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?