Mist rose from the damp soil. What little precious warmth there was to be had escaped in the hold of that fog. What would have been the rhythmic, tell-tale sound of a Roman march, the uniform clatter of sabatons… it was swallowed by the muck. Taken by the Earth. They marched in line, they marched in rows. It was their way. Their numbers, Romans had always told, gave them strength.
Did the individual legionnaire have reason to doubt? Of course. Every man who signed on to hold victorious arms knew that he may die. But in his world, the risk, no longer a question of glory, was a riddle of survival. For if he lived, he could feed his family, subsist on Imperial alms.
A legionnaire paused, stopped a spell and glanced over his shoulder. His superior was all too quick to castigate him. Harsh threats were shouted down the line. The soldier returned to his march, swallowing his fear, his pride and premonition. He wasn’t the first to have had such a notion. Several other boots had had the same fear. As they stared ahead nervously, in true Roman style, they thought their private thoughts in their public march. They had all sworn they had seen a ghost moving through the trees.
Eventually, there came a more ostensible omen. A twig snapped in the woods. The echo was resounding, for in that moment when the superior commanded his troops should not panic and draw steel, there followed silence. What began as the tiniest snapping twig somewhere in the deep wood might as well have been the snapping of a siege machine to war.
The soldiers, compelled by their superior, returned to the march. Murmurs erupted. The legions were becoming unruly. Undisciplined. Perhaps the commander of the force muttered to himself that it was a mistake for Rome to have ever bothered with the Celts and Germans. Perhaps he lamented the estate of the foreign legions that had joined Rome’s dwindling sons. Perhaps not. It would soon cease to matter.
In the woods there came more sounds. More snapping. Twigs, branches. If it had been just deer before, now it was most certainly more. Whether the flashes of light or the sounds of thunder came first, there would be few left willing to divulge. The last thing many Romans would see was precisely the thing they had learned to fear. They saw giants rumbling from the trees. Savages girt in fur and hide as armour for their tunics and their trousers. Their pale faces were wrapped about in manes of flaxen blonde and fiery red. Their throats rumbled with a guttural battle cry that seemed hardly human. It is why so many Roman sons had insisted that they were not, in fact human, but some kind of animal.
Today, it would seem, they were correct.
The first soldiers to fall had enough time to draw their swords and swing into the blades that would cut their throats and hack their woefully exposed limbs. The next line of Romans to die did so as their feet failed them: thwarted by a combination of muck and corpse meat. The next lines of Romans found themselves surrounded by lines of dead, their own neatly organised formation having betrayed them.
Somewhere, the Commander shouted orders, barked threats in a desperate bid to maintain the rapidly dissolving air of Roman superiority. Roman peace had failed, and so had Roman war. As the Romans in the interior of the line gathered their courage and resolve, arrows and spears flew. The road through the forest was low. It had left the poor Romans exposed with a highground gifted to the Germans by their woodland Gods.
It was a cruel choice to make. The Romans had to decide how to divide their attention. Should they focus on the invading footsoldiers who would surely hack them to bits and eat them, or the archers and throwers who had little difficulty impaling them?
It did not matter.
The Germans cut through the ranks of Roman live, grinding Roman dead into the ground. And the Romans, those who feared for their lives attempted a retreat. They fell over their dead and joined them – all the same. It was a massacre. In the coming weeks, those superstitious Germans would claim that the voices of the Roman leaders’ ghosts could be heard calling for their surrender. The forests, our ancestors’ knew, heard much, and forgot nothing.
The last to die would have seen a curious sight. They saw a man, a German, he wore his hair short, in the Roman style. He was beardless, in the Roman style. He had a cuirass and sabatons made of Roman steel, yet wore his furs and hides above, in the German style. Some of the legionnaires knew immediately who this man was. Some had served with him. And so it went. The traitor emerged with his barbarians, distinguishable only as the legion writhed in death throes.
He smiled as he moved among the piles of dead, like a buyer in the market, he inspected his prospects. He made his way to the few left living. He chose among those left a young, spry soldier, hardly worth killing. “You will be my legate,” he said, “you will tell your superiors what has happened. You will tell them that Germania belongs to the Germans. You will tell them that this is the end of the world, that Roman peace ends here. Do you understand?” The ‘legate’ could only nod. The traitor looked back to the Roman legate he had chosen. “Tell them, tell the Emperor, that his legions can never prevail. Not here. Not in the forest. His victories will be as empty as the fields he chooses his battles on. Do you understand?” The legate nodded. With a nod, the boy was dismissed.
As he began to run, the German leader grabbed his elbow. He inclined his head toward the boy, “I am not a traitor. Do you understand?” The boy said nothing, he was afraid. “A traitor betrays his kin.” The German leader cast his shadow over the trembling Roman. He pointed to the ‘Roman’ dead. He pointed to caps of red and blonde hair spilling out from the helmets, the dead, pale faces between cheekguards. “These were traitors.” The leader pounded his chest, “I am true to my kind, and I have delivered them, I have saved them from Roman treachery, and I have raised of German Law!” With that, the German leader gave the legate a shove. His legacy was secure.
Who was the leader? Why had he turned coat?
History does not supply his exact motives. But we can imagine, as I have. That was our conjecture, he is what we can say:
Herrmann was a son of Teutonic Tribes. We educated Men of the West call his kind Cherusci. His ‘Roman’ name was Arminius. For many reasons, he should be regarded as a great hero, to a great many people.
Like many of his lot, Herrmann was captured as a child and drafted into the Roman Empire. This happened at a time when the Sons of Rome had lost sight of kith and kin, blended their stock and sold their soul. To replenish lost blood, they invited foreigners, favouring Germanic and Celtic tribesmen for their vigour, valour and power. And the Romans, comfortable in the belief that their peace would save them, assumed the pitiful barbarians would simply ‘fall in line.’
Herrmann, we know, did not. He bided his time, learning Roman language and Roman ways. Being a son of a warrior race, he of course served with distinction and did not disappoint. Such was his recognition that he was recruited by Quinctillius Varus after being made a knight and granted citizenship. He was appointed, in a moment of suicidal hubris by Rome, to defend against Germanic Tribes.
Herrmann remembered his true name. He knew the blood that ran through his veins. The songs of his ancestors were sung in ancient German, not Latin. He confided in chieftains, secretly devising plans of attack. It is known exactly how long he maintained his double life. Nor is it known whether he did so with trepidation or pleasure. I should like to imagine the quaint smile upon his face as he looked on his ‘fellow’ Romans, imagining where axe and sword and seax would someday strike. Perhaps he laughed inappropriately at times, imagining the future screams of his oppressors. So I imagine, for I am told, that my ancestors were a bloodthirsty, unruly lot.
One day, as it so happened, on the 9th year of the Christian God’s calendar, Herrmann betrayed the Empire that had stolen him. He repaid years of abuse with a day of terror. The Germans, we know, exceeded in guerrilla warfare before it was a word, that blitzkrieg was their game before it was a tactic. We know the degenerating legionairres feared the German for his size and ferocity.
In great savagery the Germans poured from the forests as the Romans made their fateful march. It is told that three legions were massacred. That the fragile Western Roman Empire, so demoralised, would soon abandon their plans for the conquest of Magna Germania. It was said that the screams of his superior could be heard echoing for miles, reaching from villa to wilderness; “Varus, give me back my Legions!” There are many lessons to be learned…
As for Rome? When an Empire betrays her stock, she is no more. Rome ceased to be when she ceased to be Roman. Men like Herrmann-Arminius were only the arbiters of a more ancient fate. And as for Arminius? He was clever. He learned the rules of his enemy. He fraternised with his enemy. He walked through the valley of the shadow of their deaths and looked them in the eye. He was not afraid, and he never forgot what moved him.