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A Most Dangerous Book

Tacitus’ Germania from the Roman Empire to the Third Reich

Reviewed by Jessica Wright

“Based on his experiments on the impact of freezing on a sheep’s tongue, Montesquieu asserted that the cold air of the Northern Hemisphere caused higher blood circulation and allowed greater, albeit impulsive, strength.” (p160)

This is the kind of random fact that you will pick up reading A Most Dangerous Book, Christopher Krebs’ new history of the Germania – or, rather, his history of the way in which readers have rewritten and exploited Tacitus’ short book about “the origin and customs of the German peoples” (de origine et moribus Germanorum).

Probably written in 98 CE (the first year of Trajan’s reign), Tacitus’ ethnographic essay describes in detail the way of life of the barbarian tribes who dwelt in Germany, frequently at war with Rome, and only partially conquered by the early Roman emperors during the first century CE. The Germanic tribes, according to Tacitus, behaved with simple and honest heroism, ordering society without money, writing or monarch – in striking contrast to the Roman Empire, where power was increasingly centred in the emperor and administered through a complicated system of bureaucracy.

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