“Germania”: or, an unappealing historical analogy

From the New York Times’s coverage of the story behind the Games, comes this detail about a Brazilian police anti-drug operation in a Rio favela:

In a flare-up of fighting over the last week, more than 200 police officers stormed into Alemão’s labyrinth of alleyways. Calling their operation Germânia, the European region of warring tribes that was once largely subdued by the Roman Empire, the police fatally shot two men, while a top counternarcotics official was wounded.

Assuming that the newspaper’s explanation for the operation’s name apparently reflects the official justification, it is remarkable how inappropriate it is for their mission. The Romans did pacify parts of Germania, but at great cost and never in a complete way – the eventual Roman provinces of Germania did not encompass much of the space inhabited by Germani. As Tacitus put it (Germ. 37):

Our conquest of Germany is taking us a long time.  And during the process we have had many hard blows in return. Not the Samnites, nor the Carthaginians, nor the Spaniards, nor the Gauls, nor even the Parthians themselves, have oftener given us a lesson… Carbo, and Cassius, and Scaurus Aurelius, and Servilius Caepio, and finally Marcus Manlius, all cut to pieces or captured, make altogether five consular armies destroyed in the days of the Republic, while even Augustus endured at their hands the loss of Varus and his three legions. Moreover, the victories obtained over them by Caius Marius in Italy, by Julius Caesar in Gaul, and by Drusus and Tiberius and Germanicus on their own ground, were all dearly bought. Later came the farcical collapse of the monstrous threats of Caligula. Then there followed a time of peace until the dissensions that culminated in our civil wars gave the Germans the chance of carrying by storm the winter quarters of our legions, and actually attempting to make themselves masters of Gaul; the attempt failed, but since then they have been used to claim triumphs more often than they have been defeated.

One hopes that the Rio police hope for greater success against drug traffickers; though a cynic might suspect that Tacitus’ triumphati magis quam victi well describes the results of the Drug War.

In truth, though, there is something more unappealing and depressing about this operational name: it appears to sum up a view of the poor areas of the city as barbaricum and the poor themselves as savages. Classical analogies have long done such questionable service in the maintenance of racial, class and power distinctions; depressingly, this abuse of history continues.

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