(Image: a battle scene showing Roman troops fighting Barbarians. This relief is much later than the times discussed in this post, but it gives some idea of how these battles were seen in Roman times: "Grande Ludovisi Altemps Inv8574" by Unknown - Jastrow (2006). Licensed under Public Domain via Commons)
Julius Caesar Germanicus, grandson of Emperor Augustus, was called "Germanicus" not because he liked the Germanic peoples; rather, he was engaged in a ruthless, scorched earth campaign against them. Nevertheless, he managed to accomplish very little; mainly to show that the Roman Empire, despite all its might, could not possibly conquer Germania.
Success, sometimes, shows one's limits more than defeat. That's a lesson that the Romans had to learn the hard way when they tried to subdue the Germanic tribes east of the Rhine, between the first century BC and the first century AD. The attempt involved a long series of campaigns and, perhaps, the climax came exactly two thousand years ago, from 14 to 16 AD, when the Romans invaded Germania with no less than eight legions under the command of Tiberius Claudius Nero, known as Germanicus (at right), grandson of Augustus and the adopted son of Emperor Tiberius. The total number of the troops employed could have been at least 80 thousand men, perhaps close to a hundred thousand; about a third of the whole Roman army. Using a modern term, we could say that the Romans were trying to steamroll their enemies.
In this case, the concept of "steamrolling" can perhaps be intended in an almost literal sense. Tacitus makes it clear for us in his "Annals" that the Romans were going into Germania with in mind something much different than "bringing civilization" to those primitive peoples. No, no such silly idea; the Romans were there to teach those Barbarians a lesson. For this, they were burning villages, slaughtering everyone, or taking as slaves, as Tacitus says, even "the helpless from age or sex." Germanicus' name, evidently, didn't imply that he loved Germanic people. Again, using a modern term, we could say that the Romans were practicing a scorched earth campaign, if not an outright war of extermination.
And yet, all these efforts achieved little. Over three years of campaigns, Germanicus' troops won all the battles they fought; but they couldn't break the Germanic tribes. And the cost of keeping so many men in the field was becoming unbearable even for the mighty Roman Empire. In 16 AD, Emperor Tiberius recalled Germanicus to Rome. He also ordered the legions to abandon the territories they had conquered and to retire behind the fortifications along the Rhine, from where they had started their campaigns. Germanicus was given a big triumph in Rome, but, a few years later, in 19 AD, he died, possibly poisoned by Tiberius himself who feared the competition of a popular general.
So, Germanicus' campaigns had shown the might of the Empire, bit also its limits: there were some things that the legions just couldn't do. That was a lesson that Emperors understood well and, indeed, the Romans never tried again to attack the Germanic territory. Two thousand years afterward, we see in these remote events a distant mirror of our age. The parallels with our current situation are many, and I am sure that the word "Iraq" is already coming to your mind. Yes, the Iraq campaign was a series of victories, just like Germanicus' campaigns. But, from a strategic viewpoint, modern Iraq, just like Germania two thousand years ago, turned out to be a conquest too expensive to keep.
But there is more to be seen in this distant mirror and so let's go a little more in depth into history. First of all, Germanicus' campaigns were the consequence of an earlier, failed campaign: the defeat of Teutoburg in 9 AD, when three Roman legions were annihilated by a coalition of Germanic tribes. Not even their commander, Consul Publius Quinctilius Varus, escaped alive. Teutoburg was not only a disaster, but a mystery as well. How could it be that the Roman legions, not exactly amateurs in practicing the art of war, blithely marched into a dense forest where a large number of Germanic warriors were waiting to hack them to pieces?
I wouldn't be too surprised if Varus himself were to appear to me one of these nights as a bluish ghost in my bedroom. Then, he could tell me the story of why exactly he was sent to Germania as the governor of a province that existed only on paper and supplied with insufficient troops to control a region that had never been really pacified. Lacking this apparition, we can only speculate on this story, but it takes little imagination to conclude that someone, probably in Rome, wanted Varus' head to roll. Whoever they were, anyway, they probably couldn't imagine that so many more Roman heads would roll together with Varus' one. We will never know for sure, but we know that the man who led Varus into the trap in the forest, Arminius, was a Roman citizen, albeit born in Germania. Varus was betrayed.
I know what you are thinking at this point. And, yes, we can find some kind of a parallel with modern history in the 9/11 attack to the twin towers in New York. Let me state that I am not discussing conspiracy theories, here; what I want to highlight is the similarity of the reaction of the ancient and the modern empires to events that both perceived as an existential threat. Just as the US citizens were deeply scared by the 9/11 attacks, the Romans were deeply
The main consequence of the defeat of Teutoburg was that it strongly reinforced the position of the Emperor as the military leader of the whole Empire. Don't forget that, in the early 1st century AD, the idea that there was to be an emperor at the head of the Empire was still something new and plenty of people would probably have liked the Republic to be re-established. That was what what Brutus and Cassius had tried to do by killing Julius Caesar. But, after Teutoburg, reinstating the Republic became totally out of question. You probably have heard of Suetonius reporting that Emperor Augustus, on hearing of Varus' defeat, would walk aimlessly at night in his palace, murmuring, "Varus, Varus, give me back my legions!" That was a master propaganda stroke on the part of Augustus, a consummate politician. By showing himself so concerned, Augustus was positioning himself as the defender of the Empire against the barbarian menace.
Not only Teutoburg reinforced the role of Emperors; the campaigns by Germanicus reinforced the effect. If Teutoburg had shown that the Germanic tribes were the existential threat for the Empire, then, Germanicus' failure showed that they couldn't be destroyed. The result was that the Empire positioned itself for a long term war. That generated the equivalent of our present military-industrial complex: a standing army and a set of fortifications along the Imperial borders. That was good business for the military contractors of Roman times. However, the Empire bled itself to death in order to maintain the colossal defense works it had built. Before Teutoburg, the Roman army had been producing wealth as the result of the conquest of foreign lands. After Teutoburg, the army became a destroyer of wealth, costing much more than it produced; as Germanicus' campaigns clearly demonstrated. As time went by, the Roman Empire became weaker and weaker, but it stubbornly refused to admit it and to accept the barbarians in roles that were not those of mercenaries or slaves.
Four centuries after the battle of Teutoburg and Germanicus' campaigns, an enlightened empress, Galla Placidia, broke the rules in a bold attempt to revitalize a dying empire. She married a Barbarian king and tried to start a new dynasty that would merge the Germanic and the Latin elements of the Empire. She didn't succeed; it was too late; it was too much for a single person. The Roman Empire had to go through its cycle, and the end of the cycle was its disappearance; a relic of history that had no reason to exist any longer.
This is the destiny of empires and civilizations that, as Toynbee says, die most often because they kill themselves. So it was for the Romans, our distant mirror. A dark mirror, but, most likely, our destiny will not be much different.
Note also that I created a new blog "A Distant Mirror" to act as a repository of all the post published here that deal with Roman history. It is still being filled up.