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
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."
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.
. . . 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.
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).