It’s September of year 9. Augustus rules in
Rome, and the Empire is at peace. And far to the north, Publius Quincillus Varus is
on the other side of the Rhine with three legions. Germania, though still unconquered, has been
pacified. Many tribes now consider themselves allies to Rome. During the summer months, Varus had been touring
around Germania, trying to expand Roman influence. He put down little uprisings, acted as an
arbiter in local disputes, basically gave the locals a small taste of Roman law. It was the end of the campaigning season and
Varus was heading back across the Rhine. Representatives from a bunch of different German tribes approached
Varus and asked if they could each host a Roman cohort for the winter. (A Roman cohort
at this time was around 480 men.) Now, remember that Varus was trying to expand Roman influence,
so this is pretty much a dream request. “What, you want Rome to have a heavier military footprint
in Germania? Uhh, sure, I mean, if that’s what you guys want, we can do that.” So the Germans went home to their tribes,
each accompanied by a Roman cohort. The cohorts built for themselves little outposts, and
settled in for the winter. On an agreed upon day, each one of these German
tribes rose up and slaughtered the Romans in their midst. The whole thing was one big
conspiracy, and was executed flawlessly. On the same day, the Germans sent messengers
to Varus, who was still marching west, and told him that a revolt had broken out to the
north, and the Germans up were formally requesting Roman assistance. This was another trick.
There was no revolt. But Varus felt honour bound to protect Rome’s allies, so he lead
his army north. Under normal circumstances Varus would have
had 20,000 men, but he had already sent 5,000 men away with the Germans. These men were
already dead, but Varus didn’t know this yet. It wasn’t a good time to be marching north.
The weather had turned, and it was pouring rain. The Romans were struggling to navigate
this thick Forest with its narrow dirt path, which were quickly turning into mud. The path lead through a swampy pass between
two steep hills. Now let’s pause here for a moment. If you
were approaching this pass, what would you do? One option is to just say “I’m not marching
my whole army through a damn swamp,” and to find another way around. Marching off into
the woods isn’t ideal, but it was possible. Another option is to treat the swamp like
a river crossing. Send a cohort across first and have them form a defensive bridgehead,
and then slowly cross, a little bit at a time, while your men hold defensive positions at
each end of the swamp. This might take all day, and Varus was in a rush, but sometimes
cautiousness is the way to go. Another option is to thoroughly scout ahead
before committing to crossing the swamp. Send some guys up onto the hillside, check out
the far side of the swamp, you know, stop and look around. Again, this would take some
time, and it wouldn’t make you immune to an ambush, at least you’d have some warning. Another option is to encamp for the night.
If its raining and you have a complicated swamp crossing coming up and you have no idea
what’s out there, it’s okay just sit tight. If Julius Caesar were here, that’s what he
would have done. He was capable of sitting around for weeks just to make sure he wasn’t
put at a disadvantage. I know I’m beating this to death but I want
to illustrate how Varus had options, and how he didn’t use any of them. Even if you don’t
know what happens next, I hope you can see how careless this was. Seemingly from nowhere, the Romans were being
hit by ranged attacks from all directions. So there were Germans hiding on both hills.
Obviously. Many Romans died in these first few moments.
They tried to form a shield wall, and failed, and then tried to throw their javelins in
response, but the hills were just too steep. Varus ordered half of his men to hold the
Germans back, which basically meant stand there and try not to get killed, and the other
half to get onto dry land and start constructing their fortified encampment. The Romans carried
their walls with them, so they could throw these things together in no time. The defences were completed, and the rest
of the army retreated behind the walls for a sleepless night. That night, Varus took council from his subordinates.
They begged him to fall back across the Rhine and into Roman territory. Varus remained convinced
that there was an uprising to the north, even though there wasn’t, and felt compelled to
help. Honourable, but foolish. He went against the advice of his subordinates, and made plans
to continue north. The next morning, the Romans ditched many
of their supplies and took off pre-dawn, successfully slipping by the Germans in the darkness. A
good plan, and it actually worked. They advanced all day in silence, finally
exiting the forest onto a wide open plain, and encamping for the night. They weren’t
hiding. They were sitting out in the open hoping for a fight. Let me explain their thinking here. The Romans
have always preferred to fight out in the open, seeing it as much more honourable to
meet your opponent face to face. The Roman word for ambush was the same one they sometimes
used for treason. And just like we don’t view treason as a normal part of politics, they
didn’t view ambushes as a normal part of warfare. It goes without saying that history has proven
them wrong, but that’s what they thought. So anyway, that’s why the Romans were just
sitting out in the open after being so badly beaten. They wanted to have a “real” battle
out in the open. But the Germans didn’t bite. On the third day they kept pushing north until
they were forced to renter the forest. This is when the Germans attacked. The Romans were more prepared this time, but
couldn’t get a good grasp on where the Germans were coming from due to the dense vegetation,
and had a hard time fighting in the mud. It was a mistake to get sucked into battle here.
They took heavy losses, and were forced to retreat yet again into another fortified encampment. On the forth day the rain picked up again,
with gusts of wind so strong that it pushed people over. Varus decided to sit tight until
the storm passed, which is pretty reasonable. Unfortunately, it was on this day that German
reinforcements arrived. On the fifth day, the Romans emerged from
their encampment. They didn’t see any Germans, so they continued heading north. As you might
expect, they walked right into yet another German ambush. Now, this is the big one, so let’s slow down
and get the lay of the land. To the south there a small hill, covered with trees. To
the north, there was a swamp. Yes, another swamp. Varus must have learned his lesson
from Day One, because this time he did everything he could to keep his men on dry land. As the
Romans moved to go around the swamp, Germans poured out of the forest to block their path.
What do you think Varus did? He had his men to build another fortified encampment. Is
anybody else noticing a trend? If I can see a pattern, and you can see a pattern, we know
that the Germans probably saw the same pattern. Now, at long last, we have our first mutiny.
The Roman cavalry decided that they’d had enough, and made a break for it, charging
east. As luck would have it, that’s exactly where some more Germans were hiding, and they
easily ran the Romans down. So much for that idea. Varus was up at the front line, holding the
Germans back, when he was badly wounded. Probably by a javelin, but we don’t know for sure.
His men took him back to the encampment, which was still only half built. During this confusion,
some concealed Germans up on the southern hill revealed themselves, and charged. The
Romans here were busy setting up walls, and couldn’t get into formation in time. They
didn’t stand a chance. Varus, badly wounded and seeing that the battle was lost, killed
himself. These Germans eventually moved up and envelopped
the other half of the Roman army, continuing the slaughter until a Roman officer stepped
up and surrendered to the Germans. They were utterly defeated, there were maybe a couple
hundred Romans left. What happened next became the stuff of legend.
The Germans took the surviving Roman soldiers, lined them up, and systematically beheaded
them, keeping their skulls as trophies. Then, they took the surviving centenarians to a
group of trees and crucified them. And finally, they gathered up the surviving commanders,
took them to a sacred grove, and burned them alive in a ritual sacrifice. It’s conventional wisdom now that Rome never
really recovered from this defeat. Romans would campaign against Germania for generations,
but from this moment on they always viewed it as enemy territory, and never again as
a potential future province.