2018 Student Research Conference:
31st Annual Student Research Conference

Literacy and Spatial Organization in Tacitus' Germania

Austin L. Redding
Dr. Bridget Thomas, Faculty Mentor

The Germania is an ethnographic treatise on the Germanii, ancient inhabitants of what is now Germany, written by Tacitus, a Roman historian of the imperial period. Whenever Tacitus describes the Germanii arranged spatially in groups, towns, crowds, or battle lines, he makes use of organic rather than rectilinear shapes. Having had no direct contact with the Germanii, it is unlikely that Tacitus ever had a bird’s eye view of them. Nevertheless he portrays the Germanii as spatially disorganized. Spatial disorganization and roundness are characteristics of oral cultures, therefore I argue that Tacitus’ use of shape terms is informed by his understanding of Roman and Germanic literacy. Through examination of Tacitus’ Latin, the Roman “documentary mentality,” and the effect of oral culture on spatial organization, I conclude that Tacitus uses non-rectilinear shapes to characterize the Germanii as a people without the means to effectively organize by means of writing.

Keywords: Tacitus, Germania, Oral culture, Literacy, Ethnography, Spatial arrangement


Presentation Type: Oral Paper

Session: 107-3
Location: VH 1212
Time: 8:30

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