Tacitus was an ancient historian from the high times of the Roman Empire. Interestingly, he was one of the first Pagans to write about Christianity, though briefly. Also, he presented a long description of the region of Germania – the vast area of related tribes generally east of the Rhine and north of the Danube. (These were among your ancestors if you have any German, Scandinavian, Anglo-Saxon, or ancient Gothic heritage.) The breadth of his treatise is one of the best surviving accounts concerning regions on the periphery of the Roman Empire.
Here’s what Tacitus had to say about their married life:
Their marriage code, however, is strict, and indeed no part of their manners is more praiseworthy. Almost alone among barbarians they are content with one wife, except a very few among them, and these not from sensuality, but because their noble birth procures for them many offers of alliance.
What? You mean marriage as one man and one woman wasn’t invented by the Christians? Who knew? On a somewhat more serious note, this is how it went for the Romans too – if I recall correctly, dating back to Emperor Caesar Augustus, who I’m pretty sure wasn’t a Southern Baptist preacher.
The wife does not bring a dower to the husband, but the husband to the wife. The parents and relatives are present, and pass judgment on the marriage-gifts, gifts not meant to suit a woman’s taste, nor such as a bride would deck herself with, but oxen, a caparisoned steed, a shield, a lance, and a sword. With these presents the wife is espoused, and she herself in her turn brings her husband a gift of arms.
Sounds like there wasn’t much bridezilla stuff back in ancient Germania.
This they count their strongest bond of union, these their sacred mysteries, these their gods of marriage. Lest the woman should think herself to stand apart from aspirations after noble deeds and from the perils of war, she is reminded by the ceremony which inaugurates marriage that she is her husband’s partner in toil and danger, destined to suffer and to dare with him alike both in peace and in war. The yoked oxen, the harnessed steed, the gift of arms, proclaim this fact. She must live and die with the feeling that she is receiving what she must hand down to her children neither tarnished nor depreciated, what future daughters-in-law may receive, and may be so passed on to her grand-children.
Would that people took marriage even half as seriously these days.
Thus with their virtue protected they live uncorrupted by the allurements of public shows or the stimulant of feastings. Clandestine correspondence is equally unknown to men and women. Very rare for so numerous a population is adultery, the punishment for which is prompt, and in the husband’s power. Having cut off the hair of the adulteress and stripped her naked, he expels her from the house in the presence of her kinsfolk, and then flogs her through the whole village. The loss of chastity meets with no indulgence; neither beauty, youth, nor wealth will procure the culprit a husband.
Looks like they didn’t have a hypergamy problem or YOLO divorce problem back then!
No one in Germany laughs at vice, nor do they call it the fashion to corrupt and to be corrupted. Still better is the condition of those states in which only maidens are given in marriage, and where the hopes and expectations of a bride are then finally terminated. They receive one husband, as having one body and one life, that they may have no thoughts beyond, no further-reaching desires, that they may love not so much the husband as the married state.
Our own society is looking pretty miserable compared to the forebears of many of us from two thousand years ago.
To limit the number of their children or to destroy any of their subsequent offspring is accounted infamous, and good habits are here more effectual than good laws elsewhere.
Roe v. Wade – enough said. So who are the barbarians now?
In the final analysis, Tacitus was writing from the time when the Roman Empire was starting to become a bit decadent. Reading between the lines of the treatise in its entirety, he seems to be casting the Germans as noble barbarians (fifteen centuries before American Indians started taking on this role). Tacitus subtly suggests that a vital society of northern barbarians might one day overwhelm Rome if it continued to soften due to lax morals, lack of cohesion, and addiction to luxury. To make a long story short, this is basically what happened later on. This is something we should pay attention to, as our own society has become a bit more than decadent lately.