The Varian Disaster – (Clades Variana) 9AD
Commanded XVII, XVIII, XIX Legions at Battle of Teutoberger Wald – Known to Romans as the Varian Disaster after which the Empire never again made serious efforts to conquer the area now known as Germany.
A lawyer by training, Varus governed Africa and Syria before being sent to Germany. The Consul was known for cruelty – in those times enough to make one shudder, high taxes and suppression of a revolt in Judea after the death of Herod – crucifiction , normal punishment, was used liberally. “…Varus returned to Rome. Later, one of his enemies, the author Velleius Paterculus, was to state in his Roman History that Varus had arrived as a poor man in rich Syria, and had left an impoverished province as a rich man. Note This is unlikely; Varus belonged to the highest elite of the empire and cannot have been poor.”
Sent to Germany by Augustus Caesar to extirpate hostile tribes and to prepare northern Germany for colonization, Varus did not appreciate the danger he faced from the Germans, most notably the Cherusci, ruled by a nominal German ally, Arminius who had been taken hostage as his tribe’s peace guarantee and educated in Rome.
The initial force dispatched to the Rhine was quite large: 13 Legions, in all close to 100,000 troops. The German tribes would have been hard pressed with these numbers. Fortunately for them Bellum Batonianum – the Great Illyrian Revolt took four years to subdue and absorbed the better part of the Roman army. Illyria corresponds to present day countries of Albania, Kosovo, Montenegro, Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina; Croatia. As a result The group attacking Germany was cut to three legions, the XVII (17th),XVIII (18th) and the XIX (19th) numbering 20,000 plus technical troops and hangers on say up to 25,000.
In September of 9 AD while preparing to move to winter quarters Varus was unaware that Arminius of the Cherusci – also known as Herman The Cherusker, was plotting an ambush on favorable ground, scheming how to get the Romans to a favorable site in the Teutoburger Forest.
On the march south from present day Xanten to winter quarters at Mogontiacum ( Mainz), Varus received news from Arminius that he (and allied German troops) were under attack to the northwest; despite advice to the contrary from those who did sense a trap, Varus marched to help his ‘ally’; was ambushed in the Teutoburger Forest at present day Kalkreise north of Osnabruck in swampy forested terrain preventing any Roman ability to maneover. Arminius chose the spot with care.
Attacks began in the rear and sides, wagon trains and other impedimenta paralyzing the middle of strung out legions herding them to a final killing ground picked out by Arminius for the reckoning. Like cattle, XVII, XVIII and XIX Legions were slaughtered almost to a man in a running four day battle that ended at Kalkriese Hill near modern day Osnabruck. Varus committed suicide after hiding all his chests of valuables- booty not yet found. His body was identified by the Germans, who cut off the Roman’s head and sent it to Maroboduus, hoping that he would join the general insurrection. However, he refused, and sent Varus’ remains to Rome. Augustus buried the head in the mausoleum of his own family.
News of the disaster stunned Augustus. The devastated emperor was heard to utter for the rest of his life, “Quintili Vari, Legiones Redde” Quintil1ius Varus, give me back my legions!
What might have happened had there been a Pax Romana in Germany?