Herman and Thusnelda - George Upton

The Banquet

Architecture at the time of our story—the first ten years after the birth of Christ—was very crude in Germany. But we must not take the statement of the Romans too literally when they speak of the miserable huts in which our ancestors lived. We must remember that they may have seemed so to the Romans in comparison with their own elegant temples and palaces.

The abode of the old Cherusci Prince, Sigmar, was in a wild and romantic spot, near the Weser. About a hundred yards apart were two somewhat lofty red stone towers of cylindrical shape, connected by a broad strong structure, the walls of which were made of stout oaken beams, cut four-square and so closely fitted that they were almost as solid as stone. In the centre of this structure was a large room used for the entertainment of guests and the reception of those who had business with the Prince. The inside of the structure was in harmony with the outside. A banquet table of solid oak, supported upon huge feet, stood in the middle of the room, and the seats around it were made of the same wood. The Prince's chair stood upon a slightly elevated platform at the head of the table. The walls were hung with trophies of the chase and battle. Shields were suspended in long rows, some of them polished, others painted in bright colors. Flowers were pictured on some of them, and on others the animals sacred to the gods or famous for their great strength. Long swords hung between the shields, most of them old and showing the marks of many a battle.

The heroes of that time had special names for their swords as they had for their steeds. Almost every one had its story of adventures and glorious deeds. They were handed down as sacred legacies from father to son, and the son plighted his honor to keep the record untarnished and enrich it with fresh exploits. Death alone could absolve him from that duty. Here and there hung a sword which had been in possession of brave men, and was reputed to have come from the gods. Naturally the ownership of such a sword inspired the warrior with the highest courage and prowess. The walls were also decorated with the antlers of stags and elks much larger than those now found in our forests.

The servants covered the oaken seats with bear-skins, the heads ornamented with red stripes and silver teeth, and the feet with silver claws. This was the usual preliminary of a banquet. Prince Sigmar and a train of his stout champions shortly entered and took seats. The Prince was nearly a hundred years old. His hair was snowy white, and his silvery beard covered his broad breast; but his arm was still strong, his step firm, his back unbent, and his flashing eyes betokened a vital activity still unimpaired. Dress was plain in those days; but costly furs, in the preparation of which the Germans were very skilful, and which were specially useful as outer garments, were common. Two gray-bearded men, strongly resembling the Prince in their strength and activity, sat at his right and left. Their bearing as well as their dress indicated that they were high in authority. One of them was Igomar, Sigmar's brother; the other, Segest. The rest of the guests held subordinate positions. Not one of them had an unscarred face, the god of battle having written his inscriptions upon each. Flavius and Herman, the Prince's sons, at first sight looked like men of extraordinary strength and endurance, but by the side of these heroes they appeared like children.

Many a strong word had been uttered, and many a horn of mead had been drunk in honor of the gods, when a well-known blast of the horn was heard outside. There was instant silence round the board. Six servants brought in a roasted wild boar, the animal sacred to Thor, upon a huge platter. It was placed upon its knees in the platter and held an apple in its jaws. This custom still prevails in great feasts at which the boar's head is brought on with a lemon in its mouth.

One guest after another discoursed upon topics in which he was interested, and the conversation at last became general. "The Romans are the most warlike people in the world," said Segest.

"Why do you praise our enemies?" said the Prince.

Segest replied: "Because I think the praise is deserved. But I do not think they are now our enemies."

"Why not?" asked Sigmar.

"Because," replied Segest, "they have not made a hostile demonstration against us for two years."

Then Igomar joined in the conversation: "To ascertain the intentions of the Romans we must consider a longer period than two years. Drusus has shown his hostility to all the German nations—to the Suevi, the Chatti, the Sugambri, the Usipii, the Teutoni, the Bructeri, and ourselves. Twice he has penetrated our land—to the Ems and the Weser; yes, indeed, a third time—to the Elbe. Have we not survived them all? Have we been subdued? Each time we fell back to our forests until winter came, which forced him to retreat for lack of subsistence."

"Then," said one of the company, "we swarmed about them, and harassed them like Wotan's ravens, and many a bloody offering we made to the battle god."

"That is true," resumed Igomar; "the gods fought for us, for when on his last expedition Drusus reached the Elbe, they sent a wonderful woman, who met him and said: 'How long wilt thou continue to invade our land, insatiable Drusus? Thou wilt never gain possession of it. Depart hence. The end of thy career and of thy life draws near.' Thereupon Drusus turned back, and a few days later he was thrown from his horse and killed."

"But what would you suggest?" asked Segest.

"I would suggest that we should not close our eyes to the designs of the Romans merely because we have had two years of rest from their arms. Up to the present time they have been discouraged because of the disastrous results of their operations, as well as by the anger of our gods. But does it follow that they will long keep the peace? The wise plan for us is to awake and prepare to meet fresh invasions."

"Are we not already prepared?" said a warrior. "Should the Romans invade us again we can fall back until winter comes. Then with our allies' help we can drive them back."

Segest answered, with a laugh: "So! It has occurred to you also that we cannot fight the Romans without the help of allies."

"Segest," said Prince Sigmar, "you are wrong. For a hundred years the Germans have been strong enough to repulse the Romans without assistance. Have you forgotten the Cimbrians and Teutons? They annihilated the armies of Rome in five victorious battles. In the last one, one hundred and twenty thousand Romans fell. Rome trembled, and even to-day shudders at the name of the Cimbrians. This proves that the Germans need no other allies than their rights and their swords."

"But supposing the Romans wished to become our allies! Would we consent in that case?" said Segest.

Greatly astonished, Igomar asked: "How! If they wished! Is invasion of the country of those whose allies they would become, the way to express such a wish?"

"I believe," replied Segest, "it is their wish. They are in a peculiar situation. They fear an attack by us as they once feared attack by the Cimbrians and Teutons, and by making a show of their real strength they hope to induce us to consent to a friendly union and alliance."

Sigmar frowned and said in a displeased tone: "Even if they did, I would never give my consent to an alliance with treacherous strangers who, outwardly professing to wish for peace, make war upon our country and plunder us. You seem to be the panegyrist of the Romans, Segest, but what you have just advised will be considered by all honorable men as degrading both in word and deed."

Segest was silent.

We must make preparations for our safety," said Igomar. The noble Marbod has set us the example. He has gone with his people to Bohemia, founded there the Marcomannian kingdom, and raised an army of eighty thousand men."

The Prince shook his brother's hand. His face again lighted up, as he said: "I approve of all that Marbod has done. Do you know that I have been thinking much of the step he has taken, and intended before this to tell you what I think? Marbod was in Rome several years. He learned their art of war and their plans. We must send youths to Rome, so that they may find the best means of securing ourselves against Roman attacks. I have already decided to send my sons there. Herman and Flavius, what think you of it?"

Up to this time the youths had not taken part in the discussion, for in those days it was the custom of the young to keep silent when their elders were talking. Now that they were bidden to speak they courteously thanked their father for his decision.

The Prince's announcement had made their cheeks glow and their eyes glisten with delight, but what was passing through the minds of the two at that moment was as different as day and night. Flavius had heard much about the wonders of Rome, the world-city, from Segest, who was even more devoted to the Romans than he dared to admit openly. A stirring picture of the glitter and pomp of the city fascinated him. And now, suddenly and unexpectedly the door was opened which would admit him to the pleasures he had always envied the Romans.

Herman, on the other hand, knew that Marbod, for whom he had great respect, had also been in Rome. He was eager to learn how to conduct war with the same skill and ability Marbod displayed. The Prince had often shown him that Marbod in every emergency knew how to form his plans for repulsing Roman invasions, whether they were short or long. "I will improve my opportunities in Rome to perfect myself and make myself worthy of my father." This was the thought that filled Herman's soul and inspired him.