Smoke curled from armorers’ forges. The noise of the camp was a constant din. As far as the eye could see, the pancake-flat Batavian “island” formed on the Dutch coast by the Waal and Meuse where the two rivers coursed to the North Sea was a mass of tents, men, horses, mules, wagons, and equipment. As they marched into the massive staging camp, home to seventy-four thousand troops, the hearts of the men of the 14th G.M.V. would have swollen with pride, and their impatience for combat would have intensified. Since the retirement of its two senior cohorts the 14th numbered some thirty-five hundred men, all now five years into their enlistment, all anxious to see some real action and teach the Germans a lesson.
Through the winter of A.D. 15-16 preparations had been going on for Germanicus’s invasion of Germany. It was to be an amphibious operation. Germanicus had instructed General Silius at Mainz, General Caecina at Cologne, and his engineering officer, General Publius Anteius, to create a fleet of a thousand ships, mostly transports. He’d given them specific requirements—some ships had to be seagoing, with narrow stems and sterns and broad beams. Others were to be flat-bottomed craft that could navigate shallow rivers and be run onto the bank to disgorge troops quickly without damaging the hull, and then be easily refloated. One flotilla was to be equipped with steering oars at both ends, and with reversible rowing positions, so they could change direction in a hurry in narrow waterways. Many were to be decked over, to carry horses, supplies, and artillery. Some were to be warships, up to cruisers of the trireme class. Over the winter and spring, ships had been built by west bank Rhine communities all the way from the North Sea to Switzerland. Forests had been felled for the timber, tens of thousands of locals had been drafted into the Roman navy for the duration of the campaigning season, then trained to row and sail—on dry land, to save time, while their ships were under construction. Now the riverbank around the embarkation point at Utrecht on the lower Rhine was wall-to-wall ships. For months, wagons had rolled up through Gaul bringing grain, weapons, and ammunition for the campaign. Muleteers brought fresh mules north for the baggage trains. From as far away as Spain, horse traders brought remounts needed by the cavalry to make up for the previous year’s losses at Long Bridges and on the North Sea coast.
As spring arrived, Germanicus had sent legion commanders Brigadier Generals Publius Vitellius and Gaius Antius into Gaul to supervise the annual tax collection, as six legions moved down from Cologne and Mainz to the embarkation point. He’d left two legions of the Army of the Upper Rhine at Mainz for the time being, to give the Germans across the Rhine an impression of normality. But as a distraction, he’d sent General Silius across the river with a flying column of cavalry to spear into Chatti territory. While Silius was away, urgent messages had reached Germanicus that Fort Aliso on the Lippe River east of the Rhine was under attack, so Germanicus had led elements from the six legions at Utrecht across the river to its relief. But the Germans pulled out as he approached, so he’d continued east, drawn back to the Teutoburg Forest. Again he visited the site of the Varus disaster, only to find that the Germans had come behind him the previous year and knocked down the barrow he’d raised over the mass grave. This time, conscious of Tiberius’s criticisms, he’d left things as he found them and withdrew.
General Silius, hampered by the inevitable spring rains that swept the region, had only minor success. Coming across a stronghold where Arpus, newly appointed king of the Chatti since the surrender of Segimerus, had hidden his wife and daughter and other members of his household along with his personal wealth, Silius was able to capture the lot, bringing loved ones and loot out of Germany. He’d then brought the two legions, auxiliaries, and cavalry at Mainz downriver to join the invasion force.
Like enlistments before them, as the men of the 14th prepared their equipment for the operation, they would have speculated and wagered about their objective. Some would have tried to assess the significance of the fact that Chariovalda, king of the Batavi tribe, was joining the task force to personally lead the Batavian Horse, most famous of all Rome’s cavalry regiments. Originally a clan of the Chatti, the Batavi had long ago fallen out with their German cousins. Ever since Julius Caesar had discovered the Batavians’ talent for swimming rivers with their horses, in full equipment, they had been an integral part of the Roman army and often were associated with the 14th G.M.V.
Another source of great curiosity to men of the 14th and the other legions of the task force was Colonel Flavus, a commander of German auxiliaries, and Hermann’s brother. A forbidding figure as he strode through the Utrecht camp—he’d lost an eye in Dalmatia in A.D. 9 at the siege of Andetrium, and the wound had severely disfigured his face—he’d served with the Roman army for at least twelve years and was highly decorated for bravery. Like Hermann, Flavus had been given Roman citizenship and membership in the Equestrian Order. Unlike Hermann, he preferred life as a Roman, was happy to be nothing more than a colonel. Wearing the knight’s golden ring on his left hand and now commanding a cavalry unit, a more prestigious position than that of an infantry commander, Flavus seems never to have contemplated deserting to the German cause. The 14th’s campfire generals would already have decided that Germanicus planned to replace Hermann with Flavus once the legions had quashed German resistance.
The rank and file would have noted that the suspect General Apronius was no longer on the Rhine. But in his place, two cohorts of the Praetorian Guard had joined Germanicus in Holland in the spring of A.D. 16. They were experienced men in their early thirties entering the eleventh year of their guard enlistment. Even more arrogant than the legionaries, they would have kept to themselves in camp. The men of the 14th wouldn’t have liked them, would have questioned the need for them here. Germanicus himself seems to have taken the presence of the two thousand Praetorians in his stride. He intended that, under his command, they would not be idle.
Under a hazy summer sky the men of the 14th filed aboard ship with packs on their backs. All told, the task force comprised 28,000 legionaries; 2,000 Praetorians; 30,000 auxiliaries from France, Switzerland, northern Italy, Holland, Spain, and Syria; 6,000 men from allied German tribes; and 8,000 auxiliary cavalry, including 2,000 mounted horse archers. Once the troops were aboard, the thousand-ship convoy put out and made its way northeast through Drusus’s Fosse, a canal built by Germanicus’s father, and onto the broad waters of the Zuider Zee, heading for the North Sea with sails billowing. With the open sea giving the legionaries a fierce greeting, seasickness was rife in the rolling swells. Officers and men alike were grateful when the convoy reached the lower reaches of the Ems River and the invasion force disembarked on the southern bank, where the fleet tied up. Using floating bridges, Germanicus crossed to the northern bank, choosing a campsite in the territory of the Angrivarii, a German tribe with a peace treaty with Rome.
But as Germanicus was marking out the camp, word arrived that the Angrivars had torn up their treaty. So he sent General Stertinius dashing north with a detachment of cavalry under Colonel Flavus and a unit of horse archers. As Angrivar villages burned, Stertinius’s mobile force soon persuaded the tribe to return to the terms of the treaty. General Stertinius’s mission to the Angrivars took him as far as the Weser River, and on reaching the principal town of the tribe, possibly the location that sponsored modern Bremen, on the Weser, forty-three miles from the sea—the Roman Bremum—he was amazed to be told that Hermann himself was on the far bank and wanted to parley.
Stertinius went to the Weser’s southern bank, and sure enough on the opposite side stood Hermann, accompanied by other German leaders and their bodyguards. Tacitus describes what followed—in detail that must have come from General Stertinius.
“Has Germanicus Caesar arrived?” Hermann called across the river in good Latin.
General Stertinius nodded. “Caesar has come,” he confirmed.
“Good,” said Hermann. “We have been expecting him. Is my brother with you?”
“Colonel Flavus is here, yes,” Stertinius replied.
“May I speak with him privately? Will you grant me that privilege, as a prince of my people? It’s many years since we last saw each other, and I hear he was injured. I promised his mother I would try to see for myself that he was in good health.”
Stertinius gave his permission for the meeting, but on strict terms. The brothers were to say what had to be said while standing on the two sides of the river. Both were to be unarmed, on foot, and alone. And they were to converse in Latin, so that Stertinius could monitor all that passed between them. Hermann agreed, but had a condition of his own: Stertinius had to withdraw his archers well back from the river.
Stertinius acceded, then returned to his waiting horsemen and Colonel Flavus.
“Talk to your brother,” the general said to Flavus. “Convince him to surrender. Caesar will pardon him if he lays down his arms now.”
Flavus dismounted, gave his horse to a trooper, stripped off his weapon belts, and removed his helmet, revealing a head of strikingly fair hair—his name means yellow. He then walked tensely to the river’s edge with Stertinius as the archers withdrew. On the other side of the water, Flavus’s brother sent his nervous bodyguards back to join the other leaders some distance away, then came to the river alone, equally unarmed. The brothers hadn’t seen each other in ten years, not since Flavus left the Rhine with Tiberius to put down the Pannonian uprising in A.D. 6. Back then, Hermann was still a colonel of Cheruscan auxiliaries in the Roman army, and Flavus still had the use of two eyes.
“How did you lose your eye, brother?” Hermann began.
Flavus named the place and briefly described the battle.
Hermann nodded. “And what reward did you receive?”
Flavus replied that he’d been awarded a golden crown, a golden torque, and other decorations, and a salary increase.
“A crown, a neck chain, increased pay?” Hermann repeated. “The Romans buy their slaves cheaply these days.”
“If that’s all you had on your mind, we can end this now,” Flavus snapped. “Nothing you can say can change the greatness of Rome, the limitless resources of Caesar, or the dreadful punishment that awaits those who oppose both and lose. As you are going to lose, brother. Believe me, if you fight Rome, you’ll lose.”
“Would you turn your back on your fatherland?” Hermann called. “On your gods, the gods who protect Germany’s homes? On the freedom that’s your ancestral right?”
“Save your breath,” Flavus countered. “It’s not too late for you to surrender. I have influence with Caesar.”
“And it’s not too late for you to join me as ruler of your own people,” said Hermann before lapsing into their native German language.
“Use the Roman tongue,” Flavus said with a snarl, “or none at all.”
Hermann reverted to Latin. “Our mother prays for you every day, as I do, that you’ll cease to be a traitor. How does it feel to be the betrayer of your own people, brother? What mother deserves a traitor for a son? I ask you.”
Flavus’s eyes flashed. “Leave our mother out of this.”
“She prays you’ll see sense.”
Flavus was becoming increasingly angry. “Surrender now. Caesar will forgive you. Caesar is merciful.”
“Ha!” Hermann scornfully replied. “Pray that your mother is as forgiving.”
“Germanicus Caesar didn’t hesitate to show mercy to your wife and son,” Flavus spat. He saw the look of surprise on Hermann’s face and smiled. “You didn’t know? Yes, little brother, you have a son. Born at Ravenna. Born a Roman. A son you will never see if you die a deserter’s death, with your severed head lying at your feet!”
Now Hermann’s sore spot was exposed. “You pitiful specimen! You don’t have the courage to stand up for your own people. Coward!”
“I’ll show you who’s a coward! Come over here and say that.”
General Stertinius stepped up to Flavus and put a hand on his shoulder. “This is achieving nothing,” he said. “Come away, Flavus.”
Flavus angrily pushed the general’s hand aside and turned to the cavalrymen standing a little way off. “Bring my horse! Bring my weapons!” he yelled.
Stertinius shook his head. “No! Enough.” He guided the fuming Flavus back to their men. Behind them, Hermann remained at the water’s edge, yelling insults after them and challenging his brother to fight. The general ordered Flavus to go, and detailed troopers to accompany him and make sure he didn’t divert back to the river. Stertinius watched Flavus mount up and angrily ride away to the south, joining the waiting cavalry and archers, before he himself saddled up and followed with his escort.
As the Romans rode off, Stertinius would have cast a backward glance across the river. Hermann was still standing there, hands on his hips, glaring at them as they went.
After General Stertinius rejoined the main task force, Germanicus sent him with a large part of his cavalry to probe across the river and determine German dispositions. Stertinius split his mounted force into three groups commanded by himself; a first-rank centurion from the legions named Aemilius; and Chariovalda, king of the Batavians.
As King Chariovalda and his men penetrated deep into Germany, Cheruscans appeared at their front, then turned and fled. The king and his nobles eagerly gave chase, as if taking part in a wild boar hunt. Behind, the regular Batavian cavalry struggled to keep up and maintain formation. Suddenly Cheruscan warriors appeared from the trees to their rear and on either side of them. It was a trap. Now, too, the Germans the Batavians had been pursuing turned and charged. Chariovalda found himself fighting for his life.
Messengers from Chariovalda found Stertinius and Aemilius, and as they came to the rescue, the Cheruscans dispersed into the forest. But help arrived too late. Unhorsed, isolated from the regular cavalry, Chariovalda and the nobles with him had been filled with darts. In contrast, most of the Batavian troopers kept their discipline and their lives.
There would have been much celebration around German campfires that night. The Batavians had long been considered sellouts by other German tribes, and now their leaders had paid the price of collaboration. What was more, Germanicus Caesar had been stung. Many Germans took it as proof that he could be beaten.
As Germanicus advanced east with his main force and crossed the Weser, a German deserter came to him saying that Hermann was assembling an army farther to the south, in the Great Forest, a place sacred to Donar, the German Hercules. According to the deserter, Hermann was readying for a full-scale battle. Hermann, he said, had even chosen a battle site, beside the Weser. This information tallied with reports from Germanicus’s scouts, who’d spotted campfires in the Great Forest and had heard the neighing of horses and the hum of thousands of voices on the chilly night air. Germanicus turned south, and set up camp several miles to the north of the Great Forest.
Germanicus himself was ready to take on Hermann, and his officers assured him the men were keen for battle. But he knew that tribunes and centurions tended to report what their commander wanted to hear. So that evening he pulled on a hooded camp follower’s fur cloak that disguised his uniform and rank, and slipped out the back of his headquarters tent. Then, with just a lone, similarly disguised staff officer for company, he wandered around the streets of his huge camp at suppertime. Every now and then the general would pause at a row of tents and listen to the conversations around campfires. At every turn, he heard legionaries praise their general and express their determination to serve him well and repay the Germans for what they had done to Varus and his legions. Just as Germanicus was about to call it a night, he heard a voice calling from outside the camp walls. The general and his companion joined men who hurried to the ramparts, to see a bold German sitting astride a horse the other side of the entrenchments.
“In the name of Arminius, I promise rewards for all who come over to the German side,” Tacitus says the horseman called in Latin. “To every man who changes sides, a German wife, a plot of land, and 100 sesterces a day for as long as this war lasts, if you give Arminius your loyalty.”
“Don’t insult our intelligence,” came the voice of a legionary, perhaps a soldier of the 14th G.M.V. “Let daylight come, let battle be given! Then we’ll take your land and carry off your wives!”
The men on the ramparts roared with laughter and chorused their agreement.
“This is a good omen, comrades,” a legionary near the general declared. “The women and the lands of Germany are ours for the taking.”
The horseman rode back into the night, followed by the jeers of the legionaries, his mission an abject failure. And Germanicus went to his bed secure in the knowledge that his troops were in the right frame of mind for what lay ahead.
According to Tacitus, that night Germanicus dreamed he was sacrificing a goat—Roman commanding generals customarily sacrificed to Mars prior to battle to ensure good omens. In the dream, blood sprinkled on his robe. Turning, he saw his grandmother Julia Augusta, who handed him a more splendid robe. He awoke convinced this was an omen of victory, that this was the day for battle. He would have shared both dream and conviction with his army at assembly that morning. Even as his troops received their orders, cavalry scouts were out, watching the German forces camped in the forest.
The place chosen by Hermann for the contest was just east of the Weser River on a plain named Idistaviso. The plain lay between ranges of low hills, with the Weser winding across it. The Great Forest ran along the eastern fringe of the plain, its trees so tall that their branches began way above head height. Grassland extended from the trees two miles to the Weser, rising up in the middle to gentle hills. On this summer morning, a breeze washed gently across the grass. All was peace and serenity. But then there was a sudden scattering of birds in the trees. Fifty thousand German tribesmen spilled from the forest and spread like locusts across the plain from the trees to the river.
Most German warriors wore neither armor nor helmet. They carried flat shields made of layers of thin boards painted with tribal motifs or of woven willow. Their twelve-foot spears quivered as the warriors ran excitedly to take up the positions their leaders had agreed on. The Germans had no unit organization like the armies of Rome. Each tribe had its clans, and each man formed up with his clan in his tribal group. As usual, the tallest men filled the front line—men of massive stature, according to Tacitus. Hermann and his Cheruscans occupied the high ground in the center of the plain. With Hermann, mounted, like his nephew, was Inguiomerus, who’d recovered sufficiently from the wounds he’d received at Long Bridges to join the fight.
Other tribes occupied the flanks, with some warriors lurking in the trees at the forest’s edge. Most of the other tribes are unidentified, but after the encounters of the past two years they would have included Arpus and his Chatti, Mallovendus and the remnants of the Marsi, as well as the Fosi, Usipetes, Tubantes, and Bructeri. The Cauchi from the south, who’d taken one of the eagles captured in the Teutoburg, were probably here. And young Angrivars, in defiance of their tribe’s leaders and the latest treaty with Rome. Probably, Tenctheri and Mattiaci from the Rhinelands opposite Cologne were here, and Langobardi and Ampsivarii from just to the north, along the Weser and Hunte Rivers.
This was the largest concentration of German warriors since the famous victory over Varus and his legions. Hermann’s army was more than double the size of the force that had defeated Varus. The Germans’ spies had told them that Germanicus had fewer than thirty thousand legionaries with him. Discounting the auxiliaries as inferior and liable to run, and hoping Germans in the Roman lines would desert rather than fight their own countrymen, the German leaders were expecting to repeat the outcome of the Teutoburg Forest.
Now, mounted German scouts warned that the Roman army was approaching.
The legionaries of the 14th Gemina Martia Victrix Legion marched in perfect unison at the middle of the long Roman column. Apart from the sound of tramping feet, the rattle of equipment, and the occasional neighing of horses, there wasn’t a sound from the Roman army as it came down the river ten men abreast. They’d been on the move for close to two and one-half hours, following the Weser from their overnight camp to the planned battle site.
The column was led by German and Gallic auxiliaries and foot archers. The four legions of the Army of the Lower Rhine came next. Behind them came Germanicus himself, with his staff, all on horseback. He was wearing his best helmet and armored cuirass, gold-plated and glimmering in the morning sun. A narrow red sash ran around his torso, just below his chest. Tied in an ornamental bow in the middle, it was the ensign of a Roman general. The rich purple cloak of a commander in chief trailed from his shoulders, flowing onto the back of his horse. His personal standard-bearer came close behind, holding high his square standard of purple cloth decorated with twelve golden fasces. Behind him rode Germanicus’s personal trumpeter and the picked cavalry of the field marshal’s bodyguard. The two cohorts of the Praetorian Guard assigned to him marched immediately behind.
Then came the 14th G.M.V. and the other three legions of the Army of the Upper Rhine, followed by the mounted archers, with the last of the auxiliaries and German allies forming the rear guard. The massed cavalry rode along the left flank of the column, to protect the infantry against attack from the trees. Baggage train and backpacks had been left at the camp with a guard of auxiliaries.
Fourteenth Legion men heard the Germans before they saw them—a hubbub of fifty thousand expectant voices, like a football crowd just before the kickoff. As they rounded a bend in the river, in step and in battle order, the 14th Legion caught sight of the Cheruscans milling all over the low grassy hills ahead, then saw the rest of the German warriors spread from one side of the river plain to the other in their path. Now, like an ancient precursor of the Mexican wave, twelve-foot spears that had till then been pointing skyward came down to the horizontal in sequence. The spears of rank after rank protruded over shoulders and out into the open in front of the German army like porcupine quills.
“Signal ‘Extend,’” Germanicus ordered. His personal trumpeter sounded a trumpet call. His standard gave the same signal, perhaps rising and falling.
In concert with those of the other legions, the trumpets of the 14th Legion’s eight cohorts sounded “Extend into Battle Lines.” The legion’s eagle, proudly sported by the 3rd Cohort since the 1st had been allowed to retire, and the standards of cohorts and maniples all inclined to one side. Without breaking step, the ranks of the 14th peeled away and formed up in deep formation in the army’s third line. They had been assigned their battle positions back in camp at dawn, when Daily Orders had been announced. The men of the 14th and those of the legions ahead of and around them knew exactly where to go and what to do as they spread into three battle lines.
The legionaries could see, ahead, up on the hill, Cheruscans turning to their commander, calling urgently to him and waving their weapons around. The Roman troops had no idea what the Germans were saying, but even as they were dressing their ranks they could see great agitation up there on the hill.
Hermann had in fact instructed his Cheruscans to wait until he gave the word for them to attack, planning to hold his people back while the other tribes engaged the Romans before sweeping down off the hill to carry the battle by overrunning the embattled legions. That plan was about to go to Hades in a handbasket—Hermann’s keyed-up tribesmen were chafing at being held back, were yelling to their leader that they should attack now, before the Romans had completed their battle formations. Some older Germans in the ranks who had participated in the defeat of Varus seven years earlier would now have reflected that this disciplined, well-led Roman army bore no resemblance to the comparative rabble that had fallen to them in the Teutoburg Forest. But the youngsters, the firebrands, only saw Roman invaders and booty. And they jumped the gun. Against orders, first in their tens, then in their hundreds, then in their thousands, young Cheruscans lost patience and streamed down the slope toward the Romans with quivering spears at the ready, yelling at the top of their lungs. Hermann and his subchiefs tried to call them back, but it was too late. The rest of the tribesmen on the plain joined in. A wall of German warriors surged over the grass like the waters of a dam that had broken. A great deal now took place in seconds and minutes. From their position in the third line, the men of the 14th G.M.V. were able to see it all unfold.
General Stertinius had joined Germanicus, who, unfazed by the sight or the roar of the approaching horde, calmly turned to his cavalry commander. There was no need for detailed instructions; they had previously agreed on a tactical maneuver for this moment. Elite mounted units had already been separated from the rest of the cavalry, and every trooper had been given his instructions for the day.
“Go now, Stertinius!” Germanicus ordered. “I’ll come up with the infantry in good time to support you.”
General Stertinius nodded. He spurred his horse forward. Followed by his escort and trumpeter, and with his scarlet general’s cloak flowing behind him, the cavalry commander galloped along his ranks of troopers, heading for the front and the Germans. It was nine o’clock in the morning, and the Battle of Idistaviso had begun. Now, 124,000 men would try to kill each other.
The Roman front line was composed of the leading auxiliaries. After a gap came the second line, made up of the four A.L.R. legions, with Germanicus and the two Praetorian cohorts in the middle. Behind this stood the third line, with the 14th G.M.V. and its brother legions of the A.U.R. in the middle and auxiliaries on the wings. Three battle lines, eight legions—the 1st, the 5th Alaudae, the 20th Valeria Victrix, the 21st Rapax, the 14th Gemina Martia Victrix, the 2nd Augusta, the 13th Gemina, the 16th Gallica. Now they waited for the onrushing Germans. Stock still, like statues, the sun glinting on their standards and the military decorations they had put on before they left camp. The yellow horsehair plumes on their helmets wafted in the breeze. This would be one of the last times that Roman legionaries wore plumes in battle; before long, plumes would be relegated to parade use only. The legionaries looked identical, their faces masked by their helmets and cheek guards. Same uniforms, same equipment. Only the motifs on shields varied from one formation to another: the legion emblems of Pegasus the flying horse of the 2nd Augusta; the eagle, boar, bull, and ram of other units; and the lightning bolts of the 14th G.M.V.
As General Stertinius reached the front of the cavalry column he nodded to his trumpeter, who sounded the “Charge.” The signal was taken up by the trumpeters of individual wings. Letting out an exultant cry, upward of six thousand cavalrymen spurred their mounts forward to follow their commander. With a deafening pounding of hooves, the Roman cavalry formations swept along the tree line.
At this moment, one of the Germanicus’s aides pointed to the sky. “Look, Caesar!” he called.
Germanicus looked up, as did everyone around him. Eight large birds were just then flying overhead. They were eagles. One for each of Germanicus’s legions. As the Romans watched, the birds dipped toward the forest. It was an omen too good to ignore. Germanicus smiled. “Go!” he called to his troops. “Follow the Roman birds, the true deities of our legions.” He ordered his trumpeter to signal the front line to charge.
As Germanicus’s purple standard inclined forward in a slow arc to the near horizontal, the general’s trumpeter blew the “Charge.” The call was taken up and repeated by the trumpets of the front-line auxiliary cohorts. The air filled with the metallic notes. And with a throaty, determined roar, the Roman frontline light infantry surged forward.
Up on the hill, surrounded by mounted bodyguards and Cheruscan subchiefs, a furious Hermann cursed as his men ran to the attack. Knowing he had no alternative but to try to carry the day, despite the fact that his initial strategy had fallen in a heap, he urged his horse forward. With long hair flying, he galloped down the slope, heading toward the right wing, by the trees, the business wing of any battle, overtaking his running warriors. To his rear, his startled uncle and other companions galloped after him.
Immediately behind the charging Roman front line stood archers—Syrians, most likely, with pointy-topped helmets and fish-scale armor. On the order “Loose!” they let fly. The sky darkened over the mass of running Germans, and then hundreds of arrows fell among them. Germans tried to fend off the missiles with shields, but here and there screaming men fell with arrows embedded in eyes, cheeks, and throats, to be trampled by those behind them. Again the archers fired, and again. The Germans kept coming, and with a roar drove into the charging Roman auxiliary light infantry, many of them pushing through to the hapless archers, who had to discard bows and reach for swords.
In the midst of the fighting on the German right, Hermann felt searing pain. A lead pellet from a Spanish slinger had glanced off his skull. Blood ran down his face. Ignoring the wound, he rode into the nearest archers and began slicing them to pieces with his spatha, a cavalry broadsword. The bareheaded, bloodied, thirtyish rider in expensive Roman armor yelled instructions and encouragement to his countrymen as he drove through the archers. He came on to a solid wall of oval shields of auxiliary light infantry directly behind the archers.
Hermann had spent enough time in the Roman army to recognize the shield motifs of the auxiliaries opposing him: Gauls; Vendelici; Rhaeti from Switzerland; and Ampsivarii Germans led by Boiocalus, his former captive and since the Varus disaster a loyal subordinate of Tiberius and Germanicus. And, to his dismay, Chauci Germans from the North Sea coast, tribesmen who had fought alongside him at the Teutoburg Forest, but who had now allied themselves with Germanicus. With a sinking heart he swung his sword at heads and shields and arms, urging his men all around him to superhuman efforts.
As Hermann was engaged at the front line, the Roman cavalry pounding along the eastern flank of the battlefield had driven Germans at the edge of the forest out into the open to escape their drive. Now, as he galloped along beside the trees, General Stertinius put his right arm out horizontally, pointing to the massed ranks of the Germans on the plain. Behind him, preselected cavalry units, probably led by Colonel Pedo, wheeled away from the main formation, turning sharply to their right, and charged into the flank of the German army.
Stertinius continued on with the remainder of the cavalry. Once he’d passed the last ranks of the German concentration he, too, turned right. His force followed suit, curving around, into the German rear. As this occurred, legion trumpets sang another signal. Germanicus was moving forward with his second line, the initial legion line. So far, the Germans had only managed to come to grips with light infantry, archers, and slingers ahead of the legion lines. With Germanicus’s frontline auxiliaries holding, just, his legions were moving up in support. The 14th G.M.V. and the other legions of the third line had yet to be engaged. As the men of the 14th stood waiting for their call to action, they saw a cloud of dust rise up behind the Germans—a sure sign that General Stertinius and his cavalry were plowing into the enemy rear.
At this point the German attack began to falter. Those tribesmen who had been at the timberline and who had run into the plain to escape the flanking maneuver of the cavalry had crushed in on their own people. The Germans in the plain, seeing the main cavalry force in their rear, tried to run to the trees to escape. Everywhere, Germans ran into each other or into Roman cavalry. There was no coordination, no direction, no plan. Panic set in. Self-preservation became the order of the day.
Hermann looked around and saw, shortly after its commencement, that the battle was already lost. Behind the frontline fighting, Germans were running blindly all over the battlefield with looks of terror in their eyes, throwing away their cumbersome weapons. Some, repulsed by the Roman cavalry as they tried to reach the trees, turned and fled to the Weser, flinging themselves into the river as troopers galloped after them. Reinforced by four legions, the Roman front line bulldozed forward. Pushing aside the huge German spears, legionaries forged in for close combat. The German line gave way.
Hermann knew that if he was going to save himself, now was the time. Using the blood running from his scalp wound, he smeared his face to disguise himself. To his right he saw the shields of the advancing Chauci German auxiliaries, saw that Germanicus’s legionaries had yet to link up with them, and he had a desperate idea. He looked around, and saw Inguiomerus close by. “This way, Uncle!” Hermann called, riding toward the Chauci shields, and Inguiomerus urged his horse to follow. “In the name of our German gods and our German fatherland,” Hermann yelled, “make way for the chief of the Cherusci, brothers.”
A gap opened up in the Chauci line, and Hermann slipped his horse through it, then swung toward the trees. Inguiomerus and other chieftains quickly followed. The gap closed, the Chauci auxiliaries continued their advance. As Roman javelins began to fly in their direction, the German chiefs hugged the necks of their steeds and escaped into the trees. Behind them, their men, trapped between river, rampaging cavalry, and advancing infantry, were being mowed down like long grass. As any semblance of organized German resistance dissolved, the third-line legions were called up by Germanicus. Trumpets sang, and in step the 14th G.M.V. and its three fellow A.U.R. legions moved in for the kill.
Estimates of how many Germans died at the Battle of Idistaviso range between ten thousand and forty thousand. Tacitus says that Germanicus’s army was still killing Germans by the time the sun went down. The men of the 14th and the other legions were given permission to pursue the enemy as far as it took to eliminate them.
Bodies covered the countryside for ten miles around the battlefield. Corpses floated downriver like logjams—Germans who jumped into the Weser to escape were impaled with javelins or arrows from the shore or dragged under by the strong current. At one point, hundreds of tribesmen who crowded beside the Weser and tried to make a stand drowned when the riverbank gave way under them.
Other Germans climbed trees in the Great Forest, hoping to come down after dark and slip away. When these fugitives were spotted, Roman archers were brought up. The demise of the tree-climbers became a sport. Laughter echoed through the forest as bets were laid on each shot by bowmen looking for revenge for the loss of friends in the battle—Germanicus’s few fatalities had mostly been among his frontline archers. Other tree-climbers too high or too well screened to be brought down by missiles were eliminated by chopping down their trees. Even if they were to survive a fall from one hundred feet or so there were plenty of Roman troops waiting on the ground to cut their throats for them.
In the Great Forest, too, Germanicus’s troops found piles of handcuffs and leg irons left by the Germans. Prisoners told them these had been intended for use on the Romans when they surrendered after the defeat of Germanicus, in the same way that Varus’s few surviving rank and file had been chained up and led away to slavery.
While Roman troops were piling up captured German weapons to form a giant trophy, Mallovendus, king of the Marsi, came humbly to Germanicus and surrendered. He was a broken man after the reverses suffered by his tribe over the past two years. Germanicus granted him his life but kept him handy. He had a hunch the king might prove useful in the near future, for, to Germanicus’s frustration, Hermann had evaded capture. And Germanicus was determined to hunt him down.