Tacitus’ Germania and the Codex Aesinas

CodexCodex Aesinas is believed to be portions of the Codex Hersfeldensis – the only copy of a very short book (brochure, actually) titled Germania. It was written around 98 AD by Publius Cornelius Tacitus – one of the greatest Roman historians.

Germania is basically a research paper (written by a professor, not by a student, of course) that paints a comprehensive picture of a German society of that time. What was very important, the society created by Germanic tribes that resided outside the borders of the Roman Empire – in other words, an alternative society to the Roman one.

German nationalists (and later the Nazis) found the picture painted by Tacitus very attractive. So attractive, in fact, that it became the foundation for the vision of an “ideal German society” that they preached and intended to transform into reality.

Christopher Krebs, a professor at Stanford University, even claimed that Germania played a major role in the formation of the core concepts of Nazi ideology (which some historians dispute). The Jewish-Italian historian Arnaldo Momigliano even listed Germania “among the most dangerous books ever written”.

It is a fact, however, that Heinrich Himmler in September 1924 read Tacitus during a train ride and was captivated. Later he wrote in his personal diary:

Tacitus captured the glorious image of the loftiness, purity, and nobleness of our ancestors,” adding, “Thus shall we be again, or at least some among us.”

At some point during the collapse of Roman Empire the text of the Germania was lost for more than a thousand years. It resurfaced only briefly, in Fulda, Germany in the 860s, where it and the other short works were probably copied. A monk at Fulda quoted from it verbatim at the time. Subsequently it was lost again.

Sometime around 1451 an emissary of Pope Nicholas V discovered the manuscript containing Germania in Hersfeld Abbey – an important Benedictine imperial abbey in the town of Bad Hersfeld in Germany and brought it to Rome (consequently, the manuscript is known as the Codex Hersfeldensis).

The Codex Hersfeldensis was then lost again – for good. This time, of course, the content survived in published form. Then, in 1902, a portion of the Codex Hersfeldensis was rediscovered by priest-philologist Cesare Annibaldi in the possession of Italian Count Aurelio Balleani of Iesi – the province of Ancona in Marche, Italy. Not surprisingly, this manuscript became known as Codex Aesinas.

Apparently, Himmler believed that this manuscript possessed some serious magical powers because for eight years (!)  he has been unsuccessfully trying to lay his hands on the manuscript.

In 1936, Himmler convinced Adolf Hitler (who did not display much interest in such ancient history of German tribes) to ask Mussolini to transfer the manuscript to Germany. Mussolini agreed, but changed his mind when the proposition turned out to be unpopular among the Italians (and Count Balleani just flatly said “No”).

The latter only allowed (after years of pressure) to make a facsimile copy of the manuscript (which was promptly sent to Berlin) and allowed German historians to study the manuscript itself in Rome.

It was studied by Rudolph Till, chairman of the Department of Classical Philology and Historical Studies at the University of Munich, and a member of the (in)famous Ahnenerbe organization.

However, Himmler was not satisfied. He wanted the original manuscript, apparently believing that it was some kind of a grimoire – the book timbued with magical powers.

So when Mussolini was overthrown in July of 1943 and Northern Italy was occupied by Wehrmacht, Himmler dispatched a special team to find the Codex Aesinas and bring it to Germany.

The unit searched three Balleani family residences in Italy without success. Apparently, Himmler entrusted this task to Ahnenerbe personnel instead of bringing in Gestapo professionals who were much better at conducting a thorough search

Because all that time the manuscript was stored in a wooden trunk bound with tin in the kitchen cellar of one of the residences, the Palazzo on the Piazza in Jesi. Not an impossible hiding place to find for a seasoned professional.

After the war the Balleani family placed the Codex Aesinas in a safe deposit box in the basement of the Banco di Sicilia in Florence (which, alas, was not waterproof).

In November 1966, the city experienced its worst flooding since the 1550s, which caused severe damage to the Codex. Monks at a monastery near Rome skilled in preserving manuscripts succeeded in saving it, though permanent water damage could not be eliminated.

The Codex was sold by the family to the Biblioteca Nazionale in Rome in 1994, where it is currently cataloged as the Codex Vittorio Emanuele 1631.

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