Germans: Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire Chapter 9

A big current question is climate change.  This seems very contemporary , so it comes as a bit of a surprise to open the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire at Chapter 9 and find Gibbon discussing climate change and referring to a series of other writers on the subject.  It seems that quite a few writers back then were proposing that Germany had previously been much colder.

Gibbon is convinced by the proposition.  He cites a couple of bits of evidence in favour of the idea.   First, reindeer were reported by Roman writers to be found in what is now central Germany.  Secondly, there are several accounts of large armies of barbarians succeeding in crossing the frozen rivers Danube and Rhine during the history of the Empire.  These extremely wide rivers did not freeze over in Gibbon’s time any more than they do in ours.

He is not only convinced of the fact of climate change.  He also has a theory to explain how it might occur.   His idea was it was all down to tree cover.  The primordial Hercynian forest covered nearly the whole of Ancient Germany.  Today’s Black Forest is one of the last tiny remnants of the environment that once covered central Europe.  Gibbon’s idea was that the shade of the trees blocked the sun preventing the land from warming up.  He points to the fact that in Canada rivers on the same latitude as the Thames and the Seine rivers routinely freeze in winter.  Could that be because Canada is still covered with trees?

This puts him in the anthropogenic climate change camp.  Germany has warmed up because the trees have been cut down.  We know that things are a bit more complicated than that now, but it isn’t a bad attempt for someone writing at the time when the thermometer was still a new invention.

His chief source for the description of the Ancient Germans was Tacitus.  Gibbon admires Tacitus and happily acknowledging the brilliance of this great Roman historian.  But he is aware of his shortcomings.  The account of the life of the barbarians that Tacitus has left us is highly coloured by the viewpoint of Tacitus who contrasts the purity and straight forwardness of the Germans with the degeneracy of the Romans.  Gibbon is less ready to give them such an easy time.  He is seeking after the truth rather than a noble savage ideal.

There was of course no such country as Germany in Gibbon’s day and he defines it as the area that we would call Germany, but also including Denmark, Sweden and Poland.  This was an area that we would nowadays call undeveloped.  There was no transport, no large settlements and not a huge amount of agriculture.  The Germans had no writing and no formal government.  Money was used, but cattle were the principle form of wealth.  Land was, remarkably to a modern person, not thought of that highly as an asset.  It was shared out annually by the local chieftain and reallocated the following year.  I suppose without writing you can’t have title deeds.

Their religion was a primitive worship of the Sun, Moon and the deities associated with the planets.  There were no temples – there were precious few buildings of any kind – so the gods of the Germans were worshipped in dark glades in the depths of the forest.  Human sacrifice was practiced at times.  The Gods of the Germans were rarely depicted in any way.  Tacitus  suggested that they did not think such depictions appropriate to the grandeur of a celestial being.  More likely they didn’t have the artistic skills.

With the availability of game in the forest to provide food and a highly simple lifestyle, relatively little effort was required to keep the economy going.  All the work that was needed could be done by the very young, the very old and the women.   The men of fighting age were only really required to fight.  There were perhaps a million active fighting warriors in this large area.  These guys lived a life alternating between idleness and intense hardship and activity.  When there was nobody to fight they would lounge around all day drinking and gambling.  Gambling debts were treated as a matter of honour, and if you were really unlucky with the dice you could end up selling yourself into slavery.  To fund these habits the warrior would need to find a chieftain to follow who was able to pay him – probably in kind.

The Romans were quick to adapt this fighting culture to their own interests by hiring tribesmen as auxiliary troops.  There was an obvious risk in this practice.  Towards the end of the empire’s history this would prove disastrous, but it was obviously managed with skill for many years before that.

German women were a formidable lot.  A German tribe going on the attack would often travel with its women, children and cattle with them.  Camp followers are a familiar enough feature, but these women would follow right to the battlefield where they would cheer their men on.   If anyone ran away they would have to run the gauntlet of jeering women.  They would sometimes actually attack them.  The courage of the Germans in battle begins to make sense.

Tactitus, ever the critic of his own people praised the German women for their fidelity in marked contrast to the easy morals of Roman women.  Gibbon, ever the rational skeptic, points out that Roman women had a big city to keep their assignations secret in.   The Germans only had huts in small communities, where cheating would have been much harder to keep quiet.

The German warriors were, in marked contrast to their civilised neighbours, very respectful of women.  Polygamy was unknown except among the royal families for political purposes.  Women were treated as equals and aside from fighting played a full role in the community.  Several tribes were ruled by queens without any issues.

Tacitus also makes clear that German on German violence was very common.  He reports a whole tribe being wiped out and 50,000 of them being killed on order to impress the Romans.  The Germans’ enthusiasm for killing each other was a major factor in preventing them killing more Romans.

This was not left entirely to chance.   The Romans were well aware of the risk posed by the hordes of tall, ferociously brave, ignorant, drunken, gambling obsessed feminists to their north.  The deliberate playing of one faction off against another was a key feature of the defence policy, and a necessary one.  The ability of the Germans to beat the legions in a pitched battle was demonstrated right in the early days of the imperial system.  An alliance of German tribes under a chieftain called Armenius was able to completely destroy three legions in the Teutoburg Forest.

This devastating disaster put the Romans off the idea of ever invading Germany.  But the failure of Armenius to follow up on his victory due to to disunity amongst his followers is indicative that Rome simply switched from military to diplomatic means to achieve its ends.

Its in the nature of the Divide and Rule approach that it doesn’t leave any evidence of what was going on.  But the fact is that it wasn’t until the time of Marcus Aurelius that diplomacy failed and a large body of Germans united to attack the empire.  The leaders of the new force were the Macromadi and the Quadi.  The huge efforts that Marcus had to put into their defeat showed what a huge potential threat these people were.   As its history progresses, the story of the Western half of the empire becomes more and more the story of its increasingly difficult struggle with the Germans.

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