Monday, June 13, 2011

Teutoburg – The Prequel

It’s instructive to take a look that the events leading up to the Teutoburg debacle as a part of the bigger picture of Rome and the German tribes. Ultimately, we’ll get to the question of the impact of Teutoburg on Roman strategy and the longer term effects on Europe, but any conclusions drawn from our review depend on placing the event in the proper context.

Caesar took Gaul in the 50s B.C. and fought with the Germans at various times when they crossed the Rhine. The Germans were tough, tougher than the Gauls, and many tribes refused to be ruled. Other tribes saw the benefit of a Roman alliance and were content to operate under treaties.

At the beginning of Augustus’ reign, Gaul consisted of Cisalpine Gaul, Narbonese Gaul (also called Transalpine Gaul), and the three parts resulting from conquests by Caesar -- Aquitaine, Lugdunensis (central Gaul) and Belgica. Geographically speaking Cisalpine Gaul refers to Gaul “on this side of the Alps” while Transalpine Gaul was Gaul “on the other side of the Alps”.

The map I created below shows the relevant activities of this period.

Augustus made the decision circa 20 B.C. to protect Cisapline Gaul by securing the Alps. There had been continuing harassment of Roman couriers by Alpine tribes and communications with the north had become an ongoing concern. To solve this problem, Augustus developed a plan to push the border northward to the Danube and establish the new border on a line from Lake Constance to Vienna. After Nerva had cleared the valleys between the Italian lakes in 16-17 B.C, the way was clear for the advance to the Danube to begin. Augustus gave his two stepsons, Tiberius and Drusus, the responsibility for the taking the new territory. Tiberius was to attack in the area near Lake Constance and Drusus work his way north through the Brenner pass. Their work was complete by the end of 15 B.C. and their accomplishments celebrated by Horace.

For, with your army, brave Drusus, demolished
the Genauni, that implacable race, in more
direct retaliation, the swift
Breuni, and their defenses, established

on the formidable Alpine heights: and soon
Tiberius, the elder Nero, entered
that fierce fight, with his favorable
omens, defeating the wild Rhaetians:

it was wonderful to see with what destruction,
in contesting the war, he exhausted those minds
intent on the deaths of our freemen,
as the south wind, almost, when it troubles

Circa 12 B.C. Augustus made a further decision to move the western German border from the Rhine to the Elbe. He was uncomfortable with the gap in the Black Forest that separated the sources of the Rhine and Danube and realized that moving the western border to the east, he could eliminate that gap. The eastern advance was entrusted to Drusus who began his campaign in 11 B.C. By the end of the year he was successful in working his way to the Weser River.

In 9 B.C. Drusus moved all the way to the Elbe before his unfortunate death in a riding accident.

Tiberius was then given proconsular control of Germania and worked at reducing it until 7 B.C. In 4 B.C. he returned to Germania, reconnoitered Jutland, and advanced to the Elbe in the north.  Now with the Elbe established as the border in Germania it remained to defeat the Marcomanni in Bohemia to cement the Elbe Danube connection.

But it was not to be. In the midst of the war with the Marcomanni, Tiberius was forced to treat with them and break off to put down a revolt in Pannonia (present day Hungary).  The revolt was put down in 6 A.D. with the help of young Germanicus.

Now Tiberius had a couple of years to catch his breath before the Teutoburg disaster.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Massacre at the Teutoburg Forest

Rome’s greatest defeat came in the Battle of Teutoburg Forest, which I would rather label the Massacre or Ambush at Teutoburg Forest. To me, a battle results from a conscious decision on the part of two commanders to engage one another. There was no decision like that in this case because the Romans were not in a position to defend themselves.

The attack took place in 9 A.D. against the legions XVII, XVIII, and XIX of Sextus Quinctilius Varus who had been commander of Germania since 7 A.D. Normally stationed near the Weser River, Varus heard of revolts around the Rhine so he traveled west to investigate.  All three legions were wiped out, and when the seventy-two year Caesar Augustus was told of the debacle, he screamed for Varus to return his eagles.

Part of the intrigue of the story centers around Arminius, son of the leader of the German tribe Cherusci, who was given to the Romans as a hostage in 11 B.C. He was raised in Rome, eventually being elevated to a Knight. Arminius (in Germany he's called Hermann) was assigned to the legions of Varus as a trusted advisor, but in secret he plotted with the German tribes to attack the Roman legions.

Before we get to the massacre, we’ll need to talk about the Geography. The following satellite view positions the Teutoburg forest in Northern Germany.

It sits 130 miles east of Amsterdam, 70 miles west of Hannover, and 130 miles northeast of Cologne.

View 2 below shows a close up of the main area of conflict.

Key reference points include the cities of Engter and Venne, along with Kalkriese Hill, which was directly involved in the action. The majority of excavated Roman remains from the battle were found in the boxed area shown.

View 3 is a closeup of the area north of Kalkriese Hill.

As noted in the photo, there are modern towers which allow visitors to survey the battlefield and there is one spot marked as the site of the ambush. There is also a museum there. One of the important things to notice in this view is the relationship between Kalkriese Hill and the Great Bog. The Roman Army became trapped in the narrow corridor (estimated at 200 yards wide) between the hill and the bog. This proved to be a tactical advantage for the Germans. To make the trap complete, they dug a trench in the road so the Roman Army was blocked from three sides.

Lastly, we have view 4 which depicts the movements of the Roman Army during the battle.
I want to emphasize that my description of the course of the battle is based on the documents I reviewed and is, by necessity, conjectural. The antiquarian writers, most notably Dio, cannot be trusted. Descriptive data is sparse and the writers have agendas so one does not know where the truth lies. Lack of details does not change the major facts of the battle or its significance, however.

The battle opened with the Roman Army marching west into the Teutoburg Forest. Descriptions have the Roman force stretched out as much as nine miles in a narrow column. This seems logical since axe men would have been cutting down trees and the resulting roadway would have been narrow. When the army reached a point northeast of Osnabruck they were ambushed. Dio says that Arminius asked to be excused to check on auxiliaries but instead met up with the Germans to set up the attack.

The Romans were ambushed at 1, in the midst of a heavy rainstorm, and lost scores of men because they could not deploy adequately against the German archers. By the end of the first day, they had regained their footing and built a fortified camp where they spent the first night. Assailed again in the morning they were able to break out to the southeast and reached 2, a point north of the Wiehen Hills and northwest of Ostercappeln. It’s unclear whether they spent the night there, but that is a possibility. The next day the army resumed its trek to the northwest, still in heavy rain, arriving at 3, an area north of the Kalkriese Hill, where the final massacre took place. Trapped in the narrow corridor between the Kalkriese Hill and the Great Bog, the rest of the army was destroyed.

Three legions were wiped out with an equivalent number of auxiliaries totaling some 20,000. Most of the Roman commanders including Varus committed suicide once they realized there was no escape.

From a tactical standpoint there is no way the Roman Army could have survived this “perfect storm” of tactical obstacles. To reiterate.

1) ambushed in unfamiliar territory
2) unable to efficiently form into battle because of the disposition of the caravan
3) trapped in wooded terrain
4) double crossed by allies who could communicate vital intelligence to the enemy.
5) driving rainstorm during the entire assault

Would Caesar have survived this?

Varus was criticized as being more of a politician than a military leader but he must have had many good men under him. At the time of his death, he would have been the forth ranked man in Rome after Augustus, Tiberius, and Germanicus.

Footnotes -- The legion numbers 17-19 were never used again by the Roman Army because of the ill luck and disgrace of Varus' men. Two of the eagles were recovered in 15-16 A.D, while the third was not retrieved until 42 A.D.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Fall of the Roman Republic – Anatomy of a Collapse

Everyone seems to write about the fall of the Roman Empire – Gibbon et al. I guess they look at the end of the Empire as the seminal event because it marks the end of a thousand years of Roman power and the onset of the Dark Ages. I, however, would rather study the fall of the Roman Republic because it is much more interesting. First of all the Republic is a classic governmental form like the democracies of Greece. The Empire, by contrast, was a corrupt totalitarian system which was bound to collapse at some point under its own weight.

Secondly, the Republic was a political incubator, unique in its time. When the Romans threw out the Etruscan kings they made a conscious decision to create a representational government. In the beginning the Patrician class had too much power and the Plebian class had none. Then, over time, the classes came into better balance with the rise of the middle class and its increased political influence. Finally, after three hundred and fifty years, the Republic began to develop problems that would snowball into its collapse.

Thirdly, it’s interesting to look at the reasons why the Republic fell. What does this tell us about the evolution of political systems? Are they all bound to fail at some point or can the path toward collapse be reversed. Lastly, is there something we can learn about the Roman republic that is applicable to our contemporary world?

When The Third Punic War ended in 146 B.C. Carthage was eliminated as a rival to Rome, and the Mediterranean Sea  became Mare Nostrum.  By then Greece  was a client state, the Germans were behaving, and except for some problems in Spain the provinces seemed stable. All was not well at home, however,  because class problems were about to serve as the spark which would burn down the Republic.

In the paragraphs following I will lay out a chronology  showing how the collapse of the Republic became the inevitable outcome of a series of events which undermined the old system and created opportunities for those who wanted power for themselves.


1. The incessant wars of the second century had profound impact on the small landowner. Many died in battle or returned from war to find themselves destitute because their land was not worked while they were away. The wealthy accumulated forfeited land and began to work it for themselves often employing slaves instead of Roman citizens. The huge estates resulting from this accumulation further concentrated wealth in the hands of the few. Displaced farmers gravitated to the city hoping to find work but were largely unsuccessful.

Impact: A permanent underclass of was created upsetting the balance between Patricians, Knights, and Plebians.

2. The destruction of the peasant farmer caused hardship for the army because there were not enough landowners left to meet its requirements.

Impact: A shortage of recruits at a time when Rome was expanding.

3. During the period 133-122 B.C. the brothers Tiberius and Gaius Gracchus sought to alleviate the problems described above by passing land distribution bills. These bills would have created farms for the unemployed and veterans, slowing down the drift to poverty and increasing the number of recruits. The brothers were indifferent to the risk of taking on the wealthy because they wanted to solve the social problems of the Republic. Both were murdered by supporters of rich senators who did not want to see their assets re-allocated to the lower classes.

Impact: By murdering tribunes of the people the Senate showed an inclination to circumvent the law when necessary even to the point of having legitimately elected officials murdered. They also showed themselves to be against the people and unable to govern a society where the powers were balanced.

4. Political factions developed. Optimates representing conservatives supported the Senate’s desire for status quo and they were opposed by the Populares who supported change.

Impact: The interests of the people as expressed through the assembly were now determined to overcome the will of the Senate.

5. In 110 B.C. Rome began a war with Numidia and its charismatic leader Jugurtha. After a series of failed attempts to defeat the enemy, and the replacement of several commanding generals, the Plebian general Marius was chosen as the commander by the assembly against the wishes of the Senate.

Impact: The people’s assembly used its power to manage foreign policy, an invasion the rights previously held exclusively by the Senate.

6. Marius suspended the property qualification for military service in 107 B.C. This solved the problem of recruiting but opens up a much more ominous precedent – loyalty of the army.

Impact: The loyalty of the Roman army was now transferred from the Senate and the people to the commanding general. The army now looked to Marius to give them property after the war.

So now we were forty years into the collapse of the Republic and it’s obvious that a reversal is not possible. The people (or mob as some might say) have taken power from the Senate which had lost its moral authority. The army now belonged to the commanding general instead of the government. Respect for the old institutions is gone forever because they were not able to solve the socio-economic problems of the Roman people.

7. Marius, never the politician, resorted to political types to act as his agents. One tribune, named Saturninus, strong-armed the Senate into allocating land for Marius’ veterans by threatening Senators with exile. Marius later tired of Saturninus using gangs to influence policy, marched an improvised army into Rome, and killed Saturninus and his followers.

Impact: A new precedent was set for the army attacking Rome and killing its political opponents.

8. King Mithridates of Pontus raised an army in 88 B.C. and attacked Athens forcing Rome to respond. Command for the Greek army of invasion was entrusted to Lucius Cornelius Sulla, a Patrician who had distinguished himself previously during the Jurguthine War. Blocking Sulla, a tribune named Sulpicius Rufus had Marius named commander instead. Sulla, unwilling to put up with this rebuke, marched his army on Rome and took the city.

Impact: The Roman Army and its commanders now understood that they could take power whenever they wanted. All that remained was for the last vestiges of honor and respect for the Roman political system to pass away. But not quite yet!

9. Sulla defeated Mithridates, returned to Rome, and declared himself dictator – a move he claimed was necessary to save the Republic. He passed many new laws – some good, some bad – but in all cases followed the proper form and passed them through the assembly. In 80 B.C. Sulla abdicated his position as dictator and was elected consul. Following the consulship, he retired.

Impact: A commander, in control of the army, made himself dictator and tried to use legislation to save the Republic. Most of these laws were rescinded once he left the scene proving that political momentum cannot be reversed. Surprisingly, Sulla went to the brink of creating an empire but then pulled back.

10. In the period following Sulla (80-60 B.C.), Pompey, Crassus, and Caesar rose to power. Although each had different abilities and objectives, they become aligned when each was snubbed by a Senate that was trying to regain its power. They split the provinces between themselves accumulating power and wealth along the way.

Impact: Rome was now controlled by a triumvirate of military commanders who ruled jointly without restraint.

11. In 60 B.C, Caesar decided that he needed greater military success on his resume so he had Gaul assigned to him as a province and went to war there for ten years. Crassus was killed in battle in 52 B.C. and that coupled with the death of Pompey’s wife (Caesar’s daughter) broke up the alliance. With the Gallic victory complete, Caesar marched on Rome, crossing the Rubicon River in 49 B.C.

Impact: Now for the first time the stars were completely aligned for Empire building. We had a man who wanted wealth and power without a care for tradition. He controlled an army, which gave him the means to control Rome.

As we look at the fall of the Republic, we see in the beginning a power vacuum created when the Senate failed what the people perceived was its responsibility. These failures would have been masked previously through their own control mechanisms such as patronage, but those controls were now largely eroded by the growth of the middle class (Knights) who wanted some of that power and the displaced landowners who were now urban poor.

The people, through their advocates, resisted the Senate until the watershed event of Marius’ elimination of the property qualification. That event turned the army into a force engine for any commander who wanted control of Rome. Back and forth the struggle went until the stars were aligned for Caesar. Ironic that Caesar would be assassinated by a group of Republicans trying to hang on to the old system. They were too late.