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Scholars look at factors surrounding Hermann’s victory

September 20, 2009
By Kevin Sweeney, Journal Editor

NEW ULM - Hermann's Victory Celebration offered something for those thirst for more than Hermann's Brau. On Saturday morning, over 200 people attended a symposium at Martin Luther College, offering academic insights on the battle and its impact on history.

Dr. Hans Otto-Friedrich Mueller, the William D. Williams Professor of Classics at Union College in Schenectady, N.Y., gave a view of the battle as part of the arc of the history of the Roman Empire.

Hermann, or Arminius as the Romans called him, is credited in Germany with blunting the Roman advance into Germany, allowing German history and culture to develop on its own. In Rome, he was considered a traitor, someone accepted as a Roman and trained as an officer in the Roman army, who then led an uprising in 9 A.D. against the three Roman legions in Germany, annihilating them all in the three-day Battle of the Teutoberg Forest that is being celebrated in New Ulm this weekend.

Article Photos

Staff photo by Kevin Sweeney
A Roman soldier re-enactor poses a question about the Battle of the Teutoberg Forest at a symposium at Martin Luther College Saturday.

An estimated 20,000 Romans were lost in the battle, an act that shocked the people of Rom and their emperor, Augustus Caesar.

The Romans sent two more expeditions into the area in the next few years, under Tiberius Caesar who later became emperor, and under the general Germanicus, but they couldn't engage the Germans in pitched battle, there were no cities to sack and plunder, and Rome eventually decided to make the Rhine River its frontier, instead of the Elbe.

The battle was certainly not the greatest defeat Rome had ever suffered in its long history, said Mueller. "Rome did not collapse in AD9," he said. It would be 400 more years before the Alaric, king of the Visigoths, sacked Rome.

The loss to Hermann was not as devastating as the defeat in 390 BC at the Allia River, 11 miles north of Rome, which led the Gauls to sack Rome. It scarred Romans' memories for centuries, making them fear barbarian invasion from the north.

The Romans lost 30,000 men in one battle against Hannibal in the Punic Wars, and the next year sent 80,000 against him. Seventy thousand were killed, and 10,000 captured.

Why was the defeat by Arminius so much more devastating? Mueller said the Rome had changed from a Republic, defended by citizen soldiers, to an empire, where the rich and powerful were constrained by the emperor. Generals fought campaigns for their own profit and power, not necessarily for the state, and their troops, which shared in their plunder, gave their loyalty to their general.

Essentially, a campaign to subjugate the Germanic territory controlled by Arminius was too expensive. There was no real return to be gained. The land was considered unsuited for much cultivation, the cattle too small, there was no gold or silver, not much commerce to be taxed.

And it was easier, from a Roman security standpoint, to play the German tribes' native animosity against each other, letting them battle each other in bloody wars, rather than try to control them with Roman troops, said Mueller.

"For the Germans, the victory gave them freedom from paying taxes to Rome and the freedom to engage in bloody battles with each other. Who's to say they wouldn't have been better off under Roman control?" said Mueller.

Ultimately, said, Mueller, "their poverty helped preserve their liberty."

He drew a comparison to modern day America, like Rome the richest, most powerful nation in the world of its time.

"Will we choose wealth, militarism and empire, or do liberty and freedom still appeal to the descendants of those who erected the Hermann Heights monument to honor the memory of Arminius?" said Mueller. "We who reflect on Arminius today may not live long enough to learn the answer, but in another, say, 2000 years, time and history will tell."

Dr. Jim Booker, from Mankato, spoke about the battle itself and about Hermann.

"What we know about Arminius is pretty sketchy," said Booker. "We know he and his brother were sons of a chieftain, that they were taken to Rome to be trained as Roman officers, and that when he came back he united the German tribes, rose up, and annihilated three Roman legions.

"We know when it happened, because the Romans told us. But we didn't know where it happened until Tony Clunn discovered the battlefield in 1987. We don't know how he united the tribes that didn't get along with each other very well. We don't know why he did what he did. We don't know the details of the battle. We don't even know what Arminius' German name really was," said Booker.

Hermann had opposition from some of the tribes, including his own brother, who remained loyal to Rome, and his father-in-law, Segestes, who was a Roman sympathizer. He had wanted his daughter Thusnelda, to marry someone else. He also warned Quintilus Varus, commander of the Romans, that an uprising was coming.

When Tiberius and Germanicus returned to the area, Segestes actually turned his daughter, Thusnelda, who was pregnant with Hermann's child, over to the Romans, who took her to Rome. Hermann never saw her again, and never saw her again.

The battle took place as the Romans were marching to their winter encampment. They were strung out, unable to form into their overpowering formations and use their superior organization and cavalry. The weather turned against them, with rain and cold hampering them.

Before the battle was over, Varus committed suicide. His body was later found and his head sent back to Rome. In the narrow defile near Kalkriese, between a swamp and a high hill, the final battle took place, with the Romans annihilated.

Hermann continued to lead the tribes for 12 more years, but he was eventually killed by a relative.

Over the next 1500 years, the German people continued to battle with each other and eventually form separate states. Hermann was recalled during the Protestant reformation when Martin Luther wrote of his opposition to Rome. And in 1875, when the German states were unified into the nation of Germany, the Hermann Monument was raised in Detmold as a sign of Germany nationality.



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