Herman and Thusnelda - George Upton

The People's Assembly

The decisions of the princes and others in authority were laid before the popular assembly, called the "Volksthing" and trustworthy delegates from each nation were sent to it. There was a valley in the country of the Cherusci which in those days was always used for this purpose, in the centre of which were stone seats for the princes and leaders.

The day of the assembly arrived. From every direction armed men poured in as if they were on the march to the field. The German nations were homogeneous. The men were broad-chested and tall. Blue eyes and blond hair were national types. Their principal weapons were the spear, shield, and club. The shields were mostly of wood or woven-work, covered with hides, which made them almost impenetrable. The leaders used iron shields. The favorite dress of men was made from the hides of animals, such as the buffalo, bear, and elk they had killed in the chase. The skins of the animals' heads often were used for their own head coverings, and those of buffaloes and elks, with the horns attached, frequently caused consternation among their enemies.

The German of those days thought it unmanly to appear without weapons. They were indispensable to him. What he said he was ready to maintain with his sword; and he said nothing that was not true, and that was not the result of careful consideration. He was incapable of the duplicity of later times, so the consciousness of his physical strength gave him earnestness, equanimity, discretion, and dignity.

The princes and other leaders were already seated in the centre of the place, their view commanding gently rising terraces, upon which were assembled rows upon rows of warriors, without crowding or confusion. To the very tops of the hills was a solid mass of shield upon shield, spear upon spear. It was an extraordinary assemblage of heroes, the like of which is hardly possible now.

Sigmar presided over the assembly. Herman, tall and powerful, with a countenance indicating prudence and confidence of victory, and a brow denoting inflexible firmness, stood behind him. Just as the proceedings were about to begin there was an opening at one side of the circle, and Segest, whom Sigmar and Herman had not expected, suddenly appeared. Many eyes were turned toward him; many a finger pointed at him in scorn, and low mutterings of growing anger were heard, for his duplicity of conduct had not escaped the notice of the people.

The old Germans were far from that knowledge of God which Christianity has brought to us, but they devoted themselves with all their souls to the worship of those whom they held most sacred. Indeed, in their way, they showed a religious fervor which has not been surpassed in any age. They performed every action of life, and engaged in their own work only after making prayer and offering. The high priest stood in the midst of the princes. The smoke of the offering rose, and prayers ascended to the gods from devout hearts. After the offering was consumed, a horn was sounded as a signal for opening the proceedings.

Sigmar rose. "Men," he said, with a loud voice, "listen to what your princes and leaders will submit to you. The Romans have invaded our country by deceit and force. It is now a question whether we shall offer them our hands for the fetters, or whether we shall with our united strength break the chains which have been fastened upon some of our people. Men, now is the time to speak. Let every one say what his heart bids, and then let us retire." Thereupon Sigmar resumed his seat. Next spoke Igomar, Herman's uncle:

"Brothers in arms! The time is at hand when we must unite for battle against the strangers who are seeking to subdue us, one nation after another, by trickery and force. It is still possible for us to save our freedom; but if we do not speedily unite in a life-and-death resistance, our gods will forsake us as a degenerate race, and permit us to sink into the shame of servitude. You know, brothers in arms, how the sun is pursued by the sun-wolf, and that if the wolf ever shall devour it, it will be the end of all things. There have been several fearful occasions when the wolf has fastened its teeth into the sun. A part of it disappeared from view, and the golden light of day was obscured. What did we do then, brothers in arms? We rushed for our horses, sounded our thunderous war-cry, and smote our shields heavy blows with our swords; and the din of the battle cries, and the clang of our weapons, made the wolf tremble, so that his power was overcome, and he was scared away. The golden globe escaped from its jaws, and it rolled on with renewed force, and blessed us with its flood of light.

"Oh, men, men! The sun of our freedom has been assailed by the fierce wolf of tyranny which is preparing to devour it. Need I tell you where our safety lies? No! You yourselves well know well. I hear your hearts beat. I see your eyes flash. I know you will shout with me, 'To arms, to arms!'"

It seemed as if Thor's chariot of thunder were rolling through the valley, so mighty was the shout of battle, and so loudly resounded the clang of sword on shield. Igomar, who had gone back to his seat had voiced the feelings in their hearts. Segest grew pale. He was eager to prevent a war and had not anticipated such an emphatic approval of it. At last he ventured to appear before the assembly.

"Men," said he, as soon as the outcries had ceased, "I ask you if it is not an old and favorite custom of ours to allow the expression of opinions though they may be contrary to what the majority believe. Conceding this, will you give me your attention for a short time?

A muttered reluctant "Yes "was the reply.

"Then listen attentively to me and decide whether, because I advocate peace, I am lacking in devotion to my fatherland more than those who counsel war. Think what a struggle it is they would have you undertake! I have no doubt of your heroic purpose and determination, but we have as little prospect of victory; over a nation which has conquered half the world as a bear has of overcoming a hundred trained hounds. Even if we should we succeed, after tremendous exertions in defeating the Roman army, how shall we gain fresh strength to overcome those new armies which the world-conqueror will place in the field?' No, men, do not rush into a hazardous undertaking. Were there the slightest hope of success, I would draw my sword and joyfully raise the battle-cry; but after carefully and calmly weighing the situation I counsel peace and union.

"Listen to my advice: send a delegation to Varus, who is now in the Rhine country, and ask the Romans in such manner as shall convince them of our sincerity, for a true friendly alliance, and you will find you have followed a course which will make for your advantage. But, you will say, did not the Sigambri also send a delegation of their princes to the Roman camp, and did not the Roman general make them prisoners? Certainly he did. But you may not know that those who were sent were haughty and insolent and wished neither for peace nor for an alliance. This explains the apparent severity with which the Romans treated them. But if you convince them that you really wish them as peaceful neighbors, and send those to them who wish for peace, I am sure they will gladly and even honorably receive them. I will offer to head the delegation. If you will make such an expression of sentiment, how it will promote the interests of the fatherland! The Germans, after the Romans, will be leaders of the world. The two nations will assist each other in foreign wars. Art and learning will thrive and beautify German life. Trade and commerce will develop and enrich the land.

"Again, consider the fate which inevitably awaits us if we take up arms! Even if we fight like heroes we shall have to succumb to superior numbers, and then we shall hear nothing more about an alliance. Germany will belong to the Romans by right of conquest. Those who survive, with their wives and children, will be forced into captivity. Think of Marbod! He has an army larger than we can raise, and yet he does not dare meet the Romans in the field. Brothers, there is but one alternative: on the one hand, peace and prosperity; on the other, war and its certain result—everlasting servitude."

Segest ceased. After a brief silence low mutterings of discontent were heard. "Traitor," said a voice. This was the signal for a fearful outburst of indignation. Imprecations were heard on all sides, swords were drawn, and spears were levelled at him. A warrior, brandishing his club, rushed at him, but before he could strike the fatal blow Herman interposed with his drawn sword. "Forbear, rash man," he cried, "would you dishonor this assembly of free men with blood-shedding? It was agreed that speech should be free in the Volksthing and that every one should be allowed to express his opinion without personal harm. If we break our word we shall deserve to lose all our freedom. Men," he shouted in mighty tones, "this has always been the custom, as our fathers have told us. Shall it not continue to be?"

"Yes, yes!" was heard on every side.

"Let? the traitor live," said he who first spoke.

"Now hear me also," said Herman. An exultant shout and ringing clash of weapons followed these words. When silence was restored, he said:

"Peace, messenger of light from Balder, the gentle god, would that thou couldst abide with us! But the time is not yet ready for thy earthly coming. We must still serve the battle-gods, Odin and Tyr, with manly courage and heroic deed. The Romans would meet our offer of peace with the drawn sword, and that would destroy our power and force us into hopeless bondage. Can there be any union between day and night, fire and water, virtue and vice, honor and shame? He who counsels peace, his soul has been darkened by Loki's evil spirit. Peace? Can the noble horse consort with the wolf? Would not the wolf strangle it in sleep? Do you not remember that Rome drank the milk of the she-wolf? This wolf has laid waste the earth and has already fastened its teeth into our body. Shall we hesitate to reply with the sword? No, men, rush to the defence and hunt the beast from our land.

"Segest points to Marbod as a warning. Well, if Marbod has not the courage to fight for his fatherland, then we will redeem the honor of the German name, which he has sullied. Segest says we shall be overpowered by superior numbers. I reply that the outcome of battle rests with the gods; no mortal can determine it. Where circumstances are favorable any hero will go into battle exultantly; but woe to him if he cowardly shuns battle for the best interests of his people, for freedom, for the gods, for the preservation of the rights handed down by the fathers, because circumstances seem unfavorable! When captivity threatens us it is the gods' desire that we shall risk our lives. To fall in such a struggle is the highest happiness. A noble man cannot live disgraced. Brothers in arms, there is but one choice. Peace with Rome means slavery. Our only hope lies in war. It will secure us our freedom, or it will translate us to Valhalla, the blest abode of those who give their lives for their fatherland."

Herman had hardly finished speaking when an eagle screamed above the mountain_ heights, which was regarded as a favorable omen. Greater applause followed Herman's speech even than that of Igomar. His name was on the lips of every one.

"Lead us to the sacred war!" "Be thou our leader!" "Thou knowest the ways of the enemy, thou must be our leader!" and other such exclamations came from every side.

Sigmar again arose. He asked whether they would have peace or war. A clash of arms and the war-cry were the answer. Then he asked who should lead them. Thousands of voices shouted "Herman!"

Herman arose. It was an impressive sight, as he stood there with his sword raised toward heaven, addressing the multitude: "Swear with me to be true in the sacred war! Swear with me to live and die for the fatherland!"

Swords were raised and the oath was taken by all but Segest. He had vanished. Herman bade them hold themselves in readiness to meet at his call any day. The offering and prayer by the high priest closed the work of the assembly.

The vast camp of the Romans stretched over a plain on the right bank, of the Rhine. As far as the eye could reach, tent upon tent could be seen. In the centre of the camp was the general's tent, decorated with imperial gorgeousness. The golden Roman eagles stood in front of it upon artistic pillars. The sun was setting and tingeing the water of the neighboring Rhine. Varus, the general, was sitting in front of his tent, in full uniform, with several of his officers. Some of the older officers were seated, like him, upon elegant camp stools. Some of the younger ones stood in a semicircle about him. At some distance away were groups of warriors, some watching their officers, others quietly stretched upon the grass. Between the lines of tents, sentinels paced back and forth with drawn swords.

"The lower Rhine is ours," said Varus. "We have made ourselves secure here. The nearest nations have already become accustomed to our rule, pay the tribute levied upon them, and have recognized the rods and axe as emblems of Roman authority.' Our jurisdiction has been introduced in many localities, and the Roman language is rapidly becoming the national speech in Germany. But an event has occurred which has necessitated an invasion of the country. I am informed that the northern Germans have taken up arms against us. It is a wise policy to quell this uprising at once by armed force. And besides this, we must look to our own advantage by destroying this German national union at a blow and making the nations our subjects. This is all I have to say. See that the army is ready to move as speedily as possible."

Hardly had Varus spoken when a captain came up and announced that a messenger had arrived from Segest, bringing important news. He was ordered to appear.

"Segest bids me tell you," said the messenger, "that Herman has suddenly reached home and has induced the Germans to take the field. His appeals have kindled a dangerous spirit of bitter resentment in all hearts. The people are devoted to him and have made him their leader. One distant nation has already risen in revolt at his command. His plan is to surround the Romans and then make an attack. Keep on the watch against Herman."

Varus laughed contemptuously, as he said: "I send greeting to your master and thank him for this fresh proof of his fidelity. But he need not be alarmed. Herman will soon disappear before the Romans." Saying this, he dismissed the messenger.

"So," resumed Varus, "Herman has actually succeeded in escaping us. Believe me, however, he will not stay at home long now that we have learned of this uprising. He undoubtedly purposes to divide our forces, and may cherish the hope of defeating us in detail. But we will anticipate his fine scheme, by pursuing him with the entire army. He will not be foolish enough to attack us at the head of his barbarians, for his people would desert him. Do you suppose they would risk a battle with an army of forty thousand men? If they should, all the better will it be for us. The greater their foolhardiness the more complete will be their ruin. They will be swept away like the leaves of the oak before the autumn gale."

Thereupon Varus dismissed his officers, and hardly had they disappeared among the adjacent tents when the blast of a trumpet rang through the camp. It was the signal summoning the various divisions of the legions to receive their orders.

Varus watched the scene with proud satisfaction. The golden glow of evening irradiated the mountains and the castle which the Romans had built on the Rhine, called Colonia Agrippina, and which stood on the site of the present city of Cologne. His proud breast swelled with assurance of victory. He saw, in visions, the Germans defeated, and Herman in chains. He saw his triumphal progress through Rome to the temple of Jupiter, and already felt the laurel wreath upon his brow. All eyes were gazing upon him. Fanfares were sounding, and the multitude were shouting, "Welcome the conqueror of the Germans!"

While he sat thus, lost in reverie, he heard above his head the cry of a raven. It aroused him, and he shuddered. It seemed to him he saw a corpse on the ground before him, covered with blood and dust; and its features were his own.

Varus grew pale, but his agitation soon passed away. Springing up so quickly that his sword and armor clashed, his gaze swept over the almost boundless plain. Everywhere weapons glistened in the evening light. Trumpet tones filled the air. It was a spectacle to inspire any one who had not the heart of a dove. A smile took the place of his momentary weakness and spread over his stern visage. Fiercely his eyes gleamed, and resolutely he spoke: "With such an army as this I can conquer the world."