Cassius Dio - The Roman History
Book LVI: 18-24


18.
These decrees had scarcely been passed when the arrival of terrible news from the province of Germany prevented the festival from being held.  What had been happening in Germany during this period was as follows.  The Romans had hold of parts of it, not whole regions, but merely those areas which happened to have been subdued, so that this fact has not received historical notice.

Meanwhile bodies of troops were in the habit of wintering there, and cities were being founded; the barbarians were gradually re-shaping their habits in conformity with the Roman pattern, were becoming accustomed to hold markets and were meeting in peaceful assemblies.  But they had not forgotten their ancestral customs, their native manners, their independent way of life, nor the power they had enjoyed through the strength in arms.  So long as they were unlearning their customs little by little, by indirect means, so to speak, and were under careful surveillance, they did not object to the change in their manner of life, and were unconsciously altering their disposition.

But when Quintilius Varus became governor of the province of Germany, and in the exercise of his powers also came to handle the affairs of these peoples, he tried both to hasten and to widen the process of change.  He not only gave orders to the Germans as if they were actual slaves of the Romans, but also levied money from them as if they were subject nations.  These were demands they would not tolerate.  The leaders yearned for their former ascendancy, and the masses preferred their accustomed condition to foreign domination.  They did not rise in open rebellion, because they saw there were many Roman troops near the Rhine and many within their own territory.  Instead they received Varus and, by pretending that they would comply with all his orders, they lured him far away from the Rhine into the territory of the Cherusci and toward the River Weser.  There they behaved in a most peaceful and friendly manner, and made him feel confident that they could live in a state of subjection without the presence of soldiers.

19.
The result was that he did not keep his forces concentrated as was advisable in a hostile country, but dispersed many of his troops to those regions which lacked protection, supposedly to guard various vital positions, arrest outlaws or escort supply columns.  Among those who were most deeply involved in the plot and took a head in its planning and in the subsequent fighting were Arminius and Segimerus; these men were constantly in Varus' company and often present in his mess.

He thus became complacent to the point of rashness, and since he expected no harm, he not only disbelieved all those who suspected what was happening and urged him to be on his guard, but actually reproved them for being needlessly alarmed and for slandering his friends.  Then an uprising broke out, the first to rebel being those peoples who lived at some distance from him.  This had been deliberately contrived to entice Varus to march against them, so that he could the more easily be overwhelmed while he was crossing what he imagined to be friendly territory, instead of putting himself on his guard, as he would do in the event of the whole country taking up arms against him simultaneously.

And so the plan unfolded.  The leaders escorted him as he set out, and then made their excuses for absenting themselves.  This was to enable them, as they made out, to prepare their combined forces, after which they would quickly assemble to support him.  Then they took command of their troops which were already awaiting them in readiness somewhere.  Next, after each community had slaughtered the detachments of Roman soldiers quartered with them, for which they had previously asked, they fell upon Varus in the midst of the forests, which at this point in his march were almost impenetrable.  There, when they stood revealed as enemies instead of subjects, they dealt a succession of terrible blows to the Romans.

20.
The shape of mountains in this region was irregular, their slopes being deeply cleft by ravines, while the trees grew closely together to a great height.  In consequence the Romans, even before the enemy fell upon them, were hard pressed by the neccessity of felling trees, clearing the tracks and bridging the difficult stretches where ever neccessary on their line of march.  They had with them many waggons and pack animals, as they would for a journey in peace-time; they were even accompanied by women and children and a large retinue of servants, all these being factors which caused them to advance in scattered groups.

Meanwhile a violent downpour and storm developed, so that the column was strung out even further; this also caused the ground around the tree-roots and the felled trunks to become slippery, making movement very dangerous, and the tops of trees to break off and crash down upon them creating great confusion.  While the Romans were struggling against the elements, the barbarians suddenly surrounded them on all sides at once, stealing through the densest thickets, as they were familiar with the paths.  At first they hurled their spears at a distance, but as nobody attacked them in return and many were wounded, the Germans closed in to shorter range; for their part the Roman troops were not advancing in any regular formation, but were interspersed at random with the waggons and the non-combatants.  This meant that they could not easily concentrate their strength at any point, and since they were everywhere overwhelmed by their opponents, they suffered many casualties and were quite unable to counter-attack.

21.
Accordingly they pitched camp on the spot after taking possession of a suitable place, so far as one could be found on wooded and mountainous ground; afterwards they either burned or abandoned most of their waggons and everything else that was not absolutely indispensable to them.  The next day they marched on in somewhat better order and even broke out into open country, though they could not avoid suffering casualties.  Moving on from there they re-entered the woods, where they fought back against their assailants, but suffered their heaviest losses in this action.  To enable the cavalry and infantry to make a combined charge against the enemy they had to form up in a narrow space, and so frequently collided with each other and with the trees.

The fourth day saw them still on the move, and again they experienced heavy rain and violent winds, which prevented them from advancing or even finding a firm foothold and made it impossible to wield their weapons.  They could neither draw their bows nor hurl their javelins to any effect, nor even make use of their shields, which were completely sodden with rain.  Their opponents, on the other hand, were for the most part lightly armed, and so could approach and retire without difficulty, and suffered far less from the weather.

Besides this the enemy's numbers had been greatly reinforced, since may of those who had at first hesitated now joined the battle in the hope of taking plunder.  Their increased numbers made is easier to encircle and strike down the Romans, whose ranks by contrast had shrunk, since they had lost many men in the earlier fighting.  And so Varus and all the senior officers, fearing that they would either be taken alive or slaughtered by their bitterest enemies - for they had already been wounded - nerved themselves for the dreaded but unavoidable act, and took their own lives.

22.
When this news spread to their men, none of the rest, even if strength remained, resisted any longer.  Some followed the example of their general, others threw down their arms and allowed any who chose to slaughter them, since flight was out of the question, however much a man might desire it.  So every soldier and every horse was cut down without resistance ...

[The barbarians seized all the Roman fortresses but one; it was because of the delay in this single instance that they neither crossed the Rhine nor invaded Gaul.  They found themselves unable to capture this position because they did not understand the business of siege warfare, and also because the Romans employed a large number of archers, whose arrows repeatedly checked their attacks and caused them heavy losses ...

Later they learned that the Romans had stationed a garrison at the Rhine, and that Tiberius was approaching with a formidable army.  At this most of the barbarians withdrew from the fort, and even the detachment which had been left there removed themselves to a safe distance, so that they should not suffer losses from sudden sorties on the part of the garrison.  Then they closed the roads, hoping that they could overcome the defenders by cutting off their supplies.

The Romans inside, so long as their food held out, remained on the spot and waited to be relieved.  however, when no one arrived to rescue them and they began to suffer from hunger, they waited for a stormy night and made their escape.  The troops of the garrison were only few in number and had many non-combatants with them.]  They managed to pass through the enemy's first and second guard posts, but when they reached the third their presence was discovered.  This was because the women and children, who were both frightened and exhausted, and troubled too by the darkness and the cold, kept calling to the soldiers to come back.  They would all have died or been captured if the barbarians had not given their whole attention to seizing the plunder.

This provided a chance for the most vigorous to get some distance away, and when the buglers who were with them blew the call to march in double time, this made the enemy believe a reinforcement had been sent by Asprenas.  So the barbarians abandoned their pursuit, and Asprenas, once he learned what was happening, did in fact help them.  Some of the prisoners were later ransomed by their relatives and returned to Roman territory, a concession which was granted provided that the men stayed outside Italy.

(From Cassius Dio, The Roman History: The Reign of Augustus - Penguin Books: London 1987, trans. Ian Scott-Kilvert)

Home  | Background  |  Synopsis  |  Discussion  |  Screenplay

Hosting by WebRing.