Ancient History & Civilisation



Claudius Germanicus Caesar (15 BC–AD 19)

How well had Germanicus been tutored by his [Tiberius’] instructions, having so thoroughly absorbed the essentials of military knowledge under his command that he was later to welcome him home after the conquest of Germany! What awards did he pile upon him, in spite of his youth, so that the splendour of his triumph matched his great deeds!1

THE CONSPIRATORS WHO MURDERED JULIUS CAESAR DO NOT SEEM TO HAVE had a very clear idea of what to do next, and may have hoped that, once the dictator was dead, public life would simply return to its traditional pattern. Within months a new civil war erupted, as Mark Antony rallied many of the Caesarean legions to avenge his death. For a while the Senate, which was broadly in sympathy with the conspirators, tried to use Caesar’s adopted son Caius Julius Caesar Octavianus – conventionally known to historians as Octavian – as a figurehead to weaken Antony’s control over the veteran legions. Octavian was only 19, and seemed of little account apart from his famous name. Cicero is supposed to have said that the Senate should ‘praise the young man, reward him, and then discard him’ as soon as he had served his purpose. In the meantime they gave him proconsular imperium, making official his command of the large number of Caesar’s veterans, including Legio X, who had rallied to his cause. Realizing the Senate’s attitude to him and anyway eager to fight against the conspirators, in 43 Octavian defected to join Antony and Marcus Lepidus. Together they formed the Second Triumvirate, which, unlike the alliance between Crassus, Pompey and Caesar, was given official status in law, each man taking the title triumvir rei publicae constituendae. The wording echoed Sulla’s rank as dictator, as did the triumvirs’ behaviour when they captured Rome, instituting new proscriptions ordering the deaths of a huge number of senators and equestrians.

Cicero paid the price for his Philippics, a series of vitriolic speeches attacking Antony which he had delivered and published: Antony ordered his head and his hand to be nailed to the Speaker’s Platform in the Forum. Within a year Brutus and Cassius had died by their own hands following the defeats of their armies in the two battles of Philippi. The triumvirs divided control of the provinces, but gradually their alliance broke down. Lepidus was sidelined peacefully, but the struggle between Antony and Octavian was decided by armed force at the naval battle of Actium in 31 BC. Antony fled to Egypt, where both he and Cleopatra – who had been his lover for over a decade and openly his wife for a year – committed suicide.2

After Actium Octavian commanded greater military forces than had ever been controlled by any Roman general in the past, with no fewer than sixty legions bound by their oath to obey him – a total which he would soon reduce to twenty-eight permanent units. With Antony gone there was no longer any serious rival to his supremacy and indeed battle, proscriptions and suicide had done much to thin the ranks of the senior members of the Senate. Caesar had been murdered because his power was blatant. His adopted son survived through creating a regime in which his control of State affairs was veiled. Octavian – he would later be voted the name Augustus by the Senate, which helped him gradually to disassociate himself with his brutal past as a triumvir – was neither dictator nor king, but princeps senatus, a traditional honorific given to the most distinguished senator. From this title the regime he created is known today as the Principate, or sometimes the Empire, as opposed to the Republic. In reality emperors with absolute power, Augustus and his successors pretended to be no more than the most senior magistrate in the State.

Many of Rome’s traditional institutions persisted, but real power was now firmly and irrevocably in the hands of the princeps. The Senate survived and openly flourished, gaining new responsibilities and marks of distinction at the price of losing its independence. Young aristocrats continued to pursue a career in public life which brought them more military and civil responsibilities, but all important posts were now appointments of Augustus rather than won through open elections. Public life was carefully controlled to prevent a regression back into civil war. The Augustan regime was not an instant creation, but the product of a gradual development, of trial and at least some error. Its success owed a good deal to Augustus’ politic skill, to the deep desire for stability after decades of upheaval, and also to the princeps’ own longevity. When Augustus died in AD 14 virtually no one was left alive who could remember a time when the Republic had functioned in its traditional way.

Augustus was not himself a great commander and it was rumoured that he had fled the field when his wing of the army was routed at the first battle of Philippi. Strong enough to admit his own limitations, he relied heavily on a few trusted subordinates to control his forces for him. His attitude to the soldiers under his command was a lot stricter and more formal than Caesar’s. After Actium he never addressed troops as ‘comrades’ but always as ‘soldiers’ (milites), and enforced very strict discipline. On several occasions he decimated cohorts which had panicked and fled. His officers risked public humiliation if they failed in their duties, and Suetonius tells us that he used to order centurions to stand to attention outside his tent all day, perhaps holding up a lump of turf. Usually they were instructed to remove their weapons belt, so that without this restraint the hem of the long military tunic fell almost to ankle height, resembling a woman’s dress more than a military uniform. Yet alongside the punishment came decorations and promotion for distinguished service, even if these were no longer issued with quite the freedom typical amongst the commanders of the civil war era. Even more importantly, Augustus ensured that the soldiers were paid regularly and provided on discharge with either land or a sizeable bounty. In AD 6 a special treasury, the Aerarium Militare, was established and kept under the emperor’s direct control to undertake these tasks. Augustus had no intention of repeating the Senate’s mistake by neglecting the needs of the legionaries and so encouraging them to give their loyalty to charismatic generals.3

Augustus brought internal peace to Rome, an achievement which was conspicuously celebrated throughout his principate. His regime relied heavily on the glory derived from continuous and spectacular warfare against foreign opponents. Under its first emperor Rome continued to expand as intensively as it had done in the last decades of the Republic and by AD 14 had brought under its control almost all of the territory which would compose the Empire for over four centuries. The Res Gestae, a long inscription set up outside Augustus’ mausoleum recounting his achievements, lists a vast array of peoples and kings defeated by the emperor. In style the text is identical to the monuments set up by triumphing generals for many generations, but in sheer numbers of vanquished enemies it dwarfs the victories even of Pompey and Caesar.

In a very Roman way these spectacular military successes justified the prominence of the emperor as princeps, the greatest servant of the State. Most of these victories were actually won by his legati, but the main credit went in the normal way to the supreme commander. Augustus had no intention of being rivalled by the dead, and still less by the living. When in 29 BC Marcus Licinius Crassus, the grandson of Caesar’s ally, completed his defeat of the Bastarnae by killing their king in single combat, he was denied the right to dedicate the spolia opima on a legal technicality. Augustus himself subsequently celebrated this rite, even though he had never actually performed such a feat. No one was permitted to win sufficient personal glory to detract in any way from the deeds of theprinceps. After 19 BC no senator unrelated to Augustus and his family was granted the right to celebrate a triumph, although success was still sometimes rewarded with triumphal honours (triumphalia), permitting a man to display the symbols of victory without actually riding in procession through the city. Apart from Africa, all provinces which contained a legionary garrison were directly controlled by Augustus and governed by his legati who held delegated imperium. Not only were all but one of the legions in service under the direct command of his representatives, but over time the command in all important wars was given only to members of the emperor’s extended family.4

From the beginning of his career, Octavian had relied heavily on his close friend Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa to lead his troops. It was Agrippa who controlled the fleets which defeated Sextus Pompeius – last surviving son of Pompey the Great – at Naulochus in 36 BC and Antony at Actium in 31 BC. From an obscure family, he never threatened to overshadow Caesar’s adopted son, and was able to rise with him, eventually marrying Augustus’ daughter Julia. Until his death in 12 BC Agrippa was frequently dispatched to fight the Empire’s most important wars, campaigning in Spain, Gaul and Germany, the Balkans and the east with great success. He was evidently a very capable commander, but very few sources survive for his campaigns and none that would allow us to reconstruct these in any detail. This may not be entirely coincidental, for his greatest successes were always publicly attributed to the emperor.

As the younger members of the Augustus’ extended family reached maturity, most were given important responsibilities at an early age. The most successful militarily were his stepsons Tiberius and Drusus, both of whom were placed at the head of large armies in their early twenties. Offspring of an earlier marriage of the emperor’s wife Livia, they were very much members of the old senatorial élite, being members of the Claudian patrician clan on both their mother’s and their father’s side. Few families were believed to have a character as distinct as the Claudians, all of whom were extremely proud, self-confident and conscious of their own worth. As a result they produced some of the State’s greatest heroes as well as some of its most hated villains. Drusus was very much a hero in the traditional mould, charismatic and popular both with the troops and the citizens of Rome. Desperate to win the spolia opima, he is said to have chased Germanic chieftains round the battlefield in the hope of defeating them in single combat. There was widespread dismay when Drusus died in 9 BC as a result of injuries received when falling from his horse on his way back from a campaign in Germany.5

Tiberius lacked his younger brother’s charm and seems never to have possessed the knack of making others, especially other senators, like him. Even when young he never appears to have adopted the rather flamboyant leadership style of Drusus or Pompey. He was considered a very strict disciplinarian, even by the standards set by Augustus, reintroducing archaic methods of punishment. On one occasion he cashiered a legate commanding a legion for employing some of his soldiers to escort a slave on a hunting expedition in hostile territory. Suetonius describes how in expeditions across the Rhine he ordered that no unnecessary items be included in the baggage train, personally inspecting each wagon’s load before the army advanced. Having denied luxuries to his officers, he conspicuously did without them himself, sleeping on the bare earth and often without even a tent. He was careful about his routine, ensuring that all his orders were written down and making himself always available to his officers to explain what he required of them. Velleius Paterculus, who served under him as a prefect in command of auxiliary cavalry and later as a legate, recounts how he always rode on the march rather than travelling in a carriage, and ate his evening meal (to which officers were usually invited) sitting, rather than reclining on a couch in the normal relaxed Roman manner.

For all his strictness both to himself and others, Tiberius was solicitous for his officers’ welfare, placing his own surgeon and servants at the disposal of any who were sick or wounded and providing them with transport. As a leader he was tough but fair; as a general careful, successful and trusted by his soldiers. Velleius wrote after Tiberius had succeeded Augustus as emperor and so was much inclined to flatter his old commander, but may well present an accurate picture of the respect and even affection in which he was held by the army.6 His description of the almost ecstatic welcome from the army of Germany when Tiberius arrived to take command in AD 4 rivals accounts of some of Napoleon’s reviews:

Truly words cannot describe the reaction of the soldiers at their meeting, their tears of joy and exultation at saluting him, their desperate longing to touch his hand, and inability to restrain such cries as ‘Do we really see you, general?’ ‘Have you truly come back safely to us?’, and then ‘I served with you, general, in Armenia!’ ‘And I in Raetia!’ ‘I was decorated by you in Vindelicia!’ ‘I also in Pannonia!’ and ‘I in Germany!’7


Augustus trusted Tiberius, just as in the past he had trusted Agrippa, with nearly all of the most important commands during the second half of his principate, but for a long time did not favour him as successor. A number of other, often younger, male family members linked to him by blood and not simply marriage were preferred, but each in turn died prematurely. Rumour blamed Augustus’ wife Livia – whom the emperor Caligula later dubbed Ulixem stolatum or ‘Odysseus in a frock’ after the scheming hero of Homer’s poem – for arranging these deaths in order to ensure that her son became the next emperor. It is impossible now to know the truth of the matter, but the imperial family seems to have suffered an exceptionally high rate of mortality, even by the standard of the day. What is clear is that in the end Augustus turned to Tiberius, adopting him as his son and sharing power with him during the last years of his life. Tiberius had a son of his own, known as Drusus the Younger, but was also instructed to adopt his late brother’s son, Germanicus. The name was an honorific granted to Drusus for his victories over the Germanic tribes, and was extended to his children following his accidental death. Germanicus was 6 years old in 9 BC, but the name proved singularly appropriate for as an adult he would win his greatest fame campaigning in Germany. His mother was Antonia, daughter of Mark Antony and Augustus’ sister Octavia, the Octavia whose rejection in favour of Cleopatra had added a personal element to the civil war.8

When Julius Caesar overran Gaul, he made it clear that he intended no permanent occupation of territory east of the Rhine, but had brought under his control all lands to the west of the river. The Commentaries emphasized that the Rhine was the boundary between the Gallic and Germanic peoples, showing that his ‘pacification’ of Gaul was complete. Newly conquered Gaul, the old Roman province of Transalpine Gaul and Italy itself would only be secure if the Germans, more primitive and savage than the Gauls, were kept at bay beyond the Rhine and prevented from emulating the Cimbri and Teutones. In truth Caesar admits that the situation was a little more complicated, and that a number of Germanic peoples had already settled west of the river. Archaeologically it has proved very difficult to confirm the clear distinction Caesar and other ancient authors maintain between German and Gallic tribes on the basis of their material culture – settlement pattern and style, metalwork and most of all pottery. This does not necessarily mean that there was no difference between these peoples, simply that this type of evidence can in this case neither confirm nor deny it. Linguistic analysis of surviving names of places and persons tends broadly to back the picture presented in our ancient sources. The literary sources make clear that apart from sharing a common language and culture, there was little sense of unity or common cause amongst the Gauls and especially the Germans. A warrior identified with his own tribe or clan, such as the Chatti, Marsi or Cherusci, or sometimes to a degree with a broader group of kindred peoples such as the Suebi. In no important sense did he think of himself as a German.9

Caesar presented a picture of the Gallic tribes as inherently unstable, the tribes riven by power struggles between ambitious chieftains seeking supremacy and almost annually at war with their neighbours. The Germans became deeply involved in the area either when their aid was sought by Gallic leaders, or when a people migrated across the Rhine in search of more fertile and secure land on which to settle. Caesar may have exaggerated the situation in order to justify his intervention in defence of Rome’s and her allies’ interests – which in itself was no different from his support for the Sequani, as Ariovistus had pointed out – but it is probable that his version is substantially accurate and fits into a pattern which prevailed in much of Europe throughout the Bronze and Iron Ages. Warfare and especially raiding was endemic. At times a tribe grew in power, often under the rule of a charismatic war-leader, and sometimes bringing neighbouring peoples under control. Usually this proved temporary, rarely outliving the powerful leader. Frequently civil wars and aggressive expansion prompted factions or nearby tribes to migrate, which resulted in pressure on the peoples whose lands they moved into. Migrations could have a knock-on effect over a very wide area. Caesar also exaggerated when he depicted the Germanic tribes as semi-nomadic pastoralists, drawing on a centuries-old stereotype which saw such societies as inherently more primitive and savage than communities which farmed the land and ultimately built themselves cities. Thus in Homer’sOdyssey the Cyclops planted no crops because they were too lazy, ate meat and drank milk, and had no political assembly – all indications of their barbarity. Archaeology has shown that many farms and villages in Germany were occupied for centuries, but such stability need not conflict with a potential for tribes, or parts of tribes, suddenly to seek land elsewhere.10

Caesar left Gaul conquered – there is no evidence for any serious rebellions whilst he was away fighting the civil war – but not yet fully settled as a province. The process involved the imposition of a new administrative structure, including the holding of a census to assist with taxation on at least three occasions from 27 BC, and at times prompted widespread resistance. Agrippa operated in Gaul on several occasions between 38 and 19 BC and there were several other campaigns fought on a smaller scale under other commanders. Just as in Caesar’s day, the Gallic tribes nearest the Rhine often sought help in the form of warrior bands from amongst the Germans. The latter even more frequently raided the rich lands of Gaul, and at times these attacks were on a very large scale. In 16 BC an army drawn from three tribes, the Sugambri, Tencteri and Usipetes, ambushed a detachment of Roman cavalry and, following up their success, surprised the main army of the provincial governor Marcus Lollius, inflicting a sharp defeat on him. During this battle one Roman legion, Legio V Alaudae, suffered the humiliation of losing its eagle standard. This campaign had opened when the Germans seized and crucified the Roman traders operating in their lands. As elsewhere Roman and Italian merchants operated well ahead of the army. Their activities and practices may sometimes have been resented and they were certainly often the first target when the tribes became hostile to Rome. Both to secure the stability and peace of Gaul and in response to raiding and violence against citizens, Augustus’ legions were drawn ever more often into punitive action against the Germans.

Germanicus’ father Drusus was the first Roman commander to reach the Elbe, where the official version of events claimed that he was warned from going any further by the appearance of a goddess. After his death Tiberius spent several years operating in the same area. Over time a Roman province between the Rhine and Elbe began to take shape. In AD 6 an attack was planned and prepared against Maroboduus, king of a great confederation of the Suebic tribes and a number of their neighbours in the lands between the Rhine and Danube. However, a widespread rebellion in Pannonia and Dalmatia unexpectedly broke out which it required the attentions of Tiberius and a large part of the Roman army to suppress. The Pannonians were extremely warlike, their armies based on the Roman model from the experience of many of their men as auxiliaries in Roman service. At one point during this campaign Tiberius found himself at the head of a force of ten legions, supported by seventy cohorts of auxiliary infantry, fourteen cohort-sized units oralae of auxiliary cavalry, and large numbers of allied troops. Interestingly, he considered this too large an army for one general to control effectively and so divided it into two independent groups, and subsequently into much smaller columns. It took the greater part of three years of hard and costly fighting to defeat the rebellion.11

Almost immediately news reached Augustus of an appalling disaster in Germany. As in Gaul, the process of turning conquered territory into a formal province provoked renewed resistance. The most important rebel leader was a prince of the Cherusci named Arminius who was serving as commander of a contingent of his tribesmen with the Roman army. At some point in the past he had been granted not only Roman citizenship but equestrian status, and was an intimate of the provincial legate, Publius Quinctilius Varus. Varus’ family had a somewhat questionable military reputation, since both his father and grandfather had backed the wrong side in civil wars and ended up taking their own lives, but he was very experienced, having previously served as governor of Syria where he had suppressed a rebellion in Judaea in 4 BC. His appointment to the German command conformed with Augustus’ tendency to rely primarily on his extended family, for he was married to a daughter of Agrippa.

Late in the summer of AD 9 Varus received reports of a revolt and, just as he had done in 4 BC, responded in the traditional Roman way by gathering his army and marching immediately against the enemy. The need to react as quickly as possible to a rising was considered reasonable justification for a Roman general taking the field with a small or poorly supplied force consisting of the only troops available at short notice. In contrast Varus weakened his strength by sending off many small detachments of troops and marched with an army encumbered by a great baggage train and accompanied by a horde of camp followers and the soldiers’ families. Abandoned by Arminius and its German scouts, the lumbering column walked into an ambush in a difficult area of marsh and thick woodland, the Teutoberg Wald. By sudden attacks over a period of days Arminius’ warriors weakened the Roman column until they were able to overrun the last pitiful remnant. Three legions – Legiones XVII, XVIII and XIX – along with six cohorts of auxiliary infantry and three alae of cavalry were massacred. Varus did what no Roman general should have done and despaired, committing suicide before the end. Excavations at Kalkriese (near modern-day Osnabrück) have in recent years discovered grim evidence of probably the last main action fought by this army. Most of the small detachments of troops scattered throughout the province suffered a similar fate in the following days. A few survivors managed to reach the Rhine where the two surviving legions in the region expected at any moment to come under attack.12

The disaster in the Teutoberg Wald was a terrible blow to the ageing Augustus, who let his hair and beard grow unchecked for a month as a mark of mourning and is supposed to have wandered through his palace banging his head against the walls and yelling out, ‘Quinctilius Varus, give me back my legions!’ For a while the army was reduced to a strength of twenty-five legions, and the numbers XVII, XVIII and XIX were never reused. Tiberius was immediately sent to the Rhine frontier and all available troops transferred from other provinces to reinforce his army. Soon there would be eight legions and at least as many auxiliary troops in the two provinces of Lower and Upper Germany which ran along the west bank of the river. The expected German invasion did not materialize, Arminius’ warriors having apparently followed the practice of most tribal armies throughout history and dispersed to their homes to show off their plunder and revel in their glory. When strong enough Tiberius began to send punitive expeditions against the German tribes. The Roman reputation for invincibility had been shattered by Varus’ defeat, and it would take several years of hard campaigning to begin to restore it. In AD 11 Tiberius was joined by Germanicus, who had first gained experience under his command during the Pannonian rebellion at the age of 22. Augustus was now very elderly and in AD 13 Tiberius returned to Rome, both to assist the princeps and to ensure that the succession proceeded smoothly on his death. Germanicus replaced him as supreme commander on the Rhine frontier.13


Like his father, Germanicus was extremely popular both with soldiers and people of Rome, affection which would remain deeply felt long after his death. We know that at least one Roman auxiliary unit, and perhaps the entire army, was still annually celebrating his birthday in the early third century AD. Urbane, handsome, fair-haired, athletic – he had worked especially hard to develop his legs which had originally been rather thin – his manner was easy and courteous. Again like his father, Germanicus took his wife and children with him to his province. She was Agrippina, child of Agrippa and Augustus’ daughter Julia and so his cousin, for the imperial family were much inclined to arrange marriages between different branches of the extended family in order to prevent giving too many outsiders some blood link to the emperor. In many respects she personified the ideal Roman matron, a group much celebrated in Augustan propaganda as virtuous, hard-working both in running the home and supporting her husband in his career, and producing the next generation of Roman citizens. The couple had nine children, well above the average in an age when birth rates amongst senatorial and equestrian families were in decline, but only six of these – three boys and three girls – survived childhood. The youngest son, Gaius, was born in AD 12 and as an infant was often dressed by his parents in a miniature version of legionary uniform. The soldiers nicknamed him Caligula, or ‘Little Boots’, after the hobnailed military boots or caligae.14

Augustus’ death in AD 14 sent shock waves throughout the Empire, for most of its population could scarcely remember a time without the princeps. Uncertainty combined with virtually no active campaigning during that summer to produce mutinies amongst the legions, first in Pannonia and then on the Rhine. Soldiers complained of the heavy deductions made from their pay, both official for uniforms, equipment and tents and unofficial in the form of bribes to centurions to avoid unnecessary fatigues. Under Augustus the process of turning the Roman army into a professional force had almost been completed. At the beginning of his principate legionaries were expected to serve for sixteen years, followed by four more as veterans, who were supposed to be exempt from normal duties but still required to fight. The near constant warfare of these decades led to these terms being extended to twenty and five years respectively. The change was resented, especially since even longer service was required from large numbers of men after the great crises in AD 6 and 9. So desperate had been Augustus’ need for men that in both those years he had reintroduced conscription, something that was now deeply unpopular especially in Italy. Suetonius tells us that Augustus actually sold into slavery an equestrian who had cut off his sons’ thumbs to make them unable to hold a weapon and so ineligible for call-up. The legions’ strength was boosted by men reluctant to serve or of a calibre not normally accepted by recruiting parties. Most drastic of all, the State purchased large numbers of slaves and freed them to become soldiers in a repeat of the desperate days of the Second Punic War. Although such men received citizenship with their freedom, Augustus insisted that they serve in distinct units, the cohortes voluntariorum civium Romanorum, rather than in the legions.15

The worst outbreak began in the army of Lower Germany commanded by Aulus Caecina, a very experienced officer of the type who seem often to have been appointed as senior subordinates to the younger members of the imperial family. On this occasion he remained strangely inactive, until all four of his legions – I, V, XX and XXI – threw off all discipline. The first targets of the soldiers’ resentment were the centurions, many of whom were seized and flogged. Germanicus was away in Gaul supervising the collection of taxation, but soon hastened to the army’s camp. He was greeted by a parody of the normal parade of welcome for a commander, and was only with some difficulty able to impose any order on the occasion, as men bombarded him with complaints about overdue discharge and the poor conditions which rewarded their loyal service. Some of the troops even shouted out that they were willing to make him emperor instead of Tiberius. Shocked, Germanicus tried to leave the meeting and, when men blocked his way, even went so far as draw his sword and threaten to kill himself if they did not instantly return to their proper loyalty. It was the sort of theatrical gesture commonly used by a Roman senator in the Forum or with the army, but in this case the impact was mixed, for whilst some men held his arm to restrain him, at least one is said to have offered the general his own sword, saying that it had a sharper edge.

Concessions for a while prevented more violence, but some senators sent by Tiberius to investigate the legionaries’ grievances were roughly handled and one ex-consul narrowly escaped death. Acting on the suggestion of his consilium, Germanicus resolved to send Agrippina and the 2-year-old Caligula to safety in one of the nearer Gallic towns. Roman legionaries were hard men, capable at times of extreme cruelty, but they were also often deeply sentimental, and the sight of the tearful party of refugees fleeing from the camp prompted a radical change of mood. Seizing on this change, Germanicus again addressed them, and this time was able to demand that the ringleaders be brought before him, summarily condemned and executed. However, to prevent a recurrence of the problem he also dismissed a number of centurions who were found guilty of taking bribes from their men.

A number of concessions, including immediate discharge for those overdue for it and a return to the earlier pattern of sixteen years’ ordinary service and four as a veteran, were announced around the same time. The reduction in length of service does not appear to have lasted long and soon reverted once more to a total of twenty-five years, but in other respects the main grievances of the mutinies do appear to have been answered. After further summary executions and some actual fighting in another camp, the mutiny of the army of Lower Germany was at an end. On seeing the aftermath of this last incident, Germanicus is supposed to have said that ‘This was not a cure, but a disaster!’ With his entire army – the non-citizen auxiliaries appear to have remained loyal throughout – once again restored to discipline, Germanicus was able to turn his attention to foreign enemies.16

It was now late in the campaigning season, but even so Germanicus put together a punitive column consisting of elements of all four of the recently mutinous legions, altogether some 12,000 men, along with twenty-six cohorts of auxiliary infantry and eightalaeof cavalry. Crossing the Rhine this force moved rapidly against the Marsi. Rather than following the normal, easiest trail into this tribe’s territory, Germanicus took a longer, less well-known route. In the lead were the auxiliary infantry, marching quickly and carrying only their equipment, tasked with finding and clearing the path of obstructions, and behind came the main body of the legions with a small baggage train. The Romans moved by night, clear skies and bright starlight allowing them to find their way without difficulty. Surprise was increased because the night was a festival which the Germans were celebrating with feasting. Before dawn a number of Marsian villages were surrounded by Roman troops. There was virtually no resistance when the attack went in and slaughtered the occupants. Germanicus then divided his army, creating smaller battle groups each based around one of the four legions present, and sent these off individually to devastate the land for some 50 miles around. Roman punitive expeditions were normally brutal affairs – on one occasion in 51 BC Caesar had achieved great surprise simply by ordering his men not to torch every building they passed – but this one was even more ferocious than usual. Prisoners were not taken and any Germans encountered were massacred irrespective of their age or sex. Usually the Romans had a degree of respect for local religious sites, but an important shrine was deliberately burnt to the ground by the troops.17

The Romans did not face any serious opposition until the columns had reunited and begun the march back to the Rhine, for it took time for tribal armies to muster. The Marsi had been too stunned by the onslaught to react at all, but the neighbouring Bructeri, Turbantes and Usipetes gathered an army and took up position along the route which they rightly guessed the Romans would take on their return journey. Germanicus had learned of their intentions and moved with his army in a hollow square, the baggage train now swollen by plunder in the centre, and the individual cohorts ready to deploy quickly into battle order. When the Romans reached a narrower spot the Germans sprang their ambush, launching their main attack against the rear. According to Tacitus, Germanicus galloped up to the troops from Legio XXI Rapax (or ‘greedy’, in the sense of greedy for glory) who were on the left wing, ‘crying out in a great voice that now was the time to eradicate the disgrace of mutiny. They were to charge and turn shame into glory.’ Enthusiastically, the cohorts of this legion drove the Germans back, inflicting heavy losses. Chastened, the tribesmen allowed the Roman column to complete its march unmolested. Germanicus returned his men to winter quarters in Lower Germany.18


In many respects the operations of the next two years were similar to the punitive expedition against the Marsi, but on a much larger scale. The war was being fought to avenge the disaster of AD 9 and, even more importantly, to re-establish a deep fear of Roman might amongst the Germanic tribes. Arminius was the main enemy, but the success of the Cherusci had encouraged many other peoples to become openly hostile. The power of chieftains amongst the tribes was by no means absolute and relied on their prestige. Most warriors would choose to follow a successful war-leader, but he could not compel them to do so. Arminius was not the only prominent figure amongst the Cherusci, and some of the other princes resented his current dominance. Therefore the tribes’ war effort was usually uncoordinated and some groups did not recognize the dominance of the Cherusci at all. Rome’s war was therefore waged against many different enemies simultaneously and each had to be persuaded that the alternative to alliance and peace with the Empire was too terrible to endure. At this stage the Romans do not appear to have planned the physical reoccupation of the lost province west of the Elbe. In the campaigning season Roman armies drove into Germany, laying waste the land (the Romans had a verb,vastare, for this action) and defeating anyone who dared to oppose them, but by the autumn they always returned to secure bases on the Rhine. At no point were significant garrisons left behind in the way that Caesar had always wintered his troops in the most recently overrun sectors of Gaul during his campaigns.

Germany also differed from Gaul in other important respects. Sizeable settlements equivalent to the Gallic oppida were extremely rare, most of the population living in scattered villages. Caesar had often drawn considerable quantities of grain and other supplies, sufficient to support his army for weeks at a time, from the Gallic towns, either by demanding these from allied communities or seizing them by force from the enemy. Germanicus could not hope to do this in Gaul and, since foraging would slow the march of his columns and leave small detachments engaged in the task vulnerable to attack, was forced to carry most of his requirements with the column. There is some rhetorical exaggeration in Tacitus’ picture of Germany as mainly forest and swamp, but it was certainly true that much of the terrain was difficult to traverse for a large army. Even in spring and summer there were few routes suitable for taking the wagons required by the baggage train. Many of these were trails which had been established, and often improved by the construction of bridges or causeways, by earlier Roman armies who had operated in the area under Drusus and Tiberius. Roman armies made little use of maps in the modern sense, and had a tendency to think in terms of routes to a place, but in Germany they had far fewer options open to them for alternative paths. Both sides understood this, and the Germans were frequently able to anticipate the direction the enemy would take in time to muster an army in a suitable ambush position somewhere along it.

Tribal armies took time to muster as warriors came in from scattered settlements, and then, lacking formal discipline and somewhat casual in obedience to leaders, moved slowly. For this reason such large-scale ambushes usually took place, as in AD 14, when the Roman expedition was on its way home. It may also be that the Roman withdrawal after an attack was interpreted as an encouraging sign of timidity. Germanicus, like all other Roman commanders who had led or would subsequently lead armies in this theatre, had to be very careful in balancing the forces he committed to punitive expeditions. If too few troops were sent then there was the risk that they would be overwhelmed, especially if they penetrated deep into hostile territory. Larger columns required a substantial baggage train of pack animals and wagons to transport even the barest minimum of supplies and so inevitably moved more slowly. It was for this reason that Tiberius had paid such careful attention to the loading of baggage carts during his expeditions across the Rhine. A large supply train was also inclined to force a Roman column to spread over a wider area, especially if it had to traverse a narrow pass or causeway, making it much harder to defend against ambush.

The Romans’ aim was to strike as fast and as hard as they could, spreading devastation and terror over as wide an area as possible, and then to withdraw without suffering any significant losses. Their intention was to convince each of the tribes that it was vulnerable and could not hope to stop an attack if the Romans chose to target it. The defeat of a tribal army in a battle, whether fought on the way in or the way out, could add to the impression of Roman military might, but was not essential. What was vital was that the Romans should never suffer a reverse, however small, which would encourage the tribes in future.19

In the new campaign, Germanicus planned to use the armies of both Upper and Lower Germany, giving him a force of eight legions supported by auxiliaries. He launched his attack at the very beginning of spring AD 15, striking with his main force of four legions and the bulk of the auxiliaries at the Chatti, whilst Caecina with the rest of the army demonstrated towards the Cherusci. The winter had proved unusually dry and the main column was able to ford with ease streams that were normally much deeper. A detachment was left behind to construct a proper road and bridges where necessary to carry it over water. Surprise was complete and many of the Chatti were captured or killed, although the bulk of the warriors swam across the River Eder. Under cover of light artillery and auxiliary archers, the legionaries rapidly threw a bridge across the river and attacked, dispersing this force. In subsequent days the tribal centre at Mattium was burnt and the lands around laid waste. Germanicus then withdrew, his army marching away completely unmolested, for the Chatti were in no state to muster an army and Caecina’s actions prevented either the Cherusci or the Marsi from intervening.

Germanicus, like any good Roman commander, was always ready to employ diplomacy in conjunction with force where it seemed likely to bring an advantage. Envoys had arrived from Segestes, an older leader of the Cherusci whose influence had been eroded by the rise of Arminius, asking for protection from his rival. The German leader’s message emphasized his past loyalty to Rome, in particular his unsuccessful attempt to warn Varus of the planned revolt and Arminius’ treachery. Acting on these earlier negotiations, Germanicus’ army collected Segestes and his party during their march. A number of the latter’s warriors, including his own son, had fought against Rome in AD 9 and even brought with them trophies taken from Varus’ men. Past misdemeanours were overlooked given the political advantage to be gained from the defection of such a famous chieftain. Tiberius granted a pardon for all misdemeanours and gave the exiles a place to live within the Empire and a pension for life. A less willing member of the party was Segestes’ daughter who had been previously abducted and married by Arminius, and then as forcibly taken back by her father. She was now pregnant with Arminius’ son, who would be born and grow up in exile.20

Arminius was enraged, both by the defection and by the loss of his wife, and swiftly began gathering a large army, being joined by his uncle, Inguiomerus, another powerful figure amongst the tribe who in the past had been considered pro-Roman. Such was their combined prestige that many bands of warriors from neighbouring tribes joined the Cherusci. As reports of this reached Germanicus, he and Caecina attacked tribes considered to be sympathetic to the enemy, and in particular devasted the territory of the Bructeri. During these operations the eagle standard of Legio XIX was recovered. Since he was not far from the site of Varus’ disaster, Germanicus decided to march into the Teutoberg Wald and bury the dead. Caecina went in advance to reconnoitre the ground and where necessary construct bridges and causeways across the most marshy areas. For a while they followed the same route as the earlier army. Tacitus gave a dramatic description of what they saw:

Varus’ first camp with its size and proper layout showed the efforts of three legions; then a half-collapsed rampart and shallow ditch marked the spot where the last shattered remnants had camped. In the plain between were whitening bones, scattered where the men had fled and heaped in piles where they had stood at bay. Lying nearby were broken weapons and bits of horses, while the skulls of men were nailed to tree trunks. Not far away were groves containing barbarian altars, where they had sacrificed the tribunes and senior centurions. Witnesses of the massacre, who had survived the fighting or escaped the chains of captivity, described where the legates fell, where the eagles were taken, where Varus was first wounded and where at last he had met death by his own hand; and they told of the tribunal from which Arminius had given his victory speech, of the gibbets and pits for burying prisoners, and the arrogance with which he insulted the eagles and other standards.

Now, six years after the disaster, a Roman army had come to the spot and buried the bones of three legions, no man knowing whether he laid to rest the remains of a stranger or a kinsman … but with anger rising against the enemy, all simultaneously mourned and hated.21

A mound was raised as a memorial over the mass grave. Germanicus himself laid the first section of turf to show his respect for the fallen, although such an act was not really appropriate since he was a member of the priestly college of augurs and the Romans had strong taboos about such priests having physical contact with the dead. Having completed its grim task, the army advanced against Arminius. At first the Germans withdrew ahead of them, but when the auxiliary cavalry were sent a little further in advance of the main column than was usual they were ambushed and routed. Auxiliary infantry sent up in support became infected with panic and were in turn driven back. The Germans’ pursuit was only halted when Germanicus arrived with the legions and deployed them into battle order. Arminius was not ready to risk a full-scale battle and withdrew, content with the success already achieved. It was now late in the season and the Roman commander was reluctant to risk delaying his return to winter quarters for the uncertain chance of provoking and winning a decisive battle. He decided to withdraw, taking half of the army himself by the northern route where some could at times be transported by river or sea, and sending Caecina with the remaining four legions along a trail frequently used by the army in the past and known as the ‘long bridges’. Originally built by an army under the command of Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus more than a decade before, these causeways across the marshes were in a state of disrepair and required some attention before it was safe to send the baggage train over them. However, the Romans’ choice of such a well-known route was quickly noticed by Arminius, who rushed his warriors by other, shorter paths to reach the bridges before Caecina and take up position in the woods and high ground to their flank.22

The Roman commander divided his men between building a fortified camp and repairing the causeways, keeping some units in formation to cover each working party. Throughout a long day they were harassed by the Germans, who mainly skirmished from a distance, but occasionally charged home when they detected a vulnerable spot in the rough Roman lines. It was not a landscape well suited to the operations of a drilled and disciplined army, for there were few patches of open, solid ground where units could operate in formation. The situation was made even worse when some of Arminius’ warriors dammed a stream, directing the flow of water down into the already half-flooded plain. The lightly equipped Germans were more used to such marshy terrain and coped far better than the encumbered legionaries. Tacitus claims that the legions were close to breaking under the pressure when night fell and brought an end to the fighting. Drawing on a literary set-piece which has often been employed by authors throughout the centuries – most famously in Shakespeare’s Henry V – he then contrasted the nervous silence of the sleepless Romans with the drunken carousing and boasting audible from the German encampments.

On the next morning Caecina formed his army into the hollow square often employed in these campaigns, with Legio I in front, Legio V Alaudae on the right, Legio XXI Rapax on the left and Legio XX in the rear. His hope was that these could set up a strong enough fighting line somewhere amidst the marshland to cover the movement of the baggage train and wounded across the ‘long bridges’. However, whether through confusion over their orders or, as Tacitus hints, a measure of panic, V Alaudae and XXI Rapaxhurried on too quickly, not forming up in battle order until they were past the marshland and had reached a more open plain beyond. The movement left the train exposed when Arminius led his warriors in a massed attack. Fighting was confused as the Germans swarmed down on the wagons and the marching column. Caecina’s horse was wounded as he tried to bring some order to the chaos, throwing the ageing commander – he was now around 60 – to the ground. Only the quick actions of some soldiers fromLegio Iprevented his being killed or taken by the enemy.

Eventually the bulk of the Roman army managed to reach the open ground already occupied by the two legions who ought to have covered the flanks. Once there the weary men were forced to labour on for several hours to construct a basic ditch and rampart around their camp. Much of the baggage had been taken by the enemy, whose preoccupation with plundering had done much to permit the escape of the main force. That night few of the wounded had dressings or proper medicine and scarcely any of the men tents in which to sleep. When a horse broke from its tether and galloped through the camp spreading confusion, a mob of frightened men led a panicked rush to the gateways, believing that the position was overrun by the enemy. Caecina only stopped them by throwing himself down in the open gateway and daring them to trample on him. Afterwards the tribunes and centurions carefully explained what had happened and calmed the men.

Arminius and Inguiomerus appeared to have the Roman army at their mercy, trapped in difficult country and worn down after days of ambushes just as Varus’ men had been in AD 9. However, whilst Arminius planned to permit Caecina to leave his camp and march once again into close country before launching an attack, his uncle was convinced that they had already won. His suggestion that their bands of warriors should encircle the Roman camp and launch a direct assault was warmly received by the other chieftains. This was what Caecina had expected them to do and he had prepared accordingly. His men were formed ready to sally out from each of the camp’s four gateways, the attack led by a picked body of the bravest soldiers mounted on horses publicly taken from the commander and his senior officers. In such a desperate situation Caecina wanted it known that he would not gallop away and abandon his men, but share whatever was their fate.

The legionaries were kept under tight control as daylight revealed a dense ring of German warriors advancing to the attack. Caecina let them come close, hoping that the apparent reluctance of the Romans to come out and fight would reinforce the barbarians’ contempt for them. Only at the last minute did he order the legions to charge out of the gateways, trumpets blaring and the men raising a cheer. Almost immediately the enemy’s soaring confidence was shattered, panic rapidly spreading through their ranks. Where they did not instantly flee, the open plain allowed the Romans to take best advantage of their superior training and equipment. German casualties were heavy, including Inguiomerus who was badly wounded, as the Romans pursued them for the rest of the day. For the remainder of its march back to the Rhine the Roman column was free from attack. However, rumours of disaster had preceded Caecina’s men, and caused a panic amongst the garrison commanders on the frontier. Only the intervention of Germanicus’ wife Agrippina is said to have prevented the destruction of the bridge across the river at Vetera (modern Xanten). She was also there to greet the returning column, personally thanking the men, distributing clothes to those who had lost them and caring for the wounded.23

The return journey of Germanicus’ own half of the army had been less eventful, although one section of this force endured considerable hardship and some loss when the coastal plain along which they marched – roughly along today’s northern Dutch coast – was flooded by an unusually high tide. This incident, along with the troubled withdrawal of Caecina’s column, reduced the impact of the successes of this campaigning season for they suggested that the Romans were not invincible. Arminius may not have won any great successes, but he had avoided being decisively beaten and his prestige was high. Germanicus decided that in the next year he would aim to seek a direct confrontation with the German war-leader. This time all eight legions would fight in a single force. To this end he spent the winter months in preparation, rebuilding the army. The western provinces of the Empire, notably Spain and Gaul, vied with each other to send grain and replacement mounts and baggage animals to the army, although Germanicus was aware that the drain of the long wars in Germany had pushed these regions to the limit of their resources. This made a major, and hopefully final, success in the next campaigning season all the more imperative.


It was decided to insert as much of the army as possible by water, sailing along the North Sea coast past the Frisian Islands to land deep in enemy territory. Therefore much of the army was set to the task of building almost 1,000 boats to add to the fleets already stationed on the Rhine. The diplomatic campaign to win over German chieftains continued, with Segestes’ brother, Segimerus, and his son defecting to the Empire. The son had not only fought against Rome in AD 9 but was believed to have dishonoured the corpse of Varus, but once again the immediate advantage to be gained from welcoming enemy deserters outweighed Roman anger. Apart from the practical preparations, Germanicus paid particular attention to the health and morale of his men, personally touring the hospitals in the winter quarters, talking to the men as individuals and praising their feats of courage.24

In the spring of AD 16 the army met up with the fleet in the territory of the Batavi, a tribe which occupied the ‘island’ between the Rhine and the Waal, and who provided many auxiliaries for the Roman army. The Batavi were an offshoot of the Chatti, and had crossed the Rhine and settled there after an internal dispute. Before the main campaign began Germanicus sent a small flying column to attack their kindred the Chatti. At the same time news arrived that a Roman fort built near the site of Varus’ disaster was under attack, so he led six legions to its relief. Neither operation resulted in any serious fighting, but Germanicus discovered that the tribesmen had destroyed both the mound erected over the mass grave of Varus’ men and a nearby altar and monument set up decades before by his father. Such symbols of Roman power erected in their territory appear to have been seen as deeply humiliating to the local warriors. Germanicus re-erected the altar, but decided against repairing the burial mound.25

Marching back to rendezvous with the fleet, the Roman army embarked and sailed along the coast to the estuary of the River Ems. They landed on the western bank, although this then imposed a delay as the legions constructed a bridge across the river and allowed Arminius’ army to muster. News of a rebellion amongst the Angrivarii prompted the dispatch of a column to ravage their land in immediate punishment. Then Germanicus advanced to the Weser and found the German army massed on the eastern bank. Tacitus tells the story that Arminius called out to summon his brother Flavus, who had remained loyal to Rome and was still serving as an auxiliary commander. The two are supposed to have had an argument, yelling at each other from opposite banks and contrasting their fortunes, but it is more than possible that this is a rhetorical invention, or at least an exaggeration of a real incident. Reluctant to attempt a direct assault across the river until he had secured a foothold and given the legions time to construct a number of bridges, Germanicus sent a force of auxiliary cavalry across by a ford. With them went Chariovalda, the war-leader (or dux) of the Batavi, and his warriors. At first things went well, but the Batavi were lured into an ambush by the Cherusci and swiftly surrounded, their warriors forming a circle of shields facing outwards in an episode which conformed with the most heroic traditions of intertribal warfare. After some time Chariovalda led a breakout, but was killed in the act. The remnants of his men were saved when the Roman cavalry came to their aid.26

In subsequent days the rest of the Roman army was able to cross the Weser. Scouts reported that Arminius had withdrawn to a position from which he planned to give battle, near a sacred forest, dedicated to a god whom the Romans equated with Hercules. A deserter claimed that the German leader planned to mount a night attack on the Roman camp, but this was not pressed home when the legions were discovered to be on the alert. Earlier the same night Germanicus is supposed to have disguised himself in an animal-skin hood, probably of the type worn by standard-bearers, and wandered through the tent lines, hoping to gauge the soldiers’ spirits. (Directly or indirectly, the incident was most likely the inspiration for the very similar episode in Shakespeare’s Henry V.) Eavesdropping on campfire conversations, the 31-year-old Roman commander is supposed to have been overwhelmed by his men’s affection for and trust in him. Even more encouragement came when a German warrior who was able to speak Latin – perhaps the legacy of service as an auxiliary – rode close to the rampart and called out an invitation for anyone to desert, promising them land and a wife each, along with 25 denarii a day till the end of the war. Since the legionary’s annual salary was at this time only 225 denarii, this was an extremely lavish offer. However, the men were insulted at the thought that they might betray their own side, and cheerfully declared this a good omen, claiming that it meant that the Germans’ lands and women were theirs for the taking.27

On the next morning the commander addressed his army, although since eight legions and auxiliaries were present it is probable that either he or his officers repeated the speech to several smaller groups. According to Tacitus he told them that:

The open plain is not the only good battleground for a Roman soldier, for if he thought carefully, then woods and forest pastures were just as suitable. For amidst the trunks of trees and undergrowth the barbarians’ great shields and enormous spears were not as handy as the pilum, gladius and well-fitting cuirass. What they [the legionaries] needed to do was strike hard and fast, aiming for the face. The Germans wore no armour or helmets, and their shields were not strengthened with metal or hide, but simply wickerwork or thin painted boards. Only the front ranks carried proper spears, the rest had only short clubs hardened with fire. While their stature was impressive and powerful in a quick attack, they could not stand being hurt.28

Encouraged by this denigration of the enemy, and the promise that victory would bring an end to their labours, the soldiers cheered enthusiastically, before the parade was dismissed and the army marched out to deploy for battle. Arminius, Inguiomerus and the German army waited for them on a wooded plain backed by high ground near the Weser. The place was known as Idisiaviso, but has never been precisely identified. Arminius and most of the Cherusci were in reserve – an unusually subtle refinement for a tribal army – on the high ground. The Roman army marched to the battlefield in a formation which could readily convert into battle order. Tacitus says that the Romans advanced with Gallic and German auxiliaries supported by foot archers in front, followed by four legions along with Germanicus himself and two cohorts of the Praetorian Guard (the élite imperial bodyguard) and the pick of the cavalry. Behind them came the other four legions with light infantry and horse archers as rearguard. It is uncertain what formation each section was in; whether for instance each group of four legions was deployed in the hollow square so often used in these campaigns. At the start of the battle Germanicus claimed to have seen eight eagles flying in the direction of the Roman advance, and announced to his men that this was an omen of victory.

Tacitus’ account of the battle does not allow a clear reconstruction of the sequence of events. Some of the Cherusci appear to have surged forward to the attack against Arminius’ orders and were soon taken in the flank and rear by units of auxiliary cavalry. The Roman infantry also pushed steadily onwards, driving the tribesmen back. Arminius himself led a charge against the archers in the vanguard of the Roman army, and was only stopped by the auxiliary heavy infantry. Almost cut off, he smeared his face with his own blood to avoid recognition and escaped, thanks to the quality of his horse. Rumour suggested that German auxiliaries from the Chauci let him go deliberately. In heavy fighting the German army was routed and suffered heavy losses. Some warriors drowned or were shot as they tried to swim the Weser, others were picked off by the archers as they tried to hide in the branches of trees. Roman casualties were extremely light, although Tacitus gives no figure for these. After the battle the army paraded and hailed Tiberius asimperator, for any victory, even one won by his adopted son, was always credited to the princeps. A trophy was made from captured weapons and inscribed with the names of the defeated tribes.29

Enraged by this visual symbol of their defeat, tribesmen began to harass the Roman column as it withdrew. An army was once again mustered and took up position at a spot along the trail the Romans were following, near a rampart marking the boundary of the lands of the Angrivarii. Next to this were forests and marshes flanking a narrow waterlogged plain. The German infantry concealed themselves near the rampart, whilst the cavalry were in woodland further back, ready to attack the rear of the Roman column. The Romans were aware of the presence of the enemy and Germanicus decided that another massed engagement would be to his advantage. Leaving the cavalry to cover the open ground, the infantry were divided into two forces, one to attack the rampart and the other the woodland near the main path. The commander himself led the assault on the fortification, for he judged this to be the best-defended area.

The first attack made little headway, the soldiers suffering casualties as they tried to scramble up the turf wall. Germanicus ordered the recall and then brought up slingers and skirmishers to bombard the defenders. Light artillery (scorpions), picked off the most conspicuous warriors, shooting their bolts over distances greater than any hand-held weapon and with such force that neither shield nor defensive armour could stop them. Suppressed in this way, the defenders were unable to reply effectively – archers appear to have been rare in German armies – and a second attack carried the rampart. Germanicus led the way with the two praetorian cohorts as the Romans advanced into the woodland to exploit this breakthrough. He had removed his helmet so that his men would more easily recognize him. Fighting was bitter, but the Romans seem to have coped better with the restricted visibility of the woods than their opponents, who had trouble in gaining much advantage from their considerable numbers. Arminius’ leadership was for once rather lethargic, and Tacitus speculates that this may have been the result of the wound he had taken in the last battle. Near the end of the day Germanicus drew off one legion to begin construction of a camp. Once again very heavy losses had been inflicted on the enemy and another trophy was erected to commemorate the victory.30

It was now near the end of summer and time to return to the frontier provinces. The bulk of the Roman army retired the same way it had come, taking ship and sailing along the North Sea coast. A great storm scattered the fleet, blowing some of it over to the coast of Britain, and sank a number of ships. On his return – at one point he had found himself with just a single ship and landed in the territory of the allied Chauci – Germanicus quickly organized some punitive expeditions to show that the Roman army was still formidable. The Chatti and Marsi were again attacked, the raid on the latter resulting in the recapture of another of the eagles lost with Varus.31


At the end of AD 16 Tiberius summoned Germanicus back to Rome where he celebrated a triumph over the Germans. Two cohorts of the Praetorian Guard were ordered to meet him in full parade uniform, but such was his popularity that in the event all nine cohorts of the Guard insisted on taking part as a mark of their respect. Tacitus claims that Germanicus had begged for one year’s extension of his command to complete the victory. It may be that this was an officially approved rumour which was supposed to show that Rome could have easily achieved full victory if only she had chosen to do so. Germanicus was soon sent to Syria to oversee the eastern provinces where it seemed likely that there might be problems with the Parthians over Armenia.

Tiberius’ attitude to his adopted son cannot be established with certainty. Rumour maintained that he envied him as a potential rival, remembering the mutineers’ offer in AD 14 to make the popular young commander emperor. Agrippina’s very public role in caring for the soldiers and the parents’ dressing of their son in a miniature uniform seemed to indicate a desire to subvert the troops in their loyalty. It was said that the imperial legate sent to govern Syria, Cnaeus Calpurnius Piso, had been ordered by Tiberius to watch and hinder Germanicus. There was certainly considerable friction between the two men, which ended in Piso’s dismissal. Shortly afterwards Germanicus fell ill and died amidst rumours of poison and claims that Piso or Tiberius was to blame. Piso tried to re-enter his province and resume command, rallying some troops to his cause before he was defeated. He later stood trial in the Senate and committed suicide shortly before a guilty verdict was delivered. The popular reaction to news of Germanicus’ death was massive and testament to the great affection for him. His corpse was carried back to Rome with great ceremony.32

Whether or not Tiberius was jealous of Germanicus, and whether the latter was in fact murdered, is now impossible to say. In the next few years he would certainly send into exile or execute both Agrippina and her two oldest sons. The Augustan regime presented itself as a modification of the traditional Republic, but in spite of this façade it was from the very beginning a monarchy – and few monarchs have not been suspicious of rivals, real or imagined. In Rome the emperor’s reputation rested heavily on the continued success of his armies, but it was vital that no else, not even a relative, should gain too much military glory of his own. The changed conditions of the Principate gave some members of the imperial family great opportunities for military command at a very early age, but did not entirely relieve them from suspicion of plotting against the emperor.

By a strange coincidence AD 19 also saw the death of Germanicus’ great opponent, Arminius, who was murdered by his chieftains when they felt that his power had grown too great. Earlier in the same year Tiberius had refused an offer by a Cheruscan nobleman to assassinate the war leader, declaring that Rome did not need to employ such dishonourable methods. Clearly the victories of Germanicus were considered sufficient vengeance for the Teutoberg Wald and the German leader was no longer felt to be a threat, since other Roman wars – most notably that against Jugurtha – had been concluded by similar acts of treachery. Power was always precarious amongst the tribal peoples and perhaps Tiberius simply trusted to this fact to remove Arminius in due course, as in fact occurred. Arminius had succeeded where others such as Vercingetorix had failed, rebelling against Rome and not being overcome. The tribute paid to him by the historian Tacitus in the early second century AD was certainly well deserved:

Without doubt he was the liberator of Germany, a man who fought against the Roman People not in their earliest days, like other kings and war leaders, but at the height of their power; in indecisive battles and wars without being defeated he lived for thirty-seven years, and held power for twelve, and to this day is celebrated in tribal songs.33

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