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Publius Quinctilius Varus (46 BC in Cremona, Roman Republic – 9 AD in Germania) was a Roman politician and general under Emperor Augustus, mainly remembered for having lost three Roman legions and his own life when attacked by Germanic leader Arminius in the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest.

Life[edit | edit source]

His paternal grandfather was senator Sextus Quinctilius Varus.[1] Varus was a patrician, born to an aristocratic but long-impoverished and unimportant family in the Quinctilia gens. His mother was a daughter from consul Gaius Claudius Marcellus Minor's first marriage citation needed (This claim comes perhaps from a novel).[2] Either his grandfather or his father (both named Sextus Quinctilius Varus) was a senator aligned with the Senatorial party in the civil war against Julius Caesar and quaestor in 49.[3] Sextus survived the defeat, and it is unknown whether he was involved in Caesar's assassination. He committed suicide after the Battle of Philippi in 42 BC.[4] Varus had three sisters, probably all younger based on when they started having children, so it seems likely he was born at least four years before his father's suicide.

Despite his father's political allegiances, Varus became a supporter of Caesar's heir, Octavian, later known as Augustus. In about 20 BC, Varus married Vipsania Marcella Agrippina, a daughter of Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa by either his first or second wife, Caecilia or Claudia Marcella Major. Varus became a personal friend of both Agrippa and Augustus. Vipsania Marcella was a grandniece of Augustus. When Agrippa died, it was Varus who delivered the funeral eulogy. Thus, his political career was boosted and his cursus honorum finished as early as 13 BC, when he was elected consul with Tiberius, Augustus' stepson and future emperor.

Political career[edit | edit source]

As Lugdunum I (RIC 230), countermarked "VAR" (Varus).

In 8-7 BC, Varus governed the province of Africa.[5] Later, he went to govern Syria (7/6 BC - 4 BC) with four legions under his command, where he was known for his harsh rule and high taxes. The Jewish historian Josephus mentions the swift action of Varus against a messianic revolt in Judaea after the death of Rome's client king Herod the Great in 4 BC. After occupying Jerusalem, he crucified 2000 Jewish rebels, and may have thus been one of the prime objects of popular anti-Roman sentiment in Judaea. (Josephus, who made every effort to reconcile the Jewish people to Roman rule, felt it necessary to point out how lenient this judicial massacre had been.) Indeed, at precisely this moment, the Jews, nearly en masse, began a full-scale boycott of Roman pottery (Red Slip Ware).[6] Thus, the archaeological record seems to verify mass popular protest against Rome because of Varus' cruelty.

Following the governorship of Syria, Varus returned to Rome and remained there for the next few years. His first wife disappears from history. Varus married Claudia Pulchra, daughter of Claudia Marcella Minor (daughter of consul Gaius Claudius Marcellus Minor and Octavia Minor, elder sister of Augustus) and consul Aemilius Lepidus Paullus (nephew of Triumvir Marcus Aemilius Lepidus). She was a great-niece of Augustus, which shows that Varus still enjoyed political favour. They had a son, Quinctilius Varus.[7]

Between 10 BC and AD 6, Tiberius, his brother Drusus, L. Domitius Ahenobarbus (cos. 16 BC), and Germanicus conducted long campaigns in Germania, the area north of the Upper Danube and east of the Rhine, in an attempt at a further major expansion of the Empire's frontiers, and a shortening of its frontier line. They subdued several Germanic tribes, such as the Cherusci. In 6 AD, the region was declared pacified and Varus was appointed to govern Germania. Tiberius, who would later succeed Augustus as Emperor, left the region to deal with the Great Illyrian Revolt.

Battle of the Teutoburg Forest[edit | edit source]

In September AD 9, Varus was preparing to leave his summer headquarters in Vetera (today Xanten) and march the three legions with him, the Seventeenth, the Eighteenth and the Nineteenth, to Moguntiacum (Mainz today), when news arrived from the Germanic prince Arminius—also a Roman citizen and leader of an auxiliary cavalry unit—of a growing revolt in the Rhine area to the west. Ignoring a warning from Segestes not to trust Arminius, Varus marched his forces behind the latter's lead.

Not only was Varus' trust in Arminius a terrible misjudgment, but Varus compounded it by placing his legions in a position where their fighting strengths would be minimized and those of the Germanic tribesmen maximized. Arminius and the Cherusci tribe, along with other allies, had skilfully laid an ambush, and in the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest in September at Kalkriese (east of modern Osnabrück), the Romans marched right into it.

The heavily forested, swampy terrain made the infantry manoeuvres of the legions impossible to execute and allowed the Germanic fighters to defeat the legions in detail. On the third day of fighting, the Germans overwhelmed the Romans at Kalkriese Hill, north of Osnabrück. Accounts of the defeat are scarce, due to the totality of the defeat, but Velleius Paterculus 2.118 ff testifies that some Roman cavalrymen abandoned the infantry they were supposed to be supporting and fled to the Rhine, but were intercepted by the Germanic tribesmen and killed. Varus himself, upon seeing all hope was lost, committed suicide (Vell. 2.119.3; Flor. 2.30.38; Dio 56.21). Arminius cut off his head and sent it to Bohemia as a present to King Marbod of the Marcomanni, the other most important Germanic leader, whom Arminius wanted to coax into an alliance, but Marbod declined the offer and sent the head on to Rome for burial. Some captured Romans were caged and burned alive (see Edward Gibbon); others were enslaved or ransomed. Tacitus Ann. 1.61 and Florus 2.30.37-39 reports that the victorious Germanic tribes tortured and sacrificed captive officers to their gods on altars that could still be seen years later. The Romans did later recover the lost legions' eagles (Tac. Ann. 1.60.4, 2.25.2; Dio 60.8.7), two of them in 15 AD – 16 AD, the third in 42 AD. See Battle of the Teutoburg Forest. The Romans never succeeded in reconquering the north and east of Germany, despite vigorous efforts in AD 15 and 16.

Aftermath[edit | edit source]

So great was the shame, and the ill luck thought to adhere to the numbers of the Legions, that XVII, XVIII and XIX never again appear in the Roman Army's order of battle. The Battle of the Teutoburg Forest was keenly felt by Augustus, darkening his remaining years. According to the biographer Suetonius, upon hearing the news, Augustus tore his clothes, refused to cut his hair for months and, for years afterwards, was heard, upon occasion, to moan, "Quinctilius Varus, give me back my Legions!" ("Quintili Vare, legiones redde!").[8] Gibbon describes Augustus' reaction to the defeat as one of the few times the normally stoic ruler lost his composure. Varus' political legacy in Rome was destroyed and the government blamed him for the defeat.[9] His son's chances for a political career were ruined. Tiberius himself fell under severe criticism for recommending Varus as the governor of Germany. Tiberius, according to Gaius Stern, was forced to sacrifice his friend and former brother-in-law to save his career.[10] Furthermore, Varus himself had been one of the figures on the Ara Pacis, but the figure is lost today. Stern has proposed that common citizens vandalized the Ara Pacis by damaging Varus in anger over their lost loved ones, leaving the regime - who had blamed Varus - uncertain whether to fix the damage.[11] Approximately 40 years after Varus' death, a general under Claudius, P. Pomponius Secundus, raided Germany and by chance rescued a few POWs from Varus’ army. Claudius welcomed them home after so many years, and their sad stories aroused much pity.[12]

In fiction[edit | edit source]

  • I, Claudius (1934) by Robert Graves, a novelization of the reigns of the first four emperors. Varus does not actually appear in the novel, but his defeat by the Germans is an important event.
  • The Iron Hand of Mars (1994) by Lindsey Davis; fourth book of the mystery series set during the reign of Vespasian, a portion of the novel occurs in the Teutoburger Wald.
  • Give Me Back My Legions! (2009) by Harry Turtledove, which details the events leading up to the battle, including a great deal of background information on Varus himself.
  • Grandson of Herod (2012) by Joseph Raymond, novel of historical fiction utilizing the Robert Graves premise that Jesus was the Grandson of Herod the Great. Varus presides over the trial of Prince Antipater, Herod's eldest son, on the charge of attempted patricide. In the novel, Varus takes a bribe from Herod to recommend the execution of Antipater to Augustus Caesar.
  • The Game Rome 2 total war (2013) , Contains the historical Battle of Teutoburg Forest. Where Varus is decipted in the intro and in the end movies. but curiously don't appear as a playable unit.

See also[edit | edit source]

References[edit | edit source]

  1. Sextus is not to be confused with Publius Attius Varus, a Pompeian who fought in Africa and was killed at Munda, Caes. BC 2.23-36, Sp 31; Vell. Pat. 2.55.4 says Varus - only the cognomen; likewise Dio 43.30.4.
  2. Citation needed
  3. Caes. BC 1.23,
  4. Vell. Pat. 2.71.2.
  5. Ronald Syme, The Augustan Aristocracy (1986), 320.
  6. 66 A.D. – The Last Revolt (DVD). History Channel.
  7. Tac. Ann. 4.66; Sen. Rhet. Contr. 1.3.10
  8. Suetonius, Vita Divi Augusti 23; Dio 55.23, see also Vell. Pat. 2.117-124; Suet. Div. Aug.49; Dio 55.18-24.
  9. Suet. Tib.18.1; see also the Vell. Pat. 2.117. Both historians preserve "the official version."
  10. Gaius Stern, "Varus’ Legacy After Teutoburger Wald: Roman POWs, Tiberius, and the Ara Pacis," CAMWS 2009, Minneapolis, MN.
  11. Gaius Stern, "Varus’ Legacy After Teutoburger Wald: Roman POWs, Tiberius, and the Ara Pacis," CAMWS 2009, Minneapolis, MN.
  12. Tac. Ann. 12.27.

Sources[edit | edit source]

  • The Battle That Stopped Rome: Emperor Augustus, Arminius, and the Slaughter of the Legions in the Teutoburg Forest by Peter S. Wells, W. W. Norton & Company, October 2003, ISBN 0-393-02028-2, ISBN 978-0-393-02028-1
  • Rome's Greatest Defeat: Massacre in the Teutoburg Forest (Hardcover) by Adrian Murdoch, Hardcover: 256 pages, Publisher: Sutton Publishing (June 14, 2006), ISBN 0-7509-4015-8, ISBN 978-0-7509-4015-3
  • The Twelve Caesars, Suetonius, translated by Robert Graves, 1957, Penguin Books; Also available from Project Gutenberg: The Lives of the Twelve Caesars, Complete
  • A Roman Encyclopedia by Matthew Bunson, 1995 Oxford Paperback Reference
  • The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon, Modern Library
  • Annals by Tacitus (various editions). Summarizes reports of later Romans who found the battlefield.
  • Compendium of Roman History (Res gestae divi Augusti) by Velleius Paterculus, Harvard University Press; 1924. Brief mention of the Varus Disaster by the author, who was serving as a staff officer with Tiberius in Pannonia at the time.

External links[edit | edit source]

Preceded by
Marcus Licinius Crassus Dives and Gnaeus Cornelius Lentulus Augur
Consul of the Roman Empire
13 BC
Succeeded by
Marcus Valerius Messalla Barbatus Appianus and Quirinius

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