This edition will feature in Issue 38: Language and Culture

The Battle of the Teutoburg Forest in 9 AD was a turning point in history as Arminius led the Germanic barbarians to victory against the Romans. Arminius was raised and educated in Rome and served on campaigns with the Roman army. Although raised in Rome, Arminius was a noble member of the Cherusci tribe, one of many barbarian and often warring tribes in the Germanic provinces. The Roman governor in the region was disillusioned and provocative, who carelessly entrusted Arminius as his source of knowledge in the province. Arminius betrayed this trust and led Varus to believe that he needed assistance in suppressing an uprising deep into the Teutoburg forest. Varus’s legions were stretched, as well as outnumbered in territory that favoured Arminius’s barbarian fighters. Whilst the torrential rains and winds contributed to Arminius’s victory, Arminius certainly used his understanding of Roman weaknesses in warfare to fight effectively. 

After three days of fighting, the Romans were defeated and Varus and his commanders committed suicide rather than admit defeat to Emperor Augustus. The barbarian people tied the heads of the fallen Romans to trees, stole their coveted legionary symbols, and sent governor Varus’s head to Rome. These developments inspired the Romans to return six years later in 15 AD, where the barbarian tribes were thoroughly destroyed and Arminius was eventually assassinated by his own people. 

The story of Arminius is compelling, yet the effects of his intervention are complicated. Several prominent scholars have argued that without his interference, the Roman Empire would have stretched far further to the north and east. Arguably, European languages may not have developed as the use of Latin would have prevented the formation of modern European languages. Moreover, religious proliferation may too have been culled, which could explain why Germany is still divided by Catholic and Protestant differences. Arminius, or Hermann (in German), has been glorified and used for certain political purposes throughout the modern era. Fictions and children’s stories have used Hermann as a figure of inspiration, whilst Martin Luther and the Nazi Party have also glorified his ability to outwit and outpower a stronger force. Arminius can be remembered as a hero for his role in defeating the Romans in one of the greatest ambushes in the history of warfare. Yet, whether his legacy marks the birth of the German nation is contestable and the use of his story must be approached with caution in an age where nationalistic heroes have been manipulated with devastating effects. 

By Oscar Rihll