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Tacitus on the battle in the Teutoburg forest


Cavalry mask, found at Kalkriese, now in the Kalkriese Museum. Photo Jona Lendering.
Cavalry mask found at
Kalkriese
After the battle in the Teutoburg Forest, the Roman commander Tiberius led several retaliatory campaigns, but he understood that the country beyond the Rhine could not be occupied and stopped the war. Late in 14, the Roman prince Germanicus resumed the offensive, which provoked a reaction from the Germanic leader Arminius, who was able to unite several tribes. This forced Germanicus to invade Germania again.

The story is told by the Roman historian Tacitus. For artistic reasons, he presents Germanicus' army as following in the footsteps of Varus, i.e., moving from east to west. In fact, the soldiers must have marched to the east. Section 1.60-62 of his Annals are translated by Alfred John Church and William Jackson Brodribb.

That the war might not burst in all its fury on one point, Germanicus sent [his colonel] Caecina through the Bructeri to the river Amisia [Ems] with forty Roman cohorts to distract the enemy, while the cavalry was led by its commander Pedo [1] by the territories of the Frisians. Germanicus himself put four legions on shipboard and conveyed them through the lakes [2], and the infantry, cavalry, and fleet met simultaneously at the river already mentioned. The Chauci [3], on promising aid, were associated with us in military fellowship.

Edge of Empire. The book Arjen Bosman and I wrote about Rome's Lower Rhine Frontier.
Edge of Empire. The book Arjen Bosman and I wrote about Rome's Lower Rhine Frontier (order; review)
Map of the Roman wars in Germania. Design Jona Lendering.
Map of the Roman wars
in Germania (**)

Lucius Stertinius was dispatched by Germanicus with a flying column and routed the Bructeri as they were burning their possessions, and amid the carnage and plunder, found the eagle [4] of the nineteenth legion which had been lost with Varus. The troops were then marched to the furthest frontier of the Bructeri, and all the country between the rivers Amisia [Ems] and Lupia was ravaged, not far from the forest of Teutoburg where the remains of Varus and his legions were said to lie unburied. 

Germanicus upon this was seized with an eager longing to pay the last honor to those soldiers and their general, while the whole army present was moved to compassion by the thought of their kinsfolk and friends, and, indeed, of the calamities of wars and the lot of mankind. Having sent on Caecina in advance to reconnoiter the obscure forest-passes, and to raise bridges and causeways over watery swamps and treacherous plains, they visited the mournful scenes, with their horrible sights and associations.


Human remains found in the Kalkriese narrows. Kalkriese Museum (Germany). Photo Jona Lendering. Human remains found in the
Kalkriese narrows

Varus' first camp with its wide circumference and the measurements of its central space clearly indicated the handiwork of three legions. Further on, the partially fallen rampart and the shallow fosse suggested the inference that it was a shattered remnant of the army which had there taken up a position. In the center of the field [5] were the whitening bones of men, as they had fled, or stood their ground, strewn everywhere or piled in heaps. Near lay fragments of weapons and limbs of horses, and also human heads, prominently nailed to trunks of trees. In the adjacent groves were the barbarous altars, on which they had immolated tribunes and first-rank centurions.

Bust of Germanicus, found in the Roman Baths of Smyrna. Archaeological Museum of Izmir (Turkey). Photo Jona Lendering.
Bust of Germanicus, found in the Roman Baths of Smyrna. Archaeological Museum of Izmir

Some survivors of the disaster who had escaped from the battle or from captivity, described how this was the spot where the officers fell, how yonder the eagles were captured, where Varus was pierced by his first wound, where too by the stroke of his own ill-starred hand he found for himself death. They pointed out too the raised ground from which Arminius had harangued his army, the number of gibbets for the captives, the pits for the living, and how in his exultation he insulted the standards and eagles. 

And so the Roman army now on the spot, six years after the disaster, in grief and anger, began to bury the bones of the three legions, not a soldier knowing whether he was interring the relics of a relative or a stranger, but looking on all as kinsfolk and of their own blood, while their wrath rose higher than ever against the foe. In raising the barrow Caesar laid the first sod, rendering thus a most welcome honor to the dead, and sharing also in the sorrow of those present.






Note 1:
Albinovanus Pedo later described the Frisian expedition in an exuberant poem. A fragment survives.

Note 2:
He must have used the naval bases at Arnhem-Meinerswijk, Vechten and Velsen. The "lake" is Lake Flevo. The legions were I Germanica, V Alaudae, XX Valeria Victrix, and XXI Rapax.

Note 3:
A tribe living in the Dutch province of Groningen and in Ostfriesland, the nothwesternmost province of modern Germany. Their name is probably derived from Hauhae, "those with high homes", a fitting name for people living on artificial hills.

Note 4:
The military standard. Its loss was regarded as the ultimate disgrace of a legion.

Note 5:
This is the common translation of the words medio campi. However, we can also translate it as "in the area between" (the two camps). This suggests that Varus' first camp was east of the Kalkriese narrows, and the second camp was more to the west.

Jona Lendering for
Livius.Org, 2003
Revision: 6 April 2006



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