The northern border of the Imperium Romanum
During Caesar’s reign, the attention of the Roman Empire increasingly turned to the north. In the middle of the first century BC, Gaul became a Roman province. Augustus divided the province into three parts - Lugdunensis, Belgica and Aquitania. With the centre being the altar of Augustus and Roma in Lugdunum, today’s Lyon.
In 16 BC the fifth legion led by Marcus Lollius was defeated in Northern Gaul by intruding Germanic troops, who even stole their aquila. As a result of this, Augustus felt impelled to go to Gaul himself, accompanied by Tiberius, where he stayed until 14 BC. Drusus and Tiberius then subdued the rebels.
In 9 BC, Drusus also had to fight against the Germanic Marcomanni who were led by Marbod. After he had subdued them, they moved towards the south and withdrew into Bohemia. Immediately afterwards, the revolt in Pannonia and Dalmatia demanded the attention of the Roman forces. The uprising could only be countered with difficulty, by concentrating 15 legions.
During the years around the turn of the eras, the number of Germanic attacks in the north increased once again. Therefore, Emperor Augustus sent Tiberius to quell these rebellions. In the year 8 BC, he subdued the Germanic tribes between the rivers Rhine and Elbe. Furthermore, he resettled Sicambri and Suebi in the areas near the river Rhine. At Augustus’ request, Tiberius advanced to the river Weser and was, from a military point of view, quite successful.
In the Roman Empire one came to the conclusion that the Germanic region had mainly been subdued and that Rome’s territorial dominance was safe. The resistance seemed to have weakened. Many Germanic people saw themselves as allies of the Roman Empire and occasionally even attained Roman citizenship. For a few years already, there was a military unit of Germanic Cherusci which was integrated into the Roman Army. It was led by a man who had been trained as an officer in Rome and who came from a respected Cheruscan family. His Roman name was Arminius; his original name was not known amongst the Romans. Even Augustus himself was not biased with regard to Germanic people. For example, they reliably served as his bodyguards.
It is disputed amongst scholars whether Germania already was a ”real” Roman province or not. It is a fact that in 7 AD an experienced Roman officer was sent to Germania in order to become its governor. His name was Publius Quintilius Varus. He fulfilled his official duties in accordance with the regulations, he organised court sessions under Roman law and collected taxes. His relationship to the local inhabitants was two-sided. This was not unusual for a governor. Some complained about the amount of tributes, but others were treated like friends by the Roman officer. For example, he occasionally invited the above-mentioned Cheruscan officer and his father into his quarters for food and drinks.
Nobody had expected the Germanic rebellion against Varus in 9 AD. Especially since this rebellion was quite different compared to the usual Germanic attacks: A part of the Roman Army –the integrated Cheruscan unit– had turned against Varus. Furthermore, the insurgents had had the same valuable military training as the attacked soldiers, their former comrades in arms. In addition to this, they knew the area well and had prepared an elaborate plan. By asking for help and by pretending to be in need of military assistance, they lured the Romans into a trap where they could ambush them and exploit these advantages. The difficult terrain and the continuing bad weather prevented the Romans from applying their approved strategies. I.e. the arrangement of troops in tactical combat formations was entirely impossible. The equipment which was carried along and the women, children and slaves who accompanied the legions as civilians also caused great concern. Everything went according to the rebels’ plan. Although the Romans outnumbered the rebels, the three Roman legions 17, 18 and 19 as well as three cavalry detachments (alae) and six auxiliary cohorts were annihilated. Only a few persons were able to escape. The inexperienced civilians however had the least chance of surviving.
The news of Varus’ defeat caused a shock in Rome because of the high number of casualties. Emperor Augustus was taken aback about it, although this was not the first time that he had lost many soldiers. He asked himself whether Germania was worth the effort and how far one should go. His first action was to send Tiberius to take command at the river Rhine. Tiberius along with Germanicus arrived in Germania in 10 AD. In the following year more battles took place. The Germanic troops did not seem to make any concessions. In 12 AD Tiberius was granted celebrations in Rome on the occasion of the Pannonian victory.
In 14 AD Emperor Augustus died unexpectedly. His adopted stepson Tiberius was appointed as his successor. Tiberius continued to employ Germanicus in the troubled “province” in the north. Germanicus along with Caecina Severus left the Rhine to enter further into Germania in 15 AD. Germanicus passed through the land of the Chatti and subdued them. He then went to help the pro-Roman Cheruscan Segestes who was besieged and had called for help. In the course of his liberation Thusnelda, Arminius’ pregnant wife, fell into the hands of the Romans. They took her to Rome as a prisoner. When Germanicus arrived at the place of the Varus Battle, he told his men to collect and then bury the soldiers’ mortal remains which were still lying around. They did not have a lot of time for this because the Germanic troops were already attacking again. Consequently, the retreat from Germania was difficult and many soldiers were injured or lost their lives.
Germanicus, however, did not acknowledge defeat and returned to Germania with his army and an armed transport fleet. Once again, there was a tough battle with a high number of casualties. The situation was worsened by severe autumn storms during the retreat. Nevertheless, Germanicus was able to recapture two of the legions’ aquilas which had been seized during the Varus Battle. Emperor Tiberius was of the opinion that further action in Germania would be pointless and therefore relieved Germanicus permanently from office in 16 AD. In spite of the dubious victories in Germania, a triumph was organised in honour of Germanicus in the following year. Cheruscan prisoners, like Arminius’ wife and his little son, who was born in captivity, were paraded through the streets of Rome. The historian Strabon also mentions the presence of Thusnelda’s father Segestes who participated as an official guest, loyal to the Roman Empire. He watched as his two children, his grandson and further Germanic hostages known to him were paraded.
The Romans subsequently retreated to the Rhine and concentrated on securing this border. However, there were still many contacts between the Romans and the Germanic tribes, e.g. through trading. The Romans were no longer interested anymore in conquering the Germanic regions on the eastern side of the Rhine: The anticipated benefit was not worth the effort and trouble.