Context and Background

12 B.C. Augustus, with Gaul now firmly in hand1, has dispatched his adopted son Drusus (father of the Emperor Claudius) to conquer and pacify Germania barbara (trans-Rhenic Germany). The campaign, despite determined resistance from the Germans, is a success; the Empire, by the conclusion of the campaign, has added to Germania Romana2 the untamed but wealthy lands east of the Rhine3.

. . .fast-forward to 9 A.D.

Varus and his mistakes

Germania Superior is now a nominal province of the Roman Empire, administered by the ex-consul Publius Quinctilius Varus. The picture that we have of this man is of a soft and greedy lifer, able perhaps to govern a peaceful and settled province, but not at all suited to the task of ruling the warlike4 and not-yet-fully-subjugated Germani:

"How far he was from despising money, Syria, of which he had been governor, afforded proof; for, going a poor man into that rich province, he became a rich man, and left it a poor province. Being appointed commander of the army in Germany, he imagined that the inhabitants had nothing human but the voice and limbs, and that men who could not be tamed by the sword, might be civilized by law. With this notion, having marched into the heart of Germany, as if among people who delighted in the sweets of peace, he spent the summer in deciding controversies, and ordering the pleadings before a tribunal. . . . [H]e fancied himself a city praetor dispensing justice in the forum, instead of the commander of an army in the middle of Germany."5

Germany, though Roman rule did not extend far beyond the bases of the legions, was (according to Dio Cassius, 56.18) gradually becoming civilized, thanks in part to the benefits of Roman rule: public order, infrastructural and economic development, and the settling of disputes by lawyers and judges instead of by blood feud. Had this gradual process continued, the Germans might have become Roman subjects in good standing, as with the Gauls who had so fiercely resisted Caesar. The question, thanks to Varus' fecklessness, is academic: The exigencies of the time called for a man of equal skill in military and civil matters, but Varus was only barely competent as a civil administrator, and his military experience was nil. He treated the Germans like conquered Roman subjects, a status they were not ready to accept. Too, he treated the Germans with the trust due loyal subjects, forgetting that the memory of liberty was still fresh in their minds.

Conspiracy. . .

Varus, through his folly, had created a climate ready for rebellion; the Germans were prepared to rise against their conquerors, lacking only a leader. Such a man was the Cheruscian Arminius (or Hermann), son of the chief Segimerus (or Segimer). Though Arminius had served Rome—gaining first citizenship, then the rank of knight—his loyalties lay with his countrymen (or perhaps he was ambitious and saw rebellion as his path to power; we do not know). He, as a Roman citizen familiar with the customs and language of Germany, held a privileged place in Varus' administration—a place which he would use to its fullest against his benefactor.

Arminius kept up the facade of a loyal retainer until the last; even as he served in the Roman government, he plotted with those Germans not yet under Roman rule to expel the invaders. In 9 A.D., he adjudged the time ready: the Roman forces were widely dispersed across the country, scattered across towns and military outposts instead of concentrated at their center of power.

. . .and rebellion

Arminius began by inciting an uprising far from the Roman base; Varus, naturally, set out to suppress it, taking the 18th, 19th, and 20th Legions & three squadrons of auxiliary cavalry. Arminius and Segimerus accompanied the Roman column for a while, soon excusing themselves to "fetch reinforcements". At the same time, the outlying German communities attacked those detachments of legionaries which Varus had dispersed across the countryside. Finally, Arminius and Segimerus ambushed the Roman main body in the Teutoburg Forest.

The Teutoburg Forest6 was dense, mountainous, and roadless; the Roman soldiers were forced to bushwhack through unfavorable terrain, dragging their heavy supply trains and camp followers (Varus, suspecting nothing, had even allowed women and children to accompany the fighting men). To increase their difficulties, a heavy rain broke out, slowing and scattering the legions' march. It was at this time that Arminius revealed his treachery, falling on the Romans with his gathered armies.

The battle was a disaster: the Roman troops, scattered and strung out, were surrounded by Germans fighting on their native terrain, who attacked out of the woods, wreaking havoc on the disordered legions then fading back into cover before any organized counterattack was possible. The heavier weapons of the Romans gave no advantage; their bows, soaked with rain, could not counter the light spears of the Germans7, and their shields, also ruined by the wet, were no help. Every last legionary was slaughtered or captured (some were later ransomed, but banned from Italy); Varus and his staff took their own lives.


Arminius and his men did not press past the Rhine; perhaps they were satisfied with expelling the Romans, perhaps the reports of Tiberius' approach gave them pause. Augustus, however, was aghastΩ: he feared that the enemy might advance on a now-defenseless Italy. Accordingly, he expelled all the Gauls and Germans residing in Rome (even those in the barracks of the Praetorian Guard) and took measures to defend the peninsula. When none of the populace answered his call for volunteers, he then took citizenship from 20% of the military-age men; when some still refused to fight, he decimated the resistors. By these measures, and by conscripting freedmen and reenlisting retired soldiers, he scraped together a force which he sent to aid Tiberius in the successful defense of the Rhine.

Final Word

The Battle of the Teutoburg Forest ranks with Cannae and Adrianople among the great defeats of Roman military history. Its effects were greater than the loss of Germany and three legions (which were never reconstituted); it marked the end of Roman expansionism in Europe. Despite Tiberius' attempts to reconquer Germany, and despite Trajan's later conquest of Dacia (last conquered, first to fall), the borders of the Empire only shrank from this point on.



1 Kept in check, so it is said, by two cohorts stationed at Lyons (Mommsen, p. 63); but the passage continues with a reminder that the legions on the Rhine, ostensibly there to keep the Germans out, could not fail to exert a pacifying influence on the recently conquered Gauls.

2 Brief digression on the word "Germany": Germania Romana, adjoining Roman Gaul, included modern Germany west of the Rhine, parts of Switzerland and France, and most of Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg. Germania barbara began at the Rhine and, by the conclusion of Augustus' campaign, had been pushed (in theory) as far east as the Elbe—a logical stopping point, since the Empire's border defences depended largely on natural obstacles. See Detwiler, p. 6.

3 Drusus died in the field during the campaign, and his adoptive brother Tiberius took over the job of pacifying and administering the new province. Dio Cassius (Roman History, 55.1) gives an account of this time: Drusus' advance to the Elbe, the inauspicious auguries—temples in Rome were struck by lightning, wolves prowled through the legion's camp, the lamentations of women were heard all around, and a giant warned Drusus, after a failed attempt to cross the river, that "the end of [his] labours and [his] life [were] already at hand"—which attended the campaign, and Drusus' death from an unknown disease.

4Tacitus (Germania 13) reports that the among the Germans, every free man went about armed (a sign of manhood which corresponded with the Romans' toga virilis), and all business was conducted with weapons near at hand.

5 Gaius Velleus Paterculus. Roman History. Translated by John Selby Watson. (New York: 1881) extracted from (yes, it's misspelled)

6 The Teutoburg Forest, though its location has long been disputed, is now agreed to be near Osnabrück in Saxony. See

ΩSuetonius (The Twelve Caesars, 2.23) recounts Augustus' reaction: "[H]e left his hair and beard untrimmed for months; he would often beat his head on a door, shouting: 'Quinctilius Varus, give me back my legions!' and always kept the anniversary as a day of deep mourning." Thanks to The Debutante for reminding me.

7 Tacitus (Germania, 6) describes a fighting body of lightly-armed and armored men; cavalry and infantry alike fought with frameae—short, narrow-headed spears equally suited to close and ranged combat, something like the Zulu assegai; Robert Graves, in his fictional biography of Claudius, translated the word thus—and carried a shield. None wore armor. (See also Roman Weapons).



  • Detwiler, Donald, Germany: A Short History (Carbondale, Illinois: Southern Illinois University Press, 1999)
  • Mommsen, Theodor, The Provinces of the Roman Empire : From Caesar to Diocletian, Volume I (NY: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1887)
  • Wikipedia


+ anything mentioned in the footnotes.

The aftermath of the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest (Tacitus Annales 1.61-62).

Tacitus is an author better known for his forceful expression of contempt for the failures of the Julio-Claudians than for his ability to create literary atmosphere. He was, however, a brilliant stylist.

His description of the scene of the battle site, visited by the emperor Tiberius' adopted son Germanicus, could not be more evocative, and summons on paper the emotions one normally associates with a visit in person to the site of a "last-stand."

The facts.

Six years after Varus perished with nearly three full Roman legions in the Saltus Teutoburgiensis, Germanicus visited the site with a large army in the course of solidifying the border areas (and showing the flag) during the first years of Tiberius' reign. Varus' defeat, and more importantly, the loss of three irreplaceable legions, XVII, XVIII, and XIX, was the greatest blow to Roman prestige during Augustus' reign as princeps. (Those legions were never reconstituted.)

But let's get away, as Tacitus does, from Rome-centered wounded pride, and away from celebrating the successful German resistance (without writing off either), and recall the last moments of some fellow human beings. Tacitus briefly sketches the scene Germanicus and his men found as they approached the battle site. We enter the scene with Germanicus' men and we discover the horrible sight as they did.

The horror.

. . . incedunt maestos locos visuque ac memoria deformis. prima Vari castra lato ambitu et dimensis principiis trium legionum manus ostentabant; dein semiruto vallo, humili fossa accisae iam reliquiae consedisse intellegebantur: medio campi albentia ossa, ut fugerant, ut resisterant, disiecta vel aggerata. adiacebant fragmina telorum equorumque artus, simul truncis arborum antefixa ora.

lucis propinquis barbarae arae, apud quos tribunos ac primorum ordinum centuriones mactaverant. et cladis eius superstites, pugnam aut vincula elapsi, referebant hic cecidisse legatos, illic raptas aquilas; primum ubi vulnus Varo adactum, ubi infelici dextera et suo ictu mortem invenerit; quo tribunali contionatus Arminius, quot patibula captivis, quae scrobes, utque signis et aquilis per superbiam inluserit.

They enter the grim scene, ugly both to see and for the memories it prompts. Varus' first camp with its broad circumference and carefully measured headquarters area revealed the hands of three legions; then a half-ruined earthwork and a shallow ditch revealed where the by-now attenuated remnants had made their stand.

In the middle of the field were whitening bones, scattered or heaped up according as they had fled or put up a fight. Bits and pieces of weapons and the limbs of horses were lying about, while human heads were attached as ornaments to the trunks of trees. In the neighboring woods they found barbarian altars, on which the enemy had sacrificially slaughtered the tribunes and chief centurions.

Survivors of the disaster who had either slipped away from the battle or escaped the chains of imprisonment told how the legates had fallen here; the eagles had been taken there; where Varus had first been wounded, where he had committed suicide with a stroke from his own unlucky hand; they pointed out the tribunal on which Arminius had addressed his men, how many pillories there were for the captives, the ditches used as holding pens, and how Arminius had indulged his arrogance over the legionary standards and eagles.

See how Tacitus progresses through his description in order to maximize our suspense. We first see the remains of the regular camp, a mocking remnant of the last moments of life and order, showing, as Tacitus elegantly points out, the efforts of all three legions while they were intact.

Then Tacitus takes us deliberately to the hasty (and since we know how the battle ended, useless) fortification thrown up as a last-ditch effort. The standard Roman military aspects of this rampart (vallum and fossa, rampart with ditch in front of it) are marred by their being broken and shallow, respectively.

What's more, another word typically used for fortification ramparts, agger, is brought in sideways to describe the heaped bones (ossa . . . aggerata) where legionaries had made a stand (precisely in our last-ditch fortification, or something like it). This kind of word play contributes no new data, but it does help by association to heighten the mood of the passage.

Tacitus reveals himself a first-rate writer of horror in what follows. He constantly skirts the issue of the atrocities visited upon the living prisoners by focussing--more effectively--on the evidence as it presented itself to Germanicus and his men: the limbs of horses, skulls affixed to tree trunks, altars, hidden at first in among the trees, where the Germans had sacrificed the high officers and noncoms. Perhaps they found bits of armor there which betrayed the rank of the skeletons lying among these altars?

Tacitus then lets us see a little through the eyes of survivors. They point out items which indicate the course of the battle: where the legates had fallen, blowing apart the chain of command; where the sacred eagles, legionary insignia venerated with religious reverence, had been grabbed (think Custer on the hilltop with the flag); how Varus sidestepped his fate by killing himself.

At the end of the passage, Tacitus comes closest to outright description of the atrocities, and makes it abundantly clear that Varus and the other dead were the lucky ones: the live captives suffered a fate much worse for approaching more slowly and obviously. It is hard to translate patibula and scrobes, words that can mean pillories and graves, respectively.

Because the Germans clearly left the dead on the field indiscriminately, I don't take scrobes to be graves, but rather ditches to keep captives from easily running away; likewise, though patibula are forked pillories, I would follow other translators in understanding them to be devices to torture a man to death by strangulation.

Humanizing the disaster.

At Bologna (Latin Bononia) they found the sad tombstone monument of the highly-decorated centurion Marcus Caelius, who went down with legion XVIII. It depicts the man in his ceremonial dress armor, which is covered with military honors such as torques and phalerae. He wears the oak leaf crown of the corona civica--he had saved a citizen's life in battle. This was something like a Congressional Medal of Honor or a Victoria Cross. He holds his vitis, or switch, the symbol of his rank (and tool for beating recalcitrant legionaries). A man of 53 years, he was probably not far from retirement, or better things. Flanking him are two of his freedmen (freed slaves), rendered as portrait busts on pedestals.

His brother erected the memorial, and touchingly left instructions on it that should Caelius' bones be found, they might go into the empty tomb. Tacitus, however, says that the bones of friend and foe were indiscriminately mixed on the battlefield, and that accordingly they were all buried together in one mass grave. The brother's wish that Caelius' bones might be found was never granted. (One fears that Caelius might have ended up as a sacrificial victim on one of those makeshift altars.)

The inscription reads:

M. Caelio T.f. Lem. Bon.
..]o leg XIIX. Ann LIII
...]cidit bello variano ossa
...]nferre licebit. P. Caelius T.f.
Lem. Bo. frater fecit


To Marcus Caelius of Bononia, son of Titus,
of the voting district Lemonia,
centurion of the 18th legion. At the age of 53
he fell in the Varian War. The tomb may be
disturbed to place his bones within.
His brother, Publius Caelius of Bononia, son of Titus,
of the voting district Lemonia, built this.

The Latin is from Fisher's Oxford Classical Text. The awful translation is mine.
The inscription: ILS (Inscriptiones Latinae Selectae, a standard collection) 2244.

See also:

Keppie, Lawrence. 1991. Understanding Roman Inscriptions. 80-90; see 136-140 for abbreviations in Latin inscriptions.
----------. 1998. The Making of the Roman Army. From Republic to Empire. 163-169 (a discussion which parallels mine closely).

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