Thursday, August 02, 2012

Herman the German - A long forgotten English Hero

One of the fifteen decisive battles of history identified by Edward Creasy was the battle in the Teutoburg Forest where the Roman General Varus lost three legions almost to a man to a huge ambush by the German tribesmen.  We have a pretty good account of the engagement from Tacitus and Creasy writes it up superbly to make it into a great piece of writing.  It is hard to dispute that this is indeed a decisive battle since it prevented the Romans from establishing a frontier much further east which would have made the empire much deeper and would have reduced the length of the frontier that needed to be defended considerably.  Had they succeeded the empire might well have lasted a lot longer.

But having told us about it in splendid style, he then picks up on an aspect of it that would completely elude a modern historian.  The German commander was a man called Arminius.  He had been held as a hostage as a young man and had served in the Roman army and so knew their culture and their tactics well.  This no doubt played a large part in how he succeeded in winning a stunning victory against an enemy he must have had the measure of.  It also makes him not exactly a pure example of a German barbarian leader.
Nonetheless Creasy presents him as a sort of proto-German nationalist figure.  Arminius had a brother who had stuck with the Romans. 

There is a story that not long after the battle in the forest subsequent campaigning brought the two men came close to one another.  Contact was made and the archers on both sides withdrawn to allow them to talk to each other across a river.  This has been portrayed by much later German writers as a dramatic encounter with the patriotic true hearted Arminius blasting his backsliding sibling for cowardice by continuing to work for their people's enemies.