The year is 9 AD - and in the dark forest of the Teutoburg, over 30 thousand men of Rome's Imperial Legions would meet a horrible death at the hands of German "barbarians."
The arrogance of Imperial Rome was often tested - but seldom with such devastating effect and consequences. And by an enemy the Roman's considered inferior in every way. In Europe, the Latin tentacles had spread through Spain, into Gaul, and now to the borders of Germania.
The Roman lie, told to their enemies to justify their own imperial advancement, was that they were there to bring "civilization" to the savages - and as they told the Gauls, to protect them from their enemies. How noble. How enlightened.
Mass murder, treachery, broken promises were soon to follow. And though on occasion the Romans were given a taste of the bitter medicine they had inflicted upon others, this was to be the very worst.
The Romans had halted their expansion at the Rhine river. There seemed to be little more to be gained for the time being, financially or otherwise. They were at the beginning of an as yet undefined attempt to mark the borders of their vast empire.
The Suevian tribe of Germans across the Rhine were led by Arminius. He was born into a Romanized world - and hated every thing about it.
Varus was the arrogant Roman who led his legions so foolishly in pursuit of Arminius - into the dark depths of the Teutoburg forest on a hot summer day. Their collision would be devastating.
Below is an interesting example of Roman justification regarding this epic defeat. Self-serving as it is, it is nonetheless illuminating and worth repeating at length. It was written by Gaius Velleus Paterculus.
9th of August - 9AD
"Caesar had but just concluded the war in Pannonia and Dalmatia, when, within five days after the final determination of it, mournful news arrived from Germany; that Varus was killed, three legions cut to pieces, as many troops of cavalry, and six cohorts.
The occasion, and the character of the leader, demand some attention. Quintilius Varus was born of a noble rather than illustrious family, was of a mild disposition, of sedate manners, and being somewhat indolent as well, in body as in mind, was more accustomed to ease in a camp than to action in the field. How far he was from despising money, Syria, of which he had been governor, afforded proof; for, going a poor man into that rich province, he became a rich man, and left it a poor province.
Being appointed commander of the army in Germany, he imagined that the inhabitants had nothing human but the voice and limbs, and that men who could not be tamed by the sword, might be civilized by law. With this notion, having marched into the heart of Germany, as if among people who delighted in the sweets of peace, he spent the summer in deciding controversies, and ordering the pleadings before a tribunal.
But those people, though a person unacquainted with them would hardly believe it, are, while extremely savage, exquisitely artful, a race, indeed, formed by nature for deceit; and, accordingly, by introducing fictitious disputes one after another, by sometimes prosecuting each other for pretended injuries, and then returning thanks for the decision of these suits by Roman equity, for the civilization of their barbarous state by this new system, and for the determination by law of disputes which used to be determined by arms, they at length lulled Quintilius into such a perfect feeling of security, that he fancied himself a city praetor dispensing justice in the forum, instead of the commander of an army in the middle of Germany.
It was at this time that a youth of illustrious birth, the son of Segimer, prince of that nation, named Arminius, brave in action, quick in apprehension, and of activity of mind far beyond the state of barbarism, showing in his eyes and countenance the ardor of his feelings (a youth who had constantly accompanied our army in the former war, and had obtained the privileges of a Roman citizen, and the rank of a knight), took advantage of the general's indolence to perpetrate an act of atrocity, not unwisely judging that no man is more easily cut off than he who feels no fear, and that security is very frequently the commencement of calamity.
He communicated his thoughts at first to a few, and afterward to more, stating to them, and assuring them, that the Romans might be cut off by surprise; he then proceeded to add action to resolution, and fixed a time for carrying a plot into action. Notice of this intention was given to Varus by Segestes, a man of that nation, worthy of credit, and of high rank; but fate was not to be opposed by warnings, and had already darkened the mental vision of the Roman general.
Varus refused to credit the information, asserting that he felt a trust in the good will of the people, proportioned to his kindness toward them. However, after this first premonition, there was no time left for a second.
The circumstances of this most dreadful calamity, than which none more grievous ever befell the Romans in a foreign country, since the destruction of Crassus in Parthia, I will endeavor to relate in my larger history, as has been done before. At present we can only lament the whole. An army unrivaled in bravery, the flower of the Roman troops in discipline, vigor, and experience in war, was brought, through the supineness of its leader, the perfidy of the enemy, and the cruelty of Fortune, into a situation utterly desperate (in which not even an opportunity was allowed the men of extricating themselves by fighting, as they wished, some being even severely punished by the general, for using Roman arms with Roman spirit), and, hemmed in by woods, lakes, and bodies of the enemy in ambush, was entirely cut off by those foes whom they had ever before slaughtered like cattle, and of whose life and death the mercy or severity of the Romans has always been the arbitrator.
The leader showed some spirit in dying, though none in fighting; for, imitating the example of his father and grandfather, he ran himself through with his sword. Of two prefects of the camp, Lucius Eggius gave as honorable an example of valor as Ceionius gave of baseness; for, after the sword had destroyed the greater part of the army, Ceionius advised a surrender, choosing to die by the hand of an executioner rather than in battle.
Numonius Vala, a lieutenant-general under Varus, who in other cases conducted himself as a modest and well-meaning man, was on this occasion guilty of abominable treachery; for, leaving the infantry uncovered by the cavalry, he fled with the horse of the allies, and attempted to reach the Rhine. Fortune took vengeance on his misdeed; for he did not survive his deserted countrymen, but perished in the act of desertion.
The savage enemy mangled the half-burned body of Varus; his head was cut off, and brought to Marobodus, and being sent by him to Caesar, was at length honored with burial in the sepulcher of his family."
Gaius Velleus Paterculus.
|It is interesting to
note that this Roman history even mentions the
destruction of these three legions and auxiliaries. They
were often reluctant to even consider the possibility of
mentioning such an event.
The Roman justification is even more apparent in some other respects. First, the hint of mental aberration that must have afflicted Varus - how else could such a mighty force have been so utterly destroyed. It couldn't possibly have been the merits of the enemy. In the Roman view, the Latin's could only have lost the battle through their own errors - the barbarians did not win it.
The Roman's also had the bad habit of imbuing "civilized" (i.e. Roman) traits to those of their enemies that exhibited superior skills in battle or in political cunning. Again, a justification so that only an "equal" could be shown to defeat them.
Besides the three lost Legions (the XVII, XVIII, and the XIX) which amounted to around 15 thousand men; 6 cohorts (500 men each, or 3,000 total), and 3 ala of cavalry (equivalent in numbers to the Legions) were also lost. Almost 33 thousand destroyed.
The Germans never had any intention of ever dealing "fairly" with the Romans. They were invaders - destroyers, and only awaited an opportunity to strike. The Romans were easily led into the trap. The battle took place in a pouring rain - the legions were trapped by falling trees and hemmed in on all sides by other natural impediments. They tried to rally, building make-shift fortifications, but by the end of the three day ordeal, the mighty legions were no more.
For the Romans who survived, an even more terrible fate awaited them. Those foolish enough to surrendered were cut down instantly by eager Germans - chopped to pieces, beheaded, and worse. Others were said to have been sacrificed on blood-stained alters - offered up to dark, victorious gods.
In Rome, the shock was palpable. And Augustus Caesar was rumored to have often called out in the night, "Varus! Give me back my Legions." They were never coming home.
Some years later, a Roman force led by Germanicus, came across the site of the debacle. A Roman historian wrote: "Across the open ground were whitening bones, scattered where men had fled, or heaped up where they had made a stand. Spintered weapons and horses' limbs lay there, and human heads, fastened to tree trunks. In nearby groves were the barbaric altars at which they had sacrificed the tribunes and centurions in cold blood."
This was hardly the end of Roman power, nor even the beginning of it, but it was a symbol of the hatred the rest of their conquered world held for them - no matter what the Romans wished to believe about themselves. And have us believe.