XVIII

WRECKED

Years before, when the Angrivarii were at war with the Cherusci, the Angrivarii had built a massive earth barrier to separate the two tribes. To reach the barrier, it was necessary to pass through a forest between narrow hills. A small plain extended from the forest to the barrier, marshland spread directly behind it, and the Weser River was to one side. At the Angrivar Barrier, Hermann declared, he would have his revenge on the Romans.

In the days since the disaster at the hands of Germanicus at Idistaviso, the Angrivars had welcomed fugitives from the battle, again disregarding their treaty with Rome. And as Germanicus Caesar’s Roman army advanced along the Weser, thousands of Germans flocked to the barrier—the Angrivars, as well as survivors who had fled from Idistaviso, and other tribesmen who had arrived to join the resistance since.

Since Idistaviso, another deserter had come to Germanicus with information. He told the Roman commander that Hermann was hiding out at the Angrivar Barrier, and offered to lead him there. Again Germanicus opted to go with a defector’s story. He had good reason to—the informant soon confessed that he’d been sent by Hermann to lure the Romans to the Angrivar Barrier. And he told Germanicus of Hermann’s plan for a trap not unlike the ambush in the Teutoburg seven years before. The value of good intelligence can never be overstated. As Germanicus’s legions came up the Weser, their commanders knew precisely what Hermann had in mind.

Hermann had assembled several thousand mounted warriors—numbers of his horsemen at Idistaviso had managed to escape, and tribes to the north had provided more. As Germanicus approached the Angrivar Barrier with his eight legions, Hermann hid his cavalry in the woods some distance away. He planned to allow the Roman army to march into the forest and approach the barrier, then close the door on it by bringing his cavalry up from behind. Infantry would then attack from the barrier. Sandwiched between the two German forces, the Roman army would be trapped in the forest, just as Varus had been, and the Germans would wipe them out in the same way. It was a good plan, far superior to the loose and overconfident battle strategy devised for Idistaviso. And had it not been for the double agent, it may have worked.

Roman cavalry rode away from Germanicus’s column as it approached the barrier. But this time, General Stertinius wasn’t in command. It seems that General Seius Tubero, Germanicus’s chief of staff, complained that he hadn’t been given a chance for glory, that he was being kept out of the action. Germanicus knew how friendly Tubero was with the emperor and decided it would be politic to give Tubero a command for this operation. General Tubero led the cavalry off with orders to skirt around the concealed German horsemen and surprise them in their forest hiding place with an attack from their rear.

Meanwhile, Germanicus divided his infantry. One force, probably of four legions, including the 14th G.M.V. and the other A.U.R. units under General Silius, was to advance on the barrier through the forest, as if marching into the trap. Germanicus would personally lead the second division, of four legions plus the two Praetorian Guard cohorts, through the hills to the barrier. The force assigned to the forest met light resistance in the trees, and pushed through to the plain beyond, forming up and preparing to make a frontal attack on the barrier in full view of the thousands of German defenders manning it. Meanwhile, Germanicus and the second division made their way unnoticed along the hillsides, before launching a flanking attack against the surprised Germans on the barrier. Overcoming their shock, the Germans put up a hot defense, raining rocks and other missiles down on the legionaries. Devoid of scaling ladders or sophisticated siege equipment, Germanicus pulled back Then, while his slingers kept the Germans’ heads down, he had his light artillery brought up—as many as four hundred scorpions. General Anteius’s quick-firing catapults dropped any German who dared show his face above the rampart, and defenders were soon hunkering down below the horrendous barrage of flying bolts.

Germanicus announced that he would personally lead a renewed assault involving all eight legions. But before he gave the signal for the assault to begin, he handed his helmet to an aide. He would go into action bareheaded, so his troops would recognize him. He wanted his men to know he didn’t expect them to go anywhere he wasn’t prepared to go himself. He also wanted to be sure that in the heat of battle no Praetorian Guards-man put a sword in him with the excuse of mistaken identity, for he was going in at the head of the Praetorians, putting their vaunted reputation and arrogant self-confidence as Rome’s highest-paid, most elite troops to the test.

With the last artillery volley slicing through the air on the command of “Shoot!” Germanicus, accompanied by the two thousand Praetorians, charged the barrier and started climbing. The men of the 14th G.M.V. and the other legions were close behind.

As the Romans reached the top of the bank they found the Germans lined up on the far side, waiting to repulse the attack. With their usual bloodcurdling war cries, the tribesmen surged onto Germanicus and his men. The fighting was intense. Hand-to-hand combat went on for hours. Germanicus recognized Inguiomerus flying from one part of the battle to another during the afternoon, striving to direct the German defense. But Germanicus never caught sight of the Cheruscan’s nephew, leading him to assume that Hermann was heading the German cavalry force lurking in the distant forest.

In the end, weight of numbers told. Outnumbering their opponents, Roman troops eventually drove the Germans back from the barrier as more and more legionaries scaled the bank and joined their general. Pushed into woods, the Germans were trapped with their backs to the marsh. The men of the 14th and the other legions formed tight formations in the confined space, and with their shields pressed against their chests they struck overarm at the Germans’ faces, as if their swords were huge daggers. As the Germans stood their ground, the legionaries stuck to their task for hours in the grueling, bloody contest.

“No prisoners!” Tacitus says Germanicus yelled. “Take no prisoners!”

The 14th G.M.V.’s centurions repeated the order. “No prisoners, boys!”

Late in the day, Germanicus ordered one legion to withdraw to the plain and entrench a night camp for the entire army. At nightfall, the killing stopped. The Germans had been dislodged from the barrier and slaughtered in their thousands in the woods. Under the welcome veil of darkness, surviving tribesmen fled for their lives. Their leader, Inguiomerus, also escaped. But the Battle of the Angrivar Barrier was his last hurrah—Inguiomerus wanted no more of fighting Romans, and went into hiding.

Germanicus withdrew his army to its camp. There, that night, he was joined by General Tubero and the Roman cavalry. Germanicus expected to hear that the cavalry had been as successful as his legions, and that Hermann was either dead or a prisoner. But he was disappointed. General Tubero had botched the cavalry operation.

All had begun well enough; Tubero had located the German cavalry just where the double agent had indicated. The Germans could have been led by Hermann himself; we don’t know. Certainly, Tubero prevented the Germans from attacking Germanicus in the rear. But after some indecisive skirmishing he’d allowed the opposition cavalry to escape virtually unscathed. Had Tubero deliberately fouled up? Did he set out to ensure that Germanicus didn’t have the glory of taking or killing Hermann, which would have enhanced his already superstar image with the Roman public? Or was he simply inept?

Unimpressed by Tubero’s performance, Germanicus promptly gave command of the cavalry back to General Stertinius. Then, after forming a giant mound of German shields, swords, and spears, dedicating it to Mars, Jupiter, and Augustus, he sent Stertinius and the cavalry against the towns and villages of the flip-flopping Angrivars. The Angrivars soon threw down their weapons, surrendering unconditionally, and were grateful when Germanicus agreed to readmit them to the Roman fold as allies.

It now being the height of summer, Germanicus reluctantly conceded he wasn’t going to lay his hands on Hermann. Not this year, anyway. He ordered a withdrawal back to base. Conscious of the storms that hit the North Sea coast of Germany and Holland at this time of year, Germanicus detached two legions and sent them back to the Rhine via the overland route. As it turned out, they were the lucky ones.

Green from seasickness, vomiting over themselves and each other, drenched from waves crashing over their ships, anxious legionaries of the 14th Gemina Martia Victrix tried to help steersmen and oarsmen maintain way in the monstrous seas, but their inexperience as seamen only meant that they got in the way.

The sky had turned black once the fleet reached the open sea; then a stinging hailstorm hit. The wind howled, the sea boiled, visibility was zero. Ships had difficulty staying together. For a time the wind shifted to the south, driving the fleet back the way it had come. Then the wind swung about and bore down from the northeast. As cold as ice and too strong to resist, it pushed part of the fleet toward rocky Frisian Islands shorelines. Other ships, including those carrying the 14th G.M.V., were driven way out to sea.

The legionaries of the 14th were bailing feverishly. All their transports were taking water. Spectacular engineers on land they may be, but the Romans built ships that leaked like sieves and had to be constantly caulked. Now, apart from the normal leaks their crews had to live with, the ships returning from Germany were being filled by the waves crashing over them. Even with all hands bailing there was no guarantee that a ship was going to stay afloat. On every vessel, anything that wasn’t essential was jettisoned—wagons, artillery, personal belongings, baggage mules, cavalry horses. If it wasn’t battened down or couldn’t say “Hail, Caesar!” it went over the side.

Even so, some ships went under. Others were wrecked along the German coast and on the Frisians. Several 14th Legion transports were blown all the way to Britain. Coming ashore there ready to fight for their lives, legionaries were taken in by British tribesmen and given food and shelter. Most of the legion’s vessels were driven back up the German coast, some as far as Jutland. Their commander in chief was traveling in a big cruiser of the trireme class (with three banks of oars); Germanicus’s flagship managed to find shelter in a cove on the Chauci coast between the Weser and the Ems.

The storm passed. Blue sky appeared. At Germanicus’s anchorage, there wasn’t another vessel in sight. Going ashore in a ship’s boat, Germanicus stood for days on a promontory looking anxiously out to sea, blaming himself for this disaster, praying that he would soon see survivors. Eventually, ships began to appear—a few at first, then more with each passing hour, until the cove was crowded with craft riding at anchor or drawn up on the shore. Most ships had lost oars, some had lost crewmen overboard. Many craft had repaired ripped sails with the clothing of soldiers and crew. Some had to be towed in by others. As his grateful soldiers came ashore and camped on dry land, Germanicus had ships repaired, made up full crews from survivors, and sent them around the islands looking for shipwrecked soldiers and sailors. Large numbers were subsequently brought to safety.

Germanicus sailed back to the Rhine with the reduced fleet, his battered, leaky ships overloaded with men now, to find that the rumor had spread throughout Germany and Gaul, and inevitably to Rome, that the entire fleet had been lost. Ships of the scattered convoy continued to limp into Utrecht for weeks. To their credit, the Angrivars showed their renewed loyalty by ransoming shipwrecked Romans from German tribes farther up the coast and returning them to Germanicus.

The men of the 14th who’d been washed up on England’s shores were shipped back across the North Sea by British chiefs friendly to Rome—in remembrance, they said, of treaties their ancestors had signed with Julius Caesar seventy years before. As the legionaries of the 14th G.M.V. came back from Britain, gossip would have begun to spread around other units. The 14th’s old reputation would have been resurrected by superstitious old hands with other legions—the unlucky 14th Legion; the bad-luck 14th. After all, the 14th had been just one of two legions caught up in the flood on the North Sea coast with General Vitellius; then it was swept all the way to Britain. Maybe the 14th was still a pariah legion, said the men of other legions. Angry legionaries of the G.M.V. countered with eye-popping stories of how in Britain they’d encountered and overcome sea monsters and mermaids, weird birds and creatures that were half man, half beast. The stories, in the telling and the retelling, became more and more fantastic. They seemed to effectively dampen the stories of the legion’s unfortunate past. Before long, the men of the 14th would have begun to believe the tales themselves.

As the soggy legions marched back to their winter bases the length of the Rhine, and as Germanicus was reunited with his relieved wife, Agrippina, at Utrecht, word reached him that some German tribes were talking about launching attacks across the Rhine now that Germanicus and his army were sleeping with the fishes. He would show them who was sleeping with the fishes! The men of the 14th had hardly reached their base at Mainz when orders arrived for another operation in Germany.

Leading thirty thousand legionaries and auxiliaries and three thousand cavalry from the Army of the Upper Rhine, including the men of the 14th G.M.V., Lieutenant General Silius crossed the Rhine from Mainz for a raid against the Chatti. Simultaneously, Germanicus used the usual crossing point at Xanten, taking an army at least forty thousand strong from the Army of the Lower Rhine and spearing into Marsi territory. Germanicus took along surrendered Marsi king Mallovendus as his guide, and as they marched into his home territory the king pointed out a wood in which, he said, one of the lost eagles of Varus’s legions was buried, guarded by only a small band of warriors. Germanicus sent one force to attack the Marsi guards from the front, and another to slip around to the rear to dig up the eagle. The eagle was recovered, although to which legion it belonged we aren’t told. A monument was built at Rome later in the year to celebrate and commemorate Germanicus’s recovery of two of Varus’s lost eagles. The last of Varus’s three eagles would be recovered from the Cauchi Germans twenty-five years later, in an A.D. 41 punitive expedition by the Army of the Upper Rhine led by Lieutenant General Publius Gabinius, who would be granted the title Cauchius by a grateful emperor for retrieving the lost eagle from the Cauchi.

As Germanicus drove east in the late summer of A.D. 16, German prisoners taken over these days told him that their countrymen were now in awe of him and his legions, having believed they’d all been lost at sea. The Romans, they were now convinced, were supermen. After several days, Germanicus, General Silius, and their supermen withdrew. This, at last, was the end to the A.D. 16 campaigning season.

When the weary legionaries of the 14th Gemina Martia Victrix sagged into their beds back at their winter quarters at Mainz, their centurions informed them that Germanicus Caesar would again make up for all equipment and personal belongings they had lost, again from his own purse. What was more, Germanicus had instructed the centurions not to bother checking the claims—he would trust his men to be honest with him. As the legionaries cheerfully began compiling their claim lists, the barracks talk would have been of one final campaign in Germany the next year. This time, said the men of the 14th, they would do Germanicus proud and bring Hermann back in chains!

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