The men of the current-enlistment 14th Legion, now twelve-year veterans, were a long way east of the Rhine, slogging through Bohemia, near the present-day border between Germany and the Czech Republic. It was the spring of A.D. 6. This was the third successive year they’d driven deep into Germany.
The previous year, they’d penetrated as far as the Elbe River. Now the 14th was part of an army of twelve legions that was pushing back the Marcomanni, a fierce German tribe that had given Julius Caesar a hard time and that one hundred and seventy years later would battle the emperor Marcus Aurelius in the wars depicted in the movie Gladiator.
As always, at the end of the day’s march, the legions built a temporary camp. And on this afternoon, as thousands of Roman troops were putting the finishing touches to the earth and timber fortifications, a dusty legion cavalry courier and his escort made their way past the outer guard pickets and rode up to the decuman gate. The courier dismounted outside the gate of the massive camp spreading on the edge of the Bohemian forest and reported to the centurion of the guard. “Dispatch for the commander in chief,” he would have said, removing a scroll from his tubular leather dispatch case.
The centurion must have stiffened when he saw the seal on the trooper’s dispatch—the yellowish Sardonychis, seal of the Palatium, the emperor’s headquarters at Rome, bearing the image of Augustus. The courier would have been quickly taken to the tribune of the guard, then to the praetorium, next door to the tribune’s quarters.
Field Marshal Tiberius Caesar, tall, with strong features, a hooked Roman nose, and a pasty complexion, would have read the dispatch with a growing frown. He was forty-seven now, a vastly experienced soldier who had led many a campaign since he’d organized camp games for the legions as a teenager in Spain thirty years before. Perhaps he cursed as he lay the dispatch aside. He certainly wasn’t happy.
At heart, Tiberius was a deeply insecure man. When Tiberius was only an infant, Augustus had forced his biological father, Tiberius Nero, to divorce the boy’s mother, Livia, so Augustus could marry her. Tiberius and his brother Drusus had lived with their father until the elder Tiberius died, when his sons were nine and five. Augustus had then adopted the boys. In his late teens, Tiberius had been married by Augustus to Vipsania, daughter of his best friend, Marcus Agrippa. It was a true love match, and at first their marriage seemed to make up for Tiberius’s unhappy childhood.
A decade later, everything changed. First the brother he adored had died in his arms. And then Augustus forced Tiberius to divorce his beloved Vipsania and marry Augustus’s biological daughter Julia. The divorce broke Tiberius’s heart. Worse, Julia was unfaithful to him within months. His only escape was to throw himself into military campaigning. Then, years later, back at Rome on leave, he’d stumbled onto Vipsania, who’d since remarried, in the street. He followed her through the streets, in tears. This encounter seems to have brought on a breakdown. Unable to face society, he went into self-imposed exile on the island of Rhodes—some historians think for as long as ten years, but possibly for only five.
When he returned to Rome, he came back a tougher though embittered man. He trusted no one, gave his affection to no one—to ensure that he could never be wounded again. Now all he did was obey orders and kill Germans. Yet even that was about to change—in one respect, anyway. The emperor had written personally to his adopted son, with orders to turn the legions around. A massive revolt had blown up in the Balkans, in the Roman provinces of Pannonia and Dalmatia. And to Tiberius fell the job of putting it down.
The subjugation of the Balkans had been commenced by Augustus himself back in 35 B.C. By 12 B.C. the task had been virtually complete. Pannonia and Dalmatia were annexed to Rome, covering much of modern Austria, Hungary, Slovenia, Bosnia, Croatia, and Serbia. For his A.D. 5-6 campaigns in Germany, Tiberius had withdrawn troops from Dalmatia and Pannonia and levied a number of Dalmatian auxiliaries, who joined him on the Rhine under Lieutenant General Messalinus, governor of Dalmatia.
Encouraged by the reduced troop presence, Bato the Breucian, a rebel leader in Pannonia, and another Bato, of Desidiatia in Dalmatia, had risen against the Roman garrisons. With much of the Adriatic coast opposite Italy quickly falling into rebel hands, there was uproar at Rome, with the population in dread of an invasion of Italy itself.
Now, having read the dispatch from the emperor, Tiberius would have looked at his deputies, Lieutenant Generals Sentius Saturninus and Valerius Messalinus, both older men, as they and his other generals waited to learn the content of the dispatch. “This campaign is over,” he would have told them grimly. “We march for the Rhine.”
The Marcomanni king, Maraboduus, had been sending Tiberius envoys with gifts, seeking a peace treaty. Now Tiberius hurriedly sent to the king. They agreed on a treaty, and the Roman army pulled out of Bohemia. At Mainz, after recrossing the Rhine, Tiberius divided his legions. Three would go to the lower Rhine with the newly arrived Lieutenant General Publius Quintilius Varus, who would be based at Cologne. Four would be located on the upper Rhine with Lieutenant General Lucius Nonius Asprenas, a consul for that year who, like Varus, had been sent scurrying up from Rome by Augustus to help out until the Pannonian emergency was over. Five legions would march with Tiberius, who had orders to link up with more legions marching to Pannonia from provinces to the east.
Sending General Messalinus ahead with a fast-moving flying column, Tiberius then prepared to lead his legions south—the 14th Gemina Martia, 8th Augusta, 9th Hispana, 15th Apollinar, and 20th Valeria, backed by a number of auxiliaries, including troops from German tribes east of the Rhine. Among these German auxiliary units was a cohort of the Cherusci tribe led by Colonel Flavus, son of the chief of the Cherusci.
Bato the Dalmatian expected the Romans to come rushing down from Germany once they learned of the revolt, and he prepared an ambush for General Messalinus. After walking right into the ambush, the Roman advance force had to quickly backpedal out of trouble. But Messalinus set up an ambush of his own, and Bato’s pursuing troops hurried straight into it. The survivors scattered, and Bato fled north, looking for his namesake.
By the time Tiberius arrived in Pannonia with the 14th and his four other Rhine legions, the two Batos had linked up at the Sava River, formed an alliance, regrouped their forces, and savaged Roman units that had moved up through Dalmatia from the south, aiming to join Tiberius at Sisak. The guerrilla war they would now wage would ultimately drag in fifteen legions and last for years. It was to be described by Suetonius as the most bitter in Rome’s history to that time.
But even then it would not compare with what was about to take place behind Rome’s back in Germany while the war was being waged in Pannonia—an event to shake the empire, and to set the 14th Legion at the start of the road to its greatest hour.