BATTLE OF IDISTAVISUS
“It was a great victory, and without bloodshed to us.”
TACITUS, The Annals, II, 18
It was the summer of AD 16, and Germanicus Caesar had used a fleet of 1,000 newly built ships to return to the heart of Germany in search of Arminius and his German allies. At midmorning, the Roman army came marching down beside the Weser River from where it had camped for the night. With a small force left at the camp to guard the baggage, the legions were marching in battle order.
This time, the Germans were not only ready for Germanicus, but their leader had chosen the location for a decisive battle, and had sent men posing as defectors to lure the Romans into a trap, in the same way that he had lured Varus into a trap seven years before. The chosen place, called Idistavisus by the Romans, was just east of the Weser on a rolling river plain between ranges of low hills. The so-called Great Forest ran along the eastern fringe of the plain, with grassland extending for 2 miles (3.2 kilometers) over low hillocks from the trees to the Weser. Fifty thousand German tribesmen stood waiting on the grass, massed in their tribes and clans, their ranks extending from the forest to the river. [Warry, WCW]
In addition to Arminius and his Cherusci, tribes represented are likely to have included Arpus and his Chatti; Mallovendus and the remnants of the Marsi, plus the Fosi, Usipetes, Tubantes and Bructeri; the Cauchi, who had captured one of Varus’ eagles, were probably present, along with young men of the Angrivarii—in defiance of their tribe’s latest treaty with Rome; and Tencteri and Mattiaci from the Rhineland opposite Cologne, as well as Langobardi and Ampsivarii from along the Weser and Hunte rivers.
As the Roman army rounded the river bend and met the sight of the waiting German horde, Germanicus, riding in the middle of the column, calmly gave orders for his units to deploy. To the 28,000 men of his eight under-strength legions he had added the 2,000 men of two Praetorian Guard cohorts sent to him from Rome by Tiberius. It was unique for Praetorians to fight in a field army when the emperor was not present. Their presence had more to do with Tiberius’ unfounded fear of his adopted son using his legions to topple him from the throne than from a genuine desire to help Germanicus.
In addition, the Roman army of 74,000 men included 30,000 auxiliaries from Gaul, Raetia, Batavia, Spain and Syria, 6,000 men from allied German tribes, and 8,000 cavalry including 2,000 mounted horse archers. One of Germanicus’ German auxiliary cohort commanders was none other than Flavus, brother of Arminius. Germanicus was not concerned at seeing the Germans waiting for him—the tribesmen sent to lure him here had confessed that Arminius planned to entrap him, telling of the Germans’ location and numbers. [Tac., A, II, 16]
Germanicus was also confident of the morale of his legionaries. In the days leading up to the battle, a German had ridden to the Roman camp ramparts in the night and called out that Arminius would reward every Roman who changed sides, with a German wife, a plot of land, and 100 sesterces a day while the war lasted. Germanicus had heard one of his men yell back, “Let daylight come, let battle be given! Then we’ll take your land, and carry off your wives!” [Ibid., 13]
As the Roman infantry spread with drilled precision in three battle lines, German tribesmen with massive spears up to 12 feet (3.6 meters) long began spilling down the slopes toward them. Germanicus turned to Lucius Stertinius, and ordered him to execute a prearranged cavalry maneuver; the general rode off and led the Roman cavalry at the gallop along beside the tree line. The Roman infantry front line was filled with auxiliaries. The second line comprised the ALR legions: the 1st, 5th Alaudae, 20th and 21st Rapax, with Germanicus and the two Praetorian cohorts in the middle of the line. Behind Germanicus in the third line were the AUR legions, the 2nd Augusta, 13th Gemina, 14th Gemina and 16th Gallica.
The legionaries stood in their ranks, waiting to meet the German rush, stock still, like statues, the sun glinting on their standards and military decorations, the horsehair plumes on their helmets wafting in the morning breeze. This would be one of the last times that legionaries wore plumes in battle; before long, they would be relegated to parade use only.
One of Germanicus’ aides then pointed to the sky. “Look, Caesar!”
Germanicus looked up. Eight eagles were flying overhead—one for each of Germanicus’ legions. As the Romans watched, the birds dipped toward the forest. Germanicus called to his troops: “Follow the Roman birds, the true deities of our legions!,” then ordered his trumpeter to signal the front line to charge. [Ibid., 17]
With a determined roar, the auxiliaries surged forward. Behind them, a line of foot archers loosed off a looping volley of arrows at the oncoming tribesmen. Soon, Germans and Roman front line were locked together.
Stertinius and the cavalry drove into right flank and rear of the German horde. The impact of this cavalry onslaught drove a mass of Germans away from the trees, where they collided with thousands of other Germans running toward the forest to escape the cavalry attack from the rear. Cheruscans on the hill slopes were forced to give ground by their own panicked countrymen. After his men had charged without waiting for his orders, Arminius, on horseback, had been forced to join them. In the midst of the fighting, he was soon wounded.
Realizing that the day was already lost, Arminius smeared his face with his own blood to disguise his identity, urged his horse forward, and with his long hair flying, headed toward the Roman left wing, by the trees, which was occupied by Chauci Germans from the North Sea coast. These men had fought alongside Arminius in the Teutoburg, but had since allied themselves with Germanicus. Tacitus was to write: “Some have said that he was recognized by Chauci serving among the Roman auxiliaries, who let him go.” [Ibid.]
Arminius escaped into the forest, and kept riding, as, behind him, Germanicus sent his legions into the fight. The struggle between 128,000 men went on for hours. “From nine in the morning until nightfall the enemy were slaughtered,” said Tacitus, “and ten miles were covered with arms and dead bodies.” Arminius’ army was routed. “It was a great victory, and without bloodshed to us,” Tacitus declared. But Arminius himself was still at large. [Ibid., 18]
BATTLE OF THE ANGRIVAR BARRIER
After the bloody defeat of Idistavisus, Arminius was determined to have his revenge on Germanicus and his legions. In years past, when the Angrivari tribe was at war with the Cherusci, they had built a massive earth barrier to separate the tribes. The Weser river ran along one side of the Angrivar barrier; marshland extended behind it. A small plain ran from the barrier to forested hills. It was here at the barrier that Arminius planned to defeat Germanicus Caesar.
Word reached Germanicus that Arminius and his allies were regrouping at the barrier and receiving thousands of reinforcements. From a German deserter, Germanicus also learned that Arminius had set another trap for him, hoping to lure the Romans to the barrier. Arminius would be waiting in the forest with cavalry, and would emerge behind Germanicus as he attacked the barrier, to destroy him from the rear. Armed with that intelligence, Germanicus made his own plans. Sending his cavalry to deal with Arminius in the forest, he advanced on the Angrivar barrier in two columns.
While one Roman column made an obvious frontal attack on the barrier in full view of its thousands of German defenders, Germanicus and the second division made their way unnoticed along the hillsides. He then launched a surprise flanking attack against the Germans. But, in the face of determined defense, and devoid of scaling ladders or siege equipment, Germanicus’ troops were forced to pull back. After bombarding the barrier with his legions’ catapults, keeping the Germans’ heads down, Germanicus personally led the next attack, at the head of the Praetorians, removing his helmet so that no one could mistake who he was. The men of eight legions followed close behind their bareheaded general and the Praetorians. On clambering up the barrier they found a “vast host” of Germans lined up on the far side, commanded by Arminius’ uncle Inguiomerus, who, with blood-curdling war cries, surged forward to repulse the Romans.
The intense hand-to-hand combat continued for hours. Germanicus ordered that no prisoners be taken. The situation was equally perilous for both sides. “Valor was their only hope, victory their only safety,” said Tacitus. “The Germans were equally brave, but they were beaten by the nature of the fighting and the weapons,” for they were too tightly compressed to use their long spears effectively. [Tac., A, I, 21]
Pushed into woods, trapped with their backs to the marsh, the tribesmen were slaughtered. At nightfall, the killing stopped. The Germans had been dislodged from the barrier and butchered in their thousands. Inguiomerus escaped, but took no further part in German resistance. That night, Germanicus was joined by Seius Tubero, commander of the Roman cavalry that had gone after Arminius in the forest. Tubero, a close friend of Tiberius, had certainly prevented Arminius from attacking Germanicus in the rear, but after indecisive fighting had allowed the German cavalry to escape. While the battle at the barrier had been another crushing Roman victory, Arminius had again evaded capture.
The Roman victory was soured when, on the return voyage to Holland, a number of Germanicus’ ships were wrecked in a storm. To prove that the legions were still to be reckoned with, Germanicus immediately regrouped his forces and led a new raid across the Rhine, this time returning with another of Varus’ lost eagles.
The Senate heaped honors on Germanicus, and the adoring Roman people sang the prince’s praises. But Tiberius was unimpressed. When Germanicus asked the emperor for another year to complete the subjugation of the Germans, he recalled him. Germanicus returned to Rome, “though,” said Tacitus, “he saw that this was a pretense, and that he was hurried away through jealousy from the glory he had already acquired.” There would be no further Roman expeditions east of the Rhine during the reign of Tiberius. [Ibid., 26]
After Germanicus celebrated his Triumph in Rome in AD 17, Tiberius made him supreme Roman commander in the East, and in Syria, in AD 19, Germanicus, Tiberius’ heir apparent as emperor, would die—apparently poisoned, with Tiberius the chief suspect. Ironically, in Germany that same year, Arminius would also die, and also at the hands of his own people. Many hundreds of years later, Arminius, or Hermann, would become the hero of German nationalists.
As for Germanicus Caesar, many modern-day historians consider him a mediocrity. Yet Germanicus would be lamented by the Roman people for generations—as late as the third century, his birthday was still being commemorated on June 23 each year. [Web., RIA, 6] Fearless soldier and noble prince, Germanicus was, said Cassius Dio in the third century, “the bravest of men against the foe” yet “showed himself most gentle with his countrymen.” [Dio, LVII, 18]