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The legacy of Hermann the German

By Staff | Aug 13, 2009

2000 years ago this autumn, Hermann the German drove the Romans back across the Rhine River, halting forever the imperial advance into Germania. This was the Battle of Teutoburg Forest in 9 A.D. Peter Wells of the University of Minnesota rightly calls it “the battle that stopped Rome.”

Like many sons of Germanic chieftains, Hermann was sent to Rome as a boy. First century Germania was not unlike British Colonial America. In both periods, with high hopes for their sons and tribes, tribal leaders sent their sons away to school among the foreigners. This practice fostered peace to a degree, for it created young men of cultural, linguistic, and military flexibility. They could command armies of their tribesmen in imperial service. Back and forth, they could pass almost seamlessly between the culture of their birth and the culture of their education.

For Britain and for Rome, the boon was increased assimilation. These men returned to their homes as proven warriors and therefore credible. Sophisticated, glamorous, and yet familiar, they brought with them a positive image of imperial power. Certainly, this fostered some resentment, but it also created an allure and invested indigenous people emotionally in the foreign power. It was hoped, and was tragically often the case, that native peoples would give themselves to imperial loyalty in exchange for little.

Hermann, known as Arminius to the Romans, appeared to be precisely this kind of loyal Roman servant. Harvard’s Steven Ozment tells us that in his twenties, Hermann’s success at the head of “the Germanic contingent of the imperial Roman army” earned him the coveted crown of laurels and Roman citizenship.

Returning to his homeland, however, Hermann was surprised to find his people exploited and angry. In the years that Hermann had been away, the Romans had moved ever deeper into Germanic lands, oppressing local tribes. Regardless of injustice and imperial expansion, Hermann was expected to remain loyal to Rome. His father-in-law, brother, and nephew were all loyal commanders of Germanic troops in Rome’s service.

Hermann had to make a choice. He chose his people. Ozment explains that Hermann’s father-in-law was furious upon hearing that Hermann had amassed an army of ‘barbarians’, and quickly spread the word. The warning was to have little effect. Hermann’s army, an alliance of four Germanic tribes, utterly crushed the Romans with tactics that have since been viewed as the forerunners of World War II Blitzkrieg.

While the overall element of surprise was lost in familial betrayal, surprise was still a factor in battle tactics, for the Romans could not tell where their enemies came from or where they went. Germanic warriors melted like specters in and out of the trees. For three days, they unleashed prolonged, sustained, and utterly overwhelming force. In the end, Hermann and his tribal army more than decimated the enemy, slaying twenty thousand Roman soldiers. This was, according to Wells, a full quarter of the Roman army north of the Alps. Rome’s plans to expand into Germanic territory came to a halt as the empire was pushed back across the Rhine. The Rhine, according to historian Adrian Murdoch, marked for centuries the line between ‘civilization’ and ‘barbarism’.

Recent archaeological evidence suggests that Rome later made punishing forays across the Rhine in response to Germanic raiding parties, but never again was Rome to subjugate the tribes across the river.

However, in trying to unite the Germanic tribes, Hermann ruled a bit too much as a Roman for Germanic taste. According to Ozment, hero or not, the tribesmen “could not abide a tyrant”, and so he was killed by members of his own family in 19 A.D.

Independence and rebellion remained in the German psyche for more than 1500 years after the Battle of Teutoburg Forest. Long after the Dark Ages, through the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, and the Reformation, Germany’s cities and princes stubbornly maintained their independence. Ozment calls this spirit the ‘barbarian complex’, the legacy of Hermann the German.

Skjelver is a Rugby author.

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