The Northern Way

Grimm Centenary: Sigfred-Arminivs and Other Papers


Superbiter contemptim conterit legiones.

The defeat of Varus is an acknowledged turning-point of the world's history; yet precisely how it came about has never been very clearly set forth. In the course of re-reading lately the classical historians who have treated of Arminius and the German wars, the author was struck by certain expressions that seemed to point to a peculiar mode of warefare being practised in early Germany, which he was familiar with from notices in Scandinavian history. It is with this, as not altogether ungermane to the subject of the first pages of this little pamphlet, that he now proposes briefly to deal.

For a description of the defeat of Varus we must rely on Dio's and Velleius' (for Florus is good for little) accounts, which, vague as they are, yet give enough detail, when compared with Dio's earlier account of Drusus' narrow escape, with Caesar's own very full and clear description (twelve chapters long) of his dangerous and hard-fought encounter with the Neruii, and with Livy's brief but helpful narrative of L. Postumius' overthrow by the Boii in the Silua Litana, B.C. 216, to put one on the right track. The conviction gains upon one as one reads that on all these occasions the Romans were met by the same tactics, which failed twice and twice succeeded. They seemed to have failed against Caesar simply because the Romans were so strong in numbers, Caesar practically acknowledging that his four legions were almost hopelessly entangled in a position from which nothing but the opportune succour of two fresh legions could have saved them.

There are luckily, both in the Icelandic Kings' ives and the later history of Sweden, passages which give some account of Teutonic wood-warfare (called broti, fella brota), and explain, from the side which Roman historians naturally could not take, the exact strategy which was employed to check Caesar and Drusus, and crush Postumius and Varus.

The classic accounts in Dio (Bk. liv. ch. 33 and lvi. chs. 18 sqq.) are well known; it is only necessary to quote here a few lines from Livy xxiii. 24, which may be then set side by side with those we shall cite from Scandinavian authorities. 'Silua erat uasta ---Litanam Galli uocabant---, qua exercitum traducturus erat. Eius siluae dextra laeuaque circa uiam Galli arbores ita inciderunt, ut immotae starent, momento leui impulsae occiderent. Legiones duas Romanas habebat Postumius sociumque ab supero mari tantum conscripserat, ut uiginti quinque milia armatorum in agros hostium induxerit. Galli oram extremae siluae cum circumsedissent, ubi intrauit agmen saltum, tum extremas arborum succisarum impellunt. Quae alia in aliam instabilem per se ac male haerentem incidentes ancipiti strage arma uiros equos obruerunt, ut uix decem homines effugerent.'

The best Icelandic passage comes from 'King Hacon's Life,' written in Norway forty years after the events therein described, which took place January 1225: (1) ---

'After this there came men to the King (Hacon) telling him that the Werms had felled the forest in front of him, hard by the church that is called New-kirk. Then the king sent forward an hundred horsemen and bowmen, and when they came to the broti (abattis, a defence of felled trees) they found but a few men holding it, and soon drove them away. Then they cut through the broti with poleaxes. And all the while the king had watch kept, lest any onslaught should be made upon the flanks. And the most of those that rode in the van with the king got through the broti quickly. But afterwards men led their horses over the broti to the part where it was thinnest. News was brought to the rearguard that the king had got through the broti and was fighting the Werms. Then the mass of the host rushed forward to the broti, and there arose a great tumult as the sledges got broken. (It was winter and there were many sledges.) And when the king heard the noise, he and his men (the van) thought that they (in the rear) must be engaged, and turned back as fast as possible, and there had wellnight been a great mishap before the men (of the two divisions) recognised each other.'

No passage could show better the danger of a broti even to a host that passed through it unopposed.

In Magnus Erlingsson's Saga (Fms. vol. vii. year 1174), we are told: ---

 'The Birch-legs (a Norwegian party nickname, made famous by King Swerri) fought three pitched battles and won the victory in all; but at Croke-shaw they came nigh to a mishap; for the Franklins gathered a mighty array against them. But the Birch-legs felled them a broti, and then ran off into the forest.'

In 1178, as King Swerri's Life reports: 'Earl Cnut was minded to go after him into Werm-land; but the Werms upset his plan, for they said that he should never have journeyed a worse journey, and felled a broti for him in the forest; and so had to turn back withal.'

In the same year Swerri came to the Dales of Sweden, where the good folk had never seen a king, and did not know 'whether he was a man or a beast.' 'And when he came to Iarn-bera-land (Iron-bear-land, the present Dalecarlia) there was a great gathering of men against him. They felled a broti against him, and said that they were not used to have kings passing through their land, and that they would not have it now. Then the king rode forth to them, and talked with them, and the end of their parley was, that they let him go where he would, and gave him all the furtherance they could.'

So far the older authorities. We now come to more modern evidence. There is a great and ancient tract of forest, called Twi-wid (Twi-wood or Twin-wood, the parting wood) between Sweden and Goth-land, on the neck that parts the lakes Wenern and Wettern, where there must have been many a fight in olden days of heathendom between Sweons (Swedes) and Goths. In 1470 Christiern the First tried to take the Swedes in the rear by breaking through upon them here, but the Swedes felled a broti in Twi-wood and repulsed him.

But the last time this old stratagem is described is a notable one. Christiern the Tyrant's disciplined army, led by a Danish nobleman, in which there were excellent mercenaries, Swiss and Scots besides the king's own trained men, invades Sweden, attacks the Swedes by the same road in the winter of 1520 (that annus terribilis which led, however, to the following annus liberationis for the Swedes). It looked as if the young commonwealth must perish. In the words of the Chronicler Olaus Petri, (2) 'The Swedes had made a broti there for them. On Candlemas Eve King Christiern's people attacked the broti, and gat great scathe there. Yet, at the last they were led round the broti and so overpowered the Swedes, and beat them from their broti.' The events which followed this memorable fight, and the death of the brave young Swedish Regent Sten Sture, interesting and important to European history as they are, we must not stop now to dwell on. It is lucky that the interest raised by this episode of the war was sufficient to cause a sketch of the broti to be made in Gustaf Wasa's day, and there is an engraving of it in Vittensk. Hist. Ant. Acad. Hand. iii. 1793.

 The description annexed gives a clear account of the formation of a broti. It is made in a forest of big trees (mere scrub or wild ground will not do) across a road or pass by which the enemy's army is expected to come, by felling a line of trees so that they make a rough abattis.

        Ennius' vigorous lines might describe the opening scene ---

                Incidunt arbusta peralta, securibu' caedunt,
                percellunt magnas quercus, exciditur ilex,
                fraxinu' frangitur atque abies consternitur alta,
                pinus proceras peruortunt.

This line is manned by artillery (bowmen or the like) in front, and on either side of it long flanking lines of felled trees stretch away at a slight angle to prevent the abattis being turned. Along each side of the road leading to the broti itself, a line of trees parallel to the road is either cut down or better half cut through, in such fashion that a small number of skilled woodmen could bring them down in a few minutes, exactly as Livy describes it above. These lines are of course manned directly the van of the enemy advances towards the broti, and the engagement begins. At the signal agreed on the falling of the trees closes the trap. The invaders must either push on---- and even if they carry the first broti across their path, probably be pulled up by a second and third --- or they must retreat in confusion back through a narrow gorge lined by the enemy's picked soldiers, blocked by the felled trees on all sides, and pursued by the men who had manned the broti. If the defensive force were but enough in number to keep the flank and parallel lines, once the enemy had got well engaged between the side-brotis, his defeat was almost certain. The corrals used on a large scale for big game, as today in Africa, must no doubt have suggested the stratagem. The Romans were lucky to have escaped twice. Do not let us join Augustus in blaming the unhappy Varus, who was probably no worse than any other average Roman officer of experience. Suppose some Neruian spear had stricken Caesar, or half an hour's delay or less prevented the timely arrival of the two legions that succoured him, we should be told that Caesar was but another Catiline, a successful demagogue but an inexperienced foolhardy general, who rashly courted the fate that deservedly befell him.


1. Following the Scalholt-book Text in my Rolls' Series Edition. [Back]

2. In Dr. Klemming's Edition. [Back]

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