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The battle of the Teutoburg Forest July 18, 2011

Posted by Jenny in ancient Rome, classical studies, history.
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Roman ceremonial mask displayed at the Kalkriese Museum, near the battle site

This post is one of a series on “The Wilds of Germania,” based on writings by the Roman historian Tacitus. This particular post relies primarily on other sources, as Tacitus did not describe the battle in his writings—he only described the grisly scene that met the eyes of Romans who visited the site six years later.

This battle, about which very little is known with certainty, has been reinterpreted by many individuals, particularly for the cause of German nationalism.

Our knowledge of the battle of the Teutoburg Forest comes ultimately from several Roman historians: Velleius Paterculus, Cassius Dio, Publius Annius Florus, and Cornelius Tacitus. As mentioned above, Tacitus did not write about the battle but only about its aftermath—the battle occurred during the reign of Augustus, and his Annals of Imperial Rome begins with the death of Augustus and the succession of Tiberius. His Germania is an anthropological description of the German peoples rather than an account of Roman-German conflicts.

There are many contradictions in these early accounts, but it is generally agreed that the Teutoburg Forest battle, fought in September of the year 9 A.D., was a catastrophe for the Romans and a triumph for the Germans. Three legions of Roman soldiers under the command of Publius Quinctilius Varus, the XVII, XVIII, and XIX, were ambushed and virtually wiped out by German tribes who put aside their traditional rivalries to defeat the hated Romans. The tribes were secretly organized by a man of German origin who had been given to the Romans as tribute when he was just a boy. He had been educated in Rome and was trusted as an associate by Varus. The Romans called him Arminius. His name was later “re-Germanicized” to Hermann.

Romanticized depiction of "Hermann," Johann Peter Theodor Jansen, 1870

I will use the German name in this discussion, even though it is a bit spurious (we don’t actually know his birth name), simply because the man was indeed German in his origin and in his allegiance. Hermann returned to his homeland with the army of Varus and secretly negotiated alliances between the German tribes: the Cherusci, Marsi, Chatti, Bructeri, Chauci, Sicambri, and Suebi. When Varus was moving his forces from his summer camp near the Weser River to his winter base near the Rhine, Hermann invented stories of a rebellion of Germans in a nearby town and made sure Varus heard of it—and that it was a matter that needed to be tended to urgently.

One of the many contradictions in the accounts concerns the character of Varus. The Wikipedia article describes him as a ruthless individual given to practicing crucifixion as punishment for rebels. However, the account of Velleius Paterculus describes Varus as “of a mild disposition and a sedate manner.”

Varus took his army through unfamiliar territory to reach the area of the supposed rebellion. His troops marched in a long, narrow line because of the nature of the terrain: they had bogs on one side and hills on the other. The line is said to have extended as far as 12 miles. The Germans had constructed defense works as they waited for the hapless Romans to come along.

Recreated German fortifications

The Germans rained down their javelins on the Romans from behind their fortifications, and then, as they saw many Romans falling or fleeing, they ran in pursuit. According to one account, the battle lasted less than a day; according to another, it lasted three days, with the Romans breaking out with heavy losses, establishing a camp, then fighting again with yet more losses, fleeing, and enduring casualties of nearly all of their number—estimated at 15,000 to 20,000 total. The ones who survived were said to be enslaved or sacrificed, some even supposedly cooked in pots. Varus committed suicide. Vellius Paterculus wrote: The savage enemy mangled the half-burned body of Varus. His head was cut off and sent to Marobodus [king of the Marcomanni, a Germanic people] and by him sent to the Emperor; and so at length received honorable burial in the sepulcher of his family.

Memorial to a centurion of the XXVIII legion named Marcus Caelius. Erected by his brother.

The account of Cassius Dio describes the area of the battle as full of mountains, ravines, and impenetrable forest. At the site now recognized as the most probable location of the battle, near Osnabrueck in northwestern Germany, no such features exist. Jona Lendering of livius.org, a website devoted to ancient history, writes: Dio thought that the Germanic tribes lived on the edges of the earth, which the ancients conceptualized as a big forest, occupied by barbarian savages. Dio mentions mountains, ravines, and impenetrable forests…. The battlefield has been discovered near Osnabrueck, and there were neither mountains nor ravines. There may have been a forest, but it was certainly not impenetrable, because there was a village on walking distance from the excavated part of the battlefield.

Teutoburg Forest as it is today

A mythicized version of the story of the battle fed into feelings of German pride and nationalism, starting in the 19th century and continuing well into the 20th. A giant statue of Hermann was erected.

Hermann's Memorial

The symbolically weighty images were perpetuated in both painting and sculpture.

"Varus's Battle" by Otto Albert Koch, 1909

I really wonder about all those helmets with wings on them…is there any historical basis for that?

Teutoburg Forest has even been used as a touchstone by right-wingers in the U.S., where the “decentralized” governance of the German tribes is set in opposition to the “centralizing features of Roman law” (read “states’ rights” versus that demon of the federal government). This website features a description of the battle beside advertisements for the John Birch Society.

Tacitus gives us the following description of Roman soldiers under Germanicus visiting the battle site. The scene lived up to its horrible associations. Varus’ extensive first camp, with its broad extent and headquarters marked out, testified to the whole army’s labors. Then 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…. And so, six years after the disaster, a Roman army came to this place and buried the bones of the men of three divisions.

Next to come: the campaigns of Germanicus.

"Grave of Arminius" (Hermann) by Caspar David Friedrich, 1812

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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