Herman the German

Herman the German

Varusschlacht

By Martin Simons

On a prominent forested ridge, the Teutoburger Wald, near the town of Detmold in Germany, there stands a mighty statue, a warrior with sword upheld. The size can be gauged from the human figures in the photograph. Hermansdenkmal is a popular tourist attraction.

The Herman’s Denkmal

The monument commemorates the decisive battle of the year AD 9, when three Roman legions, about 20,000 men led by Quinctilius Varus, were slaughtered by rebellious Cherusci tribes under the chieftain Herman, known to the Romans as Arminius. Construction of the gigantic edifice was started in 1841 but funds ran out and it was not completed till 1875. By this time the great Prussian Bismark was Chancellor of the German Empire, very keen to arouse national pride. Funds for completion were found.

Herman had served as an auxiliary in the Roman army, becoming an officer and a Roman citizen. When he returned to his home region to claim his inheritance, he became leader of the disparate and disorganised Cherusci tribes. He united them and turned against Rome; to the Romans he was a traitor. He understood the Roman army and also knew the capabilities of the tribes.

Varus, by political and family influence had achieved Consulship in Rome. An aristocrat politician, he had little military experience but under his governorship a revolt in Judaea was suppressed in AD 4. Four years later, Augustus Caesar appointed him to head the Army on the Rhine. It was expected that he would easily subdue the rebellious Germans.

Misled by false intelligence, his first great mistake was to lead the army from their fortified camp eastwards into the forests on the assumption that they would face a pitched battle in open space. The formidable Roman method of fighting in formation, he supposed, would surely prevail against ill-organized barbarian rebels.

As they struggled along the narrow way between forest and swamps the legions were allowed to straggle so that the leading troops were five kilometres ahead of the tail enders. This was Varus’s second fundamental error. Unprepared for battle the stumbling foot soldiers, carrying heavy loads of armour, shields, weapons and camping gear, could not deploy into any compact fighting array. The cavalry could hardly move off the track, and the long baggage train of laden mules was virtually defenceless.

The tribes prepared an ambush, or a series of ambushes. Among the trees and undergrowth they built protective barriers of earth topped with wooden fences close to the route the army had to follow. From these shelters, at times and places of their choosing, the Germans attacked the straggling column with spears, swords and axes. The fighting continued for three days. The victory was total. The Eagle standards, sacred emblems which the legions always carried into battle, were lost to the enemy; a bitter disgrace. Prisoners were not taken. To surrender was to face death. The only escape for the legionaries was to desert and hide if they could.

In Rome when news of the catastrophe arrived, it is said that the Emperor Augustus Caesar raved around the Imperial Palace crying ‘Varus, Varus, bring back my Legions’. They never did return. Varus himself was wounded and committed suicide.

Six years later another Roman army, led more intelligently, came to seek revenge. The Roman historian Tacitus[1] described what they found:

A half ruined breastwork and shallow ditch showed where the last pathetic remnant had gathered. On the open ground were whitening bones, scattered where men had fled, heaped up where they had stood and fought back. Fragments of spears and of horses’ limbs lay there – also human heads fastened to tree trunks. In groves nearby were the outlandish altars at which the Germans had massacred the Roman colonels and senior Company Commanders.

So, six years after the disaster, a Roman army came to this place and buried the bones of the men of three legions.

This battle had a profound influence on the subsequent history of Europe and the entire western world. Despite later campaigns, during which at least one of the lost Eagles was recaptured, the Romans never took control of what we now call Germany. This was the limit of the Empire in northern Europe. The Varusschlacht, as it is known now, can be regarded as the beginning of the German nation. No doubt that is how Bismark saw it.

The monument is seriously misplaced. For almost two millennia, the site of the engagement was unknown. That it occurred somewhere near the Teutoburger ridge was accepted. The exact site was found only a few years ago. The discovery was made by an English army officer who had an interest in archaeology. Intrigued by reports from farmers of various finds in an area near the village of Kalkriese, he did some exploratory digging himself which produced exciting results. With a soldier’s eye for country he realised that the landscape matched closely the surviving accounts of the battle site, densely wooded slopes on one side and what had been impassable marshland and swamp on the other, with a narrow way between. Here it was feasible that a large and well-equipped but mishandled army, could be ambushed and destroyed piecemeal by determined attackers from the dark forest.

Professional archaeologists from the German universities were soon digging and any remaining doubts were quickly settled. Some 30 kilometres from Herman’s Denkmal, on the northern side of the Teutoburger Ridge, was the place where Varus met his doom.

It is 2003 years since the Varusschlacht. Digging and development continues as more and more finds are uncovered. An impressive visitor’s centre with numerous exhibits and a cinema for instructive films has been built. There is a restaurant and coffee shop nearby and ample car parking. The main museum stands alone. It is a rather strange three-storey tower, clad in red-brown oxidised steel. Within are displayed thousands of discovered items: fragments of Roman and tribal weapons and armour, coins, remnants of wagons and harnesses, utensils and bones, animal and human. The most spectacular exhibit, which has become the recognised emblem of the whole, is the steel face mask of a Roman cavalryman. This would fit over the man’s face, protecting nose, mouth and chin, with wide but narrow eye slits. It would have been plated with silver but this was evidently removed by the German victors and the steel shell itself discarded to be excavated in astonishingly good condition after two millennia in the ground.

The face mask of a Roman cavalryman

From the open viewing platform at the top of the tower, the whole battleground can be surveyed. Equipped with earphones and small disc players (in the language of choice), visitors, after seeing the museum exhibits, are guided on a walk through the entire excavated area. The commentary is in the form of a solemn, reflective, dialogue between the rival commanders, Varus and Herman.

Ten years after the battle, Herman was assassinated by his own kinsfolk, who apparently thought him too ambitious.

In shops in the city of Osnabruck, not far away, numerous books and souvenirs are for sale. The village of Kalkriese has become a popular attraction for tourists.

It has been suggested that Hermansdenkmal should be moved closer to the true battleground. Such a move does not seem very likely. If you wish to see Herman the German you will have to go to the Denkmal.

Attention! Hermann is coming                            Photo by M Simons of a poster seen in Kalkriese



[1] Tacitus, Annals I-61

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