Publius Quinctilius Varus

Publius Quinctilius Varus (46 BCE - 9 CE): Roman senator, friend of the emperor Augustus, killed in the battle in the Teutoburg Forest.


Coin of VarusThe son of Sextus Quinctilius Varus was probably born in 46BCE. His family belonged to the patriciate, the ancient Roman aristocracy, but during the past centuries, none of the Quinctilii had been a really important senator. Father Sextus was quaestor in 49 and defended Corfinium when Julius Caesar besieged the city during the civil war against Pompey. He was forced to surrender the town, was pardoned, but immediately went to Africa, where Caesar's deputy Curio was fighting against Pompey's allies. Sextus Quinctilius did his best to win over Curio's soldiers. Although Curio was defeated, Caesar won the civil war. From 48 to 44, he was sole ruler of the Roman empire. Sextus probably remained away from Rome, because it was not Caesar's policy to show his clemency twice to the same man.

On 15 March 44, he was assassinated by conservative senators like Brutus and Cassius. We do not know whether Sextus was involved, but it is certain that he was at the battlefield of Philippi, where the new leaders of the Caesarian party, Marc Antony and Octavian, defeated the last republicans. Sextus asked one of his freedman to kill him.

Reconstruction of the statue of Augustus from PrimaportaWhat happened to his son Publius Quinctilius Varus is not known, but one thing is certain: he accepted the end of the Roman republic, and became a personal friend of Octavian. It was not uncommon that fathers and sons had different opinions about the rise of the Roman monarchy. Perhaps, Varus was present at Actium, where Octavian defeated Marc Antony in 31. However this may be, it is certain that Varus was quaestor in 23 or 21, and accompanied Augustus (Octavian's name after becoming Rome's first emperor) on his tour through the eastern provinces.

The Emperor's Friend

The two men became political friends and Varus must easily have passed through the stages of the cursus honorum. He was aedile, praetor, and after commanding the Nineteenth Legion (during Tiberius' wars in what is now Switzerland, he was made consul in 13, together with Tiberius, the stepson of Augustus.

AgrippaBoth consuls were married to daughters of Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa, another close friend of the emperor. Tiberius and Varus introduced legislation that gave additional powers to their father-in-law, who was now officially recognized as Augustus' equal in power. However, in the next year, Agrippa died, and Varus had to deliver the funerary oration.

Not much is known about Varus' marriage to Vipsania. It is possible that one of the consuls of 8 CE, Sextus Nonius Quinctilianus, was Varus' and Vipsania's child, adopted by Varus' brother-in-law Lucius Nonius Asprenas (the husband of Varus' sister Quinctilia). If this reconstruction of Quinctilianus' ancestry is correct, we are left with the question why he was not educated by his own father. Perhaps Varus' governorships in Africa and Syria offer an explanation?


By now, Varus had befriended Tiberius, and the latter may have seen to Varus' appointment as governor of Africa (modern Tunisia). After the death of Agrippa, Tiberius was regarded as Augustus' successor, and he seems to have been behind many appointments in these years.

The governorship of Africa was a very prestigious position: it was one of the provinces ruled by the Senate, and the only one with a legion, III Augusta. (All other garrisoned provinces were ruled by the emperor.) Varus ruled this part of the Roman world in 8-7 BCE. Although we do not know about any military interventions, he must have shown that he was a capable general, because he was reappointed as governor of Syria, where he had to command one sixth of the Roman army. It is possible that Augustus and Tiberius had always wanted to make their relative and friend commander of the Syrian army; in that case, the governorship of Africa was a mere traineeship.

In 7 BCE, Varus arrived in Syria, one of the most important provinces of the empire: its four legions - III Gallica, VI Ferrata, X Fretensis, and XII Fulminata - guarded the eastern frontier against the Parthians. The governor of Syria was also responsible for the peace in the vassal kingdoms.

One of these was Judaea, where Herod had been Rome's most loyal ally. The old king had always been suspicious of his relatives, but at the end of his reign, he became paranoid and accused his son (and intended successor) Antipater of high treason. Varus, who had just arrived in Syria, supported the accusation, and Antipater was executed. The incident made Augustus remark that it was preferable to be Herod's pig (hus) than his son (huios) - a very insulting remark to any Jew.

The division of Herodes' kingdomThree years later, Herod died. In his will, he divided his kingdom among his three sons Herod Archelaus (Judaea and Samaria), Herod Antipas (Galilee and Perea), and Philip (Gaulanitis). Immediately, there were riots in the areas ruled by Archelaus, riots that may have been (partly) messianic in nature. The leaders were a robber named Judas, a royal slave called Simon, and a shepherd named Athronges. Archelaus' troops were unable to cope with these men, and Varus had to intervene. It was a major operation, which involved three legions. Sepphoris and Emmaus were destroyed, two thousand people crucified, and although not all leaders were caught immediately, Herod Archelaus' territories were pacified and his reign could begin.

After this crisis, Varus returned to Rome. Later, one of his enemies, the author Velleius Paterculus, was to state in his Roman History that Varus had arrived as a poor man in rich Syria, and had left an impoverished province as a rich man.note This is unlikely; Varus belonged to the highest elite of the empire and can not have been poor.


TiberiusIn the old days of the republic, the Senate would have granted the successful general the right to enter the city in a triumphal procession. Augustus, however, had monopolized this right; Varus may instead have received triumphal ornaments. Or perhaps not even that, because the political situation had changed considerably, and he may have been out of favor. Augustus had changed his mind about his succession: no longer did he believe Tiberius was the right man - instead, he preferred his grandsons Gaius and Lucius, the sons of his daughter Julia and Agrippa. Tiberius had left Rome and lived as an exile on Rhodes.

We do not know how Augustus judged Varus: they had been political allies, but perhaps the former governor of Africa and Syria had been too close to Tiberius to be fully trusted. We do not know of any offices occupied by Varus in these years. It must be stressed that he was vulnerable. Although he was a patrician, he was also one of the new men who owed their career entirely to Augustus.

However, Augustus' new scheme was unsuccessful. In August 2 CE, when Lucius was 19 years old, the emperor sent him to Hispania to get acquainted with the armies. However, the young man died in Marseilles. Less than a year-and-a-half later, his older brother Gaius, who had been sent to Syria with Augustus' friend Marcus Lollius, succumbed to wounds received at the siege of an Armenian town.

The result of this family tragedy was that Tiberius, the stepson of Augustus and one of Rome's most experienced generals, was recalled from Rhodes. During the next ten years, he was regarded as Augustus' successor, and in 14, he did in fact become the second emperor of Rome.


After the recall of Tiberius, Varus was appointed as governor of Germania, probably in the autumn of 6 CE. It was celebrated with a donativum, a gift of money to the soldiers; the coins were marked with the sign VAR. (There are other interpretations of these coins, however.) It is possible that it was about this time that Varus married to Claudia Pulchra, the daughter of a niece of Augustus; they had a son Quinctilius Varus.

Map of the Lippe areaThe office of governor of Germania had been created in the years 16-13 BCE, when the Romans had organized the strip of land along the Rhine and Danube as a military zone. (The legions guarding the Rhine had, until then, served as occupation force in Gaul; the fact that they were now transferred to the river proves that Gaul had become a thoroughly romanized area.) The fortresses along the Rhine had served as base for the conquest of the east bank of the river. Tiberius' brother Drusus, who had commanded the Rhine armies in those years, had even reached the river Elbe. Although Drusus had died in 9 BCE, several camps were built along the river Lippe (Haltern, Oberaden, Anreppen) and it is not exaggerated to state that Germania had become part of the Roman empire. Like Gaul, it was expected to adopt the Roman way of life.

Map of Varus' GermanyTogether with the legions of the army of the Lower Rhine (XVII, XVIII and XIX), Tiberius toured through Germania in the autumn of 4 and summer of 5 CE. It was meant as a show of strength, and the Germanic tribes understood that they were by now really part of the empire - and would have to pay tribute. Tiberius was now preparing one of the largest campaigns in Roman history. In 6, he wanted to lead at least eight legions (VIII Augusta  from Pannonia, XV Apollinaris and XX Valeria Victrix from Illyricum, XXI Rapax from Raetia, XIII Gemina, XIV Gemina and XVI Gallica from the Middle Rhine and an unknown unit) against king Maroboduus of the Marcomanni in Czechia. They were to be gathered at Bratislava.

At the same time the three legions from the Lower Rhine were to move against Czechia as well, attacking it along the Elbe. Their commander was Gaius Sentius Saturninus. A third army group (I Germanica and V Alaudae) was to march along the Main. A giant base was built at Marktbreit (on the river Main), where the army of the Middle Rhine would gather. This was to be the most grandiose operation that was ever conducted by a Roman army.

However, nothing happened, because a rebellion in Pannonia obstructed the execution of Tiberius' plan. It took three years to suppress the revolt. Gaius Sentius Saturninus was replaced by Varus, and the legions of the Rhine army were with him in Germania: sometimes in their winter quarters on the Rhine (Xanten and Cologne), sometimes on the eastern bank, for example at Haltern, where the presence of the Nineteenth legion is attested. The Germanic tribes were quiet: Tiberius' campaigns had been successful. It seems that Varus was actively organizing the conquered territories between Rhine and Elbe. He collected taxes, founded new settlements (Waldgirmes) and administered justice.

The Teutoburg Forest

In the summer of 9, Tiberius had defeated the Pannonians, and it was obvious that the Romans would resume the offensive towards Bohemia and the Elbe in 10. To those Germanic leaders who wanted to get rid of the Romans, it was time to act: every German now knew what the Roman occupation meant, and several tribes preferred freedom to taxes. The Cheruscans, Marsi, Bructerians, and Chatti (or Chauci?) united under a man named Arminius, son of Sigimer. Although his father-in-law Segestes betrayed the conspiracy, Varus was not convinced of the accusations.

One of the soldiers killed in action: Marcus CaeliusVarus and the three legions XVII, XVIII, and XIX were somewhere near the river Weser (perhaps near modern Minden) when he learned of an insurrection in the west. He decided to return to the Rhine and make a detour through the rebellious area. The only road led through a small strip of accessible land; to the south, there were the inaccessible hills of the Teutoburg forest, and to the north, marshes made progress difficult. It was the perfect place to trap the heavy legionaries.

And so it happened. The three marching legions were a long line, easily exposed to attacks from the hills. North of modern Osnabrück, archaeologists have excavated a part of the battlefield (called Kalkriese), and many military objects were found. Other objects attest to the presence of civilians. All in all, some 20,000 people were massacred. Like his father, Varus killed himself.

Varus' suicide, shown in the Walhalla (Regensburg)The first reports of the disaster, which became known as the Clades Variana, reached Rome five days after the news of Tiberius' Pannonian victory. It is said that the emperor Augustus, on hearing the story, was unable to sleep and paced up and down through his house, exclaiming "Quinctilius Varus, give me back my legions!" He had every reason to be restless, because this was the greatest military disaster since Crassus had lost an army at Carrhae in 53 BCE, and Augustus must have known that he was responsible - his Germanic strategy had been too ambitious.

Meanwhile, Varus' nephew and deputy Lucius Nonius Asprenas, kept his head cool. His uncle had left him behind with the two legions of the Middle Rhine, and he immediately sent these units, I Germanica and V Alaudae, to the north. This prevented the Germanic tribes from invading the country west of the Rhine. During the winter, Arminius created a tribal coalition, and Tiberius prepared for renewed war. In 9, 10 and 11, he restored order in the Rhineland.

However, he also decided to give up the territories between the Elbe and Rhine. As it turned out, the Clades Variana had been one of the most decisive battles in world history.

Varus' dead body was identified by the Germans, who cut off the Roman's head and sent it to Maroboduus, hoping that he would join the general insurrection. However, he refused, and sent Varus' remains to Rome. Augustus buried the head in the mausoleum of his own family.

This page was created in 2003; last modified on 25 July 2015.