Ancient Warfare: The Lost Legions of Rome – Part 1

Stories of the ‘lost legions’ of ancient Rome still fascinate people today.  In a world mapped to the last square metre by satellites and GPS it is spine-chilling to imagine a time when whole armies could march into the mist never to be seen again, a time when the world beyond the borders of civilisation could swallow thousands of men without a trace.  Even in our modern times, however, stories of lost armies can lend a touch of exoticism to the horror of war.  In the Gallipoli campaign during World War One, for example, the 1/5th Norfolk battalion of the Sandringham Guards marched into the foggy Turkish countryside and disappeared, sparking tabloid tales of time travel and alien abduction which persist to this day.  The stories of the Rome’s ‘lost legions’, like the story of the 1/5th Norfolks, have often grown in the telling through the centuries, as myth, speculation and history became intertwined.

The first of the legendary lost armies that I shall discuss marched into battle and out of history in the year 54 B.C., led by the ruthless and ambitious aristocrat Marcus Licinius Crassus.  At that time Crassus was the equal of Pompey and Caesar in wealth and political power, but he was hungry for a military reputation to match that which Caesar had acquired in his conquest of western Europe.  Crassus turned east to the unsubdued barbarian empire of the Parthians, who occupied the area of modern Iran and Iraq.  The Parthians had long been a thorn in Rome’s side.  They were a constant threat to the Roman provinces of Syria and Palestine; furthermore the Parthian Empire straddled the lucrative ‘silk road’ – the trade route which linked Rome with Afghanistan, India and, ultimately, China.  A victory over the Parthians would make Rome unassailable in the East, set Crassus’ reputation above all his rivals and write his name in history alongside Alexander the Great.

Crassus would have been in no doubt that victory was assured.  Every war since Hannibal had demonstrated the superiority of the Roman legions against any barbarian army.  The Roman infantryman was the best trained, best equipped and best supported fighting man in the ancient world.  Crassus led seven legions, thirty five thousand heavy infantry, against Parthian cavalry who were only a few generations removed from nomadic horse-warriors.  These horse-warriors, however, would prove highly resourceful and Crassus and twenty five thousand of his men would never return from the desert.

The campaign met with some success in 54 B.C., and returning to the offensive in 53 B.C. Crassus sought to engage the Parthians in final decisive battle.  Hearing news of a Parthian army of ten thousand massing east of the Euphrates River Crassus took his chance and advanced his seven legions into the desert to meet with destiny.  Near a tributary of the Euphrates, by the town of Carrhae, the Roman legions were swarmed by squadrons of horse-archers.  The infantry hunkered under their tight-locked shields and waited for the enemy to spend their ammunition.  The Romans, however, were not the only ones who knew the importance of logistics.  The Parthian general, an anonymous genius known only by his family name of Suren, had provided his army with a baggage train of one thousand camels.  Legend has it that Crassus knew he was defeated when he saw the first wave of archers recharging their quivers.  Unable to break formation and retreat or manoeuvre under the hail of missiles, the Romans crouched for hours under their shields, in the baking desert heat, dying at random, until at last nightfall ended the agony.

Crassus, a broken commander, failed to take the initiative and make a night attack, instead he abandoned four thousand wounded men on the field and retreated to Carrhae.  He made overtures of surrender but the Parthians would have none of it; they lured him to a fake parley and killed him.  Ten thousand survivors eluded the Parthians and made their way in small bands across the desert to Syria.  Around ten thousand were captured by the Parthians and settled as prisoners-of-war on the northeastern frontiers of their empire.

Here the historical story finishes and legend begins.  In 1957 the historian H. H. Dubs proposed an inspiring conjecture in his book A Roman City in Ancient China.  Dubs speculated that a group of survivors from Crassus’ army ended their days far to the east of Rome, practicing their craft for the Emperor of China.  Dubs drew attention to an ancient Chinese historical document that describes a picture portraying the defenders of a city in Turkestan with shields locked in a Roman formation.  Dubs proposed that these were the survivors of Carrhae.  Captured by the Parthians and settled in the East they escaped, he speculates, and took up mercenary service with a kingdom called the Hun Jzh Jzh, on China’s western frontier.  When the Hun Jzh Jzh capital was captured by the Ch’en dynasty of China (that is the battle depicted in the painting described by the ancient document) Dubs asserts that the Romans were captured and resettled within the Chinese Empire as the garrison of the town of Li-Jien, supposedly the Chinese version of the word ‘Latin’ – their nationality.

Such conjectures can never be proven, and since Dubs’ book several scholars have presented strong evidence to reject this story, but it is a romantic and inspiring idea that a lost legion from Crassus’ army, born and bred to defend civilisation in the West from barbarian tribes, ended its days fulfilling its function on behalf of Rome’s great counterpart five thousand miles to the east, China.

The defeat at Carrhae was a blow to Roman ego but it did not significantly upset the momentum of the Empire.  Its most immediate effect was to eliminate Crassus from the civil wars that were to follow.  In the ensuing twenty-three years Roman armies slaughtered each other, rather than foreigners, as first Pompey and Caesar then Octavian and Marc Antony pitched their legions at one another.  At last, after the battle of Actium in 30 B.C., Octavian was proclaimed the first Emperor of Rome, changing his name to Augustus, and his legions continued their ruthless march outwards and the expansion of the Roman world – for, in the words of the Roman historian Seneca, “where a Roman conquers, there he lives”.  Then, in A.D. 9, the final shape of the Empire, and the shape of all history since that time, were decided in three bloody days, deep in the Teutoberg Forest of Germany.

The task of pacifying and Romanising the Germans was begun in 13 B.C. by the Emperor’s stepson and heir Tiberius.  It proceeded well under Tiberius’ cool combination of diplomacy and violence.  However in A.D. 6 the tribes of Illyricum, modern Hungary, rose in revolt and Tiberius was transferred there to teach them civility.  The command of the three legions in Germany fell to the husband of the Emperor’s niece, Publius Quinctilius Varus.  He was a man of very limited charm and intelligence who saw the post as administrative rather than military.  He vigorously pursued the typical Roman model of provincial government, bleeding the locals dry of slaves and taxes, whilst the security and discipline of his legions languished.  Most dangerous of all he invested complete, blind trust in his local allies, particularly a young prince of the Cherusci tribe called Arminius.  Arminius was a Latin-educated German who had served with Tiberius in Illyricum and worked as one of Varus’ personal staff.  Varus cherished him as a devoted flatterer, a noble barbarian who frequently confessed his love of all things Roman.  But whilst he sang for Varus Arminius was whispering in the ears of those Germans who also nurtured resentments, and he assembled secret alliance of the Cherusci, Chatti and Bructeri tribes.  Quietly they waited a time and place to strike.

Arminius picked his moment well.  In the autumn of A.D. 9 Varus marched his three legions from their summer camp to a winter camp further west.  The army was huge, fifteen thousand men plus a train of ten thousand women, children, slaves and pack animals.  The march was scheduled to take several days, over difficult terrain, and at times the column would be up to nine miles long as they wound through narrow forest tracks and ravines.  Because of the fatal trust of Varus and the cunning of Arminius the Germans knew the exact route this long, lumbering army would take.  Thousands of German warriors prepared the trail with trapdoors, hides and traps, and waited.

Varus’ army marched without incident for the first day then, just before dusk, when the entire army was far from the safety of camp and committed to the march, the Germans sprang their trap.  Small-bands of warriors burst from their hides and cut down passing Romans then melted into the forest.  Spears were hurled from trees or rocky outcrops.  The Romans, trained to fight in large formations in the open field, were ambushed as they milled in complete disarray.  Isolated and confused, they were cut to pieces by one attack after another.  For three days and three nights the Germans hunted the shattered bands of Romans to extinction, deep in the dark rain-drenched forest.  There were few survivors.  Some, including Varus, chose suicide rather than fall into enemy hands.  It was the German practice to sacrifice their prisoners to their Druidic gods by crucifying them on sacred oak trees.  After the battle the heads of the Roman dead were nailed up along the trail; all except for Varus, whose head Arminius presented to Morboduus, the King of Bohemia, in an attempt to impress him.

Legend has it that it was not until Morboduus forwarded Varus’ head to the Emperor that Rome became aware of the disaster that had befallen the German garrison.  Three entire legions, out of Rome’s twenty-eight, were swallowed by the Teutoberg forest.  But the defeat in Germany generated shockwaves far beyond the magnitude of the loss, which was smaller than Carrhae, and indeed smaller than the losses during the civil wars.  Those three days in the German forest decided the course of history for millennia to come.  Rome was already short of military manpower and the losses in Germany simply could not be made up.  Those three legions disappeared form the roles forever and the Roman army would never again field more than twenty-five legions.  As the old emperor Augustus drew near death, at the age of seventy-nine, he was seen by his servants wandering the palace weeping and crying “Quinctilius Varus give me back my legions!”  The blow to Roman confidence was irreparable.  In his will Augustus advised Tiberius to never again cross the Rhine – “be satisfied with what we have and never desire to increase the size of the empire”.  This policy would hold until the fall of Rome.

For six years the legions of Varus were truly lost, swallowed by the German wilderness.  In A.D. 15, in the second year of Tiberius’ reign, the new Emperor authorised his nephew Germanicus to make one final crossing of the Rhine to punish the Cherusci for their audacity.  Germanicus pushed his army deep into the dark woods, butchering and burning every human settlement he found.  On a shadowy forest path, between the Lippe and Ems Rivers, Germanicus’ army found the remains of their countrymen.  The exact place is unknown today but place-names like Knochenbahn (“Bone-lane”) and Mordkessel (“Cauldron-of-death”) offer tantalising hints.  The Roman historian Tacitus described the scene: “whitening bones, scattered where men had fled, heaped up where they had stood and fought back.  Fragments of spears and horses limbs, also human heads fastened to tree-trunks”.  Two of the three legions’ eagle-standards were recovered, some honour restored by the pillage, but Arminius was never brought to battle, and the Romans never entered these woods again.

The Roman Empire thrived within the boundary of the Rhine for a further three hundred years.  When the empire began to crack apart, however, it was under the pressure exerted by the very Germans that Rome had failed to conquer in A.D. 9.  Hungry, aggressive tribes along the empire’s northern border gnawed at the boundaries of Roman power, tearing off one town and province after another.  Finally, when central authority collapsed completely, it was the Germans who inherited the empire, marauding with glee from the Baltic Sea to Libya.  If Varus had been a better commander, if Arminius had been less of one, and above all if those three days in autumn had gone one way and not the other, then perhaps the Roman Empire might have lasted longer.  But even when it did fall, perhaps under pressure from those same Germans, maybe Europe under Romanised Germans, impressed with the benefits of literature, trade and civil law, would have been spared the Dark-Ages and one thousand years of feudalism.  If history is progress (and I am not entirely convinced that it is) then imagine what the world would be like if we were one thousand years ahead of where we are now, and then consider that this could all be due to three bad days and one well-bred idiot.

In my next article I will discuss the legend of the VIIII Hispania, the legion reputedly lost in the Scottish highlands, and the mysterious disappearance of the Sandringhams in the Dardanelles.



Cowley, Robert  Ed.  What If?  Military Historians Imagine What Might Have Been  (New York, 1999)
Scullard, H. H.  From the Gracchi to Nero:  A history of Rome from 133 B.C. to A.D. 68,  fifth edition  (London and New York, 1982)

Article written by Jonathan Wicken