Tacitus on the Teutoburg Forest

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.

Tacitus on the Battle in the Teutoburg Forest

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

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 eaglenote 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 Amisianote and Lupia was ravaged, not far from the forest of Teutoburg where the remains of Varus and his legions were said to lie unburied.

[1.61] 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.

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 fieldnote 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.

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. 

[1.62] 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.

This page was created in 2003; last modified on 11 October 2020.