Arminius must have served well with the Roman Legions because he was given Roman citizenship, which was a high honor. The Romans also granted to Arminius the title of Equestrian, or Knight, which was a high rank in Roman society. Social status was very important in Roman society, and for a non- Roman to attain a high level was a great honor indeed. During his years of service he taught himself to speak Latin, and learned the customs of the Romans. It is estimated that he left the Roman Auxilaries in around 7 C.E.
About two years later Arminius ran away with the daughter of Segestes. Her name was Thusnelda, and she would later give him a son Thumelicus. His father - in - law, Segestes, was a firm ally of the Romans, and believed that cooperation with the Romans was beneficial to the Germanic peoples. Arminius probably had similar views about the Romans until the Roman Legions crossed the Rhine river, and threatened the Cherusci tribal lands. His loyalties then shifted, and he decided to defend the lands of his ancestors.
It was his military service with the Roman army that made him the perfect leader when he returned home sometime after 7 C.E. Arminius knew from his time serving with the Legions that a conventional style attack against the highly disciplined Roman army would be a disaster. He understood that if the the Legions were allowed to form into battle formation his Germanic warriors had little chance against such a highly skilled force. He also needed to restrict the use of the Roman cavalry, which in open fields could launch devastatingly lightning fast attacks on an enemies flanks. He formulated a plan that would use deception, and confinement, to limit the Roman army's ability to manuever, and use their battle tested formations. He had the perfect place in mind . A heavily wooded, marshy forest, with a swamp on one side. Here he would fight one of the greatest battles in Germanic history. This battle would later become known as the Battle of the Teutoberg forest.
Publius Quinctilius Varus, better known to history as just Varus, was in command of three Roman Legions; The 17th, 18th, and the 19th. With him he also had 3 cavalry, and 6 infantry auxillary units. As they marched on that September day in 9 C.E. each carried a tall staff topped with the imperial eagle, the legion's name, and number. As he rode tall and proud upon his horse, Varus was confident that his elite Roman troops could handle any barbarian Germanic force that they encountered. What he did not realize was that he and his men were marching into infamy.
Arminius had actually served with Varus as the commander of a small unit , and had distinguished himself in battle. Varus had come to trust Arminius, so when Arminius told him of an uprising, started by a small tribe that was just a day or two march away from the Roman camp on the Weser River, Varus believed him and jumped at the chance to crush this revolt. Ironically, Arminius' father - in - law, Segestes, tried to warn Varus, but he trusted Arminius more.
Varus thought that Arminius was going to go ahead and rally some of his own people to join the Roman Army in putting down the rebellion, but Arminius had something much more sinister planned. Arminius had planned an elaborate ambush in what is now known as the Teutoberg Forest. And what an ambush it was ! Though the path that the Romans marched on had been worn down over the years, the Roman Army could not march in their normal formation which was six men across. As they moved along this forest lane they had to fill in holes of mud, and remove fallen trees that blocked the way of their supply carts. They would emerge occasionally out of the dense forest into fields of grain bathed in sunlight, but mainly they were funnelled , by Arminius, into as confined a space as was possible.
The arrogant Roman Army was so confident and arrogant that they carried with them their baggage train, which would have made so much noise that they could never have surprised anyone along the way. The local Germanic people would have had more than enough time to evacuate themselves, and their valuable livestock long before the Romans passed by. The Romans probably did not see a soul as they marched along their way into history. However the Roman Army was more than likely being tacked by Arminius' spies, which would not have been difficult with all that noise, all the way to the spot where the Germanic tribesman were waiting to ambush the Roman Legions.
At the Kalkrieser Berg, Varus had to detour around this small hill, and through a bog. Because it was swampy on both sides the Roman troops were confined to a path only about a 100 yards wide. It was here that Arminius and his brave Germanic troops were waiting. It was here that thousands of nervous eyes searched the horizon for the first glint of Roman armor. It was here that thousands of ears listened for the first sounds of an army on the move. And it was here where the Germanic tribesman would change the course of history and stop the spread of Roman civilization. The trap was about to be sprung !
Some have speculated that the Germanic tribesmen actually changed the landscape to make them go around Kalkriese Hill, and not escape out via what is called the Kalkriese Depression. This change in landscape would have forced the Roman Legions to walk by the earthen wall where an estimated 5000 Germanic warriors silently waited. Another force of equal size waited in the woods just beyond the wall, and awaited their orders to spring into action. Arminius, an experienced military leader more than likely would have woven his more experienced warriors in with the greener troops to bolster their moral, and to make sure that these novice warriors stayed in place and fought well.
The wall, besides providing a place to hide, gave them a chance to throw their spears from behind its protection, and would have kept them away from the famous Roman short swords that the Legions used with devastating effect in close combat. In his book , " The Battle That Stopped Rome", Peter S. Wells speculates that as many as 25, 000 spears could have been thrown in as little as 20 seconds. To me this seems high, but even if the Germanic warriors only threw 10,000 spears in 30 seconds, that amount of spears hurling into the confused Roman lines would have had devastating consequences for the great Roman Legions.
The first effect would have been utter confusion and possibly even panic as the Roman soldiers saw their brothers in arms falling all along their lines. Adding to the hysteria would have been the screams of the speared soldiers that would have drowned out orders that may have brought back some semblance of order to the chaos. As the wounded and dead lie along the narrow path there came a shrill yell from out of the dark forest. Arminius had let loose the full fury of his entire army. The Germanic warriors, weapons drawn, now fell upon the disorganized, and confused Roman soldiers. However, by not being able to march in battle formation, because of the limited space, the Roman Army would have found it almost impossible to form up in full battle lines. They were also hindered by the mud that lined their path, the dead beneath their feet, and the great distance the narrow path had made of the troop formations. What all this meant for the great Roman legions was that they had no chance to mount a formidible defense against the Germanic warriors.
As thousands died panic set in, and Varus finally understood the urgency of the situation. He also must have known at this point that the man that he most trusted, Arminius, had betrayed him. Varus tried his best, we must assume, to form up his troops and fight the battle as best he could. After a time he must have known that all was lost and according to ancient historians he committed suicide by falling on his sword, on the battlefield. He was later beheaded by the Germanic warriors.
The historian, Velleius Paterculus writes of the battle : " An army unexcelled in bravery, the first of Roman Armies in discipline , in energy, and in experience on the field, through the negligence of its commander, the perfidy of the enemy, hemmed in by the forests and ambuscades, it was almost exterminated to a man, by the very enemy whom it had always slaughtered like cattle."
After the battle was over the Germanic tribesmen ritually killed the remaining soldiers offeing them up to their war Gods, and even took some of the heads of some of the more prominent soldiers and nailed them to trees. The entire Teutoberg Forest where the battle had taken place became, for generations, a sacred and holy area to the local peoples. The three legion staffs were kept as war prizes to commemorate the battle and honor the Germanic warriors who died .
This great victory by the Germanic tribesmen over the prestigious Roman Legions gave Arminius a very high standing, not only in his own Cherusci tribe, but also in many of the neighboring tribes as well. It also brought in new tribes who joined the Germanic coalition. This prestige, and the fact that Arminius wanted to proclaim himself king, fueled a growing rivalry between Arminius and Maroboduus, who was the leader of the Germanic tribes to the east and southeast. Shockingly in 15 C. E. Segestes, Arminius' father - in - law, was so angry at Arminius for besieging him that when Germanicus drove off Arminius' troops he gave Thusnelda, Arminius' wife, his daughter, to Germanicus as a war prize. Thusnelda was pregnant at the time. On May 26, 17 C.E. she was displayed as a trophy during Germanicus' parade in Rome. She and her now two year old son Thumelicus had to endure this humiliation before thousands of Roman citizens. Also in 17 C. E. Arminius and Maroboduus met on the field of battle in an indecisive engagement. Arminius however, came out of the battle with even more power than before. As his power grew he began to have more and more rivals within his own Cherusci tribe. Even his own uncle, Inguiomerus, became alienated and deserted him and went over to Maroboduus. In or around 19 C. E. the great Germanic warrior Arminius was killed by members of his own tribe.
His death is best described by Tacitus :
"Arminius began to aim at a 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".
Arminius found out just before the Battle of the Weser River, from his brother Flavus, who was still fighting for the Romans, that both his wife and child were being well treated. It is believed that the boy Thumelicus was trained as a gladiator and was killed in the arena at a very young age. Some speculate as young as 15 or 16. Tacitus promises us in his "Annals" that he will tell of the fate of Thusnelda and Thumelicus, but their are gaps in this written history which probably contained that information that has been lost forever.
In life Arminius was a revered leader by his own people, and a feared enemy by his foes. Augustus was said to have mourned for months about his lost legions, and his heirs tried, but failed, to make the Germanic peoples pay for it. In death Arminius became a legend, easily on the same level as Beowulf, Sigurd, Hrolf Kraki, and even King Arthur, in my opinion. The one major difference is that we know for absolutely sure that Arminius existed and was a real person, and that his deeds were real, and far reaching. Never again would the great Roman Empire make any major attempts to subdue the Germanic peoples. The Rhine River becoming the furthest boundary of the Roman Empire's expansion. All of those of Germanic descent owe this great warrior a debt of gratitude for his daring ambush, and annihilation of 3 Roman legions, in the Teutoberg Forest on that fateful day in September of 9 C. E. If not this article might be written in Latin !
Germania - Tacitus
The Annals - Tacitus
The Roman Empire and its Germanic Peoples - Wolfram
The Battle That Stopped Rome - Peter S. Wells
The Roman History : From Romulus and the Foundation to the Reign of the Emperor Tiberius - Velleius Paterculus ( Ed. by Yardley and Barrett )