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Roman campaigns in Germania (Germania Magna) in time of Octavian Augustus

(16 BCE - 16 CE)

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)

15th-century copy of the map of Germania according to the image of the Romans from the 2nd century CE, the author of the ancient map was Claudius Ptolemy
15th-century copy of the map of Germania according to the image of the Romans from the 2nd century CE, the author of the ancient map was Claudius Ptolemy

Roman Empire for most of its existence based its borders in Europe on two great rivers: the Rhine and the Danube. Beyond this border, for a long time under Roman rule, there were lands between the sources of these two rivers, the so-called Agrii Decumates and Dacia in today’s Romania. In the British Isles, the areas of today’s England and Wales were subordinated. However, the Romans, at various times, temporarily seized other lands beyond the border of the great rivers. One of such areas was the area of ​​Western Germania (Germania Magna), between the Rhine and the Elbe, which came under Roman sovereignty during the reign of Octavian Augustus, at the turn of the years BCE and CE (approx. 8 BCE to 9 CE) – from the campaign of Druzus the Elder and Tiberius to the defeat of Publius Quintilius Varus in the Teutoburg Forest.

Reasons for the interest in the conquest

The conquest of Great Germania between the Rhine and the Elbe was perhaps the greatest unfulfilled dream of the first emperor – Octavian Augustus. The general reason for the plans to subjugate the right bank of the Rhine was to shield Gaul from raids by Germanic tribes crossing the Rhine. From the beginning of the Roman rule in Gaul, invaders from across the river broke there, and the Romans undertook retaliatory expeditions. The direct cause of the change of tactics to the offensive was the defeat of the two legions of Marcus Lollius in Gaul during the invasion of the Germanic tribes of the Sugambri, Usipets and Bruckers in 16 BCE (the so-called clades of Lollian – the defeat of Lollius). The Romans lost their legionary eagle as a result of the defeat. Emperor Augustus, after the defeat, concluded that he would not secure Gaul sufficiently from the barbarians if there was no strong Roman bridgehead beyond the Rhine. The wars for Germania between the Elbe and the Rhine lasted almost 30 years – from 12 BCE to 16 CE, and can be broken down into several stages: the campaign of Druze the Elder (Augustus’ stepson), the younger brother of Tiberius ) in the years 12-8 BCE, then the so-called immensum bellum (in Polish for “violent war” or “great war”) in 1-5 CE, the defeat of Varus in CE 9 and campaigns of Germanicusin the years 14-16 CE

Campaigns of Druzus the Elder

After the defeat of Marcus Lollius on the Rhine mentioned above, Augustus himself arrived, calming the situation and establishing five Roman military camps, the most famous of which are Castra Vetera (today Xanthen in Germany) and Mogontiacum (today Mainz in Germany). They were an excellent base for action across the Rhine. The war campaigns themselves were carried out by Druzus the Elder, with five legions from Gaul and Spain and a Roman navy in the North Sea (the so-called classis Germanica). Druzus very quickly defeated another invasion of Germans in 12 CE, and then went on the offensive, ravaging the lands of the recent invaders – the Usipets north of the Lupia River (today’s Lippe) and the Sugambras, between Lupia and Rurinna (today Ruhr in Germany). The Roman fleet sailed from the Rhine via the Druzus Channel (Drusiana fossa) into the bay called by the Romans Lacus Flevo (today Lake Ijsselmeer in the Netherlands, formerly Zuyderzee Bay) and then on to the North Sea. Without a fight, the Romans subjugated the Friesian tribe living there, which undertook to pay tribute and military aid to Druzus. The Romans subjugated probably the largest island in the ancient Frisian archipelago – Burchana (today identified with the island of Borkum in the East Frisian archipelago or a combination of several today’s islands). The fleet further at the mouth of the Amisus River (today Ems) defeated a very primitive fleet of Germanic Bruxers, and at the mouth of another river – Visurgis (now Weser), ravaged the land or defeated another Germanic tribe – Chauków. The latter event probably took place as early as 11 BCE. During the return from the expedition, the Roman fleet ran aground, but with the help of the Friesians, managed to free it. In addition to the military aspect, the expedition of the Roman fleet along the coast of the North Sea significantly contributed to getting to know the geography of this region of Europe. In 11 BCE, Druzus ravaged a second time the lands of the Sugambras and another tribe that had attacked Gaul in the past – the Tankterns – based south of the Rurinna River. In the course of the expedition, Druzus, marching between the rivers Lupia and Rurinna, passing through the unhappy later Teutoburg Forest, reached the Visurgis River. The river was not crossed probably due to the proximity of winter and the shortage of supplies, and historians such as Livius and Pliny also mention a huge swarm of bees that appeared in the Roman camp. When returning from the expedition, the Druzus army marched along the same path, being attacked by the Sugambres and their allied Chatti tribes, and possibly Cherusci. The legions, however, repelled the attack of the Germans in a narrow valley, near an unidentified town – Arbalo (the name mentioned by Pliny). Druzus set up a fortified camp in today’s Oberaden nad Lippe in North Rhine-Westphalia to control the Sugambras and Uzypetas, and set up a fortified camp in what is now Oberaden on the Lippe in North Rhine-Westphalia, and to check the Chattas farther south in Roedgen, in what is now the state of Hesse.

Within two years, Druzus achieved all the previously set goals: he subjugated the restless tribes and secured Gaul from invasion. August was pleased and probably wanted to stop there – the Battle of Arbalo showed the danger of expeditions deep into Germania. However, as early as 10 BCE, the anti-Roman faction probably won among the Chatti inhabitants of today’s Hesse as far as the Moenus River (today the Main). This resulted in another expedition by Drusus, which in 10 BCE defeated the Chattów, Marcomanni and Swebów. So the main arena of fighting was located further south than in previous years. Druzus established many military and supply camps between the Laugana (today Lahn) and Lower Main rivers (an example of this is the Marcusbreit camp in today’s Bavaria). In 9 BCE Drusus once again defeated Suebi and Khatts, then turned north, defeating the Cherusci who live on the Visurgis River and Fulda and Verra. At the same time, the operation of the attack on the land of the Sugambras was carried out by the second Roman army. After these successes, Druzus was the first Roman commander to reach the Albis River, which is today’s Elbe. It happened, according to some sources, in the vicinity of today’s Magdeburg or the town of Barby in Saxony-Anhalt. The river was not crossed again – probably due to the exhaustion of supply routes or the high water level in the Elbe. It is a legend that Druzus noticed a ghost in the form of a great woman on the Elbe, forbidding him to cross the river and foretelling his imminent death. The way back from the Elbe ran south, probably along the Sala River (today the Soława River, Saale in German). On the way back, Druzus died, possibly from complications from an accident in which he fell off his horse, and the campaign ended with the troops returning to Mogontiacum.

Years after Drusus’ death and immensum bellum

After Drusus’ death, Tiberius took command of Germania. In 8 BCE sources do not mention large war campaigns, Tiberius, instead of waging long and brutal war campaigns, tried to solve the problems by politics and negotiations. The most hostile to the Romans tribe of Sugambrów was isolated and resettled in the vicinity of Castra Vetera on the other side of the Rhine, and the Marcomanni tribe withdrew to the territory of today’s Czech Republic. In the course of the fighting, the Romans defeated and made all the Germanic tribes between the Elbe and the Rhine dependent. There is not much news about relations in Germany in the following years, it is known that Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus carried out the expeditions to Germania. This commander, according to Tacitus, was the first to cross the Elbe, which was only reached by Druzus, and probably of all Roman commanders, he reached the farthest east in Germania. In the swamps between the Rhine and Amisus, he created a series of promenades allowing for easy communication. These buildings were called the so-called “long bridges”. He settled the Hermundur tribe in the lands on the Main, abandoned by the Marcomanni. After him, Marcus Winicjus took command of Germania in 1 CE. He suppressed the rise of the Germanic tribes under Roman rule, the so-called immensum bellum (Polish giant war). The military actions of this conflict were mentioned by a famous historian and their participant – Welleyus Paterkulus. The war was probably fought with varying luck, and its campaigns were not described in detail, Wellejeus says that Marcus Winicjus “happily carried out offensive actions in some areas, and successfully used defensive actions in others”. In 4 CE, Tiberius took over the command of the troops in Germania, defeating the smaller rebel tribes on the Rhine: the Kanninefats, Attuaries, and Bruxelles, and then the Cherusci. The army, helping Tiberius, was also commanded by the legate of Augustus Sencjus Saturnin. In the winter of CE 4/5, Roman troops spent in Germania, not returning across the Rhine. The wintering site is located near the sources of the Lupia River. The following year, the Romans managed to subdue the Chattas, who also rebelled against their supremacy. The Roman armies once again went to the Elbe and Solawa, where the tribes of the Lombards, Semnons and Hermunds were defeated. The victory of Tiberius in CE 5 is considered the end of the Germanic uprising in CE 1-5. Up the Elbe or Sali rivers, the Roman fleet, having previously sailed along the North Sea coast and from the mouth of the Elbe, arrived with the aid of Tiberius’ land army. According to some historians, the campaign of Tiberius on the Elbe and Solawa “is admirable and undoubtedly constitutes the culmination of the Roman-Germanic campaigns.” In 6 CE, Tiberius planned a campaign against the Marcomanni, whose king was Marbod. He created a very strong state in today’s Czech Republic, where the Marcomanni fled from the Main River after the victorious campaigns of Drusus the Elder. The Romans were to attack Marbod from two directions: the west – led by Sencio Saturnin, and the southern – with Noricum, commanded by Tiberius, with a total force of twelve legions. Plans for the attack were thwarted by the great Pannonia uprising from 6 to 9 CE.

Varus’s defeat

As Tiberius and Sencius Saturninus was recalled from Germania and began to suppress the Pannonia uprising, Publius Quintilius Varus became the new Roman commander in Germania in 7 CE. Being the governor, he dealt mainly with the settlement of disputes between the seemingly quarrelsome Germanic tribes, which only lulled the Romans to vigilance. In 9 CE, during the march of three legions from a summer camp to a winter camp in Germania, or according to other hypotheses, during a march to quell the alleged rebellion of one of the tribes on the Weser, Varus was taken by surprise by the united Germanic tribes led by Arminius. Three legions, having been stretched over difficult terrain, in unfamiliar territory, betrayed by guides and auxiliary troops, were completely annihilated. It was one of the greatest disasters in the history of Rome. Varus, not wanting to be captured, committed suicide. The exact location of the battle is unknown, but traditionally it is called the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest. Varus ‘defeat thwarted the Romans’ efforts to conquer the Germanic lands between the Elbe and the Rhine in the previous 20 years.

After the defeat

After the battle, the two legions remaining beyond the Rhine returned to Gaul, and the Germans captured almost all the Roman camps on the right bank of the Rhine, although the Romans were able to free the besieged legionaries at Fort Aliso, the exact location of which is not known exactly today. However, the Romans’ fears that the barbarians would cross the Rhine and an uprising would break out in Gaul did not come true. Marcomanni and Marbod did not accept the offer of an alliance with the rest of the Germans, and soon disputes broke out among the victors themselves. Emperor Augustus did not renounce his plans to conquer Germania and ordered a new offensive to be launched. Tiberius again took command of the Rhine, but little is known about his activities during his three years of re-command of the Rhine. He probably made cautious, low-risk expeditions across the river. Although, of course, German historians mention that perhaps the reason for the lack of decisive action was the fear of German military power. In 14 CE, after Tiberius, who succeeded Octavian Augustus, command of the Rhine was taken over by Germanicus, son of Drusus the Elder, who had merited in the conquest of Germania. From 14 CE, the Roman army made expeditions against Mars, then the Chattas, to the Amisus River and the site of Varus’s defeat in the Teutoburg Forest. During the retreat of part of the Roman army in 15 CE, the legate Aulus Caecina Severus was surprised by the Cherusci and their allies during the crossing of the marshes to the so-called pontes longi (“long bridges”). Despite the difficult conditions, loss of supplies and large losses, the Romans managed to get out of their difficult situation and defeat Arminius, who then escaped from the site of the battle. During the retreat in the campaign of CE 15, two other legions, under the command of the legate Vitellius, also suffered heavy losses, caused by a large sea storm. In the following year – CE 16, Germanicus’ expedition reached the Weser where at Idistaviso he defeated Arminius and the coalition of Germans led by Cherusci. After the victory, the army returned across the Rhine, which may mean that Germanicus was only seeking revenge for the defeat of Varus, and was not trying to re-conquer Germany between the Rhine and the Elbe. During the retreat, Germanicus once again defeated Arminius in the battle of the Angryvary embankment, capturing one of the legionary eagles lost during Varus’ defeat. At the end of 16 CE, the son of Drusus was recalled by Tiberius from Germania. The Arminius coalition was not ultimately defeated, but a few victories and the retrieval of two of the three legionary eagles partially compensated for Varus’s defeat. Tiberius’s new decision was to abandon the expeditions to Germany and leave them in internal disputes that could weaken them in the future and facilitate their conquest. In the following years, the Romans, of course, undertook further expeditions across the Rhine, but they never managed to again at least temporarily subjugate larger areas of Germany. Octavian August’s dream was never realized. Perhaps he understood geopolitics very well and predicted that in the future the tribes of this area would contribute to the fall of Rome? And that was why he was so anxious to do it? From the Polish point of view, we can also speak of bad luck that the border of the Roman Empire on the Elbe was impermanent. Perhaps due to the proximity of the border, the tribes living in antiquity in the present Polish lands would be much better described and known by Roman historians and geographers, thanks to which we would know more about the history of our country today?

Author: Eligiusz Idczak (translated from Polish: Jakub Jasiński)
  • Velleius Paterculus. Roman history
  • Klaus-Peter Johne, Die Römer an der Elbe. Das Stromgebiet der Elbe im geographischen Weltbild und im politischen Bewusstsein der griechisch-römischen Antike, Berlin 2006.
  • Dieter Timpe, Römische Geostrategie im Germanien der Okkupationszeit, Moguncja 2008.
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  • Armin Becker, Rom und die Chatten. Darmstadt 1992.
  • Boris Dreyer, Arminius und der Untergang des Varus. Warum die Germanen keine Römer wurden, Stuttgart 2009.
  • Gustav Adolf Lehmann, Imperium und Barbaricum. Neue Befunde und Erkenntnisse zu den römisch-germanischen Auseinandersetzungen im nordwestdeutschen Raum – von der augusteischen Okkupationsphase bis zum Germanen-Zug des Maximinus Thrax (235 n. Chr.) , Wien 2011.
  • Dieter Timpe, Der Triumph des Germanicus. Untersuchungen zu den Feldzügen der Jahre 14–16 n. Chr. in Germanien, Bonn 1968.

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