Failure of the Roman Rule over GermaniaIn 7 A.D. a new governor became commander-in-chief over Germania: 55-year old Publius Varus had married a niece of the Emperor. He had then served as governor in Syria, which led Velleius to say, 'He came to the rich land poor; he left a poor land rich.' The Roman Velleius describes his fellow citizen Varus as a 'calm character, physically as well as mentally somewhat immobile'. He, Varus, be of the opinion that the Germanic tribes be 'humans who don't have anything human except language and extremities'.
He wanted to civilize the Germanic tribes by consistently introducing Roman laws: 'Those who cannot be overcome with the sword must be subdued by the law.' With such resolutions he came to central Germania and spent the summertime with jurisdiction and law-abiding proceedings before his Bench, as if he was among people that enjoyed the sweetness of peace'.
Yet the Germanic tribes had a different understanding of law than the Romans. The tribes - used to liberty and savageness - felt that the modern Roman state was enslaving and burdening them: In former times, dues had to be paid only by slaves. Now with the Romans requiring taxes from them, the Germanic tribes felt humiliated. What also filled them with bitterness was the fact that matters of dispute were decided by a Roman official - and not by an assembly of all free men. It was as if a slave master mediated disputes among his slaves.
In part, the dues were too high. The Roman officials were accustomed to high revenues from other provinces. But for tribes barely able to feed themselves, such tax demands necessarily resulted in hardships.
The Germanic allies of the Romans were dissatisfied as well: They weren't treated any better than the Germanic tribes that were subdued - and whose repression they had contributed to. All this contradicted their idea of being a following: Followers deserve gifts for their bravery and loyalty. But if the followers' leader - in this case the Roman governor - required dues from them instead, then this was an unpardonable breach of trust.
Even the Germanic aristocrats were discontent. Over the last couple of years, they had ruled their tribes with Roman assistance according to the Romans' wishes. Now they feared Varus' policy of a faster Romanization: If the Romans ruled Germania directly and extended their control to local matters, they would no longer need any indigenous stooges or collaborators - i.e., most Germanic noblemen would very soon lose their power, wealth and privileges.
Apart from these general objections, most Germanic people were probably decided by the many small everyday humiliations, conflicts and quarrels: E.g. when Roman officials objected to the insufficient size of the cattle skins delivered as tribute (the race of cattle bred by the Germanic tribes was comparatively small), and demanded additional payments, or when soldiers of the occupying forces raped indigenous women and were not punished (or not punished severely enough) by the Roman authorities, or when corrupt officials demanded bribes, or when customs and taxes appeared too high to the locals, or judicial rulings unfair.
All of this may have raised people's nostalgia for the 'good old time', when they were their own masters, when they could fight for themselves when faced with injustice, when they had to obey no one at all, and when their tribe's fate was still decided by free voting of their own popular assembly - and not by the often unreasonable commands of subaltern Roman officials, who sometimes had arrived in this country only a few weeks ago, who knew nothing about the previous customs of the people they governed, and who didn't care to know.
Arminius was a 28-year old Germanic aristocrat from the Cheruscans tribe. As a leader of Germanic auxiliary forces he had been serving Rome for a long time, and he had even obtained Roman citizenship and the title of a Roman knight. Several of his relatives were loyal followers of Rome.
It is not known why it was him who turned on the Romans - whether he wanted to regain freedom for his tribe, or whether he was in pursuit of building a kingdom over the Germanic tribes which he wanted to lead in the battle against the Romans. In any case, there was hope for widespread support for a new great rebellion due to the Germanic tribes' dissatisfaction with the Roman rule.
Arminius had learned enough of the Roman art of warfare in order to know that he and his warriors would definitely fail in an open battle against the disciplined and well-equipped legionaries. Therefore, in 9 A.D, he told Varus of an alleged rebellion and then made guides available to him - guides who were to lure Varus into a trap.
As usual, Varus and his entire army were about to move to their winter camps. Along the way they intended to quickly strike down the rebellion. Though having been warned of betrayal by one of Arminius' relatives, he trusted his Germanic guides. So with three legions and an enormous baggage, totaling more than 20,000 men, he moved through a swampy, complex and unfamiliar forest area (probably north of today's German city of Osnabrück).
The soldiers were marching in comfortably free order - their helmets off and shields on their back - when they were suddenly ambushed by the men of Arminius: Germanic men who had formerly served in Roman auxiliary troops, and who had been equipped by the Romans with Roman arms - arms they now turned against their former allies and masters. (Modern archeologists exploring the battlefield haven't found a single typically Germanic weapon.)
The fights stretched over more than three days. As for the legionaries, continuously strong rain affected visibility, silted up the ground and - along with cold weather - started to waste away their endurance. The slowly moving baggage prevented them from a fast withdrawal out of this adverse setting. Above all, they were not able to carry out effective resistance because after each attack the Germanic units pulled back into the protective forest. While at first the Roman army had withdrawn in an orderly fashion, soon a general panic set in where everyone was only trying to save their own life. What followed was a terrible slaughter: Some Romans would not even show resistance anymore, others would kill themselves, and most of them, disoriented and weakened, fractured into small groups - would be slain one by one by Arminius' warriors.
There were virtually no Roman survivors. Three of the best legions were not just defeated, but annihilated: 1/6 of the entire armed forces of the Roman Empire was destroyed. For 30 years the Romans had been arduously exploring this land. They had won over Germanic tribes as allies or had subdued them, they had built roads, they had established a province administration, they had founded cities. Over 50,000 men had been employed for three decades in an effort to civilize Germania and to make it part of the Roman empire, and had been paid for their work, equipped, accommodated and provisioned by the Roman state - yet now over 20,000 of them had been killed within a few days. Emperor Augustus himself had been living at the Rhine river for many years so as to lead the conquests - and now the result of all these endeavors was destroyed at a single blow.
Like Arminius, many Germanic people had been serving the Romans at war and had been trained and armed by them. Now Germania was a province no more, but a free and hostile country. The Romans had to fear anew Germanic attacks on their province Gaul or even Italy.
However, these extensive Roman fears were unfounded. Even after Arminius' victory the Germanic tribes at the Rhine river and the North Sea held on to their alliance with the Romans. Of course this alliance became insignificant after the Roman withdrawal, but at least the Romans could be sure of living in peace with them.
Also Marbod, king of the Germanic Marcomanians, still remained inactive. Arminius had sent him Varus's head as a call to join the war against Rome, but Marbod was satisfied with his own empire. He didn't want to take part in a risky war; so he sent Varus's head back to Emperor Augustus in Rome.
To the Romans' surprise and joy, the rebellious and victorious Germanic tribes did not attack Gaul or Italy. They seemed content with having regained their old way of living and their independence, and leading numerous small wars against each other.
Actually, they were in no position to attack the Roman Empire: The Germanic tribes in the north were still allied with Rome; in the west and south there were the legions of Roman Gaul and Rhetia, and in the east the Germanic kingdom of the Marcomanians was holding out, showing ominous neutrality.
The Rhine river remained the border between Roman Gaul and the free Germania. Arminius would not become king of a united Germania. Rather, he was murdered by his relatives, and his wife and son were captivated and handed over to the Romans by Arminius' father-in-law, Roman-loyal Segestes.