In the painting above, the German painter Otto Albert Koch (c. 1866–1920), brought to life his vision of the famous clash between the Roman military leader, Publius Quinctilius Varus, and an ancient Germanic coalition led by Arminius, chief of the Cherusci. The image takes inspiration from the devastating ambush that Arminius launched against Varus’ three legions at Teutoburg Forest in 9 CE. Varus and his Roman legions were annihilated, and when news of the massacre reached Rome, the scale of the disaster made the usually calm and collected Augustus have a rare incident of losing his cool. The Roman historian, Cassius Dio (c. 163-235), recounted the scene, writing, “At the time when Augustus learned of the disaster which had befallen Varus, he rent his clothes, according to some reports, and was overcome with grief” (The Roman History, 56.23). An even earlier Roman scholar, Suetonius (70-130+), wrote a more dramatic account of Augustus’ reaction to the news, saying, “it is said that he took the disaster so deeply to heart that he left his hair and beard untrimmed for months; he would often beat his head on a door, shouting, ‘Quinctilius Varus, give me back my legions!’” (Twelve Caesars, Divus Augustus, 23). As can be ascertained by Augustus’ reaction, the victory of Arminius over the Roman legions crushed Rome’s hopes of establishing any permanent influence east of the Rhine, and the massacre also dealt a major psychological blow to Roman military pride.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
- The Twelve Caesars by Suetonius, translated by Robert Graves and edited by James B. Rives. New York: Penguin Classics, 2007.
- The Roman History by Cassius Dio, translated by Ian Scott-Kilvert. New York: Penguin Classics, 1987.