Chapter 4

Up Against the Angrivarian Wall

15–16 CE

Settling Old Scores

Ovid’s poetic prediction came true.¹ For his achievements, Germanicus was accorded the public honour of a triumph, with all its pomp and circumstance – that, despite the fact that the war in Germania was technically still going on and not yet officially won.² An arch of marble was voted for Germanicus, and ground breaking began for it shortly thereafter.³ Having proved his ability to keep his cool in a crisis, his brother Drusus was also rewarded with the consulship in 15 CE, fusing his name to the Roman calendar year along with that of C. Norbanus Flaccus. It was a very fine way for the young Caesars to start the year.

Germanicus’ love for Agrippina continued to flourish and, in January or February, his next child was conceived. But duty came first and he soon returned to Ara Ubiorum. Uppermost in the governor’s mind was ensuring border security and the loyalty of the army. Across the river from Fort Mogontiacum, the Chatti – or Catti or Catthi – represented an ever-present threat. They had become well known to the Romans during Germanicus’ father’s campaigns in 11 and 10 BCE. Strabo’s account is the earliest surviving written source we have that describes these Germanic people. He located them in the mountains and valleys of the Elder, Fulda and the upper reaches of the Weser rivers, in what is now modern Hessen. The best account of the Chatti, however, is preserved in Tacitus’ Germania. He calls them ‘the children of the Hercynian Forest’ and describes them as ‘distinguished beyond their fellows by their singularly hardy frames, well-knit limbs, resolute eyes and by a remarkable energy of spirit’. Unlike most of their neighbours, who eschewed urban living, the Chatti established at least one urbanized settlement called Mattium (near modern Kassel) located in the defensible Taunus Mountains. Despite their status as barbarians in Roman eyes, Tacitus was struck by the similarities between the Chatti and his own countrymen. In common with the highly-organized Roman army, ‘their whole strength is in foot soldiers’ (plate 16), he writes, ‘who, besides carrying their arms, are loaded with tools and supplies’. As the legions did, they posted pickets by day and dug ditches around their camps at night. Also, like the legions following their propraetores (ex-consuls), the Chatti obeyed the orders of their leaders, whom they elected; and they fought in formations, which they kept in the heat of battle. Unlike their barbarian neighbours, who ‘came out for a single battle’, the Chatti engaged in campaigns, and:

seldom make mere raids or allow themselves to be drawn into a casual encounter: it is cavalry, to be sure, from which one expects a quick success or a quick retreat; speed goes with timidity, slowness is more allied to steadiness.

The Chatti were an opponent the Romans could understand.

In April or May, Germanicus launched a two-pronged attack against the Chatti nation (map 6).¹ He ordered Caecina to lead an expeditionary force of four legions and 5,000 auxilia, ‘with some hastily raised levies from the Germans dwelling on the left bank of the Rhine’ – probably the Cugerni, Treveri and Ubii.¹¹ At the same time, Germanicus himself led a force of as many legions, but took with him twice as many allies, among them cohorts of Gauls, Raeti and Vindelici.¹² The advance through German territory was swift. In the Taunus Mountains forward scouts managed to locate the embankments and ditches of the old Roman camp built by Drusus the Elder in 11 BCE, and upon it Germanicus erected a new palisade.¹³ With his operations base established:

he hurried his troops in quick marching order against the Chatti, leaving L. Apronius to direct works connected with roads and bridges. With a dry season and comparatively shallow streams, a rare circumstance in that climate, he had accomplished, without obstruction, a rapid march.¹

Time was of the essence. Concerned about the risk of heavy rain, which could slow his army’s advance through enemy territory or impede its return to the Rhine, Germanicus acted quickly to locate the Chatti. The ensuing encounter was bloody and brutal. ‘All the helpless from age or sex’, writes Tacitus grimly, ‘were at once captured or slaughtered’.¹ They were left defenceless when their able-bodied menfolk suddenly abandoned them, having fled in the face of the invaders by swimming across the Adrana (Eder) River.¹Later regrouping, they fought hard to impede the Romans, who meantime tried to erect a bridge over the river, but ‘subsequently they were driven back by missiles and arrows’.¹ Sensing that they were losing the fight and faced reprisals, some of the Chatti sent emissaries to negotiate for peace. They found Germanicus in no mood to accept their terms. In the face of the Roman’s stubborn resolve, others gave up the fight and surrendered to him unconditionally, ‘while the rest, leaving their cantons and villages, dispersed themselves in their forests’.¹ Left undefended, the Romans razed the Chattian settlements to the ground at will.¹ Most important was their tribal capital of Mattium, which Germanicus ordered burned and the surrounding countryside devastated.² It was a calculated attempt at preventing the Chatti from entering the war later in the season. The Roman army continued on, marching deeper into their territory, temporarily re-establishing its presence at the fortress originally set up by Drusus the Elder at Hedemünden (map 7). Built on a hill overlooking a bend on the Werra River, it was designed to intimidate and impress. The defensive enclosure measured 320m (1,050ft) long by 150m (490ft) wide, encompassing an area of 3.215 hectares.²¹ Roman guile worked. Tacitus writes that the enemy did not dare ‘to harass the rear of the retiring army, which was his usual practice whenever he fell back by way of stratagem rather than from panic’.²²

Alerted to the plight of their neighbours and allies, the Cherusci meanwhile prepared to come to their aid. Located in the area between modern Osnabrück and Hanover, at the source of the Lupia (Lippe) River and beside the immense ancient forest called Bacenis, the Cherusci first enter the written record in Iulius Caesar’s Commentarii de Bello Gallico (‘Commentaries on the Gallic War’), detailing events of 53 BCE.²³ In his campaign report, Caesar associates them with ‘outrages and raids’ – iniuriis incursionibusque – on their neighbours the Suebi, who retaliated with attacks of their own. Drusus the Elder had waged a brutal war against them in 12 BCE from his base in Mogontiacum, as he struck out towards meeting his goal of reaching the Weser River.² In the aftermath of Drusus’ death, his brother Tiberius launched a campaign into the Rhineland, which saw the Cherusci become allies of Rome, involving the handing over of hostages as surety. Among them was a son of the nobleman Segimerus, the boy named in the Latin literature as Arminius or his younger brother Flavus.²

The location of the Cherusci – approximately in the centre of the contested region of Germania Magna – was strategically important. Caecina’s march into their homeland prevented them from coming to the aid of the Chatti, south-east of them, and by the end of his unexpected invasion, he had completely reduced their will to fight.² As he returned to the Rhine, the warriors of the Marsi nation (located south-west of the Cherusci) launched their own assaults on the unwelcome Roman invaders traipsing through their lands. Caecina engaged them in a set battle – which almost always favoured the Romans – and overwhelmed them. Their war-chief Mallovendus promptly surrendered.² The expeditionary force returned to camp flushed with success. Just months after the mutiny, the old discipline and fighting spirit of the Roman army were back.

On 24 May of that year, Germanicus marked his thirtieth birthday. Whether he was back on the Roman side of the Rhine to celebrate it with his family is not disclosed in the sources. His mind was already working on his next project. With the spring offensive concluded, his new mission would address the continuing threat posed by Arminius, now the undisputed head of the Cherusci nation. The anti-Roman faction led by Arminius and the pro-Roman faction headed by Segestes had grown far apart. Complicating matters, these two men were bound by family ties. Segestes was Arminius’ unwilling father-in-law, by way of marriage to his daughter Thusnelda. The disagreement over the marriage notwithstanding, Segestes rejected Arminius’ foreign policy stance. He believed that there was more to be gained from an alliance with Rome than remaining independent. In 9 CE, Segestes had learned that his son-in-law was planning a rebellion and had advised Quinctilius Varus of it, but the legatus Augusti pro praetore dismissed the tip-off, preferring to trust the word of his younger cavalry commander, Arminius. It was a grave error of judgment and he paid for it with his life. Segestes, however, remained a loyal Roman ally, years after, and continually fed intelligence back to his partners across the Rhine. Emissaries from the German side led by Segimundus, the former priest of the cult of Rome and Augustus at Ara Ubiorum, arrived with a message from his father. In it, Segestes directly appealled for help from Germanicus.² Despite his earlier betrayal, Segimundus was received as a friend and formally escorted into the Roman city. Germanicus learned that the old man was living day to day under the constant threat of injury or death by those of his community supporting Arminius, who still sought war with Rome. It was surely only a matter of time until one of those attempts succeeded. Rescuing a loyal Roman ally gave Germanicus his iustis causis, if one were needed, to go to war.

Map 7. Hedemünden Roman Fort, Germany.

To rescue Segestes, Germanicus conceived a daring snatch raid. How large a force he took with him and its composition is not disclosed in the sources, but Roman arms soon clashed with Cheruscan, and, after a bitter struggle, Segestes was located and rescued.²Members of his extensive retinue were also taken, among whom was his daughter Thusnelda (fig. 3). She was proud and defiant like her husband, and she neither shed tears at her predicament nor pleaded for release from her captors. Her arrest, however, was a significant coup for Germanicus. He now had not only his main adversary’s wife, but as she was pregnant, also his child. To their benefit, also, the common soldiers found plunder and spoils stolen from Varus and his army six years before, and which had then been distributed among the Germanic warriors for services rendered. Segestes offered his thanks to Germanicus, who, in turn, assured him that he, his daughter, and his grandchild would be looked after while in Roman territory.³ True to his word, they were given a comfortable new home in Ravenna, and it was there that Thusnelda later give birth to a boy. With his very important captives securely under guard, Germanicus led his army back to the Rhine. On Tiberius’ personal suggestion, he was acclaimed imperator for the second time.³¹ It was a prestigious honour for the young man. His birth father Drusus had been denied an acclamation from his troops by Augustus, and the fact Tiberius proposed it suggests that good relations existed between adoptive father and adopted son.

Figure 3. Segestes hands over Thusnelda to Germanicus after the painting by H. Konig.

The news of Thusnelda’s capture quickly reached Arminius. He roused his council of advisors to wage total war on the Romans. Among the nobles coming to Arminius’ support was his uncle Inguiomerus, a man long respected by the Romans and whom Germanicus hoped would, at least, remain neutral.³² This rallying cry, and the forces assembling in response to it, posed a real danger to stability in the region. A large massed invasion by Germanic tribes at a single point along the Roman frontier could potentially overwhelm the available Roman resources. Timing was critical. Without delay, Germanicus prepared a plan for a pre-emptive strike. Three army groups would simultaneously invade Germania Magna from different compass-points to surround and isolate the Cherusci. First, however, they would need to reduce the ferocious Bructeri and disarm them, so that they could not come to the assistance of the Cherusci. To that end, Caecina was ordered to cross the Rhine from the south-west and march to the Ems River, cutting through their territory. Under his command were forty auxiliary cohorts, assisted by praefectus equitum Albinovanus Pedo leading the cavalry comprising men of the Frisii nation, representing a combined force of some 48,000 men. Simultaneously, L. Stertinius would move inland and engage the Bructeri from the south. Germanicus himself would lead an amphibious invasion that would deliver his troops directly to the estuary of the Ems River, whence they would march south-east, following the course of the river. Four legions made up his army group, among which were auxiliaries from the Chauci nation, through whose homeland they would advance. Accompanying Germanicus and Caecina were survivors of the disaster of 9 CE – men who had been denied the right to return to Italy, and who knew the lay of the land and what to expect when they traversed it.³³ The war to topple Arminius had begun in earnest.

The inspiration for the amphibious invasion was his own father’s campaign of 12 BCE. It had been a daring and bold campaign, in preparation for which Drusus had built the largest military infrastructure of the time, including the series of hydrological works that connected the Rhine to the Lacus Flevo (Zuyder Zee, IJsselmeer) called the Fossa Drusiana – ‘Drusus’ Ditch’.³ The canal had been maintained in good working order since that original invasion, and had even been subsequently used by Tiberius in the campaign of 5 CE. Some ships from that recent campaign may have still been in existence that could be pressed into use in the new invasion. Enough ships were found, and from its designated assembly point on the Rhine, the flotilla passed through the canal onto Lacus Flevo and, several days later, entered the Wadden Sea. The voyage of Germanicus – in navigante Germanico – was later recorded by Albinovanus Pedo, as a poem that attracted the admiration of Seneca the Elder for its stirring description of the North Sea, which, he wrote, no poet until then had expressed ‘with such great inspiration’.³ It still evokes the peril of the journey faced by the soldiers more used to feeling earth beneath their hobnailed boots:

Now they see the day and the sun left behind them

– and indeed see themselves as banished from the known bounds of the earth,

foolhardy to go through unceasing darkness towards the end of western lands and the farthest shores of the world.

They see that Ocean which bears horrid monsters beneath its numbing waves, which everywhere bears savage beasts

without reason and the fierce dogs of the sea.

They see the waves to rise up, and having seized their ships,

the waves’ breaking and crashing heaps dread upon them.

Now they see their ships settle in the muddy shallows,

and their fleet forsaken by the swift wind,

believing that they are about to be torn to pieces by the ferocious creatures of the sea

– abandoned to their woeful lot by uncaring Fate.

And indeed, someone on high, from the lofty, windy prow

– having struggled to break through the dark with striving sight,

so that he could not distinguish anything – with the world having been torn away – poured forth from his very soul a cry such as this:

‘To what place are we being carried off? The very daylight flees,

and Nature, at her most extreme, hides the world in perpetual darkness.

Do we seek peoples settled even farther beyond – under another turning point of the sky –

or do we seek another world untouched by wars?

Surely the gods call us back, and forbid mortal eyes

to know the end of these things. Why do we violate

strange foreign seas and sacred waters with our oars,

and trouble the peaceful homes of the gods?’³

As the heaving waves of the grey ocean crashed against their lightly-constructed boats, the soldiers aboard them may have wondered why the lands across the Rhine were of such great importance that Caesar would risk their very lives to retake them.

Eventually, the fleet reached the relative safety and calmer waters of the estuary of the Ems River. Disembarking there, the expeditionary force regrouped and set up camp. The presence of the Roman army of Germanicus’ time is attested by a variety of items that have been uncovered at Bentumersiel in the Leer district of Nieder-Sachsen (Lower Saxony), in Germany.³ Excavations have produced remains of legionary equipment – the distinctive pyramidal head of a pilum, various fragments of a scabbard, terminals from a military apron, and belt fittings, as well as parts of a horse’s bridle, all dating to the early first century CE.³ The organic remains have long since vanished. The nearby camp was probably a temporary affair – in operation only during this campaign season – its purpose to guard Germanicus’ ships in the estuary or to act as a supply dump, or both.

Stertinius’ column, meanwhile, had raced inland from the Rhine, and had already begun engaging the Bructeri.³ Tacitus locates this landlocked Germanic tribe along the Ems River and says that they were deeply resented by their neighbours for ‘theiroverbearingness’.⁴⁰ Drusus the Elder had encountered them in 12 BCE, when his fleet made its way down the river and was attacked by them.¹ They had subsequently joined the alliance led by Arminius in 9 CE and fought alongside them at saltus Teutoburgiensis. When Stertinius’ troops arrived, the Bructeri were found to be preparing to escape, burning their possessions so that they would not fall into Roman hands.² Remarkably, ‘amid the carnage and plunder’, writes Tacitus, the Romans ‘found the eagle of Legio XIX, which had been lost with Varus’.³ Its recovery was a tremendous morale booster for the Roman side and would be a great public relations coup for Tiberius. Now, only two eagles remained to be found. The other groups marched further inland, ravaging the country of the Bructeri between the Ems and Lippe rivers. Thus far, the campaign had proceeded flawlessly and attained its objectives.

The three army groups then joined up. They were now not far from the site of the annihilation of the three legions commanded by Varus six years earlier. Veering from his campaign plan, Germanicus felt compelled to visit the place where so many Romans had fallen and whose bones were thought to still lie unburied.⁴⁴ He despatched Caecina to locate the exact site of the battlefield and to clear the way ahead, raising bridges and constructing roadways along the route, so that the main body could follow unhindered.⁴⁵Guided by the survivors of the massacre, they found the battlesite. Germanicus and his army arrived there and ‘visited the mournful scenes, with their horrible sights and associations’.⁴⁶ He assembled the men and announced that their countrymen would be honoured with a tumulus, a sacred mound of earth. Germanicus himself laid the first sod.⁴⁷Suetonius claims that he was also the first to put his hand to the work of collecting and bringing the scattered bones to a place of burial.⁴⁸ It was an emotional moment for all gathered at that grim place. ‘In grief and in anger’, writes Tacitus, Germanicus and his men:

began to bury the bones of the three legions, not a soldier knowing whether he was interring the relics of a relative or a stranger, but looking on all as kinsfolk and of their own blood, while their wrath rose higher than ever against the foe.⁴⁹

By leading his people in this way, he channelled the collective sorrow and rage of the Romans into an act of communal piety. Yet this simple act of reverence carried with it both political and religious risks. Tacitus comments that Tiberius would later express his disapproval of this unplanned ceremony, because it represented time that Germanicus could have better spent campaigning.⁵⁰ He also notes, however, that by engaging in a funeral rite, Germanicus had polluted his sacred status as a religious official of the state and specifically that of augur, which required him to keep his hands clean.¹

With his men unified in common cause, Germanicus gave the order to march. Their mission was to hunt down the man responsible for the slaughter of their countrymen. They did not have far to look. Arminius and his men were close by, but keeping their distance, using the trackless woods and vegetation to hide their movements (plate 25). The preferred tactic of the Cherusci was the ambush. They had used it to good effect against Germanicus’ father at Arbalo in 11 BCE.² In that valley, Drusus the Elder had almost lost his own army, but the Germans did not press home their advantage and let the Romans go. This time, Arminius did not intend to repeat the mistake. The advantages of timing, cover and surprise were on his side. With the Romans in hot pursuit, but uncertain of the exact location of their adversary, the German war-chief ordered his men to launch an attack from the cover of the forest.³ The Roman cavalry were first to be taken by surprise. Outnumbered and fearing annihilation, they retreated, but as they did so, they charged straight into the cohorts racing to their rescue. The result was a general panic among all. Arminius’ men now drove the Romans towards a bog, just as they had done at saltus Teutoburgiensis; but this time they were to be cheated of another muddy victory. Germanicus arrived just in time with his legion marching in battle order. ‘This struck terror into the enemy’, writes Tacitus, ‘and gave confidence to our men’.⁵⁴ After a brief but indecisive engagement, the two opposing sides separated. Germanicus’ decisive action had saved the day for the Romans.

Mindful that the campaigning season was entering its final days, Germanicus decided it was time to call for the general withdrawal. His expeditionary force was now deep inside Germania Magna and the Rhine was hundreds of miles away. He could take the direct route overland, but his sea transports were still waiting for him on the Ems River. Germanicus led his men back to the rivercraft, ordering part of the cavalry to make for the Rhine via the western seashore.⁵⁵ He ordered Caecina to lead his army group by the more direct route.

The Battle of the Long Bridges

On the journey, Caecina crossed a section of highway called Pontes Longi, ‘Long Bridges’. It was a narrow plank or corduroy road, built fifteen years before by engineers of L. Domitius Ahenobarbus’ army, connecting wooden bridges that traversed an as yet unidentified bog.⁵⁶ What had once been a secure way through precarious territory now posed a serious challenge to the retreating Romans. In the years since its construction, it had not been maintained. The stagnant water trapped in the muddy swamp upon which the road rested had rotted many of its timbers, making it impassable in places. Caecina’s army had to make extensive repairs before it would be safe enough to bear the weight of his heavily-laden troops. Every minute they spent on repairs they exposed themselves to the risk of attack. The bog stayed constantly wet by run-off from the surrounding hills and forests, from where the Germanic warriors were planning their next attack. It was going to be a long and arduous task, and Caecina ordered his troops to set up camp where they stood. While part of the army worked on the infrastructure, the rest formed a defensive shield-wall. It was a high-risk strategy. ‘Everything alike was unfavourable to the Romans’, observes Tacitus, ‘the place with its deep swamps, insecure to the foot and slippery as one advanced, limbs burdened with coats of mail, and the impossibility of aiming their javelins amid the water’.⁵⁷

Figure 4. The unfortunate campaign of Germanicus in northern Germany after the painting by Ferdinand Leeke.

Arminius’ men took every opportunity to harass the Romans in their vulnerable situation (fig. 4). As the Roman engineers dug, hauled, cut, and hammered with their tools, the Cherusci threw their frameae and pelted them with stones from the relative safety of their positions, inflicting casualties and wearing down their opponents. Only at night did Caecina’s men get respite. Cunningly, the Germans diverted some of the streams to flood the bog below, submerging entire sections of the renovated highway.⁵⁸ After a night’s uneasy rest, the Romans awoke to find that they had to work twice as hard to gain lost ground or face being stranded forever in that desolate place.

In Caecina, Germanicus had a tough and fearless leader. A soldier with forty years’ experience, he had been through many hard campaigns and he was very far from broken.⁵⁹ Caecina carefully reviewed his options and decided that the best one was to keep the Germans holed up in the forest, while allowing his heavily-equipped troops and wounded to leave the scene. As luck would have it, there was one continuous stretch of the Pontes Longi by which these men could escape. He met with his deputies and assigned LegioI to the head of the column, placing V Alaudae on the right flank, XXI Rapax on the left, and XX to guard the rear.⁶⁰ He told them to prepare to move out. They would try to break out from their entrapped position at dawn next morning.

Under the strain of the worsening situation, the morale and discipline of the rank and file were faltering. Arminius knew well how to wear down his adversaries. His men, encamped on dry ground, made merry around their campfires. Enjoying themselved noisily, the Germans prevented many of the Romans from sleeping in their own waterlogged camp in the valley below.¹ For two of the units, it was too much to bear. Caecina awoke the following morning to find that the V and XXI had deserted their positions and retreated to a plain beyond the morass. The remaining legions assembled. As the column began to move, the wagon train (impedimenta) became stuck in the mud, and, as the soldiers came forward and tried to push them along, the ordered ranks behind them quickly fell into disarray. They now began to fear an ambush, and many looked to save themselves. Centurions continued to bark out orders, but increasing numbers of soldiers ignored them. The signa, too, became separated from the units, and soon the situation dissolved into chaos. It was the moment Arminius had waited for. His warriors unleashed a ferocious attack, focusing particularly on the Romans’ horses and pack animals. The startled horses reared up and threw off their riders – among them Caecina himself – and the frightened beasts trampled many men under hoof. Arminius well understood how the Roman army revered its standards and the Cherusci targeted the eagles directly with a storm of missiles. Relief finally arrived when Legio I came to their comrades’ rescue. Many of the Cherusci turned their attention instead upon the abandoned Roman baggage, to rob it for spoils. Without the Gemans biting at their rear, the Romans struggled on to firmer ground. In the process, they lost their tools and tents. In their new location, they found they could not dig a camp for the night. The soldiers made the best they could of a bad situation, sharing their marching rations ‘soiled by mire or blood’ among themselves, writes Tacitus, and ‘they bewailed the darkness with its awful omen, and the one day which yet remained to so many thousand men’.²

With fear and hunger at their highest and morale and comfort at their lowest, Caecina’s men became susceptible to panicking at the slightest disturbance. During the night, a horse caused a general panic when it broke free and galloped into a group of men trying to sleep.³ Many others awoke and, fearing that the Germans had broken into the camp, raced to the Portus Decumanus, which was the gate furthest away from the enemy’s position. Only Caecina kept a cool head. He quickly established that it was a false alarm and ran to the gate, thrusting himself in the way of the fleeing troops. They would have to step over his body, he cried, if they were intent on leaving. Meanwhile, his officers pleaded with the soldiery, and order was restored. Caecina called his officers about him and set out his vision for the escape plan.⁶⁴ In short, they could not continue to flee, he said, to be hunted down by the Germans. They had to stand their ground, engage the enemy in a close-quarters fight using their camp as protection and their arms to their deadliest extent, and only then, with the Germans beaten, could they hope to reach the Rhine. He reminded them of the gravity of the crisis they faced, appealing to their love of their homeland, and rallied their spirits.

The next morning, the Germans launched their assault on the Romans’ position. Seeing the wall thinly defended, the Cherusci attempted to fill in the defensive ditch surrounding the Roman camp and breach the parapet.⁶⁵ They did not realise it was a trap. As soon as the Germans had breached the defences, the order was sounded and the Roman troops rushed forward. While at a disadvantage outside in the bog, on firm ground inside, the Romans fought with the odds in their favour. With superior arms and armour, and fervour in their hearts, the Romans soon overwhelmed the Germanic warriors. Sensing defeat was at hand, Arminius fled the battlefield. Inguiomerus was wounded as he turned to escape. Sensing victory was theirs, Caecina’s men fought on gallantly for the remainder of the day until nightfall. Though almost out of supplies, but now unhindered by enemy assaults, the Romans pushed on and made their way back successfully to the Rhine.

Return to the Rhine

Rumours of another disaster across the Rhine and the impending invasion by Germans swept through the bases on the Roman side of the river. The order was given to destroy the single bridge-crossing at Vetera, which represented the final leg of the escape route.⁶⁶It was the quick thinking and bold action of Germanicus’ wife Agrippina that prevented this hasty act. She actively rallied a rescue effort for the troops making their way back from the front. Tacitus writes:

A woman of heroic spirit, she assumed during those days the duties of a general, and distributed clothes or medicine among the soldiers, as they were destitute or wounded. According to C. Plinius, the historian of the Germanic Wars, she stood at the extremity of the bridge, and bestowed praise and thanks on the returning legions.⁶⁷

Unaware of his deputies’ miserable situations, Germanicus Caesar’s army group faced perils of its own. To his legate P. Vitellius he gave command of Legiones II and XIV, and ordered him to march by the coastline route.⁶⁸ Germanicus himself would lead a skeleton crew by sea, taking the fleet anchored in the Ems River, and reach the Frisian coast. His rationale was that, without the extra weight of men and matériel, the fleet could make swift progress in the shallow waters. The fleet would intercept Vitellius’ army marching overland and pick them up when it was safe to do so. It seemed a reasonable plan and, while the ground was dry and firm, Vitellius made good progress. However, it seems that he had not taken into account the ebb and flow of the sea at the shoreline (plate 26). When the tide came in, his men became trapped. The ordered lines of men rapidly descended into a shambles, as:

men were swept away by the waves or sucked under by eddies; beasts of burden, baggage, lifeless bodies floated about and blocked their way. The companies were mingled in confusion, now with the breast, now with the head only above water, sometimes losing their footing and parted from their comrades or drowned. The voice of mutual encouragement availed not against the adverse force of the waves. There was nothing to distinguish the brave from the coward, the prudent from the careless, forethought from chance; the same strong power swept everything before it.⁶⁹

Eventually, the Romans located higher ground and struggled up onto it. With their equipment and rations lost, and no means to make fire, they spent a cold, wet and hungry night, shivering under the stars. When daylight returned and the sea had once again receded, the bedraggled men headed back inland in the direction of the Weser River (Visurgis).⁷⁰ Vitellius’ men, however, had begun to lose heart and felt that only the sight of Germanicus in person and the fleet would restore their confidence. Tense hours passed until the transports finally arrived and the relieved but battered troops boarded them.¹

Of Germanicus’ three army groups, only Stertinius’ emerged from the campaign almost unscathed. He had received the surrender of Segimerus, brother of Segestes, and taken him to Ara Ubiorum.² Even Segimundus, who had been suspected of desecrating the body of P. Quinctilius Varus at Teutoburg, was given the benefit of the doubt.³ These men were pardoned and granted asylum. This was a moment for practical politics, not humiliation or revenge.

When Germanicus finally returned to his base on the Rhine, he took stock of the situation. He reflected gloomily that, during that campaign season, his army had suffered terrible losses in arms, equipment and animals, and had taken significant casualties. Taken together, these attritions seriously reduced his strike capability and combat readiness for the next season. The response of the provincials, however, was heartwarming. On hearing the heroic tales of the Romans’ return from barbaricum, the provinces of Tres Galliae and Hispaniae, as well as the communities of Italia, were inspired to act patriotically, and assisted the young commander by completely replacing lost weapons and horses and by donating cash.⁷⁴ A lesser or venal man may have exploited their generosity for personal profit, but Germanicus showed his humanity and good judgement. ‘Germanicus, having praised their zeal’, writes Tacitus:

took only for the war their arms and horses, and relieved the soldiers out of his own purse. And that he might also soften the remembrance of the disaster by kindness, he went round to the wounded, applauded the feats of soldier after soldier, examined their wounds, raised the hopes of one, the ambition of another, and the spirits of all, by his encouragement and interest, thus strengthening their ardour for himself and for battle.⁷⁵

Despite the embarrassing mishaps of the return journey, overall the campaign in Germania Magna of that year had actually been successful. The Chatti and Cherusci had been roundly defeated; arch-villains Arminius had been humiliated and Inguiomerus wounded; and Segestes and his pro-Roman entourage had been rescued. Of particular propaganda value was the capture of Thusnelda and the fact that the child of Arminius would soon be born in captivity among Romans. This victory story would play well with the home crowd, eager to scrub out the shame of the Varian disaster. In recognition of their achievements under Germanicus, triumphalia insignia were awarded to legates Apronius, Caecina and Silius.⁷⁶

Meanwhile in Rome it was business as usual. The Tiber had once again flooded its banks, inundating parts of the city; Tiberius had refused the honorary title Pater Patriae, ‘Father of the Country’, offered him by the Senate; and Drusus the Younger had presided over gladiatorial games in his and Germanicus’ name.⁷⁷ Disturbing to many members of the public was the fact that, away from the battlefield, his brother was beginning to reveal a distinctly sadistic tendency to his nature.⁷⁸ It was rumoured that Tiberius had rebuked his son for his unashamed bloodlust, and himself shunned the games. For Germanicus, the distractions of Rome would have to wait. Germanicus appears to have remained among his troops that winter. There was good reason to. On 6 November, Agrippina gave birth to a healthy daughter in Ara Ubiorum.⁷⁹ They named her after her grandmother, Iulia Agrippina. The local burghers of the town were charmed by their little home-grown imperial child, and even added her name to their city’s.⁸⁰ Germanicus and Agrippina now had four children: 9-year-old Nero, 8-year-old Drusus, 2-year-old Caius and the baby, affectionately known to her family as Agrippinilla, ‘Little Agrippina’.¹

Once More Over the Rhine

At the start of 16 CE, Germanicus was as committed as ever to achieving a decisive victory in Germania Magna. Preparing the new campaign plans, he assessed the relative strengths and weaknesses of his foes. ‘The Germans, he knew’, writes Tacitus, ‘were beaten in the field and on fair ground; they were helped by woods, swamps, short summers, and early winters’.² In contrast, ‘his own troops were affected not so much by wounds as by long marches and damage to their arms’.³ The evident weak link in his campaign strategy was logistics. On the supply side, the provinces of Tres Galliae, in particular, had been exhausted by the constant demand for the supply of horses. On the march, long baggage-trains presented obvious targets for ambushes, and Tacitus adds that having to fend off the Germans ‘was embarrassing to its defenders’.⁸⁴ He needed a better way to deliver men and matériel to the battlefield. Indeed, it was a question his father had carefully considered in the formative stage of his planning for the German war, thirty years earlier. Germanicus arrived at the same conclusion, that:

by embarking on the sea, invasion would be easy for them, and a surprise to the enemy, while a campaign too would be more quickly begun, the legions and supplies would be brought up simultaneously, and the cavalry with their horses would arrive, in good condition, by the river-mouths and channels, at the heart of Germany.⁸⁵

His mind was made up. That year’s campaign would open with an amphibious landing. Compared to going overland, it was, however, the more expensive option. To fund the project, he dispatched P. Vitellius and C. Antius to Lugdunum, to collect cash fromtaxation.⁸⁶ To his legates Anteius, Caecina and Silius, he issued orders to construct a fleet, and gave instructions for a variety of sea-worthy craft (plate 18) to be built:

It seemed that a thousand vessels were required, and they were speedily constructed, some of small draught, with a narrow stem and stern, and a broad centre, that they might bear the waves more easily; some flat-bottomed, that they might ground without being injured; several, furnished with a rudder at each end, so that by a sudden shifting of the oars they might be run into shore either way. Many were covered in with decks, on which engines for missiles might be conveyed, and were also fit for the carrying of horses or supplies, and being equipped with sails as well as rapidly moved by oars, they assumed, through the enthusiasm of our soldiers, an imposing and formidable aspect.⁸⁷

Germanicus’ own vessel may have been of the sea-going bireme design, which the Romans called a ‘long ship’ (navis longa). As depicted on Trajan’s Column, it had a characteristic long, narrow hull, an upwardly curving prow at water-level, a high bulwark at the bow, an in-swinging bulwark at the stern, and two banks of oars.⁸⁸ For the troop transports, recent finds in Oberstimm and Mainz point to a more modest design. In 1986, two ships were uncovered, west of the Roman fort at Oberstimm on a tributary of the Danube River, and have been dated dendro-chronologically to 80–110 CE. One of these ships measured 15.7m (51.5ft) long, 2.7m (8.9ft) wide and 1m (3.3ft) high, and there was evidence for a crew of twenty, with ten oarsmen on each side.⁸⁹ The ship could also move under sail. Its planks were made of fir, assembled with mortice and tenon joints secured with wooden pegs, while its keel was made of oak. In tests, a faithful reconstruction of the ship, named Victoria, proved very swift, achieving speeds of 5 knots under oar and 7.4 under sail, and remarkably manoeuvrable too, being able to turn a full 180 degrees in just 30 seconds.⁹⁰ The remains of five ships at Mainz, dated to the late-third and early-fourth centuries CE, also suggest a more modest appearance for the troop transports (fig.5).¹ The preserved hulls revealed that the ships measured between 17m and 21m (56–69ft) in length, their maximum height was 90cm (35.4 inches) and the width at midship of the largest vessel was a little over 2.7m (9ft).² The dimensions suggest a crew of twenty-seven to thirty-five men, of whom between twenty-four and thirty-two were oarsmen sitting twelve to sixteen in each row. The crew would have probably been joined by a steersman and two additional men to operate the sails. The Oberstimm and Mainz vessels seem to better fit Tacitus’ description of ships with a ‘small draught, with a narrow stem and stern, and a broad centre’.³ The soldiers themselves are likely to have provided the power for the vessels, based on Tacitus’ comment about ‘the enthusiasm of our soldiers’ in the use of sails and oars.⁹⁴

Assuming that three ships were required to ferry a centuria, and there were sixty centuries to a legion, Germanicus’ fleet of 1,000 ships equates to two legions – three at most – and their supplies. To build a fleet of such a size required a massive supply of timber. Recent work around the site of Batavodurum reveals that the Kops Plateau near Nijmegen was once originally densely wooded with oak and birch trees, but these were completely cleared away in the Augustan period.⁹⁴ Were they felled to provide the wood required to build the Roman invasion fleet? It seems likely. The cleared land would have also provided a convenient assembly point for the expeditionary force.

For the details of the campaign Germanicus once again looked to his father’s example:

The island of the Batavi was the appointed rendezvous, because of its easy landing-places, and its convenience for receiving the army and carrying the war across the river. For the Rhine, after flowing continuously in a single channel or encircling merely insignificant islands, divides itself, so to say, where the Batavian territory begins, into two rivers, retaining its name and the rapidity of its course in the stream which washes Germany, till it mingles with the ocean. On the Gallic bank, its flow is broader and gentler; it is called by an altered name, the Vahal, by the inhabitants of its shore. Soon, that name, too, is changed for the Mosa river, through whose vast mouth it empties itself into the same ocean.⁹⁵

Figure 5. Reconstruction of a troop transport based on ‘Mainz 1’ fits Tacitus’ description of a vessel with a ‘small draught with a narrow stern’.

Before giving the order to start the amphibious invasion, he first sent his forces against the Rhineland nations to take them out of the war (map 6). To the southeastern section of the river, Germanicus ordered Silius to engage the Chatti.⁹⁶ However, this army group’s anticipated swift progress was hampered by bad weather. Battle was joined and the Chatti were beaten. During the mopping up operation, the wife of Arpus, the war-chief of the Chatti, and minor spoils, were taken. The offensive achieved little of lasting value in Tacitus’ opinion, but the tactical objective was achieved.⁹⁷ The Chatti would not now be fighting on the side of the Germans in the forthcoming season. Meanwhile, Germanicus himself marched across the Rhine with an army of six legions, representing a force of approximately 34,000 men, to which should be added auxiliary cohorts.⁹⁸Tacitus gives the reason for committing such a significant number of troops this early in the season as the arrival of news ‘that a fort on the river Lupia was being besieged’.⁹⁹ The clear implication is that Roman forces were still occupying part of the right bank of the Rhineland region of what is usually considered to be a Roman-free zone. Which fort the Romans garrisoned Tacitus does not reveal, though later in the same passage he cites the fort at Aliso, so this may be the fort under siege. The location of Aliso has eluded historians for centuries. It could have been Anreppen or Haltern Hoffestatt or an as yet undiscovered fort.¹⁰⁰ Before Germanicus’ army group arrived at its target, the besieging Germanic warriors fled – his reputation alone, it seems, was sufficient to strike fear into some of his opponents and cause them to withdraw.

A quarter of Rome’s entire complement of legions was now active in Germania Magna. Relieving the fort on the Lupia may have been the initial target of the campaign thrust, but the large commitment of troops demonstrates the Roman leadership’s intention of permanently changing the balance of political and military power in the region. Rome meant business.

Germanicus learned then that the tumulus he had erected only months before in honour of Varus’ men had been upturned and desecrated.¹¹ He decided not to go and restore the mound, deeming it unnecessary at this stage, but instead he made for a structure his own father had established several years before, deep in Germanic territory.¹² It was still the most northerly Roman structure in existence at that time. It was while Drusus the Elder was considering what to do at the end of his campaign of 9 BCE that he gave the order for his men to erect a tropaeum using the spoils of the Marcomanni.¹³ What came to be known as the Tropaeum Drusi was regarded as a highly significant landmark, and its location was recorded by Ptolemy in his Geographia, written a hundred years later, at the co-ordinates latitude 33° 45′, longitude 52° 45′.¹⁰⁴ Various modern attempts have been made to identify its precise location, with Dresden or Magdeburg currently the leading contenders.¹⁰⁵ In his description of the structure visited by Germanicus, Tacitus uses the phrase aram Druso, ‘Drusus’ altar’, rather than tropaeum.¹⁰⁶ While its construction was an act of celebration and piety in the religiously observant eyes of the Romans, it was seen as a provocation to the Germanic tribes. In the intervening years, the local people had sought to scrub out the desecration to their land, and they soon destroyed the alien structure. It was here, on what the Romans considered hallowed ground, that Germanicus ordered the altar restored and re-consecrated ‘and himself with his legions celebrated funeral games in his father’s honour’.¹⁰⁷ It is telling, and perhaps significant, that the long shadow of Drusus the Elder continued to touch his son a quarter century later. Tacitus recounts that, when Germanicus entered the canal named after his father:

he prayed to Drusus, his father, to lend him, now that he was venturing on the same enterprise, the willing and favourable aid of the example and memory of his counsels and achievements.¹⁰⁸

People of the time spoke of Drusus Germanicus – Drusus the Elder – in almost legendary terms. During the extraordinary campaigns in which he had led his men to lands unknown, he displayed personal courage, committed acts of almost reckless derring-do, and yet showed his unswerving patriotism, winning him the love of his troops. It still resonated with Romans of all classes, civilian and military alike. By his deeds, his son was proving to be worthy of Drusus’ legacy.

The Battle of Weser River

Germanicus was now intent upon installing a permanent garrison in the region. Everywhere, the men of the legions were deployed in constructing defensive positions, and soon, writes Tacitus, ‘all the country between Fort Aliso and the Rhine was thoroughly secured by new barriers and earthworks’.¹⁰⁹ The fleet, meanwhile, had arrived at the estuary of the Ems River, after a trouble-free voyage, bringing with it much needed supplies and matériel.¹¹ Germanicus assigned ships for use by the legions and auxiliaries. Fatefully, he had the ships disembark on the left bank of the river and remain there, rather than ordering the fleet to continue upstream. Tacitus calls his decision – quite bluntly – an erratum, a ‘blunder’.¹¹¹ With the benefit of hindsight, he writes that ‘he disembarked the troops, which were to be marched to the country on the right, and thus several days were wasted in the construction of bridges’.¹¹² At this point in the campaign, Roman spirits were high, perhaps overconfident. The usual competitiveness between rival units manifested itself:

The cavalry and the legions fearlessly crossed the first estuaries in which the tide had not yet risen. The rear of the auxiliaries, the Batavi among their number, plunging recklessly into the water and displaying their skill in swimming, fell into disorder, and some were drowned.¹¹³

Cooler headers prevailed when Germanicus – apparently up to that point distracted by supervising the measuring-out of his temporary camp – received news that the Angrivarii nation had broken out in revolt.¹¹ Tacitus locates this tribe in the region between the Dulgunii and Chasuarii to the south and the Frisii to the north and west.¹¹ The insurrection risked delaying the strategic thrust into the heart of Germania, so, to deal with the matter, Germanicus dispatched Stertinius at once with cavalry and lightly-armed troops. Their pre-emptive action, which Tacitus describes as summarily punishing the perfidy of the Germanic people ‘with fire and sword’, contained the revolt from spreading.¹¹ The way was now clear for an unimpeded march into the heartland of the region, which had for so long frustrated Roman ambitions for outright conquest.

Map 8. Battle at Weser River, 16 CE.

Not many days passed before Germanicus’ army reached the left bank of the Weser River. From its source in the Weserbergland of Hannoversch Münden, the Weser River courses through Lower Saxony until it pours into the North Sea at the port city of Bremerhaven. At 452km (281 miles) in length, it is actually Germany’s longest river. To the Romans, it was known as the flumen Visurgis. Curiously, Strabo’s account – contemporary with Germanicus’ campaign – makes no mention of the river, though he does acknowledge that ‘the Romans [have discovered for us] the entire west of Europe as far as the Elbe River’.¹¹ Where the Roman army halted exactly is difficult to identify. Tacitus’ account gives the barest of topological information, but this has not stopped scholars from suggesting a plain somewhere between Hameln and Minden, possibly at Porta Westfalica, in North Rhein-Westphalia, though it depends on the route Germanicus took heading south.¹¹ There, the Roman commander found his adversary, standing with his war council on the opposite bank.¹¹ The Germanic war-chief inquired if Germanicus had arrived, and asked to speak with his brother, Flavus. Germanicus granted permission for the meeting and agreed for his archers to be withdrawn out of range, so they could not strike down Arminius. The Romans were then treated to a bizarre spectacle of two brothers arguing across the fast flowing waters of the Weser. Is the story an invention of Tacitus? Without other sources, it is impossible to tell, yet the story does have a ring of truth about it. There are the seemingly authentic personal details: the Roman historian describes Flavus as ‘a man famous for his loyalty, and for having lost an eye by a wound, a few years ago, when Tiberius was in command’, and who bore a scar ‘which disfigured hisface’.¹² Flavus was the kind of ‘barbarian’ the Romans cultivated. While in the service of her army as a leader (dux) of a cohort of his own countrymen, he had successfully assimilated the Roman way, and even spoke Latin with some fluency.¹²¹ There are also other details that lend credence to the story. His loyalty to Rome had been rewarded by increased pay and military awards for valour in battle, including a neck chain, a crown, and other undisclosed gifts.¹²² Arminius derided his rewards as a pittance for giving up his freedom. The brothers then traded arguments about their respective situations: Flavus evoked Rome’s might and the fact that Thusnelda and the baby boy had been treated with respect, while Arminius spoke of hearth and home, of liberty and local gods. Germanicus and the armies of both sides watched the entire argument from a distance. The exchange in Latin and Cheruscan – which, by now, had become bitter, with Flavus demanding his weapons and horse, and spoiling for a fight – was finally interrupted by Stertinius, who tapped Flavus on the shoulder and ended it.¹²³ But there would be no battle that day. The two sides parted and retired to their camps for the night.¹²

When the sun had risen next day, the opposing forces took up their positions. The only description of the battle to come down to us is Tacitus’, and his accounts of battles are notoriously lacking in detail about tactics and terrain.¹² He tells us that the Germans assembled across the Weser River from the Romans on the right bank (map 8).¹² The area immediately in front of Arminius’ army formed a plain down to the river, while behind it the area was forested. Meantime, Roman scouts were dispatched to gather intelligence on the size of the enemy and its whereabouts. To force an engagement, Germanicus’ army would have no choice but to cross the river. In places, Tacitus indicates the river was shallow and there were fords, but, from his vantage point, Germanicus decided that, without bridges, he would be exposing his legionaries unnecessarily to danger.¹² Instead, he ordered Stertinius to take his cavalry and cross the river in a manoeuvre co-ordinated with a contingent of horse led by Aemilius, his primus pilus. By distracting the Germanic warriors wth attacks on their flanks, Germanicus intended to create an opportunity for his finest cavalry to strike directly at Arminius’ centre. Cohorts of the Batavi under their leader Chariovalda, who were renowned for their exceptional riding skills, drove into the river ‘where the stream is most rapid’ and made straight for the Cherusci.¹² But Germanicus had underestimated his adversary’s insight and experience. Arminius had himself served with the Romans long enough to be familiar with this distractionary multipronged attack strategy. Anticipating the move, he had laid a trap. His own men feigned a counter-attack that succeeded in drawing Chariovalda’s men onto the plain surrounded by a screen of trees. Suddenly, from out of the cover of the forest rushed the Cherusci infantry. Missiles hurtled through the air and rained down on the unprepared Batavi cavalry, piercing unprotected flesh. Spears thrust menacingly at the horses and the men they carried, cutting skin and stabbing bone. Clubs struck weapons and limbs, breaking arms and legs. Above the shouts and screams of men and the clash of metal and wood, Chariovalda rallied his troops into a tight formation. With a rousing yell, they charged directly at the Germanic horde. Hooves pounded on the soft ground as horses launched their riders forward. The Germans launched another barrage of weapons. In the mêlée, the Batavian chief fell and his horse collapsed under him – both struck down by a cloud of lethal darts. Around him, many of the finest nobles of his Batavian war band succumbed to the same rain of death. They would have been wiped out completely had his men not maintained their strength and resolve, giving Stertinius and Aemilius enough time to arrive at the head of their contingents of cavalry.¹² Germanicus had meantime crossed the river and taken up a position on the right bank. Eagerly, he surveyed the unfolding battle: he soon realized that his opening gambit had failed. Cutting his losses, Germanicus decided against committing additional forces that day, sounded the retreat, and returned disappointed with his men to the camp.¹³

While Chariovalda had been engaging the Cherusci, a deserter from the German side had come into the Roman camp.¹³¹ From him, Germanicus learned that Arminius had picked his place and time for the main battle, and that other tribes loyal to him had gathered in a forest grove, sacred to Hercules. Germanicus’ own scouts returned and confirmed the truth of the deserter’s information. From the quisling, he also learned that their plan was to attack Germanicus’ men while they slept in their tents at night. Thus forewarned, Germanicus considered his options: to hold his ground or retreat.

The young Caesar decided that he needed to get the measure of the morale of his men first. He could seek the counsel of his tribunes and centurions, and risk being told what he wanted to hear; or he could call an assembly of the troops, and risk the shouts of the louder men drowning out the voices of the quieter. Instead, he slipped out of the back of his tent of augury with a trusted companion, and wandered discretely among his men to hear their opinions, unprompted and unexpurgated.¹³² Dressed scruffily with the skin of a wild animal draped over his shoulders to look like a camp handler, he apparently moved unnoticed about the camp. He was pleased by what his men said. According to Tacitus, Germanicus:

enjoyed the men’s talk about himself, as one extolled his noble rank, another, his handsome person, nearly all of them, his endurance, his gracious manner and the evenness of his temper, whether he was jesting or was serious, while they acknowledged that they ought to repay him with their gratitude in battle, and at the same time sacrifice to a glorious vengeance the perfidious violators of peace.¹³³

Proof of their sincerity was made manifest soon after when, in the dead of night, a Latin-speaking Germanic warrior rode up to the Roman battlements and began taunting the men inside.¹³ To each Roman who switched sides, he promised a wife, land and pay of 100 sestertii for every day the war lasted. The Roman troops reacted angrily. They jeered the man, shouting back that they would, in any case, take the lands of the Germans and their wives – but as spoils of war. They relished the fight. This was heartening, indeed, for their commander to hear. It was apparently bolstered by a vivid dream the commander had.¹³ Though frequently used by ancient historians simply as a literary device, dreams were taken very seriously by the superstitious-minded Romans.¹³ Tacitus reports that, while he was sleeping, Germanicus saw himself engaged in a sacrificial rite and, wearing a robe sprinkled in sacred blood, being offered a finer garment by his grandmother, Livia Augusta. His training in religious rites and auguries enabled him to interpret this as a good omen. Thus doubly reassured, Germanicus made up his mind: he would stay and take the fight to the Germans.

The Battle of Idistaviso

Next morning, clasping the ritual crooked staff, Germanicus took the auspices and, determining them to be favourable, he called for the soldiers to assemble. He addressed them and, using all the practised art of the orator, roused his men to wreak havoc upon the poorly-armed Germanic host. As reported – or, more likely, reconstructed – by Tacitus, mindful of the issue that had caused mutiny in the recent past, Germanicus delivered a speech:

If, in your weariness of land and sea, you desire an end of service, this battle prepares the way to it. The Albis is now nearer than the Rhenus, and there is no war beyond, provided only you enable me, keeping close as I do to my father’s and my uncle’s footsteps, to stand a conqueror on the same spot.¹³

Map 9. Battle of Idistaviso, 16 CE.

The men cheered, the trumpets sounded, and centurions barked orders to stand to attention. Then they waited for their enemy to arrive. The long hours passed. The anticipated attack did not finally come until midday, but the Romans were ready and waiting.¹³Behind their defensive array of ditch, earthen rampart and parapet of sharpened wooden stakes, the men had formed up tightly in their centuries and cohorts behind their standards. Intimidated by the steely resolve and evident calm of the Roman troops, the skirmishers withdrew as quickly as they had arrived. This was Germanicus’ moment. He gave the order and the army marched out of the camp to join battle.

The new battlefield was not far from where the previous action had taken place.¹³ Arminius and his alliance army had again picked the location and assembled down onto a plain named Idistaviso (fig. 6):

It winds between the Visurgis and a hill range, its breadth varying as the river banks recede or the spurs of the hills project on it. In their rear rose a forest, with the branches rising to a great height, while there were clear spaces between the trunks. The barbarian army occupied the plain and the outskirts of the wood. The Cherusci were posted by themselves on the high ground, so as to rush down on the Romans during the battle.¹⁴⁰

Germanicus’ army then marched across the river:

The Gallic and Germanic auxiliaries were in the van, then the foot-archers, and, after them, four legions and Caesar himself, with two Praetorian Cohorts and some picked cavalry. Next came as many other legions and light-armed troops with horse-bowmen, and the remaining cohorts of the allies. The men were quite ready and prepared to form in line of battle according to their marching order.¹¹

Figure 6. Field of Idistaviso in an engraving illustrating Picture Atlas of German History by Dr Paul Knötel.

The standard Roman battle formation was to place the auxiliary cohorts in the centre, with the legions behind them and the cavalry on the flanks. The exact positions of the legions and Praetorians is not detailed in the only extant account of the Battle of Idistaviso, which is again Tacitus’. Not strong on tactical detail, Tacitus has left us with a series of stylized highlights from different parts of the battlespace (map 9). The Cherusci initiated the battle with a charge directly at the Roman centre. Germanicus immediately responded by ordering his finest cavalry and units under Stertinius to move in from the flanks and attack the Germans on their sides and rear. For the moment, Germanicus held his infantry back. His spirits rose when he spotted eight eagles flying towards the woods and sweeping into them. As the bird of Jupiter and the iconic emblem carried by each of the legions, the eagle held great significance for the Romans. As an augur, Germanicus knew how to exploit this vision among his men to his own advantage. ‘Go!’ he shouted to his men, ‘follow the Roman birds, the true deities of our legions!’¹² He could not have played it better.

Emboldened and encouraged by their commander’s words, the air filled with the brassy blasts of Roman horns sounding the order to advance. Unleashing their pila, the legionaries then charged, probably in a series of wedge formations, with their shields held high and their short stabbing swords ready to thrust. As the infantry advanced, the Roman cavalry was already nipping at the rear of the Germanic lines. The alliance led by the Cherusci responded chaotically. The men who had charged the Roman centre so confidently just moments before now turned and ran towards the wood above the plain. The others, up until then protected by the cover of the trees in the rear, seeking their chance for glory, rushed out and raced towards the Romans. Arminius, meanwhile, was caught up somewhere in the midst of the confusion. He tried to rally his men bravely, gesturing to get his men’s attention, and calling upon them to fight gallantly – despite having himself sustained a wound. He led an attack on the unit of Roman archers and almost overwhelmed them, until men of the cohors Gallorum, Raetorum and Vindelicorum arrived in force to relieve them.¹³ It seemed that Arminius might be captured, but his luck held. Smearing his face with his own blood, so that he could not be easily recognized, he rode his horse hard and rushed through the Roman lines closing in on him. Tacitus writes, ‘some have said he was recognized by Chauci serving among the Roman auxiliaries’, adding disapprovingly, ‘who let him go’.¹⁴⁴ His Uncle Inguiomerus was also close to being captured, but managed to escape with his life. For those still in the middle of the bloody struggle, the fight was grim indeed. ‘The rest were cut down in every direction’, writes Tacitus:

many in attempting to swim across the Visurgis were overwhelmed under a storm of missiles or by the force of the current, lastly, by the rush of fugitives and the falling in of the banks. Some in their ignominious flight climbed the tops of trees, and as they were hiding themselves in the boughs, archers were brought up and they were shot for sport. Others were dashed to the ground by the felling of the trees.¹⁴⁵

Although not disclosed in the account, the number of Roman casualties was slight compared to the massacre of the Germans. ‘It was a great victory and without bloodshed to us’, and to emphasize the point about enemy casualties Tacitus reports that ‘ten miles were covered with arms and dead bodies’.¹⁴⁶ It was a moment for Germanicus to savour. The battle over, the troops were permitted to pick up the spoils. Among the finds were lengths of heavy chain the Germans had brought, confident they would be taking back Roman prisoners as slaves. Not for Germanicus was there to be a third acclamation.¹⁴⁷ The troops shouted their praise to Tiberius as imperator (whose acclamations now numbered seven) for bringing them victory. It was the politically correct choice, however. On Germanicus’ orders, the arms of the Germanic nations were gathered up into a trophy, a mound formed of arms and equipment, into which rose a tree-trunk draped like a scarecrow with captured body armour, crossed spears, shields hanging from the ‘arms’, and a helmet on the ‘head’. An inscription was attached to Germanicus’ trophy, upon which were inscribed the names of all the defeated tribes.

The Battle of Angrivarian Wall

The war might have ended there. Defeated, many of the Germanic warriors considered turning homeward or fleeing beyond the Elbe River, far away from the invaders. The raising of the triumphal monument by the Romans, however, only angered the German alliance and emboldened its members’ resolve.¹⁴⁸ Humiliated in their defeat, the enraged Germanic warriors spoiled for a new fight to regain their lost honour and to appease the spirits of their fallen comrades. Some spontaneously raced off to engage the Romans and succeeded only in spreading disorder and suffering new wounds. Their leaders under Arminius, instead, thought carefully about their next move, and decided to relocate a short distance away in preparation for making a last stand there.

Their mistake in each of the last two encounters had been to pick the wrong places for battle: the open spaces and firm ground actually favoured the Romans, enabling their soldiers to deploy their combat doctrine to its fullest degree. Arminius had counted on large numbers of highly mobile infantry and concealed reserves to overwhelm the Romans, but the strategy had failed on not one but two occasions. To convincingly defeat them, he needed to find terrain that turned Roman strengths into weaknesses, as he had done seven years before at Teutoburg. Close by the Weser River, he found it. Beside the river and a section of forested wetland was a narrow swampy plain. Between the Cherusci and the forest, the warriors of the Angrivarii nation set to work raising a broad earthwork, forming a barrier between them.¹⁴⁹ When it was completed, the infantry assembled by the wall of earth, and the cavalry moved into the cover of the forest. Arminius banked on the assumption that, on approaching them and keen to avoid the swamp, the Romans would be forced into climbing over the heavily-defended wall or entering the woods, whereupon the cavalry would sweep out from the cover of the trees and attack them from their unprotected rear. As they had done in the narrow pass below the range of the Teutoburg hills, Arminius hoped with this ruse to repeat his spectacular victory.

Map 10. Battle of Angrivarian Wall, 16 CE.

However, Arminius had not reckoned on his adversary discovering the plan. Germanicus’ scouts watched the Germans raising their earthwork from a safe distance and couriered reports back to him. From that moment, it was clear to him that the Germans intended to fight again and, in response, he developed a counter-strategy.¹⁵⁰ Germanicus Caesar’s plan was to divide up his forces to attack the Angrivarians’ defensive wall and the forest, while he led a separate strike (map 10):

To Seius Tubero, his chief officer, he assigned the cavalry and the plain. His infantry he drew up so that part might advance on level ground into the forest, and part clamber up the earthwork which confronted them. He charged himself with what was the especially difficult operation, leaving the rest to his officers.¹¹

The remainder of his forces he held back in reserve. Confident that his preparations were made, he let battle commence. Almost immediately, the differences in difficulty faced by the two army groups in achieving their assigned objectives became apparent.¹² The soldiers attacking on the level ground quickly gained a foothold and forced a passage through the German lines. The troops assaulting the earthwork, however, found progress slow and heavy going, as missiles rained down upon them from the enemy standing on the parapet above. Recognizing the asymmetry of the unfolding battle, Germanicus attempted to tip the odds in his favour. Slingers were brought forward to pelt lead shot and small stones upon the Germanic defenders, while artillery rained down bolts and heavy stones. Having softened the Germans up, the Roman commander now moved in himself at the head of his Praetorian Cohorts, storming the earthwork first, then turning to launch an assault on the forest at speed. The hand-to-hand fighting was intense and every inch of ground was taken only with the spilling of Germanic blood. With the morass now at his rear, the forested wetland Arminius had chosen with such care in which he planned to squash the Romans suddenly presented a peril to his own side. Meanwhile, Germanicus’ men were hemmed in by the river and the wall of compacted earth. ‘Both were in a desperate plight from their position’, writes Tacitus, ‘valour was their only hope, victory their only safety’.¹³

It seemed that neither side could bring the decisive blow that would end the battle and so conclude the war. The confined space of the forest hampered both sides: the Germanic warriors could not wield and swing their frameae, and the Romans could not fight in formation with their gladii and heavy shields. Arminius’ resolve began to waver under the stress of command and the pain of his wound.¹⁵⁴ Inguiomerus raced from place to place trying to rally his men. Germanicus pressed headlong into the throng. Like his fearless father before him, ‘in battle, he often engaged and slew an enemy in single combat’.¹⁵⁵ Aware of the fragile nature of the situation, Germanicus ripped off his helmet so that his men could see his face. He exhorted the men around him to fight on; they would not take prisoners this time, but continue the slaughter until the Germanic nations were completely destroyed.¹⁵⁶ Fired up by their commander’s words and seeing him personally engaged in the fight, despite being weary and bloodied, the Roman troops fought on. The Roman cavalry, too, carried on the struggle, though with less success, on account of the unfavourable terrain. Mindful that the daylight was fading, Germanicus withdrew one legion to erect the camp for the troops later returning from the battle.

Eventually, the persistent Romans cut their way through the enemy lines. Arminius and Inguiomerus finally gave up the fight and fled with their lives, and with them went the survivors of the Angrivarii and Cherusci war bands. When the last of the tribesmen had retreated from the field, the Romans claimed victory as theirs. Technically, it was; but Arminius had got away. Germanicus gathered his men and praised them for their courage, fortitude and loyalty. In the days that followed, his troops gathered up the spoils strewn around the battlefield and erected another trophy. On the pile of arms and armour, they attached an inscription, which proudly announced:


Conspicuous by its absence was Germanicus Caesar’s own name and title. Tacitus offers two explanations for this: Germanicus did not want to cause jealously – presumably of Tiberius rather than Drusus the Younger – and, by dint of it, cause bad feeling; or, the more benign motive of the two, Germanicus considered that the deed was its own reward, ‘thinking the consciousness of the achievement was enough’.¹⁵⁸ Either way, Germanicus was publicly demonstrating his loyalty to his adoptive father and commander-in-chief, and that he was not in any way looking to upstage him. He may have led the Romans to victory on the battlefield, but Idistaviso had been won under the auspices of Tiberius. Indeed, Germanicus had set his mind on bringing Germania to heel for the glory of Rome and its princeps. There was much yet to do: more battles to fight, many German nations to conquer. To that end, he dispatched Stertinius with orders to crush the Angrivarii. Hardly had he reached their territory than they surrendered.¹⁵⁹ It was a clever move on their part. By offering their surrender voluntarily, they sought and received Germanicus’ clemency. The Romans had long believed that it was better to make a friend of a honourable enemy who might prove of use at a later time. But it was a calculated gamble. The Germans, more often than not, merely saw a negotiated settlement as an expedient way to address an immediate problem or buy time, and would quickly break their word as soon as the Romans left.¹⁶⁰

Homeward Bound

It was now high summer and the campaign season would end in the next month or two. Hundreds of miles lay between their present position, deep in still largely hostile Germania Magna, and their winter camps along the Rhine. Germanicus now had to consider how his large invasion force would make the journey home. The ships were still berthed along the Ems River, but they were not sufficient in number to carry everyone. So, many of the troops would have to march overland and be prepared to defend themselves along the way.¹¹ For those going by sea, the return journey was to have its own perils. Tacitus stirringly evokes the epic homeward adventure:

At first, the calm waters merely sounded with the oars of a thousand vessels or were ruffled by the sailing ships. Soon, a hailstorm bursting from a black mass of clouds, while the waves rolled hither and thither under tempestuous gales from every quarter, rendering clear sight impossible and the steering difficult, while our soldiers, terror-stricken and without any experience of disasters on the sea, by embarrassing the sailors or giving them clumsy aid, neutralized the services of the skilled crews. After a while, wind and wave shifted wholly to the south, and from the hilly lands and deep rivers of Germany came, with a huge line of rolling clouds, a strong blast, all the more frightful from the frozen north, which was so near to them, and instantly caught and drove the ships hither and thither into the open ocean, or on islands with steep cliffs or which hidden shoals made perilous. These they just escaped, with difficulty, and when the tide changed and bore them the same way as the wind, they could not hold to their anchors or bale out the water which rushed in upon them. Horses, beasts of burden, baggage were thrown overboard in order to lighten the hulls which leaked copiously through their sides, while the waves, too, dashed over them.¹²

Their travails did not end there. Remarkably, Germanicus or his pilots had miscalculated the tides off the Frisian coast – just as his father had done – and, yet again, the Roman fleet foundered:

As the ocean is stormier than all other seas, and as Germania is conspicuous for the terrors of its climate, so in novelty and extent did this disaster transcend every other, for all around were hostile coasts, or an expanse so vast and deep that it is thought to be the remotest shoreless sea. Some of the vessels were swallowed up; many were wrecked on distant islands, and the soldiers, finding there no form of human life, perished of hunger, except some who supported existence on carcasses of horses washed on the sameshores.¹³

Germanicus’ leadership team sailed aboard a sturdy trireme and it, alone of the vessels in the fleet, safely reached the shore of lands inhabited by the Chauci. He blamed himself for the catastrophe visited upon his men. ‘Day and night’, writes Tacitus, ‘on those rocks and promontories, he would incessantly exclaim that he was himself responsible for this awful ruin, and friends scarce restrained him from seeking death in the same sea’.¹⁶⁴ He soon regained his composure, and he ordered his trireme to set sail and go in search of survivors.

The cycle of disaster was finally broken when the weather improved.¹⁶⁵ Calmer seas and softer winds brought the battered boats back to shore. Some of the crews had torn up their tunics and used them for sails to catch the breeze, while others were towed by boats still capable of being propelled by oars. Once back on land, Germanicus assessed the state of the fleet. The vessels in the best condition and those that were repairable were quickly restored, and the rest were raided for salvageable parts or abandoned. Germanicus’ sent boats back out to sea to search for survivors trapped on the islands, tidal flats and beaches of the Wadden Sea. Remarkably, many men were discovered still alive. Meantime, the gamble to accept the submission of the Angrivarii now paid off. To demonstrate their good faith, the tribe paid ransoms to neighbouring tribes to buy back captured Romans and returned them to their countrymen. Some of these returned hostages had been tossed upon the sea as far as the island of Britain and sent back by the chieftains to the Continent. Bewildered by their extraordinary adventures:

everyone, as he returned from some far-distant region, told of wonders, of violent hurricanes, and unknown birds, of monsters of the sea, of forms half-human, half beast-like, things they had really seen or in their terror believed.¹⁶⁶

Gradually, Germanicus’ rag-tag army reassembled, but, as the Romans continued their struggle to go home, word of their demise spread by word of mouth throughout the Germanic communities, and with it calls for action to defeat the invader once and for all.¹⁶⁷Germanicus, however, was keen to keep the peace, if only to get his men home. The tribes most keen to break the Romans appear to have been the Chatti and Marsi, who had earlier been neutralized, but in the intervening months had recovered and sought satisfaction for their humiliation. Germanicus had to act quickly. He sent C. Silius with 30,000 infantry and 3,000 cavalry against the Chatti. Germanicus himself took an army, which Tacitus describes simply as ‘larger’, to deal with the Marsi.¹⁶⁸ Faced with these numbers, the Germanic nations were overwhelmed and Mallovendus of the Marsi once again sued for terms. During the surrender negotiations, he revealed that in a forest nearby was hidden an eagle of one of Quinctilius Varus’ legions, protected only by a light guard detail. This was an unexpected bonus, indeed. Germanicus immediately sent out troops who recovered it, apparently without a struggle. Energized by his good fortune, Germanicus led his army deep into the lands of the Marsi on a punitive raid. They were taught a severe lesson in Roman justice. Their lands were devastated, and all resistance was met with ruthless force. From the prisoners who were taken, the soldiers were told over and over, ‘they were invincible’.¹⁶⁹ It seemed quite incredible to the Germans that, despite:

having thrown away a fleet, having lost their arms, after strewing the shores with the carcasses of horses and of men, they had rushed to the attack with the same courage, with equal spirit, and, seemingly, with augmented numbers.¹⁷⁰

Months after they had set out on their mission, the Roman army returned to barracks for the winter. The troops celebrated that their calamity at sea was compensated by the victories they had achieved on land, and the generous cash bonus Germanicus paid out had made up for their losses.¹¹Individual achievements were recognized, too. Tiberius had set the example by actively encouraging his legates to reward troops for acts of bravery and courage in battle, and did not require them to seek his permission first.¹² One to receive recognition from Germanicus was C. Fabricius Tuscus, who had been appointed tribunus during the general levy (dilectus ingenuorum) of 9/10 CE, and had since risen to the rank of praefectus of the cohors Apulae comprised of Roman citizens. His awards of a hasta pura and a corona aurea were proudly celebrated on an inscription raised in his honour by the citizens of his adopted town.¹³ For his personal loyalty and valour, P. Vitellius was invited to join Germanicus’ personal staff (as a comes).¹⁷⁴ He would come to play an unexpected but important role in later events.

Amidst the celebration, an officer stationed in Germania Superior may have commissioned an armourer to make a special decorative piece for his kit.¹⁷⁵ The so-called ‘Sword of Tiberius’, now displayed at the British Museum, comprises the iron blade of agladius and its bespoke scabbard.¹⁷⁶The scabbard is a typical design for the period, but it is an exceptional piece, on account of the tinned and gilded detail its creator invested in it. It is loaded with symbolism. In the centre is mounted a medallion bearing the profile of Augustus. The supporting bands of the scabbard are detailed to look like the oak leaves of a corona civica, perhaps marking the awards received by the owner of the piece. At the lower pointed end is a lararium, the shrine of the Roman household gods, and an Amazon, symbolizing wild barbarian enemies. In the upper panel, Tiberius sits semi-nude on a curule chair in the pose of Iupiter. His left hand rests on a round hoplon shield engraved with the words FELICITAS TIBERI, ‘Tiberius’ Good Luck’. Behind him stands winged Victory, in front of him the bearded war god Mars Ultor.¹⁷⁷ The princeps receives a commander, who stands in full panoply and bears a small figurine of Victory in his left hand. The two men shake hands. The simple scene conveys the message that Germanicus went to war with the protection of Rome’s gods, and returned to his patron – the new Augustus – bringing him the prestige of victory.¹⁷⁸

Farewell Germania

Germanicus returned to Ara Ubiorum later that year and rejoined his growing family. On 16 September, Agrippina had given birth to her second daughter, who survived and was given the name Iulia Drusilla.¹⁷⁹ Germanicus agreed to betroth his eldest son, Nero – now eleven years of age – to the daughter of the repected senator Q. Caecilius Metellus Creticus Silanus, who was one of the consuls in 7 CE. He had been appointed governor of Syria six years later and was still in that position in 16 CE, but was due to return within the year to Rome.¹⁸⁰ Nero and his younger brother Drusus were progressing through junior education. Little Caius, nicknamed Caligula, was already four years old, and Agrippina was two. It would not be long before Agrippina and Germanicus tried for yet another child. They had become quite the model Roman family, just as Augustus had recognized years before.¹¹

Contentment with domestic affairs contrasted with frustrations of the foreign policy kind. As he looked back over the last campaign season and prepared his report for the Senate, Germanicus could count among his major achievements the defeat of Arminius and his belligerent Cherusci war bands, and the recovery of the second of Varus’ three lost eagle standards.¹² The stain of humiliation of Teutoburg had finally been expunged and Roman honour restored. Moreover, the Bructeri, Chatti and Marsi had been beaten, and the Angrivarii restored to the Roman side. While the job of conquest was not finished, the stage had been set for a complete re-annexation of the lands his father Drusus had conquered two decades before. Germanicus believed he had proved himself the man able to do it. He argued the case in a series of letters addressed in person to Tiberius.¹³ His adoptive father, however, responded that Germanicus should return to Rome and celebrate the triumph that had been awarded him the previous year. Germanicus replied that it was time to strike the final blow – the tribes that had held out were wavering, and others were considering suing for peace. Tiberius answered firmly that ‘he had now had enough of success, enough of disaster’.¹⁸⁴ He reminded Germanicus that his victories had been won at some considerable cost in lost men and matériel, and, though not directly blaming its commander, nevertheless they ‘were still grievous and shocking’.¹⁸⁵ Tiberius pointedly recounted that, when he had been sent by Augustus to deal with the Sugambri, ‘he had done so more by diplomacy than by arms’, and the Germanic tribe had surrendered.¹⁸⁶ Marboduus and the Marcomanni, too, had been forced into accepting a peace treaty.¹⁸⁷ The other Germanic tribes, the Cherusci included, had been left to fight amongst themselves, because Roman honour had been satisfied – and, by implication, without putting Roman troops in harm’s way. Rome’s interests could be best served through a proxy war. Unwilling to concede, however, Germanicus wrote back, formally requesting one more year to complete the mission. But he had misjudged the mood of the princeps.

Tiberius was looking for an exit strategy, and this was his moment to execute it. He had been advised by Augustus not to expand the borders of the empire, as, in his opinion, it would be hard to police the longer frontier and risked losing the gains alreadyachieved.¹⁸⁸ Tiberius had ignored that advice and let his son have his head, but had now grown impatient with him. He had tried appealing to Germanicus’ reason, but that approach had not worked. His latest letter was more explicit. There would be no ‘troop surge’, no extension of the campaign in Germania: if there was need of further action there, his son Drusus would be assigned the mission, since this was effectively the only theatre of war left where he could garner military honours of his own. Recognizing that this might seem harsh, as an enticement and to soften the blow, Tiberius offered Germanicus a second consulship, but insisted that he must be in Rome in person to carry out his duties. Reading that letter must have been a terrible disappointment to Germanicus. Tacitus writes that he ‘saw this was a pretence, and that he was hurried away through jealousy from the glory he had already acquired’.¹⁸⁹ That may be rather more Tacitus’ interpretation than Germanicus’, whose own personal view is not known from any other source. If, in fact, he did read sinister motives into Tiberius’ words, he must have realized that there was nothing to be gained by pushing the matter with the commander-in-chief, to whom, anyway, he was unswervingly loyal. He knew when to stop arguing. Without further delay, he made arrangements to return to Rome. He would never again return to Rome’s north-western frontier.

In the Forum Romanum near the Temple of Saturn, the Arch of Germanicus, begun the previous year to commemorate the recovery of the standards lost by Varus, was formally consecrated.¹⁹⁰ It stood just 150ft from Augustus’ own arch, erected to mark the recovery of the standards from Parthia in 20 BCE by Tiberius.¹¹ On the inscription engraved across the attic, Germanicus’ leadership was properly noted as having been under the auspices (auspicia) of Tiberius.¹² In marble and gilt bronze, the new arch expressed the emperor’s view that the war in Germania was finally over. Its proximity to the older arch was deliberate, but its subtext altogether more subtle. As deputy, Tiberius had once shown his princeps Augustus dutiful co-operation. The new arch demonstrated that same alignment existed between Tiberius and his subordinate, Germanicus.

Across the Empire, communities were eager to associate themselves with the good fortune of Germanicus. He accepted a number of honorary magistracies, including the post of praefectus or praefectus quinquennalis at Caesaraugusta, Colonia Augusta Buthrotum, Fulginiae, Hispellum, Interpromium, Priene, and Regium Lepidum; and shared honorary posts with Drusus the Younger at Acci, Aquae Flaviae, Praeneste, and Carteia.¹³ He did not take on the duties and responsibilities in person – they were delegated to a local dignitary – but his acceptance of the honours showed an enthusiasm for supporting local communities. It was already normal practice, by this time, and Germanicus could happily reflect on the fact that he had more honorary magistracies than Augustus himself, who had held just five.

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