The revolt in Germany in AD 9, also known as the Clades Variana, has been turned into folk-lore, both as the great Roman military disaster and the birth of German nationalism. The Hermannsdenkmal built in 1836 is perhaps the most famous monument to the German revolt.
The battle has been used to symbolise the resilience of the German nation, supposedly resisting foreign intervention from antiquity to the nineteenth century and beyond and the impossibilities of conquered the rugged and forested land of Germany.
The gradual expansion of Roman control through Germany had brought the land west of the Elbe into the Empire. Tiberian campaigning was put on hold by the events in Pannonia. But after at least 25 years of raids and conquest, the Roman authorities felt ready to move the region into being a province.
The governor, Varus, moved from a conquest mode to one of settlement. He established a sort of governor’s court at which the leaders of the various tribes came to together. There, he could give instructions and take advice and incorporate the tribal leadership into Roman governance. This was a policy that had worked very well in Gaul.
The policy had its disadvantages. Primarily, it gave the tribal leaders a place in which they could all meet and in which they could all plot. Rather than resistance to Rome being on a tribe-by-tribe basis, there was a prospect that the tribes might unite.
Further the policy of turning Germany into a province required the imposition of Roman taxation, and the processes of registration and land measurement that took place elsewhere. This was not a region in which there established taxation system which the Romans could simply adopt (as they did in much of the East), and the imposition of a taxation provided plenty of opportunity for corruption and likely led to impoverishment of at least some of the German population (Dio, 56.18-19). Low level problems encouraged Varus to distribute his troops across various communities where they could provide security and likely support tax collection.
The revolt began in a remote region of the province. Varus gathered his troops and his German allies and marched towards the edge of the province. The allied leaders marched with him, but then made excuses and detached themselves from the column, joining troops that they had already assembled. Scattered detachments of Roman soldiers were picked off. By the time Varus realised what was happening, he was deep in what was now hostile territory and many days march from the relative safety of the garrisons on the Rhine. He had little choice, but to extract who and what he could and march west (Dio, 56.19).
The Romans had been sufficiently long in Germany that the legionaries had come to consider themselves safe. They had their possessions and their women and children with them. All were packed up to be marched off along unsuitable roads. The Germans caught them on the march and unable to form a proper battle line, the Romans had difficulty resisting German harassment. Unable to progress and unable to form up for battle, they encamped. The next day, they burned their wagons and set off again.
But they were in difficult territory and fighting a more mobile enemy. The Germans could harass the line of march or block the road. On the fourth day, the Romans were caught in a storm. With the surrounding forest soaked through, departing from the road must have been near impossible. It made the German task of blocking their path so much easier. The rain prevented the Romans using some of their missiles. No progress could be be made and they made camp once more.
The army may already have begun to disintegrate. At some point, the cavalry struck out alone (Valerius Paterculus, 2.119). Varus took counsel with his officers, and killed himself rather than be captured. At least some of his senior officers followed suit (Dio, 56.21-22). We can only imagine what happened next. Did the soldiers run for the forest to try and break through? Did they sit in the camp and await the inevitable. Some did survive. They were captured but later escaped from slavery and rejoined the army. They were on hand to tell Germanicus of the deed when he was later to visit the site (Tacitus, Annales 1.61-62).
The scene that Germanicus saw was one of slaughter. The remains of the army were scattered around a camp. Bodies lay on the ground where they had fallen. Others were dragged off to be killed or sacrificed. Heads were nailed to trees.
Recent excavations at Kalkriese in Germany have uncovered extraordinary remains spread across what must have been the site. These include a wonderful silver mask that was likely worn by a cavalryman, small portions of military equipment surrounded by mud, and skulls, smashed and separate from the bodies. There was also huge numbers of coins, presumably the soldiers’ pay and, most significantly, gold coins. Gold coins were rare and of very high value. They were likely used for international trade and for paying soldiers.
Three legions (XVII, XVIII, XIX) and their associated allied forces disappeared. Losses were likely more than 20,000.
One of the dead was a Marcus Caelius, whose tombstone survives in Xanten and is one of the most remarkable and fine pieces of sculpture from the Roman North.