Gateway to the Classics: Barbarian and Noble by Marion Florence Lansing
Barbarian and Noble by  Marion Florence Lansing

The Story of Drusus

Was it the army of some mighty rival power that stopped the lines of Roman soldiery when they came to the banks of the river Rhine? Or did the people who met them there have better swords or mightier engines of war than these veteran warriors,—these world conquerors? No, that was the strange part of it. It was a simple forest people who held those lands west of the river boundary,—a people who dwelt in scattered villages and lived by the hunt and the chase. Men of a later day, looking back on them as they stand out in contrast to their foes, have called them forest children, for, though they were tall and strong, men in stature and in years, yet they were children at heart, and they met their all powerful enemy with the simplicity and courage of children.

The Romans could not understand their Gothic opponents, who were for that very cause the more terrible to them. It was impossible for the crafty Roman to comprehend a chieftain who could cut down a dozen men in battle with merciless cruelty, but who would ride beforehand unarmed into the enemy's camp to appoint the place and hour for the battle, in order that neither side might gain an undue advantage. The mystery of an alien people was more terrifying than a forest of swords.

The Romans did not give up easily. Many a general volunteered for the perilous northern service, and of all those who fought the barbarians none was braver than the mighty Drusus. It was he who was the first Roman captain to sail the dread North Ocean; and it was he who cast up on the farther side of the Rhine those deep and well paved trenches which for centuries were called by his name. Many a time he had put the barbarian to the sword, and when he had driven him far into the inmost recesses of the forest, had not given over chasing and pursuing. It was surely meet that Drusus be the one to enter the Gothic lands and subdue the Gothic peoples, who, though they came out and made treaties with the Romans and even served for pay in their armies, looking with admiring eyes on their great cities with high walls and towers, yet slipped away into their forest shelters and beat back their former masters with sharp-pointed arrows, shot from behind rough breastworks of trees.

In the reign of the emperor Augustus, greatest of all the Cæsars, Drusus brought his men across the Rhine on flat-bottomed boats, and plunged with them into the forest. It was a hard and toilsome march, for the way led through dense forests and trackless swamps, where many men were lost. When the Romans met a company of Goths drawn up before their village in battle line, they were more often than not able to gain the victory and drive them back in disorder; but the Goths would disappear into the woods, and the next day, as the army was struggling along, trees, half felled the day before, would begin to fall at the touch of unseen hands, until a network of logs was formed which would halt the march for many a weary hour until the Romans could go round it or slowly clear it away. By night strange sounds, more terrifying even than the howling of the wild beasts which must be kept ever at bay, disturbed their slumbers. Now there would be calls and cries from one side, and then a response would come from far away, until the superstitious declared that the forest was bewitched. Yet the brave Drusus pressed on undaunted, and the army plodded along behind him, until they came to the river Elbe, the river in the center of Germany. They had gone many, many miles beyond the farthest point which other armies had reached, and it really seemed as if this barbarian land, never before trodden by Roman feet, was to be forced to yield its secrets to the mighty Drusus and come under imperial sway.

Then a strange thing befell. Perhaps the Romans had gone too near the sacred grove that lay in the midst of the region where Odin, the great god of the Teutons, was born. There none might enter save with a chain around his neck to show his subjection, and if a man fell there he might not raise himself again, but must crawl out backward on hands and knees. In any case the Romans had gone too far. Again and again they had been warned, but they had not heeded the sounds by night nor the spells that had been cast upon them by day. Their hearts had been too full of Roman pride, and their ears too dull of hearing. Then the mystery of the north, the dread, beautiful spirit of Germania, took on human form, that she might be seen by even their mortal eyes, for her land was in danger and she must needs warn back these rude invaders. All at once, in the path over which Drusus led his army, there stood, it is said, a wondrous woman, taller than mankind and of more than mortal beauty. Her appearance was in the likeness of a barbarian woman, with eyes as blue as the sky and flaxen hair that streamed behind her as a cloud. While the soldiers shrank back in terror before this vision, she spoke. Slowly and in his own tongue she addressed the general, and, though the music of the forest was in her voice, yet the Roman shivered as though a cold wind had struck him.


"Whither art thou hastening, insatiable Drusus? Back, I command thee! It is not fated that thou shalt see all this region. Depart! For thee the end of labor and of life is already at hand."

Then the invaders knew that the very gods of these heathen peoples were against them, and they turned and went back all the long way to the river Rhine; but in the midst of their fright they remembered that they were Romans, and on the farthest point which they had reached they set up in the Roman fashion a trophy, a monument of stone, by which generations still unborn should know that in this the ninth year before the Christian era Romans penetrated thus far into the land of the Goths. Because of the misfortune of the expedition, men of a later day called the monument Scelerata, which is to say Accursed; for the prophecy of Germania was fulfilled, and, as the brave Drusus was returning in haste, ere ever he reached the Rhine or set foot on Roman soil he fell from his horse and died.

So the Romans were turned back, and all Rome mourned for the brave Drusus, who had given his life for the Empire. But it was not in the Roman blood to accept defeat, and though the soldiers told their tale of the wondrous vision that had turned them back, men scoffed at them. Before the rule of the great Augustus was over, another Roman general crossed the forbidden line and marched into the land of the Goths. His was a worse fate than that of Drusus, for, while Drusus lost his life, he sent his army safely back to the emperor, while Varus lost two whole legions, the flower of Roman soldiery, in a terrible battle in the swamps. Not for many, many years had Roman arms suffered so great a disaster. When the news came to Rome, the whole city went into mourning. For a month the emperor did not cut his beard nor care for his locks, but let them grow in sign of his grief, and often in his sleep or in his waking hours his courtiers heard him cry, "O Varus, give me back my legions."

Then the words of Germania were heeded, and the wise emperor decreed that the fair standards of Rome should not be risked again across the Rhine, but that there the Empire should stop, and the river should be the frontier. And so it remained for centuries to come.

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