published on January 9, 2016
"Is Judea, Then, the Teutons’ Fatherland?"
Tacitus’s Star-Crossed Germani and Jews
I read Tacitus’s valorizing of the Germani (the proto-‘Germanic’ peoples) in Germania and his depiction of Jews in the Annals and Histories as sources of post-medieval Germany’s identity crisis. Tacitus compares German and Jewish sexuality, marriage, morality, religion, superstition, and women. Most importantly, he devises contrasting German and Jewish models of freedom that prefigure this concept’s development in Kantian and Post-Kantian philosophy. This leads to a paradox: although Tacitus denounces Jews for what he praises in the Germani, he admires Jewish anti-idolatry and freedom. But ultimately, Tacitus denounces the Jews in unequivocal terms. Their practices are “quite opposed to those of all other religions,” and they “regard as profane all that we hold sacred . . . they permit all that we abhor.” It will be this slander that is epochal.