The victorious advance of Hermann, Peter Janssen, 1873

The Defender of Teutoburg Forest

Two thousand years ago, Rome started pushing its boundaries northward, and over the course of a decade, made their way into the territory of Germanic peoples, the earliest recorded worshippers of Thor, Odin, and Tyr (he was a bigger deal back then).

But Rome didn’t conquer Germania. They suffered a major defeat at the Battle of Teutoburg Forest in 9 CE, and while they eventually avenged that loss, they never again attempted to take territory across the Rhine. At least, not with a military force, everybody became one big happy Holy Roman Empire several centuries later, but that’s a different flavor of Rome and a story for another day.

The leader of the united Germanic tribes was Arminius, a German who had gained Roman citizenship and trained and fought alongside the Roman legions. He learned their tactics and strategy, earned their respect, and then went back to his homeland and used this knowledge against Rome.

“Arminius,” however, is a Roman name, not a Germanic one, and when the early history of the Germanic peoples by the Roman historian Tacitus was rediscovered in the 16th century, German scholars gave Arminius a Germanic name – Hermann. His wife, Thusnelda, is also referenced in the Annals, though I’ve only found references to her as “the wife of Arminius.” Her story is notable, too – she was kidnapped from her father’s household to be Hermann’s wife; she was later kidnapped by the Romans who avenged the Battle of Teutoburg forest and displayed publicly as evidence of their defeat of the villain Arminius. This was evidence of their “firm but fair” style of ruling their subjects.

This poem is significant for more than just its value as a picture of early Germanic passion and military victory. The Battle of Teutoburg Forest and the story of Hermann and Thusnelda were among the many icons of the 19th century emergence of Germanic nationalism. That a man could be so brave as to face down the mighty Roman Empire, the conquerors from the south, was an important building block in restoring a forgotten mythology, that would be brought back to life in each new version of the German national ideal that formed over this period. And then, of course, German nationalism became a destructive, genocidal force with the rise of the Third Reich.

So… this poem has some grim subtext following along behind it. With or without that baggage, it’s worth your time, a fascinating imagining of the earliest Germans through the eyes of a titan of modern German literature.

Hermann and Thusnelda

By Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock, 1752

Translation of Charles Timothy Brooks, 1917

HA! there comes he, with sweat, with blood of Romans,
And with dust of the fight all stained! Oh, never
         Saw I Hermann so lovely!
         Never such fire in his eyes!

Come! I tremble for joy; hand me the Eagle        
And the red, dripping sword! come, breathe, and rest thee;
         Rest thee here in my bosom;
         Rest from the terrible fight!

Rest thee, while from thy brow I wipe the big drops,
And the blood from thy cheek!—that cheek, how glowing!        
         Hermann! Hermann! Thusnelda
         Never so loved thee before!

No, not then, when thou first, in old oak shadows,
With that manly brown arm didst wildly grasp me!
         Spell-bound I read in thy look        
         That immortality then

Which thou now hast won. Tell to the forests,
Great Augustus, with trembling, amidst his gods now,
         Drinks his nectar; for Hermann,
         Hermann immortal is found!        

“Wherefore curl’st thou my hair? Lies not our father
Cold and silent in death? Oh, had Augustus
         Only headed his army,—
         He should lie bloodier there!”

Let me lift up thy hair; ’tis sinking, Hermann:        
Proudly thy locks should curl above the crown now!
         Sigmar is with the immortals!
         Follow, and mourn him no more!

Hermann und Thusnelda von Johann Heinrich Wilhelm Tischbein (1822)
Hermann und Thusnelda von Johann Heinrich Wilhelm Tischbein (1822)
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