The Varus Battle (Clades Variana)
by: Cleopatra Aelia
Location of the Battlefield
Since the rediscovery of the writings of Tacitus in the 16th century people were searching for the battlefield where Arminius had defeated three Roman legions. Nearly 700 villages and areas in Germany claim to be the site where the battle had taken place.
Tacitus calls Arminius the “Liberator of Germania” which made him become a national symbol for the Germans from the 19th to the 20th century. In 1875 there was a monument erected for him, who was now called in a Germanized way “Hermann”. The monument is in Detmold near the Teutoburger Wald (Teutoburg Forest) because Detmold also claimed to be the site where the battle had taken place.
None of these locations were the real battlefield, though, but the question persists: where was it? The description Tacitus gives is very vague. He mentions saltus Teutoburgiensis, but saltus has various meanings: forest valley, gorge, highlands, mountain pass, woodland glade, and even cattle-run. This is not a very precise description. The area called nowadays Teutoburger Wald, also known as Lippischer Wald, did not carry its name from the Roman days, so that claim is not useful either.
Finally – when there was no more the need for a national symbol called Hermann – the battleground was found by mere coincidence in 1987 by the English Major Tony Clunn. He was stationed in Osnabrück and is a hobby archaeologist. He had read the theory of the historian Theodor Mommsen who already in 1885 had suggested that the place of the Varus battle must have been near Kalkriese since at the farm Barenaue had been found many Roman coins. But nobody back then wanted to believe Mommsen. Tony Clunn contacted the head archaeologist of the Osnabrück region, Dr. Wolfgang Schlüter and asked him if he could do a search with a metal detector. He succeeded in finding besides Roman coins also militaria which gave evidence that the Roman army must have passed this area where no Romans had settled.
The Archaeological Finds
The Roman coins which were found were silver and copper, none of them younger than 9 CE. This was the first strong hint that the Varus battle had taken place in Kalkriese.
An even stronger hint was the militaria – a clasp of a chain mail and other fragmented pieces which were parts of equipment of heavy and light infantry. All big pieces like armors and swords had been plundered by the Germanic people after the battle. The findings of fibulas and fragments of vessels are an indication that it was not just an army but also its supply lines which became engaged in battle.
The most astonishing finds were pits with collections of animal and human bones. The bones were mixed and no longer in the skeletal context. It was not therefore a regular grave, but nonetheless it seemed like the bones were buried. Examinations show that the bones were lying at open air for some years before they were buried. It is known that Germanicus found in 15 CE on his revenge campaign the battle field and laid to rest the bones of the Roman soldiers. It is possible the pits found could be those graves since the human bones are those of middle aged, well nourished men, hence Roman soldiers.
The discovery of a rampart built out of grass sod was very remarkable. It turned out that it was not the fortification of a Roman camp but it was just a partial rampart. Also the most Roman finds - which were very little and fragmented - were in front and not behind this rampart. The base of this earthwork was 4-5 meters and had a height of approximately 1.5 meters. The sods had been taken from nearby. It had little gates and passages for people to pass it and also to withdraw from battlefield again. It also had a drain to prevent the rains from washing it away.
Second and third sections of the rampart were found. At the third section the drain was in front of the wall instead of behind, and it seems that this rampart had been erected in a very short time while the other sections seem to be built after rather long planning.
Arminius and Varus
Arminius was born around 17 BCE and was the son of the Cheruskan nobleman Segimer, his Germanic name unknown. The Cheruski settled between the rivers Lippe and Ems towards the river Elbe and became friends and allies with the Romans. Arminius and his brother, who is known under the Latin name Flavius, received a Roman education. It is not sure that they were raised on the Palatine Hill but they both served with the Roman army. Arminius commanded the Cheruskan auxiliary troops in Germania and Pannonia and got for these services the civitas Roma and the rank of an eques Romanus. He returned to Germania presumably after the death of his father in 7 CE.
Publius Quinctilius Varus was born around 47 BCE and belonged to a Patrician gens from Alba Longa. In 21 BCE he accompanied Emperor Augustus as quaestor on his Orient trip, in 8/7 BCE he was proconsul in the Provincia Africa. He was then legatus augusti pro praetore in the Provincia Syria where he succeeded Sentius Saturninus who became praefectus in Germania. Here he succeeded him again in 6 CE.
Germania though was not a provincia yet but seemed pacified by the praefectus Saturninus. Varus tried to introduce Roman administration and law without having knowledge about the Germanic mentality and their laws. These were very different from the Roman laws: the Germanic people loved their personal freedom. If there was a quarrel between two persons those two persons had to settle the matter, no matter if by fighting or paying the other. Varus forced now Roman law upon them often with a death sentence of petty matters. This caused anger among the Germanic tribes who preferred to settle their problems among themselves and not by invaders like the Romans, so it was no surprise that an anti-Roman faction evolved.
Arminius noticed the discontent of his fellow country-men and knowing the Roman way of warfare he knew how to fight them best. With this knowledge he could convince the tribes of the Cheruski, Chatti, Bructeri and Marsi of a revolt. When the Romans broke their summer camp to return to the winter camp in Castra Vetera Arminius who still pretended to being friends with the Romans told Varus about a revolt and led him on a detour to turn down this revolt. Varus believed him and followed the directions given by Arminius. With the knowledge of the country’s geography Arminius led the army consisting of three legions, auxiliary troops and the supply lines into a trap. It is not sure how long this army line stretched but it must have been quite long when 20,000 legionaries plus the auxiliary and the civilians marched, some sources mention a stretch of 6 kilometers. To the Romans the country was totally unknown and it had not been on their intended way back to Castra Vetera.
Arminius led them to an area where a hill was on the south side (der Kalkrieser Berg) and on the other side moorland (das Große Moor), the way through was only 200 meters wide. The first assault was carried out even before the Romans reached the narrow point, presumably near today’s village of Schwagstorf. The attack came totally unexpected for the Romans who were in a marching order and not positioned in battle formation. And it was raining hard for several days already. Nonetheless the Romans managed it to build a camp for the first night. Varus had received a warning from the Rome-friendly Cheruskan Segestes that Arminius was planning an ambush on the Romans, but he had ignored this warning and still trusted his “friend”. Shortly before the attack he had taken some of the Germanic auxiliary troops away telling Varus he needs them to break the “revolt”.
The losses must have been substantial because the ambush came unexpected. Maybe they did not even had all their weapons like pila at hand but might have loaded them on the mules or supply wagons and could fight only with the gladius in a disorganized form. There was no way to form a battle line and fight the way they were trained to do and with which the Roman legions had conquered nearly all of the known world.
On the second day, the Romans tried to march further west but were attacked again when they passed through woodland. The battle lasted for three days it is said and the last stand was at the foot of the Kalkrieser Berg with the moorland on the other side. The Germanic warriors had built the aforementioned rampart from which they attacked the Romans and hid behind it again. It seemed like that more and more Germanic warriors were joining the fight against the Romans as some had waited before joining the battle and when they saw there was loads to gain they joined forces. It is not proven that they plundered the Romans but the lack of finds of swords, armor, etc. might be a clue that they took everything with them which looked worthwhile.
How many of the Germanic warriors fell is not known as they most likely have buried them properly shortly after the battle, only the corpses of around 20,000 Romans remained lying on the battlefield until Germanicus found them six years later. Varus had committed suicide by falling upon his sword when he saw that the three legions were defeated and that he had failed as their commander. His head was brought to Arminius who sent it to King Marbod of the Marcomanni who was an ally of Rome to convince him to join alliance with the Germanic anti-Roman faction. But Marbod stayed loyal to Rome and sent the head of Varus to Emperor Augustus who is quoted to have said when he learned about this disaster: “Quinctili Vare, redde legionem!”
The Germanic tribes could only win against the three Roman legions because Arminius knew perfectly how the Romans fought and therefore also knew where they were easiest to attack. Romans preferred a battle on an open field where they could march in closed formations. The Germanic warriors were not as well armed as the Romans and therefore had a chance only at a guerrilla attack. Due to his knowledge of the topography of the region Arminius found the perfect spot to lay the ambush. Only a very few Romans could escape the battlefield and report about the disaster and most likely some of them have led Germanicus back to the battleground on his revenge campaign.
The LEGIO XVII; LEGIO XVIII and LEGIO XIX were destroyed and those numbers were never ever used again for any legion as a kind of damnatio memoriae.
Siegfried of the Nibelung Saga = Arminius?
We know of this battle by the works of Roman historians like Tacitus who of course wrote from a Roman standpoint of view. In contrary to the Romans the Germanic people did not write things down. Similar to the Celtic people they had songs and narrations about their heroes which were passed on from generation to generation only orally. Naturally, stories were altered over time.
Scholars assume now that many metaphors used in that epic tale might refer to the Varus battle:
· Siegfried slaying the “Lindwurm” (dragon) could refer to Arminius fighting the long line of marching legionaries.
· Siegfried killed a “glittering serpent”, the metal weapons and armors of the Romans were glistening.
· The hoard of the dragon contained swords and armors, exactly the things the Germanic warriors captured from the Romans.
· Also they got hold of the riches of Roman officers and this could have become the treasure “Rheingold”.
· Siegfried wore a cloak of invisibility, Arminius and his Germanic warriors were also nearly invisible with their guerrilla tactic and hiding in the woods behind ramparts.
As above mentioned the Germanic name of Arminius is not known. It is known that in his royal Cheruskan family eight members bore names with the prefix Segi (Sieg) like his father Segimer, a brother-in-law Segimund. So Arminius’ Germanic name could have been Segifried (Siegfried).
Gaia Cleopatra Aelia – June 2005
Tony Clunn – “The Quest for the Lost Legions”
Karlheinz Eckardt – “Die Varusschlacht und die Rachefeldzüge des Germanicus”
Der Spiegel (German news magazine) – Issue 20/2005 – Title story „Die Nibelungen – auf den Spuren der deutschen Sage“
Homepage of the museum at Kalkriese – www.kalkriese-varusschlacht.de