The only portrait of Drusus known to have been carved in his lifetime appears on the Ara Pacis in Rome. On the south facing enclosure wall, one figure in the procession is conspicuous by his attire. He is the only male figure shown wearing the paludamentum, the military cloak, in contrast to the others who wear togas; and caligae, the robust, open sandals worn by soldiers, which compare to the others who wear closed civilian boots. The consensus opinion is the figure is that of Nero Claudius Drusus since he was active on military campaign while the altar was being carved and at the time of the inauguration on 30 January 9 BCE. If the identification is correct, this is the only portrait of Drusus which can be securely dated to his lifetime. He is shown as a confident and relaxed individual in the company of his family. With her head turned to look at him is the figure of Antonia Minor, who holds the hand of a small boy identified as Ti. Claudius Nero (better known as Germanicus) who would have been nearly six years old at the time of the consecration ceremony.
In the spring of 11 BCE, with the western coastal region nominally under – or at least not hostile to – Roman control, Drusus turned his attention to the interior lands. From Vetera, he crossed the Rhine taking with him all or parts of Legiones I Germanica, V Alaudae and XVII, XVIII and XIX plus cohorts of auxilia. They followed the meandering course of the 220 kilometre (136.7 mile) long Lippe River (Lupia) and immediately engaged the Tencteri and Usipetes. The Usipetes – or Usipii – were close allies of the Tencteri to the south, and not much else is known about them. They lived between the Rhine and Lippe Rivers and became known to Iulius Caesar during his campaigns in Gallia. In 55 BCE news of Caesar’s defeat of the Eburones reached the people across the Rhine. Seeking their share of the plunder and corn the Tencteri and Usipetes united and crossed the Meuse River, and instantly became a problem for Caesar. He engaged them and in the ensuing rout, the Germanic tribes retreated upriver. In the opening weeks of Drusus’ invasion the Usipetes were overcome just as easily as four decades before.
Drusus had paid very particular attention to building out military infrastructure on the left bank of the Rhine prior to the invasion and, having landed on the right bank, immediately began to install the supply depots and accommodations that would support the forward advance. The temporary fortress established on the right bank of the Rhine at Dorsten-Holsterhausen, 36 kilometres (22.4 miles) east of Vetera, and which was large enough for two legions, may date from this time.6 Marching further inland Drusus ordered a bridge to be constructed over the Lupia and promptly marched his men across it. They were now in the country of the Sugambri nation, modern Sauerland. The Sugambri – or Sicambri or Sygambri – were a tough, proud people who let no obstacles stand in their way. “Neither morass nor forest obstructs these men, born amidst war and depredations,” noted Caesar. They appear to have been related to the Belgae, based on a study of their names, many of which end in –ix, such as Baetorix and his son Deudorix. Baetorix was the brother of Maelo who, as war chief, led the alliance of Sugambri, Tencteri and Usipetes in the raid into Gallia in 17 BCE leading to the clades Lolliana which gave Augustus his reason to launch a war. Maelo was still war chief of the Sugambri at the time of Drusus’ invasion.
The Sugambri first enter the written record in the account of Iulius Caesar’s Gallic War. It was to the sanctuary of the Sugambri nation that the Tencteri and Usipetes had fled in 55 BCE when pursued by the Romans. Caesar sent an emissary to demand the hand-over of the men who had invaded Gaul. The Sugambri refused, insisting that the Rhine River marked the limit of Roman power. Shortly after that episode Caesar decided to build his famous bridge and to take the war to the Germanic nations. Ten days later, his bridge having been built, he marched his men into Sugambri territory. He found the people had disappeared – the Sugambri had been tipped off and retreated into the forest. He burned their villages and buildings and cut down their corn crop as punishment for their intransigence. It was not a happy start to the relationship between these peoples. Two years later, Caesar was back in the territory of the Eburones and, lured by the promise of loot, the Sugambri saw a chance to stake their own claim on the defeated tribe’s possessions. Gathering up 2,000 cavalry they took to boats and crossed the river thirty miles downstream from the site of Caesar’s bridge and garrisons so that they could move unobserved. They gathered up all the roaming cattle they could find and planned to move further inland in search of loot. They headed south towards Atuatuca (Tongeren), but were repulsed and crossed back to their homeland with their prizes.
The Sugambri did not take defeat lightly and neither did they tolerate those who would not ally themselves with them in pursuit of a common foe. Dio records that they were angry at the Chatti for not having stood with them on their raid into Gaul in 17 BCE. Six years later the men of the Sugambri massed for a punitive raid on their neighbours and abandoned their homesteads for the season. The Chatti – or Catti or Catthi – were one of the Germanic nations not mentioned in Caesar’s Gallic War and were possibly not well known at the start of Drusus’ campaign. The earliest written source we have is that of Strabo who located them in the mountains and valleys of the Elder, Fulda and upper reaches of the Weser River, in what is now modern Hessen. The best account of them, however, is preserved in Tacitus who calls the Chatti “the children of the Hercynian Forest”. He describes them as “distinguished beyond their fellows by their singularly hardy frames, well-knit limbs, resolute eyes and by a remarkable energy of spirit”. In contrast to most Germanic communities which eschewed urban living, the capital city of the Chatti was called Mattium (near modern Kassel) and located in the defensible Taunus mountains. Tacitus was struck by their similarities between the Chatti and his own countrymen. “Their whole strength is in foot soldiers,” he writes, “who, besides carrying their arms, are loaded with tools and supplies” (just as legionaries did). They posted pickets by day and dug ditches around their camps at night (in the same way legions did). They also followed the orders of their leaders, whom they elected, and they fought in formations which they kept in the heat of battle (exactly like the legions following their praetors or consuls). Unlike their barbarian neighbours who “came out for a single battle” the Chatti engaged in campaigns, and
seldom make mere raids or allow themselves to be drawn into a casual encounter: it is cavalry, to be sure, from which one expects a quick success or a quick retreat; speed goes with timidity, slowness is more allied to steadiness.
Pitted against such an opponent the Sugambri were in for a hard fight. Where the Sugambri made war with their hearts, the Chatti campaigned with their heads.
Their decision to wage war on each other was a tremendous stroke of good luck for Drusus. He apparently encountered no resistance and was able to move his expeditionary force freely through Sugambri territory unimpeded.
By following the twisting and turning course of the Lippe River in an easterly direction Drusus would have ultimately reached its source at Bad Lippspringe on the edge of the Teutoburg Forest. This was the homeland of the Cherusci nation. The Cherusci have gone down in history as the tribe that produced Arminius, or Hermann the German, who defeated Roman ambitions at Teutoburg in 9 CE. In 11 BCE he was just six years old, but his father Segimer and uncle Inguiomer were already accomplished warriors. The Cherusci first appear in the Roman literature with Julius Caesar where they are mentioned as neighbours of the hostile Suebi and separated by a forest called Bacenis which provided them protection from raids and attacks. Tacitus mentions their other neighbouring tribes as the Chauci and Chatti. Pliny the Elder places them as members of the Hermunduri community comprising the Suebi, Hermunduri and Chatti. On the outbound march Drusus may have avoided the Cherusci, but they would not remain strangers for long.
Beyond where Anreppen now stands the Lippe River eventually becomes difficult for boats to navigate. The course of the Lippe has changed over the last two millennia but at some point along this stretch of the river the expeditionary force struck out across country towards the Weser River (Visurgis) east-northeast in the general direction of modern Minden or southeast towards Göttingen – the extant sources are unclear on this point. Eventually the Romans reached its right tributary source, the Werra River. The army would have struck temporary camps each night but these leave only faint traces and most have been lost or not yet identified. It must have been with great disappointment that Drusus listened to the advice of his legates and camp prefects. Supplies, or the dwindling level of them, would not permit Drusus to cross the Weser River this campaign season without endangering the mission. He was still in hostile territory, the summer was over and winter was in prospect. Tactically he had no choice but to turn back and head for Vetera.
Another event is recorded that likely tipped the balance for Drusus. In his marching camp an unusual – and to the Romans’ sensibilities a very disturbing – event took place. Outside the tent of praefectus castrorum Hostilius Rufus bees were seen swarming. Specifically they swarmed one of the poles and guy ropes holding up the tent. The ancients paid particular attention to the behaviour of bees, which were seen as winged messengers of the gods. The augurs were called without delay to interpret the meaning of the swarming insects. Their reading of the omens was treated with utmost gravity and respect and in hushed silence they studied the buzzing creatures for signs of divine intent. Finally they pronounced that the auguries appeared to signal danger, possibly even a defeat ahead for the Romans. Drusus, they said, should tread carefully through Germania. It was enough to convince him. The campaign was suspended for the year and Drusus gave the order to begin the 300 kilometre (186.4 mile) journey that lay between them and home to the west.
What we know of the Germanic warrior comes mainly from Greek- and Latin-speaking Roman authors. At this time, the Germans wrote nothing down. Some evidence survives in the archaeological record to give us a material picture of his arms and armour. Yet his reputation has survived the ages: fierce to the point of being savage, fearless bordering on the reckless, cunning like the fox. Unlike his Roman opponent, the Germanic war fighter was remarkably underequipped. In large part this was due to the paucity of basic materials. “Even iron is by no means abundant with them”, Tacitus noted, “as we may gather from the character of their weapons”. About one in ten warriors had a single-edged knife (measuring 7–12 centimetres, 2.8–4.7 inches long). Others carried a sword for cutting and thrusting; or a machete-like sax (measuring about 46 centimetres – 18.1 inches – long) for slashing and chopping. Some might bear a double-edged sword similar to the Celtic long sword of the Raeti and Norici or Roman spatha. However, Germanic weapons were made of a form of iron called ‘steely iron’ which has a much lower content of carbon, typically 0.5 to 1.5 per cent of its weight, making it softer and more likely to bend when struck with force. To compensate for this weakness, Germanic swordsmiths made the sax with a thicker upper edge, but notwithstanding this measure, against the harder steel weapons used by the Romans, Germanic swordsmen were at a material disadvantage.
Axes were wielded by those with means, while others with fewer means used wooden clubs hewn from logs which had been fire-hardened or made more deadly with iron spikes. Both weapons were used with devastating effect: even the rough edge of a club can cause considerable blunt trauma and crush bones. They also used bows of fir and yew and arrows, slings and slingshot that were devastating when used en masse. When the ammunition ran out, they threw rocks and stones.
Their preferred weapon was a slender but versatile spear. “They carry lances”, wrote Tacitus, “frameae as they call them, with the iron point narrow and short, but so sharp and so easy to handle that they employ them either for stabbing or throwing on occasions”. They also carried darts – missilia the Romans called them. Ranging from 90–275 centimetres (35.3–108.3 inches) in length with a tip 10–20 centimetres (3.9–7.9 inches) long, in an expert’s hand these were terrible weapons, especially to men wearing chain mail armour, the links of which the sharp, narrow point could pierce and rip apart. Each man carried several into battle and “they can hurl them to an immense distance”.
The regular Germanic fighter wore little or no body armour, unless stripped from an opponent or made by a local craftsman, “and only a man or two here and there a helmet or head piece”. Though there were likely national or clan differences in dress, he typically wore a short- or long-sleeved tunic, baggy or close-fitting long trousers belted at the waist, and a cloak fastened with a brooch. German woollen cloth was somewhat rough to the touch but nevertheless dyed in solid colours, or woven with stripes or geometric patterns. A shield was the primary mode of defence. Sculptures and coins show Germanic shields to be flat and long, and in shape oval, rectangular or hexagonal. Tacitus comments that their shields were not supported by metal or leather but were simply wicker or painted boards, however, metal edging strips have been found in eastern Germany contesting his generalisation. He also mentions the care with which they painted the coloured devices on the front of them. Surviving first century BCE examples from Denmark, one measuring 88 centimetres (34.6 inches) by 60 centimetres (23.6 inches) and the other 66 centimetres (25.9 inches) by 30 centimetres (11.8 inches), are made of wooden planks. In these specimens a central ‘barleycorn’ shaped shield boss protects the handgrip, but iron domed and pointed circular shield bosses have also survived.
Germanic warriors fought both on foot and horseback. Each was similarly equipped with spear or darts and shield. Lightly armed infantry made up the largest part of a Germanic tribal army but their cavalry, even in smaller numbers, were very effective. Germanic cavalry would often dismount and fight on foot and Caesar observed that they even trained their horses to remain standing in the same spot so they could leap up on to them and ride to another part of the battlefield or escape. “Their horses are not remarkable”, writes Tacitus snootily,
for beauty or speed, neither are they trained to complex evolutions like ours; the riders charge straight forward, or wheel in a single turn to the right, the formation of the troop being such that there is no rear flank.
The right turn meant that the rider’s shield side was presented to their enemy so he could launch his weapon with his right side fully protected.
Young men able to run fast formed the vanguard of the attack as they were able to keep up with the cavalry charge. It was actually part of their ritual of attaining manhood. When deemed ready, a young man was formally presented with a lance and shield in the presence of his tribal assembly in what was regarded as the youth’s admission to the public life of his community. In times of war, one hundred of the ablest young men were selected from their villages to accompany the cavalry on foot. Some, having proved their courage and skill, might then become retainers or bodyguards of the clan or war chief,
and there is an eager rivalry between the retainers for the post of honour next to their chief, as well as between different chiefs for the honour of having the most numerous and most valiant bodyguard. Here lie dignity and strength. To be perpetually surrounded by a large train of picked young warriors is a distinction in peace and a protection in war.
The relationship between the retainer and retained was complex, based on a code of honour, reward and recognition:
Upon the field of battle the chief is bound in honour not to let himself be surpassed in valour, and his retainers are equally bound to rival the valour of their chief. Furthermore, for one of the retainers to come back alive from the field where his chief had fallen is from that day forward an infamy and a reproach during all the rest of his life. To defend him, to guard him, nay, to give him the glory of their own feats of valour, is the perfection of their loyalty. The chiefs fight for victory; the bodyguard for their chief.
The Germanic nations were admired by Roman authors for their free spirit and democratic form of self-rule. Chiefs were elected by a tribal assembly to administer the law in their communities and each leader had a council of one hundred free men to consult for advice and to enforce his decisions. For campaigns they elected a war leader. Caesar had observed “when a state either repels war waged against it or wages it against another, magistrates are chosen to preside over that war with such authority, that they have power of life and death”. After the war, they relinquished that power. “They choose their kings for their noble birth”, observes Tacitus,
their generals for their prowess: the king’s power is neither unlimited nor arbitrary, and the generals owe their authority less to their military rank than to their example and the admiration they excite by it, if they are dashing, if they are conspicuous, if they charge ahead of the line.
These were characteristics Drusus would have admired as they were the very same principles by which he led his own men.
Raiding was common practice among Germanic nations. In part this arose from the need to keep retainers fed and usefully employed as “forays and plunderings supply the means of keeping a free table”. Not for them tilling the land, but yet they could stand bloody wounds if it meant their status would rise on account of them. Germanic tribes tried to avoid a pitched battle. ‘Hit-and-run’ was the preferred tactic in battle, using ambushes to strike their enemy when they were least expecting and prepared for an attack. Only as a last resort, did they meet in a set piece battle, and having first carefully picked the ground, preferring wet or wooded or stony ground. The Germanic army on the battlefield is often portrayed as a rabble, a mêlée, but this is inaccurate. They assembled in columns and took up wedge formations, familiar to the Romans as the cuneus, a tactic they themselves used. Like the Romans, the men in the wedge formation interlocked or overlapped their shields to form a shield wall or ‘shield castle’. In 58 BCE, the Germanic king, Ariovistus, arrayed his men against Iulius Caesar by assembling the seven tribes under his command in columns of 300 men strong with spaces between them. The Romans attacked from the front and sides, and the Germanic left flank – their unprotected side – collapsed, but on their right flank – the side protected by their shields – Ariovistus’ men were able to deflect the Roman attack by pushing aggressively forward into Caesar’s ranks. They were only defeated when Roman reinforcements arrived.
Just as the warriors of Raetia, Vindelicia and Noricum did, Germanic warriors fired up their spirits by singing and chanting. The Germanic war fighters sang to Hercules according to Tacitus (who may have equated him to Thor or Irmin, son of Wuotan), and
they raise a hymn in his praise, as the pattern of all valiant men, as they approach the field of battle. They have also a kind of song which they chant to fire their courage – they call it barding (barritus) – and from this chant they draw an augury of the issue of the coming day. For they inspire terror in the foe, or become flurried themselves according to the sound that goes up from the host. It is not so much any articulate expression of words as a war-like chorus. Their great aim is to produce a hoarse and tempestuous roar, every man holding his shield before his mouth to increase the volume and depth of tone by reverberation.
Adding to the raucous noise, the men clashed their weapons rhythmically against their shields. Some might combine the menace of their barritus with an aggressive war dance to antagonise and strike fear in their opponent.
The strength of the formation lay in its composition. Men formed up next to their kith and kin – son, brother and father stood next to each other, their lives on the line. Their wives and children would often go along and cheer their menfolk from behind. “Each man”, writes Tacitus,
feels bound to play the hero before such witnesses and to earn their most coveted praise. To his mother and to his wife he brings his wounds; and they do not shrink from counting them, nor from searching for them, while they carry food to the fighters and give them encouragement.
If their husbands, fathers or brothers fell, their comrades and womenfolk would be there to carry the body home proudly on his shield.
Retreats and feigned flights were accepted battlefield tactics. Yet for a warrior to run and leave his shield behind was considered a shameful act and one that dishonoured him in the eyes of his entire community. The humiliating punishment was disbarment from religious rites and denial of participation in the tribal assembly, and fearing this rejection “many such survivors from the battlefield have been known to end their shame by hanging themselves”.
War fighters gathered under clan flags like the vexilla of the Roman army. Long horns or trumpets were played to relay basic commands. These were prized spoils and, along with captured spears and shields, were assembled by the victor into war trophies. An enemy warrior captured alive in battle by a Germanic tribe might expect to face a duel with the champion of the captive-taker’s tribe. The outcome of the combat was taken as a forecast of how the war would end.
When the attack commenced, trumpets blasted, and a hail of spears, darts and rocks was unleashed upon the enemy. Led from the front by their war chief, the wedge made up of interlocking shields would move forward in a menacing body of arms and men chanting their barritus. Some young men called beserkers, carrying shields and wielding spears or clubs, but otherwise naked and barefoot, might rush out screaming in a form of war madness and throw themselves upon the enemy. What lightly armed Germanic fighters lacked in equipment, they made up for in aggression, stealth and numbers, as Drusus and his invading army would now find out.