Sunday 17 July 2016

Herman the German and the battle of the Teutoburg forest

The fury of the Teutons
In modern popular conception the Roman army is viewed as an invincible war machine bestriding the known world like a colossus and crushing all comers usually with veritable aplomb (steady Flaxen). While it is true that the Roman professional army was a formidable force and forged a mighty empire, it did suffer a number of reverses and even catastrophic defeats. Here is just a few: Allia (387BC), Cannae (216BC), Carrhae (53BC), Teutoburg forrest (9AD) and Adrianople (324AD). With the exception of Adrianople, the Empire bounced back and continued to expand and thrive. A testament to the resilience, stoicism, toughness of the Romans and ultimately the stability of the Roman political system. 

I'm going to consider the battle of the Teutoburg forest and its central protagonist, Arminius (?Hermann). Arminius was the recipient of typical Roman Imperial policy. As a young German nobleman he was sent to Rome as a hostage. Whilst in Rome, Arminius received a liberal Roman education and was exposed to Roman culture in all its guises. What effect this would have on a rude barbarian used to simple dwellings and unsophisticated folk is hard to divine. For the Romans, the design was simple: inculcate a love and respect for the Roman way of life. Once returned to their people, these potential rulers would pacify their people from within. No doubt the majority of the folk would still live in hovels however, their leader would have rich tapestries on the walls of his Garth, partake in fine Gaulish wine and would be able to quote from Homer from memory- barbarians love this sort of shit; the incongruity couldn't be more starkly revealed. For the pragmatic Romans, this represented a far seeing policy and a subtle expression of 'Divide and Rule'. 

Like a true Roman protégé, Arminius was installed as commander of a detachment of Germans in 4AD. He seemed to have learned his Roman lessons well and was trusted implicitly by his Roman masters and more intriguingly by his people. Indeed, when the Romans decided to send three legions plus auxiliaries east of the Rhine on a punitive expedition in 9AD, Ariminus was given an important role as guide and commanded native troops. As the Romans marched through the grim dark forests full of brooding, dark oak, their Teutonic allies melted away.....Pelting rain soaked the troops and made the Roman shields heavy. And then, out of the mist, Herman's men came casting javelins. Without armour they approached swiftly through the trees. The Romans were placed in a wretched position. There was no way they could deploy in effective battle array within the confined woods and the stretched out column lacked coherent command. Each man fought as he stood against a swift and tactically flexible enemy. It seems that Arminius had learned his lessons too well. Soon the column broke into small groups and disparate desperate battles continued throughout the day. Although the survivors were able to construct a night camp they were annihilated the next day and night during their retreat. It is said the Romans lost 20,000 men during the battle. Rome had nursed a viper within its breast and suffered accordingly: 'Vae Victis,'. The Germans sacrificed many of the survivors to their powerful war god, Wotan or Woden, according to tribal source. Three military standards (Eagles) were lost to the Germans. Then, as now, the loss of military standards was considered a terrible disgrace and calamity. For many years after the battle the Emperor Augustus would wander the corridors of the palace, shouting:"Publius Quinctillius Varus", where are my Eagles". 

Not only was the territory east of the Rhine denuded of Roman troops but the whole of Gaul lay protected by only two legions which were content to guard the Rhine bridgeheads. When news of the defeat reached Rome there was panic amongst the populace. Hordes of marauding Teutons were expected to descend into Italy. The Roman Emperor took a more sensible approach and quickly organised troops to be sent north. The Germans never invaded Gaul. As clear heads in Rome predicted, the German barbarians decided to loot instead. The Roman colonies east of the Rhine were easy and rich pickings. Also, Herman's ultimate goal was to free his people from the Roman yolk and in this he succeeded extremely well. An invasion into Gaul would have not suited his purpose at all and would likely invite eventual defeat. It was best for him to remain behind the mighty Rhine and consolidate his power amongst the tribes. From now on the Roman empire stopped at the Rhine. Apart from a few punitive forays across the great river, the Romans would never gain a toe hold east of the Rhine. 

All this would have grave repercussions for the future of Rome and the Western world. The Germans were never Romanised and remained a fierce independent folk. They would continue to be a thorn in the side of Rome and in the 5th century AD would be responsible for dismantling the Western Roman Empire. It is interesting to speculate if Roman ambitions east of the Rhine had continued without check. History may have turned out different if the German nations had become 'civilised'. Perhaps under these circumstances the Roman Empire would have lasted another thousand years.    

It is said, by Roman writers themselves: 'That the Germans loved freedom more than life itself'. Mayhap the Romans should have taken heed.

The 'Arminius monument'



  1. "The Germans loved freedom more than life itself" doesn't seem to have survived into the modern age. Having had their expansionist plans "restrained" twice in C20, they developed a long-term cunning plan (thanks Baldrick) to win by stealth. Brexit has upset that particular applecart and the ripples around European countries will continue for years.
    I wonder if Mrs Merkel has that old love of freedom in her mind, coming as she does from E Germany's Stasi?

    1. Yes:- the freedom to do as they're told by leaders who in turn are free to tell them whatever they like. Ein Volk, Ein Reich, etc.

    2. What? Do you mean?

  2. Warfare is a fascinating subject. Despite the dubious morality of using violence to achieve personal or political aims. It remains that conflict has been used to do just that throughout recorded history.

    Your article is very well done, a good read.