We should have all been Roman: from Arminius to Herman the German

Professor Dr. Kai Brodersen, Faculty of Philosophy, Ancient Greek and Roman History, University of Erfurt, Germany

A Nation’s Hero


A child – a child! His father’s kind

how high my heart does beat! 

But should I glow in mothers’ lust

Rome’s yoke you have to break!

On! Herman, on! The Romans fight!

Your son must be no slave!

Bring Varus’ shield and crest to me

As price for all my pains!

I shan’t give breast-milk to this child,

Teutates, hear my oath! 

Until of serfdom’s awful pain

my fatherland is freed.

The hero went to fight ‘gainst Rome

in furious battle-lust.

His wife did, ‘ere the sun went down,

the infant put to breast.

(Josephine Scheffel 1892, 112)


In AD 9, in the Teutoburg Forest in Germany, three Roman legions including auxiliary troops and baggage under the command of Publius Quinctilius Varus (acting for the Emperor Augustus) were defeated by a force led by the Cheruscan Arminius (who had previously been in the service of the Romans). Publius Cornelius Tacitus, in his Annals (2.88), would call Arminius a liberator haud dubie Germaniae, although the Romans continued to invade the “free” Germany and Arminius soon fell victim to a plot within his tribe. However, the figure of Arminius – who is referred to since Early Modern times as “Herman the Cheruscan” – enjoyed increased public interest since the late 18th century: Arminius, who was not identifiable with a single contemporary small state, was eminently suitable as a national hero for the whole of Germany, and became “Herman the German”.(1)

This interest in Arminius is palpable in “high”(2) as well as less high literature, as the occasional poem by Josephine Scheffel, née Krederer (1803-1865) quoted above shows. It is written from the perspective of Thusneld(a), the wife of Hermann whose mission to break “Rome’s yoke” is combined with the private event of the birth of a baby. To be sure, when a grandson of the poetess published the poem after his grandmother’s death, he was not entirely wrong when, in his introduction, he denied the claim that his aim was to “enrich German lyric with a new jewel”,(3) but even poems like Thusneld attest the popularity of Herman the German in the 19th century. The same sentiment is visible, for instance, in the monumental painting “Elevation of Hermann the Cheruscan after the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest in AD 9” by Albert Graefle (1809-1889). This won the gold medals both in the Paris Salon of 1846 and at the Art Exhibition in the Berlin Academy in 1850 and was eventually acquired for the Collections in Karlsruhe where it still resides. It is also clear from several initiatives to erect a monument for Arminius. The most prominent of these was the plan initiated by Emst Bandel (1800-1876) in 1838 for a monument to be built near Detmold, financed by public subscription.(4) And not least it is palpable in individual documents, like a letter by a student who hiked through the Teutoburg Forest in 1820 and wrote about his experience:

I still hear how an ancient stone calls out to me: “Passer-by, note, Armin has beaten Varus here.”

(Heinrich Heine, Letters from Berlin, 26.01.1822) (5)


Mocking a National Symbol 

The increasing popularity of the figure of Armin(ius) as a national symbol soon attracted critical reactions as well. Heinrich Heine (1797-1856), who had raved about Armin in this letter, four years later, when hiking through the Harz Mountains in 1824, met a student from Greifswald who worked “at a national heroic poem to glorify Hermann and the Hermann battle”. Heine, disillusioned with national pride, gave him “some useful hints”:

I suggested to him that the morasses and crooked paths of the Teutoburg 

forest might be very onomatopoeically indicated by means of watery and ragged verse, and that it would be mere a patriotic liberty, should the Romans in his poem, chatter the wildest nonsense. 

(Heinrich Heine, The Harz Journey 1826, transl. Leland 1863, 89) (7)

Twenty years after this event, Heine, who had emigrated to France in 1831 and returned to Germany only as a traveller, again dealt with Herman the German. In his Germany, A Winter’s Tale published in 1844 he writes:

This is the forest of Teutoburg, 

You probably know it from Tacitus.

This is where Varus got himself stuck, 

The classic boggy morass it was.

The Cheruscan prince defeated him here, 

Arminius, alias Hermann; 

The German principle won the day, 

The muck was also German.

Just think, if Arminius’s blond horde 

Had lost to the foreign foeman, 

Would German liberty be what it is?

We should have all been Roman.

Rome’s language and Rome’s ways would reign, 

There’d be vestal virgins in Munich, 

Those dear little Swabians would look so sweet 

In Roman toga or tunic. …

We’d have a single Nero now 

Instead of princes in dozens.

We’d slit a vein to escape his spite 

Like our noble Roman cousins. …

Thank God! The Romans were beaten then, 

Soundly enough to deter them.

Varus with all his legions was lost, 

And Germany stayed German.

Germans we stayed, and Germans we are, 

And German’s the language we gas in – 

A German says ‘ass’, not ‘asinus’ 

(He has ways to be an ass in). …

O Hermann, for all this we’ve you to thank! 

So at Detmold, as is fitting, 

They’re building you a monument – 

I’ve even put my bit in.

(Heinrich Heine, Deutschland, ein Wintermährchen, Caput XI, 1844, transl. Reed 1986, 77-81)

Heine makes the battle in the Teutoburg Forest the starting point for counterfactual thinking (8) in which a defeat of Herman would have meant that the Germans “should have all been Romans”. He also refers to Bandel’s planned monument as unfinished due to a lack of subscription revenue.

Heine’s Wintermährchen gained a large readership in the troubled second half of the 1840s in Germany. His ironic and critical tone was applauded by many students and encouraged them to experiment and to discuss the general enthusiasm for Herman. Proof of this is a poem, which was submitted on October 31st, 1848, by a recent Dr. iur. (supervised by Carl Theodor Welcker, 1790-1869, who now served as a liberal member of the Frankfurt National Assembly in St. Paul’s Church), to the editors of the weekly Fliegende Blätter:

Just next to the biggest seriousness of the time, humour must grow 

abundantly as well. I beg to draw your attention to the abnormal epic “The Teutoburg battle” which, as it seems to me … could present an opportunity 

for a number of equally successful illustrations.

(Quoted from the Facsimile in Linse 1909, 11)

In fact, the Fliegende Blätter published in the following year – five years after Heine’s Wintermährchen – the poem, entitled “The Teutoburg Battle” and signed only with the initials “J.S.”, and illustrated with eight humorous drawings:

When the Romans rashly roving,

Into Germany were moving,

First of all – to flourish, partial –

Rode ’mid trumps the great field-martial,

Sir Quinctilius Varus.

But in the Teutoburgian Forest

How the north wind blew and chorussed; 

Ravens flying through the air,

And there was a perfume there

As of blood and corpses.

All at once, in socks and buskins

Out came rushing the Cheruskins,

Howling, ‘Gott und Vaterland!’

They went in with sword in hand,

Against the Roman legions. …

O Quinctilius! wretched general,

Knowest thou not that such our men are all? 

In a swamp he fell – how shocking!

Lost two boots, a left-hand stocking,

And, besides, was smothered. …

When this forest fight was over 

Hermann rubbed his hands in clover; 

And to do the thing up right,

The Cheruscans did invite 

To a first-rate breakfast.

But in Rome the wretched varmints 

Went to purchase morning garments; 

Just as they had tapped a puncheon, 

And Augustus sat at luncheon,

Came the mournful story.

And the tidings so provoked him,

That a peacock leg half choked him, 

And he cried – beyond control –

„Varus – Varus – d-n your soul!

Redde legiones!“ …

Now, in honour of the story,

A monument they’ll raise for glory. 

As for pedestal – they’ve done it; 

But who’ll pay for a statue on it 

Heaven alone can tell us.

(Scheffel 1849; transl. Leland 1872, 44-47)

The initials “J. S.” hide the 23-year-old Joseph Victor Scheffel (1826-1886, ennobled in 1876) from Karlsruhe, who had studied Law from 1843 to 1847 at the University of Heidelberg and had gained his doctorate in 1848. Scheffel’s mother was the author of the poem on Thusneld (cited above) which enforces the image of Herman as a national hero. Perhaps in opposition to his mother,(10) but certainly to the enthusiasm of his contemporaries for Herman the German, Scheffel – like Heine – approaches the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest with “humour”. Like Heine he includes allusions to his own time, and like Heine he refers to Bandel’s plan for a monument near Detmold. The subscriptions had allowed Bandel to build the base in 1846, but the statue itself had still not been created, so the last illustration to the poem in the Fliegende Blätter in 1849 shows the empty foundation for the statue. So the historical context of Scheffel’s poem When the Romans is the time of its creation, namely the revolutionary years 1848/49. As Heinrich Heine in his Deutschland, ein Wintermährchen, published four years previously, Scheffel approaches the myth of Hermann, and thus the “national pride”, with critical “humour” and mocks the contemporary efforts to erect a monument to Hermann.

A Students’ Drinking Song

Soon Scheffel’s poem When the Romans was set to music, and acquired a second context in the hard-drinking students’ culture of the decades following 1848/49. Flyleafs circulated, and eventually Scheffel printed his poem in 1868, now under his own name, in his collection Gaudeamus: Songs from the Closer and Farther.(11) This book was an enormous success: Only four years later, in 1872, it saw its 10th edition and a translation into English, in 1875 the 20th, 1882 the 40th and the year of death of the poet, 1886, the 50th edition. About twenty posthumous editions and finally the publication in Reclam’s Universal Library (Vol. 5919/20, Leipzig 1917 and reprints) familiarized a wide readership with Scheffel’s work and ensured the popularity of this collection even after the poet’s death.(12)

As a “funny student song” the Teutoburg Battle was first sung to the tune created in 1832 for a poem entitled The Hussites before Naumburg. It soon found its way into students’ songbooks, so in 1855 into the Commersbuch für den Deutschen Studenten (“Magdeburg-Leipzig Commersbuch”)(13) and in 1858 into the competing Allgemeines Deutsches Commersbuch (“Lahr Commersbuch”),(14) later into the Allgemeines Deutsches Reichs-Commersbuch für Deutsche Studenten.(15) At the end of the song, the following verse was often added:

Who’s the poet of these verses?

Student was who this created.

Drank a lot in West-Phalía,

So in nation’s pride and glory

He composed it later. (Schauenburg and Silcher 1858)

Furthermore, it was extended by a boozy verse – typical for the tradition of student songs, but viewed critically by Scheffel’s mother(16). The lines “And to do the thing up right, / The Cheruscans did invite / To a first-rate breakfast” were followed in the Allgemeines Deutsches Commersbuch by

Hui, there was Westphal’an smoke-ham,

Beer as much as they could swallow.

Ev’n in drink he stayed a hero

But his wife Thusneld not idly

drank like any servant.

(Schauenburg and Silcher 1858)(17)

So the second historical context of Scheffel’s When the Romans was “a funny student song”, distributed since the 1850s in the widespread student Kommersbuch type books and in Scheffel’s highly successful collection Gaudeamus! It was sung to a familiar tune and became very popular indeed. The poem which had been created in critical opposition to the “national pride” focused on Hermann had then become a boozy student song.

Germany Against France

After the Franco-German War of 1870/71 and the foundation of the German Empire in 1871, the poem acquired a third historical context. Scheffel later wrote: “In 1875, the poem was fitted out afresh, re-edited and provided with a folk tune for the inauguration of the Hermann statue on August 16th. It was also – actually against the mood in its preparation – the festival song of the day and was spread as a flyleaf with illustrations and music.”(18) What had happened?

Emst Bandel’s project of a statue, which had been stalled in 1846 because of financial problems, had gained monumentum again after 1863. Finally, the new German Reichstag as well as Kaiser Wilhelm I. gave large donations toward the completion and on August 16th, 1875, the inauguration of the monument was celebrated – and When the Romans became the hymn of the day.

To achieve this, the tune was changed. Dortmund’s music shop owner and publisher Ludwig Teichgräber (1840-1904), who sold the flyleaf at the festival, printed a different melody, which he did not attribute to any author, but which was a version of the well-known march entitled Kriegers Lust (“Warrior’s Lust”) by Austro-Hungarian military composer Joseph Gungl (1810-1889). Since this march tune had several lines more than Scheffel’s poem, every the fifth line was repeated and a (both onomatopoetic and nonsensical) refrain was inserted after each of the verses:

… sim serim, serim, sim, sim,

… sim serim, serim, sim, sim,

… räcke täcke tährä,

… räcke täcke tährä,

… Wau, Wau, Wau, Wau, Wau,

… Schnäderäng täng, Schnäderäng täng, Schnäderäng täng, täräng, täng, täng. 

(Teichgäber 1875, 39)

Further, the text of the poem was changed. Thusneld was not said, as in the merry students’ drinking song, to have drunk “like any servant”, but “in the manner of a Valkyrie”, and Herman’s breakfast now was held “to dedicate his victory”.

This “militarization” of the poem, which was clear also from the military march tune used to sing it, was clearest in the recasting of the last verses. In place of the verse that was reminiscent of Heine’s mocking the unfinished monument, and of the lampooning of the “national pride” by a “student”, national pathos prevailed. The statue of Hermann looked westward, towards France, and the song now ended in a jingoistic sentiment:

And in honour of the stories

Monument has been erected.

Germ’ny’s strength and unity

it proclaims now far and wide:

“Let them only come here!”

(Teichgäber 1875, 39)

In his influential Deutsche Poetik Konrad Beyer saw these verses as a testament to the power of the folk song:

With great daring the people, unconcerned about the poet’s concerns, brought changes to the poem, indeed it added new verses; and in this new people’s version the poem has since found its way into the 1875 folk song books.

(Beyer 1883, 114)

In fact, the changes were Scheffel’s own: The autograph of his corrected proofs is preserved,(19) and in later editions of the Lahr Commersbuch the following remark was printed:

I am very pleased with the now correct production of the song of the Varus battle that I have long considered to be a debt of honor to Mr von Bandel and would have prepared myself, had not the anonymous been faster than me. May the current version remain the received version of the text. 

Dr. Scheffel 

(Schauenburg [n.d.], 566)

The third historical context of Scheffel’s poem When the Romans moves the poem from the time, “when neither the completion of the monument nor a united German seemed likely”,(20) to the time after the foundation of a united German Empire. In accordance with this new context, the lyrics and melody were changed – and indeed Scheffel himself had changed as well: he was no longer the liberal supporter of the revolutionary events in 1848/49, poking critical fun at the image of Herman the German which had been used in literature, art and plans for monuments (and also in his mother’s poem on Thusneld). Also, he was no longer the hard-drinking mature student who amused his contemporaries by the amount of beer Hermann and his wife (“like any servant”) were able to consume. He was now, in 1875, the poet of the hymn which was sung to the tune of the military march Warrior’s Lust at the opening of national monument of the German Empire, a statue which – after the Franco-German War of 1870/71 – which raised the sword westward, against France. The poet was rewarded one year later, in 1876, with his elevation to a peerage – which reflects not only Scheffel’s journey from critical student to nationalist nobleman, but also the journey from Arminius to Herman the German.(21)


1 See especially Engelbert 1975 and Wiegels/Woesler 1995.

2 See von Essen 1998.

3 Viktor von Scheffel in Scheffel 1892, vi.

4 See, e.g., Meier / Schäfer 2000.

5 Heine 1973, 9.

7 Heine 1973, 123.

8 On this approach cf. Brodersen 2000.

10 J. Proelß in Scheffel 1907, I 26f.

11 On the history of Gaudamus Igitur see Brodersen 2010.

12 Scheffel 1868 and later editions.

13 [Commersbuch] 1855 (and later editions), 300f.; cf. Linse 1909, 20.

14 Numerous later editions, e.g. Schauenburg [n. d.].

15 Müller 1875, 289; numerous later editions

16 According to Linse 1909, 20f, Josephine Scheffel “repeatedly expressed the fear that in this matter you exercise too little regard for your good name, Joseph.“

17 Similarly Müller 1875, 289f.; cf. Linse 1909, 39.

18 Scheffel in Beyer 1883, 114.

19 A facsimile in Linse 1909, 39ff.

20 Scheffel in Beyer 1883, 114.

21 See further Brodersen 2008. Where no translators are named the translations are my own.



Beyer, C. (1883). Deutsche Poetik, Vol. II (Stuttgart: Göschen).

Brodersen, K. (ed.) (2000). Virtuelle Antike (Darmstadt: WBG).

— (2008). ‘Als die Römer frech geworden’, in M. Wagner-Egelhaaf (ed), Hermanns Schlachten: Zur Literaturgeschichte eines nationalen Mythos (Bielefeld: Aisthesis), 107-127 (again in Brodersen 2015).

— (2010). ‘Gaudeamus igitur: Aspects of an academic hymn’, in T. N. Jackson et al. (eds.), Gaudeamus igitur (Moscow: Russian Academy of Sciences, Institute of World History), 7-15 (again in Brodersen 2015).

— (2015). Classics outside Classics (Heidelberg: Verlag Antike).

[Commersbuch] (1855). Commersbuch fiir den deutschen Studenten (Magdeburg: Baensch).

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Heine, H. (1973). Historisch-kritische Gesamtausgabe, Vol. VI, ed. J. Hermand (Hamburg: Hoffmann & Campe).

— (1985). Historisch-kritische Gesamtausgabe, Vol. IV, ed. W. Woesler (Hamburg: Hoffmann & Campe).

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— (1872). Gaudeamus! Humorous Poems, translated from the German of Joseph Victor Scheffel and others (London: Trübner).

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Scheffel, J. V. v. (1849). ‘Die Teutoburger Schlacht’, in Fliegende Blätter 10.229, 100-102.

— (1868). Gaudeamus! Lieder aus dem Engeren und Weiteren (Stuttgart: Metzler).

— (1907). Gesammelte Werke, ed. J. Proelß, 6 vols. (Stuttgart: Bonz).

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This article was first published in Iris | Journal of the Classical Association of Victoria,Volume 28


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