The Teutoburg Forest revisited - Augustus’ grandnephew and emperor-to-be Germanicus' Triumph in 17 CE

26 May 17 CE, Augustus’ grandnephew and emperor-to-be Germanicus returned to Rome after four years campaigning in Germania to celebrate his triumph for his alleged victories over the tribes west of the Elbe.

“At the end of the year, a triumphal arch was raised near the Temple of Saturn; a monument this for the recovery of the Varian Eagles, under the conduct of Germanicus, under the auspices of Tiberius. A temple was dedicated to Happy Fortune near the Tiber, in the gardens bequeathed to the Roman People by Caesar, the Dictator. A chapel was consecrated to the Julian family, and statues to the deified Augustus, in the suburbs called Bovillae. In the consulship of Caius Celius and Lucius Pomponius, the six-and-twentieth of May, Germanicus Caesar triumphed over the Cheruscans, the Cattans, the Angrivarians, and the other nations as far as the Elbe. In the triumph were carried all the spoils and captives, with the representations of mountains, of rivers, and of battles; so that his conquests, because he was restrained from completing them, were taken for complete. His own graceful person, and his chariot filled with his five children, heightened the show and the delight of the beholders; yet they were checked with secret fears, as they remembered "that popular favour had proved malignant to his father Drusus; that his uncle Marcellus was snatched, in his youth, from the burning affections of the populace; and that ever short-lived and unfortunate were the favourites of the Roman People." (Tacitus, “The Annals”)

Karl von Piloty's (1826 - 1886) monumental 190'' x 280'' imagination of: "Thusnelda in Germanicus' Triumph" (1874)

The annihilation of Quintilius Varus’ three fighting legions, three cavalry alae and six auxiliary cohorts in 9 CE by warriors from a coalition of Germanic tribes under the overall command of Arminius in the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest did not only signal a provisional end of Roman plans to move the frontiers of the Empire from the Rhine to the River Elbe in the east, but caused a mass panic in Rome itself. Gauls and Germanics were expelled from the city, Augustus’ Germanic bodyguard was interned on an island and more than one third of the Roman army was concentrated along the Rhine, from Mainz up north to the mouth of the river. However, the time when the Roman emperors drew the Iron Curtain close had not come yet. Until his proclamation as emperor, Tiberius probed into Germanic territory every now and then and after his elevation to the purple, his nephew and designated heir to the throne, Nero Claudius Germanicus took over in 13 CE as commander-in-chief of the Roman armies of the Rhine, 8 legions, at least 400,000 highly professional fighting men, their auxiliaries included.

"Germanicus' unfortunate campaign" - German illustration by an unknown artist around 1900

During a first sally across the Rhine in 14 CE, Germanicus almost stumbled into the same trap prepared by Arminius and his tribesmen as Varus did. The next punitive expedition against the Germanics was introduced with a visit on the battlefield of the Teutoburg Forest. The historian Tacitus described the eerie scene a hundred years later: “In the open fields lay their bones all bleached and bare, some separate, some on heaps; just as they had happened to fall, flying for their lives, or resisting unto death. Here were scattered the limbs of horses, there pieces of broken javelins; and the trunks of trees bore the skulls of men. In the adjacent groves were the savage altars; where, of the tribunes and principal centurions, the barbarians had made a horrible immolation.“ After a proper burial of their comrades, Germanicus’ troops were in the right fighting mood and marched deeper into the territories of the tribes, meandering through the North German plain, fighting a major battle at Idistaviso, somewhere along the Weser, that ended, probably, with a narrow Roman victory against Arminius. And after Germanicus had retrieved two of the three legionary eagles lost by Varus and managed to capture Arminius' pregnant wife Thusnelda, Tiberius recalled him back to Rome for a triumph.

Caspar David Friedrich (1774 - 1840): "Grave of Arminius" (1812)

Whatever Germanicus’ campaign might have achieved, the Germanic tribes were far from being subdued and the Romans tried to contain them by fortifying their borders with the Limes Germanicus over the next centuries. And while Arminius was murdered by Germanic rivals in 21, his wife Thusnelda, daughter of the Cheruscan prince and Roman ally Segestes, was presented to the Roman public during Germanicus’ triumph in the presence of her father, a guest of honour, who had turned her in to the Romans after her elopement with Arminius. She gave birth to their son Thumelicus in captivity and the two remained Roman hostages in Ravenna, their fate lost in the dark recesses of history. There is a rumour, however, that Thumelicus died as a gladiator in the arena at the age of 16 around 30 CE, during the reign of Claudius, Germanicus’ brother who succeeded Tiberius after Germanicus was poisoned in Antioch in 19 CE.

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