The Idea of North
Journal of the Northern Renaissance, 1:1 (Spring 2009)
The idea of the North in Western society has a long and distinguished history. Indeed, the only ‘purely ethnographic treatise that survives from antiquity’ is Tacitus’s Germania, his description of the Germanic peoples (Mellor 1993: 14). Tacitus produced his short treatise as a way of forcing Romans to confront the luxurious decadence that he felt had enveloped and deformed their society. The Germania was a companion piece to the Agricola, the life of the military leader, his father-in-law, Cornelius Julius Agricola, governor of Britain and ‘one of the most successful generals of the Flavian era’ (Mellor 1993: 10). Tacitus was also eager to contrast the hard liberties enjoyed by the barbarian tribes of the north to the soft yoke of servility that the Romans had experienced under the tyranny of Nero, as well as the abstemiousness and carefully regulated sexuality of the Germans and Britons to the disgraceful over-indulgence of the Romans. The North might be primitive and unsophisticated, but it had retained a humanity that the South was in danger of losing.