Well-known sayings: Varus

The tribes of Travian have left their mark on our civilization!

“Quintili Vare, legiones redde“ – “Quintilius Varus, give me back my legions“ – the writer Sueton quotes the Roman emperor Augustus. However,  this outcry of desperation no longer reached Varus, who, together with 20,000 Legionnaires had died in the marshes and forests of northern Germania. Three legions, which made up about one eighth of the Roman military at the time, had been defeated and killed by an army of different Teutonic tribes in a three day long battle in the year 9 AD.

The governor

At that time, Germania was seen as peaceful and friendly towards Rome. Following the conquest of Gaul, Rome moved its borders east towards the Rhine and also erected fortified camps east of the river. In 5 AD the general and emperor to be, Tiberius, advanced to the Elbe river. The Teutons were involved in active trading with the Romans, sold food and clothing and by doing so also got a first glimpse of Roman culture. The upper class in particular was very impressed by the Roman way of living. Some Teutonic princes even went as far as sending their children to Rome, where they were educated and even served in Roman legions.

In 7 AD Quintilius Varus became emperor Augustus’s governor in Germania. The senator stemming from a Roman aristocratic family was the former administrator in Syria, where he had great success at quelling a riot. Presumably his job in Germania consisted of the pacification of the northern territories between the Rhine and the Elbe and to establish an administration there. This included the introduction of Roman law and the collection of taxes.

Allegedly Varus did not think much of the Teutons. The contemporary historian Velleius Paterculus reports that Varus thought that: “besides their voice and limbs there is nothing human-like to them”. His role as a judge also brought him into direct conflict with the Teutons, since their law traditions were based on kin and honor, while Roman law focused on formal claims of possession. Historians also suspect that Varus took the collection of taxes very seriously, so that it would allow him to benefit personally from his office.

The officer

The Teutons’ discontent with their Roman occupiers must have grown so strong that some started to revolt and plan an attack on the Roman military. In 9 AD, to enhance Roman influence in the region, Varus set up a summer camp with the 17th, 18th and 19th legion in the territory of the Cherusci near the River Weser. On the way back to their winter quarters on the Rhine however, he chose a route unknown to the Romans and through rough terrain – probably at the urging of his officer, the Teuton Arminius, who knew the area and commanded a support division.

The son of a Cherusci prince lived in Rome for many years, served in the legion and eventually became a Roman citizen. This meant that he knew the Roman way of fighting and its weaknesses. In his function as both officer and advisor to the general Varus, he also knew the Romans’ plans intimately and could influence them to his benefit.

The long walk through wooded and boggy territory must have been a real ordeal. The Romans were further held up by strong rain, which often required them to cut down trees and construct dams to clear a way. When the Teutonic support troops deserted and Arminius also vanished, the attacks began.

The Varus defeat

It was a very one-sided battle: Heavily-armored infantry fought against lightly-armored, agile attackers that struck only to vanish into thin air shortly after. The neatly organized, well trained and strongly disciplined Roman army was up against an impromptu coalition of Teutonic fighters, who had left their farms and villages for the duration of the campaign.

The Roman Legionnaires were marching in a long column and their trained battle formations were of no use to them in the wet, mountainous terrain. The lightly-armed Teutons in turn could choose the time and place of their engagements and retreat if necessary. This way, they avoided an attack on open ground when the Romans set up camp, and just waited until they moved on.

Over a period of three days, the Teutons attacked repeatedly and caused heavy losses among the legions until, finally, the Roman governor and his remaining officers committed suicide. It was the last and only way out of this dreadful situation for Varus, who could at least preserve some honor in Rome amid this humiliating defeat. The leaderless remainder of the army was now wiped out completely and the Teutons had no mercy with their enemies. Soldiers found alive were sacrificed to the gods. They took no prisoners.

Where did they fight?

It is still not clear where exactly this battle took place. Clear traces have been found in Kalkriese near the German city of Osnabrück. Open graves, weapon parts and Roman coins have been discovered there. The most recent coins were minted in 9 AD. So it is quite certain that the Romans fought there and that the battle took place in 9 AD or later. However, the bones that have been discovered can only be attributed to 17 individuals – too few for the ultimate battle of the legions. So it remains unclear whether a skirmish in the downfall of the three legions of Varus or a battle during a later expedition took place here.

The consequences

The Romans called this battle “Clades Varii”, the “Varus defeat”. With his famous phrase “Varus, give me back my legions” emperor Augustus bemoaned the substantial weakening of his power. Subsequently the Teutons attacked the fortified camps in the west and south and pushed the Romans back to the other side of the Rhine. By doing so, they restored the status quo prior to the Roman advance into the north-east.

However, the Romans didn’t abandon their expansion and advanced across the Rhine time and time again. Only four years after the Varus defeat, the Roman Germanicus led a few expeditions against the Teutons. They in turn remained in disunity, so that rapprochement between a few tribes and the Romans occurred. Trade relations were established, while raids and attacks on Roman camps in the border region and Roman-friendly villages were part of the daily routine. It was only 100 years later that the Romans erected a permanent fortification, the northern Germanic limes wall, against the barbaric attacks and gave up their plans to expand farther north.

Hence, the “Battle of the Teutoburg Forest”, or “Herrmann’s Battle” ,as it is known by in Germany, was admittedly a decisive defeat for Rome, but it cannot be seen as a turning point in history, as some German politicians and 19th century historians make us believe.

Wow, that was a lot of history… so why don’t we all just head over to the game and play a round of Travian: Kingdoms!

One Comment on “Well-known sayings: Varus

  1. A notícia desse desastre militar abalou profundamente Augusto que, em sinal de luto, deixou crescer a barba e, durante muitas noites foi visto batendo a cabeça contra a porta e murmurando:

    Varo, dá-me minhas legiões de volta!. ”

    in english:
    The news of this military disaster deeply shook Augusto, in a sign of mourning, grew a beard, and for many nights was seen banging his head against the door and muttering:

    “Varus, give me back my legions !. “

Leave a Reply