The Great Events by Famous Historians/Volume 2/Germans under Arminius Revolt Against Rome
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Germans under Arminius Revolt Against Rome
GERMANS UNDER ARMINIUS REVOLT AGAINST ROME
SIR EDWARD SHEPHERD CREASY
(The German race was beginning to make itself felt to a greater extent than hitherto in its efforts for freedom from the Roman rule. Research shows that from the earliest days there were two distinct peoples under this designation of German—the northern or Scandinavian, and the southern, being more truly the German. Both consisted of numerous tribes, the Romans giving separate names to each: from this arose the generic titles of Franks, Bavarians, Alamanni, and the rest.
They were great fighters and, as a natural sequence, mighty hunters. When warfare did not occupy their attention, hunting, feasting, and drinking took its place. Tacitus writes: "To drink continuously, night and day, was no shame for them." Their chief beverage was barley beer, though, in the South, wine was used to some extent.
Rome had garrisons throughout the whole land, and the fortunes of the Germans were at a low ebb. Freedom seemed stifled forever when Arminius led his forces against the Roman hosts in the forest of Teutoburgium. Rightly does Creasy rate this important battle so highly, for it meant the final uplifting of the Teuton, and with him the English-speaking races of a later time.)
To a truly illustrious Frenchman, whose reverses as a minister can never obscure his achievements in the world of letters, we are indebted for the most profound and most eloquent estimate that we possess of the importance of the Germanic element in European civilization, and of the extent to which the human race is indebted to those brave warriors who long were the unconquered antagonists, and finally became the conquerors, of imperial Rome.
Twenty-three eventful years have passed away since M. Guizot delivered from the chair of modern history, at Paris, his course of lectures on the history of civilization in Europe. During those years the spirit of earnest inquiry into the germs and primary developments of existing institutions has become more and more active and universal, and the merited celebrity of M. Guizot's work has proportionally increased. Its admirable analysis of the complex political and social organizations of which the modern civilized world is made up must have led thousands to trace with keener interest the great crises of times past, by which the characteristics of the present were determined. The narrative of one of these great crises, of the epoch A.D. 9, when Germany took up arms for her independence against Roman invasion, has for us this special attraction—that it forms part of our own national history. Had Arminius been supine or unsuccessful, our Germanic ancestors would have been enslaved or exterminated in their original seats along the Eider and the Elbe. This island would never have borne the name of England, and "we, this great English nation, whose race and language are now overrunning the earth, from one end of it to the other," would have been utterly cut off from existence.
Arnold may, indeed, go too far in holding that we are wholly unconnected in race with the Romans and Britons who inhabited this country before the coming over of the Saxons; that, "nationally speaking, the history of Cæsar's invasion has no more to do with us than the natural history of the animals which then inhabited our forests." There seems ample evidence to prove that the Romanized Celts whom our Teutonic forefathers found here influenced materially the character of our nation. But the main stream of our people was, and is, Germanic. Our language alone decisively proves this. Arminius is far more truly one of our national heroes than Caractacus; and it was our own primeval fatherland that the brave German rescued when he slaughtered the Roman legions, eighteen centuries ago, in the marshy glens between the Lippe and the Ems.
Dark and disheartening, even to heroic spirits, must have seemed the prospects of Germany when Arminius planned the general rising of his countrymen against Rome. Half the land was occupied by Roman garrisons; and, what was worse, many of the Germans seemed patiently acquiescent in their state of bondage. The braver portion, whose patriotism could be relied on, was ill-armed and undisciplined, while the enemy's troops consisted of veterans in the highest state of equipment and training, familiarized with victory and commanded by officers of proved skill and valor. The resources of Rome seemed boundless; her tenacity of purpose was believed to be invincible. There was no hope of foreign sympathy or aid; for "the self-governing powers that had filled the Old World had bent one after another before the rising power of Rome, and had vanished. The earth seemed left void of independent nations."
The German chieftain knew well the gigantic power of the oppressor. Arminius was no rude savage, fighting out of mere animal instinct or in ignorance of the might of his adversary. He was familiar with the Roman language and civilization; he had served in the Roman armies; he had been admitted to the Roman citizenship, and raised to the rank of the equestrian order. It was part of the subtle policy of Rome to confer rank and privileges on the youth of the leading families in the nations which she wished to enslave. Among other young German chieftains, Arminius and his brother, who were the heads of the noblest house in the tribe of the Cherusci, had been selected as fit objects for the exercise of this insidious system. Roman refinements and dignities succeeded in denationalizing the brother, who assumed the Roman name of Flavius, and adhered to Rome throughout all her wars against his country. Arminius remained unbought by honors or wealth, uncorrupted by refinement or luxury. He aspired to and obtained from Roman enmity a higher title than ever could have been given him by Roman favor. It is in the page of Rome's greatest historian that his name has come down to us with the proud addition of "Liberator hand dubie Germaniae."
Often must the young chieftain, while meditating the exploit which has thus immortalized him, have anxiously revolved in his mind the fate of the many great men who had been crushed in the attempt which he was about to renew—the attempt to stay the chariot wheels of triumphant Rome. Could he hope to succeed where Hannibal and Mithradates had perished? What had been the doom of Viriathus? and what warning against vain valor was written on the desolate site where Numantia once had flourished? Nor was a caution wanting in scenes nearer home and more recent times. The Gauls had fruitlessly struggled for eight years against Cæsar; and the gallant Vercingetorix, who in the last year of the war had roused all his countrymen to insurrection, who had cut off Roman detachments, and brought Cæsar himself to the extreme of peril at Alesia—he, too, had finally succumbed, had been led captive in Cæsar's triumph, and had then been butchered in cold blood in a Roman dungeon.
It was true that Rome was no longer the great military republic which for so many ages had shattered the kingdoms of the world. Her system of government was changed, and, after a century of revolution and civil war, she had placed herself under the despotism of a single ruler. But the discipline of her troops was yet unimpaired and her warlike spirit seemed unabated. The first year of the empire had been signalized by conquests as valuable as any gained by the republic in a corresponding period. It is a great fallacy—though apparently sanctioned by great authorities—to suppose that the foreign policy pursued by Augustus was pacific; he certainly recommended such a policy to his successors (incertum metu an per invidiam: Tac., Ann., i. 11), but he himself, until Arminius broke his spirit, had followed a very different course. Besides his Spanish wars, his generals, in a series of generally aggressive campaigns, had extended the Roman frontier from the Alps to the Danube, and had reduced into subjection the large and important countries that now form the territories of all Austria south of that river, and of East Switzerland, Lower Wuertemberg, Bavaria, the Valtelline, and the Tyrol.
While the progress of the Roman arms thus pressed the Germans from the south, still more formidable inroads had been made by the imperial legions on the west. Roman armies, moving from the province of Gaul, established a chain of fortresses along the right as well as the left bank of the Rhine, and, in a series of victorious campaigns, advanced their eagles as far as the Elbe, which now seemed added to the list of vassal rivers, to the Nile, the Rhine, the Rhone, the Danube, the Tagus, the Seine, and many more, that acknowledged the supremacy of the Tiber. Roman fleets also, sailing from the harbors of Gaul along the German coasts and up the estuaries, coöperated with the land forces of the empire, and seemed to display, even more decisively than her armies, her overwhelming superiority over the rude Germanic tribes. Throughout the territory thus invaded the Romans had with their usual military skill established fortified posts; and a powerful army of occupation was kept on foot, ready to move instantly on any spot where a popular outbreak might be attempted.
Vast, however, and admirably organized as the fabric of Roman power appeared on the frontiers and in the provinces, there was rottenness at the core. In Rome's unceasing hostilities with foreign foes, and still more in her long series of desolating civil wars, the free middle classes of Italy had almost wholly disappeared. Above the position which they had occupied, an oligarchy of wealth had reared itself; beneath that position a degraded mass of poverty and misery was fermenting. Slaves; the chance sweepings of every conquered country; shoals of Africans, Sardinians, Asiatics, Illyrians, and others made up the bulk of the population of the Italian peninsula.
The foulest profligacy of manners was general in all ranks. In universal weariness of revolution and civil war, and in consciousness of being too debased for self-government, the nation had submitted itself to the absolute authority of Augustus. Adulation was now the chief function of the senate; and the gifts of genius and accomplishments of art were devoted to the elaboration of eloquently false panegyrics upon the prince and his favorite courtiers. With bitter indignation must the German chieftain have beheld all this and contrasted with it the rough worth of his own countrymen: their bravery, their fidelity to their word, their manly independence of spirit, their love of their national free institutions, and their loathing of every pollution and meanness. Above all, he must have thought of the domestic virtues that hallowed a German home; of the respect there shown to the female character, and of the pure affection by which that respect was repaid. His soul must have burned within him at the contemplation of such a race yielding to these debased Italians.
Still, to persuade the Germans to combine, in spite of the frequent feuds among themselves, in one sudden outbreak against Rome; to keep the scheme concealed from the Romans until the hour for action arrived; and then, without possessing a single walled town, without military stores, without training, to teach his insurgent countrymen to defeat veteran armies and storm fortifications, seemed so perilous an enterprise that probably Arminius would have receded from it had not a stronger feeling even than patriotism urged him on. Among the Germans of high rank who had most readily submitted to the invaders and become zealous partisans of Roman authority was a chieftain named Segestes. His daughter, Thusnelda, was preeminent among the noble maidens of Germany. Arminius had sought her hand in marriage; but Segestes, who probably discerned the young chief's disaffection to Rome, forbade his suit, and strove to preclude all communication between him and his daughter. Thusnelda, however, sympathized far more with the heroic spirit of her lover than with the timeserving policy of her father. An elopement baffled the precautions of Segestes, who, disappointed in his hope of preventing the marriage, accused Arminius before the Roman governor of having carried off his daughter and of planning treason against Rome. Thus assailed, and dreading to see his bride torn from him by the officials of the foreign oppressor, Arminius delayed no longer, but bent all his energies to organize and execute a general insurrection of the great mass of his countrymen, who hitherto had submitted in sullen hatred to the Roman dominion.
A change of governors had recently taken place, which, while it materially favored the ultimate success of the insurgents, served, by the immediate aggravation of the Roman oppressions which it produced, to make the native population more universally eager to take arms. Tiberius, who was afterward emperor, had recently been recalled from the command in Germany and sent into Pannonia to put down a dangerous revolt which had broken out against the Romans in that province. The German patriots were thus delivered from the stern supervision of one of the most suspicious of mankind, and were also relieved from having to contend against the high military talents of a veteran commander, who thoroughly understood their national character, and also the nature of the country, which he himself had principally subdued.
In the room of Tiberius, Augustus sent into Germany Quintilius Varus, who had lately returned from the proconsulate of Syria. Varus was a true representative of the higher classes of the Romans, among whom a general taste for literature, a keen susceptibility to all intellectual gratifications, a minute acquaintance with the principles and practice of their own national jurisprudence, a careful training in the schools of the rhetoricians, and a fondness for either partaking in or watching the intellectual strife of forensic oratory had become generally diffused, without, however, having humanized the old Roman spirit of cruel indifference to human feelings and human sufferings, and without acting as the least checks on unprincipled avarice and ambition or on habitual and gross profligacy. Accustomed to govern the depraved and debased natives of Syria—a country where courage in man and virtue in woman had for centuries been unknown—Varus thought that he might gratify his licentious and rapacious passions with equal impunity among the high-minded sons and pure-spirited daughters of Germany. When the general of an army sets the example of outrages of this description, he is soon faithfully imitated by his officers, and surpassed by his still more brutal soldiery. The Romans now habitually indulged in those violations of the sanctity of the domestic shrine, and those insults upon honor and modesty, by which far less gallant spirits than those of our Teutonic ancestors have often been maddened into insurrection.
Arminius found among the other German chiefs many who sympathized with him in his indignation at their country's abasement, and many whom private wrongs had stung yet more deeply. There was little difficulty in collecting bold leaders for an attack on the oppressors, and little fear of the population not rising readily at those leaders' call. But to declare open war against Rome and to encounter Varus' army in a pitched battle would have been merely rushing upon certain destruction. Varus had three legions under him, a force which, after allowing for detachments, cannot be estimated at less than fourteen thousand Roman infantry. He had also eight or nine hundred Roman cavalry, and at least an equal number of horse and foot sent from the allied states, or raised among those provincials who had not received the Roman franchise.
It was not merely the number, but the quality of this force that made them formidable; and, however contemptible Varus might be as a general, Arminius well knew how admirably the Roman armies were organized and officered, and how perfectly the legionaries understood every manoeuvre and every duty which the varying emergencies of a stricken field might require. Stratagem was, therefore, indispensable; and it was necessary to blind Varus to their schemes until a favorable opportunity should arrive for striking a decisive blow.
For this purpose, the German confederates frequented the head-quarters of Varus, which seem to have been near the centre of the modern country of Westphalia, where the Roman general conducted himself with all the arrogant security of the governor of a perfectly submissive province. There Varus gratified at once his vanity, his rhetorical tastes, and his avarice, by holding courts, to which he summoned the Germans for the settlement of all their disputes, while a bar of Roman advocates attended to argue the cases before the tribunal of Varus, who did not omit the opportunity of exacting court fees and accepting bribes. Varus trusted implicitly to the respect which the Germans pretended to pay to his abilities as a judge, and to the interest which they affected to take in the forensic eloquence of their conquerors.
Meanwhile a succession of heavy rains rendered the country more difficult for the operations of regular troops, and Arminius, seeing that the infatuation of Varus was complete, secretly directed the tribes near the Weser and the Ems to take up arms in open revolt against the Romans. This was represented to Varus as an occasion which required his prompt attendance at the spot; but he was kept in studied ignorance of its being part of a concerted national rising; and he still looked on Arminius as his submissive vassal, whose aid he might rely on in facilitating the march of his troops against the rebels and in extinguishing the local disturbance. He therefore set his army in motion, and marched eastward in a line parallel to the course of the Lippe. For some distance his route lay along a level plain; but on arriving at the tract between the curve of the upper part of that stream and the sources of the Ems, the country assumes a very different character; and here, in the territory of the modern little principality of Lippe, it was that Arminius had fixed the scene of his enterprise.
A wooded and hilly region intervenes between the heads of the two rivers, and forms the water-shed of their streams. This region still retains the name (Teutobergenwald = Teutobergiensis saltus) which it bore in the days of Arminius. The nature of the ground has probably also remained unaltered. The eastern part of it, round Detmold, the modern capital of the principality of Lippe, is described by a modern German scholar, Dr. Plate, as being a "table-land intersected by numerous deep and narrow valleys, which in some places form small plains, surrounded by steep mountains and rocks, and only accessible by narrow defiles. All the valleys are traversed by rapid streams, shallow in the dry season, but subject to sudden swellings in autumn and winter. The vast forests which cover the summits and slopes of the hills consist chiefly of oak; there is little underwood, and both men and horse would move with ease in the forests if the ground were not broken by gulleys or rendered impracticable by fallen trees." This is the district to which Varus is supposed to have marched; and Dr. Plate adds that "the names of several localities on and near that spot seem to indicate that a great battle had once been fought there. We find the names das Winnefeld (the field of victory), die Knochenbahn (the bone-lane), die Knochenleke (the bone-brook), der Mordkessel (the kettle of slaughter), and others."
Contrary to the usual strict principles of Roman discipline, Varus had suffered his army to be accompanied and impeded by an immense train of baggage wagons and by a rabble of camp followers, as if his troops had been merely changing their quarters in a friendly country. When the long array quitted the firm, level ground and began to wind its way among the woods, the marshes, and the ravines, the difficulties of the march, even without the intervention of an armed foe, became fearfully apparent. In many places the soil, sodden with rain, was impracticable for cavalry and even for infantry, until trees had been felled and a rude causeway formed through the morass.
The duties of the engineer were familiar to all who served in the Roman armies. But the crowd and confusion of the columns embarrassed the working parties of the soldiery, and in the midst of their toil and disorder the word was suddenly passed through their ranks that the rear-guard was attacked by the barbarians. Varus resolved on pressing forward; but a heavy discharge of missiles from the woods on either flank taught him how serious was the peril, and he saw his best men falling round him without the opportunity of retaliation; for his light-armed auxiliaries, who were principally of Germanic race, now rapidly deserted, and it was impossible to deploy the legionaries on such broken ground for a charge against the enemy.
Choosing one of the most open and firm spots which they could force their way to, the Romans halted for the night; and, faithful to their national discipline and tactics, formed their camp amid the harassing attacks of the rapidly thronging foes with the elaborate toil and systematic skill the traces of which are impressed permanently on the soil of so many European countries, attesting the presence in the olden time of the imperial eagles.
On the morrow the Romans renewed their march, the veteran officers who served under Varus now probably directing the operations and hoping to find the Germans drawn up to meet them, in which case they relied on their own superior discipline and tactics for such a victory as should reassure the supremacy of Rome. But Arminius was far too sage a commander to lead on his followers, with their unwieldy broadswords and inefficient defensive armor, against the Roman legionaries, fully armed with helmet, cuirass, greaves, and shield, who were skilled to commence the conflict with a murderous volley of heavy javelins hurled upon the foe when a few yards distant, and then, with their short cut-and-thrust swords, to hew their way through all opposition, preserving the utmost steadiness and coolness, and obeying each word of command in the midst of strife and slaughter with the same precision and alertness as if upon parade. Arminius suffered the Romans to march out from their camp, to form first in line for action and then in column for marching, without the show of opposition.
For some distance Varus was allowed to move on, only harassed by slight skirmishes, but struggling with difficulty through the broken ground, the toil and distress of his men being aggravated by heavy torrents of rain, which burst upon the devoted legions, as if the angry gods of Germany were pouring out the vials of their wrath upon the invaders. After some little time their van approached a ridge of high wooded ground, which is one of the offshoots of the great Hercynian forest, and is situated between the modern villages of Driburg and Bielefeld. Arminius had caused barricades of hewn trees to be formed here, so as to add to the natural difficulties of the passage. Fatigue and discouragement now began to betray themselves in the Roman ranks. Their line became less steady; baggage wagons were abandoned from the impossibility of forcing them along; and, as this happened, many soldiers left their ranks and crowded round the wagons to secure the most valuable portions of their property; each was busy about his own affairs, and purposely slow in hearing the word of command from his officers.
Arminius now gave the signal for a general attack. The fierce shouts of the Germans pealed through the gloom of the forests, and in thronging multitudes they assailed the flanks of the invaders, pouring in clouds of darts on the encumbered legionaries as they struggled up the glens or floundered in the morasses, and watching every opportunity of charging through the intervals of the disjointed column, and so cutting off the communication between its several brigades. Arminius, with a chosen band of personal retainers round him, cheered on his countrymen by voice and example. He and his men aimed their weapons particularly at the horses of the Roman cavalry. The wounded animals, slipping about in the mire and their own blood, threw their riders and plunged among the ranks of the legions, disordering all round them. Varus now ordered the troops to be countermarched, in the hope of reaching the nearest Roman garrison on the Lippe.
But retreat now was as impracticable as advance; and the falling back of the Romans only augmented the courage of their assailants and caused fiercer and more frequent charges on the flanks of the disheartened army. The Roman officer who commanded the cavalry, Numonius Vala, rode off with his squadrons in the vain hope of escaping by thus abandoning his comrades. Unable to keep together or force their way across the woods and swamps, the horsemen were overpowered in detail and slaughtered to the last man. The Roman infantry still held together and resisted, but more through the instinct of discipline and bravery than from any hope of success or escape.
Varus, after being severely wounded in a charge of the Germans against his part of the column, committed suicide to avoid falling into the hands of those whom he had exasperated by his oppressions. One of the lieutenants-general of the army fell fighting; the other surrendered to the enemy. But mercy to a fallen foe had never been a Roman virtue, and those among her legions who now laid down their arms in hope of quarter, drank deep of the cup of suffering, which Rome had held to the lips of many a brave but unfortunate enemy. The infuriated Germans slaughtered their oppressors with deliberate ferocity, and those prisoners who were not hewn to pieces on the spot were only preserved to perish by a more cruel death in cold blood.
The bulk of the Roman army fought steadily and stubbornly, frequently repelling the masses of assailants, but gradually losing the compactness of their array and becoming weaker and weaker beneath the incessant shower of darts and the reiterated assaults of the vigorous and unencumbered Germans. At last, in a series of desperate attacks, the column was pierced through and through, two of the eagles captured, and the Roman host, which on the morning before had marched forth in such pride and might—now broken up into confused fragments—either fell fighting beneath the overpowering numbers of the enemy or perished in the swamps and woods in unavailing efforts at flight. Few, very few, ever saw again the left bank of the Rhine. One body of brave veterans, arraying themselves in a ring on a little mound, beat off every charge of the Germans, and prolonged their honorable resistance to the close of that dreadful day. The traces of a feeble attempt at forming a ditch and mound attested in after-years the spot where the last of the Romans passed their night of suffering and despair. But on the morrow this remnant also, worn out with hunger, wounds, and toil, was charged by the victorious Germans, and either massacred on the spot or offered up in fearful rites on the altars of the deities of the old mythology of the North.
A gorge in the mountain ridge, through which runs the modern road between Paderborn and Pyrmont, leads from the spot where the heat of the battle raged to the Extersteine—a cluster of bold and grotesque rocks of sandstone—near which is a small sheet of water, overshadowed by a grove of aged trees. According to local tradition, this was one of the sacred groves of the ancient Germans, and it was here that the Roman captives were slain in sacrifice by the victorious warriors of Arminius.
Never was victory more decisive; never was the liberation of an oppressed people more instantaneous and complete. Throughout Germany the Roman garrisons were assailed and cut off; and within a few weeks after Varus had fallen, the German soil was freed from the foot of an invader.
At Rome the tidings of the battle were received with an agony of terror, the reports of which we would deem exaggerated did they not come from Roman historians themselves. They not only tell emphatically how great was the awe which the Romans felt of the prowess of the Germans if their various tribes could be brought to unite for a common purpose, but they also reveal how weakened and debased the population of Italy had become. Dion Cassius says: "Then Augustus, when he heard the calamity of Varus, rent his garment, and was in great affliction for the troops he had lost, and for terror respecting the Germans and the Gauls. And his chief alarm was that he expected them to push on against Italy and Rome; and there remained no Roman youth fit for military duty that were worth speaking of, and the allied populations, that were at all serviceable, had been wasted away. Yet he prepared for the emergency as well as his means allowed; and when none of the citizens of military age were willing to enlist, he made them cast lots, and punished, by confiscation of goods and disfranchisement, every fifth man among those under thirty-five and every tenth man of those above that age. At last, when he found that not even thus could he make many come forward, he put some of them to death. So he made a conscription of discharged veterans and of emancipated slaves, and, collecting as large a force as he could, sent it, under Tiberius, with all speed into Germany."
Dion mentions also a number of terrific portents that were believed to have occurred at the time, and the narration of which is not immaterial, as it shows the state of the public mind when such things were so believed in and so interpreted. The summits of the Alps were said to have fallen, and three columns of fire to have blazed up from them. In the Campus Martius, the temple of the war-god, from whom the founder of Rome had sprung, was struck by a thunderbolt. The nightly heavens glowed several times as if on fire. Many comets blazed forth together; and fiery meteors, shaped like spears, had shot from the northern quarter of the sky down into the Roman camps. It was said, too, that a statue of Victory, which had stood at a place on the frontier, pointing the way toward Germany, had of its own accord turned round, and now pointed to Italy. These and other prodigies were believed by the multitude to accompany the slaughter of Varus' legions and to manifest the anger of the gods against Rome.
Augustus himself was not free from superstition; but on this occasion no supernatural terrors were needed to increase the alarm and grief that he felt, and which made him, even months after the news of the battle had arrived, often beat his head against the wall and exclaim, "Quintilius Varus, give me back my legions." We learn this from his biographer Suetonius; and, indeed, every ancient writer who alludes to the overthrow of Varus attests the importance of the blow against the Roman power, and the bitterness with which it was felt.
The Germans did not pursue their victory beyond their own territory; but that victory secured at once and forever the independence of the Teutonic race. Rome sent, indeed, her legions again into Germany, to parade a temporary superiority, but all hopes of permanent conquests were abandoned by Augustus and his successors.
The blow which Arminius had struck never was forgotten. Roman fear disguised itself under the specious title of moderation, and the Rhine became the acknowledged boundary of the two nations until the fifth century of our era, when the Germans became the assailants, and carved with their conquering swords the provinces of imperial Rome into the kingdoms of modern Europe.
I have said above that the great Cheruscan is more truly one of our national heroes than Caractacus is. It may be added that an Englishman is entitled to claim a closer degree of relationship with Arminius than can be claimed by any German of modern Germany. The proof of this depends on the proof of four facts: First, that the Cheruscans were Old Saxons, or Saxons of the interior of Germany; secondly, that the Anglo-Saxons, or Saxons of the coast of Germany, were more closely akin than other German tribes were to the Cheruscan Saxons; thirdly, that the Old Saxons were almost exterminated by Charlemagne; fourthly, that the Anglo-Saxons are our immediate ancestors. The last of these may be assumed as an axiom in English history. The proofs of the other three are partly philological and partly historical. It may be, however, here remarked that the present Saxons of Germany are of the High Germanic division of the German race, whereas both the Anglo-Saxon and Old Saxon were of the Low Germanic.
Being thus the nearest heirs of the glory of Arminius, we may fairly devote more attention to his career than, in such a work as the present, could be allowed to any individual leader; and it is interesting to trace how far his fame survived during the Middle Ages, both among the Germans of the Continent and among ourselves.
It seems probable that the jealousy with which Maroboduus, the king of the Suevi and Marcomanni, regarded Arminius, and which ultimately broke out into open hostilities between those German tribes and the Cherusci, prevented Arminius from leading the confederate Germans to attack Italy after his first victory. Perhaps he may have had the rare moderation of being content with the liberation of his country, without seeking to retaliate on her former oppressors. When Tiberius marched into Germany in the year 10, Arminius was too cautious to attack him on ground favorable to the legions, and Tiberius was too skilful to entangle his troops in the difficult parts of the country. His march and countermarch were as unresisted as they were unproductive. A few years later, when a dangerous revolt of the Roman legions near the frontier caused their generals to find them active employment by leading them into the interior of Germany, we find Arminius again active in his country's defence. The old quarrel between him and his father-in-law, Segestes, had broken out afresh.
Segestes now called in the aid of the Roman general, Germanicus, to whom he surrendered himself; and by his contrivance, his daughter, Thusnelda, the wife of Arminius, also came into the hands of the Romans, she being far advanced in pregnancy. She showed, as Tacitus relates, more of the spirit of her husband than of her father, a spirit that could not be subdued into tears or supplications. She was sent to Ravenna, and there gave birth to a son, whose life we know, from an allusion in Tacitus, to have been eventful and unhappy; but the part of the great historian's work which narrated his fate has perished, and we only know from another quarter that the son of Arminius was, at the age of four years, led captive in a triumphal pageant along the streets of Rome.
The high spirit of Arminius was goaded almost into frenzy by these bereavements. The fate of his wife, thus torn from him, and of his babe doomed to bondage even before its birth, inflamed the eloquent invectives with which he roused his countrymen against the home-traitors, and against their invaders, who thus made war upon women and children. Germanicus had marched his army to the place where Varus had perished, and had there paid funeral honors to the ghastly relics of his predecessor's legions that he found heaped around him. Arminius lured him to advance a little farther into the country, and then assailed him, and fought a battle, which, by the Roman accounts, was a drawn one.
The effect of it was to make Germanicus resolve on retreating to the Rhine. He himself, with part of his troops, embarked in some vessels on the Ems, and returned by that river, and then by sea; but part of his forces were intrusted to a Roman general named Caecina, to lead them back by land to the Rhine. Arminius followed this division on its march, and fought several battles with it, in which he inflicted heavy loss on the Romans, captured the greater part of their baggage, and would have destroyed them completely had not his skilful system of operations been finally thwarted by the haste of Inguiomerus, a confederate German chief, who insisted on assaulting the Romans in their camp, instead of waiting till they were entangled in the difficulties of the country, and assailing their columns on the march.
In the following year the Romans were inactive, but in the year afterward Germanicus led a fresh invasion. He placed his army on shipboard and sailed to the mouth of the Ems, where he disembarked and marched to the Weser, there encamping, probably in the neighborhood of Minden. Arminius had collected his army on the other side of the river; and a scene occurred, which is powerfully told by Tacitus, and which is the subject of a beautiful poem by Praed. It has been already mentioned that the brother of Arminius, like himself, had been trained up while young to serve in the Roman armies; but, unlike Arminius, he not only refused to quit the Roman service for that of his country, but fought against his country with the legions of Germanicus. He had assumed the Roman name of Flavius, and had gained considerable distinction in the Roman service, in which he had lost an eye from a wound in battle. When the Roman outposts approached the river Weser, Arminius called out to them from the opposite bank and expressed a wish to see his brother. Flavius stepped forward, and Arminius ordered his own followers to retire, and requested that the archers should be removed from the Roman bank of the river. This was done; and the brothers, who apparently had not seen each other for some years, began a conversation from the opposite sides of the stream, in which Arminius questioned his brother respecting the loss of his eye, and what battle it had been lost in, and what reward he had received for his wound. Flavius told him how the eye was lost, and mentioned the increased pay that he had on account of its loss, and showed the collar and other military decorations that had been given him. Arminius mocked at these as badges of slavery; and then each began to try to win the other over—Flavius boasting the power of Rome and her generosity to the submissive; Arminius appealing to him in the name of their country's gods, of the mother that had borne them, and by the holy names of fatherland and freedom, not to prefer being the betrayer to being the champion of his country. They soon proceeded to mutual taunts and menaces, and Flavius called aloud for his horse and his arms, that he might dash across the river and attack his brother; nor would he have been checked from doing so had not the Roman general Stertinius run up to him and forcibly detained him. Arminius stood on the other bank, threatening the renegade, and defying him to battle.
I shall not be thought to need apology for quoting here the stanzas in which Praed has described this scene—a scene among the most affecting, as well as the most striking, that history supplies. It makes us reflect on the desolate position of Arminius, with his wife and child captives in the enemy's hands, and with his brother a renegade in arms against him. The great liberator of our German race was there, with every source of human happiness denied him except the consciousness of doing his duty to his country.
"Back, back! he fears not foaming flood
Who fears not steel-clad line:
No warrior thou of German blood,
No brother thou of mine.
Go, earn Rome's chain to load thy neck,
Her gems to deck thy hilt;
And blazon honor's hapless wreck
With all the gauds of guilt.
"But wouldst thou have me share the prey?
By all that I have done,
The Varian bones that day by day
Lie whitening in the sun,
The legion's trampled panoply,
The eagle's shatter'd wing—
I would not be for earth or sky
So scorn'd and mean a thing.
"Ho, call me here the wizard, boy,
Of dark and subtle skill,
To agonize but not destroy,
To torture, not to kill.
When swords are out and shriek and shout
Leave little room for prayer,
No fetter on man's arm or heart
Hangs half so heavy there.
"I curse him by the gifts the land
Hath won from him and Rome,
The riving axe, the wasting brand,
Rent forest, blazing home.
I curse him by our country's gods,
The terrible, the dark,
The breakers of the Roman rods,
The smiters of the bark.
"Oh, misery that such a ban
On such a brow should be!
Why comes he not in battle's van
His country's chief to be?
To stand a comrade by my side,
The sharer of my fame,
And worthy of a brother's pride
And of a brother's name?
"But it is past! where heroes press
And cowards bend the knee,
Arminius is not brotherless,
His brethren are the free.
They come around: one hour, and light
Will fade from turf and tide,
Then onward, onward to the fight,
With darkness for our guide.
"To-night, to-night, when we shall meet
In combat face to face,
Then only would Arminius greet
The renegade's embrace.
The canker of Rome's guilt shall be
Upon his dying name;
And as he lived in slavery,
So shall he fall in shame."
On the day after the Romans had reached the Weser, Germanicus led his army across that river, and a partial encounter took place, in which Arminius was successful. But on the succeeding day a general action was fought, in which Arminius was severely wounded and the German infantry routed with heavy loss. The horsemen of the two armies encountered without either party gaining the advantage. But the Roman army remained master of the ground and claimed a complete victory. Germanicus erected a trophy in the field, with a vaunting inscription that the nations between the Rhine and the Elbe had been thoroughly conquered by his army. But that army speedily made a final retreat to the left bank of the Rhine; nor was the effect of their campaign more durable than their trophy. The sarcasm with which Tacitus speaks of certain other triumphs of Roman generals over Germans may apply to the pageant which Germanicus celebrated on his return to Rome from his command of the Roman army of the Rhine. The Germans were "triumphati potius quam victi."
After the Romans had abandoned their attempts on Germany, we find Arminius engaged in hostilities with Maroboduus, king of the Suevi and Marcomanni, who was endeavoring to bring the other German tribes into a state of dependency on him. Arminius was at the head of the Germans who took up arms against this home invader of their liberties. After some minor engagements a pitched battle was fought between the two confederacies (A.D. 19) in which the loss on each side was equal, but Maroboduus confessed the ascendency of his antagonist by avoiding a renewal of the engagement and by imploring the intervention of the Romans in his defence. The younger Drusus then commanded the Roman legions in the province of Illyricum, and by his mediation a peace was concluded between Arminius and Maroboduus, by the terms of which it is evident that the latter must have renounced his ambitious schemes against the freedom of the other German tribes.
Arminius did not long survive this second war of independence, which he successfully waged for his country. He was assassinated in the thirty-seventh year of his age by some of his own kinsmen, who conspired against him. Tacitus says that this happened while he was engaged in a civil war, which had been caused by his attempts to make himself king over his countrymen. It is far more probable, as one of the best biographers has observed, that Tacitus misunderstood an attempt of Arminius to extend his influence as elective war chieftain of the Cherusci and other tribes, for an attempt to obtain the royal dignity.
When we remember that his father-in-law and his brother were renegades, we can well understand that a party among his kinsmen may have been bitterly hostile to him, and have opposed his authority with the tribe by open violence, and, when that seemed ineffectual, by secret assassination.
Arminius left a name which the historians of the nation against which he combated so long and so gloriously have delighted to honor. It is from the most indisputable source, from the lips of enemies, that we know his exploits. His countrymen made history, but did not write it. But his memory lived among them in the days of their bards, who recorded
"The deeds he did, the fields he won,
The freedom he restored."
Tacitus, writing years after the death of Arminius, says of him, "Canitur adhuc barbaras apud gentes." As time passed on, the gratitude of ancient Germany to her great deliverer grew into adoration, and divine honors were paid for centuries to Arminius by every tribe of the Low Germanic division of the Teutonic races. The Irmin-sul, or the column of Herman, near Eresburgh (the modern Stadtberg), was the chosen object of worship to the descendants of the Cherusci (the Old Saxons) and in defence of which they fought most desperately against Charlemagne and his Christianized Franks. "Irmin, in the cloudy Olympus of Teutonic belief, appears as a king and a warrior; and the pillar, the 'Irmin-sul,' bearing the statue, and considered as the symbol of the deity, was the Palladium of the Saxon nation until the temple of Eresburgh was destroyed by Charlemagne, and the column itself transferred to the monastery of Corbey, where perhaps a portion of the rude rock idol yet remains, covered by the ornaments of the Gothic era." Traces of the worship of Arminius are to be found among our Anglo-Saxon ancestors after their settlement in this island. One of the four great highways was held to be under the protection of the deity, and was called the "Irmin street." The name Arminius is, of course, the mere Latinized form of Herman, the name by which the hero and the deity were known by every man of Low German blood on either side of the German Sea. It means, etymologically, the War-man, the man of hosts. No other explanation of the worship of the Irmin-sul, and of the name of the Irmin street, is so satisfactory as that which connects them with the deified Arminius. We know for certain of the existence of other columns of an analogous character. Thus there was the Roland-seule in North Germany; there was a Thor-seule in Sweden, and (what is more important) there was an Athelstan-seule in Saxon England.
- Guizot was minister of foreign affairs, and later (1848) prime minister, under Louis Philippe.
- It is clear that the Romans followed the policy of fomenting dissensions and wars of the Germans among themselves.
- In the Museum of Rhenish Antiquities at Bonn there is a Roman sepulchral monument the inscription on which records that it was erected to the memory of M. Coelius, who fell "Bella Variano."
- Dr. Plate, in Biographical Dictionary.
- Tacitus: Annales.
- Palgrave: English Commonwealth.
- Lappenburg: Anglo-Saxons.