History’s Forgotten:- The Legend of Arminius

You will not hear about Arminius, in the history textbooks like you hear about Alexander the Great, Mahatma Gandhi or Nelson Mandela. Outside his native Germany, the name of this hero is relatively unknown. Yet, his feat marked the turning point for not only European civilization, but for the entire world. It’s the story not just of freedom against insurmountable odds, but also of ingenious military and tactical dexterity, worthy of the highest admiration.

Till, today the Battle of Teutoburg Forest stands out as one of the most seismic battles in human history; one that had far-reaching repercussions for both the Roman empire as well as the Germanic Tribes that bordered them. An inconsequential alliance of Germanic tribes ambushed and slaughtered three Roman legions and their auxiliaries, under the leadership of Arminius — a Germanic officer who formerly served in the Roman Army, who sided with his Tribesmen in launching attacks against the invading army. The attack, so devastating that the Romans never dared attack the German lands again. Many years later, the Germanic tribes would invade Rome and conquer the very power, that tried annexing them.

Arminius was born in 17 B.C to the Cheruscan chief Segimerus. When the Romans were closing in on the Cherusci (sub-set of the German Tribes) Segimerus, the head (who valued the freedom of his people) offered his son as a recruit to the Roman Army (it was a common practice amongst the Romans to recruit young soldiers from foreign lands, while allowing the freedom of those lands as collateral). He was trained as a Roman soldier alongside his younger brother Flavus. He quickly rose through the ranks of the military, becoming a Commander, and was patronized by the Roman Emperor Augustus. There is little information on Arminius’s inner motives and personal life. Being a foreigner brought up in a different society, did he face an identity crises?. Did he do what he did because of the loyalty he felt to his homeland or because of the guilt driven by being on the side of the conquerors? Was it self-interest?(uniting the Germanic People and becoming their King). While, it is very difficult to definitively confirm any of these speculations, historians say, that the last one (becoming their King) was most prominent whilst the other two may also have been contributory. What is known however, is that it seems that Roman incursion into Germanic lands and the constant threat of invasion seemed to have resonated somehow with Arminius’s motives.

What unfolded was a battle so bloody, yet of such calculated brilliance that it completely routed the sent soldiers, after subjecting them to one of the most nightmarish traps to ever be devised. Arminius had planned this for quite a while; he had clandestinely forged alliances with Germanic tribes that had traditionally been enemies, and harnessed their collective outrage over Roman invasions to unite them against the Romans. Serving in the Roman Army, had given Arminius thorough knowledge of the mechanics of Roman Warfare; knowledge of the Romans invincibility in flat land as well as their sophisticated combat formation proved to be invaluable. The Germanic warriors fighting prowess, though impaired by a fractured social organization was taken care of by Arminius’s energetic efforts at unity, while knowledge of the local terrain proved to be a deadly advantage. Finally, Arminius had managed to win the trust of the highest Roman officials, including Varus to the extent of snuffing out any suspicion. The only thing left was a ruse; one which would place the enemy at the exact time, place and circumstance to make defeat unavoidable. To do so he concocted a tale of a fictitious “uprising” in Northern Germany a region unfamiliar to Romans and persuaded Varus, the commander of the legions to divert them to the area. The journey was a long one that led the Army through thick forests, narrow trails where they were lashed by rain, wind and falling trees; the Romans were no longer in their combat habitat. What happened next was a perfect storm; when the romans were grappling with the terrain, the Germanic warriors surrounded and rained down upon the soldiers with a savage fury. The Romans were helpless; battered by rain and unfamiliar terrain as well as the exhaustion of the journey, they became easy prey for the fierce Germanic Warriors. The Roman army suffered considerable casualties, and barely managed to get away from the Germanic onslaught. The nightmare was far from over however; as the terrified soldiers made their way through the forest, hoping to escape, another trap awaited them at the foot of Kalkriese Hill, on the way to the nearest Roman Camp. Here the road was sandwiched between a large bog to the north and the wooded hills to the south. Anticipating the Romans, the Germanic tribesmen had built ditches and walls blocking the road. As the unwary Romans marched into the clutches of another trap, the Germanic warriors once again stormed the field. Efforts to break the wall failed, and the deluge of Germanic warriors overwhelmed the Roman Army, just before mass-slaughtering them. The defeat was catastrophic; 15,000–20,000 Roman Soldiers died with the rest enslaved. Varus committed suicide in fear of being be captured. The defeat of the Roman side was utter and complete. The Battle greatly shook the morale of the Empire, which had thought itself invincible at the time, and hindered Roman Expansion east of the River Rhine. Sadly, he did not get to relish the fruits of triumph for too long; he was murdered by members of his own tribe who felt that he was becoming too powerful

Looking back, one is filled with both a sense of astonishment as well as intrigue, both with regards to the causes behind the Germanic success as well as Arminius’s own motives and achievements. Many historians posit, that Arminius’s was indeed motivated by a desire for power and an opportunity to become the King of his own people, by uniting them and making them loyal to a single leader. Such a postulation would see Arminius as an opportunistic leader, who instead of serving under overlords (Roman Emperor) wanted to be an overlord himself. Such a viewpoint would see Arminius as one who used the trust of the Romans, and battle knowledge to his advantage to secure a victory, and is undoubtedly both a betrayer and deserter. While his actions are morally debateable, the context should also be considered. He was certainly a witness as well as participant in Rome’s forceful annexation of other parts of Europe and was undoubtedly a witness to intrusions into his own homeland. The possible guilt/loyalty combined with what may have been a simmering identity crises would have finally culminated in his final actions. Either ways, he is still worthy of being called a Guardian of Freedom; he had a lot to lose, but did what he did without fearing the consequences, whether selfishly or altruistically. Sacrificing the comfort and stability of his relatively privileged position, to battle against the very side, that had been on for so many years was both bold and audacious, knowing full well the consequence of possible punishment from the Roman side. He was also a brilliant military tactician, with exceptional strategic capabilities. Most importantly, the tale of Arminius is a classic case of how the annals of history are often filled with obscure heroes, the magnitude of whose impact on the world is not always captured and they become mere inkblots in the archives of time. Arminius may have died, and may not have lived long enough for his fame to become immortalized, but his achievement is indisputably great. His and the story of the Battle of Teutoburg is not just a story of the fight for freedom, but also that of personal courage, audacity and strength of purpose.


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