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'Quintilius Varus, give me back my legions!'
By Rider, 13 July 2007; Revised
Category: Classical Mediterranean and Europe: Roman Military
On the orders of Caesar Augustus, the northern border had been moved some 400 kilometers eastward to the River Elbe, after 12 BC. That was the result of the previous border on the Rivers of Danube and Rhone, being extremely vulnerable to attacks by the local tribes. However, the subjugation of the people that lived between the River Elbe and Rhone/Danube was not so easy. Yet, the armies managed to conquer the lands, and, by 7 BC, the campaign was over. The defeated Germanic tribes were successful in several revolts. A larger one threatened the stability of the entire northern border, but was resolved in favour of the Romans by 4 AD.
Varus had been the Roman prefect of Syria and was married to a distant relative of the Caesar. Varus took command of the Rhone armies in 6 AD and treated the local population as he had treated the Syrians – with no respect and demanding heavy tolls in gold and silver.
Varus was in command of five legions of which two were in Mainz (Mogontiacum) and three changed summer and winter quarters regularly. In summer, the three were in Minden-by-Weser, and, in winter, they were in Aliso.
When the three legions started moving to the winter quarters in 9 AD, Varus received messages of a German resistance. He planned to destroy it on the way to Aliso. The leader of the Cheruscans was Arminius, son of Segimer. Arminius had served in the Roman army and knew its weaknesses. Segestes, the father-in-law of Arminius, found out about the plot and told Varus, but Varus didn’t believe it due to the fact that Segestes disliked Arminius.
In October of 9 AD, Varus started moving towards Aliso. Under his command were the Legio XVII, Legio XVIII and Legio XIX – altogether some 20,000 men. The road to subjugate the revolt led the army through the marshy forests of Teutoburg and Segestes, convinced that Arminius had chosen that place to lead the assault against the Romans, warned Varus again, but to no avail – the arrogant Roman disregarded his warnings and set out to march through the forest. Arminius, who had led Varus’ bodyguard, had, however, left and Varus received a messenger notifying him that the more distant Roman units had been slaughtered. Varus immediately altered the route of the army to go through the Dören passage. Soon after, Varus received word that Aliso had been besieged and Varus again reconfigured the route of his army. Whilst going through the thick forest of Teutoburg, a large thunderstorm hit them. In this confusion, the Cheruscans committed their assault against the Roman column.
The men of Arminius began throwing javelins into the Roman fray. Yet, the Roman officers managed to create a perimeter of some sort that helped them defend themselves. The next morning, Varus had his army move forward and, although they managed to get out of the forest, they soon had to re-enter it. In the thick forests, the Cheruscans continued assaults that took hundreds and thousands of lives.
By that night, the Roman javelins, bows and shields were soaked and pretty much useless. As they fought in an orderless rabble, the discipline paid no role. Varus and other officers of the Legios commited suicide by jumping on their own swords. The valiant cavalry commander, Numonius Vala, however, managed to cut himself a road to safety. He was followed by a part of the cavalry. The rest of the Roman army was destroyed to the last man.
The commander of Aliso, Lucius Caedicius, managed to break free, and, while defending the civilians, brought the forces to a safe haven in Vetera. There were two legions waiting for him. Arminius and his forces retreated.
The rebellion was finally subdued by 13 AD. The destroyed legions were never restored, nor was the border at Elbe ever safe again. Soon, it was pushed back to the Rhone. The Romans had suffered a devastating loss and their reputation fell harshly as everyone saw the invincibility of the eagle as a myth.
The name 'Quintilius Varus' may also be spelled as 'Quinctilius Varus'.
Saul David ’Military Blunders’