Road to Disaster
Porta Westfalica 9 A.D.A wet and miserable summer had left the rivers of Germania Inferior swollen. When September came, the three legions stationed on the river Weser prepared to leave for their winter quarters on the Rhine. Rumours about an uprising had induced them to change their route. Accompanied by thousands of civilians, slaves, women and children, the endless army train headed west under a dreary sky.
Towards the end of the first day, the dull grey sky darkened, and by the time the Romans were pitching their tents, the heavens opened and poured rain. Instead of taking shelter in the camp, the squadron of Cherusci scouts fastened their cloaks and rode on to mobilise the support of other tribal auxiliaries against the insurgents.
Looking over his shoulder, Marcus Caelius, senior centurion of Legio XVIII, his phalerae prominent, was trying to make eye-contact with his second in command marching some 150 foot behind him.
“Flavius !!” Caelius had now turned around, shielding his eyes with his left hand from the lashing rain.
“Sir?! I can hardly hear you in this bloody weather!” the optio of the first centuria cried.
”What’s going on back there? I can’t see a damned thing from here!”
“Don’t know, sir!” the man cried cupping his hands around his mouth against the strong wind. “Can’t see any more than you can!”
“Didn’t you hear a signal?” - “Not sure, sir!”
Looking at the cornicen on his left, the primus pilus growled “Maximus - sound your horn and ask what’s up, by Jove!” Under his breath he grumbled “We should never have taken this bloody road in the first place. If something happens, we’re in deep shit.” The horn of the first centuria sounded.
Marcus was in a bad mood. Because some nearby tribes were rebelling, they were marching six abreast, in foul weather through unfavourable terrain, encumbered by a great number of civilians. Under these circumstances, he would never have allowed their Cherusci scouts to leave the camp last night in the first place. Apparently, he was not alone in this opinion. As the scouts galloped away, he had seen how Lucius Eggius, the praefectus of Legio XIX, had ridden up to Governor Publius Quinctilius Varus, vehemently gesticulating in protest.
Marcus cursed as he picked a wet leaf from his brow that had blown into his face. Ever since they had broken camp that morning, the weather had worsened. The wind from the northwest was now quickly becoming a storm. The march slowed down to a walk and occasionally to a standstill, as heavy rains came pelting from the sky. Behind them, sixteen thousand soldiers and civilians plus thousands of horses, mules and wagons had reduced the drenched surface of the country road to a ploughed-up mass of water-filled cart ruts and countless slushy holes.
It had all started twenty-five years ago, when an alliance of Germanic tribes had first ambushed a Roman cavalry unit, and subsequently defeated a division led by the commander of the armies of Gallia Belgica. The most embarrassing thing was that the bandits had captured the standard of Legion V “Alaudae”, Rome’s first legion recruited in the provinces. The attack on a Roman legate was just the excuse the emperor needed for an official invasion of Germania Magna. Marcus’ Eighteenth Legion, stationed in Gallia Aquitania, had been transferred to the west bank of the Rhine, after which they had been on constant campaigns ever since. In little more than fifteen years the whole of Germania Magna had been subjugated, apart from the lands of the Marcomanni in the south. Had the legions not been withdrawn to suppress an unexpected uprising in Pannonia, Marcus mused, they would have conquered them as well. He wiped the rainwater from his eyes.
The sounding of horns roused him from his thoughts. “We are being attacked!” Flavius hollered through the storm.
Marcus cursed “Mehercule, not here!” Turning to the cornicen on his left, he asked “Where – and how many?”
“A few miles behind us, the baggage train of the Seventeenth”, the man muttered. “A few hundred bastards coming from the woods on both sides.”
The horn of the first centuria sounded, as the legatus of the Seventeenth was shouting orders. More horns started to sound.
“Dammit” Marcus swore. “Well done, Varus. We’re in the worst possible position to defend us.” Turning towards his men, he hollered orders against the strong wind. Metal parts clanked as the legionaries dumped their furcae and grabbed the helmets hanging down their breasts. Fastening the cheek-pieces under their chins, they stood close to each other, back to back, tensely eying the woods three hundred feet away on both sides. In spite of his many years of experience, Marcus’ heart was thumping and his mouth had gone dry.
But nothing happened. Buglers were issuing messages. “Sounds like they are concentrating on the rearguard, sir!” Flavius shouted. After a while the horns sounded the “all clear”, and the legionaries were ordered to fall back. From the rear of the column a horseman galloped towards General Varus, who rode in front of the Eighteenth. Not much later Marcus Oppius, one of the two praefecti castrorum, ordered a detail of legionaries to select a location for a camp with five centuries to screen the construction works. Outside the camp Aulus Sempronius, senior centurion of the Seventeenth, was organising a mass funeral for the fallen legionaries and civilians.
When Governor Varus called the commanding officers to his tent that night to discuss a plan of action, Arminius had still not returned. The rain was drumming vigorously on the canvas roof. Flaring torches were lightening the inside of the praetorian tent, while smouldering woodblocks in the braziers spread agreeable warmth.
“Gentlemen”, Varus started looking gravely, “Rebels have attacked the baggage train of the Seventeenth and wounded or killed almost a thousand men. All pack and draught animals are dead or disabled. I’ll have everything destroyed that we cannot transport or do not strictly need. I don’t want anything to fall into false hands.”
e was a moment of silence. A sudden gust of wind made the tent-ropes rattle and the flaps of the entrance fluttered agaTherinst the canvas.
“Do we know who they were?” Lucius Ceionius, the second praefectus castrorum, asked. “No Lucius, I’m afraid we don’t, but I guess one of those rebellious tribes.” Varus responded.
“With permission, sir” Lucius Eggius reacted disgruntled. “Given the fact that you let those Cherusci ride away last night, this attack was to be expected.”
Varus frowned at him, paused a few seconds and then answered quietly “You already vented your displeasure this morning, Lucius. What are you trying to say?”
“That Arminius and his scouts didn’t ride away to mobilize tribes against the rebels, but against us!”
“Nonsense! The Cherusci made peace with us several years ago and Arminius is a Roman citizen and tribune in the Roman army, who has lived with us ever since he was a boy. Someone who has attained the dignity of equestrian rank ...” Varus raised his hand to stop Eggius from interrupting him “... and who was decorated because of his valour during the Pannonian war. Why would an honourable man like him betray his own army?”
Eggius’ face flushed with anger as he blurted, “You seem to forget that we are not his own army, sir.” Pointing to the ground, he added “This is his native country, and to him we are nothing but invaders. Whose side do you think he’s on when it comes to it?”
Varus scowled at Eggius, but kept silent. Lucius Ceionius raised his voice and said “I agree with Eggius, sir. Segestes and the likes may have expressed their gratitude that Roman justice has brought peace to their lands, but in my experience Germans cannot be trusted. They are a race of born liars and conspirators who are either at your feet or at your throat!”
Visibly offended, Varus replied, “I’m sorry, Lucius, but I won’t have this. There’s no reason why Arminius or any of his Germans would act against us. Even the emperor’s personal guard is made up of German troops from the lower Rhine. May I remind you that they have proved to be more trustworthy than our own soldiers? Moreover, in my dealings with German leaders, I have so far only experienced a sense of true and warm friendship.”
Ceionius retorted caustically “Then who of our true friends is attacking us and why has our great and honourable friend Arminius not returned to his beloved army?”
Varus gave him a hard look. Trying to remain composed he took a deep breath and continued “I take it that Arminius is staying the night with his own tribe. As you know, his scouts found out that the Marsi and Bructeri are planning a rebellion, so I agreed that he should mobilise reinforcements with the Cherusci.” There were murmurs among the assembled officers. Varus glowered and continued “I know his father Sigimer personally, and I can assure you that the Cherusci are as dedicated to the Pax Romana as we are.”
Complete silence. Then Eggius asked “What about the wounded, sir?
“Those who cannot walk will be transported in wagons.” Varus paused a moment. Looking Eggius in the eye he proceeded “We shall continue as planned. If we turn back to take the normal road through Marsi and Bructeri territory, chances are that we’ll be attacked by much larger numbers. We cannot take that risk with so many civilians in our train.”
A few officers nodded in agreement. Varus continued “Moreover, under these weather conditions, the road that we’ve come by has become practically unusable.” He paused and said, “We have no reason to fear those rebels, gentlemen. We’re Roman soldiers.” He paused again and repeated emphatically “Roman soldiers!” He let his words sink in, waved a limp hand and added “Dismissed!”
Outside the tent Marcus Caelius, who as a first-rank centurion had been present during the discussion, mumbled “Bollocks! The Germans know full well that in this kind of terrain we are no match for them.”
Point of No Return
It had been pouring incessantly all night. The next morning the storm had abated and the rain let up, but black clouds announced another dreary day. When the army broke camp, a pillar of thick dark smoke from the burned remains of the attacked baggage train rose into the air. A few soldiers had noticed that a squadron of cavalry had headed back east.
The country road, which had now changed from dark yellow to a deep brown, was leading them closer to a range of densely wooded hills. Around them the forest with sturdy beeches and oaks was getting thicker. Trees interrupted by fields, riddled with streams and birch groves, started to line the road. Laden with baggage and arms, the long column of troops and civilians was toiling its way up a gradual slope. Another downpour that came gushing from the skies made the dark soggy road ever muddier. Instructed to wear their helmets permanently, the legionaries felt the sweat trickling down their backs, making their attire steam as they plodded through the rain.
|Roman soldier, R.L.Museum Bonn|
It was still raining when at midday they heard a cry from the woods, followed by a loud whizzing sound. Within seconds, the rain had become a lethal cocktail peppered with hundreds of missiles, coming down on them from all sides. The hiss of arrows mixed with shrieks of agony. Legionaries and civilians alike dropped in the mud clutching throats, arms and legs. Beside him Marcus Caelius saw his signifer Caius Petronius pitch forward with an arrow in his neck, buried to the fletching.
“Split up, quick – kneel behind your shields, left face and right face! Stay together and cover your backs, goddammit!” Marcus cried. There were thumps and clangs as arrows hit wood or metal. Someone screamed as an arrow found exposed flesh. Marcus quickly ducked down behind his shield when an arrow snickered off his helmet. Another flight of arrows hailed down on them.
After a while, the barrage of arrows stopped. The rain continued. On both sides of the road, hundreds of German warriors had appeared from the woods, spears, swords and shields swaying as they moved slowly forward. They stopped two hundred feet away to begin the barritus. Low at first, shield over mouth for reverberation, the roar built up to an unearthly booming sound. As the sound still hung in the air, the Germans started a trot. Spears flew. The Romans took them on their shields, the blades thumping hard into the wood. Then the Germans attacked full speed, yelling.
Marcus cried “Pila ready, volley ... Now!” Most of the heavy projectiles hit home, penetrating shields, arms, legs and torsos. Left and right, Germans tumbled down, roaring in agony, blood pouring from their wounds. Next, the lighter pila flew through the air and landed in the mass of charging Germans, punching into shields and unprotected bodies. Some Germans staggered around, trying to pull the heavy spears from their shields. Others collapsed, swords and spears dropping to the ground. The Romans had risen from their kneeling position as the lines collided with a crash.
“Futue, cacator!” Marcus yelled at the German coming straight for him. Punching the boss of his shield into his face, he made a swift curve with his right hand, driving his gladius into the soft belly of the dazed man. As he pulled the sword free, the German slumped to the ground. Further up the column, the Roman cavalry was swarmed by hordes of barbarians. Wounded animals were slipping in the mud, rearing and throwing their riders. Some galloped uncontrolled towards the legionaries, running everyone in their path underfoot.
From the corner of his eye, Marcus saw a giant German lunge at his signifer Maximus. The hulk swung his long sword over his head and plunged it down at the Roman with all his might. As the blade crunched into the soldier’s small round shield, the metal shield rim flew off, and with a loud crack it split in two. The blow knocked Maximus off balance. He staggered for a moment, sliding in the mud, and hurled the broken shards of his shield aside. Marcus roared to distract the giant. Looking aside, the German forgot to protect his head. In a flash, the centurion had moved sideways and shoved the point of his gladius under the man’s chin, up through his mouth, piercing his tongue and shattering the palate. Jarring his sword into the German’s skull with all his force, he snarled “Take that, you bastard!” He felt the warm blood gush over his hand, down his arm and into his armpit. As he jerked back the blade, the man came down like a tree.
Before Marcus could react, another German had punched a shield into Maximus’ face, sending him sprawling to the ground. Taking a long stride, he planted his spear into Maximus’ throat. Growling, Marcus jumped forward, burying his blade deep in the German’s unprotected side. The man let go of his spear, his eyes wide open with shock as he took the bite of the razor-sharp metal. There was a sucking noise as the short blade pulled free. Blood spurted from the deep wound while the German sagged moaning onto the muddy ground.
The squishing noise of running feet behind him made Marcus whirl. He braced himself as a German crashed into his defence, sword swaying over his head. Ducking away to the right Marcus stabbed obliquely upward, in one side of the attacker’s throat and out the other. Bright red blood sprayed over his arm. The German gurgled as his throat filled with fluid. Clawing at the iron, he stared into Marcus’s eyes. Marcus twisted the sword before he pulled it free. The German fell face forward into the mud with a soft thump and did not move again.
A long low trumpet-call sounded. As if pulled by invisible strings, the Germans turned around and rushed back to the woods. Frustrated, a number of legionaries grabbed spears sticking in bodies lying around and hurled them after the fleeing attackers.
A long eerie silence followed. Far away a cuckoo called. Marcus only heard the rain splashing on his helmet and his panting. The attack had drawn off as fast as it has started, hundreds of dead bodies lying in the mud. Further west there was another trumpet-call as a different part of the long column was attacked.
That night, the atmosphere in the praetorian tent was frosty. Lucius Ceionius broke the ice, asking gravely “How many casualties, sir?”
“Close to two thousand, prefect.” Varus nervously rocked on his sella, looking sullen. “Good, that’s it then” Marcus Oppius said. “What do you mean?” Varus asked.
“What do I mean? Three thousand casualties in two days! If we don’t wish to be exterminated, we must either go back or head north for the river.”
There was a long pause in which Varus seemed to stare at his feet. Then he lifted his head and said “No, gentlemen, there’s no way back.” Bringing his hands to his forehead, he closed his eyes. He cleared his throat and he continued, looking up again “I dispatched a turma of cavalry this morning. They’ve just returned. Our summer camp has been taken. Both the camp and the cohors we left behind have been completely destroyed”
There was a long silence. After what seemed ages, Gnaeus Lerius Flaccus, tribunus of the first cohort of the Nineteenth ventured “This cannot be a coincidence. Arminius!”
Varus sighed and gave him a long look. “The only thing I know is that we have lost another five hundred men and have nothing to fall back on. We must continue west and head for the Rhine.”
“Excuse me sir, but why don’t we go north?” Ceionius asked. “We’re in no position to defend ourselves here.” He looked at the others, who were nodding in agreement.
“What makes you think the situation further north is any better?” Varus asked. There was a long silence. “Arminius hasn’t returned, has he?” Eggius inquired.
“No, he hasn’t.” Varus answered, clearly on edge.
“So we are still waiting.” Varus said. “What would you advise us to do then, Lucius?” he asked sharply, glaring at him under his brows.
“What Oppius said earlier, sir, to head north for the river and wait for the fleet to pick us up.” The others muttered in agreement. Varus sighed again and stared at the ground for a while. Looking up he said with a sombre face “No gentlemen, we’ll stick to this route. Without local scouts, the road to the north is not an option, certainly not in this type of weather. We’ll continue as planned. The meeting is closed.” With these words, he turned his back at the officers and disappeared in the private area of the praetorian tent.
“Sol bless us all.” Ceionius murmured. “This man will be the death of us.”
The next day they set out before dawn. It had stopped raining, but everything was shrouded in a milky blanket of impenetrable fog. When the legions marched away from their walled night quarters, dampness penetrating to their bones, everyone seemed depressed. There was only the clanking of equipment and the sound of feet squelching in the dark mud. In the hope of attracting less attention, some muleteers had muffled the bronze bells round the neck of the remaining pack-animals with handfuls of grass.
The situation was far more serious than Varus had cared to admit. Since a large number of mules and horses were lost, the army’s whole baggage train had to be burned or abandoned, along with everything that was not strictly necessary. The remaining wagons were to transport the wounded. As these got repeatedly stuck in the mud, the progress of the rest of the army was delayed. Soon the column had become fragmented.
The first soldiers that emerged from the woods entered a foggy agrarian landscape. On the left there was a range of low hills, hemming in the fields to the south. By midday the persistent fog was still clinging to the vegetation, when the head of the army reached a narrow corridor at the foot of a densely wooded slope. Here, a fast stream came gurgling down the hill on the left only to disappear into a huge area of wetlands that spread to the north. A bank of mist was rolling in towards the south, shrouding the tops of the trees and chilling the air. Because of the high water table, the corridor between the foot of the hill and the marshes was only two hundred feet wide. All seemed quiet.
|German warrior, R.L.Museum Bonn|
From the dense woods on the slopes thousands of pairs of eyes had been watching the approaching army train. German warriors on the hill exchanged signals with others who were hiding behind long, carefully camouflaged ramparts, topped with palisades that curved with the shape of the hill, and nicely blended in with the landscape. When the vanguard of the Roman army had passed the ramparts, the trap was sprung. Hundreds of screaming Germans leapt out through hidden gaps in the turf walls. Rushing forward, hurling spears, they threw themselves on the remaining squadrons of cavalry.
From the woods above it started hailing arrows, rattling on Roman shields and thumping into wood and flesh. Within moments riders and their mounts went down in a thrashing tangle of limbs and equipment. Horses tried to rise, but fell back again with shrill cries of pain. Others reared in agony, with wooden shafts protruding from chests, rumps or necks. In a matter of moments, dozens of riderless horses galloped about aimlessly, bucking and kicking in pain, arrows and spears sticking from their wounds. Others stampeded into the distance, trampling everything underfoot or getting stuck in the marshes. Floundering through the narrow pass between the slope of the hill and the wetlands, legionaries were hindered by cavalry units which kept crashing into them. Marcus saw the legate Numonius Vala with his squadrons of horse flee the melee and head for the marshes.
Close to Marcus two mules had broken free from their wagon, whinnying and braying, still wearing their harnesses. Desperate to escape the fighting, they stormed towards the turf walls. As one of the animals tried to jump over a collapsed part of the wall, its hindquarters got caught in the construction. Through the impetus of the miscalculated jump it fell down hard and broke its neck. Riddled with arrows and spears, the second mule reared up in pain, stumbled and fell sideways against the front of the rampart. Its shrieks were muffled as the wall, manned with struggling Germans and Romans, slowly collapsed on top of it.
“Crouch!” Marcus cried to the remainder of his century, his shield heavy with two spears and several arrows. The Germans charged, shrieking their war cries as they saw some of the enemy go down. “Stay in line! Stay in line, dammit!” Marcus cried. “Cover your backs!” Hurriedly getting down behind his shield on one knee, he held his protection well out. A long blade aimed at his head swung down on his guard. Splinters of wood flew as the enormous sword penetrated the shield. The impact jarred his arm. Getting up, he brought his right arm over the damaged shield and thrust his gladius at the German’s face. Taking the edge of the blade on the rim of his shield, the man forced it up. He tried to knock the centurion over by violently pushing his shoulder against the centurion’s guard. Suddenly, Marcus stepped back, and the German tumbled forward, his momentum carrying him onto Marcus’ sword. The man’s eyes bulged with surprise, as it entered his belly. Pulling back swiftly, Marcus ducked as a whooshing sound came from the right. The tumbling shaft of a spearhead hit the side of his helmet hard.
Lucius Eggius cried “Storm the ramparts! With me, with me!” Kicking and slashing his way through the charging Germans, Marcus scrambled up the turf walls with a handful of legionaries. On top of the ramparts he managed to disable a couple of Germans that were trying to spear him from behind the wooden breastwork. Kicking a passageway in the damaged palisade, Marcus jumped down the other side of the ramparts and landed on his knees. As he was about to get up, something heavy came swinging against the side of his head. The impact knocked him against the ramparts and made the sword fall out of his hand. His mouth filled with the metallic taste of blood. In a haze he saw how a German brandishing a club over his head, intended to give him another blow. Feeling for the hilt of his pugio, Marcus pulled it free. Panting, with a strength born out of desperation, he lunged forward and dug his dagger deep into the German’s leg. The man shrieked and backed away, teeth bared with pain, the dagger sticking deep in his right thigh. Then there was loud bang at the back of his head. He just felt the terrible dull impact through his helmet. A violent wave of nausea surged up from his stomach as the pain hit him. The muddy ground rose as everything went black.
The column was now being attacked by fresh German troops from all sides. A line of German horsemen, many of them dressed like Roman auxiliaries holding spears and shields, came thundering down the column towards the first cohort of the Nineteenth. Spotting the transverse horse-hair crest on the helmet of the primus pilus, their leader approached the Roman in full gallop. Riding up to the centurion the German stopped his horse just in front of him, its feet skidding in the mud. As the Roman recognised the rider his eyes blazed.
“Fight me, Fabricius”, Arminius said, with a malicious grin as he slid from the saddle. The Cheruscan’s spatha hissed from the scabbard.
“You treacherous bastard!” the centurion retorted furiously. Holding his shield up, he lunged at the Cheruscan’s face with his sword. Arminius parried the blow with his oval shield a split-second too late. The sharp point grazed his eyebrow and laid it open to the bone. Instantly a sheet of blood gushed from the shallow wound and flowed over his face, blinding his left eye. He swore and gave ground. Blinking at the blood he tried to wipe it away with his sword-hand. Fabricius thrust his gladius at the German’s face again. This time the Cheruscan was faster. Ducking his head behind his shield, he slammed his body against the centurion’s guard with all his might. Knocked off balance, Fabricius lost his footing and fell backwards in the mud. Immediately, the Roman was surrounded by five other Cherusci, pointing their swords at his throat.
“Segimund, take him to the pits” Arminius said, dabbing the wound on his stern with a piece of cloth. With the army being massacred around him, Ceionius realised that all was lost and surrendered. Eggius had already been killed, while Varus was clutching an arrow lodged just below his collar bone. Realising that his army had been taken apart and that there was no escape, he slid off his horse. He spoke with his bodyguards around him. Sinking on his knees, he removed his silver cuirass. Putting the pommel of his gladius on the ground, he held the sword with both hands and carefully placed its sharp point under his ribcage. He closed his eyes, mumbled a few words and with a deep moan fell on it. A large area of his white and purple tunic turned bright red. He jerked a few times and was still. When it became known that Varus was dead, several of his commanders followed suit, leaving their troops leaderless in what had become a killing field.
Catching the smell of burning flesh, Arminius wheeled his mount towards the small pillar of smoke rising from the foot of the hill. The mounted Cherusci kicked their horses to follow him. His face filled with anger as he saw that Varus’ bodyguards had set fire to an improvised funeral pyre.
“Well, well, just as I thought!” Arminius exclaimed, dismounting with a leap “The coward is trying to escape his well-deserved fate.” Grabbing the charred body under the armpits, he dragged it away from the fire. Varus’ guards did not venture to intervene. Propping the corpse against a tree stump, the German swung his spatha and struck its undamaged head clean off its shoulders. Picking it up from the mud by its short grey locks, he held it high and handed it to his aids “Keep this in a safe place. I intend to make a gift of it.” Before he jumped back into the saddle, he kicked the headless body with his foot. “Do with the rest of him as you please.”
The battle died down before the day was over. The area was littered with corpses as far as the eye could see. In parts, dead bodies were piled on top of each other, two, three, four high, concealing the ground. Germanic troops looked to their wounds, others started to go around through the dead, wounded and dying. Weapons were confiscated and Romans who could not walk were dispatched. Those who were spared got a rope around their necks. Their hands were bound behind their backs, while they were tethered to one another by their ankles. Defeated and dejected, left with nothing but their clothes and armour, they were marched off into the woods, where they had to spend the night in deep large pits.
Flavius, the optio of Marcus Caelius, had been able to escape the massacre with Marcus Crassus Fenestela. Lightly wounded, they had successfully played dead. When things had become quiet, they had crept from under their fallen comrades. Ripping up their tunics they bandaged each other with improvised compresses to staunch the blood. Easily able to pass for Germans, they changed their outfits with those of fallen warriors. While the enemy was busy looting the dead, the Romans led two ponies away from the battlefield and hid in the woods. Once darkness had fallen they galloped away in the direction of Castra Vetera on the river Rhine.
That night in the woods, the pitiful remainder of what had been three legions not even a week ago was standing ankle-deep in cold smelly water, shivering in the dark at the bottom of large deep pits. All of them exhausted and many of them wounded, the men huddled together, roped to each other by their necks, hands still bound behind them. The stench of faeces, urine, sweat and blood mixed with sneezes and coughs and the sound of chattering teeth. The ropes had wrenched their necks, the flesh chafed and raw. Above them, Germans armed with spears and bows were looking down, keeping a watchful eye.
|Tombstone of Marcus Caelius, Rheinisches Landesmuseum Bonn|
Morning broke with a low-hanging fog. Groups of armed Germans were lowered down the pits on ropes. Below they untied the centurions and optiones, indicating that they were to be pulled up. At ground level, the mud-covered captives were herded down a lane flanked by dozens of small, freshly dug deep holes, the heaps of earth in front of them still damp. A matching number of neatly lined up crosses were lying on the ground behind the holes. Ordered to take off their armour, the officers were tied to the timbers.
Soon the air was filled with the dull knocking of hammers. There were screams and moans as the long iron nails ruthlessly cut through gristle and bone and were driven into the wood with force. Next, the crosses were pulled upright. As the heavy wooden stakes plunged into the holes, shocks tore through the pierced limbs, causing new cries of anguish.
Subsequently the first-rank centurions and higher ranking officers were dragged out from the dank pits and herded to a nearby grove, where a row of stone altars was waiting for them on a raised ground. When a tall bearded priest in a black robe climbed into view, followed by a group of others in similar attire, they were roughly shoved down on their knees.
The priest gestured for silence. Only the whimpers from the crucified centurions could be heard. He began speaking in a low, deep voice. Marcus Caelius looked questioningly at Fabricius who was standing next to him.
“He’s saying that the leaders of the vanquished enemy are to be sacrificed to Donar”, the answer came in a low voice. Eying the altars Marcus asked, more nervous than interested “Who’s Donar?”
“Their version of Jupiter”, Fabricius said under his breath.
“I see” and with a wry smile Marcus added “I suppose we could take that as a compliment”.
Lucius Ceionius, the highest surviving officer in rank, was to be sacrificed first. Touching the large stone slab on the altar with a long butcher’s knife, the priest indicated that the camp prefect had to lie down flat on his back. Four Germans grabbed him by the arms and legs, while the priest uttered a formula in his guttural language. Putting his free left hand under the prefect’s chin, he jerked the victim’s head back and slashed the throat with a smooth movement. Ceionius did not utter a sound. A fountain of blood sprayed from the gaping neck wound. A second priest caught most of the red fluid in a bowl. Releasing his grip the first priest waited until the body’s convulsions had stopped, whereupon he shoved the corpse off the altar. It fell to the ground with a thump.
One by one, the bearded priests in black systematically butchered the officers on the row of altars. When Marcus’ turn had come, he looked at the sky. Reclining on his elbows to lie down on his back, he said a quick prayer for his wife and children. While the priest jabbered his formula, Marcus felt how he was pressed down on the slab. Then the hand came below his the chin and his head was jerked back. There was a crack followed by a sharp pain as the knife slashed through the cartilage.
When the priests had finished their gory job, the corpses were dragged away from the altar and stripped of valuable objects. The heads were severed from their bodies and nailed to the trunks of the surrounding trees
At nightfall, the German dead were burned on large funeral pyres. Flames swept up the sides of the high piles of wood, creating eerie shadows of the bystanders and the surrounding trees. Every now and then logs exploded, sending a shower of sparks into the night sky, which rose, drifted and then fell to earth.
The next day, the Germans left the battlefield to return home, taking the surviving legionaries and civilians as slaves. The stripped and maimed bodies of thousands of killed legionaries, civilians and pack-animals remained where they had fallen.
Three legions had been wiped off the face of the earth.