Militarily speaking, the 500 or so years of Empire made for a vastly quieter time for the Romans than the preceding 700 years or so of the Republic. The intractable doors of the Temple of Janus even remained closed for a while in the early years of Augustus’ reign. Augustus wielded complete control over what had now become the Roman Empire; he also retained control of the Roman army – essentially to prevent a return to the bloody turmoil of the civil wars by covetous, power-hungry generals. He maintained a policy of limited expansion, largely keeping the new Empire within its existing boundaries. This was in the face of encouragement to invade Britannia and Parthia and a need to ensure that the legions were usefully employed to the benefit of the political establishment rather than to its detriment. As far as the Romans could see, there was little out there now which would earn a return on expensive military campaigns; lucrative booty and fertile lands not under Roman control were now in short supply. Why bother? Augustus had the financial resources to satisfy and resettle veterans out of his substantial windfalls from the Ptolemaic empire; he was naturally unwilling to allow ambitious commanders to launch insurrection on the back of victorious military campaigns. Fortuitously, it turns out that battle casualties and proscriptions from the civil wars had dramatically reduced the number of nobles agitating for a return to the Republic.
Policy in Asia Minor, Africa, Egypt, Spain and Gaul largely reflects this restraint, this military conservatism. Germany, however, was to prove an exception. In 17 BC, tribes led by the Sugambri, from near what is now the Dutch-German border on the right bank of the Rhine, defeated a Roman legion under the command of Marcus Lollius. This came to be known as the Clades Lolliana – the Lollius Massacre.
Marcus Lollius is little known but he was probably a homo novus (new man), a friend of and indebted to Augustus who had saved him from proscription. Consul in 21 BC, he was the first governor of Galatia and enjoyed success over the Thracian Bersi tribe. In 17 BC, he was a governor on the Rhine leading the Vth (Alaudae) Legion, battle hardened from their campaigns against the Cantabri in Iberia. Soon after his arrival, a number of Romans were captured and crucified by the Tencteri, knowing quite well that this would not go unpunished. The Tencteri, noted for their skills as cavalrymen, joined with the Usipites and the Sugambri and launched attacks into Roman-occupied Gaul. For the Tencteri and Usipites, this was a long-awaited chance to avenge the slaughter visited on them some forty years earlier, in 55 BC, by Julius Caesar. According to Cato the Younger, Caesar murdered 400,000 of them and ought to be brought to book for the war crime. The Sugambri were led by Melo, brother of Baetorix; later the Sicambri under Deudorix, son of Baetorix, joined Arminius and were to help annihilate the three Roman legions under Publius Quinctilius Varus at the Teutoburg Forest.
Lollius was impatient and ill-prepared. He marched out with the Vth Alaudae and a small squadron of cavalry to confront the invaders; the cavalry were sent on ahead only to be massacred in a Tencteri ambush. The Germans pursued the survivors back to the ranks of the legion, which was taken by surprise and slaughtered. If the destruction of the Vth Alaudae was not bad enough, the Tencteri made things a lot worse when they triumphantly captured the coveted gold aquila standard – a most stigmatic, albeit rare, humiliation for the legion and its commander. There was further bad news when it transpired that Augustus was himself in that part of Gaul at the time. The emperor, no doubt furious at the loss of a standard and the best part of a legion, gathered an army to confront the Germans. Augustus took hostages and subsequently withdrew his army. Lollius, of course, was finished. Apart from this calamity, he had a torrid time as a guardian to Gaius Caesar, Augustus’ nephew. Their strained relationship culminated in accusations of corruption and taking bribes from King Phraates of Parthia, after which he took his own life. He died a wealthy man, his considerable fortune being inherited by his granddaughter, Lollia Paulina. Predictably, history has not treated him well: Velleius Paterculus labelled him greedy and vicious – the inevitable epitaph for a commander who loses his eagle to the barbarians. His friend Horace, on the other hand, had praised him; to Pliny the Elder he was a hypocrite. With supreme understatement, Suetonius described the incident as ‘disgraceful’ rather than ‘damaging’. Comparing it with the Clades Varianas (the Varus Massacre in the Teutoburg Forest), he says, ‘But the Lollius debacle was more about dishonour than disaster.’
The Romans should have taken Clades Lolliana as a stark and timely warning that, in this part of Gaul and in Germany, they were vulnerable, and, if they were to succeed, would have to demonstrate the utmost military skill and deploy the best strategies and the sharpest of tactics. If any good came out of Lollius’s avoidable disaster it was that his clades eventually provided the Romans with a springboard for the invasion of western Germany in order to create a buffer against German attacks on Gaul. It allowed Augustus to extend the boundary of Empire to the Elbe and, incidentally, provided military opportunities for his stepsons, Tiberius and Drusus. Drusus was able to win a series of victories and reached the Elbe between 12 and 9 BC. From 11 BC, for seven years, German hostility between tribes deepened. Tacitus records that the Chatti defeated the Cherusci, but were themselves pacified from AD 4. Velleius Paterculus also notes unrest. On the death of Drusus in 9 BC, Tiberius took over and consolidated these gains through ethnic cleansing, resettling the more refractory Germans in Gaul in 8 and 7 BC. Three years later L. Domitius Ahenobarbus was able to penetrate Germany by another route: the valley of the Saale in the upper Danube Valley.
Skillfully combining naval and land operations, in AD 6, Tiberius built on his successes, culminating in an attack against Maroboduus and his 75,000-strong Marcomanni army. Gaius Sentius Saturninus and Marcus Aemilius Lepidus led the 65,000 infantry and 10,000–20,000 cavalry and archers, along with 10,000–20,000 civilians, amounting to thirteen legions with entourage. In AD 4, Tiberius invaded Germania and subjugated the Cananefates, the Chatti near the upper Weser and the Bructeri, south of the Teutoburg Forest, before crossing the Weser. However, in that same year, a distracting and diverting rebellion erupted in Illyricum, led by the Daesitiate, the Breucians, the Pannonia and the Marcomanni; this Bellum Batonianum (War of the Batons) lasted for four years. Tiberius sent eight of his thirteen legions east to crush the revolt, which had been inflamed by neglect on the part of the Romans, food shortages and the heavy-handed exaction of oppressive taxes. Only three legions (the XVIIth, XVIIIth and XIXth), six independent cohorts and three squadrons of cavalry were left to Publius Quinctilius Varus, legatus Augusti pro praetor (envoy of the emperor, acting praetor), in Germany.