XIV

THE VARUS DISASTER

One late summer’s evening at the beginning of September in A.D. 9, a banquet took place in the heart of the Chatti tribe’s homeland in what today is the German state of Hesse. The setting was a pavilion in the camp of a Roman army of three legions likely to have been located outside the Chatti capital, Mattium, on the Fulda River, a little above the Eder River, the southern boundary of Chatti territory.

A palisaded town with meandering dirt streets and half-timbered buildings of rough lumber and mud—it would be centuries before Germans east of the Rhine built in stone—Mattium was possibly the forerunner of today’s city of Kassel, whose name means stronghold. The symbol of the city of Kassel is Hercules, the Romanized version of Donar, the German god worshiped by the Chatti and other German tribes, and after whose Norse equivalent, Thor, the English-speaking peoples named the day of the week Thursday. Donar was a heroic, hard-drinking, hard-living hunter god, and his name would have been invoked more than once at this banquet outside Mattium.

Hosting the banquet was Lieutenant General Publius Quintilius Varus, Roman commander on the lower Rhine. The young colonels of Varus’s legions, the prefects of auxiliary units, and their German guests were in good spirits as they reclined barefoot on dining couches around three sides of a low table, three diners to a couch, three couches of nine diners to each of the banquet’s many tables. The general’s cooks would have sent in up to a dozen courses of exotic dishes on rich silver plates, to be eaten with the fingers, accompanied by Falernian wine from Campanian vineyards south of Rome in silver goblets with Bacchic reliefs. Germans had a weakness for wine, preferring to drink it straight, unlike Romans, who diluted it with water. Roman writers refer to the Germans as heavy drinkers and bad drunks. As wine flowed in celebration of the end of the legions’ campaigning season, the dining tent filled with ribald laughter.

At the high table, General Varus was enjoying his role as pseudo-ruler of Germany. He was, at a minimum, fifty-nine years of age; he may have been well into his sixties. He had been brought out of retirement for this job. Trusted by the elderly emperor Augustus, to whom he was related by marriage, he had been rushed to the lower Rhine to take command while Tiberius was away fighting the Pannonian War. The son of Sextus Quintilius Varus, one of Julius Caesar’s assassins, who’d committed suicide after the Battle of Philippi, Varus had married Augustus’s grandniece, gaining considerable political influence and great wealth during his years in public service. He was not without experience. A consul in 13 B.C., Varus had been governor of both Africa and Syria. In 4 B.C. he’d gained a military reputation after rioting broke out in Jerusalem on the death of King Herod the Great and the famous 10th Legion had been cut off in the city. Swiftly marching three legions down from Syria, Varus had dispersed the rebellious Jews and relieved the men of the 10th. But that had been a long time ago.

Reclining beside General Varus as his guest of honor was Segestes, king of the Chatti, described by Tacitus as a stately figure. Segestes was probably tall, possibly thin. He would have worn his hair long, in the German fashion, and was bearded. Perhaps his hair and beard were white, or gray, contributing to the king’s stately appearance. It’s likely he was advanced in years, yet with his only son probably in his late teens or early twenties, King Segestes may have only been in his forties.

At one table or another reclined that son, Segimundus, who was about to become a priest at the shrine of the Ubii Germans, in Roman territory at Cologne on the far side of the Rhine, in compliance with the Chatti’s treaty obligations with Rome. The king’s younger brother Segimerus also was present. According to Cassius Dio, Segimerus had ridden with General Varus all summer long; the Chattian prince was a highly trusted commander of a Chattian auxiliary unit attached to the general’s army. Segimerus would have been accompanied by Catumerus, a senior clan leader of the Chatti.

Reclining at another table was a colonel of Cheruscan auxiliaries, Segestes’ son-in-law Arminius, or as the Germans knew him, Hermann. The younger son of the king of the neighboring Cherusci, he was now twenty-seven years old, and had been serving with the Roman army for at least two years. He had not only been granted Roman citizenship, he also had been made a member of the Equestrian Order of knighthood. Members of the order had to possess a minimum personal wealth of 400,000 sesterces. A surviving bust, made of him west of the Rhine by a Roman sculptor, shows Hermann as a young man with curly, probably blond hair falling over his ears to his shoulders, a strong nose, a small chin, and an intense expression. He was then clean-shaven, in the Roman fashion.

Hermann would have joined in the banter and discussion. The talk would have been of Field Marshal Tiberius Caesar’s ongoing campaign against the Pannonian and Dalmatian rebels. After years of reverses, Tiberius had at last turned the tide against the rebels. In siege after siege, the legions had gradually taken the rebel-held towns and strongholds and reclaimed southern Pannonia and most of Dalmatia. It seems that in these bloody, grinding sieges, three legions in particular had distinguished themselves to the extent that they would be awarded the official title of Victrix, meaning “Conqueror,” by Tiberius on behalf of Augustus. The new Victrix legions were the 6th, the 20th Valeria, and the 14th Gemina Martia. By the time the 14th returned from the Pannonian War, it would march under the name of the 14th Gemina Martia Victrix Legion.

At the banquet outside Mattium, conversation would have included Tiberius’s recent successful siege of the hill town of Andetrium in Dalmatia. News would have reached Mattium, too, that Hermann’s elder brother, Flavus, had been seriously wounded in the campaign and lost an eye, after Tiberius gave his German auxiliaries the task of leading the difficult assault on the town’s walls. And Hermann would have laughed when a haughty young Roman colonel lounging close by perhaps joked that now Flavus would look like Hannibal, the famous Carthaginian general of old, and Sertorius, the rebel governor of Spain who’d led Pompey the Great a merry dance for many a year—both of whom had lost an eye in battle. Another Roman colonel would have said that now Flavus would think he was Hannibal or Sertorius. There would have been a gale of laughter. And as Hermann laughed, he would have cast his steely eyes around the room, taking in the increasingly drunken company, until they came to rest on his father-in-law, who returned his gaze with a cold, sober stare.

According to Tacitus, Segestes despised Hermann. Nor did he have any time for Hermann’s father, the king of the Cherusci—whose name has not come down to us. There was a time when, for the sake of German fraternity, Segestes had encouraged marriage between the two tribes at the highest level. One of the marriages between the Cherusci and Chatti he’d approved of had been that of Hermann’s brother, Flavus, to the daughter of Catumerus of the Chatti. Flavus’s wife now lived west of the Rhine with the Romans while her husband was fighting Rome’s Pannonian War. She would bear Flavus a son, Italicus, who would be raised at the Roman naval base city of Ravenna in Italy.

Hermann’s own marriage had been a different matter. He had taken Thusnelda, Segestes’ daughter and pride and joy, for his wife, with the emphasis on taken. Thusnelda had been betrothed by her father to another man when she and Hermann fell in love. In the spirit of the best romance novels, Hermann had snatched his sweetheart away from under her father’s nose, and they’d eloped and married. Segestes’ rage had only been intensified when Hermann’s father gave his blessing to the match.

No doubt pressured by General Varus, Segestes had continued to recline at the same Roman dinner table as his son-in-law. But throughout the spring and summer, whenever he had the opportunity of a private word with General Varus—he accompanied the Roman army on its processional progress through eastern Germany—he warned him that Hermann was not to be trusted. But Varus put Segestes’ accusations down to his personal enmity toward Hermann and ignored both the king and his warnings. Besides, Varus had developed a trust in and an affection for the young man. Dio says that Varus had come to consider Hermann his friend.

It’s from Tacitus that we know most of what went on at this banquet. He credits Pliny the Elder’s now lost twenty-volume German Wars as his major source. Pliny is likely to have questioned Germans who’d been present at the banquet when he himself was stationed at Mainz with the 2nd Augusta Legion in A.D. 41-42 as a young colonel of auxiliary cavalry. His nephew Pliny the Younger says he started writing his German histories while still stationed on the Rhine. One of Pliny’s probable informants was King Segestes’ son, Segimundus, who was to survive the turmoil of the next decade and spend his later life as a priest at Cologne. Pliny also may have interviewed senior German prisoners sent to live at Ravenna by their Roman captors.

When the banquet was at its height, King Segestes rose to speak. The diners reverentially fell silent, expecting him to offer a toast to their host. “From the time that Augustus Caesar gave me Roman citizenship,” Tacitus tells us he said, “I have chosen my friends and my enemies with an eye to Rome’s advantage, not from hatred of my fatherland. I believe that Romans and Germans have the same interests, that peace is better than war. I’m no traitor. Traitors are hated even by those they love, and I’m not hated by my people. But there are those here who are traitors, to Rome, to Germany, and to the peace!” He turned to Hermann, stabbing a finger in his direction. “This man is a traitor! Just as he has violated my daughter, he’s planning to violate the peace with Rome, and bring misery to us all!”

Hermann responded with an amused smile. This only annoyed Segestes all the more. He raged that his son-in-law was plotting to drive all Romans from Germany. Then he said: “Arrest myself and Arminius, here, now. Arrest all the leading men of the tribes. I assure you the German people will do nothing without their leaders. Then you’ll have the opportunity to sift the accusations and to determine the innocent and the guilty.”

Cassius Dio says several of General Varus’s subordinates voiced support for the king’s warnings. Impatiently, Varus asked Hermann if there was any truth in the king’s accusation, and he scoffed at any suggestion that he was in the least disloyal to Rome. Varus accepted Hermann’s declaration of innocence without question. What’s more, according to Dio, Varus berated Segestes and those of his own officers who supported his view, for being needlessly alarmist. “I will not have you slandering my friends,” Dio says Varus told Segestes before apparently instructing the king to resume his seat and cease making claims that were obviously inspired by personal motives.

Tacitus says that Segestes considered Varus a “dilatory general,” a man who both put off decisions and proceeded without due diligence. Insulted, and determining to take matters into his own hands, Segestes stormed from the banquet and from the camp.

Later, as Hermann left the banquet and made his way to his quarters in the town, Segestes was waiting for him, with armed Chattians. He was quickly overpowered, bound and gagged, then thrown into solitary confinement in Mattium. But members of Segestes’ own entourage sympathized with the young prince, and they hurried to warn soldiers of Hermann’s Cheruscan auxiliary unit of the fate of their commander. Hermann’s men slid through the night, overpowered the guards, and freed their leader. With the complicity of Chatti leaders, Hermann in turn made Segestes a prisoner, locking him away in chains. Meanwhile, the Romans camped nearby slept the night away in blissful ignorance of the drama taking place behind the walls of Mattium.

The next morning at dawn, General Varus addressed a full assembly of the army, then allowed his adjutant—the “announcer,” as he was called—to read his Orders for the Day. The army was to march for the Rhine, and their winter quarters. Soon the legion trumpets sounded “Prepare to March” three times. The camp was struck, the baggage train loaded, and then the lead elements moved out. The usual practice was for cavalry scouts to lead out. Then came auxiliary light infantry. Then more cavalry, followed by the road-clearing detail. Then the legions, probably two in the vanguard. Josephus records later in the century that standards were bunched in groups for the march.

In the vanguard rode the commander in chief and his staff and cavalry bodyguard. Next came the strung-out baggage train, loaded down with the 180 artillery pieces of the three legions, as well as ammunition, tents, grinding stones, officers’ furniture and silver dining plate, supplies for the march, and the material acquisitions of a spring and a summer in foreign territory. The third of the three legions marched as a rear guard, with another cavalry detachment bringing up the rear.

The legionaries were in marching order. Their packs, each weighing up to a hundred pounds, were over their right shoulders, suspended from carrying poles. Their javelins were tied to the pack poles. Their shields, wrapped in protective leather covers, were slung over their left shoulders. Their helmets, hung around their necks, rested against their chests. With this load and a long baggage train they might make fifteen to eighteen miles a day, marching until noon, then spending the afternoon building a marching camp for the night and gathering firewood, fodder, and water. The next day they would do the same again. At this rate, and without major delays, they would reach the Rhine in a week or so.

Their destination was Cologne, due west. A permanent wooden bridge was spanning the Rhine at Cologne sixty years later, but in A.D. 9 a bridge of boats was probably in place. General Varus’s intention was that by the time the Festival of the October Horse was being celebrated at Rome in the third week of October, the traditional end of the campaigning season, the legions would be snug in their quarters with their arms stored away until next spring, just as in the past two years. Varus himself would have planned to also spend the winter on the Rhine. Augustus didn’t permit his generals to return home to their wives in Rome until their postings ended.

As the sun rose this September morning, Hermann was at the legion camp along with numerous other German auxiliary commanders to bid farewell to Varus and his men. The general had agreed to allow a number of auxiliary units attached to his command to spend the winter at communities throughout Germany—their hometowns in many cases. According to Cassius Dio, there were archers in Varus’s column, specialists from Syria or Crete, and theirs were among the few auxiliary units that were to remain with him. When General Varus asked the whereabouts of King Segestes, Hermann would have blamed Segestes’ absence on an overindulgence in wine the previous evening. Varus took his leave of the German officers, appointing a day the following March when they were to assemble at the Rhine to meet him, then pointed his column and his thoughts toward the west. As the Roman general rode away from Mattium, Hermann led his Cheruscan troops north, toward the home territory of the Cherusci between the Weser and Ems Rivers. At the same time, Segestes’ son, Segimundus, set off on horseback with a small entourage to travel to Cologne and take up his priestly duties. It was not a future he looked forward to.

The legions marching away from Mattium were trailed by a caravan of camp followers—the traders, artisans, pimps, prostitutes, and their families who habitually accompanied the army wherever it went, a body as numerous as Varus’s army itself. When the last wagons of the camp followers lumbered over the horizon, smoke was still curling from the ruins of the Roman camp, set ablaze by the legions, as they customarily did when abandoning a camp. Chattian children would have played among the ruins, laughing and chattering, looking for souvenirs of the Roman stay.

Segimerus, brother of Segestes, now paid a visit to the king to apologize for his continued imprisonment. The king was told he would be released once Germany had risen against Rome. Segimerus and his son, a boy in his teens, then departed Mattium. With father and son rode only personal attendants—the Chatti had no cavalry. Their strength, says Tacitus, lay in their highly disciplined infantry. As Segimerus’s party galloped north, large companies of Chatti infantry set off to follow them at all speed, on foot.

Tacitus says that Varus’s three legions were “unofficered”—that is, none currently had a brigadier general at its command. Varus had either allowed the generals to depart Germany early, to be replaced by new commanding officers who would come up from Rome in the new spring, or the Pannonian emergency had caused such a drain on officers of general rank that all three legions had been led that year by their senior tribunes, which was rare but not unusual. The identities of Varus’s three tribunes are unknown.

As for Varus’s legions, we know with certainty the identity of just one: the 19th, an undistinguished legion. Originally a unit created from Pompeian troops who surrendered to Julius Caesar at Corfinium in 49 B.C., it had sat out the Civil War on garrison duty in Sicily. It had been embroiled in Sextus Pompey’s Sicilian venture, on his side, and then in Lepidus’s failed gambit for power. At the time of Philippi it apparently was in the forces of Antony and Octavian. Reenlisted in Cisalpine Gaul in 33 B.C., the legion marched for Octavian against Antony before being based in Gaul after 30 B.C.. Transferred to the lower Rhine, it served in the German campaigns of Drusus Caesar between 12 and 9 B.C. and in the campaigns of Lucius Ahenobarbus Domitius, who pushed into Germany between 7 B.C. and A.D. 1, resettling the Hermunduri Germans in Bohemia. By A.D. 1 General Domitius had been relying on diplomacy to try to win his way with Hermann’s father, king of the Cherusci, as his legions built roads and bridges on the far side of the Rhine. Undergoing its 1 B.C. reenlistment in Cisalpine Gaul as usual, the 19th marched with the 14th and the ten other legions led by Tiberius Caesar into Germany between A.D. 4 and 6. They reached the Weser River and brought the Cherusci and Bructeri tribes to the treaty table before going on to penetrate as far as the Elbe and achieving the defeat of the Langobardi between the Weser and the Elbe.

According to numismatic evidence mostly, Varus’s other two units have been identified as the 17th and 18th Legions. And ill-starred units they were. These had been the two legions wiped out under Curio in Africa in 49 B.C. Re-formed, the 17th and 18th fought at Philippi and Actium. Following the deaths of Antony and Cleopatra, both legions were retained by Octavian and posted to Aquitania. Together, the 17th and the 18th joined the 19th for Tiberius’s operations in Switzerland by 15 B.C., before all three legions were transferred to the Rhine. By A.D. 9 the 17th was based at Neuss, the Roman fortress of Novaesium founded in 12 B.C.; the 18th at Vetera, today’s town of Xantem in Holland; and the 19th at Cologne.

The men of the 1 B.C. enlistments of these units were required to sign on for twenty years, not the sixteen years of their predecessors—between 6 B.C. and A.D. 11 Augustus phased in twenty-year enlistments for all the legions. By the time they were marching away from Mattium in September of A.D. 9, each first-enlistment man had close to nine years of legion experience under his belt, while the men of the senior cohorts, including the double-strength 1st Cohorts, were a minimum of forty-nine years old. Being into the ninth year of their current enlistments, the three legions would have been understrength by a thousand men each, possibly more, as a result of battle casualties in the German campaigns; from the discharge of injured or infirm men; and through desertion. In all likelihood, the legionary forces now marching with Varus totaled about thirteen thousand men.

Normally the army would include a large number of auxiliaries, but Tiberius had built a series of forts along the eastern bank of the Rhine, and Varus had garrisoned them with many of his auxiliaries, including part of his complement of archers. He was also without the German auxiliaries he’d detached to various corners of Germany for the winter. His remaining auxiliaries numbered a few thousand men, including foot archers and cavalry from France, Spain, Luxembourg, Belgium, and Germany west of the Rhine.

Most of Varus’s men would have now been thinking about cozy winter quarters, about banking their pay with their unit banker and totaling up their savings after another unprofitable campaign without a good fight or a hostile German town to pillage. Betrayal by their German allies would have seemed unthinkable, for to all intents central Germany apart from Bavaria and Bohemia was now part of the Roman world. General Varus thought it, his emperor thought it. It had been an impression given credence over the past two summers as Varus’s army had trooped through towns and villages in German cantons where smiling locals had come out to watch the colorful Roman procession march by. It had been a picture of peace, of fraternity.

Three, possibly four days into the dawdling march to the Rhine, after several more auxiliary units had peeled off from the column to head for their winter quarters, a party of fast-riding horsemen reached General Varus with urgent news. There was trouble to the north, they advised. Cassius Dio says that Varus was informed there had been an uprising, north of friendly territory, in the homeland of the Chauci or the Angrivarii, on the other side of Cheruscan territory. Varus now turned his army around and headed north for the trouble spot. That he took his entire force with him indicates the message he received was from his friend and subordinate Hermann, and that he believed that a substantial force of rebel Germans was involved. Hermann may have even said that he and his Cheruscan auxiliaries had been surrounded and would be wiped out if not quickly reinforced.

As the Romans marched to the rescue, some camp followers pulled out of the column and continued toward the Rhine as fast as they could go, planning to take refuge at the forts along the eastern bank of the river until the army returned. But according to Dio, many civilians remained with the army. Varus took his complete baggage train with him, despite the urgency. There was no intent to travel light to save time. For some civilians, it appeared there would be safety in numbers if they stayed with the column. As for Varus, he wanted as much personal protection as he could get. Knock-kneed in his youth, he was now probably fat and unfit after lazy years in retirement and the easy perambulations through Germany of the past two seasons. As he swung north toward the Weser Hills, guided by the Cheruscans who’d brought him the message from Hermann, Varus sent away the last of the local German nobles who were riding with him, with instructions to urgently collect their fighting men. Varus obviously believed the force he had to counter was by no means small.

One of the German nobles who now rode away from the column was Colonel Boiocalus of the Ampsivari tribe. Prefect of an Ampsivarii auxiliary unit since the previous year, he was intensely loyal to Rome. On the way to round up his men, the twenty-six-year-old Boiocalus was overtaken by Cheruscans, arrested on Hermann’s orders, chained, and imprisoned in a German village. Boiocalus soon escaped to the Roman side of the Rhine, but too late to warn of the revolt before it erupted.

General Varus was marching north as fast as he could go. In emergencies, a legion could march twenty-five miles every day for a week. There are times on record when they made forced marches of more than thirty miles a day. But that was when they were stripped for action. The journey ahead of Varus’s lumbering, overburdened army, of forty miles or so, could have taken at least three days.

An army of thousands of German tribesmen lay in wait for General Varus and his legions in the Teutoburg Forest, which today still covers the westernmost escarpment of the Weser Hills. The Romans called it the Teutoburgium. Here, wooded limestone and sandstone ridges arc southwest from the Ems River for sixty miles. The works of Pliny the Elder and others provided Cassius Dio with details that enabled him to accurately describe the area. The mountains here were of irregular shape, he said, their slopes deeply cleft by ravines, with the trees of the forest—birch, spruce, and oak—clinging to the hillsides, growing closely together and extending to a great height.

A black sky shrouded the Weser Hills as rain that had begun as a shower that morning now drummed down and wild winds lashed the tree-tops. The rain would make the ground uncertain underfoot once the fighting began, but for now the storm would mask any sound emitted by the hidden men and their horses. The Germans waited, silent, tense. They were cold, wet, and ready for a good cooked meal after spending days without campfires that would have given them away. Most of all, they were ready to kill Romans.

And leading the German army was young Hermann. Just as Segestes had warned General Varus, his son-in-law had been secretly agitating among the tribes of the region for many months, urging them to join him in throwing the Romans out of their fatherland. The leaders had met in a council of German nations over the previous winter. Only one invitee had refused to attend, the Marcomanni’s King Maroboduus, who stuck by his A.D. 6 treaty with Rome. The other tribes had entered into a war pact, had made their plans, had given their vows. They’d been preparing ever since.

At that council meeting Segestes had spoken against going to war with Rome, but Tacitus says he was unanimously outvoted by his fellow Chattians. Rather than simply denounce the plot, and be branded a traitor by his own people and probably lose his throne, if not his life, Segestes had attempted to preempt the war by convincing Varus to arrest Hermann. Cut off the German wolf’s head and the body will die; that had been Segestes’ plan. But now the wolf was leading the pack, and King Segestes was in chains.

Thousands of fighting men of Hermann’s Cherusci were here with their prince. Whether Hermann’s father was a party to the plot we don’t know, if indeed he was still alive. Certainly Hermann’s mother would be around for some years. The Chatti also were here in great number. In Segestes’ absence they were led by his brother Segimerus. According to Dio, Segimerus and Hermann were the two principal architects of the revolt. Three Chatti clan leaders also present would have been Flavus’s father-in-law, Catumerus, and Arpus and Adgandestrius, all future leaders of the Chatti. The Marsi tribe was here at the Teutoburg as well. Unrelated to the Italian Marsi, these near neighbors of both the Cherusci and the Chatti lived to their west, between the Lippe and Ruhr Rivers, and probably were led by the man identified by Tacitus five years later as their chief, Mallovendus. From well to the south, in Switzerland, came warriors of the Cauchi tribe. The Bructeri from north of the Lippe were here, and the Usipetes and the Tubantes, as well as Cheruscan near neighbors the Fosi. Other tribes likely to have provided warriors were the Chamavi, Ampsivarii, Angrivarii, Sugambri, and Mattiaci.

Seven years later, Hermann would muster an army of fifty thousand men not far from here; something in excess of twenty thousand tribesmen congregating in the Teutoburg this day in September of A.D. 9 is not unlikely. For months the tribesmen had been going through rudimentary tactical drills taught to them by men with experience in the Roman army. And before they set out from their homes, every man would have gone to a sacred grove and vowed to his gods not to cut his beard or his hair until he had killed a Roman.

The Germans were broader, taller men than Roman legionaries. Germans lived on dairy produce and meat. It wasn’t uncommon for them to stand more than five feet, eight inches tall. By comparison, the Roman soldier, with his daily bread and olive oil ration, averaged little more than five feet four. Hermann was to take advantage of this height difference, placing the tallest warriors in his front ranks and arming them with the best weapons, to give the impression that all German fighting men were giants.

The principal frontline weapon of many tribes was a wooden spear up to twelve feet long. Behind the front line the second-rank men usually carried the framea, a short, metal-tipped spear used for both jabbing and throwing and which was common throughout Germany, Gaul, and Britain. Some came armed simply with wooden javelins, saplings whose business end had merely been sharpened and then hardened in a fire. Nobles also carried swords—some, large, blunt-ended broadswords; others, copies of the shorter Roman gladius. All tribes were equipped with flat shields, some of oak or linden planks, others merely woven wicker with hide covers. Shield shapes varied: the rectangular Chauci shield was four feet long; the Chatti shield, small and square. Nobles wore moccasin-style footwear, a tight tunic, trousers, and a cloak, and often wore their long hair tied in a topknot, the so-called Suebian knot. Their tribe members were only simply dressed; Chattians typically went barefoot and wore only a loin-cloth and short fur cloak.

The Teutoburg Forest had been chosen as the site of the ambush for a number of reasons. It prevented cavalry operations and also would make it difficult for the Roman infantry to employ their normal battlefield formations. The trees also offered concealment for large numbers of men. And there was a religious significance to the Teutoburg, with several groves sacred to the German tribes located in the forest.

The Roman column stretched for miles as it entered the Teutoburg and climbed up through the hill passes, guided by the decoy messengers. Progress was painfully slow. In the rain and swirling wind the advance road-clearing party was hard pressed felling trees, clearing the track, and bridging difficult stretches with felled trees and earth. As the downpour washed away earthworks, feet slipped and slid on leveled tree trunks, and the wheels of wagons became caught in gaps. Wet, cold, mud-covered, and miserable, legionaries often were called back to put their shoulders to vehicles in difficulty. The column stopped and started, straggling through the hills, with wagons and carts becoming interspersed with groups of troops, the servants of the officers, and camp followers. The scattered legionaries were in loose marching order.

Dio says that every now and then a high tree limb would be wrenched free by the wind and come crashing down. Marchers were struck, and pack animals bolted in terror, creating great confusion, according to Dio. And all the time, General Varus urged his troops to press on regardless: Rome’s friends were in trouble, he said.

Watching from an elevated position, Hermann waited until the entire force was well into the hills before springing the trap. Then, with a yell, he rose and launched the first missile. Suddenly, shocked Roman troops discovered that they were flanked on both sides by thousands of adversaries in the trees, as clouds of spears sliced out of nowhere.

Centurions barked orders: “Helmets on! Uncover shields! Form ranks!”

Down the ragged column came the instruction to keep moving; no counterattack was permitted. But as casualties mounted, General Varus ordered a camp made. Under fire, the advance guard found a barely usable location, and while part of the column held off the Germans, the remainder furiously dug the trench and threw up the walls of a standard marching camp. As night fell, the legions and their cavalry and archer companions were able to take refuge in the camp. Their German attackers melted away, into the darkness.

Still convinced that he was needed on the other side of the Teutoburg, and apparently believing that his attackers here had been sent to prevent him from getting through to Arminius and his embattled troops, Varus was determined to press on. But next day the weather was so bad he held his position. Once the rain stopped, he waited for the muddy country in their path to dry somewhat. The pause gave him the opportunity to tend to his wounded; to organize a new order of march that would be adopted once the advance began anew; and, in a council of his officers, to plan defensive tactics. Dio says that in this conference it was agreed that the baggage train was slowing the column down.

Hermann held back on day two, waiting for the Romans to make the next move, as his men preferred to attack the column once it was in the open again, on the march. He also was waiting for expected German reinforcements.

On day three, with the sky clear and the ground dried out a little, the legions moved out in their units and in battle order. And they abandoned the vehicles of the baggage train. Wagons, carts, and their contents, including wooden artillery pieces, were burning furiously along with the guard towers and gates of the camp as the army set out. The pack mules and horses continued with the column.

Once the Roman rear guard was out of sight, Germans surged into the camp in the hope of salvaging spoils from the flames. By dallying at the burning camp they gave Varus enough time to break out into open country. German skirmishing parties still harried the column’s flanks and rear, but, like flies, they were swatted away. The men of the legions became a little cheerier now that the going was much less difficult.

Toward the middle of the morning, guided still by the same Germans who had led him this far and whom Varus still trusted, the army’s route took them back into the forest—and into another ambush. This time Varus launched counterattacks of infantry and cavalry into the trees. But Hermann had taught his men well. They dashed in, launched their missiles, then withdrew, using the same tactics Ambiorix’s Belgians had employed against the 14th Legion back in 54 B.C. When legionary and cavalry units gave chase, they only bumped into each other and into trees. Hourly, Roman casualties increased.

To the struggling legionaries it would have seemed the Germans were more numerous than before. And it was true; Dio says that new contingents of tribesmen were arriving and going into action with each passing hour. Some had come to the Weser Hills after massacring Roman auxiliaries stationed among them. Others had a long distance to travel. Some bands had hung back to see which way the fighting went, and now that the Germans clearly had the upper hand, they were also committing to the fray.

Varus ordered a new camp to be built, but few men could be spared to dig. It was all the other surviving troops could do to keep the Germans at bay. Casualty numbers were soaring. Tacitus says that it was only a shattered remnant of an army that was able to make a stand at this camp. Deep in the forest to the south of modern Detmold and near the present-day town of Osnabrück, they struggled to build their fortification. The result was a pitifully low wall, little more than five feet high, fronted by a shallow ditch. At nightfall, the surviving Roman troops withdrew behind the defenses and the Germans pulled back for the night, surrounding the encampment so that no one could escape in the darkness. General Varus issued orders that with the morning the march must resume—if they stayed here, they would all die.

Overnight, the rain returned. A new storm blew up, so fierce that when, come morning, the advance guard tried to push on, they couldn’t even maintain their footing. They fell back to the camp. The Roman column was trapped, and both sides knew it.

As the morning progressed and the rain tumbled down, wave after wave of tribesmen threw themselves at the camp walls, covering the rain-filled outer trench with wicker hurdles, then going against the walls with rough-cut ladders. The noise of battle, the yelling, the cheering, the screaming would have been deafening.

A spear pierced General Varus—in the leg, the shoulder, the neck, we don’t know. Aides helped the general to the center of the camp. Dazed, bleeding, in pain, he gazed around the scene of carnage. The Germans were in the camp, cutting down legionaries and auxiliaries, slaying terrified, unarmed noncombatants who fell to their knees before them, pleading for mercy. In the sea of wild German faces Varus would have seen his charismatic young “friend” Arminius—Hermann—leading the assault.

The surviving bloodied, muddied men of the three legions clustered around their eagles, surrounded, trying to defend their standards. Their rain-soaked wooden shields were almost too heavy to hold up, says Dio. Progressively the Roman ranks were overwhelmed by sheer weight of numbers and cut down. Warriors of the Bructeri killed the eagle-bearer of the 19th Legion and the men who stepped up to take his place. With a victorious roar the Bructeri carried off the 19th’s eagle. Before long, the Cauchi and the Marsi seized the eagles of the 17th and the 18th.

Varus knew he was doomed. Determined not to fall into German hands, he put his sword to his throat. Then, with a single stroke, says Tacitus, he drew the blade left to right across his neck. Varus toppled into the mud, drowning in his own blood. The colonels of the legions had bunched together with their staff. Once their general took his own life, all three followed suit. As the battle degenerated into a massacre, some men died in groups, while others met their end in the open, trying to run. Horses, too, perished—the steeds of the cavalry and the officers, useless in the mud and confined space, and baggage animals peppered by indiscriminate German missiles. As a few hundred Roman officers and men threw down their arms and gave themselves up, Hermann called for the slaughter to cease. The noise faded. Then there were just groans of the wounded, the relentless pounding of the rain. The Battle of the Teutoburg Forest was over.

The son of Segimerus looked down at the naked, muddy, bloody body of Quintilius Varus and sneered. The general’s expensive armor and fittings had been ripped from his corpse; his tunic, too. Tacitus says that the teenaged Chattian insulted the body—perhaps with a kick, or maybe he spat on the dead man. Or, more gruesomely, he attacked his corpse with a knife. The boy’s father pulled him away. A burly German then stepped up and swung a heavy blade, which decapitated the dilatory general. Varus’s head was raised on the point of a spear. Tens of thousands of tribesmen roared their approval.

Severely wounded Romans had been put to death. The thousands of dead and the live prisoners were stripped. Surrendered officers were separated from enlisted men. Thin-stripe tribunes and first-rank centurions were divided from junior centurions. The prisoners were then made to dig large pits. The muddy earth from the pits formed a large mound, where captured Roman weapons and the eagles and standards of the legions were piled. The rank-and-file prisoners were forced into the slushy pits.

Hermann climbed onto the mound, and to tumultuous cheers and applause he praised his men for their courage, derided the defeated Romans, and spat on the captured eagles and standards. The severed heads of dead Roman officers were nailed to tree trunks. Gallows were set up for surviving junior centurions. They were strung up in front of their men and laughing, jeering Germans. Thin-stripe tribunes, officer cadets, mere teenagers, were dragged away in chains with the first-rank centurions. The men in the pits only realized the officers’ fate when they heard their screams and smelled burning flesh.

The senior officers had been taken to a nearby sacred grove, a common feature of the religious observances of people throughout Europe, from Russia to Britain. A clearing in a forest, sometimes surrounded by a high palisade, the grove had a central altar, and often, tables where religious feasts took place. Women and children were banned, and foreign speech was not permitted, to avoid offending the gods. Julius Caesar wrote that in his time the sacred groves of some Gallic tribes were scenes of human sacrifice, with the victims placed inside giant wicker cages in the shape of a man. These cages were suspended over a fiery altar, where the victims were burned alive. It seems that this was how first-rank centurions of the 17th, 18th, and 19th Legions died, along with their young tribunes—sons of some of Rome’s finest families, incinerated in cages prepared with relish in advance. The writer and philosopher Seneca, tutor and then chief minister to the emperor Nero, was to write to a friend half a century later, “Remember the Varus disaster? Many a man of the most distinguished ancestry, who was doing his military service as the first step on the road to a seat in the Senate, was brought low by Fortune.” It was a road that came to a fiery end in the Teutoburg Forest.

After celebratory banqueting and thanks to their gods, most of the victorious Germans dispersed. The spoils from the defeated Roman army were borne away, to be divided among the tribes. The legionary prisoners were placed in chains and dragged to towns and villages throughout Germany and Switzerland, to become slaves. Thirteen thousand naked, butchered dead of the three legions were left where they had fallen.

Hermann led several thousand Germans west, to deal with Romans still on their soil. Over the next few days, all the forts but one along the eastern side of the Rhine were overrun. The exception, probably guarding the eastern end of the temporary bridge opposite Cologne, was apparently alerted by a handful of legionaries who’d escaped from the Teutoburg Forest. According to Dio, auxiliaries stationed at this fort included archers, and it was their bowmanship that helped save them. Surrounded by Hermann’s men, the Roman colonel in charge led the fort’s occupants in a breakout on a dark, wet night. It was from this group who escaped across the Rhine that the fate of Varus’s legions became known to the Roman world. As soon as word reached him up the Rhine, Lieutenant General Asprenas rushed down from Mainz with several legions to secure the lower Rhine, immediately destroying the Cologne bridge. Now the Roman troops on the Rhine waited for the next move from the Germans, and the reaction at Rome.

Romans received the news of the Varus disaster with the same shock and disbelief with which the American nation received the news of the Custer disaster at the Battle of the Little Big Horn in 1876. The emperor Augustus was devastated. He didn’t shave for months, mourning the lost legions as if they were his children. Suetonius says that Augustus was often heard to cry, “Quintilius Varus, give me back my legions!”

Eighteenth-century historian Edward Gibbon remarked, “Augustus did not receive the melancholy news with all the temper and firmness that might have been expected from his character.” In fact, if Suetonius is to be believed, Augustus, like many at Rome, reacted with panic, expecting the Germans to now come flooding across the Rhine into Gaul and then Italy. Suetonius says the emperor temporarily dispersed the German Guard, his personal bodyguard unit, to Italian islands, suddenly distrusting all Germans.

To reinforce Tiberius, who was hurrying back to the Rhine from Pannonia with the 14th G.M.V. and several other legions with orders to secure the western bank of the river and make it the Empire’s new northern frontier, Augustus put together a ragtag militia in Italy and sent it scurrying north. But the Romans’ worst fears weren’t realized. As it eventuated, Hermann’s ambitions extended no farther than the Rhine.

Augustus didn’t raise new enlistments to replace the Teutoburg dead. He retired the shamed numbers of the three destroyed legions and left the Roman army at twenty-five legions in all. The Varus disaster, as it became known, was a stinging blow to Roman pride that ranked with Atuatuca and Carrhae. The September day in A.D. 9 when General Varus’s legions ceased to exist would never be forgotten. Nor would the man who stepped forward to take revenge on Hermann.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!