The Ambush That Changed History

An amateur archaeologist discovers the field where wily Germanic warriors halted the spread of the Roman Empire

Between 6 B.C. and A.D. 4, Roman legions established bases on the Lippe and Weser rivers. (Mike Reagan)
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One such German soldier of fortune, a 25-year-old prince of the Cherusci tribe, was known to the Romans as Arminius. (His tribal name has been lost to history.) He spoke Latin and was familiar with Roman tactics, the kind of man the Romans relied on to help their armies penetrate the lands of the barbarians. For his valor on the field of battle, he had been awarded the rank of knight and the honor of Roman citizenship. On that September day, he and his mounted auxiliaries were deputized to march ahead and rally some of his own tribesmen to help in putting down the rebellion.

Arminius’ motives are obscure, but most historians believe he had long harbored dreams of becoming king of his tribe. To achieve his goal, he concocted a brilliant deception: he would report a fictitious “uprising” in territory unfamiliar to the Romans, then lead them into a deadly trap. A rival chieftain, Segestes, repeatedly warned Varus that Arminius was a traitor, but Varus ignored him. “The Romans,” says Wells, “thought they were invincible.”

Arminius had instructed the Romans to make what he had described as a short detour, a one- or two-day march, into the territory of the rebels.The legionnaires followed along rudimentary trails that meandered among the Germans’ farmsteads, scattered fields, pastures, bogs and oak forests. As they progressed, the line of Roman troops—already seven or eight miles long, including local auxiliaries, camp followers and a train of baggage carts pulled by mules—became dangerously extended. The legionnaires, wrote third-century historian Cassius Dio, “were having a hard time of it, felling trees, building roads, and bridging places that required it. . . . Meanwhile, a violent rain and wind came up that separated them still further, while the ground, that had become slippery around the roots and logs, made walking very treacherous for them, and the tops of the trees kept breaking off and falling down, causing much confusion. While the Romans were in such difficulties, the barbarians suddenly surrounded them on all sides at once,” Dio writes of the preliminary German skirmishes. “At first they hurled their volleys from a distance; then, as no one defended himself and many were wounded, they approached closer to them.” Somehow, the command to attack had gone out to the German tribes. “This is pure conjecture,” says Benario, “but Arminius must have delivered a message that the Germans should begin their assault.”

The nearest Roman base lay at Haltern, 60 miles to the southwest. So Varus, on the second day, pressed on doggedly in that direction. On the third day, he and his troops were entering a passage between a hill and a huge swamp known as the Great Bog that, in places, was no more than 60 feet wide. As the increasingly chaotic and panicky mass of legionnaires, cavalrymen, mules and carts inched forward, Germans appeared from behind trees and sand-mound barriers, cutting off all possibility of retreat. “In open country, the superbly drilled and disciplined Romans would surely have prevailed,” says Wells. “But here, with no room to maneuver, exhausted after days of hit-and-run attacks, unnerved, they were at a crippling disadvantage.”

Varus understood that there was no escape. Rather than face certain torture at the hands of the Germans, he chose suicide, falling on his sword as Roman tradition prescribed. Most of his commanders followed suit, leaving their troops leaderless in what had become a killing field. “An army unexcelled in bravery, the first of Roman armies in discipline, in energy, and in experience in the field, through the negligence of its general, the perfidy of the enemy, and the unkindness of fortune. . . . was exterminated almost to a man by the very enemy whom it has always slaughtered like cattle,” according to the a.d. 30 account of Velleius Paterculus, a retired military officer who may have known both Varus and Arminius.

Only a handful of survivors managed somehow to escape into the forest and make their way to safety. The news they brought home so shocked the Romans that many ascribed it to supernatural causes, claiming a statue of the goddess Victory had ominously reversed direction. The historian Suetonius, writing a century after the battle, asserted that the defeat “nearly wrecked the empire.” Roman writers, says Wells, “were baffled by the disaster.” Though they blamed the hapless Varus, or the treachery of Arminius, or the wild landscape, in reality, says Wells, “the local societies were much more complex than the Romans thought. They were an informed, dynamic, rapidly changing people, who practiced complex farming, fought in organized military units, and communicated with each other across very great distances.”

More than 10 percent of the entire imperial army had been wiped out—the myth of its invincibility shattered. In the wake of the debacle, Roman bases in Germany were hastily abandoned. Augustus, dreading that Arminius would march on Rome, expelled all Germans and Gauls from the city and put security forces on alert against insurrections.

Six years would pass before a Roman army would return to the battle site. The scene the soldiers found was horrific. Heaped across the field at Kalkriese lay the whitening bones of dead men and animals, amid fragments of their shattered weapons. In nearby groves they found “barbarous altars” upon which the Germans had sacrificed the legionnaires who surrendered. Human heads were nailed everywhere to trees. In grief and anger, the aptly named Germanicus, the Roman general leading the expedition, ordered his men to bury the remains, in the words of Tacitus, “not a soldier knowing whether he was interring the relics of a relative or a stranger, but looking on all as kinsfolk and of their own blood, while their wrath rose higher than ever against the foe.”


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