Tacitus had written, “The peoples of Germania have never contaminated themselves by intermarriage with foreigners but remain of pure blood, distinct and unlike any other nation.” He praised Rome’s ancient adversay for the men’s prowess and courage in battle, the women’s virtue, and strong family values: “Good morality is more effective in Germania than good laws are elsewhere.”

The writings of Tacitus, together with those of other Roman historians, provide accounts of the empire’s unsuccessful bid to conquer Germania. The details are worth summarizing here…

Slowly advancing into German territory, the Romans established commerce, built towns and concluded tribal alliances. Many indigenous inhabitants traded with them or joined their army as auxiliaries. Rome also garrisoned troops, enacted laws and levied taxes. Aware of its military superiority, the Roman Empire was not prone to compromise. Decades earlier in neighboring Gaul, the Celtic princes had offered armed resistance to Roman Rule. The Roman general Julius Caesar mercilessly crushed Gaul, killing or enslaving a third of the population.

Arminius (also known as Hermann), the son of a chieftain in the Cheruskan clan, led several large Germanic tribes in 9 A.D. to fight the Romans. A loosely unified nation of some three million farmers face a seasoned, well-equipped army supported by the resources of an empire encompassing 60 million inhabitants. Arminius appealed to the various tribes to rise against the foreign laws, taxes, garrisons and settlements gradually spreading across their lands. Assailing the summer encampment of the Roman governor Quintilius Varus, presumably at the site of the modern German city of Horn, the Cheruskans and their allies annihilated three Roman legions. A Roman general, Drusus Germanicus, launched punitive expeditions in 15 A.D. and again the following year. He told his army of over 80,000 men, “This war will not be over until the entire German nation is exterminated.” The legions vengefully massacred numerous village populations en route, but were unable to capture Arminius. Early in each of the two campaign seasons, Germanicus withdrew his forces completely after a pitched battle with the Germans, a circumstance discreetly understated by Tacitus.

The Roman emperor Tiberius called off the invasion in 16 A.D. “Heavy losses in combat during 15 and 16 A.D. broke the Roman will to invade and conquer. Stopped in their tracks, the Romans from then on assumed the defensive.” This spared Germany the Latin influence that helped shape the civilizations of Italy, Spain, France, Britain, the Balkans, and the Near East. To 19th Century nationalist, Arminius was the “first German.” He saw beyond the local rivalries that made his people vulnerable to foreign domination. He unified the German tribes in a war of liberation that preserved his country’s independence for centuries. His life became symbolic of national solidarity and resistance to foreign values.

—  Richard Tedor