Resistance to our oppressors can often seem like a monumental, if not impossible task. Facing off against massive police and military institutions can make any means we employ to resist them seem pointless. However, it is my contention that it is possible to resist even the greatest institutions of domination within our times, not by facing them head on, but by resisting them on our own terms, with our own power. No greater example of this can be found than in the resistance of Arminius to the Roman Empire.
The Roman Empire (27 B.C.E. – 476 C.E.) rose out of the conflicts that led to the fall of the Roman Republic. The Republic ended in turmoil and sectarian fighting among the aristocrats of Rome, resulting in the near dictatorship of Julius Caesar and the eventual establishment of their adopted child Octavian (Later Augustus) as the first emperor of Rome. After the constant factionalism and infighting of the Late Roman Republic Augustus, after being elected consul in 28 B.C.E., sought to unify Rome and in doing so gained enormous favor. In 27 B.C.E. the Roman senate not only rejected their proposal to step down as consul, the chief political ruler of Rome, but charged them with ruling the territories of Syria, Spain, and Gaul while the Senate would rule the remaining Empire.
This charge would essentially begin the reign of Augustus as the first emperor of Rome (27 B.C.E – 14 C.E.), a period that is historically associated with the empire’s growth, both in infrastructure and territory. The peace of a unified Rome allowed for trade to flourish within the interior of Rome while on the expansion of its frontiers was sought through various political and military means such as the establishment of client kings, annexation and outright warfare. One such region that came under the gaze of Rome were the territories beyond the Rhine river.
It is here in Germania Magna (Greater Germany) that the Cherusci tribesman Arminius (18 B.C.E. – 19 C.E.) would call home. Born the son of the Cherusci chief Segimer, Arminius would be made a child hostage of Rome, to be taken back and raised under Roman culture. Arminius would rise through the ranks of Rome’s military, gaining not only Roman citizenship but also the rank of Equestrian. In 8 C.E. Arminius would find themselves transferred under the command of governor Publius Quinctilius Varus in the region of the Rhine.
In seeking to turn Germania Magna into a territory of Rome, Varus took a heavy hand with the native populations, demanding tribute and treating the natives as though they were slaves. In the summer of 9 C.E. Varus marched three Roman legions and supporting auxiliary forces directly into the center of Cherusci territory, demanding tribute and executing Roman law. Meanwhile, Arminius was given the opportunity to reunite with their family and tribe. Arminius, along with their father Segimer, assured Varus in regard to the Roman occupation.
This, however, was nothing more than a deception. Arminius, both through personal experience and as a first-hand witness, saw the way in which Rome treated their people. While the Cherusci had gained some status within Rome, this was seen as nothing but a farce as Arminius’ people would continue to have their children taken to serve in the Roman army and had their resources extracted by force. With this in mind, Arminius sought rebellion against Rome’s occupation of their homelands.
This would not be an easy task, as the Roman army was well trained and equipped comparatively to the various tribes of Germania Magna. This is where Arminius’ experience within the Roman army would prove to be a huge advantage. Their knowledge of the strategy and tactics used by the Roman army allowed Arminius and their fellow tribesmen to develop a plan that put them in the most advantageous position possible, while exploiting the weaknesses within Roman military doctrine.
To begin with, the Roman army needed to be drawn out of their large, easily defensible position within their camp. So with the coming fall season, the Romans would march back down to the Rhine, where they would potentially shelter for the winter. However, Arminius would tell Varus of a supposed rebellion to their north-west and recommend an alternate route in order to crush this rebellion before it got any worse. However, this rebellion was a complete work of fiction by Arminius in order to lure Varus and their legions into terrain that favored the Germanic warriors.
It is here that Varus would find themselves marching through Teutoburg forest, a densely forested and hilly region that forced the Roman legions to march in column formation. This formation would leave the Romans quite vulnerable, something Arminius would have been aware of. Arminius would leave Varus during the march claiming they were going to gather reinforcements from loyal tribes in the area. In reality, Arminius was gathering the Germanic tribes together, readying them for the attack.
To add even more problems for the Romans, thunderstorms on the second day of their march caused the ground to become muddy, knocking over trees and generally slowing the pace of the legions. It would be here at their weakest point that the Germanic tribes, under the leadership of Arminius, would launch their attack. The tribesmen would throw javelins and sling rocks into the Roman columns before engaging them directly in combat. The heavy armor of the Romans made it difficult to maneuver and were easily defeated by the much more lightly dressed Germanic warriors.
By the third day, Varus and their legions had lost thousands to the Germanic attacks, just managing to make camp on the edge of Kalkrieser mountain to the north. It is here that they would meet their final end. During the night, a final assault would be launched against the Roman camp, slaughtering a massive number of the Roman forces. Before the Germanic warriors could reach Varus themselves, Varus would take their life, and fell on their own sword. Arminius and their fellow Germanic tribes had become victorious.
This incredible defeat at the hands of the Germanic tribes was devastating for Rome. Not only did the conflict result in the loss of three legions of Roman soldiers, the emperor Augustus is quoted to have said “Quinctilius Varus, give me back my legions!” a clear cry of anger and defeat. This loss caused Augustus to abandon the conquest of Germania until their death in 14 C.E. Only to later be picked back up by Germanicus, the nephew of the new emperor of Rome, Tiberius.(14-31 C.E.) Germanicus sought to avenge the failures of Varus.
After having put down a revolt of Roman soldiers in Germania Inferior (Lower Rhine), Germanicus focused their remaining anger towards the Germanic tribes. First they attacked the villages of the Marsi tribes before moving on to attack the Bructeri with four legions and additional forces. In doing so Germanicus’ forces were able to recapture a lost Roman eagle standard from Varus’ defeat, as well as locating the site of their death. Germanicus now set their sites on the Cherusci tribes of Arminius.
First, Arminius would fall back into the woods, in order to avoid a fight with the much larger forces lead by Germanicus. Arminius almost managed to pin down the Romans cavalry in a swamp through an ambush, but was unsuccessful due to assistance brought by the Roman legions. Germanicus would break off their attack, returning with their four legions to the fleet on the Ems river, while the remaining forces led by Aulus Caecina Severus, would march back on an old Roman path that took them through a number of swamps, which Arminius easily exploited. The Romans were barely able to defend themselves, managing to survive through the night.
The next morning, Arminius would personally launch another assault on Severus, but failed due to premature looting by their own forces. This allowed Severus to break out and establish a defensive position on better ground. Arminius wanted to wait until Severus’ forces were on the march and therefore vulnerable to the ambushes that had proven their effectiveness. However, Arminius’ impatient and overconfident uncle, Inguiomerus, forced an assault on the Roman positions. The Romans would barely manage to launch a successful defense, defeating the Germanic warriors and allowing themselves the ability to escape to the Rhine river.
In 16 C.E. Arminius attacked a Roman fortress on the Lippe river in order to stall Germanicus, who was attempting to use a massive fleet of around 1,000 ships to reinforce and resupply their army. While this did stall Germanicus’ summer offensive Arminius’ forces lost the battle, allowing Germanicus to return to the Rhine river, reinforcing their army with Batavian cavalry under the command of their chief Chariovalda.
After sailing through the north sea, Germanicus would re-enter the Germanic region through the Ems river, eventually disembarking and marching their forces east, towards Cherusci territory. It is along the banks of the Weser river that Germanicus would confront Arminius. Among the Roman forces was Arminius’ brother, Flavus. After exchanging taunts between the brothers, the battle would begin with Arminius’ forces ambushing the Batavian cavalry, crushing them and killing their chief Chariovalda.
Rather than confront the rest of Germanicus’ forces directly, Arminius elected to fall back into a nearby sacred grove, before riding out on horseback to meet the Roman forces head on. Germanicus would respond in kind, riding out with their own praetorian guard. The battle was fierce, resulting in a Roman victory with the Germanic warriors suffering heavy losses. However, Arminius was quickly able to recover their losses thanks to the arrival of more Germanic warriors.
Arminius would once again rely on the terrain, drawing the Roman forces into a forest battle located in the Angrivarii barrier, which separated the territories of the Angrivarii and Cherusci tribes. The Romans managed to win the battle, after pushing Arminius and their forces back against a swamp located in their rear. Inguiomerus took the lead in a counter attack, due to wounds suffered by Arminius. This attack would fail, resulting in yet another Roman victory.
Even though the Romans had won the majority of the battles, they still suffered heavy casualties and their supplies were running extremely low. While attempting to make their way back home by boat, the Romans took a heavy hit when their fleet sailed through a storm. After having endured such severe casualties and with no real progress being made, emperor Tiberius would finally call an end to the campaign. In the end, Arminius and their fellow tribesmen won the war and their freedom.
After driving out the Romans, Arminius would find themself in conflict with the only other power in the region, Maroboduus, king of the Marcomanni. Arminius would meet them in battle, defeating them and forcing Maroboduus to take shelter in Rome. Arminius now effectively had control over all of Germania. However, Arminius’ rule would not last for long, as due to infighting among the tribes and fears of Arminius’ becoming a king, in 19 C.E. Arminius would be assassinated.
The life of Arminius and the struggle of the Germanic tribes provides many lessons for those seeking to resist domination. The strategy and tactics deployed by Arminius hold many important concepts for anyone who seeks to struggle against a larger, more powerful aggressor. As such, Arminius’ struggle against Rome is worthy of further examination.
To begin with, Arminius was captured at a young age by Rome and educated not only in their culture but also in their understanding of warfare. This would prove to be incredibly valuable knowledge as it allowed Arminius to organize a strategy that took the strengths of the Germanic warriors and their homeland against the weaknesses within Roman military doctrine. This is why the deployment of guerrilla tactics proved their effectiveness, such as assaulting the Romans on the march when they were at their most vulnerable, within swamped and forested regions making the use of the Romans large scale formations and heavy armor effectively useless against the lightly armored and mobile Germanic warriors. In conjunction with this, the Germanic warriors did not need to necessarily win every fight and in fact, lost a number of them. They simply needed to wear down and tire out the Romans’ ability to fight by dwindling their numbers and supplies as much as they could, causing the war to become increasingly costly for the Roman Empire.
Deception as well proved to be effective in that Arminius, through their relationship with Rome and their rank within the Roman army allowed them to deceive their commanding officer Varus, guiding them personally into a trap. This deception led to one of the most devastating defeats the Roman army had ever suffered, with the loss of three entire legions at the hands of Arminius and their fellow warriors. Until their assassination in 19 C.E., Arminius had proven themselves to be an effective and intelligent resistance leader, forcing one of histories most organized and well trained military formations at the time to leave their lands exhausted and defeated. Arminius proves that it doesn’t matter how powerful our oppressors are. What matters is that in confronting them we try to understand not just what makes them powerful but what makes them weak and exploiting that weakness in such a way that it takes advantage of our own power. Struggling does not mean doing so on our oppressor’s terms, but on our own and in doing so we can take the steps we need towards liberating ourselves.