Movies & Series

Netflix series “Barbarians”: We know that about the legendary Varus Battle

Drawing by W. Deimling from the book “Rome – the beginning, progress, expansion and decline of the Roman Empire, Volume 3”.

W. Deimling

The new series “Barbarians”, which airs on Netflix on October 23, deals with the so-called Varus Battle, which took place in 9 AD. Not too much is known about the battle, however, as there are few records – and what is known comes from the loser side, the Romans.

Prof. Dr. Reinhard Wolters is an ancient scholar at the Faculty of History and Culture at the University of Vienna. In addition to ancient monetary and economic history, his main area of ​​research is also Roman provincial history – especially the relationship between the Romans and the Teutons. He is the author of the book “The battle in the Teutoburg Forest. Arminius, Varus and Roman Germania”And explains to what we actually know about the battle.

“The so-called Varus Battle is an attack by Germanic tribes on Roman legions,” says the historian. What you have to know about the background: The Romans wanted to make the areas to the right of the Rhine part of the Roman Empire in the course of an occupation that had progressed over more than 200 years. Various peoples lived in this area, such as the Cherusci, Chatti, Brukterer and Martians. The Romans summarized these under the term “Germanic”. The Roman commander and governor of the Roman emperor on the Rhine was Publius Quinctilius Varus.

“The Romans tried to cooperate with some tribes or selected members of some tribes. So they could practically rule over the area through the Teutons ”, says Wolters. Since the year 12 BC Through campaigns and mechanisms of indirect rule, the Romans gradually brought the Germanic tribes from the Rhine to the Elbe under their rule. Until the confrontation, the Varus Battle, put an end to it.

Varus versus Arminius

On the Roman side stands governor and commander Varus. And first at his side, but then as an opponent: Arminius.

As Wolters explains, Arminius was born the son of the leader of the Cherusci. This Germanic tribe fought on the side of the Romans. Arminius was therefore trained as a Roman soldier, he spoke Latin and received high honors and rights that are actually only available to a real Roman. “He was very familiar with Commander-in-Chief Varus,” says the historian. And yet the young man turns against the Romans in his mid-twenties. Why he did that is unfortunately not known, so Wolters. “One can only speculate. But Arminius also later shows himself to be ambitious and hungry for power, ”says the historian. One thing is certain: Arminius changes sides.

The Varus Battle was more of a raid than a battle

In the year 9 AD, Varus and the Roman army took an unknown route through very difficult terrain: forest areas, swamps and moors that were difficult to see. The Roman historian Lucius Cassius Dio describes it about 200 years later:

“Because the mountains were full of ravines and bumps, and the trees were so dense and oversized that the Romans, even before the enemy attacked them, struggled to cut down the trees where necessary, to pave roads and dams to build.
And when there was rain and storm, they dispersed even further. But the ground, having become slippery around the roots and tree stumps, made her quite unsure to walk, and the tops of the trees, broken off and fallen, confused her. “

In this way the Germanic tribes, who knew their way around the area much better, gained decisive advantages. Heavy storms and rain are said to have made it more difficult.

“You can’t really talk about a battle here,” says Wolters. “Because actually there were no signs of danger for the Romans. The sources report that the Roman troops were suddenly ambushed and were unable to line up in this area according to the established order of battle. So the Romans were defeated, despite better training and armament. “

This map from 1850 shows which areas belonged to the Roman Empire.

This map from 1850 shows which areas belonged to the Roman Empire.

Sepia Times / Universal Images Group via Getty Images Images

The consequences for Germans and Romans

The Varus Battle is considered one of the most devastating Roman defeats. “In the attack, Rome lost half of the troops stationed on the Rhine,” says the historian. “When Rome stopped the – rather half-hearted – attempts to recapture the areas to the right of the Rhine after a few years, it was only then that the destruction of the Varus army grew to a point.”

As a result, today’s German area has a different cultural and linguistic tradition than those countries that were part of the Roman Empire – for example France, Belgium and the Netherlands, which lie to the left of the Rhine, and at that time largely belonged to the Roman Empire.


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