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Combat in the marshes of Germania September 26, 2011

Posted by Jenny in ancient Rome, classical studies, history.
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Nienwohlder Moor. This image by an unattributed photographer on Wikimedia shows the marshiest-looking marsh I could find for present-day Germany.

This post is the final one of a series on “The Wilds of Germania,” based on writings by the Roman historian Tacitus. You can find any of the series by typing the word “Germania” in the search box at upper right.

In our last visit to Germania, we saw the mutiny of Roman soldiers over problems of pay and length of recruitment. Germanicus managed to promise his way out of the predicament, and the ranks sullenly quieted down. Nothing could do more to revive the spirits of the Roman soldiers than an easy victory with the promise of loot, and Germanicus quickly accomplished this with the massacre of the Marsi.

Germanicus divided his enthusiastic troops into four columns. These ravaged and burnt the country for 50 miles around. No pity was shown to age or sex. Religious as well as secular centers were utterly destroyed—among them the most revered holy place of those tribes [the temple of Tanfana].*

Over the next two years (15-16 AD),  Germanicus led his army to fight the alliance of tribes led by the man the Romans called Arminius and Germans now refer to as Hermann. This was the warrior the Romans had thought one of their own until he turned against them in the disastrous Battle of the Teutoburg Forest.  The army of Germanicus visited the site six years after the battle and buried the whitening bones of their fallen comrades.

Survivors of the catastrophe…pointed out where the generals had fallen, and where the Eagles were captured. They showed where Varus [the Roman commander] received his first wound, and where he died by his own unhappy hand. And they told of the platform from which Arminius had spoken, and of his arrogant insults to the Eagles and standards—and of all the gibbets and pits for the prisoners.

After an initial confrontation with forces of Arminius, Germanicus withdrew his legions to the River Ems, and Aulus Caecina Severus took over the initiative. Caecina marched his troops across the Long Bridges, a narrow causeway earlier constructed by the Romans across a swamp. “All round was slimy, treacherous bog, clinging mud intersected by streams.” Caecina set his soldiers to work repairing the old, broken causeway, and Arminius had the Cherusci tribe attack the working parties.

Everything was against the Romans. The waterlogged ground was too soft for a firm stand and too slippery for movement. Besides, they wore heavy armor and could not throw their javelins standing in the water. The Cherusci, on the other hand, were used to fighting in marshes. They were big men, too, whose thrusts with their great lances had a formidable range.

Night fell, allowing the Romans to escape disaster, but the Germans started diverting streams to run toward the low ground, flooding the causeway. The Romans could hear echoing noise as “the natives feasted with their savage shouting and triumphant songs…. The general had a horrible dream—Varus, covered with blood, seemed to rise out of the morass and call him.”

At dawn Arminius attacked once again. “His chief targets were the horses, which slipped in their own blood and the slimy bog.” Fortunately for the Romans, the Germans eventually stopped killing when they saw the opportunity for some good looting. That night in the gated Roman camp, a rumor started that the Germans were breaking in, and there was a stampede for the gates. Caecina appealed for calm, to no avail. “Then he blocked the gate by throwing himself down across it. The men were not hard-hearted enough to go over the general’s body.”

The Germans were divided as to strategy for the next day’s fighting. Arminius wanted to let the Romans come out of the camp to where he could trap them in the swamp. But another chief called for storming the camp. “Inguiomerus was for the more sensational measures which natives enjoy…that was the way to win more prisoners, and collect loot undamaged.” And so the Cherusci constructed bridges and poured over the parapets of the Roman camp.

The [Roman] battalions received their signals, and the horns and bugles sounded. Shouting, the Romans fell on the German rear. “Here there are no woods or swamps,” they jeered. “It’s a fair field, and a fair chance!” The enemy had been imagining the easy slaughter of a few badly armed men. The blare of trumpets, the glitter of weapons, was all the more effective because it was totally unexpected.

And so it ended in victory for Caecina. The Romans retired to winter quarters on the Rhine, and the next year Germanicus again raised a large army and advanced across the Weser to meet forces of Arminius at Idistaviso. Here the terrain was more advantageous to the Romans, and they inflicted a punishing defeat with heavy casualties. Germanicus continued to push for more action against the tribes, hoping to subdue them definitively. But Emperor Tiberius felt that it was not a wise use of Roman resources to continue pursuing these wild men of marshes and forests who would always return to fight another day. He recalled Germanicus to Rome, where the commander was granted a triumph—a ceremonial parade—the first full triumph celebrated since the one of Augustus in 29 BC.

Germanicus was shifted to eastern territories of the empire, where he grew in power to the point that he was seen as a likely successor to Tiberius. But he died a lingering, suspicious death, accusing Gnaeus Calpurnius Piso, the governor of Syria, of poisoning him.  A not unreasonable supposition, considering that an examination of the floors and walls of his bedroom revealed “the remains of human bodies, spells, curses, lead tablets inscribed with the patient’s name, charred and bloody ashes, and other malignant objects…”

"Death of Germanicus" by Nicolas Poussin

And so I conclude my series on Germania. I find myself fascinated by the contrast between that wild, forested place and the Germany of today. I wrote  three years ago in this blog about the vast Hercynian Forest that spanned the headwaters of the Eder, the Weser, and the Main. Here is how I described it:

We know from ancient writings, beginning with Aristotle and continuing through Julius Caesar and Pliny the Elder, that the Hercynian Forest was a mysterious realm in which the rivers flowed northward, so vast in its extent that one could not go from one end of it to the other in sixty days’ march.  Gigantic oaks grew there so close together that their mighty branches intertwined, creating a pathless and impenetrable mass.  Antlered elk without joints leaned against the sturdy tree trunks to sleep, and, with diligent searching, unicorns could be found.  The ancient ox called aurochs wandered through the dappled forest glades, and a beautiful bird with feathers that glowed like flames flitted among the numberless emerald leaves.

The photo at the top of this post shows a marsh in Holstein, the region north of Hamburg, against the border of Denmark. As mentioned in the caption, it is the only photo I could find that shows anything that really looks like a marsh. The area where Arminius led the Cherusci against the Romans was further south, near the present-day city of Hannover. And marshes in Germany appear to be rather tidy places, controlled by drainage canals and dikes.

* Tacitus, The Annals of Imperial Rome, translated by Michael Grant. Penguin Classics, 1959.

Murnauer Marsh. Photo by Richard Bartz.


1. Brian - September 26, 2011

[i]the natives feasted with their savage shouting and triumphant songs…. The general had a horrible dream—Varus, covered with blood, seemed to rise out of the morass and call him.[/i]

Wow, that is vivid. You can feel the terror even after all those centuries. Makes me think of Tolkein’s “Dead Marshes”, supposedly inspired by his experience in the swampy battlefields of WWI. You can find the best survival of the European wilderness farther east in Poland (a part of Germania to the Romans). The Biebrza Marshes may look a lot like what Germanicus encountered. The only place you can truly get an idea of what the Hercynian Forest looked like is Bialowieza Forest in Poland, a place I want to visit someday. It seems to be the only chunk of ancient forest to survive in lowland Europe and was home to the last populations of bison, (true) wild horses, and aurochs–the last survived there into the 17th century!



Jenny - September 26, 2011

Fascinating photos in those links. Those giant oak trees are bigger than any oaks I’ve seen in the Smokies—amazing! I’m not surprised that the oldest forests survive only in eastern Europe. Those regions of lower population and greater poverty seem to present the best opportunity for the ancient forests to remain relatively undisturbed.

2. Roon - September 27, 2011

Having been inspired by your series to read Germania myself, I greatly enjoyed your final instalment – the whole series is a tour de force, Jenny! Re Brian’s comment about Poland’s Bialowieza Forest, I was greatly interested recently to see a TV feature on the reserve’s European Bison (Wisent) population, bred from 8 surviving bison in European zoos and released into the reserve in the 1950s. The bison population is nowsaid to number several small herds of well over 1,000 animals in all.

Jenny - September 27, 2011

So glad you enjoyed it, Roon. I felt that you were in a unique position to appreciate the series, having lived in Germany many years but having grown up in a place where wilder landscapes survive (S. Africa). Your information about the bison is interesting. Similar projects are being undertaken in the U.S. In the Smokies, a herd of elk has been reintroduced, and it’s thriving. Last weekend I saw a magnificent bull elk along the migration route between the herd’s two places of residence (Heintooga Road, for those of you familiar with the area—between the Cataloochee and Oconoluftee meadows).

3. TWL - September 28, 2011

I really enjoyed reading this series and I also plan to read Tacitus.

But I do not know what is scarier — the fierce ancient Germans or those marshes. Put them together — yikes!

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