Microkhan by Brendan I. Koerner

First Contact: The Germans

September 18th, 2009 · 9 Comments

For obvious reasons—primarily the abundance of English-language sources—the bulk of our First Contact series has focused on European accounts of “New World” civilizations. Today’s entry breaks that trend, however, by harkening back to a more intramural culture clash: that between the Romans and the Germans, during the waning years of the Roman Republic.

The eyewitness here is none other than Julius Caesar, who’s accomplishments as a writer are usually overshadowed by his military and political triumphs. But while no great wordsmith, Caesar was assiduous about recording his exploits north of the Alps. And though his Comentarii de Bello Gallico is mostly concerned with the tribes of present-day France, there is a passing mention of the more eastern “barbarians”—a people that Caesar would have encountered only as small clusters of settlers near the Rhine.

What seems to have struck the future dictator most about these Germans is not their martial prowess, but rather their disdain for any notion of private property—a disdain which, Caesar notes, may have contributed to the Germans’ tribal cohesion:

No one owns a particular piece of land, with fixed limits, but each year the magistrates and the chiefs assign to the clans and the bands of kinsmen who have assembled together as much land as they think proper, and in whatever place they desire, and the next year compel them to move to some other place. They give many reasons for this custom—that the people may not lose their zeal for war through habits established by prolonged attention to the cultivation of the soil; that they may not be eager to acquire large possessions, and that the stronger may not drive the weaker from their property; that they may not build too carefully, in order to avoid cold and heat; that the love of money may not spring up, from which arise quarrels and dissensions; and, finally, that the common people may live in contentment, since each person sees that his wealth is kept equal to that of the most powerful.

Could it be that Karl Marx was inspired by his nomadic ancestors’ views on property?


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9 Comments so far ↓

  • Gramsci

    Interesting point and First Contact site. Unlike other 18th and 19th century socialists, Marx was very suspicious of pre-modern collectivist ideals, since history showed that any such small-scale attempt would be wiped away by capitalism (very impressive, “300,” now meet the steam engine). He was more sympathetic to the universalism of the French Revolution and the solid-into-air mobility of capitalism than the German Romantics, whose organic, almost mystical notion of “Heimat” bound “homeland,” language, culture, and “the people” so tightly (a mutation of which idea led to defending the Homeland against the impurities of cosmopolitan influence).

    It would have been interesting to live in that tribe, however. I mean, why do any fixer-upper projects when you’re moving out next year anyway?

  • minderbender

    First contact which way?

    Rome was extractive, it had a tributary economy. It became rich simply by taking from other people. Rome and its entire economic and political system were eclipsed, along with the rest of the Mediterranean, by the barbaric, mercantile, unlettered tribes to the north, who gave birth to the modern world.

    I mean, what did Rome have to look forward to at that point? A few philosopher-kings, a few more military victories, a bloody and feverish descent into rule-by-Praetorian-Guard, and a long, humiliating decline.

    The Germans were on a tear. Their population was expanding vigorously into Roman territory. Rome was increasingly dependent on them for its military manpower. Soon they would set up shop in England and rapidly supplant its Romanized aristocracy.

  • Brendan I. Koerner

    @minderbender: Fascinating point, though I think there’s some room for debate. Pax Romana was, indeed, pretty damn shortlived, and the Empire’s decline rather nasty. (I’ll actually be running a semi-regular feature on this starting in Oct. or Nov.)

    But you can’t discount how deeply Roman culture influenced the Germans, esp. once the emperors adopted Christianity. Certainly significant that Latin remained a common language of power for another 1300 years or thereabouts.

    But then again, Rome didn’t rub off on the Germans to the same extent that the Greeks rubbed off on the Romans. And I agree with you that the Germans’ legacy (if not their notions of property) is far integral to modern history than the Romans’.

    Ah, but why “First Contact: The Germans”? Because the “barbarians” neglected to write down their impressions of the Romans. History isn’t just written by the victors–it’s written by the literate, too.

  • Brendan I. Koerner

    @Gramsci: Home Depot would have done terribly if they’d set up a big box store along the Rhine circa 50 B.C.

  • Diana

    Note that the early Protestant sects in Germany –Moravians, Amish etc. — kept everything in common, although they had fixed abodes, and they kept this custom when they went to America.

    So there may be a real cultural thread linking the Old Order Amish back to the German tribes of Caesar’s day.

  • Brendan I. Koerner

    @Diana: Thanks for the great comment. I had to go back and look up the Moravians, who I’ve heard of only via their famous star. Didn’t realize that was Jan Hus’s outfit.

    Obvious difference here would seem to be the purported reason for their quasi-Communist ways, though. At least per Caesar, the “barbarians” did it to keep up their martial fitness. But I know the Amish are pacifists–can’t speak for the Moravians.

  • Dana

    While reading this very interesting post [thank you], I began to wonder what approaches other western European communities may have had towards land use, and set out to see if I couldn’t find information about contemporaneous Gauls.

    By chance, I came across a dense piece of scholarship – a chapter from a book written by Galliard Thomas Lapsley, published in 1902-3, entitled The Origin of Property in Land. In it, the author gives an overview, and provides detailed discussion, of the history of many centuries’ worth of study of land use during Roman presence.

    He begins by suggesting that the writings of Caesar [Comentarii de Bello Gallico] and Tacitus [Germania] are insufficient for an adequate understanding of land use during the course of the first millennium CE. Lapsley goes on to demonstrate that there probably coexisted a wide range of degrees of land ownership before the system of property rights we know today became customary.

    Three primary factors played a role in the evolution towards current land [ab]use: increase in population [and with it a move from hunting and grazing towards agriculture], the growth of the power of the Church and the enactment of individual inheritance laws.

    Fascinating. Full article:

    Origin of Property in Land

  • Brendan I. Koerner

    @Dana: Thanks a mil for the comment and the link. As per the usual, the reality appears to be a lot more complex than contemporary witnesses could discern.

    I’m particularly interested in the development of European inheritance customs. I’m curious as to whether primogeniture, for all of its obviousness unfairness, actually helped certain pre-industrial nations become more prosperous than their more equitable competitors.

  • Dana

    My pleasure, Mr Koerner. I was so astonished by what I was reading, I thought I’d post the url to your site.

    As to the history European inheritance customs, I know little about them. But if only by virtue of superficial comparison, between the pyramidal power structure that emerged in Europe [fueled by population pressure and opportunism] and, say, African social structures which, to this day, remain largely communal / ‘lateralized’, I think there can be little doubt that primageniture contributed to Europe’s early rise to power.

    As Lapsley points out, the consequence of individual inheritance was the atomization of clans and families, turning them from cooperative units into ‘neighbors’. This made societies more susceptible to top-down control by lords and clergy.

    Centralization of power was naturally key to the stratification of societies into ‘haves and have-lesses’. The industrialization that would take place centuries later couldn’t have happened without the availability of a ready work force.

    / Very rough sketch.

    On the subject of centralization of power and the coexistence of diverse approaches to land use and ownership, Graham Robb’s ‘The Discovery of France’ tells a very interesting story. [nb: it wouldn’t be found on a university curriculum, and it has a number of stylistic faults, imo, but that doesn’t diminish its overall impact].