Hinge of History
September 10, 2012 41 Comments
We’ve talked several times here about events in history which have repercussions to our own day and beyond. For instance we talked about the Golden Hinds circumnavigation of the world, we talked about the most famous day for battles in the English speaking world, including the first time since the Roman Empire when common freemen defeated the aristocracy, St. Crispin’s Day, we have even discussed the introduction of fire-breathing dragons to the battlefield. Today we’re going to discuss another one of them, which may be of nearly the same importance as Salamis.
What could that be? 2003 years ago on or about today, three Roman legions got ambushed and wiped out in the Teutoburger Wald. The antagonists were Varus a very corrupt former governor of Syria and Arminius (whose name is sometimes Germanized as Hermann).
I could tell you about it but I think I’ll let Cassius Dio a Roman historian do it instead.
18 1 Scarcely had these decrees been passed, when terrible news that arrived from the province of Germany prevented them from holding the festival. I shall now relate the events which had taken place in Germany during this period. The Romans were holding portions of it — not entire regions, but merely such districts as happened to have been subdued, so that no record has been made of the fact — 2 and soldiers of theirs were wintering there and cities were being founded. The barbarians were adapting themselves to Roman ways, were becoming accustomed to hold markets, and were meeting in peaceful assemblages. They had not, however, forgotten their ancestral habits, their native manners, their old life of independence, or the power derived from arms. 3 Hence, so long as they were unlearning these customs gradually and by the way, as one may say, under careful watching, they were not disturbed by p41the change in their manner of life, and were becoming different without knowing it. But when Quintilius Varus became governor of the province of Germany, and in the discharge of his official duties was administering the affairs of these peoples also, he strove to change them more rapidly. Besides issuing orders to them as if they were actually slaves of the Romans, he exacted money as he would from subject nations. 4 To this they were in no mood to submit, for the leaders longed for their former ascendancy and the masses preferred their accustomed condition to foreign domination. Now they did not openly revolt, since they saw that there were many Roman troops near the Rhine and many within their own borders; 5 instead, they received Varus, pretending that they would do all he demanded of them, and thus they drew him far away from the Rhine into the land of the Cherusci, toward the Visurgis, and there by behaving in a most peaceful and friendly manner led him to believe that they would live submissively without the presence of soldiers.
19 1 Consequently he did not keep his legions together, as was proper in a hostile country, but distributed many of the soldiers to helpless communities, which asked for them for the alleged purpose of guarding various points, arresting robbers, or escorting provision trains. 2 Among those deepest in the conspiracy and leaders of the plot and of the war were Armenius and Segimerus, who were his constant companions and often shared his mess. 3 He accordingly became confident, and expecting no harm, not only refused to believe all those who suspected what was going on and advised him to be on his guard, p43but actually rebuked them for being needlessly excited and slandering his friends. Then there came an uprising, first on the part of those who lived at a distance from him, deliberately so arranged, 4 in order that Varus should march against them and so be more easily overpowered while proceeding through what was supposed to be friendly country, instead of putting himself on his guard as he would do in case all became hostile to him at once. And so it came to pass. They escorted him as he set out, and then begged to be excused from further attendance, in order, as they claimed, to assemble their allied forces, after which they would quietly come to his aid. 5 Then they took charge of their troops, which were already in waiting somewhere, and after the men in each community had put to death the detachments of soldiers for which they had previously asked, they came upon Varus in the midst of forests by this time almost impenetrable. And there, at the very moment of revealing themselves as enemies instead of subjects, they wrought great and dire havoc.
20 1 The mountains had an uneven surface broken by ravines, and the trees grew close together and very high. Hence the Romans, even before the enemy assailed them, were having a hard time of it felling trees, building roads, and bridging places that required it. 2 They had with them many waggons and many beasts of burden as in time of peace; moreover, not a few women and children and a large retinue of servants were following them — one more reason for their advancing in scattered groups. 3 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 p45walking very treacherous for them, and the tops of the trees kept breaking off and falling down, causing much confusion. 4 While the Romans were in such difficulties, the barbarians suddenly surrounded them on all sides at once, coming through the densest thickets, as they were acquainted with the paths. At first they hurled their volleys from a distance; then, as no one defended himself and many were wounded, they approached closer to them. 5 For the Romans were not proceeding in any regular order, but were mixed in helter-skelter with the waggons and the unarmed, and so, being unable to form readily anywhere in a body, and being fewer at every point than their assailants, they suffered greatly and could offer no resistance at all.
21 1 Accordingly they encamped on the spot, after securing a suitable place, so far as that was possible on a wooded mountain; and afterwards they either burned or abandoned most of their waggons and everything else that was not absolutely necessary to them. The next day they advanced in a little better order, and even reached open country, though they did not get off without loss. 2 Upon setting out from there they plunged into the woods again, where they defended themselves against their assailants, but suffered their heaviest losses while doing so. For since they had to form their lines in a narrow space, in order that the cavalry and infantry together might run down the enemy, they collided frequently with one another and with the trees. 3 They were still p47advancing when the fourth day dawned, and again a heavy downpour and violent wind assailed them, preventing them from going forward and even from standing securely, and moreover depriving them of the use of their weapons. For they could not handle their bows or their javelins with any success, nor, for that matter, their shields, which were thoroughly soaked. 4 Their opponents, on the other hand, being for the most part lightly equipped, and able to approach and retire freely, suffered less from the storm. Furthermore, the enemy’s forces had greatly increased, as many of those who had at first wavered joined them, largely in the hope of plunder, and thus they could more easily encircle and strike down the Romans, whose ranks were now thinned, many having perished in the earlier fighting. 5 Varus, therefore, and all the more prominent officers, fearing that they should either be captured alive or be killed by their bitterest foes (for they had already been wounded), made bold to do a thing that was terrible yet unavoidable: they took their own lives.
22 1 When news of this had spread, none of the rest, even if he had any strength left, defended himself any longer. Some imitated their leader, and others, casting aside their arms, allowed anybody who pleased to slay them; for to flee was impossible, however much one might desire to do so. 2 Every man, therefore, and every horse was cut down without fear of resistance, and the . . .
2a And the barbarians occupied all the strongholds save one, their delay at which prevented them p49from either crossing the Rhine or invading Gaul. Yet they found themselves unable to reduce this fort, because they did not understand the conduct of sieges, and because the Romans employed numerous archers, who repeatedly repulsed them and destroyed large numbers of them.
Continue reading Cassius Dio on the Battle of the Teutoburger Wald and more.
This was one of the worst defeats ever suffered by Rome. Three legions not decimated (which means losing 1 out of 10 by the way, not what most people mean) but completely wiped out. For us it might be comparable if Patton’s Third US Army had been wiped out on the march across France. The results for us though are these, Rome never really penetrated beyond the Rhine-Varus’s goal had been to conquer to the Elbe. So the civilization of the barbarians didn’t happen, German remained the language, not Latin which is the basis of all the Romance languages.
In reality that isn’t that big a deal, what is, is that these city hating Germanic barbarians in the centuries to come would conquer the empire, and spread all across Frankia, into the Iberian peninsula jump the Straits of Gibraltar and conquer most of North Africa. For these were the progenitors of the Vandals and the Goths, eventually they were Christianized or at least Arianised, mostly shortly before Charlemagne. It was a different sort of thing than being members of the Roman Empire.
Which leaves us with possibly the biggest contrafactual in all history: What would Germany been like down through the millenia if they had subjugated by Rome like the rest of Europe?.Would the Junker descendants of the Knights of st. John have taken over Prussia so thoroughly? Would Germany have come into being centuries earlier like France and England? Would Hitler’s ascent been possible? and lots more questions.
- This Day in Ancient History: ante diem v idus septembres (rogueclassicism.com)
- Disappointment at Museum und Park Kalkriese (adrianmurdoch.typepad.com)
- Arminius and the Forest (adrianmurdoch.typepad.com)
- September 9 in history (homepaddock.wordpress.com)