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Hermannsdenkmal statue.jpg
Hermannsdenkmal memorial
Prince and Chieftain of the Cherusci tribe
Predecessor Segimer
Successor Italicus
Born18/17 BC
Died21 AD (aged 37–38)
Spouse Thusnelda
Issue Thumelicus
Father Segimer
Religion Germanic

Arminius (German : Hermann; 18/17 BC – AD 21) was a chieftain of the Germanic Cherusci tribe who is best known for commanding an alliance of Germanic tribes at the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest in AD 9, in which three Roman legions under the command of general Publius Quinctilius Varus were destroyed. His victory at Teutoburg Forest would precipitate the Roman Empire's permanent strategic withdrawal from Magna Germania, and made a major contribution to the eventual fall of the Western Roman Empire several centuries later. [1] Modern historians have regarded Arminius' victory as Rome's greatest defeat. [2] As it prevented the Romanization of Germanic peoples east of the Rhine, it has also been considered one of the most decisive battles in history, [3] [4] [5] [6] and a turning point in world history. [7]


Born a prince of the Cherusci tribe, Arminius was made a hostage of the Roman Empire as a child. Raised in Rome, he was drafted into the Roman military at an early age, during which he was granted Roman citizenship and became a Roman knight. After serving with distinction in the Great Illyrian Revolt, he was sent to Germania to aid the local governor Publius Quinctilius Varus in completing the Roman conquest of the Germanic tribes. While in this capacity, Arminius secretly plotted a Germanic revolt against Roman rule, which culminated in the ambush and destruction of three Roman legions in the Teutoburg Forest.

In the aftermath of the battle, Arminius fought retaliatory invasions by the Roman general Germanicus in the battles of Pontes Longi, Idistaviso, and the Angrivarian Wall, and deposed a rival, the Marcomanni king Maroboduus. Germanic nobles, afraid of Arminius' growing power, assassinated him in AD 21. He was remembered in Germanic legends for generations afterwards. [8] The Roman historian Tacitus designated Arminius as the liberator of the Germanic tribes and commended him for having fought the Roman Empire to a standstill at the peak of its power. [8]

During the unification of Germany in the 19th century, Arminius was hailed by German nationalists as a symbol of German unity and freedom. [9] Following World War II, however, Arminius was omitted from German textbooks due to his association with militaristic nationalism, and many modern Germans are unaware of his story; the 2,000th anniversary of his victory at the Teutoburg Forest was only lightly commemorated in Germany. [9]


No known portrait image of Arminius exists from his life. This likeness was created by artist and historian George S. Stuart from physical descriptions mentioned in historical records. ArminiusbyGeorgeSStuart.jpg
No known portrait image of Arminius exists from his life. This likeness was created by artist and historian George S. Stuart from physical descriptions mentioned in historical records.

The etymology of the Latin name Arminius is unknown; confusion is further created by contemporary scholars who alternately referred to him as Armenus. [10] Marcus Velleius Paterculus, in his Historiae, mentions him as "Arminius, the son of Sigimer, a prince of [the German] nation" and states he "attained the dignity of equestrian rank". [11] Due to Roman naming conventions of the time, it is likely Arminius is an adopted name granted to him upon citizenship, or otherwise not his Cheruscan name; although the theory that the name alludes to prior service on the eastern frontier of the Roman empire is now largely discredited. [10]

The German translation of Arminius as Hermann dates from the 16th century, possibly first by Martin Luther. [12] In German, Arminius is traditionally known as Hermann der Cherusker ("Hermann the Cheruscan") or Hermann der Cheruskerfürst ("Hermann the Cheruscan Prince"). Hermann etymologically means "Man of War", coming from the Old High German heri "war" and man "man". [13] [14]


Relatives of Arminius Stammbaum ADBSegest.jpg
Relatives of Arminius

Born in 18 or 17 BC in Germania, Arminius was the son of the Cheruscan chief Segimerus (German: Segimer; Proto-Germanic: Sigimariz; Old English: Sigemaer). He lived in Rome as a hostage during his youth, where he learned to speak Latin and trained as a Roman military commander alongside his younger brother Flavus. He served in the Roman army between AD 1 and 6, and received a military education as well as Roman citizenship and the status of equite before returning to Germania. [15] [16] These experiences gave him knowledge of Roman politics and military tactics, which allowed him to successfully anticipate enemy battle maneuvers during his later campaigns against the Roman army.

Battle of the Teutoburg Forest

Magna Germania in AD 9. The yellow legend represents the areas controlled by the Roman Republic in 31 BC, the shades of green represent gradually conquered territories under the reign of Augustus, and pink areas on the map represent tributary tribes. Magna Germania before the battle of the Teutoburg Forest.png
Magna Germania in AD 9. The yellow legend represents the areas controlled by the Roman Republic in 31 BC, the shades of green represent gradually conquered territories under the reign of Augustus, and pink areas on the map represent tributary tribes.

Around the year AD 4, Arminius assumed command of a Cheruscan detachment of Roman auxiliary forces, probably while fighting in the Pannonian wars on the Balkan peninsula. He returned to northern Germania in AD 7 or 8, where the Roman Empire had established secure control of the territories just east of the Rhine, along the Lippe and Main rivers, and was now seeking to extend its hegemony eastward to the Weser and Elbe rivers, under Publius Quinctilius Varus, a high-ranking administrative official appointed by Augustus as governor. Arminius began plotting to unite various Germanic tribes in order to thwart Roman efforts to incorporate their lands into the empire. This proved a difficult task, as the tribes were strongly independent and many were traditionally enemies of each other.

Between AD 6 and 9, the Romans were forced to move eight of the eleven legions present in Germania east of the Rhine to crush a rebellion in the Balkans, [17] leaving Varus with only three legions to face the Germans. An additional two legions, under the command of Lucius Nonius Asprenas, were stationed in Moguntiacum. [18] Arminius saw this as the perfect opportunity to defeat Varus. [19]

Varusschlacht, Otto Albert Koch (1909) Otto Albert Koch Varusschlacht 1909.jpg
Varusschlacht, Otto Albert Koch (1909)

In the autumn of AD 9, the 25-year-old Arminius brought to Varus a false report of rebellion in northern Germany. He persuaded Varus to divert the three legions under his command (composed of the 17th, 18th, and 19th legions, plus three cavalry detachments and six cohorts of auxiliaries), which were at the time marching to winter quarters, to suppress the rebellion. Varus and his legions marched right into the trap that Arminius had set for them near Kalkriese. Arminius' tribe, the Cherusci, and their allies the Marsi, Chatti, Bructeri, Chauci, and Sicambri (five out of at least fifty Germanic tribes at the time) [9] ambushed and annihilated Varus' entire army, totaling over 20,000 men, as it marched along a narrow road through a dense forest. Recent archaeological finds show the long-debated location of the three-day battle was almost certainly near Kalkriese Hill, about 20 km north of present-day Osnabrück. When defeat was certain, Varus committed suicide by falling on his sword. The battle was one of the most devastating defeats Rome suffered in its history. Arminius' success in destroying three entire legions and driving the Romans out of Germany marked a high point of Germanic power for centuries. Roman attempts to reconquer Germania failed, although they did eventually manage to break Arminius' carefully coordinated alliance.

Roman retaliation, inter-tribal conflicts, and death

View over the Teutoburg Forest Blick-uber-den-Teutoburger-Wald1.jpg
View over the Teutoburg Forest

After the battle, the Germans quickly annihilated every trace of Roman presence east of the Rhine. Roman settlements such as the Waldgirmes Forum were abandoned. The vastly outnumbered Roman garrison of Aliso (present-day Haltern am See), under the command of the prefect Lucius Cedicius, inflicted heavy losses on the Germans before retreating into Gaul, resisting long enough for Lucius Nonius Asprenas to organize the Roman defense on the Rhine and Tiberius to arrive with a new army. This prevented Arminius from crossing the Rhine and invading Gaul. [20]

Between AD 14 and 16, Germanicus led punitive operations into Germany, fighting Arminius to a draw in the Battle at Pontes Longi and twice defeating him (according to Tacitus): first in the Battle of Idistaviso and later at the Battle of the Angrivarian Wall. In AD 15, Roman troops managed to recapture one of the three legionary eagles lost in the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest. In AD 16, a second eagle was retrieved. [21] Tiberius denied the request of Germanicus to launch an additional campaign for AD 17, however, having decided the frontier with Germania would stand at the Rhine river. Instead, he offered Germanicus the honor of a triumph for his two victories. The third Roman eagle was recovered in AD 41 by Publius Gabinius, under the emperor Claudius. [22] Arminius also faced opposition from his father-in-law and other pro-Roman Germanic leaders. [23] His brother Flavus, who had been raised alongside him in Rome, remained loyal to the Roman Empire and fought under Germanicus against Arminius at the Battle of Idistaviso. With the end of the Roman threat, a war broke out between Arminius and Marbod, king of the Marcomanni. It ended with Marbod fleeing to Ravenna and Roman protection, but Arminius failed to break into the "natural fortification" of Bohemia, and the war ended in stalemate.

In AD 19, Germanicus died in Antioch under circumstances which led many to believe he had been poisoned by his opponents. Arminius died two years later, in AD 21, murdered by opponents within his own tribe who felt that he was becoming too powerful. [24] [25] Tiberius allegedly had refused an earlier offer from a Chatti nobleman to poison Arminius: "It was not by secret treachery but openly and by arms that the people of Rome avenged themselves on their enemies." [26]

Statue of Thusnelda in Loggia dei Lanzi. Created in 2nd century CE with modern restorations. Thusnelda Loggia dei Lanzi 2005 09 13.jpg
Statue of Thusnelda in Loggia dei Lanzi. Created in 2nd century CE with modern restorations.

Marriage to Thusnelda

Arminius married a Germanic princess named Thusnelda. [27] Her father was the Cheruscan prince Segestes, who was pro-Roman. After the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest, Arminius abducted and then impregnated Thusnelda circa 14 AD. This elopement was likely a result of a dispute between Arminius and Segestes who was against their relationship. [28] [27] In May 15 AD the Roman general Germanicus captured Thusnelda. At the point of her capture she was pregnant and living with her father, who had taken her back. [29] Arminius deeply grieved the capture of Thusnelda and did not marry again. [30] Tacitus recorded that Arminius was "driven to frenzy" by the loss of his beloved wife. [31] [32] Tacitus states in The Annals:

Arminius, with his naturally furious temper, was driven to frenzy by the seizure of his wife and the foredooming to slavery of his wife's unborn child. He flew hither and thither among the Cherusci, demanding "war against Segestes, war against Cæsar." And he refrained not from taunts. [31]

Thusnelda gave birth to a son named Thumelicus who grew up in Roman captivity. Tacitus describes him as having an unusual story, which he promises to tell in his later writings, but these writings have never been found. [33]


Arminius' victory against the Roman legions in the Teutoburg Forest had a far-reaching effect on the subsequent history of both the ancient Germanic peoples and on the Roman Empire. The Romans made no further concerted efforts to conquer and permanently hold Germania beyond the Rhine and the Agri Decumates. Numerous modern historians have regarded Arminius' victory as "Rome's greatest defeat" [2] and one of the most decisive battles in history. [3] [4] [5] [6] [7] [15]


This Roman sculpture of a young man is sometimes identified as Arminius Arminius pushkin.jpg
This Roman sculpture of a young man is sometimes identified as Arminius

In the accounts of his Roman enemies, Arminius is highly regarded for his military leadership and as a defender of the liberty of his people. Based on these records, the story of Arminius was revived in the 16th century with the recovery of the histories of Tacitus, who wrote in his Annales II, 88:

Arminius, without doubt Germania's liberator, who challenged the Roman people not in its beginnings like other kings and leaders, but in the peak of its empire; in battles with changing success, undefeated in the war. [35]

Arminius was not the only reason for Rome's change of policy towards Germania. Politics also played a factor; emperors found they could rarely trust a large army to a potential rival, though Augustus had enough loyal family members to wage his wars. Also, Augustus, in his 40-year reign, had annexed many territories still at the beginning of the process of Romanization. Tiberius, who succeeded Augustus in AD 14, decided that Germania was a far less developed land, possessing few villages and only a small food surplus, and therefore was not currently important to Rome. Conquering Germania would require a commitment too burdensome for the imperial finances and an excessive expenditure of military force.

Modern scholars have pointed out that the Rhine was a more practical boundary for the Roman Empire than any other river in Germania. Armies on the Rhine could be supplied from the Mediterranean Sea via the Rhône, Saône, and Mosel, with only a brief area of portage. Armies on the Elbe, however, would had to have been supplied by extensive overland routes or by ships travelling the hazardous Atlantic. Economically, the Rhine already had towns and sizable villages at the time of the Gallic conquest. The Rhine was significantly more accessible from Rome and better equipped to supply sizable garrisons than the regions beyond. [36]

Rome chose no longer to rule directly in Germania east of the Rhine and north of the Danube, instead preferring to exert indirect influence by appointing client kings, which was cheaper than military campaigns. Italicus, nephew of Arminius, was appointed king of the Cherusci; Vangio and Sido became vassal princes of the powerful Suebi, etc. [37] When indirect methods proved insufficient to control the Germanic tribes beyond the Rhine, Roman emperors occasionally led devastating punitive campaigns deep into Germania. One of them, led by the Roman emperor Maximinus Thrax, resulted in a Roman victory in AD 235 at the Battle at the Harzhorn Hill, [38] located in the modern German state of Lower Saxony, east of the Weser river, between the towns of Kalefeld and Bad Gandersheim.

Old Germanic sagas

In the early 19th century, attempts were made to show that the story of Arminius and his victory may have lived on in the Old Norse sagas, [39] in the form of the dragon slayer Sigurd of the Völsunga saga and the Nibelungenlied. An Icelandic account [40] [41] states that Sigurd "slew the dragon" in the Gnitaheidr—today the suburb Knetterheide of the city of Bad Salzuflen, located at a strategic site on the Werre river which could very well have been the point of departure of Varus' legions on their way to their doom in the Teutoburg Forest. One of the foremost Scandinavian scholars of the 19th century, Guðbrandur Vigfússon, [42] identified Sigurd as Arminius. This educated guess was also picked up by Otto Höfler, who was a prominent National Socialist academic during World War II. [43]

German nationalism

During the unification of Germany in the 19th century, Arminius was hailed as a symbol of German unity and freedom. [9] In Germany, the name Arminius was interpreted as reflecting the name Hermann by Martin Luther, who saw Arminius as a symbol of the German people and their fight against Rome. [44] Hermann der Cheruskerfürst became an emblem of the revival of German nationalism fueled by the Napoleonic Wars in the 19th century, such as in Caspar David Friedrich's 1812 painting The Tombs of the Old Heroes . [45]

Arminius says goodbye to Thusnelda, Johannes Gehrts (1884) Gehrts Armin verabschiedet sich von Thusnelda 1884.jpg
Arminius says goodbye to Thusnelda, Johannes Gehrts (1884)

In 1808, Heinrich von Kleist wrote the play Die Hermannsschlacht , [46] but with Napoleon's victory at Wagram it remained in manuscript, being published in 1821 and not staged until 1860. The play has been revived repeatedly at moments propitious for raw expressions of National Romanticism and was especially popular during the Third Reich. [47]

In 1838, construction was started on a massive statue of Arminius, known as the Hermannsdenkmal , on a hill near Detmold in the Teutoburg Forest; it was finally completed and dedicated during the early years of the Second German Empire in the wake of the German victory over France in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870–1871. The monument has been a major tourist attraction ever since, as has the Hermann Heights Monument, a similar statue erected in New Ulm, Minnesota in the United States in 1897. The Hermann Heights monument was erected by the Sons of Hermann, a fraternal organization formed by German Americans in New York City in 1840 that flourished during the 19th century in American cities with large populations of German origin. Hermann, Missouri, a town on the Missouri River founded in the 1830s and incorporated in 1845, was also named for Arminius.

Following the rise of Nazi Germany, fueled by aggressive German nationalism, and its subsequent defeat in World War II, Arminius became a lesser-known figure among West Germans and many schools shunned away from teaching his story in any detail due to its previous association with nationalism. [9] There was, however, a somewhat different perception in East Germany. In East Germany, Arminius, based on a Marxist reading of history, came to be seen as a revolutionary figure of sorts, leading German tribes in a fight against the Roman slaveholder society (Sklavenhaltergesellschaft). In the context of the Cold War, Arminius was interpreted as symbolic of socialism, with Rome being a symbol of the capitalist United States as an oppressive empire. [48]

The 2,000-year anniversary of the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest, in 2009, was celebrated with restraint in Germany, avoiding "flag-waving festivals" and other gestures that might be interpreted as nationalism. [9] According to Der Spiegel : "The old nationalism has been replaced by an easy-going patriotism that mainly manifests itself at sporting events like the soccerWorld Cup." [9] The German Bundesliga football club DSC Arminia Bielefeld is named after Arminius. The 2,000-year anniversary of the battle was also celebrated in New Ulm, Minnesota without restraint. There were mock battles between Romans and club-wielding barbarians and also a lecture series in an auditorium. [49]

See also

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