My love/hate relationship with empire caught my imagination in one man
I think we can all get a little blase about celebrity and fame. Fame for fame's sake, you might say. I also think that we all are probably a lot more thoughtful and morally aware than we would publicize. Instead of answering to 'who's your favorite film star, or band?' I think we could all answer a much more interesting question:
'Who's your favorite freedom fighter?'
Mandela? Paul Revere? Che Guevara? Malcolm X? Gandhi? Mel Gibson in Braveheart?
Mine's a long dead German guy called Arminius.
I became familiar with him through my love of all things Roman - a history rich in butch, well organized men in leather skirts and helmets will do that to a person. Arminius was different. I stumbled upon him as a point of Imperial annoyance to the first Emperor of Rome, Augustus. A provincial, terrorist, oik, who kept cropping up through out Augustus' reign and well in to his successor, Tiberius'.
Arminius was born in C18bc and, after decades of civil unrest and civil war, Rome had spent nearly ten years under Augustus' golden age of civil peace and empirical expansion. It isn't known exactly how Arminius spent his formative years, but an educated guess can be made.
In C9bc, when Arminius would have been a pre-pubesent youth, Drusus (Augustus' adopted son and admired military campaigner) pursued an expansion program for three years in Germany. At that time it wasn't uncommon for tribal kings across the Empire to make alliances with Caesar and send sons and daughters as tokens of good will to Rome as well treated hostages. It meant that Caesar knew you trusted him to befriend and educate your successor and that you were unlikely to disrupt the Empire by a coup with your progeny's neck on the block.
We know that Arminius led his people as a supporter of Rome, that he was educated in latin, held Roman citizenship and was granted Equestrian status. So, we could reasonably assume that he spent his years to adulthood at the heart of the Empire before being recalled to his native Germany as leader of the Cherusci tribe once his father had died.
He would have been privy to near immeasurable freedoms as an Equestrian knight and citizen of Rome. It was a rich rank, valued at a personal wealth of 400,000 sesterces. It was also the second highest political rank in Rome, beneath only Caesar and the senate. The playboy knights of the day were the senators of tomorrow. He would have moved in elite circles and was probably treated in a far more kingly manner there than he would have been upon his return to 'uncivilized' Germany.
Maybe this was what changed him from a pro-roman to a guerilla-terrorist, hell bent on the unification of his country and complete annex from Empire. We don't know for sure, and never will. However, in C9ad, at the age of 27, Arminius lead the most successful military assault on an occupying force ever inflicted within senatorial memory.
Quinctilius Varus commanded three Roman legions in Germany under the patronage of Augustus when he was ambushed and wiped out in the Teutoberger forest.
Having trained on the field of Mars with his peers, Arminius had a thorough knowledge of Roman warfare methods. He cleverly manipulated these against the Romans themselves. Arminius waited for the legions to strike out on an occupational re-settlement program that led the troops north of the river Rhine, through forests that were thick, wet and disorientating.
Because a major re-settlement program meant the huge logistical nightmare of servicing the needs of thousands of men, it was more like moving an entire town. The Roman Empire was more of a 'franchise' business, with people who had never been to Rome being granted citizenship and receiving the perks of civilization (baths, roads, public buildings, trade etc.,). The Roman Army required vast amounts of support services supplied by traders and their families whose fortunes rested with the Army. This meant that Varus had to move these people with the Army and that is how Arminius created an advantage.
The slower paced women, children and supply carts caused the migrating legions to be spread out and cut off from each other. Flanked by marsh land on one side and near impenetrable forest on the other the Romans were funneled into a narrow killing field, like cattle for the slaughter. Unable to assemble in to practiced military formations because of the terrain and unable to raise their too heavy weather soaked shields, approximately 15,000 men were lost. This included the families that followed the money in to the camps.
Worse still, to Rome, was the loss of the three eagles. The golden standards particular to each legion were used by soldiers as a form of religious worship. Most Romans were not from Rome so would be made up of people who worshiped different gods. The one common religious idol that could unite the soldiers was invested in these eagles. These lost standards were never resurrected and the few survivors of the massacre were either pensioned off, or, in very few cases, invested under different standards because other soldiers saw them as cursed or unlucky.
According to Imperial court gossip, Augustus never recovered from the loss and it contributed to his death five years later. Rome's entire German policy was destroyed and, although eventually, partially annexed, modern day scholars argue that the German revolt changed the entire shape of the Empire forever and possible the entire culture of northern Europe today.
For Arminius this was his political high point. Everything went against him from that point on. Roman reprisals through the next Emperor, Tiberius, were punitive and bloody. He fought against his father-in-law, Segestes, and his wife (Thusnelda) was held hostage. Only the recall of Germanicus (Tiberius's brother) saved him from defeat in C17ad. All the German tribes were punished for the loss of the eagles in C19ad he had to fight an internal battle against Maroboddus, king of the Marcomanni tribe.
His county men and kinsmen were torn between his image of a national visionary and a megalomaniac and he was assassinated by one of his own tribe in C21ad at the age of 39.
Today Arminius is enjoying somewhat of a national comeback as Germany begins to re-assert it's cultural identity in the wake of last century's two world wars. A German leader who fought against the ideals of a fascist, Empire building, occupational force is something solid to hold on to and embrace, but I wonder what Arminius would have made of that?
All I see when I look at him is the hostage, provincial political pawn, leader-in-waiting, that didn't suffer from an ancient form of Stockholm Syndrome. Someone who dreamed of an united national identity chosen by the people of that nation rather than an outside force. Echos of modern day conflicts make is story poignant even now.
Of course, we all romanticize our freedom fighters. It would darken us to see an ulterior motive in their seemingly, selfless acts. But that's why I'm a writer given to flights of fancy and not a historian held captive to the facts. And, thank the gods that I am! In my head Arminius can be more butch than Russel Crowe, don dirt flecked well oiled muscles, have soulful eyes and a rakish grin - oh, yeah - and wear an even shorter skirt.