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.

Benario, Herbert W. Tacitus' Agricola, Germany, and Dialogue On Orators. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1991.

Brogan, Olwen. “Trade Between the Roman Empire and the Free Germans,” The Journal of Roman Studies 26, no. 2 (1936), 195-222.

Campbell, Duncan B. Roman Legionary Fortresses. Essex: Osprey Publishing, 2006.

Carroll, Maureen. Romans, Celts, & Germans: the German Provinces of Rome. Stroud: Tempus, 2001.

Drummond, Steven K. and Lynn H. Nelson. The Western Frontiers of Imperial Rome. Armonk: Sharpe, 1994.

Freeman, Philip. Julius Caesar. New York City: Simon and Schuster, 2008.

Grainger, John D. Nerva and the Roman Succession Crisis of AD 96-99. London: Routledge, 2003.

Jones, Brian W. The Emperor Domitian. Florence: Routledge, 1992.

Rives, J.B. Germania. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1999.

Webster, Jane. “Creolizing the Roman Provinces,” American Journal of Archaeology 105, no. 2 (2001), 209-225.

Wells, Peter S. The Barbarians Speak: How the Conquered Peoples Shaped Roman Europe. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001.

Wells, Peter S. The Battle that Stopped Rome. New York: Norton, 2003.

Woolf, Greg. “Beyond Romans and Natives,” World Archaeology 28, no. 3 (1997), 339-350.