Stories from German History - Florence Aston

The Ancient Germans
and their Struggle with Rome


The name of Julius Caesar, warrior and conqueror, has been renowned through the ages, and its fame has suffered no eclipse to this day. In the earlier part of the century before the birth of Jesus Christ, Cesar reduced to submission a large part of Europe, securely established the foundations of the Roman Empire, and was penetrating into Asia and North Africa when he was struck down in the year 44 B.C. After his death his nephew, the Emperor Augustus, who succeeded him, sent governors to rule all those broad lands that had become subject to Rome.

Augustus was still Emperor when Jesus Christ was born. The country of the Jews formed part of his realm, and he it was who took that census of his people which caused Joseph and Mary to journey to Bethlehem. One of the governors whom Augustus sent to rule in Palestine was Pontius Pilate, the judge who delivered Christ to suffer death at the hands of the Jews.

Now the Romans were ever a warlike and ambitious race, and they sought to extend the empire won by Julius Caesar, never resting from their labour of conquest, never seeking content in the blessings of peace. And having subdued many tribes in Gaul, they found themselves confronted by the race to which they gave the name of Germans.

The territory of the Germans was large, extending from the frozen Baltic and the North Sea southward to the Danube, and from the Rhine to the Vistula and even beyond, into the land which we now call Russia.

Impenetrable forests covered the land; huge oak, pine, and beech trees formed giant barriers which were rendered the more mysterious by the dense fog and mist peculiar to that damp, cold country. And through the gloomy forests, underneath the giant trees, flowed great rivers, with here and there waterfalls and torrents which gave sound and life to the vast wilderness. But in the desolate tracts that lay far remote from these large rivers, and from the cultivated lands, the country was mainly swamp where black mid oozed from moss and rushes, and silence brooded over the misty scene.

Imagination could conceive no land more desolate than the grey, cold forests of ancient Germany. Wolves and big brown bears lurked in the shadows, huge wild oxen emerged to drink at the rivers, fierce boars multiplied undisturbed under the cover, and in the air eagle and falcon wheeled and screamed above their nests among the rocks.

The Germans who inhabited this land were tall and very powerfully built, they had bright blue eyes, fair complexions and flaxen hair, which the freemen wore uncut and flowing loosely on the shoulders.

The clothing of both sexes was very simple, consisting of a sleeveless woollen tunic which covered only the body, leaving arms and legs entirely unprotected. In the winter they also wore a cloak of wool, fastened with a brooch, or, more simply, with a sharp spike of thorn. In some parts of the country, in place of the woollen garments, the men wore skins of animals, so arranged that the grinning tusks of the boar or the horns of the wild ox rested on the head and enhanced the fierceness of the gleaming eyes beneath.

The Germans did not dwell in numbers, side by side in towns and villages, but each chose a lonely stream and meadow, and built a single farm; sometimes a tiny hamlet of two or three such dwellings would appear.

Their houses were primitive huts of mud and timber, thatched with straw or rushes, and surrounded by a palisade of tree trunks or a hedge of thorn, protection alike from beast and than.

Over the doorway and at the gates hung antlers of deer, horses' skulls or ox-horns, trophies of the forest hunting, supposed to ward off from the dwelling evil spirits who might send disease on, man or beast, blight on crops, or defeat in war and council.

The interior of the dwelling of one large room, at the, further end of which a fire burned under the large cauldron hanging from a chain. Chimney or window there was none. The smoke found a way through a small hole in the roof, or wound in lazy clouds around the blackened timbers of the ceiling. Seats for the master and his guests were placed beside the, hearth, and rough benches round the walls served for the family and slaves.

Here they lived, eating the wild berries, roots, and herbs of the forest, the flesh of wild animals and the products of their fields. For they cultivated oats and barley, and their wealth consisted of large flocks of sheep, small, stunted cattle, and swift, shaggy ponies, small in size but hardy and strong.

War was the ancient Germans' joy. They knew no fear, and in the heat of battle they would fling aside their shields, rushing unprotected on the foe. They fought with sword and lance, and happy was the youth who, perfected in the use of weapons, received publicly the arms of a full-grown man, and henceforth took his place beside his father in the fight. Even the women would not be left at home in time of war, but accompanied their husbands, shouting encouragement to the valiant, urging on the lingerer with taunts and screaming defiance at the foe.

In times of peace the men and boys were occupied in hunting bear and boar, wolf and deer. These furnished them with skins for clothes and bedding, horns which they bound with silver and used as drinking-vessels, and flesh to eat.

The care of the household and children, together with the cultivation of crops, was left in the hands of the women, who also superintended the work of the slaves; the latter farmed the land for their lords, retaining a small proportion of the products for their own use.

The Germans were brave in war, faithful to their lords and kinsmen, to their wife and family, honest in dealing, and so truthful that even their enemies declared of them that their word was as good as an oath. Their love of freedom was intense and their hospitality unbounded. To no guest was shelter ever refused, and if the father of the family found himself unable to offer what his guest desired, he would speed him on his way with parting gifts, or lead him in safety to another farm, where he would be gladly received and furnished with the best that the household could afford.

The defects of the German character were great laziness and a passion for gambling and strong drink.

wine was unknown except to the few who lived near the navigable rivers and could exchange their goods for the precious casks that came from sunnier lands, for the German climate, generally speaking, was too raw and cold for the cultivation of the vine.

Ancient German Family


But from their own grain and heather-honey they brewed strong beer and heady mead. It was thought no shame for warriors and huntsmen, when their tasks were done, to throw themselves upon the bearskins and spend days and nights in one long riot of excess. Then it was that tongues were loosened, voices rose hoarse and angry in quarrel, old feuds broke forth once more, and only too often blood was shed.

At their banquets, when these did not degenerate into orgies of drunkenness, the Germans deliberated questions of war and government, or reconciled foes and adjusted differences. All matters of importance were discussed twice, first over the drinking-horn, when the warriors met in the evening, and once more in the morning, when, after a night's sleep, sober reason and judgment crept forth from their hiding-places into the light of day. Horse-racing and dice-throwing the Germans loved so dearly that nothing was too sacred to be staked upon them. In the heat of excitement, cattle and horses, field and house, stores and weapons were heedlessly wagered. When these were gone, the gambler staked his slaves, his children and his wife, and, when nothing else remained, would even pledge his own personal freedom. Many a mighty warrior shore off the golden locks, the glory of the freeman, and became the chattel of a weaker man as the result of one night's drinking and one hour with the dice-box. His very fatherland was sacrificed, for slaves were frequently sold away into foreign lands.

The majority of the slaves who served the German freemen were, however, prisoners taken in battle or children of such prisoners. They were chattels that could be bought or sold at will, but, as they were treated with kindness, their state was not one of misery. They were not permitted to bear arms or serve in war, but followed the despised pursuit of agriculture, under the superintendence of the mistress of the house. The German women were treated with respect. They were believed to possess something of divinity within their natures, and to be endowed by the gods with wondrous gifts of prophecy and second sight.

Men seldom married before thirty or women before twenty years of age, and the bride brought no dowry to her husband, but, on the contrary, was purchased from her relatives by gifts of cattle or land. The bridegroom then presented to her for her own use a fully equipped charger, a shield and a spear, the signs of her future companionship in war and in the chase.

Not only did she rule in house and field, superintending the work of slaves, the bringing up of children, and the care of the sick, but the German wife was welcomed to the council, and her advice on public matters listened to with respect. Even to the fiercest fight she followed, mounted on her charger, joining in the wild battle-songs which struck such dismay into the hearts of foes, encouraging her husband and her sons to deeds of valour and tending their wounds.

Every freeman capable of bearing arms was summoned to the fight, and the bravest and most experienced warrior was selected as leader. Warlike youths gathered round him to form his household guard, and, placing their hands between his, would swear to be his men come weal come woe. They marched to war behind him, singing a rousing battle-chant, their shields held up before their lips to render the sound more terrible, then with wild and desperate cries flung themselves upon the foe. Leaders and men vied with each other in the accomplishment of heroic deeds. If the leader fell, his youthful band of followers fought until death. To return from the battle where the chief had fallen was a deed of shame that would stain and darken all the remaining years of life, and there was no young warrior but would sooner choose death upon the field. For if he lived he must wander alone into exile, since return to his home would result in his seizure by his own tribe, who would bind him to a tree and leave him to perish, or cast him into one of the bottomless morasses to die the death of the coward and the craven.

All the freemen possessed the right of attending the gatherings of their council, which met upon each new moon or full moon, and there deliberated on all matters that concerned the welfare of the tribe. The German noblemen and leaders were those distinguished for their wealth of possessions or courage in war and the hunt, and it was they who summoned the council of freemen.

The meeting-place was in the open air, usually under the shadow of some ancient tree. All came armed, since the bearing of arms was the sign of freedom, and the warriors expressed their approval by a simultaneous clash of sword and shield. Dissent was shown by a murmur. When war was declared, a messenger would run from farm to farm bearing an arrow or a short white staff, at the sight of which all hastened to the appointed meeting-place.

When quarrels arose between individuals, they were decided by single combat before witnesses. All other misdeeds, such as theft or murder, could be settled by a fine.

Although the German tribes hated the restraint of social life to such a degree that they would not live in towns nor even in villages, they recognized that some sort of unity was necessary for mutual protection and defence. So several farms would join to form a hamlet, the occupants owning the land in common, and casting lots each year to decide who should till the different fields. They worked the land till it became unfruitful, when they allowed it to lie fallow for a time. If the community grew too large for the land, young families would either travel further afield or else clear more ground round the homestead by chopping down the trees or simply setting them on fire.

Several hamlets formed a district, and several districts formed a tribe. The German nation, if we may call it so, consisted of numerous tribes who were entirely independent, often quarrelling and waging war on each other, but similar in customs, in organization and religion.


The religion of the Germans was a deification of the various forces of nature, and was similar to, although not identical with, the faith of the Norsemen. They worshipped many gods, but made neither images nor idols.

Their universe consisted of the home of the giants; the home of the dead, a dark and misty region presided over by the awful goddess Hela, whither passed the souls of those who did not fall in battle; and the earth, which was supported in the middle region by a mighty ash-tree. The earth was flat, and round it coiled a great serpent, which men call the sea. Sometimes the serpent stretched itself and crawled over part of the land, and then there were floods.

Above the world hung the rainbow, with gates at each end where it touched the earth; these were guarded by the gods, so the tribes believed. At the top was Valhalla, abode of the immortals.

The father of the gods was Woden, or Odin, who corresponds to the Jupiter of the Romans and Zeus of the Greeks. He was a mighty, ancient man with one eye, since he was God of the Sun, and a long flowing beard. He wore a blue mantle covered with stars. Two ravens perched on his shoulders, who took long flights each day, and, returning at even, whispered in his ears all that took place on the earth. Two fierce wolves lay at his feet, who were his constant companions, and whom he fed with wild boars' flesh.

Sometimes, mounted on his white steed, Odin would descend into the battle in order to help his chosen heroes. At such times he was clad in shining helmet and golden breastplate. His wolves raced at his side and threw themselves upon the bodies of the dead. His daughters, the Valkyries, gigantic war-maidens, were present at each fight, singling out the warriors who were 'fey' or doomed to death. At other times Father Odin would draw his cloak around him, the hood deep over his face, and would descend invisible to the huts of mortal men, watching all their actions and proving good and bad. With some he left his blessing, but to those whose deeds were evil he meted out fitting punishment, especially to those who had shut the door against wanderers and strangers.

Sometimes he rushed through the air as the Wild Huntsman, with stampede of thundering horses' hoofs and clamour of fierce wolves.

He it was who invented runes, mystic symbols carved on wood by which the Germans first began to express their thoughts in writing. The word 'rune' is probably derived from an ancient verb which means 'to whisper,' for the records thus preserved were chiefly wondrous names of might and spells to guard from harm, such as men speak with bated breath. Odin was called the All-Father. He guided the fates of men and of battles, ruled the world, granted victory, and received heroes who had fallen in war into his Valhalla, or Hall of the Slain. Here they spent a happy eternity, fighting all the day, their wounds being healed at sunset to enable them to spend the night in feasting and carousing.

The day that was kept sacred to his worship was Wodensday, or Wednesday. Frigga, the wife of Odin, dwelt beside him on his throne, guiding the fates of mortals in the world. She was the protectress of domestic life, and at Christmas descended to the homes of men, spindle in hand, to examine the work of housewives and reward industry or punish sloth according to desert.

The German tribes paid homage to the thunder in the person of Thor, the red-bearded son of Odin, who rumbled through the clouds in a chariot drawn by goats, and struck lightning from them with a blow of his stone hammer. He was much reverenced by the farmer, since the fruitful rain was his gift.

Tiw, the war-god, was invoked in the wild chants which the tribes sang as they marched into battle, and their gratitude for victory was expressed in stately dances to his honour after the field was won.

The blessings of spring were personified in the goddess Ostara, whose festival of Easter, so dear to the Germans after the long cold winters in the forest, is still called after her name. Offerings of eggs were made to Ostara because she was goddess of the beginning of things, and to this day her favourite animal the hare is said to bring the Easter eggs to the little children of Germany.

But dearest of all to those who dwelt in the cold, dark forests was Balder, the God of Light, son of Odin the sun-god, the beloved of the immortals.

His mother Frigga loved him so tenderly that she required an oath of allegiance to him from all things on the earth. Only the mistletoe she forgot when she visited each one. And the evil God of Fire, Loki the Cruel, put an arrow of the fatal twig into the hand of Balder's blind brother Roder, so that he shot unknowingly, and killed his brother the Light, and darkness, which had never been known before, now passes freely over the earth.

Beside these forces of nature, the ancient Germans saw a host of supernatural beings who peopled this world. Dwarfs dwelt in the mountains, guarding mines of red gold, nymphs hid in the streams and rivers, and mischievous elves played tricks on mortals who had incurred their displeasure.

No temples were erected in honour of these gods, for they seemed to the Germans too sublime to dwell in temples 2I made with human hands, but the worshippers met together in groves and under trees, sacrificing animals and even human captives, and praying to their divinities for help. A firm belief in a future life formed part of the Germans' creed, for they thought that Odin would receive into Valhalla the warriors who fell bravely in battle, only the cowards and the sinful being shut out from the joys of the gods, to wander through eternity in the dark, cold realm of Hela under the middle-earth.


Such were the German tribes whom the great Julius Caesar encountered on his victorious march in the year 55 B. C., when he crossed the Rhine by a bridge of boats, and spent eighteen days in Germany, ravaging and burning the farms of the inhabitants.

Nor was this the first encounter between the two peoples, for already during nearly fifty years armies had met with doubtful success in their struggles with these fierce and resolute barbarians. They were ambitious to bring into subjection so hardy a race, being amazed at their wild courage in battle; for not only had the German warriors fought to the death, but their wives had defended the camps, and, when all was lost, had slain their children and themselves rather than fall into the hands of the foe. Last of all, the Romans had had to fight the very dogs that guarded the bodies of their masters before they could call the field their own.

It is not strange that such a nation won the admiration of Julius Caesar and his countrymen. They induced German warriors to serve with the Romans, the practice became common, and in the end German tribesmen formed the flower of the Roman army.

This, however, is to anticipate later history. In the meantime Julius Caesar returned to Rome to oppose Pompey and his other enemies there, and the German tribes remained unmolested until the reign of the Emperor Augustus, who sent his stepson Drusus with mighty armies to bring them under his sway.

Drusus made three successful expeditions into the heart of Germany, cut a canal to connect the Rhine and the Yssel, sailed along the coast of the North Sea, and built no fewer than fifty fortresses along the banks of the River Rhine.

Had he lived long, he would no doubt have conquered a considerable part of Germany, but as he was preparing to cross the River Elbe we are told that a gigantic woman of stern and menacing aspect suddenly barred his path, exclaiming: "Thou insatiable robber! Whither wouldst thou go? Depart! The end of thy misdeeds and of thy life is at hand."

Shaken and dismayed, Drusus retreated, and within thirty days he died through a fall from his horse.

But the German tribes were to tremble before a still more terrible invader. This was Drusus' brother Tiberius, a man of skill and cunning, who knew how to stir up internal strife, setting tribe against tribe, winning over chiefs with bribes of gold or positions in his army, until with comparatively little bloodshed he brought all the peoples between the Rhine and the Elbe under his sway.

The northern district was committed to the care of Quintilius Varus, a leader of much experience, who made military roads, repaired the castles built by Drusus, and established courts of justice presided over by Roman judges.

The freedom-loving Germans were treated like serfs, for foreign governors administered the law, enforced the use of the Latin tongue, condemned them to shameful punishments, such as beating with rods, and even claimed the right of putting free-born men to death.

Now among the tribe of the Cherusci was a young warrior named Hermann, or Armin, whom the Romans knew as Arminius, a soldier who had served like so many of his countrymen in the armies of Rome. There he had learnt not only the arts of war and civilization, but a deep-rooted hatred of the arrogant conquerors.

Hermann was of noble birth, possessed much talent and spirit, and a fiery eloquence of speech capable of rousing the rude warriors of the north to fierce enthusiasm.

On his return to his native land, Hermann found his countrymen oppressed by Roman masters and divided tribe against tribe, sullen revenge smouldering in their hearts. So, all unsuspected by Varus, he travelled about from place to place, assembling warriors at midnight in the deep recesses of the forests, addressing them in words that stirred to hope and resolution, and binding them to unity among themselves with mystic ceremonies and oaths unto the gods of the land.

Thus the tribes prepared for war, and in the year 9 of the present era the opportunity presented itself; for Varus received news of a revolt some distance away toward the east, and immediately announced his intention of proceeding to the spot at the head of three legions of soldiers, Hermann himself being one of their number. But as Varus advanced he encountered many difficulties, for roads were discovered to be blocked by trunks of trees, spears were hurled at him by invisible enemies hidden in the thickets, heavy autumnal rains increased the discomforts of slippery woodland paths, and chill mists numbed the limbs of the Roman 'soldiers, accustomed to the sunny skies of Italy. Varus commanded all the superfluous baggage to be burnt, in order to lighten his columns, and, at last, after three days of intense suffering, the army reached an open space in the Teutoburg Forest, not far from the town now called Detmold, on the River Lippe. Here the legions were brought to a sudden halt, for the hardy Germans, light-armed and active, sprang upon them, heedless of rain and swampy ground. The Romans fought bravely as ever, but, weak from the toilsome march and encumbered with their heavy armour, they slipped in the mud and fell, losing their standards, and infantry as well as cavalry were literally cut to pieces.

Realizing that the day was lost, Varus threw himself upon his sword, and many a noble Roman followed his example; those that remained alive were taken captive, to be sold into slavery or offered as sacrifices to the gods of the German tribes.

At Rome the tidings of the disaster caused panic and dismay. The Emperor Augustus, now an aged man, for days wandered aimlessly through the splendid apartments of his palace. "Varus I Varus I Give me back my legions!" he wailed, and, in terror lest the Germans should march on Rome itself, he prepared to strengthen his armies. But his people, thoroughly disheartened, refused to serve any more against those terrible barbarians. It was not until several years later that an army was raised to proceed under Germanicus, son of Drusus, to the spot in the Teutoburg Forest where their countrymen had fallen.

There they found the bones of the dead still whitening the ground, and an army of fierce Germans ready to repeat their exploits of five years before. The bones were collected by the Romans and reverently burnt on a funeral pyre, while Germanicus in a fierce harangue exhorted his men to avenge their fallen comrades and the shame that they had suffered. He then led the Romans against the German centre, which gave way; but barbarian warriors sprang up all around, and only with extreme difficulty did Germanicus manage to secure his retreat. Twice again the next year he renewed the attack, but with such indifferent results that the Emperor Tiberius, who had now succeeded Augustus on the throne, commanded his immediate return.

"There have been enough," he said, "of victories and conquests. The Germans may now be safely left to their own feuds, which in the end will destroy them more effectively than Roman swords."

So the Romans built a great boundary wall near the Rhine to hem the barbarians in; along the line were towers and fortresses, and towns grew up there, such as Strasburg, Cologne, and Coblenz. They traded with the Germans for horses and cattle, furs, yellow amber, and the beautiful golden hair of their wives, which the Roman ladies wore with pride, bleaching their raven locks to the same hue. And in return the Romans gave gold and silver ornaments and sweet southern wine. They also taught the Germans how to convert the sunniest and most sheltered slopes of land into vineyards, and how to grow many of the southern vegetables and fruit. The brave Hermann was slain by the treachery of his own relatives when only thirty-seven years of age, and after his death the old disunion broke out anew among the tribes. But for many years there was peace between Germany and Rome, until the increase in their population led the northerners to wander once more and seek new territory for their homes.