The Bearer of Bad Tidings
Our story begins in a dense, shadowy forest in what is now Germany on September 9 CE. Arminius, leading an alliance of Germanic armies, ambushed three Roman legions under the command of the general Varus. The so-called Battle of the Teutoburg Forest (also known as the Varian Disaster) was one of Rome’s greatest military defeats.
Arminius (who is sometimes known as ‘Hermann the German’) and his allies had damaged the Romans’ army and their pride, but Arminius had also personally betrayed them. Before uniting the Germanic tribes and leading them against Rome, Arminius had been a Roman citizen who had served in the army. So Arminius was able to use his insider knowledge to destroy his former allies.
Unsurprisingly, following the Varian Disaster, Arminius was marked as one of Rome’s greatest foes.
But this tale isn’t really about Arminius, although his actions and those of the Roman commander, Germanicus, had long-lasting consequences for our heroine Thusnelda.
Thusnelda was the daughter of Segestes, the leader of the Cherusci who lived in the north eastern part of modern-day Germany. We know little of her early life, but it is likely that, given her father’s position, she lived in comfort within one of the Cheruscan fortified towns. We first hear of Thusnelda’s life in detail from around 14 CE.
Following the Varian Disaster, tensions had continued to grow between the pro-Roman Segestes and the rebel Arminius, and the Germanic tribes aligned themselves with one leader or the other. Arminius ended up being the dominant figure, and in 14 CE turned to attack Segestes and his allies who were in support of Rome.
Segestes appealed for help from the Roman commander Germanicus, who rescued Segestes and his family from Arminius’ attacks. Thusnelda, pregnant with Arminius’ child, was amongst Segestes’ family members.
The relationship between Thusnelda and Arminius is an interesting one. They may have been married, but the Roman historian Tacitus included a speech (see A few things to note) attributed to Segestes in which he accused Arminius of abducting his daughter when she was already engaged to someone else.
However, Tacitus (through Segestes’ speech) also suggested that Thusnelda was being forced to stay with her father, and it is clear that Arminius was deeply concerned for the well-being of Thusnelda and their child.
Arminius, violent enough by nature, was driven frantic by the seizure of his wife and the subjection to slavery of her unborn child.Tacitus, Annals 1.59
These two factors suggest Thusnelda agreed to be with Arminius, although perhaps unofficially, and that the inclusion of the ‘abduction’ story was intended to harm Arminius’ character whilst suggesting that his and Thusnelda’s offspring were illegitimate.
According to Tacitus, as Segestes’ family assembled before Germanicus, Thusnelda stood defiant and stared down at her pregnant stomach, refusing to show any emotion.
They included some women of high birth, among them the wife of Arminius, who was at the same time the daughter of Segestes, though there was more of the husband than the father in that temper which sustained her, unconquered to a tear, without a word of entreaty, her hands clasped tightly in the folds of her robe and her gaze fixed on her heavy womb.Tacitus, Annals 1.57
The symbolism is significant here as women were associated with fertility, often being used as personifications of a nation or land and as bearers of the future of a nation, whilst children represented the future of a country or family. The Romans also thought that women and children were an extension of their male relatives. Therefore, Thusnelda and her unborn child, acting as symbols of Arminius, as well as Germania (see A few things to note) and its future, were cast by Tacitus as a threat to Roman power.
Supposedly with her father’s permission, Thusnelda was taken prisoner by Germanicus and gave birth to a son whilst in captivity. However, we lose track of her until 17 CE. We know little of the conditions she was kept in, but it is likely that they were relatively comfortable as Germanicus wanted to keep her alive. At the time, Germanicus was planning his triumph which, as Tacitus points out, was awarded before the war in Germania had even been won.
Triumphs were elaborate military processions which were awarded to generals following a decisive and bloody victory over a foreign enemy. Triumphs involved the display of different forms of loot, including defeated foreign enemies and their former possessions.
As Arminius had not been defeated, Thusnelda and her son, Thumelicus, and all that they symbolised were crucial to the triumph. It was also essential to preserve Thusnelda to maintain Rome’s relationship with her father and the Cherusci.
On 26th May 17 CE, Germanicus’ triumph took place. Ahead of the triumphator and his family, soldiers marched through the streets of Rome, singing comic songs about their commander, and carrying platforms laden with precious gems, furniture, paintings showing key scenes from the war, and even people. According to Strabo, whilst Segestes looked on, Thusnelda and Thumelicus were included in the procession.
We do not know how Thusnelda and Thumelicus (who was then under 3 years old) were presented in the triumph: they may have been carried on a platform or on a horse drawn cart, or they may have been forced to walk. In whatever way they appeared, it must have been a terrifying experience for the pair confronted with crowds celebrating their misfortune.
After the triumph, Thusnelda disappears from the histories completely. It may have been that she was returned to her father, or was forced to stay in Rome as a hostage. Unfortunately, we’ll probably never know what happened to her.
However, we have a tantalising last bit of information about Thumelicus:
Arminius’ wife gave birth to a male child, who was brought up at Ravenna: the humiliation which he had to suffer later I reserve for the proper place.Tacitus, Annals 1.58
Frustratingly, the book in which Tacitus relayed this information is lost to us so we do not know the exact details of Thumelicus’ demise. Some historians (Goodyear) have argued that Thumelicus was trained as a naval officer, as the Roman navy had a base close in the city. Alternatively, given Tacitus’ reference to Thumelicus’ ‘humiliating’ death, it has also been suggested that he was forced to become a gladiator, with a status akin to an enslaved person in Roman society, and died in the arena sometime before his 16th birthday.
Thusnelda is an interesting figure as she wasn’t powerful in any traditional sense of the word. However, in the absence of Arminius, Thusnelda was symbolic of a rebellious Germania and its future.
A few things to note:
- Direct speech is hugely problematic in ancient texts, particularly as speeches ‘could not possibly have been delivered in the forms in which they were reported’. This is because writers were often not present at the speeches, did not have access to notes taken during the speech, or were often writing in a different language. For more on issues with speech in ancient sources, see Grant, 1995: 44-52.
- Thusnelda and Arminius were used as symbols of German nationalism in the 19th and 20th centuries, particularly during the period leading up to the Unification of Germany in 1871. The Hermannsdenkmal (the Hermann Monument) was erected in 1831 close to the Teutoberg Forest to commemorate Arminius’ victory over Rome in 9 CE. In the latter half of the 20th century, Thusnelda and Arminius have fallen into obscurity because of their association with German nationalism.
Strabo, Geography 7.4
Beard, M. 2005. A Captive Audience. Prisoners and Victims at the Roman Triumph. Pegasus. Vol. 48, pp. 24-34.
Beard, M. 2007. The Roman Triumph. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.
Benario, H.W. 2004. Arminius into Hermann: History into Legend. Greece & Rome. Vol. 51/1, pp. 83-94.
Goodyear, F.R.D. 1981. The Annals of Tacitus: Books 1-6. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Grant, M. 1995. Greek and Roman Historians: Information and Misinformation. London: Routledge.
Östenberg, I. 2009. Staging the world: spoils, captives, and representations in the Roman triumphal procession. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Prieur, J. 2000. Thusnelda. Eine Spurensuche durch zwei Jt. Lippische Mitt. aus Gesch. und Landeskunde. Vol. 69, pp. 121–181.