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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.

Mutiny in Germania July 22, 2011

Posted by Jenny in ancient Rome, classical studies, history.
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Roman helmet, first century A.D. Photo by Matthias Kabel.

This post is one of a series on “The Wilds of Germania,” based on writings by the Roman historian Tacitus.

The Battle of the Teutoburg Forest described in the last post had occurred toward the end of the reign of Emperor Augustus, in the year 9 A.D. Five years later, Augustus died and his stepson Tiberius succeeded him. This was accomplished through machinations that eliminated three grandsons from the line of succession—a process very entertainingly described by Tacitus in the Annals. One of my favorite passages about the transition of emperors goes: Meanwhile at Rome consuls, senate, other gentry, precipitately became more servile. The more distinguished men were, the greater their urgency and insincerity. They must show neither satisfaction at the death of one emperor, nor gloom at the accession of another: so their features were carefully arranged in a blend of tears and smiles, mourning and flattery.*

Tiberius, second emperor of Rome

Problems soon arose among the armies on the frontiers, particularly in Germania and Pannonia (the latter in the region of present-day Romania). One source has it that the legions in those areas had been promised bonuses by Augustus; another has it that the soldiers were told that the length of their recruitment would not be reduced as promised. Tacitus, as usual, describes the situation colorfully: When the death of Augustus became known, the simple minds of the majority came under the influence of the masses of town-slaves who had recently been conscripted in the capital. Naturally insolent and lazy, they now argued that the moment had come for old soldiers to demand long-overdue demobilization, and for the younger men to demand an increase in pay. Everyone should insist on relief from their hardships, and retaliate against the savagery of their company commanders.

Suddenly there was a great outbreak among soldiers in Germania. The general, Caecina, took no counter-measures. The scale of the disturbances broke his nerve. Suddenly, in a passionate frenzy, swords drawn, the men attacked their company commanders…. They [the commanders] were hurled to the ground and given the lash, sixty strokes each… Then, broken and mutilated, they were cast outside the lines or thrown into the Rhine.

The commander-in-chief, Germanicus, was away in the Gallic provinces when news reached him of the disturbances. He traveled quickly to Caecina’s camp, where a contingent of the rebellious soldiers met him and spoke of their complaints. He did not at first respond directly, but gave a speech carefully praising both Augustus and Tiberius in equal amounts. He spoke appreciatively of Italy’s unanimous support for the government, and of the loyalty of the Gauls—of the perfect harmony and order prevailing everywhere [else]. This was received…with indistinct muttering. But then Germanicus passed on to the mutiny. What on earth had happened, he asked, to their famous, traditional military discipline…? The soldiers’ reply was to tear off their clothes one after another, and point abusively to the scars left by their wounds and floggings. There was a confused roar about their wretched pay, the high cost of exemptions from duty, and the hardness of the work.

The crowd pressed Germanicus for legacies promised them by Augustus. Some said they would support him if he were to take the throne in the place of Tiberius, but at this he shouted melodramatically that he would die rather than be disloyal to the emperor. He pulled the sword from his belt and lifted it as though to plunge it into his chest. The men round him clutched his arm and stopped him by force…. But…certain individuals encouraged him to strike. A soldier called Calusidius even drew his own sword and offered it, remarking that it was sharper.

Associates of Germanicus managed to hustle him away to safety.  He faced a delicate situation. The rebel soldiers were rumored to be planning to recruit the other armies of Germania and to go plundering into the provinces of Gaul. On top of that, the local German tribes were aware of the mutiny and might easily take advantage of the situation. Germanicus decided to announce some concessions in the name of Tiberius—a matter that was to greatly annoy the emperor when eventually he learned of it. Demobilization was promised after twenty years’ service. Men who had served sixteen years were to be released but kept with the colors with no duties except to help beat off enemy attacks. Moreover, the legacies which they had requested were to be paid—twice over.

The soldiers demanded that these be implemented right away. The demobilizations were easily taken care of, but Germanicus was a bit short of cash for the promised payments and had to use the personal traveling funds of himself and his staff. That addressed the immediate problem, but unrest continued in other areas of occupied Germania.

Next to come: Mutiny ends with attack on the Marsi.

* All quotes are from The Annals of Imperial Rome, translated by Michael Grant, Penguin Classics, 1959.

Germanicus. He was named in honor of earlier Roman victories in Germania.