The Far-Reaching Influence of the Roman World: Interview with Christopher B. Krebs

By Juliana Stivanicevic

Christopher B. Krebs is this year’s recipient of the Christian Gauss Award for A Most Dangerous Book: Tacitus’s Germania from the Roman Empire to the Third Reich (W.W. Norton & Company, 2012). Created in 1950 to honor a former Phi Beta Kappa president and distinguished scholar at Princeton University, the award is for outstanding books in the field of literary scholarship and criticism.

Krebs studied classics and philosophy in Berlin, Kiel, and Oxford. He was a lecturer at University College and then became a professor in the classics department at Harvard before joining the faculty at Stanford. In the spring of 2007, he was the professeur invité at the École Normale Supérieure in Paris. The following year, 2008-2009, he was an APA fellow at the Thesaurus Linguae Latinae in Munich.


In the Agricola, Tacitus explicitly hails the return of the Roman political voice after decades of restrained freedom of speech under the rule of a series of bad emperors. Speaking again after years of silence, why the Germania? How does it fit in with his other two minor works, and what does it contribute to our understanding of the works as a whole?

KREBS: Before Tacitus embarked on his two major works, the Histories and the Annals, he tried his hand at three minor ones: the Agricola, a biography of his father in law, the Germania, an ethnography of the Germanic tribes, and the Dialogus, a discussion of the decline of Roman rhetoric. What, one may wonder, do these three “historical attempts,” as they’ve been called, share? They share, what one could call, the philosophical perspective: In all three, Tacitus looks through the particular to the more general. The Dialogus, for example, in tracing the development of Roman rhetoric, addresses the larger question of freedom of speech: how it correlates with various political systems. Freedom, libertas, is incidentally also a major topic of the other two minor as well as of the major works—which is not surprising, given Tacitus’s close-up experience of the final stifling years under the emperor Domitian. At the same time, all three topics which the minor works deal with arise out of specific circumstances in Tacitus’s life; in the case of the Germania, the incoming emperor Trajan was stationed at the Rhine river, the borderline between the Roman empire and Germania, and the Roman elite was wondering what the new emperor intended to do with Rome’s age-old enemy in the north. This certainly served as an additional motivation for Tacitus to write his political and philosophical ethnography.

You describe Tacitus as writing with “at least one eye towards Rome and the empire,” which complicates any simple reading of the Germania as pure “ethnography.” To what extent do we find a fictitious element in Tacitus’s description of the Germanen? What might this imply for our modern understanding of how nations forge their cultural identities?

KREBS:  As I just mentioned, Tacitus, in writing the Germania, certainly pursued political as well as more philosophical interests, both stemming from his Roman culture. Neither has much to do with the Germanen as such. There’s the further complication that Tacitus, in all likelihood, never stood on the banks of the Rhine river, as a distinguished Roman historian once phrased it. For content he relied primarily on the Greek and Roman ethnographic tradition: he culled common places from other ethnographers, and modified and supplemented them with information gathered from people with first-hand experience, such as soldiers, merchants, slaves. Tacitus was not a modern-day anthropologist trying to give as accurate an account of “the other” as possible; that was never his intention. Instead, he chose and arranged his materials in line with Roman assumptions and his own political and philosophical intentions. So the maybe not “fictitious,” but “rhetorical” element in the Germania is fairly strong. There is, then, a certain historical irony in the later reception of his work as a gateway to the Germanic past, which, in turn, helped profile the German nation. 

Tacitus’s description of the Germanen as “a people like no one but itself” particularly seems to have appealed to readers and taken on new meaning in the course of the German pre-nationalistic and nationalistic discourse. What does the appropriation of this line over time reveal to us about who was interpreting the Germania and to what end?

KREBS: Yes, and this is a particularly good example of Tacitus’s dependence on the Greco-Roman ethnographic tradition. For this “characteristic” had previously been attributed to a variety of other peoples, such as the Scythians and the Egyptians, to name but two. Tacitus simply applies it to the Germanen, though he makes an effort to explain why they ended up being unlike any other and “unmixed and pure” (mostly because of their geographical isolation, as he argues). This sentence and its whole paragraph appealed, as you say, to readers from the fifteenth to the twentieth century; what is particularly interesting is how its meaning changed according to the dominant theories at the respective times of the readers and interpreters of Tacitus: in the seventeenth century, readers referred to it as evidence that the German language was unlike any other and pure; then in the nineteenth century, racial interpretations took over and the Germanic purity became one of the blood—both interpretations were a far cry from Tacitus’s original. What is also interesting, to turn to the last aspect of your question, is how the alleged purity of the Germanen was often extolled in contrast to other peoples allegedly different and inferior origins, among them the Italians, the French, and the Jews. This is telling in that more often than not, readers, and certainly not just German readers, turned to the Germania with the intention to extol the Germanic past. Nationalists and Nationalsocialists referred to Tacitus’s remarks on the purity of the Germanic “race” to advocate racial policies to return to this “ideal state.” There is an albeit curvy line between that passage in the Germania and the Nuremberg race laws.

Many of your readers of Tacitus appear to ignore the historicity of the Germania as situated in a specific cultural period and intended for a contemporaneous Roman audience, instead approaching the text as if it were ahistorical. Is this the outcome of a misunderstanding or willful omission?

KREBS: Very true. With few exceptions, readers turned what was, at best, Tacitus’s blurry snapshot of a specific historical and cultural moment into a brilliant image of a virtuous ideal. As for its causes: Let’s just say that circumstances in the fifteenth century facilitated such an approach, which was then upheld by most though certainly not all readers in subsequent centuries: a nineteenth-century reader compared the Germania to “a temple of honor,” which captures that attitude pointedly. Among the readings of the Germania we find both misreadings and what I would call malreadings, i.e. conscious and intentional misrepresentations of what Tacitus said. Translation certainly played a role therein.

Where you conclude, “in the end, Tacitus did not write a most dangerous book; his readers made it so,” I am reminded of Derrida in Signature, Event Context:

“For a writing to be a writing, it must continue to ‘act’ and to be readable even when what is called the author of the writing no longer answers for what he has written.”

A Most Dangerous Book calls into question our usual assumptions about the weight of the author when we consider issues of responsibility for a text. What do you hope your readers will learn from this book about the communication of ideas? Might we gain a new understanding of the relationship between author, text, and reader in creating meaning?

KREBS: I do hope readers of A Most Dangerous Book will agree with my conclusion. But I also hope they will realize that, in order to call out mis- and malreadings of a book, there will have to be readers versed in the language, history, and culture of it. I do not think, however, that the history of Germania tells us anything new about how a text’s meaning is generated; it merely shows what happens when the recipients of a text interpret it in ways its author cannot possibly have intended.

How about yourself? You present a great deal of scholarship in a beautifully written historical narrative. How did you make decisions regarding which sources to include and exclude? How did you begin this incredible undertaking? Were there aspects of the project you found particularly challenging or rewarding?

KREBS: Well, thank you. I am very glad that the book is reaching people, especially younger ones. In fact, I have repeatedly talked about A Most Dangerous Book to high-school students and have been delighted with the Q&A. But back to your question: I knew fairly early on into the project—especially when I came across Momigliano’s reference to the Germania as “one of the one-hundred most dangerous books ever written”–that there was a great story, which I really wanted to tell in an engaging fashion. Since I wanted to reconstruct what the Germania ultimately contributed to the Nationalsocialist ideology, I started with NS texts: books, journals, pamphlets—lots of them. I spent several months wading through the regime’s ideological output and started to receive funny looks from the librarians. When I felt I had a good sense of what the Nazis were doing with Tacitus’s Germania, I jumped back into the fifteenth century—“Oh, you’re done with the Nazi stuff,” one of the librarians commented—and followed the reception of the Germania century after century. The organization of the material was a bit tricky, as was the question of what to include and exclude. The Germania ultimately became a dangerous book, because its readers repeatedly mistranslated and misinterpreted it. I therefore wanted to allow these readers turned authors to speak for themselves as much as possible, which led me to use more quotations than is normal these days for trade books; and I am glad the publisher went along. The other decision my editor and I had to make early on was that we would limit the amount of originals—not just in Latin, but also German, Italian, French—to a minimum: There are thirty-five pages of endnotes already; the whole book would have become unwieldy if we had included the originals as well. But I took great care with the translations—to the extent that even when I used an English translation, I would occasionally modify it—and the endnotes will direct anyone who wants to take a closer look to the originals. 

A Most Dangerous Book reminds us about the often forgotten contemporary importance of classical studies. What have you valued most about your study and career in classics?

KREBS: The Greek and Roman cultures and literatures have exerted a pervasive influence on the European and then American cultures and literatures. As a matter of fact—they still do, to this day. This is one of the reasons why I believe that we need more classicists! For many of the classical authors in the vernaculars grew up and honed their styles with the classical texts; whoever wants to work on the former, should be able to read the latter. In certain ways, classical antiquity is like a language most western authors and artists used at one point or another; and I take great pleasure in being able to understand bits and pieces of it. But aside from this classical tradition, I also value the art of slow and nuanced reading, for which the classical authors are particular rewarding. I recently lectured on Vergil’s Aeneid to a group of freshmen and spent the first twenty minutes or so talking about its very first line. As one student put it, she had no idea there was so much to say about a mere eight words.

What was your reaction to winning the Gauss Award for A Most Dangerous Book?

KREBS: I was a bit stunned; then grateful; then awed. I am still vacillating between the latter two. I’ve read quite a few of the books that have received the award in the past, many of which have been very influential. When I told a good friend of mine about the award, he was quick to quip that that was some company I kept. I fully agree with him; so my awe would seem quite understandable. And I am grateful that the many months, years, really, of researching and writing resulted in a book that appealed to such a distinguished institution as Phi Beta Kappa.

Juliana Stivanicevic is junior at the University of California, Berkeley majoring in rhetoric. UC, Berkeley is home to the Alpha of California chapter of Phi Beta Kappa.