Posted by: Merlin PJ3 SEP 2009
Thursday 3 September was the 70th anniversary of the start of the 1939–45 war, and no doubt millions of words will have been written on the subject by mightier pens than Merlin’s. Merlin has another military anniversary to write about instead.
Although the precise date is uncertain, this month also sees the 2,000th anniversary of one of the Roman Empire’s major defeats. This was the Battle of the Teutoberg Forest in what is now Germany, near the modern city of Osnabrück.
In the early part of the first century AD, the brilliant and ruthless Augustus Caesar controlled a vast army of 28 legions, and needed to keep them occupied. An invasion of Germania was started in AD7, with Publius Quinctilius Varus in charge of three legions, the XVII, XVIII and XIX.
However, all did not go well. In September AD9, an aristocratic member of the Cherusci tribe, one Arminius, who had served in the Roman Army and had gained Roman citizenship, lured the three legions deep into the Teutoberg Forest. There they were ambushed by a coalition of the German tribes.
Unable to deploy into a battle formation, as they were trapped between an impenetrable forest and a series of swamps, the legions were worn down and utterly destroyed.
Teutoberg was not the greatest of Rome’s defeats, however. That dubious honour goes to the Battle of Carrhae, which took place near the ancient city of Harran in Cappadocia, now part of modern Turkey.
In the first century BC, Rome was ruled by a triumvirate comprising Julius Caesar, Pompey and Marcus Licinius Crassus. The first two were professional soldiers, but Crassus was a bureaucrat, businessman and banker who wanted a great victory like those of his fellow triumvirs.
With the Parthian Empire bordering that of Rome, Crassus unwisely decided to give the Parthians a good beating. After some initial successes he decided, in the spring of 53BC, to attack the Parthians near Harran, which the Romans called Carrhae.
Crassus and his legions found themselves on an open plain, which was ideal country for the Parthian light cavalry. Riding small, fast horses, and being excellent archers, they continually harried the Romans, who could only hide behind their shields.
Eventually the Romans tried to break out and were slaughtered. Some 20,000 died, including Crassus. About 10,000 were taken prisoner and less than a quarter of the original army made it back to Rome. To make matters worse, several of the legions’ standards were captured and taken back to Parthia. They were only returned some 30 years later.
I am reminded of poor Crassus whenever I come across the phrase “crass stupidity”.