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Varus, Quinti'lius

13. P. Quintilius Varus, son of No. 11, was consul B. C. 13 with Tib. Claudius Nero, afterwards the emperor Tiberius. (D. C. 54.25.) Varus was subsequently appointed to the government of Syria as the successor of Sentius Saturninus, and remained in that province for several years, where he acquired enormous wealth. According to the antithetical expression of Velleius Paterculus (2.117), " as a poor man he entered the rich country, and as a rich man left the country poor." Shortly after his return from Syria he was made governor of Germany (probably about A. D. 7). Drusus had conquered a great part of central Germany as far as the Visurgis (Weser), and the various German tribes between this river and the Rhine seemed disposed to submit quietly to the Roman rule and to adopt Roman customs and habits. The time appeared favourable to Augustus for introducing into the country the regular administration of a Roman province; but he made an unfortunate choice in the person whom he selected to carry his purpose into effect. Varus was a man of moderate talents and fond of an idle and quiet life; he possessed neither the abilities nor the energy necessary for the important task entrusted to him. In addition to which, he had for years received in Syria the servile obedience of a race, which had long been accustomed to the Roman government; while in Germany he was called to rule over a brave and high-spirited people, who had only recently been subdued, and knew nothing of the jurisdiction of a Roman province.

As soon as Varus had crossed the Rhine, he proceeded to levy taxes and to introduce the Roman jurisdiction in the newly conquered country. For this he is strongly censured by Dio Cassius (56.18) and Velleius Paterculus (2.117), but without sufficient reason; for there can be no doubt that he acted in accordance with his instructions ; and it must be recollected that he was the first governor of Germany, to whom the civil administration as well as the military command had been entrusted. His mistake was in the manner in which he carried his instructions into effect, and in his infatuation in supposing that a brave nation could be governed in the same way as a herd of Syrian slaves. The Germans viewed with dismay and indignation the abolition of their own laws, and the introduction of the Roman jurisdiction, in consequence of which their rights, their property and even their lives would depend upon the decision of a Roman proconsul. They were ripe for revolt and found a leader in Arminius, a noble chief of the Cherusci, who had previously served in the Roman army and had been rewarded by the Roman franchise and the equestrian rank. The tribes in the north and south of Germany took no part in the insurrection, but most of the people in the central parts of the country joined in the revolt : the Cherusci were at the head with their subjects, and besides them we read of the Marsi, the Catti, and the Bructeri. Varus was blind to the impending danger. In the summer of B. C. 9 he had penetrated as far as the Weser, and took up his quarters on the western bank of the river, probably not far from the spot where it is joined by the Werra. Here, in fancied security, he held courts for the administration of justice, not like a general at the head of his army, but as if he were the city praetor sitting in the Roman forum. According to the preconcerted plan of Arminius, the orders of Varus were obeyed without opposition; and the most distinguished German chiefs, and among them Arminius himself, constantly visited his camp and lived with him on the most friendly terms. Varus therefore finding every thing so peaceful and the people so submissive did not consider it necessary to keep all his soldiers together in the summer camp. He had with him three Roman legions with their regular number of auxiliary troops, and a strong body of cavalry; but he had, at the request of Arminius and the other chiefs, sent various detachments into the surrounding country for the protection of the convoys or of the inhabitants against marauders. Such was the posture of affairs, when late in the summer Varus was surprised by the intelligence that a distant tribe of Germans had risen in arms against the Romans. This however was only a feint to draw Varus from his encampment; and it succeeded. He collected his army and commenced his march towards the south accompanied by Arminius and the German chiefs. The latter however left him almost immediately, promising to return as soon as they had collected their forces. Varus allowed them to depart and continued his march without suspicion. His road lay through the vallies of the Saltus Teutoburgiensis, a range of hills covered with wood, which extends north of the Lippe from Osnabrück to Paderborn, and is known in the present day by the name of the Teutoburgerwald or Lippische Wald. Varus had entered the pass, not suspecting any danger, his army in a long straggling line, encumbered with baggage, and accompanied by the wives and children, whom the soldiers had brought with them from their summer quarters, when the Germans suddenly appeared and attacked the Romans on all sides. The Romans were unable to form in line of battle, and with difficulty fought their way to a more open spot in the wood, where they pitched their camp for the night. The size and the arrangement of this camp, which Germanicus saw six years afterwards, showed that the three legions had not on the first day sustained any material loss. (Tac. Ann. 1.61.) Varus was now fully aware of his danger. He resolved to destroy almost all his baggage and to make for the strong fortress of Aliso, which had been erected by Drusus on the Lippe. His first camp was probably in the neighbourhood of Salzuffeln; and in order to reach Aliso he had to force his way through the pass in the neighbourhood of Detmold. His second day's march was one uninterrupted fight from morning to night, and the contracted extent of the camp, which he pitched at the close of the day, told Germanicus that his numbers had been already greatly reduced. On the morning of the third day Varus continued his march. His difficulties increased more and more. The roads were rendered almost impassable by the rain which descended in torrents : but nevertheless the Romans struggled on, though with continually increasing losses, and at last emerged from the woods into the open country, probably in the neighbourhood of Kreuzburg and Osterholz. Here, however, the main force of the Germans was ready to receive them. With diminished numbers and exhausted bodies, they were unable to penetrate through the vast hosts which surrounded them on all sides. The fight at length became a slaughter; the Romans could no longer preserve their ranks; Vars in despair put an end to his own life. Very few of the Romans succeeded in escaping to Aliso. Most perished on the field, but several were taken prisoners. Of these the most distinguished were sacrificed by Arminius to the gods of his country at altars in the forests; and the remainder were reduced to slavery. The ferocity of the enemy did not even spare the dead; the corpse of Varus was mangled, and his head cut off and forwarded, as a sign of victory, to Maroboduus, king of the Marcomanni, who, however, sent it to Augustus. The defeat of Varus was followed by the loss of all the Roman possessions between the Weser and the Rhine, and the latter river again became the boundary of the Roman dominions. When the news of this defeat reached Rome, the whole city was thrown into consternation ; and Augustus, who was both weak and aged, gave way to the most violent grief, tearing his garment and calling upon Varus to give him back his legions. Orders were issued as if the very empire was in danger; and Tiberius was despatched with a veteran army to the Rhine. (D. C. 56.18-25; Vell. 2.117-120; Suet. Aug. 23, Tib. 16, 17; Flor. 4.12; Tac. Ann. 1.60, 61, 71.) The history of the defeat of Varus has been treated by a great number of German writers, who have maintained very different views respecting the locality of his defeat The best account in a brief compass is given by Höckh, Römische Geschichte, vol. i. pt. ii. p. 84, foll., and by Ukert, Geographic der Griechen und Römer, vol. iii. pt. i. p. 124, foll., in the latter of which works a list of all the treatises on the subject is given.

The following coin was struck by Varus when he was proconsul of Syria.

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  • Cross-references from this page (4):
    • Tacitus, Annales, 1.71
    • Tacitus, Annales, 1.60
    • Tacitus, Annales, 1.61
    • Suetonius, Divus Augustus, 23
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