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Thusnelda

"In dealing with these peoples distrust has been a great advantage, whereas those who have been trusted have done the greatest harm, as, for instance, the Cherusci and their subjects, in whose country three Roman legions, with their general Quintilius Varus, were destroyed by ambush in violation of the treaty. But they all paid the penalty, and afforded the younger Germanicus a most brilliant triumph—that triumph in which their most famous men and women were led captive, I mean Segimuntus, son of Segestes and chieftain of the Cherusci, and his sister Thusnelda, the wife of Armenius, the man who at the time of the violation of the treaty against Quintilius Varus was commander-in-chief of the Cheruscan army and even to this day is keeping up the war, and Thusnelda's three-year-old son Thumelicus."

Strabo, Geography (VII.1.4)

The triumph of Germanicus took place on May 26, AD 17 (Tacitus, Annals, II.41) and was witnessed by Segestes, her father and an ally of Rome who "was present as a guest of honour at the triumph over his loved ones" (Strabo, VII.1.4). Given that the Germans were said to fear enslavement of their women more than that of their men (Tacitus, Germania, VIII), there must have been some poignancy at his daughter's humiliation. Velleius speaks of the honors bestowed by Tiberius on Germanicus, "young though he was, making the magnificence of his triumph to correspond to the greatness of his deeds!" (II.129.2). And yet, Strabo, who may have been in Rome at the time, in mentioning the name of Thusnelda, draws attention to the fact that her husband Arminius, the victor at Teutoburg Forest, had not been captured and the war, itself, had not been won. Tacitus, too, was discomfited that "a triumph was decreed to Germanicus with the war still in progress" (Annals, I.55), one which, "since he had been forbidden to complete it, was assumed to be complete" (II.41).

Thusnelda had been betrothed to another when she was abducted by Arminius, making "himself the hated son-in-law of a hostile father, and a relationship which cements the affection of friends now stimulated the fury of enemies" (I.55). Indeed, early in the spring of AD 15 Germanicus was obliged to rescue Segestes and many of his relatives and dependents when they were besieged by Arminius—including Thusnelda, who her father admitted was there only by force, "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" (I.57; I.55). As to Arminius, he "was driven frantic by the seizure of his wife and the subjugation to slavery of her unborn child" (I.59). Nor was he later mollified by the assurances of his brother Flavus, who was serving Rome as a mounted scout. In AD 16, prior to the Battle of the Weser River at Idistaviso (II.16), an argument had broken out between the two. Both shouting across the river, Flavus insisted that "Even Arminius' wife and child were not treated as enemies" (II.10).

When Thusnelda had been captured by Germanicus, Segestes put to him that "It is for you to settle which shall count the more—that she had conceived by Arminius, or that she was begotten by me" (I.58) and, although Segestes was promised indemnity to his relatives and children, Thusnelda and the son she bore in captivity were paraded before Tiberius. Thumelicus was reared in Ravenna and, in a lost book of Tacitus, was said to have suffered his own, presumably public humiliation (ludibrio, I.58). Ravenna had been where Julius Caesar waited before crossing the Rubicon into Italy proper. There, he appeared "at a public show inspecting the plans of a gladiatorial school which he intended building" (Suetonius, XXXI). Indeed, the town was considered "to be so healthful that the rulers have given orders to feed and train the gladiators there" (Strabo, V.1.7). It sometimes has been presumed, therefore, that, because Thumelicus was brought up in Ravenna, where there was a school for gladiators, he was trained as one himself. (Tacitus uses the same word ludibrium to describe the mockery of Vonones when he, too, was a hostage (II.4).

For eighteen years Maroboduus, too, who had received the severed head of Varus from Arminius, lanquished in Ravenna, dying there in AD 37 (Velleius, II.119.5; Tacitus, II.63; Strabo, VII.1.3). Bato, another chieftain, defeated by Tiberius in Dalmatia just days before the Battle of Teutoburg Forest, also was sent in exile to Ravenna (Suetonius, Life of Tiberius, XX). When asked why he had revolted, it was Bato who replied "You Romans are to blame for this; for you send as guardians of your flocks, not dogs or shepherds, but wolves" (Dio, LVI.16.3; also Vellelius, II.115ff). And yet, writes Ovid, himself relegated to the Black Sea, Bato was pardoned—he "the sum and head of the war" (Epistles from Pontus, II.1.44ff). Might not Augustus forgive him as well, "when I see gods so easygoing with a foe"?

In AD 47, when the Cherusci applied to Rome for a king, only one member of the royal house still survived to lead the tribe, the son of Flavus (XI.16). Had Thumelicus been alive then, his name no doubt would have been mentioned as well. He is assumed to have died during a period covered by one of the lost books of the Annals: sometime between AD 37 and 47 (Books 7-10) or 29-31 AD (most of Book 5 and the beginning of Book 6).


  This statue, which has been restored, is at the back of the Loggia dei Lanzi (Florence) and dates from the early second century AD. Discovered in Rome, it was placed in the Loggia in 1789 and depicts a barbarian prisoner, traditionally identified as "Thusnelda."

The dress recalls that described by Tacitus:

"The universal dress is the short cloak, fastened with a brooch or, failing that, a thorn....The dress of the women differs from that of the men in two respects only. The women often wear undergarments of linen, embroidered with purple, and, as the upper part does not extend to sleeves, forearms and upper arms are bare. Even the breast, where it comes nearest the shoulder, is exposed too" (Germania, XVII).


"Arminius himself, encouraged by the gradual retirement of the Romans and the expulsion of Maroboduus, began to aim at kingship, and found himself in conflict with the independent temper of his countrymen. He was attacked by arms, and, while defending himself with chequered results, fell by the treachery of his relatives. Undoubtedly the liberator of Germany; a man who, not in its infancy as captains and kings before him, but in the high noon of its sovereignty, threw down the challenge to the Roman nation, in battle with ambiguous results, in war without defeat; he completed thirty-seven years of life, twelve of power, and to this day is sung in tribal lays, though he is an unknown being to Greek historians, who admire only the history of Greece, and receives less than his due from us of Rome, who glorify the ancient days and show little concern for our own."

Tacitus, Annals (II.88)

Although Arminius likely is a Latinized form of the German Ermin/Irmin, the etymology is uncertain. It personally would be satisfying if, like his brother Flavus "The Blond," he, too, were identified by a physical characteristic and the Latin cognomen referred to the color of his eyes. In Strabo, the name is transliterated as "Armenius" (later, in Tacitus, the Latin is "Arminius"). Armenium or azurite is a cerulean blue mineral from Armenia that Pliny classifies as one of the rare and expensive "florid" pigments (Pliny XXXV.28, 12). Tacitus does describe the Germans as having "fierce blue eyes" (Germania, IV), and Velleius says that Arminius "showed in his countenance and in his eyes the fire of the mind within" (II.118.2). Or perhaps Arminius once fought in Armenia as an auxiliary. There also was a gens Arminia, and Arminius, who attained Roman citizenship and became an equites (Velleius, II.118.2), might have been associated with that family. Given that Segestes had a son Segimuntus (Segimund) and Sigimer was the father of Arminius, it even has been wistfully argued on philological grounds that Arminius is the Siegfried of Germanic lays, the hero of the Nibelungen saga.

It should be remembered that there are two Sigimers (Segimerus): the father of Arminius (mentioned only by Velleius, II.118.2) and the brother of Segestes (Dio, LVI.19.2). Segestes, the father of Thusnelda, was not, in other words, the uncle of Arminius. Too, Arminius was killed by his own relatives or kinsmen (propinquorum, Tacitus, II.88), not by his in-laws (or Segestes). The word also can be found in a later passage from the Code of Justinian (IX.15.1): De Emendatione Propinquorum ("Concerning Chastisement of Relatives"). "We grant the older relatives the right to correct minors in proportion to the character of the offense, so that those who are not induced to observe decorum in life by praiseworthy examples in the family may be compelled to do so by correcting them by chastisement..."

Finally, if one calculates the "twelve [years] of power" of which Tacitus speaks as reckoned from the defeat of Varus in AD 9, Arminius died in AD 21. The date sometimes is given as AD 19, however, which is calculated from AD 7, about the time Arminius is presumed to have returned home, after having served with Velleius (II.118.2) as a Roman auxiliary in Pannonia, where a revolt led by Bato had broken out the year before (Dio, LV.28.7ff; Velleius, II.110ff, who speaks of Tiberius dismissing some of the army, sending it back "whence it came," II.113.3). Ironically, the Illyrian forces summoned by Tiberius to fight against Maroboduus in Bohemia became aware of their assembled strength and, led by Bato, themselves rebelled. Tiberius was obliged to conclude a treaty with Maroboduus and depart for Pannonia with troops levied "from every quarter" (II.111.1), leaving Varus as governor of the newly subdued province. Germanicus, too, died in AD 19, the popular nephew of Tiberius, whose complicity was suspected.

The etymology of Thumelicus can be as fanciful as that of Arminius. Because the altar of Dionysus in the center of the orchestra circle was called the thymele, around which the chorus performed, and Thymelicus was a name derisively given to those who performed there, some nineteenth-century authors have inferred that Thumelicus must have been the cognomen of one who exhibited himself in public. But Strabo, himself a Greek, does not give the name as Thymelikos, which presumably he would have done had he intended to associate it with the Thymele, but Thoumelikos. And, if Strabo had witnessed Thusnelda and Thumelicus presented in triumph (when he was revising the Geography), he would have written long before the fate of the child was known. Indeed, although he says that the boy then was three years old, Thusnelda still was pregnant in the spring of AD 15, and Thumelicus would not have been more than two.


The detail above is from Thusnelda Led in Germanicus' Triumph (1873/1874), a monumental painting by Carl Theodor von Piloty measuring approximately 16 by 23 feet and occupying an entire gallery wall of the Neue Pinakothek (Munich). It is Thusnelda, of course, a heroine of nineteenth-century German nationalism, who commands the scene, her young son clutching her gown.

Germanicus, his chariot crowded with his own children, is far in the background and only just coming into view—a reminder that the gaze of the audience was unpredictable and "that the loves of the Roman nation were fleeting and unblest!" (Tacitus, Annals, II.41). A much smaller version, painted about the following year, is in the Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York).


References: Strabo: Geography (1917-) translated by H. L. Jones (Loeb Classical Library); The Roman Triumph (2007) by Mary Beard; Tacitus: On Britain and Germany (1948) translated by H. Mattingly (Penguin Classics); Velleius Paterculus: Compendium of Roman History (1924) translated by Frederick W. Shipley (Loeb Classical Library); Ovid: The Poems of Exile (2005) translated by Peter Green; "What's in a Name, a Face, and a Place: Significant Juxtaposition in Tacitus' 'Annales' 2" (2002) by Elizabeth Tylawsky and Elizabeth Tylawski, Historia: Zeitschrift für Alte Geschichte, 51(2), 254-258.

See also Arch of Tiberius

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