The First German Hero and Three Unlucky Eagles. Varus vs Arminius Pt 1. Much “Achtung!” About Nothing. Episode 18

The First German Hero and Three Unlucky Eagles.


An introduction to the German who started it all. A man with very good friends in Rome.

The hills are alive and the forests have eyes.

Unhappy the land that is in need of heroes.

-Bertholdt Brecht

Germany needs heroes more than any place.

-Boris Becker

Als die Römer frech geworden, gingen sie nach Deutschlands Norden.” (When the Romans got cheeky, they went to Germany’s north.)

-From a German drinking song.

The year is 9AD; and on a miserable day in autumn just north of where Osnabrück lies nowadays, there’s a Roman officer with only one question on his mind: “Where the bloody hell is Arminius?”

Publius Quinctilius Varus, shown during happier times, in an award-winning documentary film.

General Quinctilius Varus reins his horse in and pulls his waterlogged cloak a little tighter around him.

And this bloody rain! When will it stop? We should have stayed down in Dalmatia, where at least the weather was good. A revolt over unfair taxes? So what. There was wine, sunshine, and women… Aaah, the women… So much easier when you’re part of a conquering force, and wearing a natty uniform to boot…

The column straggled out behind, tired after two days of hard marching through unfamiliar territory, skirmishing with local tribesmen. Their sandals slipped in the mud and they stumbled under the weight of their equipment and armour.

Darkness was falling once again, but if Varus could just get his column to the other side of these hills before daybreak, maybe there would be a hope of reaching the Rhine without further losses.

This forest is giving me the creeps. You could swear there are things moving in there, in the shadows under the trees. If Arminius were here, he would know a quicker way out of these god-awful woods… By Jupiter, what a place, forests and swamps, forests and swamps… Nothing but bloody forests and bloody swamps!

He shuddered, and tried to convince himself it was because of the cold; but something else was gnawing at him…

That bloody Arminius… What’s happened to him? How long have I known him? He’s been in my service at least X years… maybe even XII? He was always so trustworthy, so loyal, but now? He takes off with a couple of thousand of my best German auxiliaries… when? Two days ago? It seems like years. How many good soldiers have I lost since then? What if they attack us here? There’s no bloody room to move. I could do with Arminius and those troops now. They know this country. They know a thing or two about the Barbarians in this neck of the woods… Now all I have left is foot soldiers, and some pretty green cavalry units. Sicilians. A laugh a minute in a Pompei prostibulum, but bloody useless on a horse!

Quinctilius Varus needn’t have worried: he would meet his trusted Arminius and his missing auxiliary troops soon enough.

Rewind three days and head south and east, almost to the Weser River.

Under a leaden evening sky, three Roman legions, the XVII, XVIII and XIX, three squadrons of cavalry and six cohorts of auxiliary troops (non-Romans, recruited from occupied territories) are preparing to break camp. In the morning they will begin the march to winter headquarters on the Rhine.

Varus is in his tent, also preparing for the move, when his trusted aide Arminius pulls back the flap and enters. He’s a Germanic tribesman, a Cherusker, but he’s not like all those other Germanic savages. He was the son of a chieftain and had been brought to Rome as a hostage at a very young age. He’s lived practically his whole life there, where he became a skilled horseman and accomplished soldier. He even rose through the ranks of Roman society to become a minor nobleman. Now he’s telling Varus that he’s just been informed of a rebellion of Germanic tribes a little ways to the north, and recommends a quick side-trip over there just to calm things down with a little bloodshed and slave-taking.

Just a couple of days march out of the way… and with 20,000 legionaries, what trouble could they possibly give us? Then we can march into the fort on the Rhine with a few prisoners, always good for a little morale boost! I tell you what: send me out there with a few thousand Germanic auxiliaries, we’ll check out the lay of the land, maybe even enlist the help of some of the local tribes…

Throughout Rome, Arminius was known for his alabaster skin.

Aaah, that Arminius, I like the way he thinks. He may be a Cherusker, but not all Barbarians are the same, you know! Not the way some people think… In fact, some of my best friends are Barbarians!Just look at what you can make out of a savage with a few years in Rome!

So, Arminius – or Armin, as he calls himself – draws a mud-map for Varus, says he’ll come back and meet him along the way after a bit of reconnaissance, and prepares to gallop off with his auxiliary troops.

The skies darkened and down came the rain, and the legionnaires cowered in their tents, packing their gear while the thunder boomed all around and lightning flashed through the camp. Barely audible above the incessant drumming of the rain on sodden tents, they muttered to each other.

“It’s not a good omen. No good will come of this. You can’t begin a mission in a thunder storm and expect it to end in anything but disaster… I’ll bet he hasn’t even consulted an oracle on this.”

“Fancy marching three legions all the way up there without consulting an oracle first. It’s madness!”

Another visitor arrives at Varus’ tent and enters. It’s Segestes, a Cherusker nobleman in another auxiliary cohort. From the expression on his face, it’s seems unlikely he’s come to say the weather is clearing.

“General, Arminius is conspiring with a group of Germanic officers, and he’s leading you into a trap! Listen to me. Don’t march north!”

“Oh, Segestes, you’re just jealous because me and Armin are so close…”

“Varus, with all due respect, arrest Arminius before he leaves!”

“I won’t hear another one of your filthy words about my very good friend from Rome. Now go and get ready. We’re leaving very early and I don’t want ruffians like you holding up progress!”

And so Varus begins the march at the grey crack of a grey dawn. In the grim light, 20,000 legionaires form up in ranks behind the golden eagle standards of legions XVII, XVIII and XIX. An order is shouted. As one, 20,000 spears are shouldered and 20,000 shields are raised out of the mud. A blast on a trumpet, and they trudge further into unfamiliar country, along a narrow track which is now turning to slimy mud. After the first few hours, everything is waterlogged, and the incessant rain has stretched the column completely out of shape. The military units can’t hold formation along the narrow winding path, and legionnaires, cavalry, camp attendants, pack mules servants and slaves and assorted camp hangers-on stretch back nearly twenty kilometers.

The forest shuts out what little daylight there is… And there are things moving, among the trees on either side of the track… all the time…

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