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Military campaigns of Germanicus against Germans

(13-16 CE)

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)

Battle of the Angryvarian Embankment
Battle of the Angryvarian Embankment | Author: Peter Dennis

After the Varus’ defeat, the superstitious Romans did not rebuild the lost legions, nor did they use any more of their numbering. However, they never gave up their retaliation for the defeat inflicted on them by the Germans. Germanicus was to take the revenge on the Germans.

Background of events

The defeat of the Roman legions under the command of Varus shook the Empire and caused a sense of humiliation over the Tiber, unknown since the time the invasions of the Cimbrii and Teutons. The myth of invincible legions, defeating rebellious peoples and expanding the borders of the state to the north and west, burst like a soap bubble. After the Varus pogrom, the superstitious Romans did not rebuild the lost legions, nor did they use any more of their numbering. However, they never gave up their retaliation for the defeat inflicted on them by the Germans.

Otto Albert Koch, Battle in the Teutoburg Forest

The Clades Variana, as the Romans called the defeat in the Teutoburg Forest in 9 CE, sparked fears in Rome about a possible German invasion of Gaul. Mobilization was ordered, and units from various parts of the Empire were transported to the Rhine. A total of 8 legions and at least the same number of auxiliary units (auxilia) were concentrated in the provinces of Upper and Lower Germania adjacent to this river. This armed force was headed by Tiberius, experienced in the fighting in Pannonia, Retia and Germania. However, the expected invasion of the Germanic tribes did not take place. Arminius’ warriors went to their tribal homes rejoicing in their victory. So Tiberius organized several expeditions against the tribes on the right side of the Rhine to restore the legions ‘honour damaged by Varus’ defeat. In 11 CE he was assigned to the aid of Germanicus, his subordinate in Pannonia. Two years later, Tiberius returned to the capital to support old Augustus and oversee the succession. Germanicus became the chief commander of the army on the Rhine, enjoying charisma among soldiers and officers. The concern of the new commander-in-chief was to suppress the rebellion of legionaries in the province of Germania Dolna, protesting against too long periods of service in the army and “taxation” of wages, often related to the bribery of centurions. It is worth recalling that this was the period after Augustus’ death, which was associated with the unrest among the population of the Empire inherent in such situations. After the execution of the leaders of the rebellion and the fulfilment of the main demands of the legionaries, Germanicus turned his eyes to the hostile tribes. He commanded 4 legions (12,000 men), 26 infantry auxiliary cohorts, and 8 (alae) cavalry units.

The first target of his grouping after crossing the Rhine was the lands of the tribe of Mars, which were attacked before dawn. The surprise of the Germans was complete, as the Roman commander chose to reach them by a detour, and the attack took place at a time when the tribe was celebrating local holidays. Even before dawn, many of the villages of Mars were surrounded by a ring of Roman troops, and their inhabitants were carved into the trunk. After dealing with Mars, Germanicus divided all his forces into four groups grouped around each legion and began to pacify the area within 50 miles around the lands of the defeated tribe. The vengeful legionaries did not take prisoners and every German encountered on the road, regardless of age or sex, perished by their sword. The Romans also destroyed the sacred grove of Tanfana. This caused a reaction from the neighbouring tribes – Tubantians, Brukterów and Usipets, who set up an ambush in the forested hills on the returning Roman expedition. The march of Germanicus’ column was opened by part of the cavalry and auxilia units, each of the four legions formed a side of a “square”, in the centre of which the spoils obtained during pacification expeditions were placed. The rear was protecting the remaining troops of the allies. When the entire Roman column was in a narrow mountain passage, it was attacked from the front and sides by Germanic warriors. However, the main blow was directed at the Roman rear. The legionaries guarding them repelled the fierce attack of the barbarians, allowing the front of the column to get out of the backwoods. The Roman commander placed the soldiers on winter quarters, and planned a new offensive for the summer of the following year. The prelude to it was the spring raid on the headquarters of the Khatt tribe. Aulus Cecyna’s group, consisting of 4 legions and 5,000 auxilias, was to keep the Cheruski in the north in check and prevent them from interacting with the Chattas. Germanicus himself, with the same number of legions and the rest of the auxilias, set off towards the Khattas’ habitats. Some of the units commanded by Apronius were allocated to paving roads and erecting bridges over rivers. Germanicus’ legionaries completely surprised the Khattas, and many women, children and old men were taken captive or killed. The Germans tried to interfere with the Roman works on erecting the bridge, but succumbed to the effective intervention of artillery and archers.

Bust of Germanicus – a leader who gained great popularity in the Empire.
Creative Commons Attribution license - On the same terms 3.0.

Eventually, the barbarians fled their homes in panic and took refuge in the forests. In order to terrorize the local population, the Roman commander ordered the main Chatii town, Mattium, to be burned. After the expedition ended and the surrounding area was ravaged, the Roman column headed back to the Rhine. The action of Germanicus could not be interrupted by either the Cheruski or the Mars, as they were scared off by Caecina’s group, who defeated the latter in the battle. At that time, Segestes, a supporter of cooperation with Rome, threatened by the popularity of Arminius, joined with his team of warriors. He was bringing his daughter and Arminius’s wife with him, which made the latter particularly furious.

The winner of the Teutoburg Forest began recruiting warriors in his tribe, calling for weapons against Segestes and the Romans. Arminius won his uncle Inguiomerus, who was fond of Rome. Germanicus, not wanting to passively wait for the development of events, sent Caecina with 4 legions on a road through the lands of the Bructeri family to the river Ems, driving through the land of the Friesians. All forces met on the River Ems. The allied Chauks joined the Roman army, which strengthened the forces of Germanicus. After defeating the Brukters in battle, their entire area of ​​residence, near the Teutoburg Forest, was ravaged. The army went to the site of the recent battle to honour the defeated. The mere sight of the defeat of Varus’ legions deeply touched the legionaries. As Tacitus wrote:

Varus’ first camp, with its broad sweep and measured spaces for officers and eagles, advertised the labours of three legions: then a half-ruined wall and shallow ditch showed that there the now broken remnant had taken cover. In the plain between were bleaching bones, scattered or in little heaps, as the men had fallen, fleeing or standing fast. Hard by lay splintered spears and limbs of horses, while human skulls were nailed prominently on the tree-trunks. In the neighbouring groves stood the savage altars at which they had slaughtered the tribunes and chief centurions. Survivors of the disaster, who had escaped the battle or their chains, told how here the legates fell, there the eagles were taken, where the first wound was dealt upon Varus, and where he found death by the suicidal stroke of his own unhappy hand. They spoke of the tribunal from which Arminius made his harangue, all the gibbets and torture-pits for the prisoners, and the arrogance with which he insulted the standards and eagles.

Germanicus decided to change his action plans. He realized that the western provinces of the Empire had exhausted their means of supplying the army across the Rhine with horses. The marches in the road-free Germany, among the numerous backwoods and swamps, were time-consuming and were associated with a high risk of ambushes. The Roman commander decided to transport the army through the water canals and thus reach quickly into the enemy territory. Food was to be carried on board with the legionaries. Roman cavalry and mounts on river beds and riverbeds were to be transported into the interior of the country. The construction of 1,000 boats began. The vessels were also equipped with platforms for transporting siege engines. The assembly point was established in the Batavian lands, which were the base for invasions in various directions. By the way, the Romans gained new allies among the Germanic tribes-Segimera, Segestes’s brother and his son.

Hermannsdenkmal. Monument in honor of Arminius in Detmond (Germany).

In the spring of 16 CE, Germanicus concentrated a fleet and an army in the Batavian lands. Before the beginning of the actual expedition, he sent light-armed men under the command of the legate Silius to attack the Khatts again. The Roman army was boarded on boats that sailed the North Ocean, the Ems and its tributary, to land the army on the west bank of this river. On the news of the Angrivari rebellion, the Roman commander sent light-armed men and a ride under the command of Stertinius to desolate the lands of this people. Then he marched east to the banks of the Weser River, behind which Arminius’ troops were stationed. Germanicus ordered the construction of a bridge over this river, and at the same time, the cavalry units commanded by Stertinius and Emilius in two distant places crossed the Weser to split the enemy forces. The third cavalry group, consisting of the allied Batavas under the command of Chariovaldo, after crossing the river, set off in pursuit of the Cherusci. However, lured by the enemy into an ambush on a plain surrounded by forests, she was attacked from all sides. Chariovalda held desperate resistance for a long time, eventually collapsing killed while trying to break through the enemy’s ring. Only thanks to the intervention of the Roman cavalry, who came to the rescue, the remnants of the Batava cavalry were saved. In the days that followed, Germanicus’ army crossed the Weser and made camp on the other side of the river. According to reports from scouts, Arminius withdrew to the nearby forests and intended to attack the legion’s camp at night. His intentions failed in the face of the vigilance of the Romans. The next day, the Roman commander gave a speech to the soldiers before the coming battle. In it, he pointed to the flexibility of the Roman army, capable of fighting both in the open air and in the forests. He argued that the armament of barbarians in such conditions is less useful than swords, spears and Roman armour. Teutons do not wear armour or helmets, and their shields, made of shabby material, are not resistant to blows. Only the first ranks of the barbarians are armed with spears, while the rest are armed with ordinary sticks. Germanicus dismissively spoke of the enemy’s military capabilities, which in a sudden attack is dangerous, but does not keep the field in defence. Encouraged by this, the legionaries, confident in the imminent end of the war, prepared themselves enthusiastically for the coming battle. Arminius and other German leaders also made a speech to their troops. In passionate words, they emphasized the recent rebellions in the Roman army and the weakening of the legionaries due to wounds and unfavourable weather conditions. The barbarian leaders pointed to the pride and cruelty of the Roman invaders, which is better than victory or death.

Battle of Idistaviso 16 CE

Romans in Germania from the 1st century CE
Author: Bronti

The German army took up a position on a wooded plain near a hill near the banks of the Weser. The Cherusci family stood on the hill with Arminius as a reserve. The Romans marched and then turned into battle formation. The Gallic and Germanic allies of the Empire advanced, assisted by foot archers. Behind them were 4 legions, among which there was the commander himself and 2 praetorian cohorts with excellent cavalry. Another 4 legions and light infantry continued to march. The horseback archers and the rest of the allies’ infantry closed the procession. Before the battle, Germanicus announced that he had seen 8 eagles flying towards the Romans and presented this to his subordinates as a good sign. The Teutons began the battle. Some of Arminius’ subordinates, against the command of the commander, fell from the hill, however, surrounded by the ride of auxilias from the flank and from the rear, they were defeated. When the legionary infantry engaged with the barbarian warriors, they could not withstand the pressure of the enemy and retreated step by step. The barbarian commander himself charged the archers at the front of the Roman formation. The attack was stopped only by heavy auxiliary soldiers. As a result of a fierce battle, the Germans were defeated and suffered heavy losses. Some of the refugees drowned in the Weser, others sought refuge in the nearby thickets. These were shot by Roman archers. Over the course of 10,000 steps, the field was densely covered with the corpses of fallen Germans. The Romans themselves suffered minor losses. According to tradition, the victorious army greeted the emperor Tiberius after the battle, despite the fact that the author of the victory was Germanicus. A trophy and an inscription with the names of the defeated tribes were placed on the site of victory with the captured weapons.

Battle of the Angryvarian Embankment

The Germans, humiliated in battle, tried to tear the Roman army on its way back, taking advantage of the heavily forested area. The route of the victorious legions led along with the forests towards the earth embankment, separating the land of the Angriwari and Cheruski families. Here the Germans prepared an ambush for the Romans. The barbarian infantry took up a position near the embankment, and the cavalry hid in the woods far behind the Roman column. The Germanic horsemen planned to surprise the enemy from the rear, but the cautious Roman commander had anticipated this eventuality in advance. He left the cavalry as a cover in the open field, and divided the infantry into two groups. The first was to attack the Germans’ drive behind, and the second was to attack the embankment. Germanicus led the attack on its fortifications first. At first, the defenders successfully repelled the attacks of the Roman infantry and laid many of the legionaries dead. So the Roman commander changed tactics and withdrew the infantry. Now it was the turn of the slingers, the light-armed, and the scorpions to crush the barbarians’ resistance on the rampart. The fortifications, devoid of defenders, were easily captured by the legionaries. Now Germanicus has started the second stage of the struggle – the fight against the barbarian cavalry. At the head of two Praetorian cohorts, he led the attack against the enemy, who could not use his numerical advantage in the backwoods. The terrain obstacles at the scene of the clash made it difficult for both sides to escape, hence they fought to the death. The Romans did not settle in the fight until the enemy was completely annihilated. After the fighting ceased, the trophy was placed on their territory again. Most of the Roman army returned across the Rhine along the same route as it had previously embarked on – along the rivers and then along the North Sea. During the voyage across the Sea, a storm struck that scattered Germanicus’ fleet. As a result of this catastrophe, some of the ships rushed to the shores of Britain, and the commander himself on one ship found himself in the lands of the allied Chauk people. To intimidate the enemy, the lands of Khatt and Mars were attacked once again. During these expeditions, one of the eagles, lost in the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest in 9 CE, was recovered.


Germanicus was summoned by Emperor Tiberius to the capital, where the victorious leader made a great triumph. According to Tacitus, the Roman commander was to ask the ruler to extend his service in Germania in order to completely subdue the local tribes. However, Tiberius sent him to Syria to observe the eastern provinces in connection with the expected conflict with the Parthians.

Karl von Piloty, Thusnelda at Germanicus’ triumph. Arminius’s wife was taken captive to Rome.

It is suspected that the emperor’s decision resulted from the simple jealousy of Germanicus’ military successes, and concerns about his increase in popularity, which could have resulted in the latter’s attempts to take over the imperial power. Another imperial legate sent to Syria, Calpurnius Piso, is said to have been sent there by Tiberius to observe Germanicus. Soon, a conflict broke out in the province between him and the winner of the Germans, which ended with the resignation of Piso. Soon Germanicus fell ill and died, which casts suspicion on Tiberius or Piso, who wanted to reclaim the province for himself. The controversial decision of the ageing emperor to cease military operations across the Rhine was primarily due to the Empire’s political framework in the 1st century CE. Despite its republican façade, the Principality in practice meant monarchy, sovereignty. Despite the great military career opportunities that were enjoyed by the young members of the imperial family, they could not avoid suspicion of usurping intentions.

From a military and political point of view, Tiberius’s very decision was a grave mistake. Instead of bringing the war against the barbarians to an end and creating a new province between the Rhine and the Elbe, the ruler spared the tribes that contributed to the fall of the empire several centuries later. If Tiberius had not succumbed to jealousy and had allowed the fighting in Germania to continue, the further history of the Empire and Europe could have been quite different.

Author: Marcin Bąk (translated from Polish: Jakub Jasiński)

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