The Cherusci were an early Germanic people that inhabited parts of the plains and forests of northwestern Germany, in the area possibly near present-day Hanover, during the first centuries BC and AD. Ethnically, Pliny the Elder groups them with their neighbours, the Suebi and Chatti, as well as the Hermunduri, as Hermiones, one of the Germanic groupings said to descend from an ancestor named Mannus. They led an important war against the Roman Empire. Subsequently, they were probably absorbed into the late classical Germanic tribal groups such as the Saxons, Thuringians, Franks, Bavarians and Allemanni.
The etymological origin of the name Cherusci is not known with certainty. According to the dominant opinion in scholarship, the name may derive from the ancient Germanic word *herut (Modern English hart, i. e. "deer"). The tribe may have been named after the deer because it had a totemistic significance in Germanic symbolism. A different hypothesis, proposed in the 19th century by Jacob Grimm and others, derives the name from *heru-, a word for "sword" (cf. Gothic hairus, Old English heoru). Hans Kuhn has argued that the derivational suffix -sk-, involved in both explanations, is otherwise not common in Germanic. He suggested that the name may therefore be a compound of ultimately non-Germanic origin, connected to the hypothesized Nordwestblock.
The first historical mention of the Cherusci occurs in Book 6.10 of Julius Caesar's De Bello Gallico, which recounts events of 53 BC. Caesar relates that he crossed the Rhine again to punish the Suebi for sending reinforcements to the Treveri. He mentions that the Bacenis forest (a relatively impenetrable beech forest, possibly the Harz) separated the territory of the Cherusci from that of the Suebi. In 12 BC, the Cherusci and other Germanic tribes were subjugated by the Romans. They appear to have been living in the same homeland when Tacitus wrote, 150 years later, describing them as living east of the Chauci and Chatti. This is generally interpreted to be an area between the rivers Weser and Elbe.
As Rome tried to expand in northern Europe beyond the Rhine, it exploited divisions within the Cherusci, and for some time the tribe was considered a Roman ally. At this time, the tribe was split between Arminius (known in modern German as "Hermann der Cherusker", although his actual Germanic name was more likely Erminaz) and Segestes. Arminius advocated breaking allegiance to Rome and declaring independence, while Segestes wanted to remain loyal. By about 8 AD, Arminius had gained the upper hand and began planning rebellion. Segestes repeatedly warned Publius Quinctilius Varus, the governor of Gaul, that rebellion was being planned, but Varus declined to act until the rebellion had broken out.
In 9 AD, in the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest, an army of allied Germanic tribes under the command of Arminius (the Cherusci, Bructeri, Marsi, Sicambri, Chauci, and Chatti) annihilated three Roman legions commanded by Varus. The legions' eagle standards, of great symbolic importance to the Romans, were lost. The numbers of these three legions, Legio XVII, Legio XVIII, and Legio XIX, were never used again.
After the mutinies of the German legions in 14 AD, Germanicus decided, at the urging of his men, to march into Germany to restore their lost honor. After a quick raid on the Chatti, they invaded the lands of the Marsi in 15 AD with 12,000 legionnaires, 26 cohorts of auxiliaries, and eight cavalry squadrons. According to Tacitus (Annals 1, 51), an area of 50 Roman miles wide was laid to waste with fire and sword: "No sex, no age found pity." A legion eagle from Varus's defeat, either from the XVII or XVIII, was recovered. Then he began a campaign against the Cherusci. Sometime this year, he received word from Segestes, who was held prisoner by Arminius's forces and needed help. Germanicus's troops released Segestes and took his pregnant daughter, Arminius's wife Thusnelda, into captivity. Again he marched back victorious and at the direction of Tiberius, accepted the title of Imperator.
Arminius called his tribe, the Cherusci, and the surrounding tribes to arms. Germanicus coordinated a land and riverine offensive, with troops marching eastward across the Rhine, and sailing from the North Sea up the Ems River in order to attack the Bructeri and Cherusci. Germanicus's divisions met up to the north, and ravaged the countryside between the Ems and the Lippe, and penetrated to the Teutoburg Forest, a mountain forest in western Germany situated between these two rivers. There, Germanicus and some of his men visited the site of the disastrous Battle of the Teutoburg Forest, and began burying the remains of the Roman soldiers that had been left in the open. After half a day of the work, he called off the burial of bones so that they could continue their war against the Germans. He made his way into the heartland of the Cherusci. At a location Tacitus calls the pontes longi ("long causeways"), in boggy lowlands somewhere near the Ems, Arminius's troops attacked the Romans. Arminius initially caught Germanicus's cavalry in a trap, inflicting minor casualties, but the Roman infantry reinforced the rout and checked them. The fighting lasted for two days, with Romans achieving a decisive victory. Germanicus's forces withdrew and returned to the Rhine.[note 1]
Germanicus commanded eight legions with Gallic and Germanic auxiliary units overland across the Rhine, up the Ems and Weser rivers as part of his last major campaign against Arminius in AD 16. His forces met those of Arminius on the plains of Idistaviso, by the Weser River near modern Rinteln, in an engagement called the Battle of the Weser River. Tacitus says that the battle was a Roman victory:
the enemy were slaughtered from the fifth hour of daylight to nightfall, and for ten miles the ground was littered with corpses and weapons.— Tacitus, (Wells 2003, p. 206)
Arminius and his uncle Inguiomer were both wounded in the battle but evaded capture. The Roman soldiers involved on the battlefield honored Tiberius as Imperator, and raised a pile of arms as a trophy with the names of the defeated tribes inscribed beneath them.
The sight of the Roman trophy constructed on the battlefield enraged the Germans who were preparing to retreat beyond the Elbe, and they launched an attack on the Roman positions at the Angrivarian Wall, thus beginning a second battle. The Romans had anticipated the attack and again routed the Germans. Germanicus stated that he did not want any prisoners, as the extermination of the Germanic tribes was the only conclusion he saw for the war. The victorious Romans then raised a mound with the inscription: "The army of Tiberius Caesar, after thoroughly conquering the tribes between the Rhine and the Elbe, has dedicated this monument to Mars, Jupiter, and Augustus."
Finally, on May 26 of the year 17, Germanicus celebrated a triumph for his victory over lower Germany and his uncle sent him off to the east. Arminius died and the Angrivarii, the other west Germans and their successor tribes continued friendly towards Rome, providing it with elite troops and urban and palace police. Together with the Angrivari and the Chatti, the Cherusci belong to the three tribes that Tacitus particularly emphasizes in his account of the triumphal march of Germanicus in 17 AD:
"Germanicus Caesar, celebrated his triumph over the Cherusci, Chatti, and Angrivarii, and the other tribes which extend as far as the Elbe."
After Arminius' death, the Romans left the Cherusci more or less to their own devices. In 47 AD, the Cherusci asked Rome to send Italicus, the nephew of Arminius, to become king, as civil war had destroyed their nobility. He was initially well liked, but since he was raised in Rome as a Roman citizen, he soon fell out of favor. A few years later, the Chatti seem to have interfered in the internal affairs of the neighboring Cherusci and expelled their prince Chariomerus around the year 88 AD.
Tacitus writes of the Cherusci of his time (about 100 AD):
Dwelling on one side of the Chauci and Chatti, the Cherusci long cherished, unassailed, an excessive and enervating love of peace. This was more pleasant than safe, for to be peaceful is self-deception among lawless and powerful neighbours. Where the strong hand decides, moderation and justice are terms applied only to the more powerful; and so the Cherusci, ever reputed good and just, are now called cowards and fools, while in the case of the victorious Chatti success has been identified with prudence. The downfall of the Cherusci brought with it also that of the Fosi, a neighbouring tribe, which shared equally in their disasters, though they had been inferior to them in prosperous days.
Claudius Ptolemy in his Geography, describes the Χαιρουσκοὶ and Καμαυοὶ (Cherusci and Chamavi) as living near each other and also near to "Mount Melibocus" (probably the Harz Mountains) and to the Calucones, who lived on both banks of the Elbe.
The later history of the Cherusci is mostly unknown.
Cherusci, a Germanic people, living around the middle Weser. They are the best known of the Germanic opponents of the Romans in the 1st cent. ad.