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This Week In History

Eagles Recovered – May 26, 17 AD

Publius Quinctilius Varus, born in 46 BC, came from a noble family and became a personal friend to both Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa and Roman emperor Augustus. He married Vipsania Marcella Agrippina, great-niece of Augustus and daughter of Marcus Agrippa. After she died, he married Claudia Pulchra, grand-niece of Augustus through Octavia the Younger.

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Cenotaph of Marcus Caelius, 1st Centurion in Legio XVIII

Varus was fast-tracked on his political career and finished his cursus honorem early when he was elected consul with Tiberius in 13 BC. He gave the eulogy at Marcus Agrippa’s funeral in 12 BC. In 8/7 BC, he was appointed governor of Africa and in 7/6 BC, moved on to governor of Syria with four legions at his command. It was here Varus was known for his harsh rule and high taxes. A revolt in Judaea after the death of King Herod the Great in 4 BC was met by Varus with an occupation of Jerusalem, where he crucified more than 2,000 Jewish rebels. After his governorship in Syria, Varus returned to Rome.

From 10 BC to 6 AD, Tiberius, his brother Drusus, Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus and Germanicus campaigned in Germania against the local tribes, of which there were more than 50 at the time. The chieftain of the most noble house of the Cherusci tribe sent his sons, Arminius and Flavus, to Rome as tribute after the attacks by Drusus. Arminius remained in Rome, became a citizen and received military training. Around 4 AD, Arminius was appointed commander of a detachment of Roman forces from his native Cheruscan tribe.

In 6 AD, the area was considered pacified under Roman control and Varus was made governor of Germania. Tiberius left the area to deal with a revolt in the Balkans. He took his eight legions with him, leaving Varus with three legions – XVII, XVIII and XIX, along with six cohorts of auxiliary troops and three squadrons of cavalry. In 7 or 8 AD, Arminius returned to Germania to help expand Roman influence under Varus. However, Arminius was secretly meeting with the German tribes to actually unite them against the Romans. Varus never suspected Arminius of treachery, even when Segestes, a noble from the Cherusci tribe, warned him of what was going on behind his back.

Arminius notified Varus of an uprising in the Rhine area on September 9, while Varus was preparing to leave with the legions to Moguntiacum. Varus marched his troops toward the area and right into a trap Arminius laid with the German tribes. The Teutoburg Forest area was swampy from storms and difficult terrain for normal Roman marching. The Romans were attacked by the tribes, and by the third day of fighting, the Germans wiped out all three legions. Varus committed suicide and the Germans took the legionary standards and Arminius sent Varus’s head to King Marbod of the Marcomanni tribe in Bohemia, but he refused it and sent it to Rome for proper burial. The humiliation of the defeat was so complete that Augustus was said to have uttered for years “Varus, give me back my legions”! The three legions were never reassembled or the numbers used again.

After the death of Augustus, the new emperor, Tiberius, sent Germanicus in 14 AD on a campaign in Germania in retaliation for the Teutoburg Forest massacre. Germanicus caught the Marsi tribe by surprise and defeated them. The Bructeri, Tubanti and Usipeti tribes attacked in response, but suffered heavy losses. Germanicus’s army of 55,000-70,000 continued to campaign in the area over the next two years, eventually marching on Arminius and his army at the Battle of the Weser River in 16 AD. The Romans inflicted heavy losses on the Germans, while suffering little. Caius Silius campaigned against the Chatti tribe and Germanicus invaded the Marsi again, devastating their land.

When finishing all of this campaigning for the year, Germanicus recalled all of the troops back to their winter camps. On the way back, during some more skirmishes across the Rhine, two of the three legionary eagles lost in the Teutoburg Forest disaster were recovered. Tiberius recalled Germanicus from the field, and on May 26, 17 AD, Germanicus celebrated a triumph in Rome with the two eagles.

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