Posted by: ken98 | October 5, 2009

Chastity, National Disasters, and Women

Day 24 Ken here

For 10 more pages we stay in Chapter 9 on the subject of Germany.

Gibbon makes reference to mostly classical, silver age writers (meaning Tacitus (Annals), Caesar (Gallic War), Ovid, Strabo, and other first century Latin writers). Which means, although they are treasure-houses of cultural information about how educated Romans viewed northern tribes in the early Empire, they might not be as accurate describing all of Germania, over a period of 4 centuries (that is until the final crossing of the Rhine in the winter of 406).

Gibbon remarks on various aspects of Germanic life: the Heroic Life and the difference between gift-giving and feudalism, chastity, women, women and chastity, women and courage, Religion (Gibbons bete noire) and the Truce of God, Bards, and why German didn’t overwhelm the civilized world from the time of Varus(9 CE) to Decius (250 CE).

On Why the Germans Were Checked for 250 Years and Didn’t Overwhelm Rome
Gibbon points out 2 reasons – the poor arms and poor discipline of the German armies, and the divisions within the German nation itself which prevented Germany from accomplishing permanent military inroads. Actually, I think the reasons are more revealing of Gibbon than of the Germans.
Why would the Germans unite to conquer? Their culture was based on plunder and pillage and war parties, not property and landholding. According to their own lights, they were wildly successful, and the Romans were pathetic and pitiable shadows of what real men should be. The lack of discipline doesn’t make much sense either – the Romans were nuts whenever huge Gallic/Germanic hordes poured over the Alps into Italy, or across the rivers in Gallia. When the Germans WERE finally pushed (by the Huns in the later 300’s) they flooded the Empire in a generation and ended up by sacking Rome in 50 years. The Germans always COULD have sacked the Empire. They just needed to be pushed (in my opinion).

On Religion
Gibbon continues his subtle (or not so subtle) digging at conventional religion, maintaining the Truce of God was actually a re-enactment of an ancient German religious rite (conveying the Earth goddess in parade and causing all hostilities to stop while she (the Goddess) passed by). Another holy christian rite tied to paganism. Maybe so, but the argument is not convincing as there’s a 900 year or so time lag between the two events, and a huge gulf of cultural differences. But Gibbon gets points for whacking the sanctimonious religious establishment between the eyes a few times.

On Gift Giving versus Feudalism
“These conditions (homage and military service) are, however, very repugnant to the maxims of the ancient Germans, who delighted in mutual presents, but without either imposing or accepting the weight of obligations.” (DEF ix p.243)(Gibbon quoting Tacitus).

Chastity and Women
It’s fascinating to me that Gibbon devotes a page and half to Chastity – especially (actually, only) to women’s chastity. German women were absolutely chaste per Gibbon. It came of their incredible courage and (ahem) manliness. But it was unbecoming (the courage) and little silly, and (I’m supposing if you read between the lines) the chastity was also – per Gibbon. “Female courage, however it may be raised by fanaticism, or confirmed by habit, can be only a faint and imperfect imitation of the manly valour that distinguishes the age or country in which it may be found.” (DEF ix p.244-5). I wonder where all that animosity came from.

Varus and Roman Shame and National Disaster
The battle of the Teutoburg forest in 9 CE resulted in entire Legions cut down to the man by the Germans and their general Herman (Arminius). The general Varus lead the battle and prompted the famous comment by the emperor Augustus “Give me back my Legions.” It was a national disaster when it happened, and to add insult to injury, the Germans in the 19th century erected a huge monument to the slaughter – the Hermannsdenkmal in Westphalia in Germany, and celebrated the 2000th anniversary of the battle in 2009.

hermannsdenkmal - monument to Hermann victor over Varus 9CE

hermannsdenkmal - monument to Hermann victor over Varus 9CE

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