Tacitus has got to be one of my favorite Latin authors. He’s the devil to work through: Latin and Greek are both bad about dropping the verb “to be,” but Tacitus leaves out all manner of other words too. Plus, he really doesn’t like using the same word twice, so he varies his vocabulary quite a bit. To read him, you really need three fingers for bookmarks: one to mark your page in the text, another to mark the corresponding section of commentary, and a third in the dictionary section. What makes the whole effort worthwhile is that if you write out your own translation and then look at it afterwards, you’ll say to yourself, “God, that’s beautiful English!”
History was Tacitus’ primary literary pursuit, but he also wrote about oratory and ethnography. He served in public office under several emperors: Titus, Domitian, Nerva, and Trajan. His approach to historical analysis is the same as Thucydides’ and Sallust’s: thoroughgoing cynicism combined with striving for objective description of events.
Consider now the following paragraphs from his De origine et situ Germanorum (literally Concerning the Origin and Current Situation of the Germans, but usually abbreviated Germania):
The common dress for women is no different from that for men except that women are often wrapped with linen mantles and they accessorize with purple cloth, and the upper part of their clothes does not extend into sleeves, so that their arms and shoulders are bare, as is the adjoining part of the chest.
Still, the marriage bond is strict among them; you could praise no other element of their culture more highly. For they, almost alone among the barbarians, are content with only one wife each, with exceedingly few exceptions who are sought for polygamous marriages, not out of lust, but on account of their noble birth.
The wife does not offer dowry to her husband, but the husband to his wife. The parents and relatives are present and approve the gifts, which are not things sought by feminine whims, nor are they things to adorn the new bride, but oxen, a bridled horse, and a shield along with spear and sword. The wife is taken along with these gifts, and she herself provides in return some piece of armor for her husband: this is the chief bond; these personal religious rites; they respect these marital gods. Lest the woman think herself outside of military considerations or the plight of wars, she is admonished at the very beginning of her marriage that she comes to suffer and risk her share of labors and dangers, the same in both peace and war as her husband. The bound oxen, the ready horse, the exchanged arms declare this. Thusly is she to live, and thusly she is to bear children: she should restore those things she accepts inviolate and worthy to her children, which her future daughter-in-law should accept and should be passed on down to her grandchildren.
Thus the women keep their chastity fenced-in, and they are corrupted by no enticement of spectacles and no provocations of banquets. Husbands and wives are equally unfamiliar with secret love-letters. Adulteries are very rare for so numerous a people, punishment for which is prompt and entrusted to the husband: the husband expels his wife naked and with her hair shorn off, publicly, in the presence of his relatives, from the house and drives her through the whole town with the lash; indeed, there is no indulgence for prostitution: she will successfully appeal to her husband with neither beauty nor youth nor with wealth. Indeed, no one among them laughs at vices, nor is it called merely part of the world to engage in or fall victim to seduction. Much better still are those tribes in which only virgins marry and where marriage is performed only once for a wife with a hope and a vow. Thus they take only one husband, in this way both being of one body and life, lest there be second thoughts or belated desires, so that the women love not so much their husbands as their married state. To limit the number of children or to kill any already born is considered shameful, and in that country good customs wax stronger than good laws do elsewhere. (17.3-19)
In the background of Tacitus’ comments on the Germans’ sexual mores is the licentiousness of the Romans. Their practices are well chronicled by poets such as Horace and Juvenal—neither paints a particularly conservative picture and neither likes what he sees. Among the Romans, adultery was frequent, as was prostitution. Horace tells amusing tales of the lengths that men and women both would go for illicit sex and terrifying ones of those who got caught, and Juvenal even reports husbands pimping out their wives. Elagabalus was far in the future by Tacitus’ day, but Tiberius and Caligula had already come and gone.
The Romans did have the notion of the mos maiorum, the custom of the ancestors, but that was honored more in the breach than in the observance, and it was never as strict as the German practice. Take for instance the story of Lucretia. Lucretia was born under the Etruscan kings, before the founding of the Roman republic, but her rape at the hands of Sextus Tarquinius, son of the king Tarquinius Superbus, was the proximate cause for the overthrow of the monarchy. You see, when Sextus and his friends were supposed to be away from Rome for a while, they got to speculating about who the most virtuous woman in Rome was. Deciding to put their ideas to the test, they snuck back into the city and spied on the noblewomen. All of the women they checked on were out having affairs while their husbands were away or asleep, all except Lucretia who stayed at home spinning wool. Upon seeing this extraordinary example of womanly virtue, Sextus was overcome with desire, which he slaked the very next night.
In terms of general sexual practices, notice this: only one noblewoman was not having an illicit affair. In other words, sexual morality was, shall we say, very relaxed. We would hope that things improved under the republic, but evidence for this is scanty at best. There is one good story of Cato the Elder, that stodgy, old moralist. Upon seeing someone he knew coming out of a brothel, Cato remarked that it was a very good thing to visit the brothel, as opposed to seducing married women. However, the story continues, when Cato saw the same man coming out of the same whorehouse the very next day, he grew wroth and gave the man a good dressing-down: it is one thing, he said, to visit a brothel periodically, and quite another to all but live there.
One must wonder how Tacitus would have viewed contemporary American sexual mores. In our day and age, abortion is legal and birth control widely distributed, to say nothing of the hook-up culture and no-fault divorce. It is far from clear whether sexual morality even exists anymore, except in a few, ever-shrinking pockets.
Perhaps Tacitus the anthropologist would point out the same feature of Germanic marital practice that he emphasizes for the Romans: German marriages had a clearly-defined purpose to them. In contemporary society, marriage is the supreme expression of love. If two (or more) people truly love each other, they get married, while marriage for other, less-refined reasons is looked down upon. For the Germans, marriage had nothing to do with bonds of affection, and it was certainly not considered the consummation of anything. Instead, couples married for the purposes of reproduction and social advancement. The man was responsible for protecting and providing for his family, while the woman was expected to focus on raising her children and supporting her husband in his endeavors. Horribly sexist, I know, but one must admit that such an understanding of marriage is likely to be much more stable than ours: love can be fleeting, but a spouse and children are a good deal more permanent.
Thus, the lesson to draw from Tacitus on this matter is that we need to articulate a new conception of marriage to compete with that of the prevailing culture. If marriage is merely about love, then there is no argument against gay marriage, polygamy, or any other innovation one might imagine. With our culture as decadent as it has become, we cannot assume that an alternative notion is sufficiently current to be a genuine competitor to this idea. Good customs are stronger than good laws, after all, and bad customs need to be replaced.
And, of course, one should read more Tacitus. That is definitely a good plan to follow.