Who is not left with a lingering image of the whitening bones after reading this passage? It provides a haunting break in the narrative of Annals I as Germanicus and his men survey the wasted battlefield of the Teutoburg Forest. People with the army point out the various parts of the camp and so make these final days of battle swamp the reader, just as it brings home the grim realities of war to the men on the spot.
The sentiment of the passage is captured in the painting ‘Varus’ by Anselm Kiefer – a portrayal of the battlefield which interlinks with more modern German history and reminds us of the ghosts which walk the forest.
Igitur cupido Caesarem invadit solvendi suprema militibus ducique, permoto ad miserationem omni qui aderat exercitu ob propinquos, amicos, denique ob casus bellorum et sortem hominum. praemisso Caecina ut occulta saltuum scrutaretur pontesque et aggeres umido paludum et fallacibus campis inponeret, incedunt maestos locos visuque ac memoria deformis. prima Vari castra lato ambitu et dimensis principiis trium legionum manus ostentabant; dein semiruto vallo, humili fossa accisae iam reliquiae consedisse intellegebantur: medio campi albentia ossa, ut fugerant, ut restiterant, disiecta vel aggerata. adiacebant fragmina telorum equorumque artus, simul truncis arborum antefixa ora. lucis propinquis barbarae arae, apud quas tribunos ac primorum ordinum centuriones mactaverant. et cladis eius superstites, pugnam aut vincula elapsi, referebant hic cecidisse legatos, illic raptas aquilas; primum ubi vulnus Varo adactum, ubi infelici dextera et suo ictu mortem invenerit; quo tribunali contionatus Arminius, quot patibula captivis, quae scrobes, utque signis et aquilis per superbiam inluserit.
Igitur Romanus qui aderat exercitus sextum post cladis annum trium legionum ossa, nullo noscente alienas reliquias an suorum humo tegeret, omnis ut coniunctos, ut consanguineos, aucta in hostem ira, maesti simul et infensi condebant. primum extruendo tumulo caespitem Caesar posuit, gratissimo munere in defunctos et praesentibus doloris socius. quod Tiberio haud probatum, seu cuncta Germanici in deterius trahenti, sive exercitum imagine caesorum insepultorumque tardatum ad proelia et formidolosiorem hostium credebat; neque imperatorem auguratu et vetustissimis caerimoniis praeditum adtrectare feralia debuisse.
Therefore a desire invaded Caesar (Germanicus) to pay the final honours to the soldiers and their general, and the whole army who was present there was moved to pity at the thought of their relatives and their friends, and finally at the thought of the vicissitudes of war and the lot of humanity. Once Caecina had been sent ahead in order to explore the hidden passes and to raise bridges and ramparts over the watery swamps and the deceitful plains, they went forth into the sorrowful places, mutilated in their look and in their memory. Here was the first camp of Varus, with its wide circumference and the measurements of its headquarters showing the toil of three legions; then, from the half-ruined tower and the meagre ditch, it became clear that only the remnants of the army had taken up position there: in the middle of the field were whitening bones, scattered or piled up in the places where the men had fled or had resisted. Shattered remains of weapons and the limbs of horses were lying all around, and there were also human heads, nailed to the trunks of trees. In the nearby groves were barbarian altars, at which they had slaughtered the tribunes and the centurions from the first rank. And the survivors of that massacre, who had escaped the battle or their chains, were relating that here the legates had fallen, there the standards had been captured; here was where Varus had received his first wound, there he had found death by his unlucky right hand and his own blow. They pointed out the mound at which Arminius had harangued the soldiers; how many gibbets for the captives there were; what the pits were; and how, in his arrogance, Arminius had mocked the standards and the eagles.
And so the Roman army, present there six years after the massacre, began to bury the bones of the three legions, although no-one knew whether he was burying the remains of someone unknown or of his own relative but, as they buried them all as though they were their close friends or their relatives, their rage against the enemy rose; they buried the men whilst sorrowing and hostile at the same time. Caesar was the first to place the turf on the raised mound, as a most gratifying honour to the dead and as an ally to the present grief. However, this act was forbidden by Tiberius, whether because he wanted to criticise all of Germanicus’ acts or because he believed that the sight of the slaughtered and unburied men would make the army more slow to battle and more frightened of the enemy; and he thought that a general who was endowed with the office of the augurate and with its very ancient ceremonies should not have polluted himself with the funeral rites.
Chosen by Sophie Mansell.
The above text is provided by the Perseus Digital Library, and the translation is by Sophie Mansell.