The 'Limes Giant' Mask
Found at Kalkriese
Clades Variana   (The Varus Disaster)
By Kevin Barry
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Page 2

Roman Forces

For the defense of Germany, Varus had available:
Three veteran legions, Legio XVII, Legio XVIII and Legio XIX with 5,000 men each.
2 Roman cavalry alae and 1 Gallic alae with 500 men and cavalry troops each.
There were also 6 auxiliary cohorts made up of local recruits (or possibly recruits from Gaul) with a nominal strength of 500 men each. These troops were used to garrison the Roman forts and strongpoints throughout Germany.

For the battle, Varus had the 3 legions, 3 cavalry alae and possibly some of the auxiliary cohorts. The remainder of the auxiliaries were on garrison duty and took no direct part in the battle, but were involved in the general uprising. The total number of men in the legions under Varus has been estimated at a low of 6,000 men to a high of 18,000. The cavalry alae have been estimated at between 400 and 800. (We are not sure if these estimates are for the horse compliment only or all riders and support troops.) If we accept the normal strength of the time for the legions and alae, then Varus would have had 16,500 men under his command at the time of battle.

Two of the legionary Praefects were Lucius Eggius and Ceionius. The cavalry were under Praefect (praefecti equitum) C. Numonius Vala. More about them (and particularly Vala) later.

German Tribes

Initially, there were 3 tribes involved on the German side, the Cherusci, Chaucii and Marsii. As the battle turned against the Roman, more tribes joined the attack. The exact number of men and tribes involved is not known. We do know that at least one tribe, the Marcomanni, remained neutral during the fight. However, it can be reasonably assumed that the numbers would at least equal the strength of the Roman force.

The Setup:

By some accounts, Arminius put together a subtle plan to draw the Romans out of their fortifications and into an area that heavily favored the attacking Germans. At the same time, the Roman forts north of the Rhine would be attacked. A report was given to Varus that a tribe in the far north had revolted. Varus would have to march a long distance through supposedly friendly territory to get there. The route he would take goes through the Teutoburg Forest (an area roughly 70 miles across between modern Osnabruck and Paderborn) which was a deeply wooded area full of tall trees, dense underbrush, almost impassible ravines and dank swamps.

Curiously, Varus was warned about the coming attack by Segistes, a Cherusci, who was the father-in-law to Arminius. Segistes apparently opposed the marriage of Arminius and his daughter Thusnelda. That opposition caused acrimony and was to play a part in the downfall of Arminius years later. Varus chose to ignore the warning.

From Cassius Dio, "The Roman History", Book LVI:19
He thus became complacent to the point of rashness, and since he expected no harm, he not only disbelieved all those who suspected what was happening and urged him to be on his guard, but actually reproved them for being needlessly alarmed and for slandering his friends. Then an uprising broke out, the first to rebel being those peoples who lived at some distance from him. This had been deliberately contrived to entice Varus to march against them, so that he could the more easily be overwhelmed while he was crossing what he imagined to be friendly territory, instead of putting himself on his guard, as he would do in the event of the whole country taking up arms against him simultaneously.

The Ambush:

From Cassius Dio, "The Roman History", Book LVI:20
The shape of mountains in this region was irregular, their slopes being deeply cleft by ravines, while the trees grew closely together to a great height. In consequence the Romans, even before the enemy fell upon them, were hard pressed by the neccessity of felling trees, clearing the tracks and bridging the difficult stretches where ever neccessary on their line of march. They had with them many wagons and pack animals, as they would for a journey in peace-time; they were even accompanied by women and children and a large retinue of servants, all these being factors which caused them to advance in scattered groups.

Since the Romans were not expecting an attack, there were a very large number of camp-followers, accompanying and mixed in with the legions. The number of camp-followers has been estimated by some at between 5,000 and 10,000 men, women and children. During ancient and medieval times, it was not unusual for an army to be followed by a number of civilian camp-followers, including wives and children, servants and merchants either catering to the soldiers or seeking their protection. This was a normal occurrence for an army on the move, but not for an army going into battle. That the army had camp-followers is considered evidence that they were marching blindly, not suspecting that an ambush lay ahead.

Picture the situation: At the front of the column were Roman engineers who had to widen the paths and build bridges across ravines and swamps. It is highly probable that they would have widened the paths and built the bridges only wide enough for a single wagon of the baggage train to pass and no wider. To do more would have required time and that would have slowed down the formation considerably. So, following them would have been a narrow column of men, horses and wagons carrying supplies, women and children. With upwards of 30,000 people, this tremendous column would have stretched for miles.

The soldiers, not expecting battle, would have been encumbered with their own supplies and tools. They probably wore their armor, otherwise they would have had to carry it. They may or may not have been carrying their weapons ready for use.

All the while scouts for the Germans are in the woods, watching and waiting for the time to strike.

From Cassius Dio, "The Roman History", Book LVI:20
Meanwhile a violent downpour and storm developed, so that the column was strung out even further; this also caused the ground around the tree-roots and the felled trunks to become slippery, making movement very dangerous, and the tops of trees to break off and crash down upon them creating great confusion. While the Romans were struggling against the elements, the barbarians suddenly surrounded them on all sides at once, stealing through the densest thickets, as they were familiar with the paths.

The Germans struck during a violent storm and the surprise was complete. Not only were the Roman formations in disarray due to the storm, but the camp-followers mixed in with their formations hindered their ability to rally and counter-attack. The Germans closed so that the fighting occured at very close quarter with sword and axe. In the rain, men and horses slipped or were were immobilized in the treacherous mud and cut down before they could find their feet. The sound of sword on sword or sword on flesh would have resounded through the rain, along with the cries of the wounded and dying. A large number of casualties happened at the opening of the attack.

After a time, the Romans managed to break out of the ambush and reached ground that was open enough to set up a camp and hasty fortifications. The engineers and soldiers raised an earthen berm as was the custom in the Roman army for defense. Within the berm, the camp took shape while the wounded were tended and men grieved the loss of friends and family. At this point, the only thing they could do was to wait out the night.

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