Historical Tales: 5—German - Charles Morris

Herman the Hero of Germany

In the days of Augustus, the emperor of Rome in its golden age of prosperity, an earnest effort was made to subdue and civilize barbarian Germany. Drusus, the step-son of the emperor, led the first army of invasion into this forest-clad land of the north, penetrating deeply into the country and building numerous forts to guard his conquests. His last invasion took him as far as the Elbe. Here, as we are told, he found himself confronted by a supernatural figure, in the form of a woman, who waved him back with lofty and threatening air, saying, "How much farther wilt thou advance, insatiable Drusus? It is not thy lot to behold all these countries. Depart hence! the term of thy deeds and of thy life is at hand." Drusus retreated, and died on his return.

Tiberius, his brother, succeeded him, and went far to complete the conquest he had begun. Germany seemed destined to become a Roman province. The work of conquest was followed by efforts to civilize the free-spirited barbarians, which, had they been conducted wisely, might have led to success. One of the Roman governors, Sentius, prefect of the Rhine, treated the people so humanely that many of them adopted the arts and customs of Rome, and the work of overcoming their barbarism was well begun. He was succeeded in this office by Varus, a friend and confidant of the emperor, but a man of very different character, and one who not only lacked military experience and mental ability, but utterly misunderstood the character of the people he was dealing with. They might be led, they could not be driven into civilization, as the new prefect was to learn.

All went well as long as Varus remained peacefully in his head-quarters, erecting markets, making the natives familiar with the attractive wares of Rome, instructing them in civilized arts, and taking their sons into the imperial army. All went ill when he sought to hasten his work by acts of oppression, leading his forces across the Weser into the land of the Cherusci, enforcing there the rigid Roman laws, and chastising and executing free-born Germans for deeds which in their creed were not crimes. Varus, who had at first made himself loved by his kindness, now made himself hated by his severity. The Germans brooded over their wrongs, awed by the Roman army, which consisted of thirty thousand picked men, strongly intrenched, their camps being impregnable to their undisciplined foes. Yet the high-spirited barbarians felt that this army was but an entering wedge, and that, if not driven out, their whole country would gradually be subdued.

A patriot at length arose among the Cherusci, determined to free his country from the intolerable Roman yoke. He was a handsome and athletic youth, Arminius, or Hermann as the Germans prefer to name him, of noble descent, and skilled alike in the arts of war and of oratory, his eloquence being equal to his courage. He was one of the sons of the Germans who had served in the Roman armies, and had won there such distinction as to gain the honors of knighthood and citizenship. Now, perceiving clearly the subjection that threatened his countrymen, and filled with an ardent love of liberty, he appeared among them, and quickly filled their dispirited souls with much of his own courage and enthusiasm. At midnight meetings in the depths of the forests a conspiracy against Varus and his legions was planned, Hermann being the chosen leader of the perilous enterprise.

It was not long before this conspiracy was revealed. The German control over the Cherusci had been aided by Segestus, a treacherous chief, whose beautiful and patriotic daughter, Thusnelda, had given her hand in marriage to Hermann, against her father's will. Filled with revengeful anger at this action, and hoping to increase his power, Segestus told the story of the secret meetings, which he had discovered, to Varus, and bade him beware, as a revolt against him might at any moment break out. He spoke to the wrong man. Pride in the Roman power and scorn of that of the Germans had deeply infected the mind of Varus, and he heard with incredulous contempt this story that the barbarians contemplated rising against the best trained legions of Rome.

Autumn came, the autumn of the year 9 A.D. The long rainy season of the German forests began. Hermann decided that the time had arrived for the execution of his plans. He began his work with a deceitful skill that quite blinded the too-trusting Varus, inducing him to send bodies of troops into different parts of the country, some to gather provisions for the winter supply of the camps, others to keep watch over some tribes not yet subdued. The Roman force thus weakened, the artful German succeeded in drawing Varus with the remainder of his men from their intrenchments, by inducing one of the subjected tribes to revolt.

The scheme of Hermann had, so far, been completely successful. Varus, trusting to his representations, had weakened his force, and now prepared to draw the main body of his army out of camp. Hermann remained with him to the last, dining with him the day before the starting of the expedition, and inspiring so much confidence in his faithfulness to Rome that Varus refused to listen to Segestus, who earnestly entreated him to take Hermann prisoner on the spot. He even took Hermann's advice, and decided to march on the revolted tribe by a shorter than the usual route, oblivious to the fact that it led through difficult mountain passes, shrouded in forests and bordered by steep and rocky acclivities.

The treacherous plans of the patriotic German had fully succeeded. While the Romans were toiling onward through the straitened passes, Hermann had sought his waiting and ambushed countrymen, to whom he gave the signal that the time for vengeance had come. Then, as if the dense forests had borne a sudden crop of armed men, the furious barbarians poured out in thousands upon the unsuspecting legionaries.

A frightful storm was raging. The mountain torrents, swollen by the downpour of rain, over—flowed their banks and invaded the passes, along which the Romans, encumbered with baggage, were wearily dragging onward in broken columns. Suddenly, to the roar of winds and waters, was added the wild war-cry of the Germans, and a storm of arrows, javelins, and stones hurtled through the disordered ranks, while the barbarians, breaking from the woods, and rushing downward from the heights, fell upon the legions with sword and battle-axe, dealing death with every blow.

Only the discipline of the Romans saved them from speedy destruction. With the instinct of their training they hastened to gather into larger bodies, and their resistance, at first feeble, soon became more effective. The struggle continued until night-fall, by which time the surviving Romans had fought their way to a more open place, where they hastily intrenched. But it was impossible for them to remain there. Their provisions were lost or exhausted, thousands of foes surrounded them, and their only hope lay in immediate and rapid flight.

Sunrise came. The soldiers had recovered somewhat from the fatigue of the day before. Setting fire to what baggage remained in their hands, they began a retreat fighting as they went, for the implacable enemy disputed every step. The first part of their route lay through an open plain, where they marched in orderly ranks. But there were mountains still to pass, and they quickly found themselves in a wooded and pathless valley, in whose rugged depths defence was almost impossible. Here they fell in thousands before the weapons of their foes. It was but a small body of survivors that at length escaped from that deadly defile and threw up intrenchments for the night in a more open spot.

With the dawn of the next day they resumed their progress, and were at no great distance from their stronghold of Aliso when they found their progress arrested by fresh tribes, who assailed them with murderous fury. On they struggled, fighting, dying, marking every step of the route with their dead. Varus, now reduced to despair, and seeing only slaughter or captivity before him, threw himself on his sword, and died in the midst of those whom his blind confidence had led to destruction. Of the whole army only a feeble remnant reached Aliso, which fort they soon after abandoned and fought their way to the Rhine. While this was going on, the detachments which Varus had sent out in various directions were similarly assailed, and met the same fate as had overtaken the main body of the troops.

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No more frightful disaster had ever befallen the Roman arms. Many prisoners had been taken, among them certain judges and lawyers, who were the chief objects of Hermann's hate, and whom he devoted to a painful death. He then offered sacrifices to the gods, to whom he consecrated the booty, the slain, and the leading prisoners, numbers of them being slain on the altars of his deities. These religious ceremonies completed, the prisoners who still remained were distributed among the tribes as slaves. The effort of Varus to force Roman customs and laws upon the Germans had led to a fearful retribution.

When the news of this dreadful event reached Rome, that city was filled with grief and fear. The heart of Augustus, now an old man, was stricken with dismay at the slaughter of the best soldiers of the empire. With neglected dress and person he wandered about the rooms and halls of the palace, his piteous appeal, "Varus, give me back my legions!" showing how deeply the disaster had pierced his soul. Hasty efforts were at once made to prevent the possible serious consequences of the overthrow of the slain legions. The Romans on the Rhine intrenched themselves in all haste. The Germans in the imperial service were sent to distant provinces, and recruits were raised in all parts of the country, their purpose being to protect Gaul from an invasion by the triumphant tribes. Yet so great was the fear inspired by the former German onslaughts, and by this destructive outbreak, that only threats of death induced the Romans to serve. As it proved, this defensive activity was not needed. The Germans, satisfied, as it seemed, with expelling the Romans from their country, destroyed their forts and military roads, and settled back into peace, with no sign of a desire to cross the Rhine.

For six years peace continued. Augustus died, and Tiberius became emperor of Rome. Then, in the year 14 A.D., an effort was made to reconquer Germany, an army commanded by the son of Drusus, known to history under the name of Germanicus, attacking the Marsi, when intoxicated and unarmed after a religious feast. Great numbers of the defenceless tribesmen were slain, but the other tribes sprung to arms and drove the invader back across the Rhine.

In the next year Hermann was again brought into the fray. Segestus had robbed him of his wife, the beautiful patriot Thusnelda, who hitherto had been his right hand in council in his plans against the Roman foe. Hermann besieged Segestus to regain possession of his wife, and pressed the traitor so closely that he sent his son Sigismund to Germanicus, who was again on the German side of the Rhine, imploring aid. The Roman leader took instant advantage of this promising opportunity. He advanced and forced Hermann to raise the siege, and himself took possession of Thusnelda, who was destined soon afterwards to be made the leading feature in a Roman triumph. Segestus was rewarded for his treason, and was given lands in Gaul, his life being not safe among the people he had betrayed. As for the daughter whom he had yielded to Roman hands, her fate troubled little his base soul.

Thusnelda is still a popular character in German legend, there being various stories extant concerning her. One of these relates that, when she lay concealed in the old fort of Schellenpyrmont, she was warned by the cries of a faithful bird of the coming of the Romans, who were seeking stealthily to approach her hiding-place.

The loss of his beloved wife roused Hermann's heroic spirit, and spread indignation among the Germans, who highly esteemed the noble-hearted consort of their chief. They rose hastily in arms, and Hermann was soon at the head of a large army, prepared to defend his country against the invading hosts of the Romans. But as the latter proved too strong to face in the open field, the Germans retreated with their families and property, the country left by them being laid waste by the advancing legions.

Germanicus soon reached the scene of the late slaughter, and caused the bones of the soldiers of Varus to be buried. But in doing this he was obliged to enter the mountain defiles in which the former army had met its fate. Hermann and his men watched the Romans intently from forest and hilltop. When they had fairly entered the narrow valleys, the adroit chief appeared before them at the head of a small troop, which retreated as if in fear, drawing them onward until the whole army had entered the pass.

Then the fatal signal was given, and the revengeful Germans fell upon the legionaries of Germanicus as they had done upon those of Varus, cutting them down in multitudes. But Germanicus was a much better soldier than Varus. He succeeded in extricating the remnant of his men, after they had lost heavily, and in making an orderly retreat to his ships, which awaited him upon the northern coast whence he had entered the country. There were two other armies, one of which had invaded Germany from the coast of Friesland, and was carried away by a flood, narrowly escaping complete destruction. The third had entered from the Rhine. This was overtaken by Hermann while retreating over the long bridges which the Romans had built across the marshes of Münsterland, and which were now in a state of advanced decay. Here it found itself surrounded by seemingly insuperable dangers, being, in part of its route, shut up in a narrow dell, into which the enemy had turned the waters of a rapid stream. While defending their camp, the waters poured upon the soldiers, rising to their knees, and a furious tempest at the same time burst over their heads. Yet discipline, again prevailed. They lost heavily, but succeeded in cutting their way through their enemies and reaching the Rhine.

In the next year, 17 A.D., Germanicus again invaded Germany, sailing with a thousand ships through the northern seas and up the Ems. Flavus, the brother of Hermann, who had remained in the service of Rome, was with him, and addressed his patriotic brother from the river-side, seeking to induce him to desert the German cause, by painting in glowing colors the advantage of being a Roman citizen. Hermann, furious at his desertion of his country, replied to him with curses, as the only language worthy to use to a traitor, and would have ridden across the stream to kill him, but that he was held back by his men.

A battle soon succeeded, the Germans falling into an ambuscade artfully laid by the Roman leader, and being defeated with heavy loss. Germanicus raised a stately monument on the spot, as a memorial of his victory. The sight of this Roman monument in their country infuriated the Germans, and they attacked the Romans again, this time with such fury, and such slaughter on both sides, that neither party was able to resume the fight when the next day dawned. Germanicus, who had been very severely handled, retreated to his ships and set sail. On his voyage the heavens appeared to conspire against him. A tempest arose in which most of the vessels were wrecked and many of the legionaries lost. When he returned to Rome, shortly afterwards, a fort on the Taunus was the only one which Rome possessed in Germany. Hermann had cleared his country of the foe. Yet Germanicus was given a triumph, in which Thusnelda walked, laden with chains, to the capitol.

The remaining events in the life of this champion of German liberty were few. While the events described had been taking place in the north of Germany, there were troubles in the south. Here a chieftain named Marbodius, who, like Hermann, had passed his youth in the Roman armies, was the leader of several powerful tribes. He lacked the patriotism of Hermann, and sought to ally himself with the Romans, with the hope of attaining to supreme power in Germany.

Hermann sought to rouse patriotic sentiments in his mind, but in vain, and the movements of Marbodius having revealed his purposes, a coalition was formed against him, with Hermann at its head. He was completely defeated, and southern Germany saved from Roman domination, as the northern districts had already been.

Peace followed, and for several years Hermann remained general-in-chief of the German people, and the acknowledged bulwark of their liberties. But envy arose; he was maligned, and accused of aiming at sovereignty, as Marbodius had done; and at length his own relations, growing to hate and fear him, conspired against and murdered him.

Thus ignobly fell the noblest of the ancient Germans, the man whose patriotism saved the realm of the Teutonic tribes from becoming a province of the empire of Rome. Had not Hermann lived, the history of Europe might have pursued a different course, and the final downfall of the colossus of the south been long averted, Germany acting as its bulwark of defence instead of becoming the nursery of its foes.