Arminius was the son of the chief of the Germanic Cherusci tribe. Although he was raised as a Roman, he rebelled against his tutors over time and dealt them with one of the greatest failures in the history of the Roman Empire – in the Teutoburg Forest in 9 CE.
Youth and career in the Roman army
[…] young man of noble birth, brave in action and alert in mind, possessing an intelligence quite beyond the ordinary barbarian; he was, namely, Arminius, the son of Sigimer, a prince of that nation, and he showed in his countenance and in his eyes the fire of the mind within. He had been associated with us constantly on private campaigns, and had even attained the dignity of equestrian rank.
– Velleius Paterculus, Roman history, II.118
Arminius was born probably in 17 or 18 BCE, as the son of Sigimer, the leader of the Germanic Cherusk tribe, who had fought for a long time against Rome, eager to extend the influence of its reign. Ultimately, however, they were defeated and forced to sign a peace agreement with the aggressors. Sigimer also had to hand over his two sons, Arminius and Flavus, to Rome as hostages. Hostage-taking among the elite of defeated enemies was quite common practice for the Romans. On the one hand, their lives were to be a guarantee of maintaining the concluded contract, and on the other, the Romans wanted to raise the sons of the tribal aristocracy in their conditions and convince them of the superiority and power of Roman culture over any other.
So both brothers went to Rome, where they learned Latin and learned about Roman customs, war tactics, culture and the power of the Eternal City; as well as his faults, vices and weaknesses. Over time, both young men received Roman citizenship, and were also given the titles of equites and high officer ranks in Roman auxiliary divisions. In the 4th year of our era, both brothers went to Pannonia as commander of the Cherusci auxiliary cavalry units. They both achieved considerable successes and showed considerable courage, earning respect and trust among their Roman allies.
Betrayal and war against Rome
In 7 CE, Arminius returns to Germany and takes over the leadership of his tribe. The Romans at that time controlled the areas east of the Rhine, along the Lippe and Main rivers. However, they intended to expand their expansion eastward, to the Elbe and Weser and counted on the Romanized leader to rule in their way and to support all their actions. In reality, however, it was completely different. Arminius, although he seemed to be a Roman on the surface, remained Cherusk at heart. From the very beginning, he thought of the idea of a rebellion against Rome and the thwarting of their further conquests, as well as the unification of all the Germanic tribes under his leadership. Circumstances favoured the young commander. The governor of Germania at that time was Publius Quintilius Varus, who could not cope with the rule of the lands assigned to him. Varus did not know the customs of the Germanic people and quickly discouraged them, issuing unfair sentences, imposing ruinous taxes and enforcing strict laws. Soon circumstances appeared which opened the way for Arminius to act. Of the eleven legions stationed in Germania, eight were transferred to other parts of the empire, leaving Varus only three legions, or one and a half consular forces. Additionally, two legions were stationed at Moguntiacum under the command of Lucius Nonius Asprenas, Varus’s nephew. It was a great opportunity for Arminius to put his plans into practice.
In the fall, 9 CE, Arminius gave Varus false news of a rebellion in the forests of northern Germania. He also convinced him that the forces he had under him (three legions, six auxiliary cohorts and three cavalry units) would be enough to suppress the rebellion. Varus easily believed the words of young German. A fact in his own life convinced him of their rightness. Well, a few years earlier in Syria, he had suppressed the Jewish revolt with just three legions, one of which was besieged in Jerusalem. Varus had no doubts that such forces would suffice to pacify the ill-armed and disorganized Germans. However, Arminius’s plan was close to failing. His future father-in-law, Segestes, warned Varus that Arminius was plotting against him and was planning a betrayal. Varus, however, ignored all warnings, believing that Segestes’ dislike of Arminius was at the root of them.
Thus, in the fall of 9 CE, the Roman forces under Arminius’ command left the winter lair and marched on a punitive expedition. Everything, however, was an elaborately planned trap. Arminius led the Romans as far as possible into the forests and attacked them at the right moment. The Cherusci tribe was also accompanied by the tribes of Mars, Chatii, Chaucii, Sigambrii and Bructeri. The Romans fiercely resisted for four days, trying hard to break out of the German encirclement, but ultimately suffered a devastating defeat. Three Roman legions (XVII, XVIII and XIX) were completely annihilated. The Germans captured three legionary eagles and other Roman military banners. Varus committed suicide in the face of defeat. Arminius triumphed. After the victory, the Teutons began to destroy all traces of the presence of the Romans. Scattered all over Germany, the forts of auxiliary troops, whose crews were ruthlessly destroyed, went up in smoke. Roman trading posts were destroyed, Roman and Gallic merchants were killed, and the villages of Roman colonists and veterans were burned. Upon hearing this, many of the Romans settled in these areas abandoned their homes and fled across the Rhine. All Germania raged against Rome. Despite the unfavourable situation, Lucius Nonius Asprenas showed considerable bravery, saving the forces entrusted to him from destruction:
Due tribute should be paid to Lucius Asprenas, who was serving as lieutenant under Varus his uncle, and who, backed by the brave and energetic support of the two legions under his command, saved his army from this great disaster, and by a quick descent to the quarters of the army in Lower Germany strengthened the allegiance of the races even on the hither side of the Rhine who were beginning to waver.
– Velleius Paterculus, Roman history, II.120
Lucius then organized a defense on the Rhine, which prevented the Armius from immediately attacking the Gallic provinces. Lucius Cedicius, commandant of the Aliso camp, where Varus’s army was stationed before the departure, gave no less evidence of courage. Together with his soldiers he persevered in the Germanic siege, fending off their incessant attacks, and then, in the words of Velleius, “with the sword won their way back to their friends”.
The Romans strike back
The news of the defeat caused menace and general distress in Rome. The following year, the stepson and adopted son of Octavian, Tiberius arrived in Germania, Renie and strengthened their defenses. Although he spent the next two years in Germania and had ten legions under him, he did not have any major successes, as the Germans avoided confrontation. Soon after, Tiberius returned to Rome as rumours spread of Augustus’ imminent death. Only after his death did the new emperor, Tiberius, decide to counterattack. In 14 CE, Germanicus arrives to take military action in the strict sense of the word. The tribe of Mars fell the first to fall victim to Roman retaliation. Germanicus surprised opponents as they celebrated and were not prepared to fight. Their lands were completely looted and the people were ruthlessly killed. In the words of Tacitus, “neither sex nor age had mercy.” The Germans launched an attack on Germanicus’s forces during the march, but the Romans remained vigilant and repulsed the attack. The following year, Germanicus attacks the Chatti and Cherusci tribes. Arminius, however, did not dare to take the road to Germanicus, seeing the large imbalance of forces. He himself also had to contend with opposition within the tribe. His father-in-law and brother remained faithful to the Romans. Additionally, the former kidnapped his pregnant daughter, Thusnelda, Arminius’s wife, and handed her over to the Romans. Germanicus also managed to recapture the eagle of the 19th legion. The loss of his wife and the loss of the war trophy was a huge blow for Arminius. The Romans also reached the area of the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest, where they buried the bones of their fallen comrades from Varus’ army. At the end of 15, Arminius finally decided to launch an attack on the Roman forces, which were retreating to the winter lair.
The Roman army, led by one of Germanicus’ generals, Caecina, was retreating over the so-called Long Bridges, a narrow path for miles among the marshes created years ago by the soldiers of Lucius Domitius. Roman legions dragged slowly, struggling at the same time with the mud in which carts and pack animals were stuck as the Cherusk Germans attacked. Caecina then ordered the construction of a camp in the marshes and surrounding it with earthen ramparts, hastily built of mud, but the situation of the Romans was still bad. At the same time, they had to repel the attacks of the Germans, pull the carts stuck in it from the swamps, while others tried to stick the ramparts out of the mud. The Cherusci withdrew from the fight only at night, but they did not give the Romans a moment to rest, because they drained the water from the surrounding hills on their positions, which blurred the fortifications raised from the mud. In the morning Caecyna gave the order to continue the march.
At first the Teutons refrained from attacking the enemy, but as soon as the wagons got stuck, Arminius immediately gave the order to attack. The fight was fierce and bloody. Caecyna himself was injured, under whom the horse was killed. The clash was successful for the Germans, as the Romans lost their entire fleet, along with food, tents, tools, military equipment, as well as the personal belongings of legionaries and officers. The Romans ‘complete defeat was saved by the fact that the Germans preferred to focus on looting the carts rather than chasing the retreating enemy, despite Arminius’ calls. Thanks to the delay of the Cherusci family, the Romans managed to reach dry terrain, where they set up a well-fortified camp. Their situation, however, was not the best. They suffered heavy losses and lost all their caravans. The only consolation in this miserable situation was that the legionaries managed to save the legion’s banners and marks. Their situation was therefore almost as tragic as for Varus’s army. Caecina, however, did not intend, following the example of his countryman, to throw himself at his own sword. The next morning, he gathered his officers and announced the battle plan. He wanted to provoke the Germans to attack his camp, and then hit the fights at the embankments and defeat them. The Germans themselves helped him in these plans. The warriors, excited by their earlier victory, were eager to fight and wanted to attack the Romans as soon as possible. Arminius tried his best to stop them from doing so. He knew Roman tactics well and knew how well the legionaries defending the fortified camp fought. He told the warrior that it would be a much better idea to attack the marching Romans, but it did not do much. The Cherusci, prompted to fight by Arminius’ uncle Inguiomerus, rushed to attack. The Romans repelled the attack, inflicting heavy losses on their opponents. Inguiomerus himself was seriously wounded in the battle, brought from the battlefield by faithful warriors. The Romans were victorious in this battle, but suffered heavy losses, both in men and in the supplies of their own army.
The following year, 16 CE, Germanicus again attacks the Germanic tribes. The Germans usually avoided fighting major battles with the Romans, but their constant attacks became so burdensome for them that they forced Arminius, who was at the head of the coalition of Germanic tribes, to finally declare a battle to the invaders. This resulted in an armed clash known as the Battle of Idistaviso. Before the battle, Arminius was to meet his brother, Flavus, who continued to serve Rome faithfully. They both threw insults at each other and apparently they were close, and they jumped at each other’s throats. The duel between them did not happen only because they were both standing on opposite banks of the river. However, there are conflicting accounts of the battle itself. Tacitus in his “Annals” described that the Romans defeated the Germans in a battle in an open area, and then forced them to flee. Other sources say that the Germans were surrounded by the Romans and completely smashed. After all, the battle ended with a crushing defeat of the Germans and heavy losses. In the words of Tacitus:
[…] fifth hour of daylight to nightfall, and for ten miles the ground was littered with corpses and weapons
– Tacitus, Annals, II.18
After the battle, the Romans built a mound on the battlefield, on which they placed the weapons they had captured, with the names of the defeated tribes listed below. Arminius himself and his uncle, Inguiomerus, were wounded and only miraculously escaped captivity. Tacitus claimed that Arminius was captured by Chauk warriors fighting alongside the Romans. They were to recognize the winner from the Teutoburg Forest and let him go free, because of the war fame he enjoyed among the Germans, including those fighting on the side of Rome.
Arminius, despite the fact that the battle of Idistaviso was a severe defeat for him, did not intend to give up the further fight against the Romans. He decided to organize an ambush on them at the Angryvarian Wall, which divided the territories of the Cherusci and Angryvar tribes. The Angryvars were originally allies of the Romans, but they severed their alliance with them and gladly helped Arminius’ forces, which escaped the destruction at Idistaviso. Assuming himself with the Romans, Arminius decided to try out a proven tactic from the Teutoburg Forest and attack the enemy during the march.
Arminius ‘forces numbered about a few thousand cavalry and infantry, which he hid in the forest and at the top of the embankment, awaiting the arrival of Germanicus’ army. However, Germanicus himself learned about the ambush from his spies and decided to surprise Arminius himself. He sent part of his cavalry ahead, under the command of Seius Tuberon, who was to surround the Germans in the forest. As the main Roman forces approached the rampart, Germanicus reformed his army. Four legions, under the command of General Silius, were to march through the forest to the embankment. He himself, at the head of the remaining forces, went to the place of the ambush through the nearby hills. When the legionaries of Silius, defeating small troops of Germans, broke through the forest, Germanicus, unnoticed by the enemy, stepped to the rear of the enemy and attacked the surprised opponents. During the attack on the rampart, the Romans shot the Germans with ballistae and scorpions, then engaged in bloody hand-to-hand combat, personally led by their leader. The clash was very fierce, but the better trained and armed Romans pushed the Germans off the rampart and forced them to flee. The escapees, however, encountered a Roman cavalry that was waiting for the escapees. There was a slaughter. The Romans wanted at all costs to avenge their fallen comrades from the Teutoburg Forest, whose remains they buried themselves and mercilessly murdered every German that fell into their hands. Nobody played in the customary taking of prisoners. The commander himself encouraged ruthlessness towards the enemy:
Germanicus, also, to make recognition the easier had torn off his headpiece and was adjuring his men to press on with the carnage:— “Prisoners were needless: nothing but the extermination of the race would end the war.”
– Tacitus, Annals, II.21
Both Arminius and his uncle, Inguiomerus, showed no great deeds in the battle. Perhaps due to the fact that they both suffered from the wounds they had sustained in earlier clashes. After the battle, Germanicus had the trophy raised to celebrate his victory:
First eulogizing the victors in an address, the Caesar raised a pile of weapons, with a legend boasting that “the army of Tiberius Caesar, after subduing the nations between the Rhine and the Elbe, had consecrated that memorial to Mars, to Jupiter, and to Augustus.” Concerning himself he added nothing, either apprehending jealousy or holding the consciousness of the exploit to be enough.
– Tacitus, Annals, II.22
However, this was the last great battle fought by Germanicus in Germania. In the same year, he attacked the tribes of Mars and Khattów, but apart from the devastation of their lands, there was no serious fight there. The celebration of the campaign of 16, was the reflection of the second of the eagles, lost by Varus. Germanicus planned to attack again the following year, but Tiberius ordered him to return to Rome. The emperor decided that the campaigns in Germania cost more than bring profits. Tiberius also feared that too much of the military fame that Germanicus had gained might be a threat to his own power. The victorious commander then returned to Rome, where he triumphed, and the Rhine was to remain a natural border for many years, separating the Roman Empire from the Germans.
Intra-tribal fighting and death
The leaving of Germania by the Romans, however, was not the end of Arminius’s troubles, as he soon met a worthy rival. That someone was the king of a strong Marcomaniac tribe, Marbod.
Marbod resembled Arminius in many ways. Like him, he spent his childhood hostage in Rome, where he studied Roman customs and culture. Like Arminius, he also became an officer of the auxiliary troops. He also quickly understood how great a threat to his Marcomannian countrymen could be the Roman rule. So when he finally returned to his own, he gathered the entire tribe and moved far east, beyond Roman influence, to the territory of today’s Bohemia, and founded a strong state there, conquering the surrounding tribes. As a result, he quickly became one of the strongest and most influential Germanic rulers. In the sixth year of our era, with the approval of the Romans, with whom he had good relations, he even proclaimed himself king of the Germans. His power, however, was not to last long. In 9 CE, after his great victory in the Teutoburg Forest, Arminius gained enormous popularity and fame among the Germans, thanks to which the tribes of Lombards and Semnons, who had so far obeyed Marbod, betrayed their current king and joined Arminius. However, Inguiomerus was jealous of his nephew’s fame and allied with Marbod, along with part of the Cherusci.
In 17 CE, when the Romans finally gave up on further conquests in Germania, Arminius attacked the Marcomanni and defeated Marbod at the Battle of the Hercynian Forest. It was, however, the only victorious battle of Arminius over Marbod. Soon after, the war came to a standstill, as the Marcomanni king perfectly defended his country, based on natural terrain obstacles, and also sent envoys to Rome asking for help. However, his situation soon worsened as he was attacked by Katuald, a Marcomannic aristocrat whom he had previously expelled. Katuald defeated Marbod and also captured and devastated his capital, Marobudum. The defeated Marbod escaped to Rome. The Romans imprisoned the defeated king in Ravenna, where he spent the rest of his life. It is possible that he met Arminius’ wife imprisoned there, Thusnelda, and their son born in captivity, Tumelik.
After his victory over Marbod, Arminius became the most powerful Germanic commander, but it did not bring him much benefit. He had to contend with the opposition of some Germanic tribes who supported Rome. In addition, the Germans, who were very attached to their own freedom and independence, did not like the growing ambitions of Arminius, who sought to subjugate all Germanic tribes and make them his subjects. As a result, there was a civil war about which we do not know much, however. Tacitus wrote that it was fought for Arminius with varying luck and that he eventually died in 21 CE, killed by his own relatives:
Arminius himself, encouraged by the gradual retirement of the Romans and the expulsion of Maroboduus, began to aim at kingship, and found himself in conflict with the independent temper of his countrymen. He was attacked by arms, and, while defending himself with chequered results, fell by the treachery of his relatives.
– Tacitus, Annals, II.88
The circumstances of Arminius’ death are not clear. It is possible that Flavus had his fingers in the attempt on his life, as his son, Italic, later became the leader of the Cherusci himself. Inguiomerus could also have contributed to his nephew’s death, always envious of Arminius of his military fame and the miracle he had won among the Germans.
Despite the fact that at the end of his life, Arminius tried to impose his power on all Germans and force them to obey, which was the beginning of the end of his rule, for many years he became a hero for them. Tacitus claimed that even in his time the Germans sang songs about him and told legends, considering the winner of the Teutoburg Forest a great hero. Besides, Tacitus himself also spoke respectfully about him:
Undoubtedly the liberator of Germany; a man who, not in its infancy as captains and kings before him, but in the high noon of its sovereignty, threw down the challenge to the Roman nation, in battle with ambiguous results, in war without defeat; he completed thirty-seven years of life, twelve of power, and to this day is sung in tribal lays, though he is an unknown being to Greek historians, who admire only the history of Greece, and receives less than his due from us of Rome, who glorify the ancient days and show little concern for our own.
– Tacitus, Annals, II.88
Arminius’s only wife was Thusnelda, daughter of Segestes, who supported the Romans and was a bitter enemy of his son-in-law. Around 14 CE, Thusnelda allowed herself to be kidnapped by Arminius (the kidnapping of wives was a tradition among the Germans) and married because, after the victory in the Teutoburg Forest, he was surrounded by great war fame and respect from his compatriots. A year later, Segestes abducted his daughter and handed it over to Germanicus who was leading the offensive against the Germans. The loss of his wife was a big blow to Arminius.
In captivity, Thusnelda gave birth to a boy. It is not known what name the mother gave her son, but the Romans called him by the Greek name Tumelicus. During the Battle of Idistaviso, Arminius met his brother, from whom he learned that his wife and son were treated well by the Romans.
After Germanicus returned to Rome, Thusnelda walked in the triumphal procession of the Roman leader, carrying her little son in her arms, as her father watched from the stand. It is also known that she spent the rest of her life in Ravenna, but the date of her death is unknown.
There is also little information about the fate of Tumelikus. Tacitus described in his Annals that they were very turbulent and that he will tell them in detail later. Unfortunately, these fragments of his gun have not survived. It is possible that after the death of his father, Tumelicus ceased to be a valuable hostage for the Romans. Some clues indicate that he may have been sold to a gladiatorial school and died at a young age fighting in the arena to the delight of the Roman crowd, but there is no strong evidence of this.
Thanks to his victory in the Teutoburg Forest and his subsequent activities, Arminius became a hero of the Germanic tribes and later of the German nation for many years. He inspired many artists and politicians, and even religious activists. Its legend was referenced in the sixteenth century, during the Reformation and the struggle against the influence of the Catholic Church. He inspired the Germans during the war of liberation against Napoleon, as well as during the reunification of Germany, as he himself was considered the unifier of the Germanic tribes, as well as during the Franco-Prussian War and both world wars. His fate was the canvas for several operas, and some suppose that he became the prototype of the great hero Siegfried from “Song of the Nibelungs”.