The Great Events by Famous Historians, Vol 2

Author: Edward Shepherd Creasy  | Date: A.D. 9


I have said above that the great Cheruscan is more truly one of our national heroes than Caractacus is. It may be added that an Englishman is entitled to claim a closer degree of relationship with Arminius than can be claimed by any German of modern Germany. The proof of this depends on the proof of four facts: First, that the Cheruscans were Old Saxons, or Saxons of the interior of Germany; secondly, that the Anglo-Saxons, or Saxons of the coast of Germany, were more closely akin than other German tribes were to the Cheruscan Saxons; thirdly, that the Old Saxons were almost exterminated by Charlemagne; fourthly, that the Anglo-Saxons are our immediate ancestors. The last of these may be assumed as an axiom in English history. The proofs of the other three are partly philological and partly historical. It may be, however, here remarked that the present Saxons of Germany are of the High Germanic division of the German race, whereas both the Anglo-Saxon and Old Saxon were of the Low Germanic

Being thus the nearest heirs of the glory of Arminius, we may fairly devote more attention to his career than, in such a work as the present, could be allowed to any individual leader; and it is interesting to trace how far his fame survived during the Middle Ages, both among the Germans of the Continent and among ourselves.

It seems probable that the jealousy with which Maroboduus, the king of the Suevi and Marcomanni, regarded Arminius, and which ultimately broke out into open hostilities between those German tribes and the Cherusci, prevented Arminius from leading the confederate Germans to attack Italy after his first victory. Perhaps he may have had the rare moderation of being content with the liberation of his country, without seeking to retaliate on her former oppressors. When Tiberius marched into Germany in the year 10, Arminius was too cautious to attack him on ground favorable to the legions, and Tiberius was too skilful to entangle his troops in the difficultparts of the country. His march and countermarch were as unresisted as they were unproductive. A few years later, when a dangerous revolt of the Roman legions near the frontier caused their generals to find them active employment by leading them into the interior of Germany, we find Arminius again active in his country’s defence. The old quarrel between him and his father-in-law, Segestes, had broken out afresh.

Segestes flow called in the aid of the Roman general, Germanicus, to whom he surrendered himself; and by his contrivance, his daughter, Thusnelda, the wife of Arminius, also came into the hands of the Romans, she being far advanced in pregnancy. She showed, as Tacitus relates, more of the spirit of her husband than of her father, a spirit that could not be subdued into tears or supplications. She was sent to Ravenna, and there gave birth to a son, whose life we know, from an allusion in Tacitus, to have been eventful and unhappy; but the part of the great historian’s work which narrated his fate has perished, and we only know from another quarter that the son of Arminius was, at the age of four years, led captive in a triumphal pageant along the streets of Rome.

The high spirit of Arminius was goaded almost into frenzy by these bereavements. The fate of his wife, thus torn from him, and of his `babe doomed to bondage even before its birth, inflamed the eloquent invectives with which he roused his countrymen against the home-traitors, and against their invaders, who thus made war upon women and children. Germanicus had marched his army to the place where Varus had perished, and had there paid funeral honors to the ghastly relics of his predecessor’s legions that he found heaped around him.3

Arminius lured him to advance a little farther into the country, and then assailed him, and fought a battle, which, by the Roman accounts, was a drawn one.

The effect of it was to make Germanicus resolve on retreating to the Rhine. He himself, with part of his troops, embarked in some vessels on the Ems, and returned by that river,and then by sea; but part of his forces were intrusted to a Roman general named Ccina, to lead them back by land to the Rhine. Arminius followed this division on its march, and fought several battles with it, in which he inflicted heavy loss on the Romans, captured the greater part of their baggage, and would have destroyed them completely had not his skilful system of operations been finally thwarted by the haste of Inguiomerus, a confederate German chief, who insisted on assaulting the Romans in their camp, instead of waiting till they were entangled in the difficulties of the country, and assailing their columns on the march.

In the following year the Romans were inactive, but in the year afterward Germanicus led a fresh invasion. He placed his army on shipboard and sailed to the mouth of the Ems, where he disembarked and marched to the Weser, there encamping, probably in the neighborhood of Minden. Arminius had collected his army on the other side of the river; and a scene occurred, which is powerfully told by Tacitus, and which is the subject of a beautiful poem by Prd. It has been already mentioned that the brother of Arminius, like himself, had been trained up while young to serve in the Roman armies; but, unlike Arminius, he not only refused to quit the Roman service for that of his country, but fought against his country with the legions of Germanicus. He had assumed the Roman name of Flavius, and had gained considerable distinction in the Roman service, in which he had lost an eye from a wound in battle. When the Roman outposts approached the river Weser, Arminius called out to them from the opposite bank and expressed a wish to see his brother. Flavius stepped forward, and Arminius ordered his own followers to retire, and requested that the archers should be removed from the Roman bank of the river. This was done; and the brothers, who apparently had not seen each other for some years, began a conversation from the opposite sides of the stream, in which Arminius questioned his brother respecting the loss of his eye, and what battle it had been lost in, and what reward he had received for his wound. Flavius told him how the eye was lost, and mentioned the increased pay that he had on account of its loss, and showed the collar and other military decorations that had been givenhim. Arminius mocked at these as badges of slavery; and then each began to try to win the other over—Flavius boasting the power of Rome and her generosity to the submissive; Arminius appealing to him in the name of their country’s gods, of the mother that had borne them, and by the holy names of fatherland and freedom, not to prefer being the betrayer to being the champion of his country. They soon proceeded to mutual taunts and menaces, and Flavius called aloud for his horse and his arms, that he might dash across the river and attack his brother; nor would he have been checked from doing so had not the Roman general Stertinius run up to him and forcibly detained him. Arminius stood on the other bank, threatening the renegade, and defying him to battle.

I shall not be thought to need apology for quoting here the stanzas in which Prd has described this scene—a scene among the most affecting, as well as the most striking, that history supplies. It makes us reflect on the desolate position of Arminius, with his wife and child captives in the enemy’s hands, and with his brother a renegade in arms against him. The great liberator of our German race was there, with every source of human happiness denied him except the consciousness of doing his duty to his country.

"Back, back! he fears not foaming flood
Who fears not steel-clad line:
No warrior thou of German blood,
No brother thou of mine.
Go, earn Rome’s chain to load thy neck,
Her gems to deck thy hilt;
And blazon honor’s hapless wreck
With all the gauds of guilt.

"But wouldst thou have me share the prey?
By all that I have done,
The Varian bones that day by day
Lie whitening in the sun,
The legion’s trampled panoply,
The eagle’s shatter’d wing—
I would not be for earth or sky
So scorn’d and mean a thing.

"Ho, call me here the wizard, boy,
Of dark and subtle skill,
To agonize but not destroy,
To torture, not to kill.
When swords are out and shriek and shout
Leave little room for prayer,
No fetter on man’s arm or heart
Hangs half so heavy there.

"I curse him by the gifts the land
Hath won from him and Rome,
The riving axe, the wasting brand,
Rent forest, blazing home.
I curse him by our country’s gods,
The terrible, the dark,
The breakers of the Roman rods,
The smiters of the bark,

"Oh, misery that such a ban
On such a brow should be!
Why comes he not in battle’s van
His country’s chief to be?
To stand a comrade by my side,
The sharer of my fame,
Add worthy of a brother’s pride
And of a brother’s name?

"But it is past! where heroes press
And cowards bend the knee,
Arminius is not brotherless,
His brethren are the free.
They come around: one hour, and light
Will fade from turf and tide,
Then onward, onward to the fight,
With darkness for our guide.

"To-night, to-night, when we shall meet
In combat face to face,
Then only would Arminius greet
The renegade’s embrace.
The canker of Rome’s guilt shall be
Upon his dying name;
And as he lived in slavery,
So shall he fall in shame,"

On the day after the Romans had reached the Weser, Germanicus led his army across that river, and a partial encounter took place, in which Arminius was successful. But on the succeeding day a general action was fought, in which Arminius was severely wounded and the German infantry routed with heavy loss. The horsemen of the two armies encountered without either party gaining the advantage. But the Roman army remained master of the ground and claimed a complete victory. Germanicus erected a trophy in the field, with a vaunting inscription that the nations between the Rhine and the Elbe had been thoroughly conquered by his army. But that army speedily made a final retreat to the left bank of the Rhine; nor was the effect of their campaign more durable than their trophy. The sarcasm with which Tacitus speaks of certain other triumphs of Roman generals over Germans may apply to the pageant which Germanicus celebrated on his return to Rome from his command of the Roman army of the Rhine. The Germans were "triumphati potius quam victi."

After the Romans had abandoned their attempts on Germany, we find Arminius engaged in hostilities with Maroboduus, king of the Suevi and Marcomanni, who was endeavoring to bring the other German tribes into a state of dependency on him. Arminius was at the head of the Germans who took up arms against this home invader of their liberties. After some minor engagements a pitched battle was fought between the two confederacies (A.D. 19) in which the loss on each side was equal, but Maroboduus confessed the ascendency of his antagonist by avoiding a renewal of the engagement and by imploring the intervention of the Romans in his defence. The younger Drusus then commanded the Roman legions in the province of Illyricum, and by his mediation a peace was concluded between Arminius and Maroboduus, by the terms of which it is evident that the latter must have renounced his ambitious schemes against the freedom of the other German tribes.

Arminius did not long survive this second war of independence, which he successfully waged for his country. He was assassinated in the thirty-seventh year of his age by some of his own kinsmen. who conspired against him. Tacitus says thatthis happened while he was engaged in a civil war, which had been caused by his attempts to make himself king over his countrymen. It is far more probable, as one of the best biographers4

has observed, that Tacitus misunderstood an attempt of Arminius to extend his influence as elective war chieftain of the Cherusci and other tribes, for an attempt to obtain the royal dignity.

When we remember that his father-in-law and his brother were renegades, we can well understand that a party among his kinsmen may have been bitterly hostile to him, and have opposed his authority with the tribe by open violence, and, when that seemed ineffectual, by secret assassination.

Arminius left a name which the historians of the nation against which he combated so long and so gloriously have delighted to honor. It is from the most indisputable source, from the lips of enemies, that we know his exploits.5

His countrymen made history, but did not write it. But his memory lived among them in the days of their bards, who recorded

"The deeds he did, the fields be won,
The freedom he restored."

Tacitus, writing years after the death of Arminius, says of him, "Canitur adhuc barbaras apud gentes." As time passed on, the gratitude of ancient Germany to her great deliverer grew into adoration, and divine honors were paid for centuries to Arminius by every tribe of the Low Germanic division of the Teutonic races. The Irmin-sul, or the column of Herman, near Eresburgh (the modern Stadtberg), was the chosen object of worship to the descendants of the Cherusci (the Old Saxons), and in defence of which they fought most desperately against Charlemagne and his Christianized Franks. "Irmin, in the cloudy Olympus of Teutonic belief, appears as a king and a warrior; and the pillar, the ’Irmin-sul,’ bearing the statue, and considered as the symbol of the deity, was the Palladium of the Saxon nation until the temple of Eresburgh was destroyed by Charlemagne, and the column itself transferred to the monastery of Corbey, where perhaps a portion of the rude rock idolyet remains, covered by the ornaments of the Gothic era."6

Traces of the worship of Arminius are to be found among our Anglo-Saxon ancestors after their settlement in this island. One of the four great highways was held to be under the protection of the deity, and was called the "Irmin street." The name Arminius is, of course the mere Latinized form of Herman, the name by which the hero and the deity were known by every man of Low German blood on either side of the German Sea. It means, etymologically, the War-man, the man of hosts. No other explanation of the worship of the Irmin-sul, and of the name of the Irmin street, is so satisfactory as that which connects them with the deified Arminius. We know for certain of the existence of other columns of an analogous character. Thus there was the Roland-seule in North Germany; there was a Thor-seule in Sweden, and (what is more important) there was an Athelstan-seule in Saxon England.7

3In the Museum of Rhenish Antiquities at Bonn there is a Roman sepulchral monument the inscription on which records that it was erected to the memory of M. Coelius, who fell "Belle Variano."

4Dr. Plate, in Biographical Dictionary.

5 Tacitus: Annales.

6Palgrave: English Commonwealth.

7Lappenburg: Anglo-Saxons.


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Chicago: Edward Shepherd Creasy, "Arminius," The Great Events by Famous Historians, Vol 2 in The Great Events by Famous Historians. Lincoln Memorial University Edition, ed. Rossiter Johnson (Harrogate, TN: The National Alunmi, 1926), 377–383. Original Sources, accessed June 16, 2024,

MLA: Creasy, Edward Shepherd. "Arminius." The Great Events by Famous Historians, Vol 2, in The Great Events by Famous Historians. Lincoln Memorial University Edition, edited by Rossiter Johnson, Harrogate, TN, The National Alunmi, 1926, pp. 377–383. Original Sources. 16 Jun. 2024.

Harvard: Creasy, ES, 'Arminius' in The Great Events by Famous Historians, Vol 2. cited in 1926, The Great Events by Famous Historians. Lincoln Memorial University Edition, ed. , The National Alunmi, Harrogate, TN, pp.377–383. Original Sources, retrieved 16 June 2024, from