In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

  • Barbarians and Imperialism in Tacitus and The Lord of the Rings
  • James Obertino (bio)

The strongest current in Tolkien studies rightly connects him to northern literature and languages; in fact, some scholars, Tom Shippey and Jane Chance among them, focus entirely on the northern roots of Tolkien's fantasy. This paper, while recognizing the importance of the northern connection, takes a different tack, joining those few discussions which have noted The Lord of the Rings' filiations with the Latin language and Roman literature. That Roman literature should influence Tolkien is not surprising, since he remarked on his love of Latin (Letters 376) and read Classics at university.1 As a man of his times, Tolkien may also have been influenced by the Victorian and Edwardian fascination with the Roman Empire. Born in 1892, Tolkien lived at a time in which many British writers viewed their empire in terms of the Roman Empire.2 Although the influence of Virgil on parts of The Fellowship of the Ring has been commented upon, the influence of Tacitus on The Lord of the Rings has, as far as I know, not yet been discussed (Morse). Tolkien, with his strong interest in early northern European literature, may have felt a natural affinity for Tacitus. While Tacitus' aim in writing the Germania is arguable, the text does provide a cultural survey of Germanic tribes, and some of the Annals, a history of Rome that combines political, military, and social history, shows the German tribes at war with Rome. In addition, Tolkien shares with Tacitus, who thought that history has a moral purpose (Annals 3.65), a strong moral vision that sees the world and the process of history largely in terms of heroes and villains. Thus, each writer's depictions of strange, outlander peoples often have a moral resonance. Tolkien follows Tacitus in showing both good and bad barbarians. Just as Tacitus shows that Germanicus and other Roman generals, even as they battle hostile tribesmen, are helped by barbarian auxiliaries in the service of Rome, so in accomplishing his mission, Frodo is both aided and impeded by various peoples who are not Hobbits and whose ways and even appearances are often quite different from the folk of the Shire. These peoples may fairly be termed barbarians, in the Latin sense of people who are from barbaria, a foreign country. This paper argues that some strong parallels of themes and episode suggest the influence of Tacitus upon Tolkien in descriptions of exotic peoples and their territories, as well as some similarity in their views of imperialism, even though Tacitus for the most part favors it and The Lord of the Rings shows the insidious workings of Sauron's [End Page 117] aggressive expansion against other peoples in terms suggesting Roman imperialism. Tacitus' discussions of the Germans, both in The Annals and the earlier Germania, may influence Tolkien's portrayals of some of the exotic peoples who inhabit Middle-earth, Orcs as well as Woses, Dwarves and even Elves. Furthermore, Tacitus' account in The Annals of the expedition of Germanicus into Germany after the loss of Varus and his legions may well be one of the sources for the journey of Frodo's company to and through Moria.

Tacitus in Germania implies a hierarchy among the German tribes. The very best of the Germans in Tacitus' view are the Chauci, who though adept at warfare, show little aggression against their neighbors. The Chatti, Arminius' tribe, are admirable for their vigorous courage, their discipline, and, for Germans, Tacitus remarks, unusual intelligence and sagacity (30). Both these tribes contrast strongly with their neighbors, the ineffectual and passive Cherusci, deemed cowards and fools (36). The most primitive tribe of all is the Fenni, whose condition is not much above the animals (46). With a stronger sense of hierarchy than Tacitus, The Lord of the Rings shows clear degrees of intelligence and even spiritual excellence among the exotic peoples—a quality little emphasized by Tacitus, and not surprising in the work of a medievalist and conservative Roman Catholic. Tolkien thus places the Elves at the very top of the free peoples. Below Elves are Hobbits (little people) as well as standard-sized...


Additional Information

Print ISSN
pp. 117-131
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Back To Top

This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. Without cookies your experience may not be seamless.