The Roman and the Teuton by Charles Kingsley – book review

— door Evert Mouw

The conquest of the Western Roman Empire by Germanic (Teuton) tribes has shaped European civilisation, and thus the modern Western culture. How did the uncivilised but fierce sons of Odin relate to the more advanced, but multicultural and weakened Rome? Charles Kingsley, a historian and professor in England, published a book on this subject in 1889.

I finally got time to read an abridged version of the book, called “The Teuton and the Roman” by R. Peterson. The benefits of a few days of sickness! (No Covid-19, not yet.) In this short review, which consists mainly of a few notes, I’ll shortly describe the author and the contents of the book. However, I strongly suggest that you just read the book – it’s only 122 pages in the abridged version.

The author, Charles Kingsley

The Wikipedia lemma on Charles Kingsley notes that he was befriended with Charles Darwin and sympathetic to the idea of evolution. However, Kingsley is also a Christian, but critical on Roman-Catholic popes and structures. Furthermore he is proud of his Anglo-Saxon heritage.

Charles Kingsley
Charles Kingsley, by Anne E. Keeling. Via Wikipedia and project Gutenberg.

These Anglo-Saxons emerged from multiple Germanic tribes, such as the Angles, Jutes, Frisians and Saxons. In his work, he mostly uses the term “German” instead of “Germanic”, probably because in the past, the nation-state of Germany was less fixed than in the 20th century. (In The Netherlands, the word “Nederduits” (Low German) was used for self-identification till the second world war.) In his book, Kingsley idealises Germanic laws, courage, and customs.

Children vs. the Trolls in the Forest

First he describes how clever trolls in the forest defend their treasure and their garden. Children in the forest want to enter the garden, but are repelled. The children try again, while the trolls try do set up one faction of children against another. Finally the children win the treasure, but the treasure makes them corrupt. They will not understand the magic of the trolls that can control the treasure, so in the end a few trolls still control the children. The children are the Germanic tribes, and the trolls are the Romans. The book continues with the histories of tribes, battles, great leaders, and cultural-religious conflicts.

Rome, Goths, and Jews

A large portion of the book describes the history and customs of the Goths, and how they overcame the Roman legions. The Goths converted to Arian Christianity, which does not accept the holy Trinity, so they were not Catholics.

Recollect, too, that in those very days, Catholic bigotry had broken out in a general plunder of the Jews. At Rome, at Milan, and Genoa their houses had been sacked, and their synagogues burnt; and Dietrich, having compelled the Catholics to rebuild them at their own expense, had earned the hatred of a large portion of his subjects. And now Pope John was doing all he could to thwart him.

In the end, Pope John was thrown into a cellar.

How Rome came back

Although the Teutonic tribes did conquer Rome, they still regarded the Romans as more sophisticated builders, philosophers, and leaders of the Empire. The Roman-Catholic church became the heir of the Roman Empire, and the Pope assumed the right to appoint kings. When the tribes converted to Catholicism, they accepted the authority of Rome. This made a unified Europe possible, but it broke the original strength of the Germanic tribes and made them more corrupt and less free.

The Lombards and their Laws

After a lot of battles, the Goths disappeared from history and the Lombards conquered the north of Italy. The laws and customs of this Germanic tribe are described – how an early form of parliament, consisting of the freeman, choose their leaders.

From all which you will perceive at once that these Lombards, like all Teutons, were a free people, under a rough kind of constitutional monarchy. They would have greeted with laughter the modern fable of the divine right of kings, if by that they were expected to understand that the will of the king was law, or that the eldest son of a certain family had any God-given ipso-facto right to succeed his father. Sixteen kings, says the preface, had reigned from Agilmund to Rothar; and seven times had the royal race been changed. That the king should belong to one of the families who derived their pedigree from Wodin, and that a son should, as natural, succeed his father, were old rules: but the barons would, as all history shews, make little of crowning a younger son instead of an elder, if the younger were a hero, and the elder an ‘arga’ — a lazy loon; and little, also, would they make of setting aside the whole royal family, and crowning the man who would do their business best. … The doctrine of the divine right of kings as understood in England in the seventeenth century, and still in some continental countries, was, as far as I can ascertain, invented by the early popes, not for the purpose of exalting the kings, but of enslaving them, and through them the nations.

Comparison with other works

Jan de Vries has written also on the relationship between the Roman and Germanic peoples and cultures. His book, De Germaansche oudheid (Dutch), is, in my opinion, more balanced and less prejudiced against the Romans; also the work of De Vries contains less value judgements based on a Christian worldview and a too idealised view of the Germanic way of living. Still, the work of Kingsley offers a rich and varied story of the faults and strengths of the tribes and the history of Europe.

Both authors seem to hint that the Roman heritage made possible that Europe would be ruled by a centralised, sophisticated, but also at times corrupting power; the connections with fascism and the current state of the European Union are clear to any reader with a free mind.

Both authors mention the original democratic structure of the Germanic tribes. This is maybe even better described by Jesse Byock in his book Viking Age Iceland. While at the university, I based a paper on his book: The roots of Icelandic democracy.

About the book

The Roman and the Teuton, Charles Kingsley (1889). The full, unabridged version can be read online at Project Gutenberg.

The abridged and edited version is titled The Teuton and the Roman, by R. Peterson (1995).