Font size

The Varus Battle

In the year 9 AD, a military tragedy occurred in Germania. Three Roman legions under the command of Publius Quintilius Varus were ambushed. According to the historical records, the battle lasted several days and was fought in several locations. Many legionnaires died, some were captured, and only a few escaped. Publius Quintilius Varus eventually committed suicide.

Until today, the exact circumstances of those events have remained a disputed subject. The historical sources offer many detailed, yet contradictory pieces of information, but based on our growing archaeological knowledge we can construe a surprisingly clear picture of the Roman power politics exerted in Germania, the region between Rhine, Main and Danube. From 12 BC onward, the Romans were present in Germania, where they established big and prestigious military bases along the river Lippe over the years. In the year 3 BC, the construction of a new Roman town began in what is today’s Hessian Waldgirmes.

Around 7 AD, the conquest of Germania was considered complete, and as it was customary to do for each Roman province, the Romans appointed a governor, namely Publius Quintilius Varus. 54-year-old Varus was a close friend of the emperor, and he was not only an accomplished diplomat and strategist, but also a strict ruler, as he had proven during his governance of the Roman provinces Africa and later on Syria.
In Germania, Varus probably encountered the Cheruscan Arminius, about whom little is known. It is assumed that he was born around 19 BC as son to Cheruscan chieftain Segimer, and there are many indicators that he spent his youth in Rome, where he received military training, and participated in Rome’s invasions into Pannonia – however, these are merely assumptions that are not proven yet. But fact is that Arminius was bestowed Roman citizenship and a knight’s honors in 4 AD, that he commanded a Cheruscan auxiliary troop of the Roman army and participated in a Roman military campaign. The date of his return to Germania is unknown, but he managed to win Varus’ trust in a short time only to lure him into a trap.

»But when Quintilius Varus became supreme commander of Germania and rapidly tried to change them by governing their affairs based on his authority, by ruling them just like subordinates in every other respect, demanding tribute payments from them as if they were his subjects, their patience ended« (Dio 56, 18, 1).

The most reliable description of the Varus battle was written by Greek author Cassius Dio. According to his records, Varus and his troops were on the way to their winter camp in the fall of 9 AD. The Cheruscan Segestes, a loyal ally of the Romans as well as Arminius’ father in law, had warned Varus against a conspiracy. Yet the latter remained unsuspecting, even when he received word of an insurgence and Arminius left, presumably to seek help. Arminius was familiar with the strengths and weaknesses of the Roman army. Therefore he avoided open battle and lured the 17th, 18th and 19th legion into an ambush instead. According to Cassius Dio, the battle lasted several days and took place in several locations. The three legions were almost entirely destroyed. Their legion numbers were not used again by the Romans.

»Quintilius Varus, give me back my legions!« (Sueton 23, 2). These are the words Augustus supposedly cried out upon receiving the horrible news. The legions’ defeat was an unexpected setback after two decades of military presence in Germania, but certainly not the demise of the Roman Empire. Rome had lost this battle, but was far from defeated, and only a year later, the Romans had reestablished their military presence there.

In 14 AD, Germanicus, the adopted son of Emperor Tiberius, was ordered to avenge Rome’s loss and eventually conquer Germania after all. Yet merely two years later, Tiberius decided to draw the line on this matter for good »He had now had enough of success, enough of disaster.… The Cherusci too and the other insurgent tribes, since the vengeance of Rome had been satisfied, might be left to their internal feuds« (Tacitus Ann. II, 26, 2) he wrote and ordered Germanicus back to Rome and the troops to return to the Rhine. Tiberius’ decision was controversial, but he was right after all: Due to internal rivalries, Arminius was murdered by relatives in 21 AD.