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Combat in the marshes of Germania September 26, 2011

Posted by Jenny in ancient Rome, classical studies, history.
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Nienwohlder Moor. This image by an unattributed photographer on Wikimedia shows the marshiest-looking marsh I could find for present-day Germany.

This post is the final one of a series on “The Wilds of Germania,” based on writings by the Roman historian Tacitus. You can find any of the series by typing the word “Germania” in the search box at upper right.

In our last visit to Germania, we saw the mutiny of Roman soldiers over problems of pay and length of recruitment. Germanicus managed to promise his way out of the predicament, and the ranks sullenly quieted down. Nothing could do more to revive the spirits of the Roman soldiers than an easy victory with the promise of loot, and Germanicus quickly accomplished this with the massacre of the Marsi.

Germanicus divided his enthusiastic troops into four columns. These ravaged and burnt the country for 50 miles around. No pity was shown to age or sex. Religious as well as secular centers were utterly destroyed—among them the most revered holy place of those tribes [the temple of Tanfana].*

Over the next two years (15-16 AD),  Germanicus led his army to fight the alliance of tribes led by the man the Romans called Arminius and Germans now refer to as Hermann. This was the warrior the Romans had thought one of their own until he turned against them in the disastrous Battle of the Teutoburg Forest.  The army of Germanicus visited the site six years after the battle and buried the whitening bones of their fallen comrades.

Survivors of the catastrophe…pointed out where the generals had fallen, and where the Eagles were captured. They showed where Varus [the Roman commander] received his first wound, and where he died by his own unhappy hand. And they told of the platform from which Arminius had spoken, and of his arrogant insults to the Eagles and standards—and of all the gibbets and pits for the prisoners.

After an initial confrontation with forces of Arminius, Germanicus withdrew his legions to the River Ems, and Aulus Caecina Severus took over the initiative. Caecina marched his troops across the Long Bridges, a narrow causeway earlier constructed by the Romans across a swamp. “All round was slimy, treacherous bog, clinging mud intersected by streams.” Caecina set his soldiers to work repairing the old, broken causeway, and Arminius had the Cherusci tribe attack the working parties.

Everything was against the Romans. The waterlogged ground was too soft for a firm stand and too slippery for movement. Besides, they wore heavy armor and could not throw their javelins standing in the water. The Cherusci, on the other hand, were used to fighting in marshes. They were big men, too, whose thrusts with their great lances had a formidable range.

Night fell, allowing the Romans to escape disaster, but the Germans started diverting streams to run toward the low ground, flooding the causeway. The Romans could hear echoing noise as “the natives feasted with their savage shouting and triumphant songs…. The general had a horrible dream—Varus, covered with blood, seemed to rise out of the morass and call him.”

At dawn Arminius attacked once again. “His chief targets were the horses, which slipped in their own blood and the slimy bog.” Fortunately for the Romans, the Germans eventually stopped killing when they saw the opportunity for some good looting. That night in the gated Roman camp, a rumor started that the Germans were breaking in, and there was a stampede for the gates. Caecina appealed for calm, to no avail. “Then he blocked the gate by throwing himself down across it. The men were not hard-hearted enough to go over the general’s body.”

The Germans were divided as to strategy for the next day’s fighting. Arminius wanted to let the Romans come out of the camp to where he could trap them in the swamp. But another chief called for storming the camp. “Inguiomerus was for the more sensational measures which natives enjoy…that was the way to win more prisoners, and collect loot undamaged.” And so the Cherusci constructed bridges and poured over the parapets of the Roman camp.

The [Roman] battalions received their signals, and the horns and bugles sounded. Shouting, the Romans fell on the German rear. “Here there are no woods or swamps,” they jeered. “It’s a fair field, and a fair chance!” The enemy had been imagining the easy slaughter of a few badly armed men. The blare of trumpets, the glitter of weapons, was all the more effective because it was totally unexpected.

And so it ended in victory for Caecina. The Romans retired to winter quarters on the Rhine, and the next year Germanicus again raised a large army and advanced across the Weser to meet forces of Arminius at Idistaviso. Here the terrain was more advantageous to the Romans, and they inflicted a punishing defeat with heavy casualties. Germanicus continued to push for more action against the tribes, hoping to subdue them definitively. But Emperor Tiberius felt that it was not a wise use of Roman resources to continue pursuing these wild men of marshes and forests who would always return to fight another day. He recalled Germanicus to Rome, where the commander was granted a triumph—a ceremonial parade—the first full triumph celebrated since the one of Augustus in 29 BC.

Germanicus was shifted to eastern territories of the empire, where he grew in power to the point that he was seen as a likely successor to Tiberius. But he died a lingering, suspicious death, accusing Gnaeus Calpurnius Piso, the governor of Syria, of poisoning him.  A not unreasonable supposition, considering that an examination of the floors and walls of his bedroom revealed “the remains of human bodies, spells, curses, lead tablets inscribed with the patient’s name, charred and bloody ashes, and other malignant objects…”

"Death of Germanicus" by Nicolas Poussin

And so I conclude my series on Germania. I find myself fascinated by the contrast between that wild, forested place and the Germany of today. I wrote  three years ago in this blog about the vast Hercynian Forest that spanned the headwaters of the Eder, the Weser, and the Main. Here is how I described it:

We know from ancient writings, beginning with Aristotle and continuing through Julius Caesar and Pliny the Elder, that the Hercynian Forest was a mysterious realm in which the rivers flowed northward, so vast in its extent that one could not go from one end of it to the other in sixty days’ march.  Gigantic oaks grew there so close together that their mighty branches intertwined, creating a pathless and impenetrable mass.  Antlered elk without joints leaned against the sturdy tree trunks to sleep, and, with diligent searching, unicorns could be found.  The ancient ox called aurochs wandered through the dappled forest glades, and a beautiful bird with feathers that glowed like flames flitted among the numberless emerald leaves.

The photo at the top of this post shows a marsh in Holstein, the region north of Hamburg, against the border of Denmark. As mentioned in the caption, it is the only photo I could find that shows anything that really looks like a marsh. The area where Arminius led the Cherusci against the Romans was further south, near the present-day city of Hannover. And marshes in Germany appear to be rather tidy places, controlled by drainage canals and dikes.

* Tacitus, The Annals of Imperial Rome, translated by Michael Grant. Penguin Classics, 1959.

Murnauer Marsh. Photo by Richard Bartz.

The white horses of prophesy July 12, 2011

Posted by Jenny in ancient Rome, classical studies, history.
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Early 20th century depiction of Germanic deity (Thor). Oscar Anton Koch, 1909.

This post is one of a series on “The Wilds of Germania,” based on writings by the Roman historian Tacitus.

Although Tacitus is known primarily as a historian, writing especially about the emperors up to and during his lifetime (c. 54 A.D. to 117 A.D.), he becomes an anthropologist in the Germania. You sense his avid curiosity about the customs of the Germans. Although the Romans had been engaged in warfare with the Germans since the time of Caesar, Tacitus was not interested in portraying this dangerous enemy in a negative light for propagandistic purposes. He wanted to understand how they actually lived and what they actually believed.

But because of the ongoing armed conflict, he treats their military strategy first of all among their customs, describing their weapons and their methods in battle.

Swords they rarely use, or the larger spear. They carry javelins or, in their own language, framms, pointed with a piece of iron short and narrow…. All [are] naked or only wearing a light cassock…their shields are diversified and adorned with curious colors. In their foot [infantry] their principal strength lies…. The infantry are elected from amongst the most robust of their youth, and placed in front of the army…. To recoil in battle, provided you return again to the attack, passes with them rather for policy than fear.*

One of the themes of the Germania is that these people believe in custom and in inspiration rather than in law. Thus, the warriors follow their generals or princes not because of any legal or institutional obligation but because the bravery of a particular leader might inspire them. To bolster their courage, they bring along holy figures taken from their holy groves. Their families accompany them, their wives dashing into the battle to administer meat and encouragement.

They have a king and various princes, the latter being the ones who lead them in battle. In the day of battle, it is scandalous to the Prince to be surpassed in feats of bravery, scandalous to his followers to fail in matching the bravery of the Prince. But it is infamy during life, and indelible reproach, to return alive from a battle where their Prince was slain.

When man and woman are married—and the society is essentially monogamous—the husband gives a dowry to the wife, rather than the reverse. But this consists in part of battle arms which she will pass to the sons for fighting. And, as suggested above, she is expected to join him in battle. The woman may not suppose herself free from the considerations of fortitude and fighting, or exempt from the casualties of war…she comes to her husband as a partner in his hazards and fatigues, that she is to suffer alike with him, to adventure alike, during peace or during war.

The Germans assemble periodically to deliberate on matters of common importance. The time of the gathering is set by a calendar oriented to the passage of night rather than day, determined by the phases of the moon. By the Priests…silence is enjoined…. Then the King or Chief is heard, as are others, each according to his precedence in age, or in nobility, or in warlike renown, or in eloquence; and the influence of every speaker proceeds rather from his ability to persuade than from any authority to command. If the proposition displease, they reject it by an inarticulate murmur: if it be pleasing, they brandish their javelins.

Crimes and offenses are judged in these assemblies. Traitors and deserters they hang upon trees. Cowards, and sluggards, and unnatural prostitutes they smother in mud and bogs…. In lighter transgressions…the delinquents upon conviction are condemned to pay a certain number of horses or cattle.

The assemblies are also a time for a coming-of-age ceremony for young men. It is repugnant to their custom for any man to use arms, before the community has attested his capacity to wield them. Upon such testimonial, either one of the rulers, or his father, or some kinsman dignify the young man in the midst of the assembly with a shield and javelin.

Their houses and their clothing are very crude. They do not live in cities, and none of their dwellings are suffered to be contiguous. They inhabit apart and distinct, just as a fountain, or a field, or a wood happened to invite them to settle. Their homes are made of wood and mud. In the winter, they sometimes dig caves in the ground and lay heaps of dung over them. For their covering a mantle is what they wear, fastened with a clasp…or a thorn. As far as this reaches not they are naked, and lie whole days before the fire…. They wear the skins of savage beasts…. They choose certain wild beasts, and, having flayed them, diversify their hides with many spots, [and in an intriguing but mysterious description] as also with the skins of monsters from the deep, such as are engendered in the distant ocean and in seas unknown.

Hospitality is one of the highest of their virtues. In social feasts, and deeds of hospitality, no nation upon earth was ever more liberal and abounding. To refuse admitting under your roof any man whatsoever, is held wicked and inhuman…. Upon your departure, if you ask anything, it is the custom to grant it; and with the same facility, they ask of you. In gifts they delight, but neither claim merit from what they give, nor own any obligation for what they receive.

Gambling is an important pastime. Playing at dice is one of their most serious employments; and even sober, they are gamesters: nay, so desperately do they venture upon the chance of winning or losing, that when their whole substance is played away, they stake their liberty and their persons upon one and the last throw. The loser goes calmly into voluntary bondage.

But the slaves are not harshly treated. Each of them has a dwelling of his own, each a household to govern. His lord uses him like a tenant, and obliges him to pay a quantity of grain, or of cattle, or of cloth. To inflict stripes upon a slave, or to put him in chains, or to doom him to severe labor, are things rarely seen.

The Germans are devoted to the practice of lots and auguries. From a tree which bears fruit they cut a twig, and divide it into two small pieces. These they distinguish by so many several marks, and throw them at random…upon a white garment. Then the Priest of the community…after he has solemnly invoked the Gods, with eyes lifted up to heaven, takes up every piece thrice, and having done thus forms a judgment according to the marks before made.

When engaged in war, they take a captive from the enemy and put him into combat with one selected from their own, each armed after the manner of his country, and according as the victory falls to this or to the other, gather a presage of the whole.

But often they use birds and animals for the purposes of prophesy. Here also is the known practice of divining events from the voices and flights of birds. But from this nation it is peculiar, to learn presages and divine admonitions from horses…. These are nourished by the State in the same sacred woods and groves, all milk-white and employed in no earthly labor. These, yoked in the holy chariot, are accompanied by the Priest and the King, or the Chief of the Community, who both carefully observe his actions and neighing.

Wodan Heals Balder's Horse, by Emil Doepler (1905).

Next to come: The Battle of the Teutoburg Woods.

*All quotations from Germania, translated by Thomas Gordon (1910).

“No gods enclosed within walls” July 5, 2011

Posted by Jenny in ancient Rome, classical studies, history.
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Home of the Germanics ("Black Forest Valley" by Margret Hofheinz Doering)

This post is one of a series on “The Wilds of Germania,” based on writings by the Roman historian Tacitus.

It is hard enough to reach back through the darkness of time to the 1st century A.D., when Tacitus lived and wrote. But it is especially hard when trying to visualize the worlds that lay at the murky frontiers of the Roman Empire.

When we think of Germanic mythology or folk customs or beliefs, we tend to think of periods that came later, of the folk tales that were adapted by the Grimm brothers or the deities that Wagner took up in his Ring cycle and made into characters in a 15-hour opera performance. We are generally thinking of mythology from a period when at least a few things were put into writing and when beliefs were influenced by Christianity.

There was no writing in Germania. Many of the Germans wore skins rather than fabrics. They had the weapons of the Iron Age. To residents of the Mediterranean, these mysterious folk had seemed strange and frightening  ever since the time that Pytheas of Massalia first encountered them when he sailed along the northern coast of Europe around 320 B.C. Not much more was written until several centuries later, when Caesar and Pliny the Elder both mentioned them in their accounts and described the boundless Hercynian Forest in which many of them lived.

Tacitus took a special interest in the place and the people. Fascinated by their “wonderful savageness,” he wrote about them in a way strikingly balanced. He judged them to be in some ways slothful and gluttonous, but also brave in their warfare. He wrote about their customs in Germania and about their wars with the Romans in the Annals. He enjoyed comparing such cultures with that of his empire—not only the Germans but the British. Sometimes, in his scathing commentary, the foreigners came out looking better than the corrupt and decadent individuals among his fellow citizens. (His writing about Britain, Agricola, has famous examples of that.)

Pre-Migration Age Germania (click for zoom)

The Roman writers always emphasized the wildness of the area. (All quotations in italics below are from Germania, translated 1910 by Thomas Gordon.)

Their lands, however somewhat different in aspect, yet taken all together consist of gloomy forests or nasty marshes; lower and moister towards the confines of Gaul, more mountainous and windy towards Noricum and Pannonia; very apt to bear grain, but altogether unkindly to fruit trees; abounding in flocks and herds, but generally small of growth.

The people all had the same appearance, Tacitus said.

Hence amongst such a mighty multitude of men, the same make and form is found in all, eyes stern and blue, yellow hair, huge bodies, but vigorous only in the first onset. Of pains and labor they are not equally patient, nor can they at all endure thrift and heat.

Many used barter rather than coin.

The Germans adjoining to our frontiers value gold and silver for the purposes of commerce, and are wont to distinguish and prefer certain of our coins. They who live more remote are more primitive and simple in their dealings, and exchange one commodity for another.

In speaking of the Germanic divinities, Tacitus does not mention any of the ones we might think of: Wodan, Thor, Odin. He mentions a ballad in which

they celebrate Tuisto, a God sprung from the earth, and Mannus his son, as the fathers and founders of the nation.

But it appears they have borrowed some divinities from the Romans.

Of all the Gods, Mercury is he whom they worship most. To him on certain stated days it is lawful to offer even human victims. Hercules and Mars they appease with beasts…

The Germans practice worship in the open air.

They judge it altogether unsuitable to hold the gods enclosed within walls, or to represent them under any human likeness. They consecrate whole woods and groves, and by the names of the gods they call these recesses; divinities these, which in contemplation and mental reverence they behold.

Next to come: social customs of the Germans.

"Pine Trees" by Margret Hofheinz Doering