Where did the Roman army fight?

The Varus Battle


Roman desire for expansion

What is certain, however, is that more than 15,000 Roman soldiers lost their lives fighting the Teutons in 9 AD. In just three days, Germanic tribes under their leader Arminius defeated the Roman legions, which were considered unbeatable. The Varus Battle, named after its loser, forever changed Rome's endeavors to subdue the Germanic peoples to the right of the Rhine.

Under Emperor Augustus (63 BC to 14 AD), the areas on the left bank of the Rhine in Germany were already firmly in Roman hands. Cities like Cologne, Xanten and Trier are flourishing metropolises, numerous fortified military camps stretch along the Rhine.

But Rome wants more. Under the daring general Drusus, Roman soldiers advance to the Elbe in 11 BC. With extreme brutality they subjugate their Germanic opponents.

But without skillful alliances with the individual Germanic tribes, the conquered area cannot be held for long. There are always minor uprisings between the Rhine, Main and Elbe.

After the sudden death of Drusus, his brother Tiberius takes over the supreme command in Germania. Tiberius relies more on diplomatic skill than his predecessors. Whole Germanic tribes are being resettled from areas on the right bank of the Rhine to those on the left bank in order to adapt them to Roman civilization.

Other tribes, friendly with Rome, are settled as a buffer between the Roman-occupied areas and the unoccupied Germania. At the turn of the century, Germania seems to be pacified. The basis for further Roman conquests has been laid.

Varus comes to Germania

In the year 7 AD Publius Quinctilius Varus was appointed governor in Germania. Some Roman sources describe him as a peaceful and reserved person, while others call him a ruthless and brutal exploiter.

As soon as he arrived in Germania, Varus quickly interfered in the affairs of allied Germanic tribes. The governor is so convinced of the superiority of Roman civilization that he treats the Teutons more as slaves than as allies.

They have to pay high tributes and submit to the Roman way of life in all matters. The discontent among the Germans is growing. But because of the enormous Roman military presence, they shy away from an armed uprising.

Arminius - a "Roman" Teuton

For a long time the Germanic tribes were so divided that they could not organize a common uprising against the overpowering Rome. But in the wake of Varus, a charismatic young Teuton who is in the service of the Roman army is transferred to Germania: Arminius, the Cheruscan.

There is much to suggest that Arminius, who comes from a Germanic princely family, was brought to Rome as a pledge of hostages when he was a child. The Romans often used this practice to secure the allegiance of high-ranking allies.

Arminius joined the Roman army as a young man and had a remarkable career. In Germania he is supposed to support Varus in the expansion of the Roman province.

For the governor, despite warnings about Arminius, it is unthinkable that a high-ranking Roman soldier could turn against him. But Arminius manages to unite numerous Germanic tribes and win them to fight against Rome.

Why a high-ranking member of the Roman army becomes a bitter opponent of the empire remains in the dark of history.

Much has been speculated about it: from Arminius' desire to become the first king of Germania to a personal campaign of revenge because of his kidnapping in childhood to the possible reflection on his Germanic origins.

Insufficient chance of advancement in the Roman army is also often cited as a reason, but the ancient sources do not provide any information about Arminius' true motive.

The annihilation of the Roman legions

Arminius knows the Roman warfare very well and knows that he has no chance against the legions in the open field. So he has to ambush her. In the year 9 AD the opportunity has come. Varus is with three legions in the hinterland of Germania and is about to start the way back.

Arminius, who was still a close confidante of Varus at the time, spreads the rumor that some Teutons are planning an uprising off the planned route. Varus falls for it and accepts a detour.

This detour leads the Roman soldiers through impassable terrain in the pouring rain. You have to pass thick forests and boggy swamps. The paths are so narrow that you can only walk one behind the other. The Roman train stretches over several kilometers. This is exactly the situation Arminius wanted to bring about.

At a particularly inaccessible place, Germanic hordes attack the army at lightning speed and then hide behind ramparts again. The Romans cannot form their usual war formation and have to fight man against man against the Teutons in their heavy armor.

With this guerrilla tactic, Arminius wears down the Roman legions for three days, then the spook is over.

An estimated 15,000 to 20,000 Romans lose their lives these days. Your general Varus commits suicide on the battlefield. With a clearly outnumbered group of attackers, Arminius inflicts a crushing defeat on the invincible Roman army.

The aftermath of the battle

Rome cannot accept the shame of defeat. Emperor Augustus strengthens the army on the Rhine and has Arminius persecuted mercilessly. The Roman army, under their general Germanicus, roams the country, murdering and pillaging.

But Germanicus does not succeed in confronting Arminius. This repeatedly eludes access and inflicts further defeats on the Roman army in a bitter guerrilla war.

In 16 AD, Emperor Tiberius, the successor to Emperor Augustus, ended the less promising Germanic campaigns. The Romans finally withdraw to the left side of the Rhine and forego expanding the province of Germania.

In the future, only the borders of the existing province should be secured. Almost 70 years later, this leads to the construction of a huge rampart that separates the Roman-occupied Germania from the "barbarian land": the Limes.

Kalkriese - the place of the battle?

There are more than 700 theories as to where the Varus Battle is said to have taken place. Since the ancient sources are too imprecise, one can speculate about the actual location. But since the 1980s archaeological excavations have made the Kalkriese site a favorite among scientists.

Whether the Varus Battle actually took place in Kalkriese has not been proven, but there are many indications for it. On the basis of finds it can be determined that there were clearly armed conflicts in Kalkriese.

The time of the fighting can also be narrowed down, as no finds from the time after 9 AD were made. The large number of military finds and the size of the excavation area alone indicate that a great battle took place here.

Excavations from 2009 even uncovered a long wall that is said to have served as an ambush for the Germanic peoples. Even if critics still oppose the determination of Kalkriese as a place of discovery, the place stages itself perfectly as the site of the Varus Battle.

The finds from the excavations are exhibited in a specially set up museum, and the entire excavation area of ​​the archaeological park can be visited on guided tours.

Author: Tobias Aufmkolk