Defeat of Varus by Arminius (AD 7)

The turning point for these colonizing enthusiasms, and for the future course of European history, came during the prosperous reign of Augustus, the first Emperor (27 BC-AD 14). In AD 7, Publius Quinctilius Varus, who was conveniently related by marriage to the ‘Divine Augustus’, had been appointed commander-in-chief of the Army of the Rhine. Varus was a lawyer by profession and lacked military skills: he had a reputation for cruelty and personal greed. Two years later, he led a punitive expedition of three legions (XVII, XVIII and XIX), auxiliary troops and a host of camp followers eastward from the fortified base of Vetera. From the banks of the river Lupia (Lippe), an established trade route, they trekked into the wild and difficult country beyond (Fig. 4). Unfortunately for Varus, Roman harshness had caused a number of German tribes to unite under the leadership of 25-year old Arminius (Hermann), chief of the Cherusci tribe. Arminius had previously served for six years as an auxiliary officer in the Roman army and acquired Roman citizenship. Events would reveal him as a master of strategy and tactics. Arminius tricked Varus into changing his line of march so that the Romans entered extremely difficult terrain. Whilst storms raged swarms of German tribesmen attacked and destroyed them in a three-day battle. Varus and his senior generals ‘fell on their swords’ to avoid further humiliation. Three legions (and their revered eagle standards), three squadrons of cavalry, six cohorts of auxiliaries and thousands of camp followers virtually disappeared. There were few Roman survivors. It is recorded that the head of Varus was sent to Augustus. Six years later, a well-organized Roman expedition led by Germanicus found a horrifying trail of bleached bones and skeletons that extended for miles through the wilderness.

Augustus was deeply shocked at suddenly losing almost one tenth of his twenty-eight Imperial legions.12 He proceeded to adopt a policy of consolidation along the Rhine, authorizing more forts and roads on its banks and reorganizing the Roman army. By the time of Tiberius (AD 14-37), his successor, the strength of the Rhine army had increased from six to eight legions. The numbers XVII, XVIII and XIX were never used again for Roman legions.

  1. Uttering the famous cry ‘Varus, Varus, give me back my legions!’ (Suetonius) []