The aftermath of the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest (Tacitus Annales 1.61-62).

Tacitus is an author better known for his forceful expression of contempt for the failures of the Julio-Claudians than for his ability to create literary atmosphere. He was, however, a brilliant stylist.

His description of the scene of the battle site, visited by the emperor Tiberius' adopted son Germanicus, could not be more evocative, and summons on paper the emotions one normally associates with a visit in person to the site of a "last-stand."

The facts.

Six years after Varus perished with nearly three full Roman legions in the Saltus Teutoburgiensis, Germanicus visited the site with a large army in the course of solidifying the border areas (and showing the flag) during the first years of Tiberius' reign. Varus' defeat, and more importantly, the loss of three irreplaceable legions, XVII, XVIII, and XIX, was the greatest blow to Roman prestige during Augustus' reign as princeps. (Those legions were never reconstituted.)

But let's get away, as Tacitus does, from Rome-centered wounded pride, and away from celebrating the successful German resistance (without writing off either), and recall the last moments of some fellow human beings. Tacitus briefly sketches the scene Germanicus and his men found as they approached the battle site. We enter the scene with Germanicus' men and we discover the horrible sight as they did.

The horror.

. . . incedunt maestos locos visuque ac memoria deformis. prima Vari castra lato ambitu et dimensis principiis trium legionum manus ostentabant; dein semiruto vallo, humili fossa accisae iam reliquiae consedisse intellegebantur: medio campi albentia ossa, ut fugerant, ut resisterant, disiecta vel aggerata. adiacebant fragmina telorum equorumque artus, simul truncis arborum antefixa ora.

lucis propinquis barbarae arae, apud quos tribunos ac primorum ordinum centuriones mactaverant. et cladis eius superstites, pugnam aut vincula elapsi, referebant hic cecidisse legatos, illic raptas aquilas; primum ubi vulnus Varo adactum, ubi infelici dextera et suo ictu mortem invenerit; quo tribunali contionatus Arminius, quot patibula captivis, quae scrobes, utque signis et aquilis per superbiam inluserit.

They enter the grim scene, ugly both to see and for the memories it prompts. Varus' first camp with its broad circumference and carefully measured headquarters area revealed the hands of three legions; then a half-ruined earthwork and a shallow ditch revealed where the by-now attenuated remnants had made their stand.

In the middle of the field were whitening bones, scattered or heaped up according as they had fled or put up a fight. Bits and pieces of weapons and the limbs of horses were lying about, while human heads were attached as ornaments to the trunks of trees. In the neighboring woods they found barbarian altars, on which the enemy had sacrificially slaughtered the tribunes and chief centurions.

Survivors of the disaster who had either slipped away from the battle or escaped the chains of imprisonment told how the legates had fallen here; the eagles had been taken there; where Varus had first been wounded, where he had committed suicide with a stroke from his own unlucky hand; they pointed out the tribunal on which Arminius had addressed his men, how many pillories there were for the captives, the ditches used as holding pens, and how Arminius had indulged his arrogance over the legionary standards and eagles.

See how Tacitus progresses through his description in order to maximize our suspense. We first see the remains of the regular camp, a mocking remnant of the last moments of life and order, showing, as Tacitus elegantly points out, the efforts of all three legions while they were intact.

Then Tacitus takes us deliberately to the hasty (and since we know how the battle ended, useless) fortification thrown up as a last-ditch effort. The standard Roman military aspects of this rampart (vallum and fossa, rampart with ditch in front of it) are marred by their being broken and shallow, respectively.

What's more, another word typically used for fortification ramparts, agger, is brought in sideways to describe the heaped bones (ossa . . . aggerata) where legionaries had made a stand (precisely in our last-ditch fortification, or something like it). This kind of word play contributes no new data, but it does help by association to heighten the mood of the passage.

Tacitus reveals himself a first-rate writer of horror in what follows. He constantly skirts the issue of the atrocities visited upon the living prisoners by focussing--more effectively--on the evidence as it presented itself to Germanicus and his men: the limbs of horses, skulls affixed to tree trunks, altars, hidden at first in among the trees, where the Germans had sacrificed the high officers and noncoms. Perhaps they found bits of armor there which betrayed the rank of the skeletons lying among these altars?

Tacitus then lets us see a little through the eyes of survivors. They point out items which indicate the course of the battle: where the legates had fallen, blowing apart the chain of command; where the sacred eagles, legionary insignia venerated with religious reverence, had been grabbed (think Custer on the hilltop with the flag); how Varus sidestepped his fate by killing himself.

At the end of the passage, Tacitus comes closest to outright description of the atrocities, and makes it abundantly clear that Varus and the other dead were the lucky ones: the live captives suffered a fate much worse for approaching more slowly and obviously. It is hard to translate patibula and scrobes, words that can mean pillories and graves, respectively.

Because the Germans clearly left the dead on the field indiscriminately, I don't take scrobes to be graves, but rather ditches to keep captives from easily running away; likewise, though patibula are forked pillories, I would follow other translators in understanding them to be devices to torture a man to death by strangulation.

Humanizing the disaster.

At Bologna (Latin Bononia) they found the sad tombstone monument of the highly-decorated centurion Marcus Caelius, who went down with legion XVIII. It depicts the man in his ceremonial dress armor, which is covered with military honors such as torques and phalerae. He wears the oak leaf crown of the corona civica--he had saved a citizen's life in battle. This was something like a Congressional Medal of Honor or a Victoria Cross. He holds his vitis, or switch, the symbol of his rank (and tool for beating recalcitrant legionaries). A man of 53 years, he was probably not far from retirement, or better things. Flanking him are two of his freedmen (freed slaves), rendered as portrait busts on pedestals.

His brother erected the memorial, and touchingly left instructions on it that should Caelius' bones be found, they might go into the empty tomb. Tacitus, however, says that the bones of friend and foe were indiscriminately mixed on the battlefield, and that accordingly they were all buried together in one mass grave. The brother's wish that Caelius' bones might be found was never granted. (One fears that Caelius might have ended up as a sacrificial victim on one of those makeshift altars.)

The inscription reads:

M. Caelio T.f. Lem. Bon.
..]o leg XIIX. Ann LIII
...]cidit bello variano ossa
...]nferre licebit. P. Caelius T.f.
Lem. Bo. frater fecit


To Marcus Caelius of Bononia, son of Titus,
of the voting district Lemonia,
centurion of the 18th legion. At the age of 53
he fell in the Varian War. The tomb may be
disturbed to place his bones within.
His brother, Publius Caelius of Bononia, son of Titus,
of the voting district Lemonia, built this.

The Latin is from Fisher's Oxford Classical Text. The awful translation is mine.
The inscription: ILS (Inscriptiones Latinae Selectae, a standard collection) 2244.

See also:

Keppie, Lawrence. 1991. Understanding Roman Inscriptions. 80-90; see 136-140 for abbreviations in Latin inscriptions.
----------. 1998. The Making of the Roman Army. From Republic to Empire. 163-169 (a discussion which parallels mine closely).