Thursday, 25 August 2016

The Empire strikes back (part 1): Rome’s second conquest of Germania in 235/6 AD

Ever since 100 BC, Rome had been faced with regular incursions of Germanic tribes into Gaul, Italy and Spain.
In 12 BC, however, the Romans turned the tables and undertook a first massive counter-offensive across the river Rhine, under the leadership of Augustus’ stepson Drusus. This was a delayed, but well-prepared, reaction to the raid by the Sugambri and an alliance of Germanic tribes, who in the summer of 17 BC had ambushed a Roman cavalry unit and subsequently defeated a division led by Marcus Lollius Paulinus, governor of Gallia Belgica. Most embarrassingly, the Germans had captured the standard of Legion V Alaudae (“The Larks”), Rome’s first legion recruited in the provinces.

The first conquest (12 BC – 9 AD)
Between 16 and 13 BC Drusus transformed the strip of land along the Rhine between Germania and Gallia into a military zone, establishing military bases in Noviomagus (Nijmegen), Castra Vetera (Xanten), Novaesium (Neuss), Bonna (Bonn) and Mogontiacum (Mainz), and digging out canals for transport purposes.
In 12 BC the Romans were ready to strike. Crossing the Rhine, Drusus defeated the Sugambri on the east bank of the river, as well as in their homelands along the river Lippe. Then he retreated to what is now the Netherlands and forced the Frisians and Chauci to surrender. The following year, he invaded Germania east of the Rhine again, revisited the Sugambri along the Lippe and submitted the Cherusci. He founded a large military base near modern-day Oberaden in 11 BC, the winter quarters for three legions. The Lippe valley, rich in grain, was now pacified.
During a campaign against the Chatti in the summer of 9 BC, Drusus fell from his horse, broke his leg and died from the effects, only 29 years old. He was succeeded by his adoptive brother Tiberius, the later emperor. In the same year Tiberius attacked the Sugambri anew, massacred their entire nobility and deported 40,000 of them to the west bank of the Rhine near Xanten, where he had stationed Legio XVIII. Here, the deported Sugambri became known as the Cugerni, while Legio XIX was positioned in modern-day Haltern, in the middle of the former Sugambri territories.
Subsequently, Tiberius conducted several campaigns along the North Sea coast and, following the course of the river Elbe, southwards into modern-day Saxony and Thuringia. When in 4 AD the greater part of Germania Magna was effectively regarded as a Roman territory, Augustus ordered Tiberius to finish the conquest of its small remainder in the south-east. Germania was to become a normal, tax-paying Roman province, with the Elbe as its eastern frontier. From Strabo’s information (ca. 63 BC–23 AD) published in his Geographica and maps produced by Claudius Ptolemaeus (ca. 90–168 AD), it can be inferred that the Romans were well aware of its general geography.

Roman province of Germania under Varus (6-9 AD)
In the winter of 5/6 AD, the army of Germania Superior marched east along the river Main to build a large military base at modern-day Marktbreit, northern Bavaria. From here the Romans prepared to attack Maroboduus (Marbod) and his Marcomanni, a sub-tribe of the Suevi, who together with a small number of allied tribes in the south were the last serious obstacle on the way of transforming Germania Magna to a fully-fledged Roman province.
To finalise its submission, Tiberius had gathered eight legions at Carnuntum, located halfway between Vienna and Bratislava, from where he planned to march north. It was to be the most grandiose operation ever conducted by the Roman army, but rebellions in Pannonia and Dalmatia obstructed its execution. It took Tiberius until 9 AD to suppress the insurrection. The Varus disaster in September of the same year caused the total conquest of Germania Magna to be put on ice. Though the Emperors Vespasian (r.69-79 AD) and Domitian (r.81-96 AD) developed new attempts, they only succeeded in securing parts of southern Germania, establishing a frontier which is currently known as the Limes.
For a long time it was assumed that the Romans had given up on the conquest of Germania. Recent excavations west of the Harz Mountains in central Germany, however, have uncovered evidence that renders a different picture.

State of the Roman Empire in 200 AD
Confronted with constant barbarian invasions, Emperor Marcus Aurelius (r.161-80 AD) had intended to shorten the northern borders by annexing areas across the Danube. Thus, the number of troops and resources necessary for perimeter defence could be decreased and new sources for financial support be created. However, he died before he could realize this plan.
His son and successor Commodus (r.180-92 AD) chose to follow a different strategy by trying to buy off potential invaders with large sums of money. Still, the problem did not go away.

Tax increases
Consequently, Septimius Severus (r.193-211 AD) decided to increase the size of Rome’s army. He also remunerated it better, which meant even fiercer taxation for the civilian population to pay Rome’s 400,000 soldiers, but in spite of these measures the Imperial frontiers were broken repeatedly by hostile incursions. The reign of Severus, which marked a profound break with the past, may be summarized by the advice he gave to his sons Caracalla and Geta shortly before his death: "Live in harmony, enrich the troops and ignore everyone else." 
Caracalla (r.211-17 AD) ignored the first part of that advice and one of his first acts as emperor was to murder his brother. As for enriching the troops, he doubled the inheritance tax paid by Roman citizens and raised the pay of the soldiers by 50 (fifty!) percent, while allotting land to veterans.
When this was not sufficient to meet his financial needs, he admitted almost every inhabitant of the empire to Roman citizenship in 212 AD. What had formerly been a privilege had now become a convenient means of expanding the tax base. Another advantage of this measure was that it enlarged the pool of inhabitants from which Roman soldiers could be recruited for the depleted legions. As a result, already in 213 AD the emperor could deliver a pre-emptive strike against a confederation of Elbe-Germanic tribes that would become known as the Alamanni (a reference first recorded in 289 AD), who were permanently threatening to cross the Limes.

To meet the resulting financial crisis, Caracalla’s next step was to debase the coinage. The silver denarius introduced by Augustus at about 95 percent silver, was already down to about 50 percent, while in 215 AD the standard gold coin, the aureus, dropped over 10 per cent in weight. 

Antoninus coin with Emperor Caracalla
Since any serious further debasement of the silver coins would give them the appearance of Mickey Mouse money, Caracalla instituted a new silver denomination in the course of 215 AD, known today as the 'antoninianus' (its ancient name is unknown) after Caracalla’s family name Antoninus. It is assumed that a ratio of 1 antoninianus = 2 denarii applied, but the weight was considerably less than that of two denarii. Over time the new coin was slowly debased to bronze.

The antoninianus can be identified by its obverse on which the emperor is depicted wearing a radiate crown.

Rise of the barracks emperors 
The policy initiated by Commodus to buy off imminent invaders with large sums of money would be interrupted by the so-called barracks or soldier emperors, who considered such payments both dishonourable and too expensive. Indeed, it is estimated that the funds involved may well have exceeded the cost for the entire army. The turbulent fifty-year period from 235 through 284 AD would produce no fewer than thirty barracks emperors. The first of these, Maximinus Thrax, succeeded the inexperienced and not a very warlike Severus Alexander (r. 222-235 AD), characteristics that would prove fatal for the young emperor. 
Severus Alexander
In 231 AD Alexander, only 22 years of age, embarked upon his first campaign. His adversary was Ardashir I (also known as Artaxerxes) of the Sassanid Persians, who had started to build a new empire, making incursions into the Roman province of Mesopotamia and threatening Syria and Cappadocia on the side. Unfortunately, Alexander’s campaign against the Sassanids was not very successful and resulted in heavy losses on both sides.

More barbarian invasions
While the Alexander spent the winter of 232/3 AD in Antioch, Germanic Chatti tribes took advantage of the fact that large contingents of Roman troops were tied up in the Near East. Invading the modern-day Wetterau area north of Frankfurt, they destroyed all Limes castella, and pillaged and plundered vast stretches of the Roman provinces.
(see map of Limes).
Further to the west and in the southeast, other tribes crossed the Rhine and Danube in large numbers, attacking castella, provincial towns and villages. Being closer to Italy and threatening the families and the possessions of the many Pannonian and Illyrian soldiers who served the Roman army, these invasions were perceived as a larger threat than the Sassanid Persians.
When Alexander finally arrived at Mogontiacum/Mainz in the spring of 235 AD to deal with the invading Germans, he was not too keen on seeking a confrontation, the heavy losses against the Sassanids still fresh on his mind. However, as his legionaries wanted to avenge the destructive incursions of the Roman provinces, Alexander’s attempt to buy the Germanic tribes off was not very well received.

Maximinus Thrax
Maximinus Thrax (r. 235-38 AD)
Looking to replace the emperor by a more aggressive general commander, the soldiers opted for Gaius Iulius Verus Maximinus, an elderly general from Thrace, then around 63 years of age. A huge man, claimed to be over 8 (!) feet tall and with an excellent military reputation, Maximinus had joined the cavalry as a young shepherd and climbed the ranks, rising eventually to the rank of commander. Very popular with the soldiers, Maximinus was in charge of the recruit corps of Alexander’s field army on the Rhine that was to fill up the depleted vexillationes and legions. Herodian (ca. 170 - ca. 240 AD) portrays him in his History as follows:
”[His] appearance was frightening and his body was enormous; not easily would any of the skilled Greek athletes or the best-trained warriors among the barbarians prove his equal.” 
Backed by his troops and the local Legio XXII Primigenia (nicknamed Pia Fidelis Antoniniana) based at Mainz, Maximinus killed Alexander and his mother Julia Mammaea and was acclaimed emperor by the Praetorian Guard. The displeased Senate grudgingly confirmed the election of a born peasant, referring to him as Thrax (the Thracian) to indicate his barbarian descent. To confirm by action the good reputation and high esteem he enjoyed among the soldiers, Maximinus immediately started military operations, which he continued to conduct during the three years of his reign. He never made his appearance in Rome, which did not help to increase his popularity with the Senate.

The Roman invasion of 235/6 AD
After his successful coup in Mainz, Maximinus transferred the army over a newly built pontoon bridge across the Rhine, and advanced deep into Chatti territory with approximately 40,000 men. Having crossed the Limes, he marched east into the lands of the Hermunduri in modern-day Thuringia. Continuing due north, along the rivers Saale and Elbe, he went as far as to where the Elbe is joined by the river Havel, from where he marched back south to Chatti territory again.
According to Herodian, he met with little opposition as the entire population had fled the plains and was hiding in the woods and the marshes. The letter that Maximinus wrote to the Senate after his campaign in 236 AD is bursting with self-confidence: “We cannot produce as many words as the deeds we accomplished, assembled fathers. Over a distance of 400 to 500 miles we have burned down the villages of the Germans, destroyed the fields with ripening grain, requisitioned the herds, killed the armed and fought a battle in a moor. The number of prisoners is so high, that the Roman Empire can hardly absorb them.” 

Maximinus ordered the scene to be painted on huge canvases to be set up in front of the Curia in Rome, so that the Romans might not only hear about the battle but also be able to see what happened there. This undertaking could never be substantiated, until in the summer of 2008 two amateur archaeologists submitted some Roman artefacts to the Northeimer Kreisarchaeologie in Lower Saxony which they had found some years earlier in the woods of Harzhorn Hill (300 km northeast of Mainz). Excavations started in 2009 have so far produced over 2,000 oft exceptionally well-preserved and mostly military objects. The finds include coins (dating from the reigns of Commodus and Severus Alexander), pilum heads, two completely preserved socket pila, lance and arrow tips, catapult darts, parts of cart-wheels, caligae-hobnails, horse harnesses, armour, tent-pegs, a pickaxe (dolabra), a shovel and a so-called hippo-sandal, a special horse-shoe for horses and mules of a type used only in the Roman army. 

Roman hippo sandal
Normal horse-shoes were not yet known at the time. These iron sandals were tied to the legs with the help of leather straps that were run through the eyes and hooks of the sandal. Because of their weight (ca 500 gr.) and the large hook at the front, they were probably used for mules, as at higher speeds the risk of injury for cavalry horses would have been much too great. The hippo sandal found at Harzhorn is a summer version. Winter sandals would have had hobnails.

The battlefield
The battlefield is located at a narrow passage between Harzhorn Hill to the west and the foothills of the Harz Mountains in the east. The north face of Harzhorn Hill is a steep, 35-meter high slope. Being part of an important ancient trade-route for ore, copper and salt, the pass connects Northern with Central Germany. Since it is also the streambed of a brook, the pass has always been very swampy and in the old days it could only be negotiated at a certain point. Today, it is used by motorway A7 – built on an enormous dam in 1959 – and Federal Highway 248.
The precipitous slopes of the adjacent hills to the west are passable in only a few places. It was here that the archaeologists found the biggest concentrations of weapons, evidence for the Germanic ambush on the legions. Why the Germans did not loot the deserted battlefield afterwards remains a mystery. Smashed carts, hundreds of projectiles sticking up from the ground, and lost items of equipment must have remained visible for years, until they were finally covered by nature.
Normally speaking, battlefields do not remain untouched for a longer period of time. However, the area was never used as agricultural land, and thanks to the chalky soil the metal objects have been preserved in an excellent state. In parts the artefacts are so well preserved that it is possible to reconstruct isolated fighting scenes, such as the impact of arrow salvos or individual infantry attacks. 

The finds corroborate Herodian’s account (Book 7:2.1-2) that under Maximinus’ command “… a vast number of men, virtually the entire Roman military force (i.e. the troops based on the Rhine – rh), together with many Moorish javelin men and Osrhoenian and Armenian archers [were mustered for a campaign against the invading Germanic tribes]. Some were subject peoples, others friends and allies, and included, too, were a number of Parthian mercenaries and slaves captured by the Romans.
This enormous force was originally assembled by [Emperor Severus] Alexander, but it was increased in size and trained for service by Maximinus. The javelin men and archers seemed to be especially effective against the Germans, taking them by surprise, attacking with agility and then retreating without difficulty.

The battle at the Harzhorn
When the Romans returned from their campaign in the north, they found the pass leading south blocked by German warriors, while large numbers of Germans had entrenched themselves along the ridge of the Harzhorn. Unable to withstand the Roman pressure, the Germans withdrew from the pass and retreated on the ridge to join their comrades. The Roman light auxiliary troops tried to force a frontal breakthrough up against the steep slope, but when the attack failed, they fired at the Germans from a distance. In the meantime, Roman infantry hurried 400 m west, climbed the steep slope and managed to encircle the German warriors. On the ridge they started to fire at the Germans with their artillery and archers, forcing the Germans to flee. The impacts of Roman projectile points indicate the Germanic positions.
The pattern of distribution of lost sandal-hobnails makes it possible to retrace the Roman army's route of march. Parts of carts such as linchpins, wheel hubs and harness accessories, as well as fragments of slave chains and tent stakes, are evidence of the army’s baggage train. Catapult bolts document the use of Roman torsion-pressure powered catapults (scorpiones) and carroballistae (catapults mounted on carts). According to Günther Moosbauer, expert for Roman weapons at Osnabrück University, the projectiles could penetrate thick sheet iron at a distance of 80 meters. After the battle, the Romans decided to continue their march in westerly direction towards the valley of the Leine River.  Herodian describes the battle as follows:
“The Germans had left the plains and treeless areas and were hiding in the forests; they remained in the woods and marshes so that the battle would have to take place where the thick screen of trees made the missiles and javelins of their enemies ineffectual, and where the depths of the marshes were dangerous to the Romans because of their unfamiliarity with the region. The Germans, on the contrary, were well acquainted with the terrain and knew which places provided firm footing and which were impassable. They moved rapidly and easily through the marshes, in water only knee-deep.
As a result, most of the skirmishing occurred in those regions, and it was there that the emperor personally and very boldly joined battle. When the Germans rushed into a vast swamp in an effort to escape and the Romans hesitated to leap in after them in pursuit, Maximinus plunged into the marsh, though the water was deeper than his horse's belly; there he cut down the barbarians who opposed him. 

The Harzhorn hill with battle sites marked
Then the rest of the army, ashamed to betray their emperor who was doing their fighting for them, took courage and leaped into the marsh behind him. A large number of men fell on both sides, but, while many Romans were killed, virtually the entire barbarian force was annihilated, and the emperor was the foremost man on the field. The swamp pool was choked with bodies, and the marsh ran red with blood; this land battle had all the appearance of a naval encounter.
This engagement and his own bravery Maximinus reported in dispatches to the Senate and Roman people; moreover, he ordered the scene to be painted on huge canvases to be set up in front of the Senate house, so that the Romans might not only hear about the battle but also be able to see what happened there. Later the Senate removed this picture together with the rest of his emblems of honour. Other battles took place in which Maximinus won praise for his personal participation, for fighting with his own hands, and for being in every conflict the best man on the field.”
After this successful campaign, Maximinus had a second bridge built over the Rhine to secure sufficient supplies. Moreover, he had the destroyed Limes castella restored and new roads built. Since winter had already begun, he went to Pannonia and spent his time at Sirmium (modern-day Sremska Mitrovica) 55 km west of Belgrade, which with its 100,000 inhabitants was one of the biggest cities of its time. Here he made preparations for a final offensive, intending to subjugate the German nations as far as the Ocean and to transform Germania Magna into a Roman province. Similar to what happened to Tiberius two hundred years earlier, a Gothic invasion at the lower Danube in 237AD prevented him from putting his plans into practice. The next year Maximinus Thrax would die at the hands of his own bodyguard.

The Roman Army in the early Third Century
By the end of the second century AD, there were 33 legions, a moderate increase in the total of 28 originally set by Augustus. A further six legions would be created during the crisis of the third century. In 197 AD Emperor Septimius Severus had founded three new legions for his Parthian campaign, Legio Parthica I, II and III. While two of them accompanied him on the journey to Syria, Legio II Parthica was stationed at Castra Albana, modern-day Albano Laziale, only 20 km south of Rome. As the first legion on Italian soil, it became something of an imperial guard division, escorting the emperors on campaign. This legion also comprised special units, such as the lanciarii, equipped with four or five light spears (lanceae), making it possible to deploy them as skirmishers like the velites of the Republic. Caracalla had increased the cavalry of the Legio II Parthica by adding so-called equites extraordinarii, additional horsemen serving in the legions.
In the first half of the third century AD, half of the soldiers from Legio II Parthica came from Thrace and a large contingent came from Pannonia, a trend which would only intensify between the third and sixth centuries. Since the Roman army was desperately in need of fresh blood – and with Italian soldiers becoming scarce – Maximinus Thrax introduced a new systematic recruitment drawing on the youth of the Italian cities, especially in the north.

Until 260 AD most legions were commanded by a legatus, a senatorial civil servant. The legatus had a staff of six tribunes, one tribunus laticlavius of senatorial rank and five tribuni angusticlavii of equestrian rank, who ranked above the centurions. Between 260 and 268 AD, however, Emperor Gallienus decreed that Senators were to be excluded from military command. The new title now used for all commanders of a legion was praefectus legionis. The praefectus probably had a staff of six tribuni angusticlavii. 
Roman legionaries of around 235 AD
As the organisation of the Roman army along the Limes appeared to be unsuitable for engaging invading tribes simultaneously at different points on the border, smaller detachments (vexillationes) were created. These usually consisted of one (quingenaria – 500 men) or two cohorts (milliaria – 1,000 men) and were commanded by a praepositus.
After the reign of Marcus Aurelius it was very seldom that a complete legion left its base in the provinces to move to a critical area somewhere else. Starting with the wars against the Germans and the Sarmatians (168-180 AD), only vexillationes, were deployed. The disadvantage of these flying squads, however, was that they did not smoothly interact with units from other legions, which ultimately resulted in organisational problems that were more severe than those when entire legions were moved. In the Late Roman Empire the answer to this dilemma was the creation of the vexillationes comitatenses, reservists that were stationed behind the front lines and who could be deployed where needed.
Legio II Parthica was probably the last legion to fight as a complete unit during the Sassanid War of Gordianus III (r. 242 - 44 AD). Being stationed near Rome, there was no need to split it up in vexillationes. In 257/8 AD, however, parts of the legion were deployed against the Alamanni in Germania and Italy. Essentially, the Roman army was equipped and supplied by the state. State-run factories produced weapons, clothing and armour, while the state provided rations and medical services and ran stud farms to raise cavalry mounts. At the start of the fifth century the Notitia Dignitatum would list 35 state factories (fabricae) across the empire, producing anything from catapults to armour. There were also state-run clothing mills and boot makers

The legions on campaign in Germania Magna in 235 AD
It must be assumed that Legio II Parthica, being the emperor’s escort legion, took part in the campaign, as well as a large number of ethnic units of Germanic origin. A dolabra (pick-axe) found at the Harzhorn indicates the presence of (a vexillatio of) the Legio IIII Flavia Felix, which was based in Singidunum (modern-day Belgrade). Contingents of auxiliary archers were included as well. Herodian rather generally refers to Illyrians and Pannonians. Based on the historical sources, it is assumed that the army contained contingents (numeri) of dark-skinned Mauritanian spear throwers, who could fling their spears unerringly over a wide distance with the help of thongs, as well as a large number of Armenian, North African and Osrhoenian archers. The latter came from northwest Mesopotamia. However, their presence cannot unequivocally be corroborated by the current finds at the Harzhorn.
Nevertheless, armour-piercing spear tips, a plethora of arrow tips and three-bladed arrowheads indicate the presence of oriental archers who used reflex bows. Furthermore it is assumed that units of legions stationed on the Rhine were present, such as Legio I Minervia from Bonna/Bonn, Legio VIII Augusta from Argentoratum/Strasbourg, Legio XXII Primigenia from Mogontiacum/Mainz and Legio XXX Ulpia Victrix from Colonia Ulpia Traiana/Xanten. Wiegels assumes that a part of Legio VII Gemina, originally based in Hispania, may also have been ordered to the Rhine. [19] The participation of other legions is possible, but highly speculative. 

(The sequel to this article is: "The appearance of the Roman army in 235 AD")

Sources and Suggestions for further Reading

  • Campbell, Duncan – Roman Legionary Fortresses 27 BC- AD 378, Osprey Publishing, Oxford 2006
  • Connolly, Peter – Tiberius Claudius Maximus, the cavalryman, Oxford University Press, Oxford 1988
  • Cowan, Ross – Roman Legionary AD 287 – 337, Warrior 175, Osprey, Oxford 2015
  • Cowan, Ross – Römische Legionäre, Republik (58 v. – 69 n. Chr.) und Kaiserreich (161 -284 n. Chr.), Siegler Verlag GmbH, Königswinter, 2007
  • Erdkamp, Paul – A Companion to the Roman Army, Blackwell Publishing 2007-
    • Strobel, Karl – Strategy and Army Structure between Septimius Severus and Constantine the Great
  • Geuenich, Dieter – Geschichte der Alamannen, Kohlhammer, Stuttgart 2005 
  • Goldsworthy, Adrian K. – The Roman Army at War 100 BC-AD 200, Clarendon Press, Oxford 1996 
  • Grant, Michael – The Fall of the Roman Empire, Phoenix paperback edition, Orion books, London 1997 
  • Junkelmann, Marcus – Reiter wie Statuen aus Erz, Verlag Philipp von Zabern, Mainz 1996 
  • Klee, Margot – GERMANIA SUPERIOR, eine römische Provinz in Deutschland, Frankreich und der Schweiz, Verlag Friedrich Pustet, Regensburg 2013 
  • Künzl, Ernst, Die Germanen, Theiss WissenKompakt, Theiss, Stuttgart 2006 
  • Lendering, Jona & Arjen Bosman – Edge of Empire, Rome’s Frontier on the Lower Rhine, Karawansaray BV, Rotterdam 2012 
  • MacDowall, Simon – Late Roman Infantryman 236 - 565 AD, Warrior Series No. 9, Osprey, Oxford 1999 
  • MacDowall, Simon – Germanic Warrior, Warrior Series No. 17, Osprey, Oxford 1996 (reprinted 2004) 
  • Petersen, Daniel – The Roman Legions recreated in Colour Photographs, Windrow & Greene, Singapore 1992 
  • Pöppelmann, Heike, Korana Deppmeyer, Wolf-Dieter Steinmetz – Roms vergessener Feldzug, die Schlacht am Harzhorn, Braunschweigisches Landesmuseum, WBG Verlag, Darmstadt 2013 
    • Fischer, Tomas – Die Soldaten des Maximus Thrax, die Einheiten und Ihre Bewaffnung,( pp 198-206) 
    • Fischer, Thomas – Zur Bewaffnung und Ausrüstung der Kavallerieformationen Roms in der Zeit des Maximinus Thrax, (pp. 228-34)
    • Fuhrmann, Jens and Wolf-Dieter Steinmetz – „Nach seiner Ankunft ließ er das ganze Land verheeren…“- Germanische Besiedlung entland des römischen Marschweges (pp. 135-141)
    • Geschwinde, Michael and Petra Lönne – Die Entdeckung eines Schlachtfeldes das es eigentlich gar nicht geben konnte (pp. 58–64)
    • Lönne, Petra – Die Hipposandale at Harzhorn (p. 65)
    • Meyer, Michael and Günther Moosbauer – Römisch oder germanisch? Wer kämpfte am Harzhorn? (pp. 71-3)
    • Meyer, Michael and Günther Moosbauer – Osrhoener, Mauren und Germanen (pp. 223-6)
    • Wiegels, Rainer – Reiter Roms and Germaniens Grenzen im frühen 3. Jh.n.Chr. (pp. 235-41)
    • Rau, Andreas – Der unsichtbare Gegner, Größe und soziale Zusammensetzung germanischer Kampfverbände (pp. 167-71)
    • Rau, Andreas – Die germanischen Krieger und ihre Bewaffnung im 3. Jh. N. Chr. (pp. 172-9)
  • Russell Robinson, H. – The Armour of Imperial Rome, Lionel Leventhal Ltd, London 1975 
  • Simkins, Michael – The Roman Army from Hadrian to Constantine, Men-at-Arms Series, Osprey, London 1979 
  • Simkins, Michael – Warriors of Rome, Blandford Cassell, London 1990 
  • Sumner, Graham – Roman Military Clothing (2) AD 200-400, Men-at-Arms Series (390), Osprey, London 2003 
  • Sumner, Graham – Roman Military Dress, The History Press, Stroud 2009 
  • Vegetius – De Re Militari (Het Romeinse Leger, Handboek voor de Generaal, transl. by Fik Meijer), Atheneum, Amsterdam 2002 
  • Wiegels, Rainer – Zu den Heeresformationen Roms an Rhein und oberer Donau in der Zeit des Severus Alexander und Maximinus Thrax, Klio 2014; 96(1): 93–143, Osnabrück University 2014

Thursday, 18 August 2016

Rome’s aborted conquest of Germania (short story)

Road to Disaster

Porta Westfalica 9 A.D.
A wet and miserable summer had left the rivers of Germania Inferior swollen.  When September came, the three legions stationed on the river Weser prepared to leave for their winter quarters on the Rhine.  Rumours about an uprising had induced them to change their route. Accompanied by thousands of civilians, slaves, women and children, the endless army train headed west under a dreary sky.
Towards the end of the first day, the dull grey sky darkened, and by the time the Romans were pitching their tents, the heavens opened and poured rain.  Instead of taking shelter in the camp, the squadron of Cherusci scouts fastened their cloaks and rode on to mobilise the support of other tribal auxiliaries against the insurgents. 
The next morning it had stopped raining, but a gale front off the North Sea was moving full speed in their direction.   In the afternoon the murky skies had filled with menacing clouds and before long curtains of heavy rain billowed before them.  The ochre country road that was leading them through fields and patches of forest had become muddy, while wagons of the baggage train were repeatedly getting stuck.  Tops of trees broke off and came crashing down upon them, causing great confusion.  Forward movement was becoming more and more difficult, especially on the banks of the many streams crossing their path.  Though the Romans were well protected by their waterproof cloaks, their shields and kits hanging on furcae over their shoulders were weighing them down.
Looking over his shoulder, Marcus Caelius, senior centurion of Legio XVIII, his phalerae prominent, was trying to make eye-contact with his second in command marching some 150 foot behind him.
“Flavius !!” Caelius had now turned around, shielding his eyes with his left hand from the lashing rain.
“Sir?!  I can hardly hear you in this bloody weather!” the optio of the first centuria cried.  

”What’s going on back there? I can’t see a damned thing from here!”
“Don’t know, sir!” the man cried cupping his hands around his mouth against the strong wind.  “Can’t see any more than you can!”
“Didn’t you hear a signal?” -  “Not sure, sir!”
Looking at the cornicen on his left, the primus pilus growled “Maximus - sound your horn and ask what’s up, by Jove!” Under his breath he grumbled  “We should never have taken this bloody road in the first place.  If something happens, we’re in deep shit.” The horn of the first centuria sounded.
Marcus was in a bad mood.  Because some nearby tribes were rebelling, they were marching six abreast, in foul weather through unfavourable terrain, encumbered by a great number of civilians.  Under these circumstances, he would never have allowed their Cherusci scouts to leave the camp last night in the first place.  Apparently, he was not alone in this opinion. As the scouts galloped away, he had seen how Lucius Eggius, the praefectus of Legio XIX, had ridden up to Governor Publius Quinctilius Varus, vehemently gesticulating in protest.

Marcus cursed as he picked a wet leaf from his brow that had blown into his face.  Ever since they had broken camp that morning, the weather had worsened.  The wind from the northwest was now quickly becoming a storm. The march slowed down to a walk and occasionally to a standstill, as heavy rains came pelting from the sky.  Behind them, sixteen thousand soldiers and civilians plus thousands of horses, mules and wagons had reduced the drenched surface of the country road to a ploughed-up mass of water-filled cart ruts and countless slushy holes.
It had all started twenty-five years ago, when an alliance of Germanic tribes had first ambushed a Roman cavalry unit, and subsequently defeated a division led by the commander of the armies of Gallia Belgica.  The most embarrassing thing was that the bandits had captured the standard of Legion V “Alaudae”, Rome’s first legion recruited in the provinces.  The attack on a Roman legate was just the excuse the emperor needed for an official invasion of Germania Magna. Marcus’ Eighteenth Legion, stationed in Gallia Aquitania, had been transferred to the west bank of the Rhine, after which they had been on constant campaigns ever since.  In little more than fifteen years the whole of Germania Magna had been subjugated, apart from the lands of the Marcomanni in the south.  Had the legions not been withdrawn to suppress an unexpected uprising in Pannonia, Marcus mused, they would have conquered them as well. He wiped the rainwater from his eyes.

The sounding of horns roused him from his thoughts.  “We are being attacked!” Flavius hollered through the storm.
Marcus cursed “Mehercule, not here!”  Turning to the cornicen on his left, he asked  “Where – and how many?”
“A few miles behind us, the baggage train of the Seventeenth”, the man muttered. “A few hundred bastards coming from the woods on both sides.”
The horn of the first centuria sounded, as the legatus of the Seventeenth was shouting orders.  More horns started to sound.
“Dammit” Marcus swore.  “Well done, Varus. We’re in the worst possible position to defend us.”  Turning towards his men, he hollered orders against the strong wind.  Metal parts clanked as the legionaries dumped their furcae and grabbed the helmets hanging down their breasts.  Fastening the cheek-pieces under their chins, they stood close to each other, back to back, tensely eying the woods three hundred feet away on both sides. In spite of his many years of experience, Marcus’ heart was thumping and his mouth had gone dry.

But nothing happened. Buglers were issuing messages.  “Sounds like they are concentrating on the rearguard, sir!” Flavius shouted.  After a while the horns sounded the “all clear”, and the legionaries were ordered to fall back.  From the rear of the column a horseman galloped towards General Varus, who rode in front of the Eighteenth.  Not much later Marcus Oppius, one of the two praefecti castrorum, ordered a detail of legionaries to select a location for a camp with five centuries to screen the construction works.  Outside the camp Aulus Sempronius, senior centurion of the Seventeenth, was organising a mass funeral for the fallen legionaries and civilians.


When Governor Varus called the commanding officers to his tent that night to discuss a plan of action, Arminius had still not returned. The rain was drumming vigorously on the canvas roof.  Flaring torches were lightening the inside of the praetorian tent, while smouldering woodblocks in the braziers spread agreeable warmth.
“Gentlemen”, Varus started looking gravely, “Rebels have attacked the baggage train of the Seventeenth and wounded or killed almost a thousand men. All pack and draught animals are dead or disabled.  I’ll have everything destroyed that we cannot transport or do not strictly need. I don’t want anything to fall into false hands.”
e was a moment of silence.  A sudden gust of wind made the tent-ropes rattle and the flaps of the entrance fluttered aga
Therinst the canvas.
“Do we know who they were?” Lucius Ceionius, the second praefectus castrorum, asked.  “No Lucius, I’m afraid we don’t, but I guess one of those rebellious tribes.” Varus responded.
“With permission, sir” Lucius Eggius reacted disgruntled.  “Given the fact that you let those Cherusci ride away last night, this attack was to be expected.”
Varus frowned at him, paused a few seconds and then answered quietly  “You already vented your displeasure this morning, Lucius. What are you trying to say?”
“That Arminius and his scouts didn’t ride away to mobilize tribes against the rebels, but against us!”
“Nonsense!  The Cherusci made peace with us several years ago and Arminius is a Roman citizen and tribune in the Roman army, who has lived with us ever since he was a boy.  Someone who has attained the dignity of equestrian rank ...” Varus raised his hand to stop Eggius from interrupting him “... and who was decorated because of his valour during the Pannonian war.  Why would an honourable man like him betray his own army?”
Eggius’ face flushed with anger as he blurted, “You seem to forget that we are not his own army, sir.”  Pointing to the ground, he added “This is his native country, and to him we are nothing but invaders.  Whose side do you think he’s on when it comes to it?”
Varus scowled at Eggius, but kept silent. Lucius Ceionius raised his voice and said “I agree with Eggius, sir.  Segestes and the likes may have expressed their gratitude that Roman justice has brought peace to their lands, but in my experience Germans cannot be trusted.  They are a race of born liars and conspirators who are either at your feet or at your throat!”
Visibly offended, Varus replied, “I’m sorry, Lucius, but I won’t have this.  There’s no reason why Arminius or any of his Germans would act against us.  Even the emperor’s personal guard is made up of German troops from the lower Rhine. May I remind you that they have proved to be more trustworthy than our own soldiers?  Moreover, in my dealings with German leaders, I have so far only experienced a sense of true and warm friendship.”
Ceionius retorted caustically  “Then who of our true friends is attacking us and why has our great and honourable friend Arminius not returned to his beloved army?”
Varus gave him a hard look.  Trying to remain composed he took a deep breath and continued  “I take it that Arminius is staying the night with his own tribe.  As you know, his scouts found out that the Marsi and Bructeri are planning a rebellion, so I agreed that he should mobilise reinforcements with the Cherusci.”  There were murmurs among the assembled officers. Varus glowered and continued  “I know his father Sigimer personally, and I can assure you that the Cherusci are as dedicated to the Pax Romana as we are.”
Complete silence. Then Eggius asked  “What about the wounded, sir?
“Those who cannot walk will be transported in wagons.”  Varus paused a moment.  Looking Eggius in the eye he proceeded “We shall continue as planned.  If we turn back to take the normal road through Marsi and Bructeri territory, chances are that we’ll be attacked by much larger numbers.  We cannot take that risk with so many civilians in our train.”
A few officers nodded in agreement.  Varus continued  “Moreover, under these weather conditions, the road that we’ve come by has become practically unusable.”  He paused and said, “We have no reason to fear those rebels, gentlemen. We’re Roman soldiers.” He paused again and repeated emphatically “Roman soldiers!”  He let his words sink in, waved a limp hand and added  “Dismissed!”
Outside the tent Marcus Caelius, who as a first-rank centurion had been present during the discussion, mumbled “Bollocks! The Germans know full well that in this kind of terrain we are no match for them.”

Point of No Return

It had been pouring incessantly all night.  The next morning the storm had abated and the rain let up, but black clouds announced another dreary day.  When the army broke camp, a pillar of thick dark smoke from the burned remains of the attacked baggage train rose into the air.  A few soldiers had noticed that a squadron of cavalry had headed back east.
The country road, which had now changed from dark yellow to a deep brown, was leading them closer to a range of densely wooded hills.  Around them the forest with sturdy beeches and oaks was getting thicker.  Trees interrupted by fields, riddled with streams and birch groves, started to line the road. Laden with baggage and arms, the long column of troops and civilians was toiling its way up a gradual slope.  Another downpour that came gushing from the skies made the dark soggy road ever muddier.  Instructed to wear their helmets permanently, the legionaries felt the sweat trickling down their backs, making their attire steam as they plodded through the rain. 

Roman soldier, R.L.Museum Bonn

It was still raining when at midday they heard a cry from the woods, followed by a loud whizzing sound.  Within seconds, the rain had become a lethal cocktail peppered with hundreds of missiles, coming down on them from all sides.  The hiss of arrows mixed with shrieks of agony.  Legionaries and civilians alike dropped to in the mud clutching throats, arms and legs.  Beside him Marcus Caelius saw his signifer Caius Petronius pitch forward with an arrow in his neck, buried to the fletching.
“Split up, quick – kneel behind your shields, left face and right face!  Stay together and cover your backs, goddammit!” Marcus cried.  There were thumps and clangs as arrows hit wood or metal. Someone screamed as an arrow found exposed flesh.  Marcus quickly ducked down behind his shield when an arrow snickered off his helmet.  Another flight of arrows hailed down on them.
After a while, the barrage of arrows stopped.  The rain continued.  On both sides of the road, hundreds of German warriors had appeared from the woods, spears, swords and shields swaying as they moved slowly forward.  They stopped two hundred feet away to begin the barritus.  Low at first, shield over mouth for reverberation, the roar built up to an unearthly booming sound.  As the sound still hung in the air, the Germans started a trot. Spears flew.  The Romans took them on their shields, the blades thumping hard into the wood.  Then the Germans attacked full speed, yelling.
Marcus cried “Pila ready, volley ... Now!”  Most of the heavy projectiles hit home, penetrating shields, arms, legs and torsos.  Left and right, Germans tumbled down, roaring in agony, blood pouring from their wounds.  Next, the lighter pila flew through the air and landed in the mass of charging Germans, punching into shields and unprotected bodies. Some Germans staggered around, trying to pull the heavy spears from their shields.  Others collapsed, swords and spears dropping to the ground.  The Romans had risen from their kneeling position as the lines collided with a crash.
Futue, cacator!” Marcus yelled at the German coming straight for him.  Punching the boss of his shield into his face, he made a swift curve with his right hand, driving his gladius into the soft belly of the dazed man.  As he pulled the sword free, the German slumped to the ground.  Further up the column, the Roman cavalry was swarmed by hordes of barbarians. Wounded animals were slipping in the mud, rearing and throwing their riders.  Some galloped uncontrolled towards the legionaries, running everyone in their path underfoot.
From the corner of his eye, Marcus saw a giant German lunge at his signifer Maximus.  The hulk swung his long sword over his head and plunged it down at the Roman with all his might.  As the blade crunched into the soldier’s small round shield, the metal shield rim flew off, and with a loud crack it split in two.  The blow knocked Maximus off balance. He staggered for a moment, sliding in the mud, and hurled the broken shards of his shield aside.  Marcus roared to distract the giant.  Looking aside, the German forgot to protect his head.  In a flash, the centurion had moved sideways and shoved the point of his gladius under the man’s chin, up through his mouth, piercing his tongue and shattering the palate.  Jarring his sword into the German’s skull with all his force, he snarled “Take that, you bastard!”  He felt the warm blood gush over his hand, down his arm and into his armpit.  As he jerked back the blade, the man came down like a tree.
Before Marcus could react, another German had punched a shield into Maximus’ face, sending him sprawling to the ground. Taking a long stride, he planted his spear into Maximus’ throat.  Growling, Marcus jumped forward, burying his blade deep in the German’s unprotected side.  The man let go of his spear, his eyes wide open with shock as he took the bite of the razor-sharp metal.  There was a sucking noise as the short blade pulled free. Blood spurted from the deep wound while the German sagged moaning onto the muddy ground.
The squishing noise of running feet behind him made Marcus whirl.  He braced himself as a German crashed into his defence, sword swaying over his head.  Ducking away to the right Marcus stabbed obliquely upward, in one side of the attacker’s throat and out the other. Bright red blood sprayed over his arm.  The German gurgled as his throat filled with fluid. Clawing at the iron, he stared into Marcus’s eyes. Marcus twisted the sword before he pulled it free.  T
he German fell face forward into the mud with as soft thump and did not move again.
A long low trumpet-call sounded.  As if pulled by invisible strings, the Germans turned around and rushed back to the woods.  Frustrated, a number of legionaries grabbed spears sticking in bodies lying around and hurled them after the fleeing attackers.
A long eerie silence followed.  Far away a cuckoo called.  Marcus only heard the rain splashing on his helmet and his panting.  The attack had drawn off as fast as it has started, hundreds of dead bodies lying in the mud.  Further west there was another trumpet-call as a different part of the long column was attacked.


That night, the atmosphere in the praetorian tent was frosty.  Lucius Ceionius broke the ice, asking gravely “How many casualties, sir?”
“Close to two thousand, prefect.” Varus nervously rocked on his sella, looking sullen. “Good, that’s it then” Marcus Oppius said.
 “What do you mean?” Varus asked.
“What do I mean?  Three thousand casualties in two days!  If we don’t wish to be exterminated, we must either go back or head north for the river.”
There was a long pause in which Varus seemed to stare at his feet.  Then he lifted his head and said  “No, gentlemen, there’s no way back.”  Bringing his hands to his forehead, he closed his eyes.  He cleared his throat and he continued, looking up again  “I dispatched a turma of cavalry this morning.  They’ve just returned.  Our summer camp has been taken. Both the camp and the cohors we left behind have been completely destroyed”
There was a long silence.  After what seemed ages, Gnaeus Lerius Flaccus, tribunus of the first cohort of the Nineteenth ventured “This cannot be a coincidence.  Arminius!”
Varus sighed and gave him a long look. “The only thing I know is that we have lost another five hundred men and have nothing to fall back on.  We must continue west and head for the Rhine.”
“Excuse me sir, but why don’t we go north?” Ceionius asked.  “We’re in no position to defend ourselves here.”  He looked at the others, who were nodding in agreement.
“What makes you think the situation further north is any better?” Varus asked.  There was a long silence.
  “Arminius hasn’t returned, has he?” Eggius inquired.

“No, he hasn’t.” Varus answered, clearly on edge.
“So we are still waiting.” Varus said. “What would you advise us to do then, Lucius?” he asked sharply, glaring at him under his brows.
“What Oppius said earlier, sir, to head north for the river and wait for the fleet to pick us up.”  The others muttered in agreement.  Varus sighed again and stared at the ground for a while. Looking up he said with a sombre face  “No gentlemen, we’ll stick to this route.  Without local scouts, the road to the north is not an option, certainly not in this type of weather. We’ll continue as planned.  The meeting is closed.”  With these words, he turned his back at the officers and disappeared in the private area of the praetorian tent.
“Sol bless us all.” Ceionius murmured. “This man will be the death of us.”

Final Blow

The next day they set out before dawn.  It had stopped raining, but everything was shrouded in a milky blanket of impenetrable fog.  When the legions marched away from their walled night quarters, dampness penetrating to their bones, everyone seemed depressed.  There was only the clanking of equipment and the sound of feet squelching in the dark mud. In the hope of attracting less attention, some muleteers had muffled the bronze bells round the neck of the remaining pack-animals with handfuls of grass.
The situation was far more serious than Varus had cared to admit.  Since a large number of mules and horses were lost, the army’s whole baggage train had to be burned or abandoned, along with everything that was not strictly necessary.  The remaining wagons were to transport the wounded.  As these got repeatedly stuck in the mud, the progress of the rest of the army was delayed. Soon the column had become fragmented.
The first soldiers that emerged from the woods entered a foggy agrarian landscape.  On the left there was a range of low hills, hemming in the fields to the south.  By midday the persistent fog was still clinging to the vegetation, when the head of the army reached a narrow corridor at the foot of a densely wooded slope.  Here, a fast stream came gurgling down the hill on the left only to disappear into a huge area of wetlands that spread to the north.  A bank of mist was rolling in towards the south, shrouding the tops of the trees and chilling the air.  Because of the high water table, the corridor between the foot of the hill and the marshes was only two hundred feet wide. All seemed quiet.

German warrior, R.L.Museum Bonn

From the dense woods on the slopes thousands of pairs of eyes had been watching the approaching army train.  German warriors on the hill exchanged signals with others who were hiding behind long, carefully camouflaged ramparts, topped with palisades that curved with the shape of the hill, and nicely blended in with the landscape.  When the vanguard of the Roman army had passed the ramparts, the trap was sprung.  Hundreds of screaming Germans leapt out through hidden gaps in the turf walls.  Rushing forward, hurling spears, they threw themselves on the remaining squadrons of cavalry.
From the woods above it started hailing arrows, rattling on Roman shields and thumping into wood and flesh.  Within moments riders and their mounts went down in a thrashing tangle of limbs and equipment.  Horses tried to rise, but fell back again with shrill cries of pain.  Others reared in agony, with wooden shafts protruding from chests, rumps or necks. In a matter of moments, dozens of riderless horses galloped about aimlessly, bucking and kicking in pain, arrows and spears sticking from their wounds.  Others stampeded into the distance, trampling everything underfoot or getting stuck in the marshes.  Floundering through the narrow pass between the slope of the hill and the wetlands, legionaries were hindered by cavalry units which kept crashing into them.  Marcus saw the legate Numonius Vala with his squadrons of horse flee the melee and head for the marshes.
Close to Marcus two mules had broken free from their wagon, whinnying and braying, still wearing their harnesses.  Desperate to escape the fighting, they stormed towards the turf walls.  As one of the animals tried to jump over a collapsed part of the wall, its hindquarters got caught in the construction.  Through the impetus of the miscalculated jump it fell down hard and broke its neck.  Riddled with arrows and spears, the second mule reared up in pain, stumbled and fell sideways against the front of the rampart.  Its shrieks were muffled as the wall, manned with struggling Germans and Romans, slowly collapsed on top of it.
“Crouch!” Marcus cried to the remainder of his century, his shield heavy with two spears and several arrows.  The Germans charged, shrieking their war cries as they saw some of the enemy go down.  “Stay in line! Stay in line, dammit!” Marcus cried. “Cover your backs!”  Hurriedly getting down behind his shield on one knee, he held his protection well out.  A long blade aimed at his head swung down on his guard. Splinters of wood flew as the enormous sword penetrated the shield.  The impact jarred his arm.  Getting up, he brought his right arm over the damaged shield and thrust his gladius at the German’s face.  Taking the edge of the blade on the rim of his shield, the man forced it up.  He tried to knock the centurion over by violently pushing his shoulder against the centurion’s guard.  Suddenly, Marcus stepped back, and the German tumbled forward, his momentum carrying him onto Marcus’ sword.  The man’s eyes bulged with surprise, as it entered his belly. Pulling back swiftly, Marcus ducked as a whooshing sound came from the right.  The tumbling shaft of a spearhead hit the side of his helmet hard.
Lucius Eggius cried “Storm the ramparts! With me, with me!”  Kicking and slashing his way through the charging Germans, Marcus scrambled up the turf walls with a handful of legionaries.  On top of the ramparts he managed to disable a couple of Germans that were trying to spear him from behind the wooden breastwork.  Kicking a passageway in the damaged palisade, Marcus jumped down the other side of the ramparts and landed on his knees.  As he was about to get up, something heavy came swinging against the side of his head.  The impact knocked him against the ramparts and made the sword fall out of his hand.  His mouth filled with the metallic taste of blood.  In a haze he saw how a German brandishing a club over his head, intended to give him another blow.  Feeling for the hilt of his pugio, Marcus pulled it free.  Panting, with a strength born out of desperation, he lunged forward and dug his dagger deep into the German’s leg.  The man shrieked and backed away, teeth bared with pain, the dagger sticking deep in his right thigh.  Then there was loud bang at the back of his head. He just felt the terrible dull impact through his helmet.  A violent wave of nausea surged up from his stomach as the pain hit him.  The muddy ground rose as everything went black.

The column was now being attacked by fresh German troops from all sides.  A line of German horsemen, many of them dressed like Roman auxiliaries holding spears and shields, came thundering down the column towards the first cohort of the Nineteenth.  Spotting the transverse horse-hair crest on the helmet of the primus pilus, their leader approached the Roman in full gallop.  Riding up to the centurion the German stopped his horse just in front of him, its feet skidding in the mud.  As the Roman recognised the rider his eyes blazed.
“Fight me, Fabricius”, Arminius said, with a malicious grin as he slid from the saddle.  The Cheruscan’s spatha hissed from the scabbard. 

“You treacherous bastard!” the centurion retorted furiously.  Holding his shield up, he lunged at the Cheruscan’s face with his sword. Arminius parried the blow with his oval shield a split-second too late.  The sharp point grazed his eyebrow and laid it open to the bone.  Instantly a sheet of blood gushed from the shallow wound and flowed over his face, blinding his left eye. He swore and gave ground.  Blinking at the blood he tried to wipe it away with his sword-hand.  Fabricius thrust his gladius at the German’s face again.  This time the Cheruscan was faster.  Ducking his head behind his shield, he slammed his body against the centurion’s guard with all his might.  Knocked off balance, Fabricius lost his footing and fell backwards in the mud. Immediately, the Roman was surrounded by five other Cherusci, pointing their swords at his throat. 
“Segimund, take him to the pits” Arminius said, dabbing the wound on his stern with a piece of cloth.  With the army being massacred around him, Ceionius realised that all was lost and surrendered.  Eggius had already been killed, while Varus was clutching an arrow lodged just below his collar bone.  Realising that his army had been taken apart and that there was no escape, he slid off his horse.  He spoke with his bodyguards around him. Sinking on his knees, he removed his silver cuirass. Putting the pommel of his gladius on the ground, he held the sword with both hands and carefully placed its sharp point under his ribcage.  He closed his eyes, mumbled a few words and with a deep moan fell on it.  A large area of his white and purple tunic turned bright red. He jerked a few times and was still.  When it became known that Varus was dead, several of his commanders followed suit, leaving their troops leaderless in what had become a killing field.


Catching the smell of burning flesh, Arminius wheeled his mount towards the small pillar of smoke rising from the foot of the hill.  The mounted Cherusci kicked their horses to follow him.  His face filled with anger as he saw that Varus’ bodyguards had set fire to an improvised funeral pyre. 

“Well, well, just as I thought!” Arminius exclaimed, dismounting with a leap “The coward is trying to escape his well-deserved fate.”  Grabbing the charred body under the armpits, he dragged it away from the fire.  Varus’ guards did not venture to intervene.  Propping the corpse against a tree stump, the German swung his spatha and struck its undamaged head clean off its shoulders.  Picking it up from the mud by its short grey locks, he held it high and handed it to his aids “Keep this in a safe place.  I intend to make a gift of it.”  Before he jumped back into the saddle, he kicked the headless body with his foot.  “Do with the rest of him as you please.”

The battle died down before the day was over.  The area was littered with corpses as far as the eye could see. In parts, dead bodies were piled on top of each other, two, three, four high, concealing the ground.  Germanic troops looked to their wounds, others started to go around through the dead, wounded and dying.  Weapons were confiscated and Romans who could not walk were dispatched.  Those who were spared got a rope around their necks. Their hands were bound behind their backs, while they were tethered to one another by their ankles.  Defeated and dejected, left with nothing but their clothes and armour, they were marched off into the woods, where they had to spend the night in deep large pits.
Flavius, the optio of Marcus Caelius, had been able to escape the massacre with Marcus Crassus Fenestela.  Lightly wounded, they had successfully played dead.  When things had become quiet, they had crept from under their fallen comrades.  Ripping up their tunics they bandaged each other with improvised compresses to staunch the blood. Easily able to pass for Germans, they changed their outfits with those of fallen warriors.  While the enemy was busy looting the dead, the Romans led two ponies away from the battlefield and hid in the woods.  Once darkness had fallen they galloped away in the direction of Castra Vetera on the river Rhine.

Judgement Day

That night in the woods, the pitiful remainder of what had been three legions not even a week ago was standing ankle-deep in cold smelly water, shivering in the dark at the bottom of large deep pits.  All of them exhausted and many of them wounded, the men huddled together, roped to each other by their necks, hands still bound behind them.   The stench of faeces, urine, sweat and blood mixed with sneezes and coughs and the sound of chattering teeth.   The ropes had wrenched their necks, the flesh chafed and raw.  Above them, Germans armed with spears and bows were looking down, keeping a watchful eye.

Tombstone of Marcus Caelius, Rheinisches Landesmuseum Bonn

Morning broke with a low-hanging fog.   Groups of armed Germans were lowered down the pits on ropes.   Below they untied the centurions and optiones, indicating that they were to be pulled up.  At ground level, the mud-covered captives were herded down a lane flanked by dozens of small, freshly dug deep holes, the heaps of earth in front of them still damp.  A matching number of neatly lined up crosses were lying on the ground behind the holes. Ordered to take off their armour, the officers were tied to the timbers.
Soon the air was filled with the dull knocking of hammers.  There were screams and moans as the long iron nails ruthlessly cut through gristle and bone and were driven into the wood with force. Next, the crosses were pulled upright.  As the heavy wooden stakes plunged into the holes, shocks tore through the pierced limbs, causing new cries of anguish.
Subsequently the first-rank centurions and higher ranking officers were dragged out from the dank pits and herded to a nearby grove, where a row of stone altars was waiting for them on a raised ground.   When a tall bearded priest in a black robe climbed into view, followed by a group of others in similar attire, they were roughly shoved down on their knees.
The priest gestured for silence.  Only the whimpers from the crucified centurions could be heard. He began speaking in a low, deep voice. Marcus Caelius looked questioningly at Fabricius who was standing next to him.

“He’s saying that the leaders of the vanquished enemy are to be sacrificed to Donar”, the answer came in a low voice. Eying the altars Marcus asked, more nervous than interested “Who’s Donar?”
“Their version of Jupiter”, Fabricius said under his breath.

“I see” and with a wry smile Marcus added “I suppose we could take that as a compliment”.
Lucius Ceionius, the highest surviving officer in rank, was to be sacrificed first.  Touching the large stone slab on the altar with a long butcher’s knife, the priest indicated that the camp prefect had to lie down flat on his back.  Four Germans grabbed him by the arms and legs, while the priest uttered a formula in his guttural language.  Putting his free left hand under the prefect’s chin, he jerked the victim’s head back and slashed the throat with a smooth movement. Ceionius did not utter a sound.  A fountain of blood sprayed from the gaping neck wound.  A second priest caught most of the red fluid in a bowl. Releasing his grip the first priest waited until the body’s convulsions had stopped, whereupon he shoved the corpse off the altar. It fell to the ground with a thump.
One by one, the bearded priests in black systematically butchered the officers on the row of altars.  When Marcus’ turn had come, he looked at the sky.  Reclining on his elbows to lie down on his back, he said a quick prayer for his wife and children. While the priest jabbered his formula, Marcus felt how he was pressed down on the slab.  Then the hand came below his the chin and his head was jerked back. There was a crack followed by a sharp pain as the knife slashed through the cartilage.
When the priests had finished their gory job, the corpses were dragged away from the altar and stripped of valuable objects. The heads were severed from their bodies and nailed to the trunks of the surrounding trees
At nightfall, the German dead were burned on large funeral pyres.  Flames swept up the sides of the high piles of wood, creating eerie shadows of the bystanders and the surrounding trees.  Every now and then logs exploded, sending a shower of sparks into the night sky, which rose, drifted and then fell to earth.

The next day, the Germans left the battlefield to return home, taking the surviving legionaries and civilians as slaves.  The stripped and maimed bodies of thousands of killed legionaries, civilians and pack-animals remained where they had fallen.
Three legions had been wiped off the face of the earth.