You do not have to read much Latin literature before you realize that the Romans appreciated a good fantasy story. Not that they would use the term fantasy. After all, many believed that their gods intervened in human lives, so supernatural events in stories might seem more reasonable than fantastic to the audience. Still, the number of surviving epic poems (featuring sword-wielding heroes and fair-skinned maidens) makes it a safe conclusion that “fantasy” was very much en vogue in Rome.
But how about science fiction? Obviously not as we know it. Space opera didn’t quite fit the geocentric Roman worldview, nor did the technological progress in the Roman Empire warrant much literary attention. Nevertheless, the Romans liked tales that conveyed a sense of otherness, much like the otherness that is so prominent in science fiction today. They found their inspiration not among the stars or in speculation about the future, but among the people at the frontiers of the Roman Empire.
The genre stemming from such inspiration is best termed ethnography, but despite the difference in name, it bears a certain resemblance to modern day speculative fiction. In particular, Roman writers mastered the discipline of “worldbuilding” that is so crucial to speculative fiction today.
Otherness in Germania
Cornelius Tacitus’s Germany and its Tribes (a.k.a. Germania) is perhaps the most famous example of a Roman study of a foreign people. Germania is a short work, but Tacitus manages to examine every aspect of Germanic society as he knew it. The same sense of otherness that signifies much science fiction permeates Germania from the very beginning.
On the first page, Tacitus describes the location of the lands beyond the Rhine and Danube — months of travel away from Rome. Already the Roman readers would sense that this book takes place in a faraway land, where the rules of civilization as they knew them do not apply. Tacitus reinforces this view barely a page later, when he states that the German people must have come into existence in Germany. His reason: the land itself is so ugly that nobody in their right mind would want to migrate there.
Over the course of the pages, Tacitus adds to the description of this foreign land and people, and he frequently underlines the differences between Roman and German societies. Gold or silver can’t be found in Germany, he says, and this has the effect on the Germans that they are uncorrupted by money — although the Romans have taught the people on the frontier to appreciate old Roman silver coins. And Germany is difficult country for vineyards but good for grain, so instead of wine the Germans favor beer. To the Romans, who thought wine was the hallmark of civilization, this fermented barley drink must have seemed barbaric.
Basically, Tacitus introduces two ideas here: That the Germans are different from the Romans, and that the land forces them to live different lives. In other words, he touches upon a theme in fiction used to this day: that different environments will lead to different cultures.
Life among the Germans
Tacitus doesn’t stop at describing the land. His real goal is to describe the Germans and their nature, so most of the book focuses on their life and customs. The examination contains numerous “facts,” and it is worth noting that his information is far from trustworthy. Roman ethnography was fiction, not science, and Tacitus’ contemporaries would generally know too little about the topic at hand to challenge him. So, as in much of today’s science fiction, Tacitus could easily get away with presenting false information. Still, for his time and day, he strives to give logical explanations for the German customs. His “facts” are presented as accurate, and therefore it is fair to assume that he aims for the same sense of “perfect illusion” that is the goal of fiction writers today.
First and foremost, the details focus on the warlike nature of the Germans — their education, weapons, tactics, courage, etc. But Germania also contains numerous details about the judicial system, election of rulers, tempers, marriage, childrearing, slavery, religion and codes of honor, and many other aspects of German society, most of which were foreign to the Romans. Some details, like Tacitus’ emphasis on the German courage in battle, would likely have frightened the Romans. Other information, such as his descriptions of German hospitality, might have impressed them: A guest is always invited to stay for as long as he likes, and if the host runs out of food, he guides his guest next door and makes sure he doesn’t go hungry. Still other “facts” would seem outrageous to the Romans, for instance the German custom of human sacrifice to their gods.
By describing differences in customs and culture and focusing on the details of German life, Cornelius Tacitus manages to create an entirely new perception of the Germans among his audience. Earlier Roman authors, like Julius Caesar, had mostly described the Germans as savage, bellicose barbarians. Tacitus goes beyond the front line and focuses on details of Germanic life that had nothing to do with warfare. In effect, he gives the German people a face, a culture, perhaps even a national identity in the mind of his audience.
And this is where Germania resembles science fiction the most. The book takes us to another world and introduces us to the people there, so well that we feel like we get to know them. It’s not that different from what scores of science fiction (and fantasy) writers do to bring their stories to life. Take Dune , for example. Arrakis is a far-away world in time and space; the environment has shaped the life and culture of the fremen living there; and we learn about fremen life from birth to death, and experience many things in between. Certainly the German frontier was not as far away from Rome as Dune is from our world. But the literary tools to describe those two worlds are quite similar.
Intelligence report or entertainment?
Though Tacitus does a fine job of his worldbuilding, his work is still a far cry from modern science fiction. All of Germania’s details are presented as dry facts written in a brief, information-packed style that has all the charms of a textbook. The chapters are so tightly themed that we can use the first sentence of each chapter as an index. And though warfare and strange customs abound, Germania is not a fast-paced thriller. If it has plot or characters, Tacitus hasn’t bothered to tell us.
Furthermore, though Germania gazes past the front lines, it still focuses heavily on the military capabilities of the Germans. This indicates that Germania could be read as an intelligence report. When Tacitus wrote Germania in 98 AD, the Romans had been fighting various German people for 150 years, and in 9 AD they had lost three legions to a German ambush in one of the worst defeats in the history of the Roman Empire. Therefore the Germans were a force to be reckoned with, and by no means a fictional one like the little green men invading Earth in our literary epoch. It would be no surprise if the Roman Emperor Trajan looked to Germania when he determined his German policy.
Yet to dismiss Germania as a mere intelligence report would also be wrong. Roman writing, from epic poetry to historical treatises, always sought to entertain as well as to educate. A Roman reader would have laughed at the German war councils (where the Germans got drunk and discussed all their plans in the open). He would have wondered at their willingness to put their freedom at stake in a game of dice. And, were he the prudish kind, he would have delighted in the descriptions of German divorce customs in case of wifely adultery: “Having cut off the hair of the adulteress and stripped her naked, the husband expels her from the house in the presence of her kinsfolk, and then flogs her through the whole village.”
Inspiration from Tacitus’ worldbuilding?
So, assuming that Tacitus really did manage to educate and entertain his audience, it stands to reason that his tricks might inspire new writers in their worldbuilding. And why not? Because of the world and culture he described, Germania was copied, transcribed and preserved for more than 1900 years. And there are other reasons as well.
First, Germania is dry, strictly composed, and comprehensive. It literally presents a list of the same cultural aspects that are addressed in successful modern novels, and it does so in a way that makes these aspects easily discernible to us. As modern day writers, all we have to do is figure out how our fictional people cope with the same cultural situations as those described in Germania. Of course, worldbuilding writers can’t rely exclusively on Germania, as the book doesn’t cover modern cultural aspects such as environmentalism or animal welfare. Still, the subjects Tacitus does include—such as marriage, burials, war and peace—remain universal and may serve as a handy checklist for a worldbuilding writer.
Second, Germania introduces us to a lot of familiar situations in unfamiliar settings. It is interesting to see how the Germans behave in a war council, or what was expected of the bride at a wedding. It is inspiring to see that these situations may change over time and from nation to nation. And it’s fun to imagine what social decorum will be demanded for such situations in the future.
Third, Germania is a good example of how facts and details demand the reader’s attention. Disgust would have filled the Romans at the mention of human sacrifices, just as the idea seems horrendous to us. Such feelings are necessary to draw a reader into the story, and Tacitus issues plenty of statements about the Germans that would provoke a modern day reader. For instance it gives cause for disbelief when he speculates about men with beastly bodies in the farthest reaches of Germania. Or we may feel with the young widow, forbidden to take another man after her husband’s death. Even without a plot Germania stirs up a variety of feelings, and so remains worthy of our full attention.