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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.

The battle of the Teutoburg Forest July 18, 2011

Posted by Jenny in ancient Rome, classical studies, history.
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Roman ceremonial mask displayed at the Kalkriese Museum, near the battle site

This post is one of a series on “The Wilds of Germania,” based on writings by the Roman historian Tacitus. This particular post relies primarily on other sources, as Tacitus did not describe the battle in his writings—he only described the grisly scene that met the eyes of Romans who visited the site six years later.

This battle, about which very little is known with certainty, has been reinterpreted by many individuals, particularly for the cause of German nationalism.

Our knowledge of the battle of the Teutoburg Forest comes ultimately from several Roman historians: Velleius Paterculus, Cassius Dio, Publius Annius Florus, and Cornelius Tacitus. As mentioned above, Tacitus did not write about the battle but only about its aftermath—the battle occurred during the reign of Augustus, and his Annals of Imperial Rome begins with the death of Augustus and the succession of Tiberius. His Germania is an anthropological description of the German peoples rather than an account of Roman-German conflicts.

There are many contradictions in these early accounts, but it is generally agreed that the Teutoburg Forest battle, fought in September of the year 9 A.D., was a catastrophe for the Romans and a triumph for the Germans. Three legions of Roman soldiers under the command of Publius Quinctilius Varus, the XVII, XVIII, and XIX, were ambushed and virtually wiped out by German tribes who put aside their traditional rivalries to defeat the hated Romans. The tribes were secretly organized by a man of German origin who had been given to the Romans as tribute when he was just a boy. He had been educated in Rome and was trusted as an associate by Varus. The Romans called him Arminius. His name was later “re-Germanicized” to Hermann.

Romanticized depiction of "Hermann," Johann Peter Theodor Jansen, 1870

I will use the German name in this discussion, even though it is a bit spurious (we don’t actually know his birth name), simply because the man was indeed German in his origin and in his allegiance. Hermann returned to his homeland with the army of Varus and secretly negotiated alliances between the German tribes: the Cherusci, Marsi, Chatti, Bructeri, Chauci, Sicambri, and Suebi. When Varus was moving his forces from his summer camp near the Weser River to his winter base near the Rhine, Hermann invented stories of a rebellion of Germans in a nearby town and made sure Varus heard of it—and that it was a matter that needed to be tended to urgently.

One of the many contradictions in the accounts concerns the character of Varus. The Wikipedia article describes him as a ruthless individual given to practicing crucifixion as punishment for rebels. However, the account of Velleius Paterculus describes Varus as “of a mild disposition and a sedate manner.”

Varus took his army through unfamiliar territory to reach the area of the supposed rebellion. His troops marched in a long, narrow line because of the nature of the terrain: they had bogs on one side and hills on the other. The line is said to have extended as far as 12 miles. The Germans had constructed defense works as they waited for the hapless Romans to come along.

Recreated German fortifications

The Germans rained down their javelins on the Romans from behind their fortifications, and then, as they saw many Romans falling or fleeing, they ran in pursuit. According to one account, the battle lasted less than a day; according to another, it lasted three days, with the Romans breaking out with heavy losses, establishing a camp, then fighting again with yet more losses, fleeing, and enduring casualties of nearly all of their number—estimated at 15,000 to 20,000 total. The ones who survived were said to be enslaved or sacrificed, some even supposedly cooked in pots. Varus committed suicide. Vellius Paterculus wrote: The savage enemy mangled the half-burned body of Varus. His head was cut off and sent to Marobodus [king of the Marcomanni, a Germanic people] and by him sent to the Emperor; and so at length received honorable burial in the sepulcher of his family.

Memorial to a centurion of the XXVIII legion named Marcus Caelius. Erected by his brother.

The account of Cassius Dio describes the area of the battle as full of mountains, ravines, and impenetrable forest. At the site now recognized as the most probable location of the battle, near Osnabrueck in northwestern Germany, no such features exist. Jona Lendering of livius.org, a website devoted to ancient history, writes: Dio thought that the Germanic tribes lived on the edges of the earth, which the ancients conceptualized as a big forest, occupied by barbarian savages. Dio mentions mountains, ravines, and impenetrable forests…. The battlefield has been discovered near Osnabrueck, and there were neither mountains nor ravines. There may have been a forest, but it was certainly not impenetrable, because there was a village on walking distance from the excavated part of the battlefield.

Teutoburg Forest as it is today

A mythicized version of the story of the battle fed into feelings of German pride and nationalism, starting in the 19th century and continuing well into the 20th. A giant statue of Hermann was erected.

Hermann's Memorial

The symbolically weighty images were perpetuated in both painting and sculpture.

"Varus's Battle" by Otto Albert Koch, 1909

I really wonder about all those helmets with wings on them…is there any historical basis for that?

Teutoburg Forest has even been used as a touchstone by right-wingers in the U.S., where the “decentralized” governance of the German tribes is set in opposition to the “centralizing features of Roman law” (read “states’ rights” versus that demon of the federal government). This website features a description of the battle beside advertisements for the John Birch Society.

Tacitus gives us the following description of Roman soldiers under Germanicus visiting the battle site. The scene lived up to its horrible associations. Varus’ extensive first camp, with its broad extent and headquarters marked out, testified to the whole army’s labors. Then a half-ruined breastwork and shallow ditch showed where the last pathetic remnant had gathered. On the open ground were whitening bones, scattered where men had fled, heaped up where they had stood and fought back. Fragments of spears and of horses’ limbs lay there—also human heads, fastened to tree trunks. In groves nearby were the outlandish altars at which the Germans had massacred the Roman colonels and senior company commanders…. And so, six years after the disaster, a Roman army came to this place and buried the bones of the men of three divisions.

Next to come: the campaigns of Germanicus.

"Grave of Arminius" (Hermann) by Caspar David Friedrich, 1812