Episode 15 – Leonardo Da Vinci versus Arminius

Today’s installment comes to you from the Rebels, Rogues and Scholars bracket. We pit the genius of the Renaissance, painter, inventor and polymath, Leonardo Da Vinci. He is pitted against the man who caused Emperor Augustus to cry out, “Quintilius Varus, give me back my legions!”. The Germanic officer of Varus’ auxilla, Arminius.


Let’s start with the man whose name in German would be Hermann, namely Arminius. Born in Germania in either 18 or 17 BC, he was the son of a chieftain of the Cheruscan tribe. Not a whole lot is known about his early life, but we do know that he was sent to Rome as a teenager to train as a military commander.

Over the years he was well respected and moved up the ranks to achieve the petty noble status of Equestrian. Arminius was even given command of a Roman auxiliary force in the Balkans. It was after this successful campaign, in 7 or 8 AD, he returned to his tribe where he learned of Roman General Varus’ plan to invade his tribe. Rumors started swirling around the Roman camp that Arminius was plotting to rebel against his masters, but Varus would not believe them. 

Around that time, the Romans had to move a large number of legions into the Balkans. There was a major uprising which was known as the Bellum Batonianum or the War of the Batos. Because of this, Varus was left with only three legions, the 17th, 18th, and 19th to fight the Germanic tribes near the Rhine.

Arminius reported to the general that there was a rebellion going on in northern Germany. This was fake news and was a setup to ambush Varus and his Roman legions. The trap was set as the Romans headed off to quell the supposed rebellion. There were about 20,000 men and an additional 16,000 family members in the Roman entourage. 

Arminius brought together some fellow Germanic tribes with his own to the ambush that was to ensue known to history as the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest. As this is one of the fights that will be covered in the Battles bracket, I will avoid any details here but what I can say is that the multi-day fight was a complete disaster for the Romans. They lost an estimated 15-20,000 men with many wives and children being taken into slavery.

This was one of the most significant defeats in Roman history and would have reverberations throughout the Empire. While the Romans would try to conquer the lands of the German tribes under the new Roman Emperor, Tiberius and his nephew Germanicus, they were never really able to establish any control. Tiberius recalled Germanicus and ordered that the northern border of the Empire would be the Rhine River.  

Arminius had achieved his goal of stopping Roman expansion, but the cost of German lives was immense. Tens of thousands of lives were lost keeping their enemies at bay, but they did succeed.

After the threat of Roman incursions into their territories, old squabbles began to set back in among the numerous Germanic tribes. A war between the Marcomanni and Arminius’ tribe, the Cherusci ended with Arminius winning but being murdered by his people in 21 AD who were worried about his growing power. He was 37 or 38 years of age. 

His legacy carried on for centuries and was used as a focal point of German nationalism. Because of this, Arminius is not being taught in German schools as it brought up ghosts of the past Nazi era. 

Now for our Put it into Perspective segment.

During Arminius’s lifetime, we, of course, have the birth of Jesus of Nazareth, the rule of Augustus and the rise of Tiberius as Emperors of Rome, the Greek dynasty in Bactria dating back to the time of Alexander the Great comes to an end and we have the beginning of the manufacturing of pens and metal devices in Rome.

Leonardo da Vinci
Leonardo da Vinci

Next up, we have a giant of a man, Leonardo, di ser Piero da Vinci. Born on April 15, 1452, in the Republic of Florence, the city of Vinci to Piero Fuosino di Antonio da Vinci and Caterina, a peasant woman. The two would never marry.

Almost nothing is known about Leonardo’s early years except that he was given an informal education in Latin, geometry, and math none of which he was very gifted at. It isn’t until the age of 14 do we know of the boy. In 1466 he was apprenticed to Andrea di Cione, better known as Verrocchio. 

Instead of going over Leonardo’s life linearly, I want to share some insights into his way of thinking. In Walter Isaacson’s biography of da Vinci, he shares his thoughts as to why he was such a great polymath.

Isaacson’s Introduction chapter is entitled, “I Can Also Paint.” Here the author shares a look into the great artist’s mind. “Around the time he reached the unnerving milestone if turning thirty, Leonardo da Vinci wrote a letter to the ruler of Milan listing the reasons he should be given a job. He had been moderately successful as a painter in Florence, but he had trouble finishing his commissions and was searching for new horizons. In the first ten paragraphs, he touted his engineering skills, including his ability to design bridges, waterways, cannons, armored vehicles, and public buildings. Only in the eleventh paragraph, in the end, did he add that he was also an artist. ‘Likewise, in painting, I can do everything possible,’ he wrote.”

This is the man who painted the exquisite Last Supper and the enigmatic Mona Lisa and the sketch of the Vitruvian Man. Leonardo’s painting of Christ, known as Salvator Mundi was sold at auction in November of 2017 for a world record $450.3 million. Yes, in painting, he could do everything. 

The Last Supper
The Last Supper
Mona Lisa
Mona Lisa
Vitruvian Man
Vitruvian Man
Salvator Mundi
Salvator Mundi

Isaacson goes further on to write, “Slapping the ‘genius’ label on Leonardo oddly minimizes him by making him seem as if he were touched by lightning.” And “His genius was of the type we can understand, even take our lessons from. It was based on skills we can aspire to improve in ourselves, such as curiosity and intense observation. He had an imagination so excitable that it flirted with the edges of fantasy, which is also something we can try to preserve in ourselves and indulge in our children.”

But, the greatest window into da Vinci’s mind is in his preserved 7,200 pages of notes. Back to Isaacson once again, “My favorite gems in his notebooks are his to-do lists, which sparkle with his curiosity. One of them, dating from the 1490s in Milan, is that day’s list of things he wants to learn. ‘The measurement of Milan and its suburbs,’ is his first entry. This has a practical purpose, as revealed by an item later in the list: ‘Draw Milan.’ Other show him relentlessly seeking out people whose brains he could pick; ‘Get the master of arithmetic to show you how to square a triangle… Ask Giannino the Bombardier about how the tower of Ferrara is walled… Ask Benedetto Prontinari by what means they walk on ice in Flanders… Get a master of hydraulics to tell you how to repair a lock, canal, and mill in the Lombard manner… Get the measurement of the sun promised me by Maestro Giovanni Francese, the Frenchman.’ He is insatiable.”

“Best of all are the questions that seem completely random. ‘Describe the tongue of the woodpecker,’ he instructs himself. Who on earth would decide one day, for no apparent reason, that he wanted to know what the tongue of a woodpecker looks like?”

These are the types of questions that bring out the nature of da Vinci’s insatiable curiosity, something few men or women have ever attained. Michael Faraday, who we covered recently is an example as is Benjamin Franklin or a more contemporary figure, Steve Jobs. But I can easily venture to say that they all pale in comparison to the man from the small town of Vinci.

Before we get to the scoring, Let’s Put it Into Perspective. During da Vinci’s life, the 100 Years’ War ends, Constantinople falls to the Ottoman’s, Nicolas Copernicus is born, Christopher Columbus sails to the New World, Vasco da Gama finds a sea route to India, Henry VIII becomes king of England and Michelangelo finishes painting the Sistine Chapel. 

Now on to the scoring. For the fifteen points on how long they were a rebel, rogue or scholar, we start with Arminius. His turn towards being a rebel against the Romans began in 9 AD and lasted until his murder in 21. That gives him a period of twelve years. Leonardo starts his scholarly reign in the year 1466 and continues until his death in 1519. That gives him a long time of 53 years in service. Fifteen points for da Vinci, 5 for Arminius.

The next score is 20 points for how they affected the rest of the world in their time. After careful deliberations, I have to give Arminius the full point total due to his effect on the other Germanic tribes, Rome and the people of the Balkans. Da Vinci, on the other hand, had a great deal of influence when it came to his engineering feats. He was also greatly revered by the nobility of the day and by his fellow artists who he majorly influenced. Giorgi Vasari, in 1568 wrote this about the great man, “In the normal course of events many men and women are born with remarkable talents; but occasionally, in a way that transcends nature, a single person is marvelously endowed by Heaven with beauty, grace, and talent in such abundance that he leaves other men far behind, all his actions seem inspired and indeed everything he does clearly comes from God rather than from human skill. Everyone acknowledged that this was true of Leonardo da Vinci, an artist of outstanding physical beauty, who displayed infinite grace in everything that he did and who cultivated his genius so brilliantly that all problems he studied he solved with ease.” For this, I give him 19 points.

Next up is their last effect on world history. You might not think that Arminius had such a significant impact, but you would be wrong. Because of his actions, Roman armies halted the expansion of their territories at the Rhine river. This is quite significant and affected world history from that moment forward. Still, da Vinci’s works in art and engineering would inspire countless men and women to create things that would transform our world. Twenty-five points to Leonardo, 22 to Arminius.

Lastly, we hand out the 40 points to the man who affected their country for the better at the time they lived. Arminius has to get the full 40 points here for obvious reasons. Da Vinci influenced so many in the art world but also in the architectural and engineering spheres at the time. For this, I give Leonardo 33 points.  

So the scores are in and the winner of today’s battle is, Leonardo da Vinci with 92 points and Arminius with a respectable 87. The winner will face off against Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

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Mark Schauss has been podcasting for over 8 years. His Russian Rulers History was a top history podcast for 7 1/2 years. Discover his new entry into the podcast world.



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